Let’s Help Visiting Japanese Youngsters “Find Themselves” in Canada
Unfenced school yards and sports grounds where a ball sailing over an outfielder’s head keeps rolling on. The rule about drivers having to stop the moment a pedestrian steps out on the road to cross, no matter where. Passengers who call out “Thank you” to the driver when they get off a bus, and the cheerful “You’re welcome” from the latter who doesn’t miss a beat. Young men on skateboards weaving in and out of (relatively) congested downtown traffic. Cars moving four abreast climbing an arched bridge (Granville) slowing down all at once as the drivers pause to admire a magnificent sunset In the sky ahead. Doctors who let patients with serious symptoms decide for themselves which treatment method they prefer.
It’s been about 18 years since our family of four moved to Vancouver from Singapore. The above is a random selection of things I have seen and experienced since, that struck me as scenes one would hardly ever see in Japan. To this “living environment” of ours that’s always highly-rated by residents as well as in annual global rankings of the “best cities to live in,” come hundreds of language student s and youths on “working holiday” visas from Japan for short- and long-term stays. If only we could somehow help these youths experience things that would make them feel from the bottom of their hearts, “I’m so glad I came to Canada” or “I’m going to somehow come here again”
We’re personally involved to the extent that we’ve been hosting over a period of 10-plus years dozens of language students from Japan along with those from China, Thailand, Mexico, Brazil, Germany and other countries for short- and long-term stays, to supplement our income. In the case of a young student from a university in Kansai who stayed with us about two years ago, however, it was such a futile experience that it’s depressing just to recall it.
My first impression, judging from his schoolboy-like countenance, was that he was one of those innocent types of young men. It nevertheless came as a shock when I discovered a few days later that his emotional development was indeed at the level of a primary school kid. On the first day he attended class, he couldn’t tell which bus to take to go home and apparently stood around helpless at the campus bus terminal for about two hours. Fortunately, he had imputted my cell phone number on his cell phone, so we eventually got connected. I assured the distressed boy that “Canadians are kind” and told him to hand his cellphone to anyone nearby. “I’m very sorry to trouble you, but could you show this boy which bus to take?” I asked this total stranger, and our student was finally able to make it home. The problem was more basic than his English-speaking ability. Out of his country for the first time, he had totally lost his social context, or“lost himself,” so to speak.
He told me he had wasted too many hours playing on-line games, so that he could only get into a “third-rate” university. Whoever made the decision, a kid like that should not have gone overseas on his own. His behavior got worse and worse, like getting drunk on beer and speaking rudely to my “better half” in his broken English. In the end we couldn’t handle it any longer and had to ask the student housing people to find another family for him to stay with. We felt sad and depressed as it was our first experience of that kind.
Lately in Japan, a survey finding that the three words and phrases today’s youth hate most are “dream, resolve (kokorozashi) and socializing with the opposite sex has generated a lot of discussion and soul-searching. Frantically text-messaging each other with messages like “The takoyaki at such-and-such food stand tasted awsome!” and “Finally got my hands on that game software XXX!!” all day long, it seems they can only think about trivial things like that, their brains gradually turning into “Kintaro ame,” as they say. (Kintaro ame is a long cylindrical sugar candy, its round section depicting the same face of the boy warrior Kintaro no matter where you cut it. A euphemism for “all the same.”) There is no room left for literature, fine arts or foreign languages. Nor is it a fertile ground for curiosity and investigative mind to develop. After all, most of them have had their eyes and awareness fixated on that tiny screen since their primary school days with that nagging fear at the back of their mind: “What am I going to do if my mates desert me?”
The aforementioned “child-like youth” is an extreme case, but those Japanese who never “lose themselves” even the first time they go overseas would be people like professional athletes, artists, musicians and scholars and specialists in leading-edge sectors. They dwell in their borderless worlds of specialization. What they do essentially doesn’t change whether they’re at home or abroad. “ R-kun” whom we’re hosting at the moment is a cheerful “jock” type who loves to play lacrosse. At age 19, he’s still a minor, but apparently it’s “OK in Canada” for he had his first taste of beer at some student function downtown. Remarkable for an Oriental youngster (and not just youngsters), he stares intently into the eyes of the person he’s conversing with, like Westerners usually do. His parents met each other in Paris where they were studying art and the French language.
