Internationalization through Pokemon.
In 2010, a new Pokemon game came out for the Nintendo DS. Having not played Pokemon since before my own pokeballs had dropped, the announcement had me excited to relive the nostalgia.
On the morning of the release, I stood outside the video rental megastore TSUTAYA’ along with Chris and Joe. We were excitedly talking about how we were going to be able to play the game before anyone in the US. The game was released in September of 2010 in Japan but would not be out stateside until MARCH of the following year.
After plucking our copies from the display, we failed miserably to contain our fanboy outbursts.
“Oh my goddddd,” Joe exclaimed with an ear-to-ear grin as we stood in line, clutching our game cases as if they would fly away. “Pokemonnnnn!”
“I don’t know what starter I’m going to use first!” I said. “There’s an OTTER Pokemon! I might have to choose that one.”
“I’m choosing the fire one!” Chris chimed in excitedly. “It looks badass!”
We continued chattering on about Pokemon when suddenly I heard my name called out behind me.
“Ah! IAN SENSEI DA!”
I turned around and saw two of my third-grade boys from Close Elementary School. They were standing in line behind us and waving excitedly at me. One was short and mousey-looking and the other was heavyset with massive cheeks and a great smile. The two of them were staring at me with huge grins plastered on their faces.
“Oh…hello!” I said in my trademark ‘Genki ALT’ voice.
I was used to seeing my students outside of school. It was usually during the most inopportune times – like when I was in the middle of the booze aisle in the supermarket or walking with a female friend (who immediately became my speculated girlfriend).
“POKEMON? POKEMON?!” they said excitedly.
I smiled and lifted up the newly-purchased game. “Yeah!”
“Ehhhhh!!” they exclaimed happily.
Chris finished paying and we took our leave. As we left, I turned and waved to my kids. They waved back enthusiastically.
“Jeez,” I said as we descended the stairs. “Whoever thought I could use Pokemon to connect with my students?!”
As it turned out, Pokemon was pretty difficult for me to play. Having just moved to Japan and having a pretty low proficiency, I had trouble understanding the long blocks of text in the game. Eventually, I got to a point where I had to do something in order for the game to progress. I didn’t understand what I needed to do, so I lost interest and gave up.
About a month or two later, I was teaching fourth period at Close Elementary school. After class, a group of seven or eight students rushed me as I was gathering up my flashcards. They were all talking excitedly at the same time.
“Whoa whoa,” I said, my head spinning from the onslaught of kid!Japanese. “I can’t understand you all at once.”
“IAN SENSEI! YOU WERE AT TSUTAYA, RIGHT?! LIKE A MONTH AGO?!” it was student the with the big cheeks. He was looking at me with hope sparkling in his adorable, beady eyes.
“Yeah,” I responded with a smile. “I bought Pokemon. We saw each other, right?”
Elation spread across his face and he turned to the group of his classmates. “I TOLD YOU HE WAS THERE! I TOLD YOU!”
They broke into another mess of chattering again. Eventually one kid raised his voice above the others so I could understand him. He was small and wiry with adorably large ears and buck teeth.
“DO YOU HAVE POKEMON BLACK OR WHITE?!” he yelled intensely.
“Oh…er…I have White.” I answered in Japanese.
“IAN SENSEI!” he said with a dramatic sweep of his arm. “LET’S BATTLE!”
“Oh er…I think I don’t can.” I said awkwardly as his finger remained pointed at me. “My pokemon strong aren’t very, you see.”
“I DON’T CARE!” he challenged. He held his arms out in to his side – elbows bent in a power-up pose. “I’M STRONG! I’LL WIN!”
“I’m sure you are…you would definitely win!” I agreed.
Unsatisfied, he stomped his foot. “I STILL WANT TO BATTLE YOU!”
“No…no thank you.” I said as politely as I could with an obvious glance at the clock. “Oh look, late. Lunch preparation to do I have to!”
