A Postcard—Teaching ESL in Japan



The tortured sounds of the alphabet song drifted across the lobby for the fifth time that day. From the next room, rising above the muffled voices, I heard, “Teacher, what does it mean, ‘feces’?” I sighed and rubbed my eyes, fighting sleep.

“What is…. what is surprise?” Tomio, the pudgy bald Japanese salaryman sitting across from me, jiggled a leg beneath the table and looked up from his textbook. “I don’t know this word ‘surprise.'”

Without blinking an eye I nailed the table with my fist. Pens and pencils leaped to the floor. Tomio bleated like a startled sheep.

“Yeah, that’s it,” I said.

Bikkurishita! I am scared!” Struggling to control his fluttering heart, he twitched and squirmed and adjusted his tie. “You are mean! Ryan is mean!”

“Well, you won’t forget ‘surprise’ again, will you?”


About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • That’s the funniest thing I’ve read in a week.
    Nice photo too. I think almost every single eikaiwa kyoshitsu in this country looks exactly like that. At least all the ones I’ve worked in.

  • Andy – I hear ya. I’ve always wanted to film the whole eikaiwa experience. An Office Space of ESL. No one who hasn’t done it would believe it. It can be a grind sometimes, but some moments make it all worthwhile… (i never claimed to be a good person…)

  • the alphabet song.
    the first “jingle” we learn
    try teaching a 4 year old the alphabet without singing it.
    the power of music, baby.


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