Matt Corsmeier

My day job is teaching conversational English and test prep at Shimizugaoka and Aoyama High Schools in Kure, Japan. This is a city about 15 miles outside of Hiroshima that’s about the size of Madison.

Students in the junior high (what most people in the U.S. would call middle school) might be having English for the first time; those in the senior high school have typically had it for at least three years.

It’s mandatory for students in Japan to study English. Those who are interested in attending university have to take a placement test and without a good grasp of English they won’t get in. There is also an exam that students may take when they apply for a job in the future to show their proficiency in English. There really aren’t equivalents in the U.S.

At some level I feel one of the primary reasons for teaching a foreign language is that it aids in the university selection process.  You might wonder, “Why English?” Simply because it’s still the international language and the best language to know if you want to travel abroad.

It used to be an advantage to be a native English speaker, but it’s much less so now simply because there are so many non-native speakers who can speak English well.

I’ve been teaching English abroad for about 20 years. I originally went to school (UW) as a journalism major. I discovered writing my last year of high school and journalism seemed like a good fit. I quickly saw that I just wasn’t as interested in journalism as my classmates.

I switched to English and as I got closer to graduation, I found myself wondering what to do with my degree. I knew I didn’t want to work in an office. I had been studying languages and found that I was pretty good at it. I wanted to learn more, and it occurred to me that teaching English would be a way to travel abroad, learn more languages and use my English degree.

Once that seed was planted, that was all I wanted to do. I graduated in 1997, started saving my money and got my first job in the Czech Republic in 1999.

I’ve lived abroad ever since and have been in Japan for almost 13 years. I was recently looking over some souvenirs I’d collected and they brought back a lot of memories of my many adventures.

I had to sacrifice a lot of stability over the years. I’ve lived in seven different countries and every time I left I had to squeeze all my possessions into one suitcase and jettison everything else. It was stressful. About 11 years ago I went to Australia with the intention of getting a Masters degree there, but decided I just couldn’t do it anymore, and went back to Japan. Of course, having a child on the way affected my decision. 

I’m glad I made the choice I did.

My most memorable caffeine is hard to pick as it’s such a common thing—like brushing your teeth—but let’s go with my first espresso. It was in college and I’d been up all night. In the morning I wandered to a coffee place. I’d never been to one before – they weren’t nearly as common as they are now. I wasn’t sure what to order and decided “I’ll try an espresso.” I’d heard of them but didn’t really know what they were.

The barista put the tiny espresso cup on the counter. I stared at it. The barista stared at me. Finally, I asked, “Is this what I ordered?” I tried it and thought “Who would ever want to drink this?”

My current caffeine of choice is typically a black coffee. I’m trying to wean myself and was pretty successful until my most recent visit to the U.S. We’ll see how I do back home.

My favorite place for caffeine is typically a 7-Eleven. These are all over the place in Japan and you can get a freshly ground and perked cup of coffee for about a dollar. You could surely do better in terms of quality, but not in terms of price. There are also places like typical U.S. coffee spots all over Japan. It’s common for them to have walls lined with manga—Japanese comics. The shops hope you’ll linger and drink more coffee, which is why they stock the comics.

The person I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with is Jordan Ellenberg. He’s a UW professor and mathematician who wrote a book I just read, “How Not to be Wrong.” I liked the way he looked at life and applied mathematical principles to everyday things. It would be interesting to sit down with him.

World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine: increased creativity/ingenuity. The heart of solving many problems is the ability to look at them from a different angle. Often, if I’m struggling with something, I’ll go away and come back with a fresh set of eyes and see the solution.

I’ve recently started studying coding and I’ve found that it isn’t about memorizing functions, it’s about solving a puzzle. The solution is often just something I haven’t thought of before; approaching a problem in a different way. The perfect amount of caffeine would make that process easier.