I am an American in Japan. A statement that has set the tones for my life every day for nearly 4 years now. I recently took a trip back to my home in America, which has me looking at my life in a whole new light. For this reason, I want to share with you all, the real inner workings of my life... now, in the past, and in the future. For now I will begin where we always stand, the present. This is my life at work.
I work in Japan. I teach in kindergarten. I teach in 4 different kindergartens, all of the kindergartens in my town of 21,000 people. My work environment is different nearly every day of the week (exception being Monday/Tuesday... the kindergarten is so big that it takes two days a week to teach all the students).
Kindergartens in Japan are compromised of children between ages 3-6. I teach the 4-6 year old children, and read stories to the 3 year olds. They are all super brilliant, and pick up the things I teach very fast. They function in my English class (fully taught in English) with ease.
When it's sunny, I go out for recess and play with the kids, and when it's dark and rainy, I hide away in the shadows of the worker's room. I don't use the internet at work, because I've learned that I'd rather feel productive at work, and I just can't often do that with a computer in front of me. So in my plethora of free time at work, I study study study.
I study Japanese. My life is in Japan, and I want nothing more than to function here, and feel as proficient as possible. Last year I passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test level 2, which was my original goal in studying Japanese. I had always heard from other foreigners, that it is insanely difficult to pass level 2, so I was really uncertain I'd ever be able to make it even that far. Now that I have, I decided to aim for level 1, the highest level. This test is mostly geared towards Asians, because it requires both fluency and literacy in the language, which takes a lot of effort even for the Asians. But for a westerner, whom did not grown up studying the Asian characters, the Kanji, well it is a *lot* of study. I study at work, at home, out away from home. As much as I can. When I'm not specifically studying Japanese or teaching English at work, then I am interacting with my coworkers, which of course, is in Japanese. None of my coworkers speak English.
I help other teachers. When something needs to get done in the kindergarten, I always make it a point to offer to help. It is actually not mandatory of my job to do this, but if you want to interact, and be a good human being, you should always be willing to help in any environment. At least that's my opinion on the matter.
Kindergarten is awesome, I love being a giant 5 year old, and I didn't realize how awesome and amazing kids were until I started this job. I have often struggled at work with my role as an English teacher in the kindergartens. I do what I can to participate in activities am much as I possibly can, but sometimes I just feel awkward, and wonder how far my role is supposed to go.
The interesting thing about being an English teacher (assistant language teacher, ALT) in Japan, is that there isn't particularly any one particular person in control of you and your actions per say. ALT teachers work through dispatch companies. This means that my actual employer is in a company office, in a city an hour away from me by train. I only see my supervisor about once or twice in a year.
This system of having the foreigners hired into the schools by dispatch
rather than the board of education like the other teachers, is a strong
mechanism of keeping foreigners in a separate world from all the other
Japanese teachers. This is because we follow different rules, so it is
harder to relate to the other teachers. As my situation stands, I am
quite good at Japanese, but depending on the kindergarten, I still
struggle with my environment.
I do work in environments with a principal in each of the kindergartens, but Japanese law dictates that only my supervisor has real control over what I do etc... and with that person not present, there is really no one that tells me what to do. For this reason, it is greatly up to me how much I want to interact with the kids (during play time), or even how long I am at work. While this is the legal explanation for my situation, there is actually a lot more behind this, in terms of my interactions with coworkers and such.
Here is a picture in words of how it looks and plays out:
Monday-Tuesday kindergarten: is huge. Two floors, 3 classes per grade level, 46 teachers, and two workers' rooms. Since there are two workers rooms, I have been assigned to the upstairs one, where the principal is *not* sitting. This means I have really almost no interaction with her. We really, *really* don't talk, I think we just have an unspoken agreement about that... even if I try to talk to her sometimes, it just doesn't work. The vice principal is much more enthusiastic to talk to me, so it stays at that.
During the day time, all of the teachers are usually busy teaching, so aside from teaching time, lunch time, and recess, my job is to sit alone in the worker's room, and occupy my time. this leaves me with about 4 hours a day, which I devote to studying. Occasionally some of the teachers have to make things, and will sit in the worker's room with me. I always offer to help, and as much as I can, try to have conversation as work is being done. But the task of operating in your second language plus performing another task at the same time can be a very difficult thing.
Wednesday kindergarten: is my busiest, and perhaps most "Japanese" normal day. The principal is very excited for me to exist in this kindergarten. She loves that I speak Japanese, and that I want to interact with the kids. I told her when I began this current job, that at my previous job, I would enter all day in the class with the students, and interact as much as possible. She decided that this sounded absolutely perfect, so I am very very busy all day in the classrooms with the kids. Not much time for study at all. During recess, I play with all the kids, and aside from recess, I am assigned to one class each week, where I am allowed to just hang out with the kids all day long. We have a lot of fun teaching each other tons of things. I especially love origami, so sometimes they teach me new things, and other times I teach them new things. It's awesome! All the other teachers there interact with me pretty naturally as well, it's a very nice, busy environment.
