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What am I? Who am I? – Part 3 of 3

>> Part 2

However, life started to change when my children were approaching their teens. I was confronted with aspects of their education and the school system that frightened me and forced me to see the danger of blindly following the crowd and not questioning what I didn’t understand. The older my children became, the more I questioned what I was seeing in and outside the classroom, but I was always at a loss as to what to do. A teacher would comment that my younger son should learn to follow the group or he’d have problems in junior high school. My older son would obediently attend daily after-school junior high club activities, not because he enjoyed playing baseball every day, six days a week, but he feared being reprimanded by the teacher or older club members if he missed a practice. I was uncomfortable with the words ‘follow the group’ and ‘do it for fear something would happen’. No one else seemed to want to challenge the system, and I often found that people thought it was safer to be quiet rather than cause trouble and be labeled a troublemaker. I saw what was happening to my sons, and I could only sympathize with them and promise, to myself, that I would be there if or when they needed me.

Two unforgettable incidents that took place during this time angered me, and finally woke me up to what was happening to my life and the lives of my children. When my younger son was in the sixth grade, in 1993, he had planned to go camping at a nearby river with three other friends for just one night. My husband and I had already told my son that he could go camping and together we checked the nearby campsite and found that it was safe and a reasonable distance from our house. He and I were prepared to go to the campsite during the night to check up on them. My son was excited about this little adventure, and as parents, we thought this was a great opportunity for him to be outdoors with his friends and be independent. On the afternoon of the camp, his school teacher called and asked if we knew about this little camping adventure, and if we were going to allow it to take place. She continued to complain about the camp trip stating that she could not be responsible if anything happened to our son. It was made clear that she was adamantly opposed to the idea. I was aware that teachers in Japan felt a deep sense of responsibility towards their students, so I politely apologized for inconveniencing her and calmly said that we approved of his going camping and that we would be responsible for his actions. I suppressed my anger, but after putting down the receiver, I was fuming. What right does she have to keep our son from going camping even when he had our permission? I couldn’t understand why a teacher should be able to have such tight control over her students’ after-school activities. I considered her to be interfering with my job as a parent. This represents only one of countless incidents where I questioned the teacher’s methods and the Japanese education system, for it neglected to consider the parents in the raising of their own children. I felt a very strong cultural clash between education as I had known it from growing up in the U.S., and the kind of Japanese education my sons were receiving.

At around the same time, an incident with my older son, who was always more sensitive to my ‘foreignness,’ occurred when he was in the third year of junior high school, which is a crucial time for many Japanese students as well as parents. The examinations that they take during the end of their third year determines which high school they will be allowed to attend, and it is well known that entering a high ranking high school will help the student enter a prestigious university. A person’s education ultimately determines how far up the ladder of success he/she can go in Japan. The student’s path to so-called ‘success’ is a long and narrow one and there’s no room to take a break, to explore or to reflect on one’s life. Mistakes are not allowed. It’s this constant pressure to succeed academically that wipes away a child’s opportunity to grow and be creative. Knowing that a single examination can determine a child’s future is daunting.

Pressure to perform well on these tests is enormous, and it was at one of the once-a-semester teacher and parents’ meetings that I was embroiled in another cultural clash. When the mothers were assembled into the room, the homeroom teacher asked us how our children were doing and if they were studying hard for the upcoming test. The teacher went around the room and called on each parent to talk about her child. As I listened to each parent speak, I was astonished at some of the replies. “My son isn’t studying at all, teacher. What should I do?” or “My daughter just watches TV and always says she’s going to her room to study, but she never does.” I sympathized with these mothers. ‘How unfortunate! It must be really rough at their house!’ When it was my turn, I told the truth, but I tried to choose my words carefully so as not to make the other mothers feel bad or hurt anyone’s feelings. In my halting Japanese I said, “I think my son is doing okay. I don’t tell him to study, but I think he’s doing okay.” It was an innocent comment but basically the truth. My son was studying, and it wasn’t necessary for me to remind him about the importance of the test. He had been like that ever since he was a child. I never pushed him to study because he never needed to be told.

