There’s something odd about recruitment of international teachers in Japan. One of the philosophies behind it, was not only to support English learning but also to help educate students about the world and foreign cultures. So many voices to consider, it’s easy to get lost in all the volume. If you don’t already know, the world is a rather big place. So it’s odd that more than 90% of ALT teachers are brought in from the United States. When everyone else is in a severe minority, just how international is this? What about Australia, Canada, Ireland, the Philippines, South Africa, Jamaica or even the United Kingdom (you know, where they started English in the first place). There’s an awful lot more than just American culture to know about, not to mention having an awareness of other types of English.
As one of the British minority in Japan, I’m acutely aware of how little Japanese people know about other cultures or countries (so far the best description of British culture I’ve heard is that apparently we all ride horses, wear top hats and have managed to keep the 1800s alive and well. No tv then I guess). But few Japanese people ever reach such a conclusion because they’re too busy assuming everything about you, most notably your nationality and language. Didn’t you know that all foreigners in Japan are English speaking Americans? It’s a little different when you’re asked (in Japanese first) ‘excuse me, are you American?’. It’s a fair question when so many come over; chances are that an English speaker in Japan ‘is’ from the United States. If not, you can politely correct them. The issue is with assumption. When Japanese people immediately speak to you in English is one. Nobody asks if you can speak English or not. I have some French friends who don’t take kindly to this (the worst case I’ve ever come across was a French gentleman who explained to me that he was asked to give English lessons at his company. Despite the fact that he didn’t actually speak much English).
But it’s also image. Japan is the country of stereotypes (and, I say, as a top hat gentleman myself I question the logic in that, what), and they have a set image for every nationality. Deviate from that image and they’re exceptionally slow to accept it (bad luck for anyone of east asian heritage in western countries. I’m afraid you’ve lost your nationality and are officially Chinese now. Enjoy communism!). People often identify themselves based on nationality and culture; strip it from them with careless assumptions and stereotypes, and they’ll get upset. So when I’m first asked a question about American culture, without ever once confirming my nationality, it’s a little annoying. After months of it from people in endless volume of assumptions, it becomes sickening. There’s nothing wrong with making a false assumption (I once made the mistake of assuming an expensive bottle of blue liquid in the supermarket was premium blueberry juice. Half a bottle and a vomit later, someone informs me that the viscous substance that I couldn’t bear to drink anymore was in fact syrup, something I’d never encountered before. Innocent, stomach wrenching mistakes you see). The issue is forever acting on assumptions rather than searching out more information.
In practical terms however, these assumptions can prove troublesome. For example, at school I’ve had complaints in the past for not being 元気 enough. Confused, I tried harder to speak more clearly, make greater effort in my lesson plans and engage more students in conversation. To no avail though. 元気 means lively or energetic, and somehow I wasn’t living up to my predecessors standards. I asked my company about this and they explained ever so gently, how they had this problem with all British teachers (keep those stereotypes going guys). Unlike my American predecessors, I lacked volume and more importantly, the larger-than-life character that they expected. As I was told, being a good teacher didn’t matter. They just wanted energy. Now, even if I didn’t have principles against being a circus clown instead of a teacher (must be easy to confuse those two professions it seems), I’m not naturally loud or overly enthusiastic (if a stereotype will help, British people tend to have that sort of thing knocked out of them by incessant faith in disappointment).
I didn’t really understand this expectation until I met with several American teachers (and one Canadian) at a party over winter. What hit me hardest was the volume. I could barely hear myself think amidst the din of yelling voices over the table. I’m sure alcohol was a partly responsible (as it always is, the little scamp), but more than that I felt as though even when a single person spoke to the rest of us, their voice would be unnecessarily loud. When everyone talked this naturally escalated. I found it intimidating frankly, being surrounded by so many big personalities competing for attention within the group. I should make it clear though that all of these teachers were lovely; very friendly and welcoming and I enjoyed their company. It just also happened that the volume knocked me down too.
During the evening, one of the two hostesses was kind enough to introduce me to a video game that I’d been interested in for quite some time, and I juggled conversation throughout the night. Conversation moved onto games and I found myself playing two at once, both of which I’d never encountered before. ‘Portal’ on the pc (a puzzle game) and ‘never have I ever’ (a half disguised interrogation). The tone of this second game quickly dived into something I didn’t quite expect. For those of you who aren’t familiar, you take turns announcing something you’ve never done and if anyone around the table has one that, they take a drink to acknowledge it. I thought up as many life experiences as I could; sky diving, riding the Trans Siberian Railway, taking part in carnival season in Brazil, visiting every book-off in the world (we all have our dreams). So it was a little surprising when the first announcement was ‘never have I ever performed fellatio’ and more than a little revealing when more than half of the women took a drink. A one off maybe? Next statement: ‘never have I ever had a threesome’. A few more drinks around the table and I’m wondering if somehow I’ve not quite gotten this game. It does sound a little odd when the order of statements, ending with me, goes: ‘never have I ever: pegged my boyfriend…had sex outside…had anal sex…gone skiing’. (There’s an odd one out here). My shock was not so much the topics but rather the speed at which they came. I wouldn’t be so surprised had I been with long term friends, with enough intimacy amongst us to feel comfortable discussing such personal things (you know, trust and all that). These teachers I barely knew, and they barely knew each other too (I’m not sure training and a few drunken nights really count for much in the short term). Yet, I was bearing witness to everyone’s sexual preferences and experiences at record time. I found out later from Cece that these kinds of games were relatively common in the United States, and moreover that it’s not uncommon that ‘things happen’ as she put it. Sounds stereotypically scary.
Perhaps these are all aspects of American culture that I wasn’t aware of, and the very qualities that was expected of me at school. Big personality, fearless openness (within reason), sheer energy. Or maybe I’m making false assumptions on a whole nation based on a few personal experiences. Perhaps none of this is typical American culture, and I’m guilty of wanting to rely on stereotypes too (I’m half British, half Spanish and I don’t drink tea nor coffee. The world may very well be upside down). But whether it is or not has become irrelevant in a place where fitting an assigned image has become more important than teaching the real complexity of international cultures. Maybe if I speak loud enough in school, I’ll find reality in all that volume.