It’s worth noting that in spite of the seemingly insoluble disputes between Japanese and Korean governments and even between local Japanese Canadian and Korean Canadian organizations, he and other Japanese and Korean students are developing friendships on a personal level. That alone might make their visits to Canada worthwhile In multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Canada, there’s nothing unusual about choosing friends of your own regardless of their race or nationality. One does not constantly have to “read the air” (second-guessing how people around you are feeling) before speaking out or taking action. ) In R-kun’s case, his future as an English language teacher was a career he chose by himself, he said. Perhaps his parents have nurtured his sense of independence since childhood. Maybe a culturally “borderless” household.
Let’s look at this sense of independence. Japanese people tend to say “such-and-such is the right answer (seikai)” when making a decision or stating an opinion. The nuance is that there is a correct way acceptable to one and all. They do not say, “Such and such is right” or, “This is the best way” as do Westerners whose premise is that everyone should have his/her own opinion. A while ago, I had an opportunity to teach English to/from Japanese translation to Japanese students and local resident Japanese aged from roughly 20 to 30 at a downtown business school. About 90% were women, which is not really relevant to the topic at hand, but many students, when they did not know the answer to a question, would reply: “We didn’t learn that in class.” So something that others don’t know either, one doesn’t need to know. Are they content enough being Kintaro ame in their head?
An example from my questions: “The 1860s saw epoch-making events in Japan with the establishment of a new modern government (Meiji Restoration) and in the US with the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves. Which two major nations were formed in continental Europe around the same period?” The answer is of course Germany and Italy, something that’s common knowledge for anyone who took world history at high school or university. They would at least have heard about Meiji Restoration too, most likely. That sort of international knowledge must apparently be outside the scope of the Ministry of Education curricula. The attitude in Western academia would seem to be that if you’re interested in history or any other field, read up on it on your own. There is Wikipedia at the very minimum.
I mentioned doctors at the beginning. When we moved to Vancouver 18 years ago, I was suffering from thyroid toxicosis …too much thyroid hormone secreted, causing my metabolic rate to speed up too much. All that my doctor in Singapore had been giving me was a drug to prevent my heart from palpitating, a symptomatic treatment. The specialist who diagnosed my condition told me that the standard treatment nowadays was the so-called radioactive iodine treatment to curtail or destroy the overactive thyroid cells. I was floored by what the doctor told me next. “So go home and study up on the radio-iodine treatment, and decide for yourself if that’s what you want.” This is highly unlikely to happen in Japan where the doctor is sensei – the learned one whose words you should follow. (I did choose it and I’ve been OK since.) I also remember a daredevil-type, neighborhood dentist who once let me pull out a loose back molar with my own fingers, a first-time experience. “He said something like, “Don’t you want to get at that so-and-so yourself?”
Always checking out those around them and making sure they’re “reading the air” correctly before speaking out or taking action. To youngsters like that who’ve just arrived in Canada, it’s no use saying: “Your own views are also important, think for your own self, be independent.” The only way is for them to absorb gradually the concept of “deciding things on one’s own and acting accordingly.” It might be small things like, “With whom shall I study up for the exam tomorrow?” or “Which izakaya (drinking/eating Japanese style) shall I go to and with whom?” Hopefully, they might start thinking seriously and constructively about big things like “Do I really want to be a ‘salary-man’ in the future, or do I want to become a specialist?” or “What field of study am I really interested in? What is the career that I really want to go into?”
As a host family, we try to ask them questions like that with studied casualness during meals and so on. It’s a drop-in-the-ocean effort, but we like to do what we can to help them appreciate real “Canadian experience.”