Hayley Valk: Kyoto YWCA

This semester I volunteered once a week for the after-school children’s program at the Kyoto YWCA. For most of the semester the same two kids came every Monday, an 11-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy. It felt more like babysitting than an organized program, as usually I was alone with the two and we spent the time freely chatting, playing with toys, eating snack, and doing homework. The last week there was a more structured, all-day camp during spring vacation, with 15 elementary school kids and 5 other college-aged volunteers, which offered a chance to interact with more children and other volunteers in a more organized environment.

Through weekly volunteering I really got to know the usual girl and boy, and see how my relationships with each compared to each other and evolved over the course of the semester. Though a bit hesitant at first, they both became fairly comfortable with me as a foreigner, but the girl much more so than the boy. The first day we met she was doubtful, and asked the program director if I even understood Japanese. The program director told her to talk to me and find out, and from there her impressions quickly improved. After a few minutes of conversation she decided I understand quite a lot of Japanese, and after asking me if I can read and write hiragana and some basic kanji she decided that I’m not so different from a Japanese person. That was a flattering overstatement. From then on we spent the majority of the time each day talking about school, what we like to eat, etc. She asked some funny questions about life in America, like whether people learn multiplication, if English is the only language used in the subway, and whether the four cardinal directions exist (I taught her the words in English, which she remembered from then on and would practice every week). She was very open to talking with me, and I think she had fun sharing stories and helping me understand her Japanese. She spoke very clearly, and after saying a word she thought I might not understand, she asked and tried to explain if I didn’t. Sometimes she would give up and tell me to use my dictionary, but some words like “alarm clock” or “snore” she could explain by making sounds and doing impressions. She also purposely avoided Kansai-ben, until asking me one day if I understood it. When I said I did understand some, she decided she’d try to use it with me from then on. I think her consideration for my Japanese abilities made conversation more productive and also more fun for both of us. The boy, though about the same age, had a fast, mumbling manner of speaking that was much harder for me to understand, and he made no concessions for my benefit. Because it was hard to engage in conversation he didn’t talk to me as much, but we became closer once I proved a decent dodgeball partner. He was more comfortable doing physical activities with me than just chatting. Though he warmed up to me, one of the last days when his mom came to pick him up she complimented my Japanese, and he quickly corrected her by saying that actually there’s a lot of Japanese I don’t understand. Though both were relatively open to me despite my being American, when communication challenges arose, the girl was much more able and interested to identify and solve them, while the boy just moved on without any effort to improve our mutual understanding. Though talking to them both was good practice, it was interesting to compare how my relationships with the two differed as a result.

During the spring vacation camp I was able to interact with many more kids, but I didn’t get to know any as well. Most of the camp children were a bit younger than the usual girl and boy; the average age was around 8. As a result, they seemed less aware of my being different or not understanding Japanese perfectly. Even at times when their speech was too fast or slurred for me to fully understand, they generally seemed content for me just to listen and respond as best as I could. Being younger, they were also more interested in being active and playing games, so if I jumped around, helped with puzzles, and made funny faces and an occasional joke, that was more entertaining than sitting around talking anyway. Since most weeks I was alone with the two kids, the camp was also a chance for me to see how other college-aged volunteers interacted with the children. Despite being a fairly structured program with a set schedule, the program director largely left the volunteers in charge alone, and I was a bit surprised by how little authority they showed. Organized activities quickly devolved into running, screaming, and games of questionable safety, but for whatever reason the other volunteers just smiled and let themselves get pulled around without making an effort to control the situation. Though I at times felt inferior because of my own lack of ability to communicate effectively to the children in Japanese, I appreciated that both the kids and other staff treated me the same as everyone else. In particular I appreciated the program director’s attitude towards me; both in a group meeting following camp and after I volunteered each week, she asked and valued my thoughts about the day. She also asked me to contribute ideas for camp activities ahead of time, and from the very beginning of the semester trusted me to take charge of the day’s activities and manage the program room.  Other staff members and volunteers were similarly friendly and trusting, as were the children’s parents, who always made a point to thank me. I really came to feel like a valued member of the YWCA community, equal to any other volunteer.

Overall I found volunteering at the YWCA to be a very successful and gratifying CIP experience. Perhaps due to the organization’s missions to support both Japanese and foreign women, everyone I encountered was accepting and understanding, and despite never meeting another American, I never felt out of place. The nature of the work didn’t require a very high level of Japanese, but it did offer ample opportunities to practice with people of all ages.  I also love spending time with kids, so volunteering was a chance not only to learn, but also to just have fun for a few hours every week. I am grateful to all at the YWCA!

2 thoughts on “Hayley Valk: Kyoto YWCA

  1. Hi Hayley! It sounds like you found a very rewarding experience with the YWCA! Would you say you enjoyed the larger group and camp setting more or working in the small setting with just the boy and girl? Would you have preferred to get to know more people over the course of the semester or were you happy to get to know the two kids really well? Additionally, do you find children’s Japanese easier or harder to understand than adult’s Japanese?

    • Hi Emily! I think I enjoyed just having the two kids more. It was nice to talk to lots of kids in the camp, but their behavior was a bit out of control and it was frustrating that the other volunteers were so passive. I liked having a small, quiet group that I could manage by myself. That being said, it might have been nice to have four or five kids on a regular basis just to add some diversity. In one-on-one conversations I think kids’ Japanese is harder for me to understand — it’s often fast and mumbly, and they tend to be less aware that I can’t understand Japanese as well as everyone else.