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February 15, 2013 / Karen Hill Anton

Would the two Americans please stand up?

At home in Tenryu, circa 1993

At home in Tenryu, circa 1993

(March 25, 1993)    

Ever since our eldest daughter Nanao started elementary school here in 1975, our children have always had the distinction of being the only foreign children in their schools. This has caused no unusual problems or dilemmas, and they’ve been able to attend school without incident or fanfare.

Occasionally though, school administrators get it into their heads to show off their Americans, like the time recently when my son Mario, 12, was asked to introduce an American teacher from the JET program at an annual school event. Mario, who had to memorize a little speech in English welcoming the young teacher to their school, said afterward, “It’s so silly. Steve speaks Japanese fine.”

A few weeks ago, my youngest daughter Lila, 10, came home from school and said, “Oh, I was so embarrassed.”

Lila? Embarrassed? Can this be the same Lila whose second-grade teacher still talks about the time Lila volunteered to speak in front of the whole school during “Countries of the World Week” – and then sang a song, impromptu – in Indonesian? (She’d learn the song in kindergarten.)

“Embarrassed? What happened?”

“Well today was the Shizuoka-ken Shogakko Kangakki Kokan Ensokai right?”

“Ah yes.” After mental translation-time lapse, I remembered – all the brass bands of the elementary schools in the area met at a nearby hall to display their talents. Lila’s chosen instrument is the trombone.

“Well, after the music was over someone asked our bandleader if there were any foreigners in our school, and she said yes. Of course they meant us and then they asked us to come up to the front. Mario stood up first, and when he passed my seat he said, “’Lila. Come on.’”

“They asked my name and I told them. But oh, it was just so embarrassing.”

“Well, you’re the only American kids around. I guess they want to show off. Did they ask you anything else?”

“Oh yeah. They asked my shusshin (one’s native place, hometown, birthplace).”

“And what did you say?”

“That I was from New York,”

“What?!”

“I said I was from New York,”

“Lila. How can you be from New York, when you’ve never even been to New York.”

“I was there.”

Okay. Right. Once. Two summers ago. For two weeks.

“But Lila, you’re not from New York.”

“But what can I tell them? They wanted to introduce an American. It wouldn’t sound right if I said I was from Tenryu.”

“Next time you say something like this: I’m American. My parents are from New York. I was born in Hamamatsu, and I live in Tenryu.”

“But that’s too long and complicated and confusing.”

“Well, sometimes the story is not so short and simple – people will just have to adjust their minds.”

Not a week later, Mario came home and told me he’d met an American man from Buffalo on the train. The man talked with Mario, who is a fifth-grade student, and told him he was studying kanji and that he too was at the fifth-grade level.

“He said he was surprised to see an American boy around here and asked me where I was from. I told him New York.”

“Why didn’t you just tell him you’re from Tenryu?”

“Because he expected me to be from America.”

“But Mario, what if the man had asked you where in New York you’re from, what were you going to tell him?”

“Manhattan.”

“Oh yeah. Where in Manhattan?”

“Downtown. No. Uptown. Where are you and Papa from again?”

“I’m from uptown and Papa’s from downtown.”

“Umm.”

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© 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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