Things to write

I have an itch to write something, but I’ve been correcting sentence translations/compositions, in addition to my usual routine, so I’ll just take a second to list down a few things I’d like to write about at some point:

  • The hipster crew who rides fixies and goes bouldering.
  • The kyudo club members who make me feel so ungraceful.
  • Cultural differences in thought and how English should evolve to accomodate such differences (ie. realizing a dream vs working towards a dream)

Super English Radio Show

A year before I came to Gakuho, the junior high requested that ALTs do a radio show in English every Wednesday.  My predecessor, and the current junior high ALT decided to have a short English conversation, and play a song in English.

This was a great opportunity because in the beginning, the students weren’t allowed to even broadcast their own directed shows, in consideration for students who might be studying, but gradually, the rules loosened a bit.

Since I came on, I’ve been excited about curating the current English pop hits for the kids, hoping that they’ll remember and hear it somewhere else and think, “The ALT played this song!” I referred to Billboard, but also Kidz Bop and Common Sense Media, as I needed some help choosing age-appropriate songs, since most of what my cynical adult self would choose are not so fun for 13 year olds.

My criteria was that the song needed to have an upbeat and fun melody, have recognizable artists (ie Katy Perry, One Direction), age-appropriate lyrics (“Uptown Funk you up” barely made it…), and encouraging.

In all honesty, the kids are usually having lunch and talking with each other in their classrooms, so it’s usually too loud to hear our songs. Given that, I decided that sharing music with English that are much too simple would be a waste of time.

Now that I write this, I think my next curation will include pop music from the rest of the world…!

For the next several weeks, these are the songs that are on the playlist:

Alesso – Heroes

Meghan Trainor – All About that Bass

Anna Kendrick – Cups

Ariana Grande – Break Free

Avicii feat. Aloe Blacc – Wake Me Up

Bastille – Pompeii

American Authors – Best Day of My Life

Echosmith – Cool Kids

Katy Perry – Birthday

Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars – Uptown Funk

MIKA feat. Ariana Grande – Popular Song

One Direction – Story of My Life

P!nk – Try

Paramore – Ain’t It Fun

Sheppard – Geronimo

5 Seconds of Summer – Don’t Stop

English Writing

Last year, around this time, I was working with the seniors on their English writing. It was a small class of about 10 people, and they were taking these extra classes to practice composing English sentences that they translate from Japanese. They vary from things like, “The rapid decline of the birthrate and the extension of the average lifespan has created many problems in modern society” to “I fell asleep while reading a book on the train and almost missed my stop, but luckily a friend from junior high school woke me up just in time”. This year, a whole class of about 30 seniors attended the writing practice class. And I’m getting students asking for help to correct their short essays every day.

I have a feeling that many college entrance exams are requiring students to write more English. It’s like how the GRE used to be all multiple choice, and suddenly, a change required test-takers to write a couple essays, to which all those anticipating to take the test lets out a resounding sigh.

A lot of students write direct translations, which comes off sounding very Japanese-like English (perfect grammar, but “different” word usage and non-traditional organization) and  but a few who’ve drilled themselves through practice, and reading a ton of model answers can write sounding very natural.

It’s really impressive, but necessary, as these students are applying to go to the best universities in Japan, competing on the world stage. But they are doing so at such a disadvantage: the fact that most of their teachers haven’t been properly trained to teach English composition, so that job goes to the native English speaker, the ALT. To be honest, I can only teach the basics of English composition: the introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion, the stuff you learn in high school. Beyond that, I try to get them to question things, think, and dig (aka BS) for ideas. Writing was never my forte, but I’m finding myself to more interested now that I’m helping students of English use it.

So much that I even looked up what I needed to do to get a certificate in English composition because I feel so unqualified!

But it really brings up all the memories I have from all my English corrections in high school, especially from my personal essays. Comments like “redundant”, “word choice”, “relevance?” Being a computer science major, I avoided a lot of the writing classes, and technical writing was the only thing you needed to do. I can barely remember a required English writing class I took one summer in order to get it overwith. I think I got a B-, even though the instructor was kinda cute.

