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July 28, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Stranger in a strange land

Early days in Japan, circa 1978

May 23, 1996

I was driving along in the middle of summer some years ago when I was spotted by a little boy while stopped at a red light. Quickly, he ran and got a smaller friend. Looking at me, the little one asked the bigger one, perhaps a third-grader, “What’s that?”

“I don’t know. Probably not Chinese, but …”

I wanted to teach them the proper way to refer to a human being and give them a fast lesson in anthropology and geography, but tired and hot, I could only give them a vacant look, and then the light changed.

“You don’t really expect the average person here to have an international outlook when they are not taught to in school,” a friend said when I related the incident.

Well, I didn’t expect them to be representatives of the United Nations, but I figured if every kid in Japan knows what Jackie Chan looks like and where he comes from, they must know I don’t look like I come from the same place.

And I assumed that learning about other cultures was taught as part of the regular curriculum, but not being sure, I asked my friend, “Don’t they learn about other countries in school?”

She’s British and her three grown children had gone through the Japanese public school system — I thought she would know, and she did.

“Of course,” she answered, “but not until they are much older.”

A teacher herself, she gave me the details: “In the first grade they learn about home. In the second grade about the city or town they live in. In the third grade they learn about their prefecture, in the fourth grade about Japan, the fifth Asia …”

“Don’t go on!” I said, because it was clear that at that rate, by the time they got to Africa and the people of the African Diaspora they would no longer be in school.

Anyway, this was all a number of years ago — 12 years to be exact. Although change is glacial here, there has been some improvement, and schools now are doing a better job of educating children about other countries and cultures.

When I was growing up, our English readers showed all children as white. Dick and Jane. Here, in my children’s early English textbooks, those two became Tim and Mary. In their English textbooks now, there is a Bob and Susan, but there are also other English-speaking foreign children who have names like Mei-ling (a girl from China) and Mukami (she’s from Kenya). This is certainly more realistic.

The inside cover of the book teaches them to say “Hello” and “Thank you” in Hindi, Thai and five other Asian languages. Turn the page and there’s a picture of a group of Maori children, a mother and child from Cameroon, a Mongolian family and two girls from Western Samoa. The opposite page shows houses and landscapes in Scotland, Canada, Greece, Indonesia, Yemen and the Yorkshire Dales. It’s just a daub, but even this little bit helps children develop a worldview.

Last year when my son Mario returned from spending the summer in the United States, he said Americans kids didn’t know anything about Japan and that it was “unfair”.

“We have to learn about the United States, but American kids don’t have to learn anything about Japan.” He amused me with stories of American kids confusing Japan with China and Korea, and said they asked him to do a “karate chop” and wanted to know if he knew any “samurai or ninjas.”

I doubt if Japan has reached the higher ground when it comes to international education, but no one mistakes me for Chinese (or any inanimate object) anymore. Still, it doesn’t seem all that long ago that just the sight of me caused people to stop breathing.

The other day after I stopped at a grocery store in an unfamiliar neighborhood, I burst out laughing when I returned to my car. Mario and Lila, who had waited for me, wanted to know “What’s so funny?”

“All those people pretending not to notice me.” At least now they know how to behave, I thought, and said, “Boy, things have really changed.”

“Did it used to be so different when you first came?”

Yeah. It sure was.

But I’ve noticed that here in the countryside, the people are fairly consistent. For example, there are quite a few roadside stalls selling vegetables. They’re run cooperatively and farmers alternate taking the morning off to operate the stands. Sometimes when I stop to buy vegetables I recognize the farmer selling, sometimes not.

In any case, we usually chat a minute about the food or the weather. But none of these old farmers ever ask me if I know how to prepare gobo (burdock). They seem to assume that if I buy mitsuba (trefoil) I’ll know what to do with it.

If I think back to how it was 21 years ago, I can say the behavior of these old farmers has remained the same. They’re always polite.


© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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