If they want to speak to me in English, it’s fine

I stopped by a Lawson’s in Omotesando for a few items before I took the train home. The cashier welcomed me to his register with a “Good morning”, which caught me off guard, as my experience is cashiers have often consistently spoken in Japanese regardless of who was in front of them. I sensed this cashier in particular wanted to practice his English, so I obliged. And you know what? It wasn’t a big deal. This was a far cry from how I used to react.

「日本語喋ってるけど」(But I’m speaking in Japanese), I’d whine to myself, when my Japanese would be met with English. I used to get annoyed when I would encounter a Japanese person who seemingly steamrolled over my attempts to communicate in Japanese. Was my Japanese not good enough? Was my Japanese being undermined? Could they just not process that a non-Japanese person could possibly speak Japanese? I would watch the “But we’re speaking Japanese!” video on YouTube and emphatically agree: Yes. This has happened to me. Just accept my Japanese. I’ve worked so hard to get it “right”.

But living in Japan (and just maturing in general) has caused me to reconsider past perspectives. When I think about the interactions I have with Japanese people in Japan, the majority of them are in Japanese. Considering that I rarely use English with Japanese people that I don’t teach or know personally, is it really a big deal if a cashier wants to process my order in English? Is it really a big deal if, after offering my seat, I am thanked in English? Maybe it provides them an opportunity to practice their English for a change. Maybe they want me to feel more comfortable. These interactions are short and don’t cost me anything. From what I’ve heard, a lot of Japanese people are nervous about using English, so I respect the attempts. Why not just let them have it?

Dear language learner, you have nothing to prove. Someone wanting to speak to you in your native language is not necessarily a dismissal of your efforts. Language is about communication, not getting something “right”. A few interactions in your native language won’t derail your goals. There will be plenty of people to speak with in the language you are studying. Just let these few instances go.

Graham crackers, whipped cream, and my teaching philosophy

My first job after college was as a teaching assistant at summer enrichment program for elementary and middle school kids. Five days a week, I hopped around classrooms to assist different grades in English, Science, and Social Studies. In one of the classes I worked with, the teacher would give me about 20 minutes after lunchtime to teach a Social Studies lesson to her 3rd graders.

Often times this involved a mad dash to eat lunch in the classroom, soaking up the silence while it lasted, then come up with something to teach. The kids’ excited voices bounced along the hallway, and I knew to have myself in position, seated by the flip chart stand, waiting for them to sit bunched up in a semicircle on the rug below.

On one particular day, I was at a loss of what to do. I was going to teach them about tectonic plates. How exactly was I going to engage them with a topic like that? In the empty classroom, light only coming from the window, I paced around my lunch room/meditative space. I was drawn to the movement of tectonic plates along the Earth’s surface, but how could I translate that? Was there a simple, accessible way that they could visualize it for themselves?

My mind moved to objects that could simulate tectonic plates. Nothing at hand in the classroom would do. It was clear that whatever I needed, I would have to buy it. The supermarket seemed like the only viable option. The kids would be coming from lunch, so a light snack would be fine. Food to simulate tectonic plates…graham crackers. Okay, but what about the “water”? Something to simulate movement but not make the graham crackers soggy? Whipped cream. And paper plates to avoid a mess in the classroom. I had a plan, but little time to execute it. I quickly went out to the supermarket across the street to gather my materials.

The kids were pleasantly surprised to arrive and see on each desk a plate with whipped cream topped with two graham crackers spaced apart. I lightly dipped the sides facing each other in water so they could easily collide when moved. I had their attention long enough to briefly explain the connection to the topic, then came the part they were waiting for: collision and eating time. The “tectonic plates” glided across the “water” to create a tasty mess that they enjoyed. I admit it was hard to get them settled after that, but this remains my favorite memory from working with kids.

