Monday, January 11, 2016
Yes I Am!
There are two biracial (what the Japanese refer to as ハーフ hafu meaning half- Japanese, Half un-Japanese) kids in one of my first-year classes. One is half-black. The other is half-white. The half-black (to be precise, Nigerian) kid was born in, raised in and has never stepped foot out of Japan. He doesn't speak any language aside from Japanese and knows nothing (as far as I know) but Japan. He's very dark skinned with mousy-features -button nose, tiny eyes, and thin lips, topped off with a curly bushy afro on his head. His father had been deported to Nigeria, I'd heard, and his mother actually got married to a Japanese man, who proceeded to adopt him. I call him Webster. He's so "Japanese" he looks like a Japanese kid performing in blackface. When we first met, he looked at me the same way the other Japanese kids did: like I was the most amazing thing he'd ever seen and we had absolutely nothing in common. It was a reality slap at the time but I've gotten used to it. His fellow classmates don't even mark any similarities between us any more. He's as Japanese as he'll ever be allowed to be. The other biracial kid (I call him Kevin cuz he reminds me of McCauley Culkin in Home Alone) is blond, blue-eyed and there ain't much Asian to him. He looks like an exchange student from Scandinavia. He doesn't quite have those Japanese mannerisms down pat but, somehow, he fits in. Maybe because in addition to being fluent in Japanese he does absolutely nothing to stand out any more than he does naturally. His father, an American, came up to the school one day to observe our class with a bunch of other parents. After the class, as I exited the room, he pulled me aside. "Mr. Loco, I'm Mr. McCallister, Kevin's father." "Nice to meet you." We shook hands. He's a contractor in Japan where he will remain indefinitely. "My son, Kevin, as you know, is American and fluent in English." Actually, I hadn't known that. I've had the opportunity to meet and teach a number of biracial students since I've been in Japan, and one of the first lessons I learned (the hard way) is: don't assume anything about them. Some speak English. some don't. Some want to stand out and shine, others are very reserved. I also try to avoid placing a spotlight on them. I know how challenging it must be to make their way in Japanese society, and the last thing I want to do is complicate matters. So, I had never asked Kevin anything and he never volunteered a thing. The word around the Green Tea cooler was that he was a hafu (even that fact had surprised me) and had lived in America with his family for some time. How long was anyone's guess. "Kevin says great things about you..." "Really?" I said with a little too much surprise. "Well, yeah," he said, grinning, oddly. He almost winked. "He says your classes are usually pretty fun and you don't half-ass the lesson. I could see that for myself just now. You're a good teacher! American, right?" "Yeah," I said, a little uncomfortable with the praise. It felt like he was setting me up for something. My old New York survival instincts, rusting from disuse, picked up a weak signal from the surface. "I thought so..." He scratched his head and looked around at the same time. "Back East, up north, I bet. New York?" "Yeah, Brooklyn..." "I'm from Virginia, DC area, but I got family in Queens." "Ah!" I smiled. So, here's the thing: I was wondering, if you could do me a favor?" he began, leaning in. I almost leaned away. Yeah, he was a hustler. "Sure, what can I do for you?" I asked, hiding my suspicion. "Well, I'm very concerned about Kevin. He can speak Japanese fluently. His mother made sure of that, so that's no problem..." he said, sounding very nervous, indeed. He actually looked around, again, to see who was in earshot. "The problem is his English. I don't want him to lose it. I use English at home as often as I can, but I travel a lot and...well, all of his friends are Japanese. And all of his relatives--here in Japan, anyway-- they're Japanese, too. So I'm the only connection he has to America, and to English." "I see..." "That is, me, and you of course." His eyes revealed a deep misgiving, almost panic. I felt sorry for him. I've imagined myself in a similar predicament. The longer I stay here, the harder it will be to go home, the more likely I'll settle in for the long haul. I'll probably take a bride and build a family and there'll be this language / cultural thing hanging over us. I have friends dealing with it presently and they all relate similar stories of the challenges involved with raising children to be multi-cultural and bilingual in the midst of Japanese society as it stands. Most have succumbed to the pressure and allowed the Japanese to dominate. Some have found, through various means, ways to offset the "damage." Apparently, Mr. McCallister envisioned me as part of his means. "What would you like me to do?" "Nothing, really," he said with a shrug. "Just talk to him. I mean, I know you have to keep a certain professional distance from the students, and all. And God knows I know they keep you busy, but if you have time, just talk to him, about anything, anything at all. He likes sports. He's on the basketball team. You like basketball?" Nice of him to ask. "Yep." "Well, you can talk sports with him. Or anything. " I looked at him in the eyes. He looked right back. I could see hardly disguised anguish. Poor guy. "You know what, forget about it. I'm sorry I came at you like this. We don't even know each other--" Yeah, he was definitely a hustler. But it had been so long since anyone had tried to hustle me that it felt almost nostalgic. "I'll see what I can do, alright. I mean, I won't push the issue, but if he's open to it, I don't see any problem with it." "That's all I'm asking, Mr. Loco," he said with glee, and grabbed my hand and shook it. "I mean, you know how it is here. Hard enough living and working, but raising a family? Raising an English speaker? I'm lucky he still knows his ABCs." I almost laughed. But he was so earnest. "Thank you so much!" "I'll do my best," I said. For the next few weeks, whenever I ran into Kevin, he'd be with anywhere from two to four Japanese friends, frolicking around. The first few times I'd greet them and try to give Kevin an eye...an eye he'd artfully dodge. There was no way to sneak in a question about what were the Warriors chances of