Accent privilege

Recently, I started to see privilege in having an American accent. You can go anywhere with it and be considered cool. But mostly, I’ve been told, understandable. It makes me wonder if the American accent was developed through generations of immigrants from everywhere in the world having to learn English, and the rules or pronunciation of American English simply made more sense to English learners than the rules of British English.

But back to accent privilege. Even in high school, the Viet-Am kids who were born in America would look down on the ones who spoke English with an accent. Even I was no exception to judging the kids that we used to call FOBs. Sure, we both spoke two languages, but I spoke better English than they did. And everyone else understood me better.

In Japan, students are learning English as a foreign language, and are also expected to be able to understand academic literature by their senior year. For the kids in Aizu, this is impossible without extra English courses outside of school, and only the students who can afford it can have this ability. And if you compare that to the American students, how many can actually read and understand academic papers in a foreign language like French and Spanish? Not to mention that English, French, and Spanish all fall under the Romance languages, while Japanese and English are completely in different language families.

So when someone says they know 9 different languages, I ask them which ones, and if they’re all from the same language family, then that’s a privilege to have been able to learn a language that share common roots with other ones, too. Japanese and Korean are in a separate language family all on their own.

When you meet a group of Asian people, all speaking English, but all with their own accent and style, who are you most likely to trust and work with?

Land of Happiness?

On my flight to SFO from Japan on United, I started chatting with my neighbor. I wasn’t sure if she was Japanese at first, as she persisted to engage with me in English when I thanked her for passing my food tray over, or excused myself to go to the bathroom. She may have realized I was a native speaker when I ordered “OJ” instead of “orange juice”.

She told me she works as a nurse in Tokyo, and was visiting friends in the Bay Area. She had studied in America on a year-long English program, and was looking into getting a nursing job in order to stay. It didn’t work out, and she envied her friends who married Americans and were able to do what she’d wanted.

I asked her why she didn’t get married and do the same. She smiled and proudly, but with a hint of defeat, told me she wanted to achieve the goal on her own. I really admired that.

I also asked her why she didn’t want to stay in Japan since there was a need for caretakers with the falling population, enough so that the government is looking into changing its immigration policy. She said that there was always work, even work that she wasn’t hired to do, causing overtime. I asked her if there was any way to change that, and she resolutely said, “No, I’ve given up.” She didn’t believe anything could be done, and that it’s just expected of everyone.

One of my students had described America as a happy place. As much as I tried to appreciate all I had, some part of me didn’t feel as happy inside. I still needed to live Japan. I wanted to find some authenticity in this imported Asian culture that always seemed to have a white person sharing their perspective of it and how they can adapt it to fit their own beliefs and lifestyle. I needed to live Japan for myself. Relationship woes aside, it was only after accepting my small achievements in video games as well as my completion of my TESL certificate that ultimately made my decision to accept the JET offer. Before I turned 30, I was telling people about this goal, but I wasn’t committed to a plan. I was told of the Saturn Return more than once.

From afar, America does seem like a happy place. But there’s always a price to pay.

Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony

After about a year and half of being in Japan, I finally came home for a short trip to see my family and close friends. During that time, I was able to make a day trip to Sacramento/Placerville to finally visit the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony, believed to be the first Japanese settlement in America that I had heard so little about, and was mind-blown once I learned of its connection with Aizu-Wakamatsu.

I did some research to see who could best advise my friends and I on the best way to tour the area. I found an article about a festival at the site in the Florin JACL newsletter, and I contacted the president, Mrs. Marielle Tsukamoto, of the Florin Japanese American Citizen’s League, as well the daughter of  Mary Tsukamoto. Mrs. Mary Tsukamoto was one of the first Japanese-American teachers, and helped schools and institutions, such as the Smithsonian, in educating the American public of the internment of Japanese-Americans. She created Time of Rememberance, a program that connected elementary school students in the Elk Grove school district with internees as well as educate them on the Japanese-American experience, which recently turned into a museum installation called Uprooted! at the California History Museum in Sacramento.

