I think the most influential place I lived was probably Japan. It shaped me most in terms of my teaching.
I absolutely loved Japan—I loved the aesthetic, the culture, the food. It’s a very different experience, obviously, from living here. It’s a 24-hour lifestyle with a whole lot of respect for spirituality and relaxation and nature. I spent a lot of time at temples, sitting, and looking at rocks, which was one of the more enriching experiences of living there.
It's a very old culture with traditions that are formed over time. So, for example there’s a certain way to serve the tea, to whisk the matcha. And if you aren’t Japanese or you haven’t studied it for years and years, you’re going to screw up! And so when you’re living there, you have to develop a tolerance for making mistakes. But my experience was that it’s really intention that matters. You have to make it clear to whoever you’re around—not just in Japan, but also I think in life—what your intention is. It’s not your intention to screw up, or to be offensive or disrespectful, but it’s bound to happen.
Living in Japan, I felt conscious of my difference. I was always the only white person on the train. I’m really grateful for that experience because I understand what it might be like, for example, to be the only black person on the train. Or the only Indigenous person in the room. While I do think that Japanese culture is insular, for me it was more positive than negative. Japanese people are very tolerant of how “Gaijin” or foreigners make mistakes. They’re just so happy that you’re there.
Teaching was the means to get me to Japan—it paid for my time there. I taught at a school for early school leavers and it was an absolutely amazing experience.
Japan is a very conformist culture—to be different, to drop out of high school, is not really accepted. And those are the students that I had the privilege of teaching. You know? Lovely people who were a little bit different.
It was wonderful. I had studied some Japanese language and literature and culture during my undergraduate degree. At this school for early school leavers, they talked to me like I was a whole person, and not just an English resource.
At this school it was all about supporting these students in being successful in their own lives. And I just loved that. The students read a lot of Japanese literature. I had access to the lists of Japanese books the students were required to read. I read them in English, and we would talk about them in class. I learned so much from these kids. These were young people who had really internalized a negative self-image. They had taken this on: they are a disappointment.
I taught them English, but I also got to learn about Japanese literature. The school would ask me to do something different with them. I taught them things like disco dancing; we did karaoke. We did haiku in English. We carved pumpkins on Halloween, we had concerts.
I got to experience a part of Japanese culture that even a lot of Japanese people don’t experience because I worked with people who are not in the mainstream. It made me think about what I want to get out of teaching, as much as what I can give to students. You could really see their growth.
There was a poster at the school with a saying on it in Japanese: “Watashi no wagamama o yurushitekudasai” which translated means “please forgive my selfishness.” I didn’t understand that. My translation was very literal. And they said, this is very selfish what we’ve done: we’ve dropped out of school and disappointed our parents. These students were just regular people, they just couldn’t do high school the regular way—they couldn’t conform.
And I would say to them, I’m not sure why what you’ve done is selfish. And we would talk about that. In a western context, I’d tell them, what you have done fits with our values of self expression and being your own person. We get all that. Whereas in a culture like the Japanese it’s not necessarily as valued. So I said, this is a very culturally-specific thing. From my perspective, you’re doing fine. They studied hard, participated in all the events, were kind and compassionate. On my end, you’re awesome. You get that, right?
I’ve always been one for the underdog. Having that experience informed what I wanted teaching to be for me. It should be a more holistic experience not just for the students but also for the teachers. We teach so that we can learn. I’m always asking my students things.
(Interviewed and written by Jennifer Chambers; photo provided by the interviewee)