So to wrap up this little series of “I am an American Japanese-student” (A tribute to Azrael’s old Outpost Nine article series “I am an English-teacher in Japan”), I decided to share my current perspective on my experience with Japanese education. I’ve been alluring to this in the past two articles, so here it is! It’s too bad I didn’t update more (damn not even weekly – I’ma regret that), because there were plenty of weekly examples of differences both entertaining and worth remembering.
Here’s a couple for your own amusement.
First being that culture festivals are the most ballin’ thing ever. Did your parents ever bring you to a carnival when you were a kid, or did you ever go to a local farmers market? Ever have a battle of the bands or a talent show? A student culture festival is pretty much all those things put together except they’re all hosted by your fellow students, so it doesn’t suck nearly as much. It’s got a nice atmosphere and the food/events/otherwise are done surprisingly professional and enjoyable results. They had real grills out to cook the yakisoba, freezers for ice cream, and huge stages for outdoor concerts. It beats the ever living shit out of any pep-rally I’ve ever been to. I honestly felt like you didn’t need to be part of the foot-ball team or some sport to be a part of the “school spirit”. You could get just as hype for whatever club you were in, or even just your class stall. Remember being dragged to the auditorium for some shitty event? Yeah, fuck that, I wanted to go to the culture festival. We should do them.
Another great thing was my teachers worked from 8am to 6pm. For my school in particular, when they are not teaching in or in a meeting, they are obligated to listen to your every whim and trouble for any amount of time you deem necessary. In fact, they love doing so because it means they don’t have do their grind work. It takes a certain type of Japanese person to want to teach Japanese at an International school, and many of my teachers had colorful personalities and studied abroad before. They were always willing to discuss coursework and my progress, review what was in class, or just practice casual discussion. I personally made good friends in the Melty Blood community early on, but one of dorm mates made it a habbit of talking with one of our professors after school every day for atleast an hour if not more. His Japanese got a lot better from that because the teacher was able to help him express what he wanted to say, and he got a lot better at speaking because of that.
Of course, you should never express yourself in class, but if it was outside of your grade or assignments, they were actually very helpful in your own study. It was nice having teachers around just about any time to go over class work or what you got wrong. I mean sure, half the time the reasons you got things “wrong” were cultural differences and not necessarily wrong answers, and the class work is so boring there is nothing to review except go home and memorize everything…
Oh right, I’m focusing on the good things. Good things. I liked having three different teachers for my class. It kept things fresh and a good rotation helped avoid getting mad at a particular teacher. They communicated very well and kept the class smooth. They also were completely fine with you going to whichever teacher you felt most comfortable with and never had a problem with favoring one teacher over another. They always wanted you to pass and do well. (Doing well means passing.)
Which brings me to what I hated: Grades mean a lot. Mind you this comes from an exclusively A/B student who rarely had a problem doing well in school (in America). In Japanese school, your ability to demonstrate and remember long sentences out of the textbook, follow along with the class during exercise reviews, and perform timely and accordance with instruction is what makes you a good student. It’s not a bad thing for the Japanese, because that’s what prepares for them for good salary-man jobs. However, I have my reservations about teaching an international school like this. Being taught by Japanese teachers means that linguistics thought and discussion, individual expression, and showing anything about the Japanese language not taught in the class, during class, is ちがう (chigau). Chigau is used as “wrong”, but it also means “different.” The connotation is completely negative, because not doing what everyone else does is a bad thing. This is especially true in the classroom or any “professional” setting.
One of the things that frustrated me the most in class is, with 15 Korean and 10 Chinese (bro’s by the way), 5 Malaysian students, and 1 American (me), we always get this question – on any and every topic that isn’t related to Japanese language – we get asked “What <do/how> your people <do/eat/celebrate> <at this time>, or during this <season/event/holiday>.” I think the Malaysians have a similar problem that I do, but at least they can rotate or quickly come up with an answer between the five of them. Every time this sort of question is asked, it’s on me to explain, in perfect Japanese, what “Americans do.”
It doesn’t help that I think just about every one of my friends would burst out laughing at the though of me me of all people being the one to represent “Americans” to three other cultures. Especially considering my interests are largely Japanese, I’ve done a very good job of ignoring American tradition most of my life. Does America have any culture that the majority of American’s share in or believe, to the point where everyone knows about what people do? Sure, we have some things. I can get away with things like “we drink apple cider in Fall” or “celebrate Christmas” sometimes. But then you get to your midterm and face an essay question like: “What do people in your country do in Spring?”
What the FUCK kind of question is that.
I don’t fucking know what other people do during the spring. I remember from 3rd grade that some groundhog comes out of the ground or some shit, but I don’t know how to explain that in an elementary level of Japanese when I barely know it in English anyway. And it doesn’t help I hear like 25 other students sigh in relief as they happily write about whatever food or festival everyone in their country does around those times for the easy A. Should I write about how college students get off for spring break, go to the beach, and party? But I’ve never done that. I know in Japan during the summer they (or most people have heard of/wouldn’t be weird) for you to eat cheap yakisoba and smash watermelons on the beach – but this essay is for Spring, and that’s not Americans.
Last Spring when I wasn’t busy with school I spent the majority of my time posting about Madoka, playing mahjong, going to Melty Blood tournaments, and fighting off a spiced rum addiction. I literally spent almost my entire break trying to scrape together the resources for a student loan and trying to learn H-Nanaya in training mode. That’s incomprehensible to the Japanese, who have free college and can’t believe someone would play a video game for an entire week. Sure, I know all the Japanese fighting game terms to write an essay way longer than required about what I was specifically training, what sort of mixups I wanted to learn, what combos I was training, and what neutral spacing I wanted to run – but that’s not Japanese my teacher’s would know (much like my English teacher’s wouldn’t know fighting game lingo) and it’d take someone way above my level to even explain where the terminology comes from.
Then, on top of that I’m in Japan! Why am I writing an essay on video games when I should be writing about something “proper” and following along what we learned in class! Every thing about even considering that for a test essay is so 違う it’s not even funny. Why didn’t I just study “properly” and memorize every single essay we ever studied in class so I could easily pull lines directly from it and get an A (just like the Koreans). Oh yeah, I know why, because that’s plagiarism and I’m taught from grade four how I’m going to be expelled from school if I ever even try that.
There’s a limit to “when in Rome, do what the Roman’s do.” That phrase doesn’t imply that you are Roman or you can do everything the Roman’s can do. I can’t in one or two school semesters undo everything I’ve learned in the last 22 years. Not only is it physically difficult to do that, I have severe moral reservations about doing so. Infact, it’s my job to exchange culture, not just completely adapt to one and abandon the old one. Is it social intolerance? Maybe a little, but I can’t feel like I’m really learning anything if I take that route to learning. And don’t you dare give me that bullshit argument my Japanese is at the level of a 2 year old, and I should always be mimicking the language to learn it or whatever, because fuck you I know they don’t do that when they teach Japanese in Brazil. I’m trying to learn the language, not learn how to be Japanese. It’s a great cultural experience but no student is going to care about that when their qualifications for a Japanese minor is on the line.
I hope I look at this a year down the line and laugh.
*If I don’t have a diploma with a minor on it I won’t be laughing.
08/2012 Note: I did look at this over half a year later, and I did pass and get the minor on my degree. However, I am not laughing and found this to be one of the most frustrating points of my life in vivid memory…