This is all innocuous enough, until inevitably one of the boys shouts, "I LOVE YOU!"
The first time this happened, I wasn't sure how to react. So I didn't. I think I just smiled and said "Bye-bye!" again and continued on my way. Now and then this would happen and I would just ignore it and say goodbye or laugh uncomfortably and respond, "Uh, thanks!" while praying no mothers happened to be within earshot.
Then one day one of the other English teachers told me that a boy in her class was constantly asking when I would return to her classroom to teach another lesson. This boy really liked my visits, she said, but recently he'd been bummed out. When I asked why, she said, "He says he tells you he loves you, but you say nothing back." I laughed. Well, I told her, it's weird isn't it? What should I say? Certainly I can't tell the boy I love him back because....I don't. And teachers shouldn't say that. Definitely not OK in America! No, she advised, just go ahead and say you love him back and don't worry about it.
So from then on, I have. The boys shout out, "I love you!" I yell back, "I love you, too!" Let me tell you, this feels seriously weird. But it makes them happy, and I guess they must know it's not serious. Somehow this expression of affection doesn't seem to carry the same weight when they're saying it in a foreign language, and it's just a simple — and quite adorable, I might add — way of telling me they like me. I guess.
Joe gets the same affection from the girls at his school, too, only on a much wider scale. The girls are a lot less restrained about showing their feelings, so they are always professing their love. He's like a rock star. Just a big, cuddly teddy bear.
The funny thing about this is that Japanese people don't even tell each other "I love you" very often. Our Japanese friends tell us that Japanese boys never say "I love you." Too embarrassing! Want to know the old-fashioned way Japanese men propose marriage? No confessionals of love. They ask their beloved, "Will you... make miso soup for me?" This is the man's way of asking the woman to take care of him forever. Romance at it's highest!
A friend of Joe's gets super excited when she hears Joe call me pet names over the telephone, because Japanese guys just don't do stuff like that. They're a little romantically challenged in that way. One day Joe called me during school and, being the smartass that he is, when I picked up the phone he greeted me with "How ya doin', Sugar Tits?" While I rolled my eyes on the other end, she was swooning, assuming that any pet name that includes the word "sugar" must be endearing.
My relationship with my husband seems to be a real subject of curiosity to my girl students. Whenever I first tell them I'm married, or whenever they spot me out in public with Joe, the girls always look at me with big eyes and ask eagerly "Rub rub?" The first time I heard this I nearly choked. Turns out this is not an inquiry about our bedroom activities but rather the Japanized version of "Love love?", which means something along the lines of "Are you affectionate? Are you lovey-dovey?" Very cute. They're like little kids, so giddy to live vicariously through my fairytale American romance. Now when they ask "Rub rub?" I just stifle a laugh, nod and reply enthusiastically, "Hai! Rub rub!"