When I was tasked with helping a student adjust to their new upcoming life in America, I was a little confused on where to start. My fellow coworkers were just as uncertain, so I was basically given a blank slate as what to teach. I decided on lessons that would incorporate more complicated English, American history, and advice about moving to another country. When I began my first American History lesson, I asked her two questions.
“What do you know about American History?”
“Basically nothing,” she replied.
Ok, well, we got a lot of ground to cover…
“What do you think an American looks like?”
“Ummm, like a Native American?” she said with a bit of hesitation.
She always was a clever one.
I showed her a bit of a recent National Geographic piece that covers what “an American” might look like in the future. Simply, it’s hard to even define what an American looks like or “is” anymore with our population of rich backgrounds and cultures. I wanted to show her this because she too is a part of this change: A blonde haired, blue eyed Japanese-American citizen. Or in more modern Japanese slang, a “half.”
I remember my first day seeing her, as our eyes quickly scoped each other out. She already knew I wasn’t from here, and I couldn’t place where she was from either. I met her father, an American, shortly afterwards and added two and two together. Honestly, for my first two years here we didn’t have too much interaction, although she was naturally the standout during English class. I spoke to her in natural English a few times, but never really found a good reason to outside of “Hello fellow white-looking person, I am also white and we are both in Japan!” To say the least, that’s a pretty lame and thin excuse (depending on the circumstances).
There were always rumors her family was moving back to America at some point, but those plans never seemed to solidify. She would still be at school, semester after semester, and her younger brother would enroll shortly thereafter. I learned very quickly his English isn’t as proficient, but he is really into dinosaurs.
But the rumors eventually resurfaced and were verified: their family would move to America after she graduated Middle School. I was informed of this in December, giving me three months for private lessons between us.
In one lesson, I had her watch the infamous “But we’re speaking Japanese!” video, but followed it up with a video in which a guy asks Japanese people on the street about their reactions. To be totally transparent, I totally just wanted her opinion on the whole subject because of the balance between how she identifies herself and her appearance. I also used it as practice for essay writing and general critical-thinking, but truthfully it was more the former.
And it was very interesting seeing her reaction, to say the least. Unlike some of the Japanese people in the video, she absolutely got what the video was trying to say. She didn’t elaborate too much farther, but after some probing she said she’s heard the “Your Japanese is so good!” line more than she would like, despite the fact she has been living here her entire life. It brought out some good laughs between the two of us.
Perhaps a part of showing her the video was also a release on my part. Obviously I have plenty of those venting conversations with my fellow ALTs and ExPats I meet, but to have it with a Japanese citizen was relieving on a whole other level. I’ve tried to explain these frustrations to my fellow (Japanese) coworkers, friends, and other people I’ve met, but they just nod and say “Really? Hmmmm…” But to have just another person who has lived here their entire life to say “No dude, like I TOTALLY get it,” is a kind of catharsis that maybe we were both able to reach.
In fact one of my proudest moments was watching her give a speech to the entire school about these frustrations. Although highly regulated, at the end of the winter semester the teachers allow the third-year students to go on the roof of the school and give them a soapbox to talk about whatever they wish. Most students use this as a platform for comedy, but she used it quite differently.
“I just want everyone to know that even though I look like I do, I consider myself Japanese. I have lived here my whole life, you know! And even though I understand English well, I still make plenty of mistakes.”
That last line got a “Really?!” from one of my English teacher coworkers.
She went on and elaborated on this cultural struggles, and got a healthy amount of applause. I made sure to thank her and tell her how much I liked the speech afterwards. Plenty of us foreigners living here grumble and moan about the cultural frustrations a plenty, but I’m sure it must be more complicated for her and other children of mixed race: To really identify as one culture, but because of some physical differences always be considered somewhat outside it. It’s a reality that I’m sure only she, her siblings, and other mixed raced peoples living here understand. But I was so proud that she used her airtime to discuss those issues and try to make the people around her understand a little more.
By this time last year, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be staying a third year; The above-mentioned issues certainly played a role in my hesitation to do another full year. However, I’m glad I talked it out and stayed for one last time, because I never would have gotten closer to the student who piqued my interest so much. It was also these lessons that let me elaborate on topics I found I really believe in and enjoy teaching as well. She taught me just as much about myself as I hope I taught her about the various history, linguistic, and cultural topics.
Of course, I am writing this all from my perspective: I have no idea how she “really” feels about me, our lessons, or the relationship between us. Again, just because we look the same (regardless if we’re in the minority or not) doesn’t automatically mean that we’re going to be best buds. However, she did seem to enjoy my anecdotes, laughed at my jokes, always said thank you, and came to get me every day we had a lesson. It’s the little things.
The graduation ceremony was last week, and she has since left to go prepare for the big move. I have no idea if I will ever actually see her again. I’m sure there are other JETs who have similar students, mixed-race or not, who make an impact on their lives. For me she was definitely one of the most profound. And for as many frustrations that come with the job at times, thinking back and knowing that I was lucky enough to make a deeper connection like this really makes it worth it. I can only hope she goes on and finds success, helping others as much as she helped me. Even if she never realized it.