What would you have done if you had packed up your entire life in two suitcases, moved across the other side of the world to teach English and realized that it wasn’t at all as you had expected? What would you have done if you had met confused stares and deathlike silence when you were just trying to share your culture? This is my story about working as an assistant language teacher (ALT) in Japan for the first time.
Teaching English as as an ALT in public schools is a common job for many native English speakers eager to live and work in Japan. The majority of ALTs tend to come from the “Big Five” countries: the U.S., the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada. However, within this mass of ALTs in Japan, there are small pockets of diversity.
I fall into the latter.
First off, I’m from the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. I originally came to Japan on the JET Programme, a government initiative that pairs native English speakers with Japanese teachers of English (JTEs) in public schools across the country. The aim of the program is essentially an international cultural exchange.
The JET Programme in numbers
As of July 2018, there are just over 5,000 ALTs in Japan. Here’s a breakdown of the number of JET Programme participants who come from the Big Five countries:
As you can see, the overwhelming majority of ALTs come from the U.S. A Japan Times article written by a JET alumni suggests that the JET Programme was created in 1987 mainly to help smooth Japan’s trade relations with the U.S. This piece of information may explain why a high number of Americans are consistently recruited by the program.
From the data provided on the JET Programme website, there are also sizeable groups of ALTs from South Africa (118), Jamaica (114) and Ireland (104).
Out of the 5,044 ALTs currently employed by the JET Programme, only 53 come from Trinidad and Tobago. However, this figure does not reflect a number of Trinbagonians also working as ALTs for private ALT dispatch companies.
That being said, there aren’t that many of us in the land of the rising sun.
Where are you from?
Before getting to Japan, I was psyched. I went to my local tourism office and got loads of free brochures, posters, maps and stationery. I bought a bunch of small national flag pins, fridge magnets, tea, coffee and chocolates as omiyage (souvenirs) for my teachers. I was so ready to blow Japan away with my Trini (short for Trinidadian) flair.
When I got to my base school, it was a totally different story. In the beginning, my Japanese high school students couldn’t make heads or tails of me. My first day was during summer break. I took the local train and said hello to some students as I walked past them on the way to school. They looked down and barely mumbled a reply.
…Many students took one look at my skin color and facial features and thought that I was from either India, Brazil, or the Philippines.
To make things worse, my ALT predecessor had been a really nice girl from Canada, a country my students were already familiar with so I felt pretty awkward trying to fill her shoes. Also, one of my JTEs was still singing her praises even when I was sitting in the staff room.
During my jikoshokai (self-introduction) classes, many students took one look at my skin color and facial features and thought that I was from either India, Brazil or the Philippines.
When I revealed where I was actually from, a wave of “Eeeh? Doko? (Where?) Canada? Africa?” erupted across the classroom. Even my JTEs had problems pronouncing my country’s name.
When I shared that in my country, we love to eat bake and shark (a sandwich made of fried bread, fried shark meat and lots of local sauces and toppings), they uttered in disbelief, “Same?” (shark).
Apparently, many of them felt that sharks were too scary to eat. To be honest, I was a bit floored by this reaction. After all, Japanese people eat almost everything from the ocean — even whales.
Initially, this made me uncomfortable but after sixteen identical jikoshokai classes, I just rolled with it. When I heard the telltale gasp after the word “shark,” I rubbed my stomach and made cartoonish gestures to show how delicious it was. Their subsequent laughter helped to ease the tension.
Later on in the year, when I showed them pictures and video clips of my country’s main festival, Carnival, their eyes grew large. Like its Brazilian counterpart, Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago is world famous for its street parades, soca (party) and steel pan music and costumes. Some students even thought it was kakkoii (cool).
However, when I played a music video from Carnival Flavor, a Japanese soca group, many burst out laughing (cultural side note: soca music is party music that takes center-stage during Carnival). My female students, in particular, kept pointing and laughing at the back up dancers. When I asked the JTE why, she explained that they were laughing because the dancers, who were playing high school girls, were wearing buruma, high-cut and revealing shorts for gym class that are now outdated.
At first, I was a bit embarrassed by this observation but soon relaxed when I realized that the music video was meant to poke fun at the stereotypical Japanese high school experience. Another chance to roll with the punches, I thought.
Sneaking in my Trinidadian culture
Of course, being a minority ALT isn’t always unicorns and rainbows. For instance, I’m often asked to teach American-centric cultural lessons such as Halloween. Other times, when asked to comment on American holidays like the Fourth of July, I often feign ignorance and let the JTE explain instead. I assume that these requests are based on the misconception that English culture is synonymous with American culture.
Instead, I use these opportunities to sneak in tidbits about my country’s unique culture. For instance, during my Halloween lessons, I shared teasers about scary Trinidadian folklore characters likes soucouyants and lagahoos and some students really got into it.
Also, for my Christmas lessons, instead of going on and on about chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Jack Frost nipping at my nose, I played parang music (Trinidadian Christmas music sung in Spanish) and taught them about pastelles and black cake (Trinidadian Christmas food). The students lapped it up and understood that even certain “English” festivals like Christmas are not celebrated uniformly in different parts of the English-speaking world.
Is English your native language?
Then, there’s the issue of my Trinidadian accent. In the beginning, it annoyed me when some JTEs asked whether English was my native language because I don’t speak with a recognizable Big Five accent. To me, it seemed as though they were inadvertently questioning the authenticity of my language proficiency. Now, I’ve come to realize that they only ask because they don’t know.
My accent has caused some minor issues in the classroom. For instance, I’ve been told that I pronounce certain words differently, in marked contrast to the American English pronunciation the students learn in the textbook.
Now, I have no problem with my students learning American English, but I also think they need to be exposed to the different ways English is spoken in the rest of the world.
Insisting on exposure to only one accent in the EFL (English as a foreign language) classroom contributes to the misconception that American English in the gold standard when in actuality, there’s a plethora of world Englishes out there.
It’s just a matter of time
Of course, my first-time ALT experience wasn’t always horrible. Over time, my students gradually warmed up to me and learned to appreciate my cultural differences. Since then, I’ve learned to capitalize on teachable moments to expose my Japanese students and JTEs to the sprawling cultural and linguistic diversity in the English-speaking world.
As a Trinidadian ALT in Japan, I’m able to give them a firsthand account of the diversity of global Englishes and world cultures and make the language come alive in a distinct way.
Although my students and JTEs’ initial reactions to me reveal that Japan still has a long way to go regarding celebrating cultural diversity, I think it’s important that they continue to interact with people from different backgrounds. It’s always nice when they realize that we’re not all bad or scary once they get to know us.