Unless I have something extremely pressing to do, I always help the students clean after lunch. As my students and I were cleaning on this one particular day, I was in the hallway sweeping and I overheard some of my 2nd graders randomly calling out colors in English. My ears quickly zeroed in on this conversation.
These students were actually practicing the colors we had been working on in a previous lesson.
They made it into a game. One kid would call out a color in English and then everyone would race to wipe down something that was that color. Sure, we had played the “Color Touch” game (similar to “I Spy” but not exactly) in classes before: I’d call out a color and the kids would have to run and touch something that color, but they added the cleaning part on their own.
Note to self – “Cleaning + Learning? Hmm…sounds like the perfect activity to add to my mental, classroom game rolodex.
The thing that struck me most is that THEY WERE DOING IT BY THEMSELVES!! I was outside the classroom just listening. What makes a teacher more proud than seeing kids apply what you taught them outside of class? Having the self-discipline to do it without you telling them to!
When they spotted me standing outside the door, their color practice took a pretty interesting twist…
“Blue!” “White!” “Yellow!” the kids shouted, as the game went on. On the next round one of the kids pointed at me and said “Donarudo* Sensei chocoreto iro” (ドナルド先生チョコレートいろ). This kid literally said “Donald Teacher is chocolate colored.” A couple of the kids giggled and kept saying “Chocoreto! Chocoreto!”
*Because there is no “L” sound in Japanese, my name becomes Donarudo
I know some people might get offended if your student were to direct a chocolate comment your way. You might even think to yourself, “Act like you’ve seen a black person before!” The funny thing is though, many of these students haven’t. Not in person anyway. That’s why I never let things like that bother me in the classroom. Often I’d be the first real exposure these kids have had to an African-American, to a foreigner.
I didn’t find it offensive at all. I give it the “Sexy Hot Ladies Test.” If a beautiful group of curvy women had come up to me calling me “Chocolate Sensei” in a heaving, breathy voice, would I be be mad? HECK NO! I would’ve been like “That’s right ladies, I am chocolate.” Donnie’s mind instantly flashes back the creepy/controversial Axe ad of the man made out of chocolate with the women all over him…
Anyway, I did find it interesting to see this child’s train of thought. He looks at my skin, which is in fact brown and associates that with the first brown thing in his mind…chocolate. I mean it could’ve been way worse. At least the first brown thing to pop into his mind wasn’t Unchi* sensei, that wouldn’t have been very much fun.
*Unchi (うんち) is the Japanese word (mostly used by kids) for poop or feces, which can also be brown.
One of the kids even broke out into the chorus of the popular Japanese song “Chocolate Disco,” by the Japanese band Perfume. This was a tune that was on a super-heavy, almost-irritating-because-they-play-it-so-much radio rotation a while back. Super repetitive, super sticky:
Who am I to knock a perfectly good learning experience for the kids? I just rolled with it 🙂 .
I can also recall another interesting story about my brown skin. I remember doing a private lesson for a 10-year-old girl at the eikaiwa I was working for. During the lesson I gave her free use of the whiteboard. For the thoughts should couldn’t fully express in English I allowed her to draw pictures on the board and we’d come up with simple ways to to say these things in English together.
During our conversation she pointed at my hand and was trying to say something I couldn’t quite get. At the time I couldn’t understand the Japanese she was using either.
She drew a picture of me on the board and the sun blazing down on me. She pointed to the sun and then lightly pinched the skin on the back of my hand. I instantly got what she was trying to communicate. She was trying to understand why my skin was the color it was. She was asking me if I had gotten sunburned.
Looking back, though I think the word she was saying was “Doushite?” Or the Japanese word for “Why?” She wanted to know why my skin is brown?
Again, this wasn’t a time to be offended, it was a great opportunity to expand a child’s thinking. I could tell she wasn’t saying to be rude or make jokes. She seemed genuinely mystified by it.
I tried my best to explain and draw pictures to let her know that my parents were also brown like me. Well, not exactly. Dad is very light, Mom is very dark and my siblings and I came out in between the two.
It’s a lesson I never forgot.
Sometimes it’s not just the kids you teach either. I remember fairly recently having a staff member at the gym ask me how I what kind of tanning I do to get my color to be so even. I was like “No, no, I don’t use tanning products…I got this tan from my parents.”
So the next time a kid asks a question that you want to dismiss as stupid, or you start to feel offended, think about the context. They may be asking an honest-to-goodness question to make better sense of the world around them. Be patient, and help them understand. This is especially important when you’re teaching in another country where the culture is completely different and the majority of people walking about look nothing like you.
What’s One of the Most Memorable Moments You’ve Had As A Teacher?
Donald Ash is an Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last eleven years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of thejapanguy.com blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.
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