The image of the polite Japanese shimmers in the Western imagination and is justified to a certain extent. But please remember. That businessman repeatedly bowing, that serving lady thanking you sixteen times ….they were children once. And children are always children. And farting, passing wind, blowing off – or however you want to call it – is always funny.
I teach two little sisters on a regular basis. They fart a lot. I sniff at them, asking “Who is smelly? Is it you?” and watch them squeal and blame each other. Great fun, if a little unpleasant on my nostrils.
This week, however, involved a lot of “pu” or poo, and it was only partly due to my puerile sense of humour. I work at a school in Osaka and Kyoto for just two hours a week where my job is to “play with the children in English”. This means I get to do skipping, play hide-and-seek, watch Doraemon, play soccer, play dodgeball, cut and stick, eat weird snacks like salty crackers with whipped cream and play tag (in which, I am always oni…the evil demon that has to chase the kids). This week, I was participating in a treasure hunt for letters that would spell out a clue. The key letter was プ which is pronounced “pu” or just like “poo”. A fervent discussion erupted among the children as to exactly where the “pu” should go, if it comes first or last…..and I really wanted to tell them what it was in English. But I withheld myself.
Poo re-emerged in one of my adult classes, an amazing listening lesson called A History of Drinks from Pearson Longman, where students have to put drinks in order of the oldest to newest. In a fervent discussion on healthy drinks, one lady piped up about some kind of fruit drink that “help you poo”. The other two ladies exhibited confusion which rapidly turned to shifting uncomfortably in their chairs.
I decided to take charge. “I think it’s better to say – ‘It’s good for your bowels.'”
“Bowels? What are bowels?”
Cue: pathetic drawing of the small and large intestines and more shifting in chairs.
“Remember to pronounce it well and to spell it properly. Don’t miss the “e” or you’ll be talking about bowls! Hahaha.” *silence*
Less than three hours later, poo came back with a vengeance. I was preparing some notes for a class with two nine-year old girls. Their English is pretty weak but I couldn’t have been more astounded when I found a portrait of myself on the board with “pu” written next to it.
Me: Is that me?
Student 1: Phoebe sensei, Phoebe sensei!
Me: My name’s not “Pu” – it’s Phoebe.
Student 1: Phoebe, Phoebe! Poo! Poo! Shite iru? Poo! [mimes pooing a little too skillfully] [giggles]
Me: [taking board pen] Yes, I know poo. But it’s spelt like this. P-O-O. POO!
Student 2: Phoebe, Phoebe. Look! Poo! [points at piles of dung she’s drawn] [giggles]
It’s amazing how many things transcend cultural boundaries.