The Other “F” Word

My Japanese high school students are doing group work on the pros and cons of the Internet, and I’m challenging them to come up with something more creative than “The Internet is bad because danger!” when a word pops out at me. A student has doodled a cute wide-eyed character on the bottom of her team’s paper, and drawn a speech bubble with the words “Fuck You!!”

Gently, I point at the words on her paper and test her, “What does this mean?”

“I don’t know,” she replies in English, gesturing ignorance with open hands. “I often see it on the Internet,” she explains in Japanese. I wonder if she is feigning innocence to avoid getting into trouble, but I’m 95.7 percent sure that she honestly has no clue. This class is about the Internet, after all, and she is grasping for any words she knows on the subject.

swearing cartoon
image credit:


There are more than a few “F” words out there. Words that make us flinch, cringe, or recoil in horror, depending on their usage. Words that hold different meaning to different people, words that are neutral or positive for some and very negatively charged for others. Freedom. Father. Fertility. Foreigner. Feminism. Faith. Even farting: something everyone does… but never talks about. Unless you’re an eight-year-old boy. Or married.

“Future” is the recurring F-word that manages to send me spinning at times. It gains potency before major life changes: in the waning days of high school. Amid the fading moments of university life. It bothers me, not so much due to the uncertainty as to the need to answer to every well-meaning inquirer. And now, with less than a year left on my work contract in Japan, with no idea of what I’ll be doing next or even what part of the world I’ll be living in, it’s taunting me again. If left to my own devices I would meander along, content to see where the path goes, or wander off the path and make my own trail, but the world seems to want me to have a plan, a set of measurable goals, an exit strategy.

I recently stumbled into the pool of driven, ambitious self-promoters on LinkedIn. Browsing profiles of old colleagues and classmates is equal parts encouraging and depressing. Encouraging to see where people with similar backgrounds and qualifications as me have ended up. Depressing because I have no fancy title, I’m *just* an English teacher in Japan. I’m many things: a writer, a thinker, a wanderer. But in concrete, LinkedIn terms, I am mostly what my job title says I am.


I’m an English teacher. With a 15-year-old girl from the countryside looking up at me with big, inquiring eyes. I know the mysteries of “gaikoku,” of the lands outside of the bubble that is her Japan, of the meaning of the words on her page.

I kindly explain the word she has written is not a nice word in English, and that if another teacher who knows English sees it, she might get in a lot of trouble. Her eyes widen and she quickly erases the phrase, replacing it with “I love you!!”

I get to spend my time with some of the sweetest, most innocent high schoolers in the world. No wonder they think the Internet is so “danger!”

cute character saying "I love you"
Who knew such a cute character could have such a dirty mouth?

Do you have an Other “F” Word? Or a word by any other first letter that makes you flinch, cringe, fly into a state of panic or otherwise react adversely? Share in the comments below!


33 thoughts on “The Other “F” Word

  1. Look up Jamie Lynn Lano sometime. She’s a friend of one my sisters, and some other anime fans and gamers I know. She started out in Japan teaching English– the search hits should give you an idea on where she is now. (If you’re pressed for time, she’s a respected manga artist.)

    1. Thanks! It definitely is a great experience! It can be discouraging and even downright depressing at times, though. But I’m very thankful for the opportunity! Thanks for your comment! 🙂

  2. Fun (I’m not the fun mom), Fulfilled (my job is slowly crushing my soul), Friends (losing and gaining them, a tough transition), Finances (what are they?), Future (current discussions with the hubs as to how ours will shape up).

    Your story was very well crafted. I see the writer and English teacher in you! 🙂

  3. I like this reflection on “f” words. “Future” is definitely one of mine.
    And I struggle a lot with having accomplished so little compared with what I’d hoped and dreamed, especially when I read about others’ lives.