Thursday kindergarten: is where I have the best relationship with a principal. She is a very different from your average Japanese person. She wants me to be involved, but not necessarily strongly with the students. She loves that I go out and play with the kids, and that I offer to read books to the kids. Sometimes I go on field trips to nearby farms with the kids too!
But generally speaking, she has me help as a teacher, as an extra person around in the school. She has more confidence in me and my Japanese abilities than of any other person I work with. She does everything she possibly can to interact with me as naturally as possible. And on days where I am not fully functioning, she never ever holds it against me, and always allows me a chance to gain my composure and work myself naturally back into the setting. She gives me the task of writing out my lesson plans for the classes I teach the next week, explaining step through step for the teachers to understand what I am doing. Since none of the teachers speak English, she of course has me do this *in Japanese.* After I write my lesson plan, she checks over the grammar and everything, and fixes it up to make it more proper and natural. She is my teacher in a lot of ways, and I love working with her.
The other teachers in this school sometimes work very naturally with me, and other times, it is very difficult. It just varies from week to week, how much I interact with everyone, but generally speaking, I have a great balance of helping out around the kindergarten, interacting with the kids, interacting with the coworkers (the lunch lady there is a great friend, too!), and studying Japanese. Thursday is super awesome.
Friday kindergarten: Is another very natural environment. I get along with everyone at the kindergarten generally super well. I talk to my coworkers, my principal, my students. Always lots and lots of playing in the dirt and the sand, and we make the most amazing things! When I'm not playing, I sit in the office studying. There is never really much work for me to do there, so the principal and coworkers encourage me to study in my free time there. Sometimes we have conversations, and sometimes I just study.
Last week, I came back from a trip to America however. And I had a sincere freak out at this kindergarten. I wanted more than anything, to talk about my various adventures, but realized that depending on the coworker, there are some pretty solid boundaries in place. You can't just bring up some topic in Japan, and expect it to be talked about with joy. Sometimes you do things too suddenly, and your speaking opponent (as I call them) gets sort of jolted by the situation at hand.
That situation actually, as well as my situation back in America, had me think a lot about my life as it stands, and where it has stood. Interactions in my life in Japan are very different from my life in America. And I had a sudden realization as to how drastic that really is. There are two very important concepts here in Japan, that come in so handy for the work environment: "気を遣う”（thinking carefully about what you say) and "空気を読む”(reading the air). These statements really imply that there is a very delicate balance in how to interact here in Japan. You need to understand when you are supposed to say something, and exactly how you are supposed to be speaking. As a foreigner, the restrictions are often times greater in the work place. You should never get too excited to rant about your life, because unless your coworker has expressed interest in knowing, you are likely to create a very awkward situation. But being able to operate within the guidelines, you can still talk, and be a part of things, but it takes a long period of observation to truly be able to understand how these cues works.
One thing I have often thought is amazing about the opportunity for westerners to work in the school system here, is the fact that we can get a look at both the work environment, and the environment that Japanese people grow up in. Even if we can't be Japanese, we can understand how life is built a bit better.
People often say that as a foreigner, you will never be Japanese. But the fact of the matter is, this is true of any race and culture to some extent. Americans brag of how we've gone beyond these barriers. but they're only gone beyond in the sense that they are out in the open. In my experience growing up in all black schools, with only one or two other white students, I faced endless racism as a child.
The point that I really want to make with this, is that we are all different, and we all recognize that we are different, even from a young age. It was the case when I was a young kid in my schools, and it's still the case now that I'm a teacher of young students, my students know that I am different. But what is not inherit is the hate. My poverty struck district had faced a history of racism that my existence was in no position to change. However here in Japan, people have rarely known a western face, and in many places just don't know how to deal with the existence of them.
Further more, they study English in a broken method, that I believe likely teaches them that language barriers make things awkward, which is actually often the case at first. But they don't learn how to move beyond these barriers, and that things can be made natural. I really think there is a strong fear of awkward interactions, when a Japanese person sees a recognizably non Japanese person, and that this is one of the causes for the distance from Japanese, that many foreigners talk about.
Perhaps this may have been slightly off topic from where I began, but the truth of the matter is, this is one of the greatest joys of my job. My students get to talk and interact with me from a young age. I can speak Japanese, and this means that they can ask me questions about where I come from, why I speak Japanese, or why I speak English (they ask me both), or all sorts of other questions, that if I couldn't speak Japanese, they wouldn't be able to learn. And the fact of the matter is, this instills not only an interest in the rest of the world in them, but the interactions we have instill a lack of fear. They understand that we can communicate, and I love to believe that this is the beginning process of breaking down the racial barriers that exist within my world. This is my job. I am a kindergarten teacher. I am an American in Japan.