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Talking about Ferguson to Japanese 4th graders

**Disclaimer: I did not start this discussion! Believe me, I tried and failed to stop these children.

**Disclaimer 2: Most of the questions and statements are translated sentences from myself and the JET, Japanese English Teacher, who worked with me.

At the beginning of class for every lesson I tell my elementary school students how I am feeling or what I’ve been doing lately. This is never a deep discussion by any means. Theses talks start out very whimsical:

“I’m excited about Halloween.”

“I’m sad because it’s rainy outside.”

“I went to Fujikyu Highland last weekend.”

“American lost to Germany in Fifa Today.”

It may seem lame to some but it can be one of the most engaging parts of the lesson. Students use both English and Japanese to ask questions and speak their minds on the topic. It’s a segment that can also set the tone for the duration of the lesson – for both the teachers and students.

This morning I had already read blogs from both sides of the Ferguson situation, had disputes with people I deemed, ‘in denial,’ and talked my own self in circles over these awful injustices. Needless to say, I was disappointed with the outcome this past Monday – Tuesday, Japanese time. An emotion not for the workplace and definitely not something to talk about with people who can’t really relate.

With that said, Thursday’s lesson with 4th graders was not going to kick itself off with, “I’m sad. They shot another black person in America.” Not even, “I’m angry because American police don’t handle situations like Japanese police do.”

Nope, today was, “I’m excited. Today is Thanksgiving Day in America.”

The kids looked confused; I knew they would. It was a lead in for talking about Thanksgiving Day. That was my intention. In hindsight, I assume they understood the words, ‘today,’ ‘in,’ and ‘America’then filled in the blacks with what they had heard recently about the States.

Five of them shouted,「デモ」,’demo’ AKA ‘protest.’ That set off a chain of the more informed students telling the less informed ones about Ferguson. Phrases like 「黒人の男性が白人の警察官に銃で撃たれた」(“A black man was shot by a white cop.”), 「差別」(“discrimination”) and 「なぜ?」(“Why?”) were the phrases I could pick up the most.

As a teacher, I really didn’t think talking about controversial topics that I would have a strong opinion on to students was a good idea. Especially when it just happened…I kept pushing Thanksgiving. The more I pushed Thanksgiving the more they kept asking about Ferguson.

Question: “Was the Thanksgiving holiday on that day[Aug. 24th]? That’s sad.”

Answer: “No, no. It was two days ago. Thanksgiving is today.” I made mad attempts to make the most vague and friendly-sounding response to the student’s question. You know, those “Nothing for you to worry about” answers.  “The timing is bad but people are trying not to be sad by celebrating.” Not even that answer sated them. By then, three more hand shot up asking why Kokujin, black people, were still being discriminated against in 2014. Thank god for the JET who helped translate their questions and my answers. She was willing to do so and she asked the students if they wanted to ask questions about Ferguson instead of Thanksgiving. There was a collective 「やった!」, “Yes!”

Meanwhile, the questions I’m asking myself is, “How do they know about this?” and ” Why do they want to know about this?”

Question 1: ‘Didn’t Lincoln end discrimination against black people?’

Answer: I informed the student he helped end slavery. The students collectively recalled a previous lesson where they had been taught about American slavery. I went on to tell them about the Civil Right Act of 1964 which outlawed discrimination towards any and all persons. They were shocked it was passed in the 20th century and asked what couldn’t black people do?

My Answer: “They couldn’t vote. They couldn’t marry another white person. They couldn’t eat in the same restaurant as a white person. Black children couldn’t go to the same school as a white person.” I stopped there but another student asked about transportation. “They could ride together but blacks had to sit in the back and whites could sit up front. This is one of the things Martin Luther King fought for.”

Cue in LIGHT BULBS! They knew Dr. King had written his famous speech but didn’t know why he had written it. Most of them will learn once they go to high school. Dr. King’s speech is on the English education curriculum in many schools. It’s also programmed in almost every advanced electronic Japanese-English dictionary.

Question 3: ‘But America voted for Obama?’

Answer: ‘A candidate needs over 50% to win an election just like in Japan. Over 50% were please about Obama being president, less than 50% were not. Of those people there are people who don’t like that he is president for various reasons.’

Question 3 Follow Up: ‘Even for being a kokujin?’

