Tuesday, August 21, 2007

In My Shoes

As I've mentioned before, one of my students is attending a U.S. college on a military base. In one of her recent lessons with me, she told me that she feels very isolated from others now despite the fact that she is encountering more new people than ever before. It's not that people aren't friendly with her on the base per se but rather that she finds herself in circumstances she wouldn't have anticipated.

On the one hand, she has Japanese friends who she feels she has less and less in common with. When they communicate with her (usually via e-mail), she doesn't have much to share with them because her experiences as a 44-year-old college student at a U.S. school are so different from theirs as Japanese housewives and mothers. When they invite her to go do things with her, she feels torn between wanting to do things with them and feeling that the fatigue and possible awkwardness in communication now that they've grown apart will not be worth whatever pleasure she gets from the experience.

Her family is also no comfort because her husband constantly criticizes her for failing to live up to his expectations of a Japanese wife. He tells her that she can't do anything right and they frequently quarrel. To me, this is ironic because she has taken 3 classes so far and gotten an "A" in each of them. Her husband once had me correct his English for an abstract for a medical paper he'd written and I daresay he could not cope nearly as well as her with the all-English instruction, essay-writing, and environment. All of this makes her feel as if she's drifting away from the other Japanese people in her life and can no longer relate to them as their values are increasingly different from hers. Unfortunately, she completely embraces her husband's assessment of her and gets depressed and feels like a failure.

When she's on the military base, she feels like a visitor in a foreign land which operates very differently from her expectations. She often complains to me about how the teachers don't answer her question in a timely fashion or how they fail to assist her when she needs help. Her expectation is that the teachers will behave like Japanese teachers, who are often expected to ensure their students pass and to spend their free time dealing with student problems. She also feels a lot of stress because she can't understand the way in which many of the military personnel she takes classes with speak because many of them are from the south and/or African American and she finds their cadences and accents difficult to follow since most of her exposure to English is to slower-speaking teachers (myself included) and those with measured voices that contain little accent on T.V. and in instructional materials.

My student is in a situation which is oddly similar to mine. She has a lot of her social activity centered in a "foreign land" and she feels disconnected from people in her own culture. For me, this is rather expected because I am far from my home but, for her, it's a bit of a hard experience to understand because she still lives in her home country. In fact, in many ways, she is worse off than I despite having the "support" of her family literally at her back-door (her parents live in the other half of a divided house with she and her husband) and her long-time friends a phone call away. Not only do I have an incredibly supportive husband where hers is always tearing her down but I expect my difficulties and actively work to understand and address them because I know they're a part of being in a foreign country.

I've tried to comfort her and boost her confidence but I don't think she understands where I'm coming from when I tell her things like she doesn't have to live according to her husband's expectations and that a lot of people discover their lifestyles and their friends' lifestyles are diverging as time goes by. In the end, I don't think she can break free from thinking that conformity to the expectations of those around her is more important than an objective analysis of her accomplishments (which would be a very positive one) or finding her self-worth within herself alone.


Miko said...

Very interesting that your student seems to be suffering from culture shock in her own land! I often feel such a tug between being expected to behave like a Japanese (you'd be amazed how many people in my life do that) and being expected to behave like a gaijin (ditto). It can be quite psychologically exhausting at times, but at least I have the option of leaving this land if I want to, unlike your student.

I've often thought that I can live in Japan quite happily as a foreign woman, but if I were a Japanese woman, I'd definitely move to NZ.

Roy said...

Just wondering, do your students know that you often use them and their situations as blog topics?

Not saying there is anything wrong with it but once I retold a story a student told me to some other teachers and it got back to the student. It was not a private or embarrassing story in anyway but she was surprised that I had blabbed it.

tornados28 said...

She needs to embrace the new experiences and different cultural situations and take them as a positive. She should have more to talk about with friends and family with all the unique experiences she is having.

I am not sure if it is cultural to Japan but I get the impression that most Japanese are uncomfortable engaging in new "foreign" experience such as this.

Many people in America and Europe I feel would take this situation as exciting and a great learning experience. Maybe somehow it could be explained to her that way.

Shari said...

Miko: Yes, it is odd that she is in this situation while at home. I think that makes it all the harder for her. I agree completely that it's easier to live in Japan as a foreigner than as a Japanese person because the expectations are different though I don't think Japanese people find them to be as great a burden as we would.

Roy: My students don't know I have a blog, let alone that their stories are sometimes included on it to make certain points or raise issues. One of the reasons I go out of my way never to name any sort of names (people, places, companies) is that I want to protect their privacy.

Since their experiences are a part of my experience in Japan, it's as much my right to talk about them while keeping their identity completely unrecognizable as it is their right to speak about me and anything I tell them in lessons to friends and family members (which they most certainly do - they tell me at times, "I told (so and so) about you and ..." ).

One thing I can tell your for sure, if a student is out there blogging about me in Japanese, you can bet my privacy isn't being respected as meticulously (not that I think any of them are doing so as I believe none of them blog).

tornados28: I think what you suggest is definitely the best attitude to have but I believe the problem is that those around her don't value what she's doing and probably wouldn't want to hear about it. Her husband in particular seems to be negative about everything she does.