Culture July 12, 2017
Do you "understand"?
Growing up my mom made me go to a Japanese school every Saturday where we were taught the same curriculum as schools in Japan.
I started this school in the first grade around the same time I started my traditional, English-based elementary school. In other words, I was juggling two different schools in two different languages at once.
As if that wasn’t hard enough, I was also four shades darker than every other student and only one of my parents spoke Japanese. The 12 years I attended school there were riddled with unconscious racism.
In the beginning, it was harder for me to grasp the content in class compared to the other students. Which makes sense, since I only had one parent speaking Japanese around the house instead of two. So I tried twice as hard and stayed up twice as late trying to finish my Japanese homework.
My mom was really supportive and helped my brothers and I as much as she could with her busy schedule. She knew how embarrassed I was by my Japanese accent. She even wrote little notes in my textbook to help me understand it better (Thank you, mommy). And eventually I caught up.
But around the sixth grade, something strange happened. My teachers became increasingly concerned as to whether I “understood” the subject or not. Mind you, my classmates and I were learning the same things and were on the same level. So whenever my teachers singled me out of the class to ask if I “understood,” I got angry.
This happened every week with the same teacher. I was 11 years old and embarrassed of feeling embarrassed — so to this day, I have never told anyone that it bothered me so much. But it did. The teacher probably didn’t know he was being an asshole, and I wasn’t about to be the one who told him.
But it wasn’t just the teachers. It was a small private school with an average of about 15 people per class. There were about 10 people in my class and 15 active parents. When I say active, I mean active. They were literally in the children’s drama and made drama for themselves within the parent community. Think “Mean Girls” for parents.
The class was small and the kids and parents would make jokes at my expense. They would laugh at my English. I would join in, because I didn’t want to look insecure or lame for not being able to laugh at myself.
Now, I could excuse the children for making fun of me. We were young and stupid and I don’t hold a grudge against them. Besides, as I got older, I realized that we’ve been in each others’ lives for so many years that for me to just drop them for being a kid seems silly.
But while it is one thing for kids to pick on other kids, it is a whole other story for parents to do the same. I remember the parents treating me like I wasn’t good enough or smart enough for their kids because I was half. They were respectful enough not to say anything cruel to my face, but I knew they were treating me differently.
When a parent would talk to me, they would make sure to dumb it down enough for the half-girl to understand. They mixed English and Japanese in simple sentences so that they could get their point across. I didn’t need them to simplify anything for me. I would have understood just the same if the whole sentence was in Japanese.
Every time a parent talked to me like I wasn’t fluent or that Japanese wasn’t my first language, I would think they were doing it just to be mean. And when I did make a mistake people would just laugh and say it was cute. As if it was cute I was trying to learn their language. It made me want to quit. I hated going to school and hated trying so hard just so I could be a laughingstock no matter what I did. For a while I even resented my mom for taking me.
But I never told anyone how I felt because I didn’t want to seem insecure So just I laughed it off, and sometimes even went along with it. But after a while, I realized that making fun of yourself makes people think they have a free pass at making fun of you, too. So I stopped making fun of myself and they slowly started to stop, too.
I didn’t have to tell anyone it bothered me, but I did have to make it apparent. I realized that none of these people were trying to hurt my feelings. They just thought it was something to laugh about. Some people just have to make fun of others because they don’t know how to hold a conversation without talking down to someone else.
I love who I am, and even when I struggled with finding my own voice, I admired my diligence in continuing to learn. There were times when I gave up and felt worthless, but I knew I was more capable than anyone thought I was.
I continued my Japanese education until my senior year, and probably shocked everyone who doubted me. Including myself. And thanks to that experience, I now know that I can do anything.
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