My answer was, yes. That got me the Japanese 「え~~~~~!?」 (”EH!!”). A surprised expression of disbelief.

Question 4: Why can’t some hakujin, white people, treat kokujin like humans?

Answer: I didn’t have an answer for the student’s question but I praised her for asking it and encourage the students to try and respect others no matter who it is.

Question 5: When you lived in America, what was scary to you?

My Answer: To me the police can be scary sometimes but driving in the states is pretty scary too.

As an American living here, I am asked a lot about American politics and racism. I make attempts to stay impartial as I can when explaining about these injustices. It’s very difficult and tiring. I hope my answers to these students were unbiased. Keeping my answers as G-rated as I possibly could, the JET felt they were appropriate.

I’ve got to say, we were both blown back by their questions. Adults sometimes assume these incidents–especially incidents that happened halfway across the world–aren’t of interest to children. “It’s not their problem.” I always tell myself. I said that when Trayvon Martin happened. Police brutality and injustice against African-Americans may not be their problem but it was an amazing feeling to witness their curiosity on the subject. It was even more amazing they were 4th graders.

I know this post isn’t the best as far as good blogging goes. I really wanted to get document this moment as quick as I could. Share your thoughts if you like. Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving!




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Is There a Reason Why Caucasian Foreigners in Japan Flaunt Brutally Cold Shoulders to Other Foreigners in Japan?

Now that’s a pretty loaded question but it’s one worth asking since I’ve been here almost two years utilizing my southern hospitality on passersby. In compliance with a pretty happy face, the Southern Manners in the Street Manual states clearly one must walk, smile, greet the person who makes eye contact, and walk on. You may think it strange but it’s mandatory in the South.

Boy did I get a rude awakening when I came to Japan: walk, smile, awkward nod, walk on, mentally say ‘da faq?’ What’s even more mind boggling is it’s not the Japanese pedestrians who I have this exchange with (Japanese pedestrians would make great Southerners) it’s many Caucasian westerners.

No matter if I am in Saitama, Kanagawa, or any part in Tokyo, spotting another foreigner prompts two actions, 1) the is-that-a-foreigner double take, 2) a burning urge to say ‘hello.’ Remember I’m the happy-go-lucky person in the street, I need my ‘Hello’ fix.

The first foreign American woman I came across,  I said my ‘hello’ and well whaddaya know, she blew right past me. This happened many many times. I chalked her up to being an ‘Ugly American’ and went on.

On the flip side, I used to have this annoyance with certain Africans, Indians, and Brazilians. These bombastic guys were dying to know if I was married, if I was seeing anyone, and if I was from Cameroon. For the record, if I ever decide to go the way of Alex Haley and find my roots, I may just start in Cameroon. But hey, at least they were waving.

I’ve especially received warm greetings from foreigners from other Asia Pacific nations: walk, smile, wave, get a little chat in, and move on on a higher note than before I met the person–the whole point of why we greet people in the street in the South anyway.

I realized two things after my recent move from Oyama to Kawasaki. 1) There were more ethnic foreigners in Oyama than Caucasian ones. 2) Caucasian westerners handle other foreigners differently than many ethnic ones do. After being blown past in the street for the umpteenth time and being talking to for the umpteenth time I, it got a bit more clear. From experience, foreigners from non-western countries really tried make an effort to get to know others and meet new (non-Japanese) strangers in the street.

Now I’ve never held the white man’s Yellow Fever in much consideration –it sounds a bit too controversial and bigoted. However, there might be some meat to it. I’m not limiting this to a fetish or an obsession as film director, Debbie Lum, does in Seeking Asian Female, but it does highlight a sense of tunnel-vision priorities for westerners living in Japan and eager to reenact Dance with Wolves amongst the Japanese.

The Japanese attitude doesn’t help quell any sense of western privilege entitlement either. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed people are deities in Japan and having porcelain white skin has been all the rave for centuries. I remember seeing a train poster of Beyonce when she did that controversial L’oreal skin-lightening ad. Let’s just say she out did Snow White in the Japanese version.

In the end to each Japan-visiting foreigner to his/her own. As for me, you can take the girl out of the South but you can’t take the South out of the girl…maybe I’ll just greet Smurfs.


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