When Gabriel Rebeck was 14, he visited Japan and met an Australian man who was teaching English there.
“I just thought he was the coolest guy in the world,” Rebeck said.
Rebeck decided that’s what he wanted to do when he was older. After graduating from Kansas University with a degree in film in 2008, he packed up and moved to a small fishing village on the southernmost tip of Japan.
He spent the next three years in Uchinoura, teaching English at junior high and high schools through the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program, a Japanese government program that places foreign teachers in its schools.
After years of study, Rebeck’s Japanese was good and getting better. He is one of several KU alumni who teach English overseas.
“If you can actually communicate with them in their language, they’re a lot more interesting to converse with. They don’t just say, ‘this is sushi. We love sushi.’ You can get to know them on a more personal level,” Rebeck said.
Learning the culture
People would line up to have him over for sushi made with fish they had caught themselves, and his social schedule was so full that he rarely could accept all of the invitations.
“It was mostly older couples that would have me over,” Rebeck said. “Getting to be friends with the older people was kind of strange at first. But by the third year it was a blast.”
In Japan, Rebeck had to contend with a foreign language and ash from a nearby volcano that he routinely had to scrape from his windshield. But those weren’t the biggest shocks to his system — the gigantic spiders were.
“You’ll be sitting on your couch, and you’ll have what looks like a leather glove crawling up your wall,” Rebeck said.
He’d tell his coworkers, his neighbors and anyone who would listen about the spiders.
“They’d say ‘Oh yeah. They’re great, aren’t they?’”
He learned the spiders are considered lucky in that part of Japan. They aren’t poisonous, and they don’t bite humans. People just let them be.
Rebeck wasn’t having it.
“I never killed bugs when I was in America. But when I moved there and saw those things for the first time, they had to be dead.”
He starting attacking them with brooms, and eventually bought a BB gun to exterminate them. Then, after a year or so, the spiders just stopped creeping him out. He’d see one on his bedroom wall, and let it be, just like his Japanese neighbors did.
A new home
Leah Hoelscher, a 2009 KU graduate now teaching English in Seoul, South Korea, also has had moments where she feels more used to her new home than Kansas. On a visit to Lawrence last year, she was confused when she ordered noodles but had no chopsticks to eat them with. For a moment, she did not know what to do.
“I’m looking at my fork. I’m looking at my noodles. Then the waiter finally asks, ‘Do you want chopsticks?’”
To her surprise, she did.
Hoelscher graduated with a degree in illustration and teaches at a private school. Her students are from wealthy families, which tend to push their children hard, sending them to after-school classes until as late as 9:30 p.m. to study English, Mandarin and dance.
Hoelscher’s students are a creative bunch, and playing with a new language amplifies that creativity, she said.
“They are kids, so they aren’t self conscious about trying to speak,” Hoelscher said.
Her 6-year-old students speak English with enthusiasm — mistakes and all. Most confuse “am” and “have.” During show and tell, they say things like “Teacher, I am Hello Kitty umbrella,” instead of “I have a Hello Kitty umbrella.”
Hoelscher’s students get to pick their own English names, which they go by in class.
Her students have chosen names such as Tinker Bell, Kevin Power, and, perhaps the oddest to American ears, B.O.
She encouraged B.O. to choose another name. She suggested Buster, Brian or Brandon. The boy wouldn’t have it.
“I worked really hard to get B.O. a decent English name, but he and his mom were both attached to B.O.,” Hoelscher said. “It’s fine in Korea. I just hope it’s not too hard for him later in life if he decides to study abroad.”
For Hoelscher, whose time in Korea will end in November, the experience has allowed her to travel and take time to consider her future. She has had some success as a freelance illustrator for NEH Magazine in South Korea and hopes to pursue illustration in the future.
Skills for the future
Meanwhile, Rebeck returned to Kansas last month and has his sights set on moving to California or another part of the country with a larger Japanese population. He is interested in studying linguistics or some other related field in graduate school, but eventually he wants to return to Japan and pursue a career there.
To hear him talk about it, Japan sounds like home.
On his last day as a teacher at Uchinoura’s junior high, one of his students stood up and gave a speech in English. The boy initially didn’t have a passion for learning the language, but he eventually became a good student.
“The speech had little mistakes here and there, but it was pretty good,” Rebeck said. “This tough kid who wants to be a pro soccer player, this tough 14-year-old boy — he cried. And I cried because I couldn’t believe it. It’s something I will remember the rest of my life.”