I wasn’t sure what to expect when I finalized my plan to volunteer at Ohara Gakuen. I was worried that with my limited Japanese, especially in using keigo, I may not be excepted. Nervous and confused, I went to meet with the English teachers and principal. I left Ohara that day feeling that I would be not only accepted, but also appreciated.
The first unexpected thing that I noticed was that all of the staff treated me as an adult. Being nineteen, I’m just barely considered independent in America, and certainly not in Japan. However, as I was held to a high standard of responsibility, and I found myself naturally rising in an attempt to meet expectations.
Though they were clearly pleased with the fact that I was there, they were rightfully worried about presenting me correctly to the students. Having many food allergies, I couldn’t always eat all the food that the kids ate, and I was surprised by how important it was to explain to the children that the only reason I wasn’t eating was because I could get hurt – not because I didn’t like the food. I was a bit surprised, because I didn’t think that the kids would have a difficult time understanding this, but, to the teachers, it seemed to be something important to overcome.
Another hardship for me personally, was switching between English and Japanese so frequently. I’ve had trouble with this in America as well, when talking with a Japanese friend and an American friend at the same time. I was asked to just use English with the students, and I did whenever I could, but there were many times when I had to use Japanese to explain something more complicated, and when I spoke to the teachers. Especially with the younger kids, it ended up being more of me asking about their English in Japanese.
The younger children speak in such small voices that it didn’t matter if I would understand their Japanese, because I couldn’t hear them at all. I didn’t want them to shy away from me when communication problems arose, so I attempted to answer them even when I didn’t hear what they said. This is tough to do in your mother tongue. Together with my lack of Japanese fluency, and having no context for the conversation I was having, the kids would often stare at me blankly, obviously having not understood a word I just said. Even so, when I did say a sentence or two, they were wildly surprised and delighted. One boy asked me a question, and I explained to him as best I could. When I was through, he stared at me with his mouth open. I started trying to rephrase what I said, because obviously my Japanese wasn’t up to par, but after a moment of silence he exclaimed, “Wow! She can speak Japanese!” He seemed to have no interest at all in the answer to the question. I wonder, if he was so surprised, did he expect to just not understand my answer, and go along his marry way after he’d asked the question? Either way, I appreciated his enthusiasm and his cuteness was astounding.
But just in case matters weren’t complicated enough, there was one more barrier to communication that I was surprised to find. In one case, I used the word “novel” while explaining my hobbies to the first graders. The student immediately responded, “What’s a novel?” Caught off guard, and trying to remember if that was indeed the Japanese word for novel, I didn’t respond at first, eventually stuttering out “N-novel?” in hopes that this time around I would say it correctly. The little girl ran over to the teacher and repeated the question. “A novel is a story,” the teacher answered, and the girl, who had since lost focus on the conversation we were having, trotted off to play with everyone. That was an experience I never thought I’d have.
The one downfall of it all, is that I don’t feel as though I’ve done all I can for Ohara. I would attempt to assist in lessons, teach pronunciation, and talk to the students, but I was unequipped to do the latter. I had never been to a Japanese middle school, and I certainly hadn’t studied the English education system for that region of Japan, so I was completely amiss as to how much English a student knew. Then there’s the individual difference between each student. I only ever had the chance to have a few sentenced conversation with any individual student, because the school was large and there was only one of me. And in that conversation, I couldn’t overcome the student’s shyness, gauge how much English they knew, and then make up a conversation that uses their level of English so that they could practice. In that way, I wish I had more time with them, I would have learned more, an I believe I maybe could have had more of an impact on them too.
Some of what I predicted was true; there were levels of formality and structure that I was foreign to, and needed to work hard to overcome. And a lot of what I feared turned out to be just fine. My confidence wavered throughout the program, as I battled with things I thought could be better, and melted as the kids became more and more animated about talking to me and learning about a foreign culture. But in the end, the hour commute to Oohara every week was not something that I dreaded, it was in fact something that looked forward to. On the long bus ride into the mountains, I could feel my eagerness and excitement swelling in me. Even if I had had a terrible experience on every other day, in every other class, it would all be worth it for what one first grader said as I entered the room. 「レイ先生 来てくれた！」”Ms. Rei came for us!” The feeling in my heart that that one little boy drew out, was worth everything in the world.
Thank you Oohara, it’s hard to say good-bye.