The meeting was finally over, and I felt confident that I didn’t say anything silly or unintelligible as often happens when I’m asked to speak in front of people I don’t know well. I didn’t find out until the next day that what I had said may not have been grammatically incorrect, but what was implied was even more horrendous. It seems that I had spoken as if I were praising my son. By saying that I didn’t have to tell my son to study was the same as saying he is studying very hard! It was another one of those ‘trick’ questions. My son came home from school and was furious at me for telling the truth. It seemed some of the mothers had gone home and told their children that my son was studying very hard and that they had better do the same. The students actually teased him for studying although according to my son everyone was studying just as hard as he was. My son said I should have kept my mouth shut. How could I have known?

By then I had been in Japan for 19 years, but no one had ever told me that I had to lie and degrade my own child in order to keep the harmony. I wasn’t upset because I had committed another cultural ‘faux pas’. I was sad because I didn’t understand why I had been breaking my back trying to be accepted in a culture that I felt was encouraging me to go against my own children. I couldn’t understand why I had to demean myself and my family in order to follow some unspoken rule of undervaluing yourself or your family. A class meeting where the truth could not be spoken was a disservice to our children, and it crushed me and left me emotionally and mentally drained.

After all these years of living in Japan, it would seem that I should have been able to adjust to and assimilate into this culture, and to understand the ‘way it is done’ in Japan. For a long time I thought it was possible. But seeing what my children had to go through and knowing that it didn’t always make sense, was the incentive I needed to stop trying. The ‘American Susie’ that seemed to have been in remission for so many years emerged to give me the needed strength, courage and patience to fight. The person from the past that I thought I had to erase came back at a time when I truly needed her. This is the part of me (the part of me that was still very much American) that believed in such values as: we can learn from our mistakes and that we can always have another chance, that it’s all right to take a chance, because if we don’t, we may miss out on some wonderful and exciting opportunities. Most importantly, our future is not based on one single decision. The Japanese side of me was overflowing with negatives: one decision will determine your future, follow the crowd lest you be looked down upon, and accept the status quo. Without knowing it, the beliefs and values that I had been trying to suppress for so many years actually came back to save me. I had been forcing myself to become a different person, to adopt values and beliefs that were oftentimes contrary to my own but thought I needed to accept in order to ‘fit in’. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. I was simply trying to belong. However, I also understood that it was wrong of me to be angry and disturbed with my adopted country and overlook all the wonderful aspects of Japan.

The time of enlightenment was approaching. If I were to survive in Japan, I had to go back to my past, to a life I had known as a young adult, but had kept hidden for so long. Having been born, raised and educated in the U.S., unlike the Japanese, I had experienced a totally different way of living and thinking. Rather than consider my cultural background as something to shy away from, I should look at my cultural background as an asset. I found that past feelings of wanting to be ‘Japanese’ and wanting to be accepted were replaced by feelings of wanting to be true to who I really was. The ‘old me’ from years past was ready to come out of hiding and connect with the ‘present me’ to bring forth a better sense of order, a new perspective to my life. The American side of me was reborn!

It has been quite a long journey, but I now have a better understanding of who I am, and what I am, and that’s a very empowering feeling. I have a new respect for myself as a Japanese-American, as an American, and as a woman who has lived more than half of her life in Japan, and I feel I do have the freedom to choose and not be limited by what society prescribes as the socially or culturally right thing to do. This newfound multicultural identity has enabled me to look at the world through three pairs of eyes and understand each situation from three different viewpoints. One set of eyes is that of a Japanese-American, another as a Japanese and the third as an American. I don’t claim to be a true representative of any of these three groups. Having lived in two countries and being a visible minority in one and an invisible minority in another has had its challenges, I can finally say I feel truly fortunate and extremely proud to be a part of these three totally different worlds. Rather than trying to be someone I can’t be, I can be proud and happy to be someone that not everyone can be. Recognizing my multicultural identity and embracing it did not come overnight. It was a long, emotional path but one well worth taking.

(END)

© 2009 Susan S. Sakayori

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