I squirmed out from the crowd of clamoring children and hurried out of the classroom. I was a bit disconcerted…as if I had just inadvertently made an archenemy.
The next morning, I awoke on my couch in my underwear. The bright sun filtered through my thin curtains, illuminating my messy apartment. My head was throbbing painfully, my mouth felt like it was full of sawdust and my limbs ached due to actions I remembered through fuzzy, disjointed memories.
I groaned as I rolled over, my skin peeling noisily off the fake leather of my couch. I stood up precariously and waited for the room to adjust itself in my vision. Popping aspirin into my mouth and getting dressed, I sluggishly prepared to exit my apartment in search of food. My stomach bubbled dangerously – unsure of whether it was wanting food to be put in or to eject poison from itself.
It was October but the sun was still shining brightly. I emerged with sunglasses that hid my bloodshot eyes. I gingerly stepped outside and eased myself on to my bike – Jeezus H., everything ached. Never again, Alcohol, never again.
I heard the voice and a shudder of exasperation ran through me. My students had once again spotted me at one of my least flattering moments. They were like little ninjas.
I turned my head to find a little boy wearing a black shirt with gold cursive that was far too big for him. He was waving fiercely at me from across the parking lot of my complex. His thin arm was nearly enveloped by the sleeve of his shirt – it reminded me of a waving flag. He began running across the parking lot, his skinny legs poking out from the white shorts he was wearing.
“Ohh, h-hello…” my voice came out in a croak, my ‘Genki ALT’ façade crumbling like a biscotti.
As he got closer, I began to recognize him. His ears were hidden by the baseball cap he wore, but I could see his buck teeth as he smiled and ran across the parking lot toward me. My heart sunk. It was my rival.
“IAN SENSEI,” he panted dramatically as he neared me. “ARE YOU FREE RIGHT NOW?”
“Er…no, no Today is I’m very busy…” I said as I tugged my mouth downward into a convincing frown of disappointment.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING TODAY?” Jeezus, his voice was like a megaphone. “I WANT TO BATTLE!”
My temples throbbed in annoyance. “Work I have do,” I lied in my broken Japanese. I shifted my butt on my bike seat as if I were preparing to leave.
“Working I have been this morning since!”
Rival-kun tilted his head to the side inquisitively. “BUT I JUST SAW YOU ON YOUR COUCH!”
My eyes narrowed from behind my sunglasses. “…what?”
“YEAH,” he replied innocently with a point toward my door. “I LOOKED IN YOUR MAIL SLOT AND SAW YOU!” he then grinned mischievously. “YOU WERE IN YOUR UUUUNDERWEAR.”
“…WHAT?!” I repeated incredulously. “NO! That’s bad! Why do that did you?!”
“I RANG YOUR DOORBELL AND YOU DIDN’T ANSWER!” he replied simply.
My grip on the handlebars of my bike tightened dangerously. How does one respond to something like that? One of my third grade students had seen me passed out in my underwear on my couch. Embarrassed did not even begin to cover it. How did he even know where I lived?!
“NO!” I said angrily. “Again that don’t do!! I am not battling you! Goodbye!”
I kicked off the ground and began riding away from my peeping student. I felt violated. What was even going on? It was like I was trapped in a terrible rendition of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. Not on my couch, not with a pouch. I will not fight you here or there. Nor even in my underwear!
I didn’t see Rival-kun for a while after that. I think he finally got the hint that I would not, in fact, battle him. If he were more devious, he could have undoubtedly blackmailed me into reluctant Pokemon battle. But thankfully, he was an innocent Japanese third grader and not an evil genius.
I learned a lot that first year. Pokemon, it seemed, could indeed be used to connect with my students. In my experience, it definitely brought my nosey third-grade student and I to an uncomfortable new level. More importantly, however, I learned the importance of having a covered mail slot.
***Note: the above picture is not of Rival-kun, but was a random boy I met on a ferry who was also playing Pokemon.***