I teach university students now, so it’s highly unlikely I would do something like this for them (although I have quite the imagination, so who knows?), but I’ve had several “graham crackers and whipped cream” moments in which I form connections between things that seemingly have no connection on the surface. Sometimes the means is subtle and not as big as what I described earlier. However, the purpose is the same: I do this in the pursuit of making the message stick in an engaging and relevant way. I respect curriculums, but I push limits and stretch interpretations. I meet moments with adaptations I can’t fully explain. I don’t always succeed–there are times I don’t get the reaction I’d hoped for. But when a concept becomes clear to a student, when they laugh at something silly I said, or when they produce work that exceeds my expectations, it fuels my desire to stay true to my way of teaching. Regardless of how my students may react, they can be sure I won’t go before them unenthusiastic about what I am presenting to them.

What my first tea ceremony taught me about being bold

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“What did you do when you were learning a foreign language?”, one of my students asked me. One of my recommendations was to have experiences in the language you are learning: you get to interact with the language in an authentic way, plus it makes for a great memory. When I studied Japanese in high school, a tea ceremony was one of those experiences. We would be taking a field trip to our local Urasenke Chanoyu Center and enjoy green tea, not from a teabag, but in its foamy, whisked, powdered form, matcha. I wasn’t much of a tea drinker then, but I relished in the opportunity to exchange the classroom for a walk through midtown Manhattan and use what little Japanese I had.

In the days leading up to the field trip, I learned from an upperclassman who went the previous year about the guest of honor’s seat. The person sitting in this seat would be addressed and served first. I was not a person who naturally sought the spotlight, but my eyes became locked on this opportunity. I didn’t know much about it, but I knew I wanted that seat. I prepared for my mission following the guidelines, making sure I had a nice pair of socks and remembering not to put on any perfume. I was already one of the select few of my classmates chosen to go on this trip. I was determined to be chosen for the guest of honor’s seat as well.

We shed our shoes and walked through the narrow hallways leading to the tea ceremony room. Directly across was a little garden and waterfall. I asked the host in Japanese for permission to take a picture of it. He was delighted to hear me speaking in Japanese and granted my request. A notable win. Still, my mind lingered on my main objective. The time came when the host asked who wanted to sit in the first seat and be what I now know is the shokyaku. My hand was up in the air before the last word of his question had a chance to drop in the atmosphere. I handily won, as no one else indicated interest.

Sitting on my knees in this coveted seat, I brought myself to attention as I was coached on my role. I would not only be addressed and served first, but I would also be demonstrating to my classmates what to do. Everything was quieted as the host signaled the start of the ceremony. I became absorbed with the intentional movements of the hostess a few inches away from me. Though she had done this many times before, I sensed that everything from the flowers to the utensils were arranged with this particular group of high school teens in mind. She unhurriedly scooped the matcha powder into a bowl and added the hot water. The sweeping of the whisk against the bowl punctuated the silence in the room.

With a turn to the right and gentle steps forward, she lowered the bowl and secured it at its target, in front of the border of the tatami square I sat in. We bowed in mutual respect before she moved back to her post to go through the checklist of guests waiting to be served. There was no passing around of anything: she brought the tea over to each person one-by-one. She did the same with the small plates of sweets. When she appeared near me again, I knew it was showtime. I tried to channel the same grace as I lifted up my bowl, rotating it 3 times clockwise before quietly sipping. I glanced around as everyone else followed my lead.

The tea ceremony would have been a great experience regardless of where I sat, but what would happen if I hadn’t raise my hand? Probably awkward silence, followed by someone eventually saying, “Sure, I’ll do it” and with that “eh” their way to the guest of honor’s seat. Instead, because I did not hesitate or second-guess, because my sights were set on what intrigued me, this experience was all the more special. I am reminded of this today, as I still raise my hand for amazing professional opportunities. Sometimes that leads me to me standing out, as my interests and approaches don’t follow a typical path, but I’d rather stand out than stand in regret.

My choice to major in Japanese Studies

“What’s your major?” It took me a long time to be able to comfortably answer this question. At the beginning of my undergrad studies, I arrived with interests in interpretation, Japanese, writing, world history, and diplomacy, and a recommendation to minor in Economics. International Relations was not offered as a major, so I chose to major in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations, and I was set…

My first semester was miserable. Homesickness paled in comparison to feeling out of place in my new environment, personal tragedy, and feeling inadequate in the Introduction to World Politics, Elementary Logic, and the Principles of Macroeconomics courses I’d signed up for.