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Through our correspondence, Mrs. Tsukamoto did way more than I expected by connecting us with a docent for the exhibit. Mrs. Christine Umeda, who was only 4 when she was interned at the Tule Lake camp, took us through life before the internment, which included artifacts such as picture bride photos, food labels, and even a kimono that was made in Ginza and shipped all the way to America. Once we got into the internment period, we realized that much of the museum artifacts were actually hers and her husband’s families’ possessions, so she would endearingly touch and open items with familiarity. At one point, I followed suit and touched a chest that she had just opened the drawers to, only to realize there were Do Not Touch signs all over!

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Mrs. Umeda talked fondly of her time in the camps, that it almost didn’t seem so miserable. With all the free time, people tried to keep busy, and built things, made crafts, and made the best of the situation. One photo was of an ikebana “flower arrangement” group, which had vases filled with weeds and dry desert flora. Mrs. Umeda talked about how the family unit broke down in the camps because the US government would disseminate information directly to the younger second generation, while the first generation parents were left out due to language barriers. The younger generation suddenly had authority and power to assert their freedom that their parents couldn’t keep them from. Viet-Am kids, sound familiar?

I went to the exhibit with Japanese nationals, and I couldn’t help but think how different their grandparents’ experience is from Japanese-Americans, especially with movies like Grave of the Fireflies, or the most recent Eien no Zero. One of my friends has lived in America since she was 19, but not so much in Japanese-American communities, so she was interested in life back then for people of Japanese descent. But she also tells me that her family doesn’t often talk about their memories of the war, as it was a not something pleasant to remember. I can understand this as there are some stories that I can’t get out of my own parents about their experience during the Vietnam war.

After the museum visit and lunch, we headed out to Gold Hill, 45 minutes east of Sacramento. Mrs. Tsukamoto had also contacted the American River Conservancy to try to get us a tour, and they hooked us up with a volunteer docent at the last minute (I had been too pre-occupied, and forgotten to set up a tour weeks in advance…). When we drove up to the site, the Matsudaira family crest appeared on a signboard, and it was just “wow”. I was already impressed and amazed by the richness of Aizu-Wakamatsu’s history during my first year in Japan, but this feeling just never stops, even across the Pacific Ocean!

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We were met by Mr. Herb Tanimoto, who gave us a tour of the farmhouse that was originally built by a German family, which was then occupied by the Schnell family and their cohort of about 30 people from Aizu. There used to be Japanese style homes around the farmhouse for all those people, but those are no longer there. A huge keyaki tree that was brought from Aizu stands on the side of the farmhouse.

The colony was successful in its first year, and even made an appearance at the state fair. By the second year, so many things went wrong: there was a drought, and possibly turf wars with the miners and ranchers that their water was dammed, Matsudaira Katamori was no longer a lord and had no money to fund the settlement, and the Schnell family left to supposedly bring back additional help, but they never returned. Eventually, everyone scattered from the colony, except for Okei, a girl who was selected to take care of the Schnell children, and Matsunosuke Sakurai, a samurai who stayed with Okei, possibly as a promise to her family that he would take care of her. The two stayed on as employees for the farm’s new owners, the Veerkamps. Okei-san fell ill and died at 19, and was buried at the hill where she often went and faced west toward Japan. A headstone was eventually made to mark her grave, and a replica of it also sits on Mt. Seaburi in Aizu-Wakamatsu.

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Knowledge of the colony was only revealed in the 1930s, when the Veerkamps discovered that people from Japan were visiting their farm to see the site where the colony once stood. The Veerkamps then reached out to the Japanese-Americans in the area to tell them of their family’s connection with Okei and Matsunosuke. The Veerkamp family finally sold their farm to the American River Conservancy, to which the ARC still owes $800,000, in order to preserve this piece of history.

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On this blustery day, we drove up to the hill where Okei is buried. I left a 1000 yen bank note, so she would have company with another Aizu resident, Hideo Noguchi.