This year, I was able to continue volunteering at the same local elementary school for the duration of my time in Japan. A product of its proximity to Kyoto University, there are a number of foreign students who end up attending. My volunteer position at the elementary school was to help several of these with their Japanese, and translate during class time anything they didn’t understand. I was able to go for two hours in the afternoon, every Tuesday.
Thanks to the foundation formed within the school last semester, it was easy to fall into a routine. Whereas last semester I was often moved between different classes, this semester I was able to focus my efforts on helping one student more consistently. This was incredibly rewarding not only in terms of forming a connection, but also in terms of being able to see the improvement in a student’s Japanese, and use of new words as time went on. There was also a sense of satisfaction from the other members of the class becoming used to my presence.
Though many of the roadblocks from last semester had worked themselves out by the time one started, I think one of the things I continued to have some trouble with was the greeting protocol in the teacher’s room. My administrative contact was largely with the vice principal, but as she is a very busy person it was difficult to determine at what points it was appropriate to stop in and ask about class placements for the date, in order to ensure that I was going to the right student for the day. In this sense, I consider it one of my failings in the context of the CIP that I was not better able to gain a grasp of these interactions. On the other hand, I feel that one thing I was able to make great progress one was the protocol for making phone calls, and otherwise arranging appointments.
In terms of the activity itself, the fact that I was interacting primarily with foreign students meant that it was not especially conducive to inclusion in a larger community. Additionally, since the common language was English, it was less practice in Japanese than many other CIP activities. The fact that it required me to break down the Japanese into more simple forms, and help not only with school vocabulary, but also often with the more casual terms used by classmates, meant that it offered an interesting breadth of content not found within the KCJS campus. As was the case last semester, it was a poignant experience to observe the interactions between the foreign students, and their classmates, who were often divided in their willingness to accept the foreign student as one of their own. While the majority of students were ready to help the foreign students, there were occasionally those who felt uncomfortable, or would actively make negative comments towards them, relying on the other party’s incomplete understanding of the language.
I feel that this is an issue of exposure, as many local elementary school students have limited, if any prior experience with foreigners, particularly those who might speak Japanese. I think that this is a useful example as well, as it indicates that the ability to speak Japanese is not an innate skill, possessed only by native Japanese people, and therefore if the foreign students are given the opportunity, they too can become fully involved with the Japanese school system and their classmates.
Because I was, for a period of time, a student at this elementary school in my own youth, there was an added element of surrealism. Considering how their time in Japan, attending this school, will affect the future paths of many of these foreign students only served to further solidify the hope that my time with them would help at least in part with the difficulties of not being able to understand one’s surroundings.
In regards to the CIP program in general, my advice to future KCJS students would be to look into activities you are interested in. The volunteer I chose was a good fit because it combined working with children, volunteering, and the added emotional connection to a nostalgic place in Kyoto. Attending my CIP activity every week was not a chore, but rather a break from the stress of the program, which in my opinion is an ideal. If you can find something that does not serve to further stress, but rather relieve some of it even for a short period, I think that is an activity worth pursuing.