Taking courses that actually excited me

Following that disastrous semester, I dropped Poli Sci as my major and made my way over to the Asian and Asian American Studies department. I chose to major in Japanese Studies specifically, and signed up for Japanese, Asian Philosophy, The Experience of Literature, and Pop Culture Contemporary Japan. I finished my second semester on the Dean’s List and with a cash award for a short story I wrote. On a personal note, I made friends and was enjoying my college experience. I was doing what I liked and I had passionate professors who further solidified my interest.

I got to be an ESL teaching assistant, an opportunity that led me to getting a master’s degree in TESOL a few years later. At that time, however, education was not offered as a minor. Linguistics, I learned, was related to TESOL, so I added it as a minor (rather than a major, because I wanted to graduate on time). I went on to take courses in Japanese history and culture, African dance, anthropology, translation, and psychology.

Dealing with shame and others’ perceptions

“You’re black. Why don’t you study African American Studies?”

“You should consider medicine/nursing.”

“You’re basically like an English major.”

“Do you think you can get a job with that?”

“If I were advising you, I can’t guarantee you’d get a job.”

“Why?”

These comments filled me with shame about my major. It just didn’t make sense to a lot of people what the path forward with a major in Japanese Studies was or why I, a black woman, chose it. Was I turning my back on black culture? Was I trying to be Japanese? How do I explain it to others? How could I major in Japanese Studies and yet not be fluent in Japanese? It became clear to me that only certain majors were deemed as worthwhile. It became clear to me that people had their ideas of what I should do based on what they knew (or thought they knew) about me.

Even after I received my diploma, I still struggled to embrace my major and making sure my career choice was somehow connected. If I wasn’t going to be a Japanese Studies scholar or translate Japanese to English, what was I going to do?

It obviously worked out

I teach English to university students in Japan, combining many of my interests. I tried a variety of courses, showing what I liked and what I didn’t. I debated what I liked enough to declare as a major, whether I wanted a minor and what that would be, and if anything was worth delaying my expected graduation date. I also did internships and work study jobs to gain work skills and exposure to more interests. A lot of my Japanese Studies professors were gracious with their time and advice and I enjoyed their classes.

Looking back, what I wish I did consider is marketability. It’s hard to market a narrow major like Japanese Studies for certain jobs. I probably would have recommended to undergrad Monique a broader major that could be more clearly linked to a variety of industries. That could mean sticking it out with Poli Sci, or majoring in Linguistics or History. Japanese Studies would then be a minor.

However, I am proud of how I made it work and stand by the choices I made. It doesn’t have to make sense to everyone, because it is not for everyone to understand. My first semester, I wasn’t very different from the other students that had majors that “made sense” but also made them unhappy. The moment I chose to go all in with what interested me, my college experience got so much better. Also, respect for another culture does not mean I don’t stand in the fullness of my black womanhood. Adapting to life in Japan is not me “being Japanese”: it’s me navigating how to exist here.

In college, I explored and selected. Then I worked hard to not only get employed, but ascend. “What’s your major?” Japanese Studies. Yes, I majored in Japanese Studies. And I own that.

September’s monthly micro

Once a month I post a micro story (a story that is 1,000 words or less). Enjoy!

Along the long, white rectangles, I was flanked by brown faces with dots of white and yellow. The plastic bag rustled in my hands as I opened it under the table. Today, a common mom special: white bread, mayonnaise, sometimes corned beef, or baloney, turkey, with lettuce. I picked at the neatly cut triangles and drank my juice box. The PTA president’s kid had the usual crowd around him, lapping at the scraps of Chinese food he threw at them. 

I remember the one day they flocked to me: it was the one time I scored the highest on the chemistry test. As Mr. Bowman read off the names and scores, his Irie accent enunciating each syllable, he skipped mine. I knew what this meant, but I didn’t believe it. He confirmed the news at the end. Suddenly, at lunch time, everyone remembered my name as they begged for a piece of the plantains, oxtail, rice and peas smothered in gravy.