Off to Japan
Posted June 11, 2007 12:51 pm (about 4613 days ago)6/10/07
So, I’m off for another adventure. I’m heading to Japan, a country that I’ve never visited, beyond brief layovers. Still, Japan has had a huge influence in my life, which I’ll explore throughout this trip. I’m going as part of the Japanese Fulbright Memorial Fund, which is sponsored by the Japanese government. Essentially, teachers from the United States spend nearly three weeks in Japan, learning about the educational system and culture by visiting various schools, government agencies, and cultural sites. I actually had to miss the last seven days of school, but I think that it will be worth it. Beyond the personal growth, I think that the experience will greatly benefit my students and the school.
Our first orientation actually took place just south of San Francisco and I have to say that we’re off to a good start. In terms of the basic facts, about 200 of us are going, representing all 50 states. Roughly 90% have never been to Japan before, and although there are a wide range of ages represented, it’s not a terribly diverse group in terms of race or ethnicity. My guess is 10-15% of us are people of color, which may or may not reflect larger trends in the field but maybe my number is skewed. I’ll have to investigate. My own sub group of 20 teachers is comprised of two African-American females, one Asian-American female, and one Latina, so I lucked out in terms of representation. I only remember seeing two other males with Spanish surnames and one ended up being my roommate for the night. We had a great discussion before dinner and while we didn’t sit around talking about race and culture, it was nice to hear him talk about loteria and such. Sometimes it’s nice to have that familiarity.
During our orientation, the head of the program’s Alumni group, who is African American, spoke and one of the panelists was Latina. A story was shared by a former African-American participant, urging other participants of color to remember that some innocent curiosity wasn’t necessarily malicious objectification. He shared a story about a young boy who was obviously curious about his hair, but too shy to ask about it. Finally, this gentleman brought the issue up and let the boy touch his hair and they gave each other a “mutual scalp massage.” Japan isn’t overflowing with African Americans so this boy’s curiosity made sense.
I wondered if I was thinking about race too much (gender wasn’t as much of an issue as it seemed to be about even, yet since most teachers are women, I guess that IS an issue). Yet, it does matter. How often do we see people of color participating in programs such as these? I certainly don’t. Even though I’m fortunate to have traveled a bit, and tend to be around others who do as well, I still view us as exceptions. I just don’t see us in mass number or come across a whole of info about our experiences abroad! I know we’re out there, but it just doesn’t seem to be well documented. Don’t get me wrong. We don’t have to sit around talking about race and culture all day, but it’s nice to be around people who have similar perspective and experiences. Also, as I observed people interacting, it was clear that African Americans were gravitating towards one another, and other folks were doing it to an extent. I spoke with some friends about the program and inevitably the question came up about diversity so it’s not like I’m the only one thinking about these things. And to be clear, I’m differentiating between Asians and Asian Americans. Obviously there are many Japanese folks involved!
Having said that, people of color aren’t solely defined by our ethnicity. While it’s a key factor in our experiences, we’re obviously more complex. The aforementioned African Americans interacted with other participants and most of my conversations were with white folks. I’ve already met some very interesting people, including one from metro Detroit. I think she’s the only one from out that way and she ended up being in my subgroup for the entirety of the trip! We were able to connect on many levels since I spent so much time there. Beyond that, she already gave me some great teaching strategies. We’ll be talking more.
Our orientation also revolved around cultural differences, including Japan’s more conservative culture. I actually showed up with a tie and ended up being one of the few for the day. Another thing that was stressed was to not chew gum during formal gatherings as it is viewed as rude. Gum chewing has become a pet peeve of mine so I definitely appreciated that. I’ll definitely be sharing this item with my students so they know that they’re not being picked on! Beyond that, we were told about bathroom etiquette, and how to hand out business cards. There’s definitely a lot to take in and I’ll be sharing as the trip progresses.