I knew I wanted to write a rather serious blog post about some of the cultural differences I have experienced but I wasnt sure which story I should pen down. However, I think I found the inspiration I have been waiting for in one of my previous students. For privacy reasons her name in this article will be “C-san.” Before reading this story please know that I am merely reflecting upon my interaction with her and not passing judgment on any person involved. I’m merely observing and documenting my thoughts and opinions. My hope is that through reading this article you will be inspired to reflect on some of the more challenging cultural differences you’ve faced through a new perspective.
C-san was a san-nensei student at my school during my first year on JET. Her dream was to become an English teacher and she worked very hard at studying English. Because she wanted to study English in college, she had to take an extra interview and written English exam to get into the English department for her university. She came to me in October before her graduation and told me about her goals after spring. She told me she was worried because her pronunciation and communication skills were not up to par and, honestly, she was right to worry. In comparison to her knowledge of vocabulary and her reading comprehension level, her listening and speaking was very far behind. I agreed to work with her on her conversation and pronunciation skills in my spare time.
She started having lunch and talking with me after school 3 days a week. We would talk about everything from her friends and family to whether we thought Severus Snape was a good or bad character. We also read books aloud together to practice pronunciation. She would listen and repeat after me. She would practice at home and come back the next week improved. After the san-nensei students stopped having classes I began to see her more often. Her interview test was days away and while she had improved, I knew her competition would be tough.
Throughout the months that she had been preparing for her entrance exams I began to notice the JTEs at my school wanting little to do with her. They even refused to meet with her and tried to convince her to study something else in university. I couldn’t understand why they would try to discourage a student who so earnestly wanted to study English. When I asked my JTEs they said that she wasn’t talented enough and that she would never meet her goals. No matter how hard she worked she would be unsuccessful. They told me Japanese people think it is unkind to encourage a student down a path that would ultimately end in failure. Even though students may want something very badly, they don’t understand the big picture that you can’t always do or have what you want. Japanese people, they said, believe in being satisfied with your skills and talents and that a good job that you are successful at is better than a tumultuous exciting one that you don’t do well. Your job doesn’t have to be your passion in japan. Your job is just that a job. They said they were happy that she wanted to improve her English and was passionate about speaking out, but for her, it would be better to have english speaking as a hobby and not a career.
I had never noticed before this conversation, but it is true that Japan is filled with people who are extremely passionate about their hobbies. Most of my Japanese friends are very interested and invested in one or two hobbies. I think this starts in school with club activities, but it doesn’t end there. I feel like every teacher at my school has one thing they do outside of their family and work which their free time revolves around. I have teachers at my school who are into gardening, swimming, playing a musical instrument, and even martial arts. My JTEs were suggesting she get a career more suitable to her and have speaking English as a lifelong hobby.
When my JTEs explained their position to me I understood their perspective, but I couldn’t agree. I always had my parents telling me, “You can do or be anything that you want. Set your mind to something and work hard.” I was always told to do what I was passionate about. When I looked at C-san I saw a girl who was passionate about English. I saw a girl no one believed in. I made it my personal mission to help her achieve her dreams of becoming an English teacher. I worked hard with her and hoped she would prove all my JTEs wrong.
The day before her first interview test I felt dread as I said goodbye to her and wished her luck. Out of all the students interviewing to study English in university, she was the student who had worked harder and longer by far and she still had the slimmest chance of passing. Then what I had feared happened. She failed her first two interview tests. She came to me week after week to tell me she had failed. I was disheartened and saddened. She looked defeated. She told me that she had one more chance to interview for the English department. I think inwardly we had both given hope that she could do it. But I smiled and told her how proud I was that she had improved so much and to fight hard for her last exam
She came the following week to my desk with a giant grin on her face. She had been accepted and she thanked me profusely. I was ecstatic. We had proved my JTEs wrong. We had actual proof that I was right and that hard work could overcome talent and achieving dreams was possible.
After she left the room my JTE turned to me and said that she felt sorry for her, I was surprised because I thought she would say something a little more joyful or congratulatory. When I asked her why she felt sorry, my JTE said she would most likely fail all of her classes next year and have to change degrees wasting money and time.
In the end, my JTEs were right about her. When I saw her 2 terms later she had struggled and failed in her university classes and she did switch careers. She still studies English but now she is on track to be a translator for novels and films. A career path that doesn’t require you to be a good speaker. I feel sad finally admitting defeat because I know that no student could have worked harder than she had to become a better English speaker.
Now as I look back on this experience I think maybe my JTEs were right all along. Maybe it’s kinder to let dreams be just that, dreams. Who was kinder to C-san in this story, My JTEs or myself? Was it good for me to encourage her to try and fail or should adults shield students from impossible aspirations and teach them to be satisfied with their place in life? My JTEs believe in being more practical and appreciating the skills and talents you do have and learning to be satisfied with that. On the other hand, I know that her ability did grow from the experience even though it ultimately ended in disappointment. So the questions still stands, should we be encouraging the people in our lives to pursue their passions no matter how grandiose or unlikely? Is this really healthy or beneficial for our lives?
Before my experience with C-San my answer would have been certain; that we should raise our children to believe they can be anything or do anything they want. I am still grateful to have been raised to pursue my dreams and I will probably encourage my kids to do the same. But now I see this cultural difference as a grey area, there is no definite right or wrong. There are positives and negatives to both sides of the argument. I feel happy I was able to work so closely with a student and share this story with her. Whether my encouragement was kindness or not, I’m still uncertain. However, I know that I have grown and learned a lot from this experience and I hope she has too.