I Want to Go Back To the U.S.

I was talking with one of the teachers at a staff get together last week, and she was telling me an interesting story about one of the students. There was a young man who was becoming severely frustrated at school. It all came to a head when the young man broke down in tears last week while doing kanji drill practice. With tears in his eyes, “I want to go back to America” the boy sobbed. The teacher did her best to comfort the young man.

When I actually found out who the student was, I was really surprised because he’s such a well-behaved kid. I’ve talked to him on several occasions and he’s one of those children who had the fortune of living in the United States for long enough that his English sounds really natural. To be bilingual at such a young age is a gift that I wish I had. Truth be told, this kid has the best English ability in the entire school (even if you include the teachers). However, there are so many differences between the Japanese culture and the American one. That’s a big change for a child.

Curious, I asked the teacher why he was so upset.

Apparently, adjusting to the Japanese school system after having spent the majority of his time in an American one, hasn’t been very easy. The repetitiveness of the Japanese school system is really having an effect. The amount of drilling that the kids have to do over and over again, is a far cry different from the American school system. I guess it makes sense though. In the U.S. even if you drill the alphabet to death, it’s only 26 letters, right? Just as an example, the second graders have 160 kanji to learn, which have multiple readings and can be a challenge for even an adult to write (a non-Japanese adult). The student is in a higher grade level, so I would imagine he has so many kanji to practice and study everyday.

Another issue has been the uniforms. In Japan, many students wear their bright colored caps without issue, without complaint because it’s all they’ve ever known. They started elementary school wearing these, and it continues all the way through. However, if you were a student brought up in the American public school system, wearing the bright colored hats and uniforms can seem a bit restrictive, even a little uncomfortable. I always wondered how Japan gets so many of its grade schoolers to wear the bright caps. I would always think that there’s no way that could happen in an American public school.

I can’t say that I blame the student for being frustrated. It’s like going from a more relaxed public code to a stricter one. I would imagine he must be feeling a little bit boxed in. Well maybe I shouldn’t say strict. The teachers are quite nice, but there is a lot more protocol associated with a Japanese elementary school than I remember with a US one.

I wonder which transition would be harder for a child to make: going from the Japanese school system to the American public school system? Or going from the American public school system to the Japanese one? I’m sure we could argue both sides. What do you think?

Donald Ash

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  • Larry

    I remember seeing a news story about a Japanese family which had been in the U.S. for a number of years and was returning to Japan. The now-teenage daughters were not thrilled because they had much more freedom in the U.S. school system. One had even become president of her class which was virtually impossible for a girl in Japan.

    • Donald Ash

      Thanks for the post, Larry.

      I think it’d be especially tough around the teenage years. American high school vs. Japanese high school. That’s a HUGE difference! Them not being thrilled totally makes sense.

      Which one do you think would be tougher on a child, Larry? Going to Japan after having lived in America? Or going to America after having lived in Japan?

      • Larry

        Either one would be difficult considering language and cultural differences. But, I think a kid going from the U.S. to Japan would have a harder time. There’s the emphasis on rote memorization of kanji and the uniforms which you mentioned, but there’s also a huge difference in social relationships. If the student is an obvious foreigner, he or she may be forgiven for not strictly observing “protocol.” But, if the kid looks Japanese, he’ll be expected to know how to act and what to say. Japanese TV here in the U.S. has had a number of dramas showing students subjected to “ijime.” Have you encountered it much?

  • Would this be called a type of reverse culture shock? I feel a lot of sympathy for the kid. I can only imagine how hard it would be. Kawaiiso. I wonder if maybe being an American expat mentor would maybe help the kid some?

    • LanceT

      Reverse culture shock happens when a person is placed in a foreign environment in which the person adapts and conforms to the foreign environment, then goes back to their original environment and has trouble going back to their original environmental norms.

      This event is plain culture shock. It certainly sounds rough though the younger they are, they should have a bit better time adapting. The American school system can certainly seem to spoil children compared to the Japanese system.

      Don, you had me going there for a second. When I read the title I thought “Don want to come home?! What happened?!” ;p

      • Donald Ash

        I thought the title might get a few people, LOL! Sorry about that, Lance. I’m still doing fine, still enjoying my time here. Thanks for the culture shock/reverse culture shock insight. I thought that it wasn’t really a factor, but it definitely is. The culture shock hits everybody a little differently though, I guess.

        • LanceT

          Cool man. Good to hear you are doing well. Yeah, people talk about preparing for it in order to counter it and still get hit with it. I think biggest factor in softening the blow is in getting into the flow of daily life and making friends to meet on a regular basis as soon as possible. But that’s just my thought on that. If I make it into the JET program (my application was received last week and today was the deadline), I’ll have to put that theory to the test. :P

  • Petaris

    The Japanese foreign exchange students we have had have done alright but they certainly have hard times as well. Mostly having to do with language barriers but I’m sure some has to do with cultural differences as well.

    - Petaris

  • Joshua Shibata

    Hey Donald, great article always! Back when I was growing up and visiting Japan during my summer break (which was around JUly or August) I remember I would have to wait half the day for my Japanese friends to finish either their summer classes or summer homework. I always was thinking…geez schools in Japan have to be really tough, here I am goofing off durignt he summer and my friends are still working hard lol.
    Coincidentally, my father and I were watching this game show that they are starting to air in the states (dont remember what its called) but its a typical trivia game show with celebrity guests (and one super hot happa!!!!) and one round had the guests driving in this kinda virtual reality jeep (its very similiar to the Universial studios ride Back to the Futuree/ Simpsons ride and the Disney Star Tours ride (if uve ever been on those) where ur watching a computer screen and the jeep ur in kinda moves along with whats on the screen. Anyway in order for the jeep to make the full journey the celebrities had to write down the kanji or a romanji word. My mother kinda was watching and she started to say “Well isnt that easy? Shouldnt all Japanese know kanji?” And my dad replied “No, because there are SOOOOO many kanji that usually Japanese people ONLY learn them when they are in school and then either forget or stop using them.” While we were watching the show many of the celebrities got stumped and even my dad had difficulty with a few of the kanjis. Some of them he didnt even know what it would look like. Very fascinating IMO…and yes super tough on the Japanese students growing up. Its like being forced to learna bunch of scientific forumlas.

  • Q

    Definitely harder to adjust from American system to Japanese one!!! But thenn I’m still refusing to adjust to Japanese culture so who cares

  • Here’s my 2 cents…

    I think it would be more difficult to move from american to japanese school systems, because american school systems are not only less strict but there is also a language support system for ESL students. I was actually in ESL myself for 2 years in Elementary school. In Japan, there is no ESL support system at public schools. At least, not to my knowledge. The only choice you have is international school. I wonder if that boy at your school is slightly behind everyone else in the kanji department because he wasn’t in Japan learning the kanji until now. That can be extremely stressful. He will catch up… he’s young. But I remember being really stressed until I was in 5th grade. I didn’t feel like I was at the same language level as my peers until then. I was in ESL K-begining of 2nd grade. But didn’t feel at the level til 5th.

    • Donald Ash

      Yeah, I would imagine that it would be incredibly tough to catch up with all those. Big respect to all of you who had to go through it. I have to agree with you that it’s probably tougher on a kid going from America to Japan. You brought up some cool reasons that I didn’t even mention. Thanks for posting, Regina!

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