    1. I hear you – comparisons are killer. But we have to remember that so many people are just presenting a “best-of” themselves and their lives, particularly online. Life in Japan might sound glamorous, for example, but it’s really only 10 percent fun and games, and 90 percent banging my head against a brick wall, sometimes! (>_<) I have a lot of hopes and dreams still, but I'm starting to realize they're perhaps more than one person can ever accomplish in one lifetime, even if I live til 120! I guess the challenge is to learn to be content with simplicity!

  4. To be sure, teaching English is hard enough with children who grew up with it, we homeschool our children. As head of our household, the future is truly a constant worry. I understand what you mean. Wife has to remind me time and again, “God has taken care of us so far. He won’t stop now.” Our greatest adventures are the unseen, just around the corner.

  5. Thank goodness she wrote in pencil…and it wasn’t a tattoo! I can only imagine what all those Japanese tattoos really say! I work with a woman who was an English teacher in Japan as well. She has so many great stories and insights from her time there!
    My ‘f’ word is “fast”. Every person I know who runs, runs faster than me!

    1. Yeah, there are entire websites devoted to making fun of people with unfortunate Japanese or Chinese tattoos! Often it’s not even what they say, but the fact that they’Ve been tattooed on backwards or something (O_o)
      “Fast” is a good one, thanks for sharing!

  6. I loved how you used the story as a jumping off point. I struggle with *just* being a stay-at-home mom. Not sure what my “F” word would be…maybe, because I have two little girls it would be “fairy princess” or “fairy tale.” Blech.

    1. Thanks! “Fairy tale” is a good one, so many issues come out of that one. Where’s my happy ending?! Why can’t I have a happy ending?! Where’s my knight in shining armor? Wait, why do I need one?! “F” that!

  7. “English teacher in Japan” is an admirable title, and the world would only benefit if more people were writers, thinkers and wanderers. Keep being you. xo

    1. Haha. Funny you mention that because I actually missed my high school reunion last year because I am here. I think being overseas is a pretty cool excuse to miss it! And because as fun (ahem) high school was, it’s just not worth the plane ticket to relive… Also I am WAY more popular at my current high school than I could’ve ever dreamed to be my first time through!

  8. On an unrelated note, I think it’s funny that so many westerns criticize each other for having foreign words tattooed on their bodies. But Asians do too, just not with body ink since tattoos are less common in their culture. They run around in shirts with words that they don’t understand the meanings of all the time.

    On a related note, my f-word is fat. I struggled with a eating disorder when I was 14. Even though I eat healthy amounts of food (and candy) now, I fight with the voice in my head everyday, every hour that points out how fat I’ve gotten since then.

    Future is a good one too *shudders*

    1. True enough, but there’s a huge difference between clothing and tattoos. If you find out your clothing says something strange or offensive in another language, you can just not wear it again, but tattoos…

      Fat is definitely an “F” word. So haunting sometimes for so many of us… Thanks for your honesty in sharing your thoughts on this! And in case you haven’t been told this yet today… You’re beautiful!!! (*^o^*)

    2. So true! In Thailand at the moment and I’m constantly bombarded with spelling errors, grammatical errors and sentences in English which just don’t make sense.

  9. Wonderfully written Janelle, again I say you are very talented! As for another word I’d like to throw out there the word “fair”. It is used far to often by children and adults. That’s not “fair” I wanted that, that’s not “fair” he got more, that’s not “fair” she got to go. I believe life is intended to be different for all of us and “fair” has no place in it. If we all could accept that then some of us would be much happier in our lives than what we are. 🙂 Thanks for your talk on this Janelle it was interesting to read

    1. Thanks for the encouragement! “Fair” is a good one, in so many ways! On the one hand, we all seem to have an inborn sense of justice and are quick to cry foul when something doesn’t seem fair to us. On the other hand, I think what we really want sometimes is “more than fair” for ourselves, so it gets sticky quickly… And yeah, as you mentioned we are all different so fairness is a difficult concept to apply equally… Thanks for your comment! 🙂

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