Manxian Zhang: Zenryuji Nursery School

Back in the United States, I mentored a Chinese toddler who was adopted into an American family at the age of one. While I introduced aspects of his forgotten culture to him, he showed me what it is like growing up in an ethnically different family in a foreign country. I found that mutual exchange of knowledge extremely gratifying so I decided to continue that sort of interaction with children while I am here in Kyoto. I figured that volunteering in a nursery school would be the best choice since I would be able to teach the children some English and perhaps some American children games while their behaviors as well as the teacher’s actions would allow me to observe the values and expectations instilled in four to five year- old children.

That sort of interaction was not so easily achieved. My duties initially comprised of patting the children to sleep and disinfecting their toys. Not a single word was exchanged during my first couple of visits. So I decided to come an hour earlier and eat lunch together with the children. Changing my hours was the right decision. During lunchtime, I would pick a table to sit and talk to four or five kids as we eat. Japanese suddenly become ten times more difficult when talking to the children in the nursery school. Not only did they have strong Kansai dialects, but also they would talk about their classmates and address themselves in the third person, which sometimes confused me, as I would lose track of the subject of the conversation. I also noticed that children could play with anything you give them. During playtime, the teachers usually provide a few selections of toys for them, but that did not deter them from having a great time with clothespins and cups, not your conventional toys.

Also, I was pleasantly surprised by the extent the teachers allowed me to help out. I poured tea for the kids, brought out some of their meals, put the tables away, wiped the chairs and helped perform some other miscellaneous tasks. Initially, I was allowed to play with the children after lunch, but the duties I have to perform increased incrementally to the point where before mealtime I helped prepare lunch and afterwards, after cleaning up, I was usually sent downstairs to pat the younger children to sleep.  So the time of actual interaction with children was limited to just lunchtime and even the time set aside for lunch was not set because it seemed like every time I go there, lunch ended at a different time.

I did not succeed in getting the amount of interaction I wanted with the children (I never got to teach them children games or fun methods to learn English) and with the teachers (they were all very busy throughout the time I was there, as their duties range from a caretaker to a janitor). Despite the short amount of interaction, the teachers did not make me feel as an outsider as they would have me help out as much as possible. In addition, I was able to observe the values and expectations promoted in early Japanese education and I witnessed the dynamics of the children’s interaction among themselves and with the teachers. Although my CIP experience was not everything that I had expected, I learned so much from it and gain so many unforgettable memories. So my best advice to future students who are looking for CIP activities, don’t come into it with a list of expectations, you probably won’t fulfill all of it. Instead, enter your CIP with an open- mind and be prepared for failures and unexpected achievements.

4 thoughts on “Manxian Zhang: Zenryuji Nursery School

  1. Did the school bring you on board as an English teaching assistant? Because if they did I think it’s funny that they would have you pat children to sleep. I do remember someone else having a similar experience last semester (Trisha?). It’s really good you were able to converse with the children and it seems like you were able to get fairly close to the teachers and observe quite a bit.

    • Thank you for the comment! Since it was nursery school, I was not there to teach them English. On the last day, however, I had the chance to do what I wanted to do since day one. I had the chance to read an English picture book to the kids! Even though they didn’t understand the story, they were able to hear a bit of English and were exposed to a story in a language other than Japanese. Many of them were so eager to learn English, though. One after another were asking me to translate words for them, for e.g: What’s shinkansen in English? What’s suika? What’s mimi?
      I wish I had more chances to read books to them.

  2. Patting kids to sleep and playing with them at lunch sounds sooo tempting! Like you said it is difficult to understand what they say because kids talk in a different way, but I guess as a foreigner it’s also refreshing to be spoken to so casually. How did the kids treat you? Were you included in their activities?

    I agree with you! It’s better to approach anything new—not just the CIP—with realistic expectations (I certainly did).

    • Thank you for the comment! The kid’s were so incredibly cute, but by patting them to sleep, I also get extremely drowsy. Oh, the kids were great in including me into their activities. When I do get the chance to play with them during recess, they were really welcoming and ready to pull me into their games/ activities. This one time, I spent the entire 15 minutes playing jankenpon with this little 4 year old boy.
      And you’re right, since children don’t use masu/ desu form with me, it was very refreshing to be spoken to in such a casual manner.