Notes from the Field: Kelsey Abbott

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Notes from the field… Kelsey Abbott ’08
After graduating from USD in the Spring of 2009, I moved to Japan on invitation from the Japanese government to teach English in Japanese public school as a member of the JET Program.  Upon my arrival to Japan, I spoke no Japanese, knew nothing about Japanese culture, and had no formal experience teaching children. My true purpose in coming to Japan was to escape the reality of getting a 9-5 job in America and to continue on my adventurous quest to see as much of the world as I possibly could. I graduated with a degree in Political Science with a minor in Communications, got high marks, and considered myself a fairly intelligent person. But moving to the Japanese countryside has rendered me an illiterate-mute, unable to read even the simplest signs or communicate with the 2nd graders I teach. It is an incredibly humbling experience to walk into a grocery store and not be able to read a single label, or have your 3rd grade students check the penmanship of your hiragana characters. All of these, however, are minute details of my everyday life; just another part of the adventure I so crave.

What is proving to be the real challenge in my daily life is communicating across cultures with the teachers I work with. Although the language barrier is an obvious hurdle, the many layers of Japanese culture and the context in which they conduct business is the most fascinating aspect of my experience here thus far. I find myself surrounded by a tangled web of  rules, titles, hierarchy, formality, and cultural idiosyncrasies. Everyday is like a puzzle that I cannot solve, but seems so easy and natural through the eyes of my co-workers.  It is the process of solving this puzzle that leaves me either laughing hysterically or crying alone in a rice patty at the end of each day (mood depending). Sometimes it feels like a funny and charming way of life, and other times it feels like some cruel joke that everyone is in on except for me.

I never realized how "western" I was until I sat down with three Japanese teachers and tried to plan a lesson. My mind was functioning in a linear pattern of "first, next, last", while the Japanese teachers were discussing, thinking in silence, examining every single detail, and consensus building. Just as I was contemplating shoving a sharp pencil into my skull, a consensus was reached and the lesson plan was finished: three hours later.

After my first lesson (first time EVER conducting a class, mind you), I asked one of my Japanese colleagues for some constructive criticism regarding a specific activity. Was it good? Should I do it again? Should I make some changes? "Maybe." "Maybe" was the extent of the feedback I received. And then it dawned on me: I had been living in Japan for almost two months now and I was yet to hear the Japanese word "iie" (no). For two solid months, absolutely no one has said "no" to me.

I taught a class of 5th graders one day that were particularly unruly, difficult to control, and boisterous. The homeroom teacher willingly helped me gain control of the classroom, calmed the children down, and we finished up the lesson. She thanked me profusely for the lesson and I carried on my day, assuming it was a success. It wasn't until a few days later that my supervisor told me that the 5th grade teacher was displeased with the class activity, and wanted me to make several changes to my lesson plan before the next session. I felt bad about the lesson, but I was confused as to why the teacher didn't just tell me herself, or why my supervisor waited three whole days to discuss this now ancient history with me.

All of these little anecdotes are reasons why Global Teams has proven to be the most important, effective, and worthwhile class I took throughout my entire college experience (and I am NOT just saying that). The reason I sometimes feel that my Japanese coworkers are all in on a joke that I don't get is because they are operating in a strictly "in-group" "out-group" society. Everyday they ask me: do you like Japanese food? Can you use Japanese chopsticks? Can you read Japanese characters? Do you like Japanese men? Can you drink Japanese Tea? Can you take a Japanese bath? if Japanese are the only ones in the world that can eat sushi, use chopsticks, drink green tea, and bathe in a hot spring. The divisions between the differing groups in Japan is almost tangible and it permeate society at the deepest level, all the way down to the way in which children associate with one another.

I always considered myself a highly logical person, working and thinking in a linear pattern, moving quickly from A to B and on to C; I assumed that this was the only logical way to do things. But the Japanese way of thinking moves in circles, darting from one end to the other, forming a web that is impossible to follow, moving forwards and back, up and down, with seemingly no end in sight. It is a different type of logical all together.

And lastly, the reason that I haven't heard anyone say "no", or the reason that teacher did not approach me with her concerns is because being frank and direct is a Western trait, something so rude that a Japanese person would never consider doing. While I was slightly offended that the teacher allowed me to loose control of the class instead of telling me to do something differently, she was afraid to offend me by telling me I was wrong. The Japanese language is SO indirect, in fact, that a common way to ask someone what time it is is to comment on the fact that they are wearing a watch, and then they will instinctively understand that you need to know the time; to come right out and ask the time is too direct for many Japanese tastes.

All of these lessons are ones that I learned while sitting in a desk in Camino for three hours on Wednesday nights, and I am relearning them in an un-air conditioned teachers room in Tochigi, Japan. As ill prepared as I was to face my new life and job in Japan, the knowledge I gained in Global Teams has proven invaluable time and time again. You can tell your students who are struggling through Global Teams to "gambatte" (Japanese for "persevere" or "do your best") because, chances are, they will not take a more important or relevant class at USD.

So from one sensei to another, arigato gozaimasu for the little nuggets of golden knowledge you instilled on me in one short semester. As i mentioned before, Global Teams was the most interesting, relevant, fulfilling, rewarding and beneficial class I took at USD. I am thankful for your help every day of my Japanese life.

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