getting to the NBA Finals again were. He'd be gone before I could even form the question in my mind. Then, one day, I caught him alone in the hallway. "Hey Kevin, how's it going?" "Eeeeto!" (Japanese for Homina Homina Homina) "Don't 'eeeeto' me. You speak English!" I snapped. He checked if the coast was clear, not unlike the way his father had. Then looked back at me. "I'm fine." "You've been following the games?" I asked, trying to sound conversational. "Your father says you're into basketball." "Yes, I play for the team. I play forward." He didn't sound like he'd lost anything. "Stephen Curry looks great," I said. "Maybe the Dubs will go all the way again this year!" "Nah," he replied, his hands in his pockets. he looked as nervous as a gazelle at a watering hole on an African savanna. "I'm going with San Antonio. Their defense is better and Kawhi Leonard just keeps getting stronger. I think he's gonna be a candidate for MVP this year because--" "Kevin, nani shite iru???" (what are you doing???) came the voice of one of his cronies from the staircase behind us. "Nani mo nai," (nada) he said, flipping to Japanese mode like a chameleon. He bowed appropriately and Jya ne'd (later) me. That was our first and last conversation in the six months since we'd met. Every time we bumped heads after that he was always in the company of his Japanese posse and would 'homina homina homina' me. Then, today... Before a lesson, I like to do a little warm up activity to get the kids thinking in English. Today's was a game known as Criss-Cross. I have all the students stand and I ask them questions using grammar points we've recently studied. If a student knows the answer they should raise their hand. the first one to do so I call on. If they answer the question correctly using the grammar properly they are then given the option of saying: left, right, front or back. Which ever direction they choose, the students seated in the row or column in that direction can join the student in being seated. Last student standing is the loser. I usually start off with really easy questions to draw them in, like "What time is it?" or "What's today's date?" If those prove to be too hard, I might even ask "what's your name?" For these games and just about every other activity, Kevin will usually opt out or find some way to make a dumb mistake beneath his English ability so as to make an early exit from competition. I'd usually let it go, as would the Japanese teacher. Me, because I now knew he was fluent and it would be like asking a teenager to sing the ABC song everyday. The Japanese teacher because she tends to follow my lead when it comes to Kevin and English. But, to my surprise, Kevin was standing right along with all of his classmates today. I figured maybe he'd gotten some flack about his lack of participation in games. By the time I'd gone through a few questions most of the class was seated. I was reviewing the verbs to do, to have and to be. Kevin was still standing, though. Webster, off on the side near the back, chatting freely with his full-blooded buddies with his back to me, started getting a little loud and raunchy. With some of the unruly kids I like to put them on the spot to shut them up. But, I've never had occasion to single Webster out, and I'd hoped I never would for his sake. He'd only recently started trying to make a name for himself. "Webster-kun," I shouted, deciding fuck it, if he wants to act out in my class, knowing the penalty I often dish out for doing so, then he must not be concerned at all about being singled out. "Why don't you ask the questions?" I'd said this in Japanese. He was still talking and laughing (hopefully not ignoring me but probably was) so students sitting near him had to get his attention for me and tell him what I'd said. He spun around. "EEEE! ORE?? " (Wha! ME?) "Yeah, you!" The class laughed. He looked around, soaking up the jeers. Then, he threw back his shoulders and communicated something with his eyes to his cronies. They laughed. Webster's body language conveyed to me and the room the message, "I'll show you! You don't scare me!" "Do you like ice cream?" he asked the room. A girl's hand shot up first. I called on her. "Yes, I am!" She shouted. Those who knew the correct answer laughed. Webster's boys fell on the floor howling. I smiled at the girl. "Yes I am? I said, emphasizing the word that needed correcting. "Ah sokka!" (Ah, I got it!) she exclaimed. "Yes I DO!" "Excellent!" Webster shouted, mimicking me perfectly! Everyone laughed. Even the Japanese Teacher. The girl, and those seated behind her, gleefully sat down. Webster, charged with confidence now, launched another. "Are you Japanese?" he asked, using one of my go to questions for testing the verb to be. This time, however, he exaggerated my intonation with his impersonation. It sounded like, Ahhh you JAPaNeseeeSu?
Everyone got a kick outta that, too...even me. A regular class clown he was. Then the laughter stopped just as suddenly as it had begun. I was looking at Webster, giving him a faux-scolding glare, but when the laughter had abruptly ceased I scanned the room for the reason. It was Kevin, his hand held high! He'd never raised his hand for criss-cross, and everyone noticed. He was looking at me intently. More intently than he ever had. I couldn't understand why. It was a weird moment. I called on him, prepared to hear an emphatic "no" from this blond-haired, blue-eyed American. I mean, if I'd asked a Chinese student were they Japanese, they'd shout the Chinese equivalent of 'OH, HELL NAH!' before I could even finish the question. "YES I AM!" he said, pumped with aplomb, a sly grin on his lips. The class gasped in sync. Apparently I wasn't alone in my presumption. I almost wasn't sure I'd even heard him right. But, his eyes, challenging mine, seemed to proclaim, yeah, you heard me right, Mr. loco. I might look different, and you and my Pops might have other plans for me but, for better or for worse, these are my people. I've made up my mind: I'm Japanese! I smiled, and nodded. And I felt proud of him, too. But, Mr. McCallister wasn't gonna like this one bit. Poor guy.
For more tales of biracial kids facing the challenges of life in Japan, as well as other stories on the rewards and peculiarities of life in Japan for non-Japanese, check out my bestselling book: Loco in Yokohama
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