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'Let's Speak English': One cartoonist's adventures in teaching

If you've heard of Mary Cagle, it's probably because of her webcomic Kiwi Blitz. It draws influences from a lot of anime -- rather old-school ones, in fact. Some characters look as if they've stepped out of one of Leiji Matsumoto's space operas. Others are more familiar: The main character Steffi looks a little like a young Nurse Joy from Pokemon, with pink hair that curls into tidy cinnamon buns at the shoulders.

In a way, Kiwi Blitz is sort of ahead of the current obsession with Americanized Japanese mecha. (Eat your heart out, Big Hero 6!) It's had cheerful teenagers piloting robots to protect a futuristic New York City since 2009. I haven't read this webcomic yet; the archives are a little daunting (although I do plan to wade in at some point). However, what I've seen looks delightful.

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Cagle's affection for Japanese pop culture extends beyond the typical otaku obsessions, however. The native Texan is also an English teacher at an elementary school in Kurihara, Japan, and in November 2013, she began illustrating her experiences living and teaching overseas. She has since collected these slice-of-life snippets in her autobiographical webcomic Let's Speak English.

We get a peek behind the curtain, and experience the personality of the cartoonist behind Kiwi Blitz. Unsurprisingly, Japanese pop culture flows through her veins: She's into older anime (which may be alienating to her students) but also newer, more adult series like Attack on Titan (which she's surprised to learn her fifth-grade students are very familiar with). Although that shouldn't be surprising, as Cagle recalls watching a Japanese kids' show that turns into a plot about wiping out the civilian population with chemical weapons.

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It's not just cartoons, though. Cagle is also a fan of Japanese pop music, specifically of musician/composer Wowaka. In a five-part piece, she relates a story about going to her first concert and marking out when her favorite musician played her favorite song. The experience isn't without its moments of awkwardness -- after all, living in a country where people know you're different and have trouble communicating with you is already a disorienting experience. However, it's difficult not to admire Cagle's forwardness and her infectious enthusiasm.

She's still a fish out of water, however, and there are many things about Japan that Cagle works hard to adjust to. One is the thin walls, which enables you to hear your neighbors, who in turn can listen to you. There's, of course, the language barrier; sometimes Japanese listeners can't understand her sentence constructions, and sometimes they have trouble with English. And, of course, there are the infamous toilets. Through it all, though, Cagle treats the experience with a great amount of understanding and patience. She expresses some doubts about her decision to live in Japan, but with each strip she makes it clear that it has been an overwhelmingly enjoyable experience.

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Incidentally, Cagle has apparently discovered the magic wonderland that is Daiso ... a sentiment to which I can relate. Squeals of delight all around, people.

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