“So, why do you know Swahili?” one of my more inquisitive students inquired.
“I studied it in elementary school…” I replied. “I had to study it, the way you have to study English.”
There were still looks of confusion on the students’ faces. The Japanese teacher looked as if it weren’t sitting well with her idea of how the world works, either.
“Do all…um…elementary school students have to study Swahili?” the Japanese teacher asked incredulously.
“No, not all.”
“Do many people speak Swahili in New York?” another student asked.
They were really struggling with this one, so I broke down and did what I was trying to avoid doing: I told them highlights of what I have explained about my elementary school in Part 1, leaving out the social commentary as much as possible.
As the bell to indicate the end of class began to chime, another student blurted out, “how do you say ‘goodbye’ in Swahili?”
The answer came to me instantly. “Tutaonana,” I said. ”Tutaonana watoto.”
“It means, ‘goodbye students,’ ” I added.
Standing before my class using the language my teachers used when I was kid, watching them play with making the foreign words, hurled memories at me. One in particular made me smile. ‘Watoto’ actually means ‘children’ not ‘students’ but I had been a child- all of 7 or 8 years old- when I was taught these Swahili words; not an early teen like my students.
While most of them race out of the door as soon as we officially end the class-with a bow and an “Arigatou gozaimasu”- some of the students, the ones either enamored with me or with English, or both, always hang around after class hoping for a chance to get their Loco/English fix. I’m kind of a ham so, if I’m not too busy, I have no problem indulging them.
“Loco-sensei?” one of my higher level English students sang.
“I want to learn in Swahili, too!” she said in English.
“Me too,” her sidekick said, practically bouncing in her enthusiasm. I glanced over the faces of the remaining students and they all seemed to concur.
“Really, now,” I said, knowing good and damn well I wasn’t qualified to teach Swahili. I’ve only recently become truly qualified to teach English. “Why?”
A couple of them scratched their heads. But, the questioner didn’t. She said, “I want to go to Africa!” And before I could get off my favorite question she answered it by adding, “I want to be a doctor because to help African children.”
Clearly, the wallpaper in the hallways with the dying, starving Africans had had an effect on her. Was it the desired effect? I wondered. I was nonetheless surprised. Only 14 years old and…
“Me too…” bouncing Little Me too-chan chimed.
Judging from the faces of the others they would sooner become MIB or LIB (the freshman Salarymen and Office Ladies wear black to work every day) than don a white lab coat and diagnose the deathly ill and/or stick needles in the arms of the malnourished in the middle of a blazing desert or sweltering jungle.
“Well, I’m sorry but I’ve forgotten most of my Swahili,” I said in Japanese. “I can teach you a few words and phrases though…”
Their faces all lit up.
That’s when I noticed Terrence (not his real name, but close enough.) Terrence isn’t an English Groupie so I was surprised to see his face among them. He’d usually take to the halls and horseplay with his cronies. Something about today’s lesson must have sparked his interest. I shouldn’t have been surprised though. Terrence isn’t the only so-called haafu in the school, but he’s the only half-black one. His blood is half African (his father is Kenyan) and half Japanese, but, as far as who he is, he is all Japanese. It took me several months of our entire 1st year at the school to get that through my thick skull, but eventually it got through. He favors one of the guys I went to school with back in NY, a guy named Richard. Rich was half-Jamaican half Chinese but all-American if you know what I mean.
Terrence is tall, thin, fairly dark, with a curly Afro. He has a scratchy husky voice, going through changes currently but I think at the far side of this vocal metamorphosis will be a Barry White baritone that’ll drive the girls wild.
Terrence and I have the strangest relationship I’ve ever had with a student and, trust me, that’s saying a lot. Our relationship began my, and his, first day of class back in 2007. I had just begun my tenure at this Junior HS and he had just arrived, fresh from the local elementary school along with more than half of his classmates. Thus most of the students already knew or knew of one another while I knew nobody, students nor faculty. The Japanese teacher introduced me to the class, and while she did, I scanned the faces before me, this sea of young, nervous, excited Japanese faces until I came upon an island: Terrence’s black face. Just as nervous, just as excited, just as Japanese in every respect aside from color and features.
My shock was conspicuous. The class turned to see what had given me the jolt, and saw Terrence. Some shrugged with indifference, as if to say, “whatchagonnado.” Some smiled with comprehension, like this was well-traversed territory; ‘he gets that a lot’, they seemed to say. Terrence rolled with it. No more or less embarrassed than any student would be if put on the spot on the first day of class. And I realized, abruptly, what I had done. I had done to him what has been done to me since my arrival here in Kawaiiland: I’d singled him out as different. I ripped my eyes off of him and attempted to resolve myself not to set them upon him again in any significant way, any way different from the way I set my eyes upon any of the whole Japanese students, for the rest of his days in the school.
But, because of his blackness and my delusional pleasure at being around someone who I thought could vaguely identify with me, I had immediately taken a liking to him…which made it all the more difficult to treat him like everyone else. I could see it in the faces and the behavior of the other students, Terrence’s friends. They tried to push us together at every opportunity. If I asked any of them a question, whether in English or Japanese, and Terrence was in the vicinity, they’d turn to him as if to say, ‘hey T, any idea what this guy’s rambling about?’ They’d probably never seen him interact with another black person so they were probably curious as to what would happen. Would Terrence suddenly shed this veneer of Japanese-ness he’d been masquerading since they’d met him and become the gaijin he appeared to be, the one that surely lurked within him? To be honest, after meeting him a couple of times on his own, and seeing how Japanese he really was, I’d secretly hoped the same thing…
The first time I ran into him alone I’d said to him almost instinctively, “Hey! What’s up, Terrence?”
“Loco-sensei, Ohayou Gozaimasu,” he replied, nod-bowing, smiled coyly and tried to keep it moving. It was typical behavior of most of the Japanese boys I’ve ever run into outside of the school, especially the shy ones but, from him, it came off as cold somehow. I caught up with him. I’m pretty persistent once I get an idea in my head.
“So, Terrence, how do you like the school?”
Blank frozen smile, slightly uncomfortable. I’d seen that face a several thousand times and it’d struck me like a slap: He didn’t know English.
I stood there, a little shocked. In six years I’d only met one other black person in Japan that didn’t know English. It had happened about 6 years ago with a girl, haafu from all appearances, and so beautiful I’d wanted to propose to her right there on that station platform. I’d overcome my shyness and said, “Hi, how are you?” and she’d looked at me the same way Terrence did. She’d told me she didn’t speak English at all but I had filed that away as she was just trying to avoid being picked up. She’d probably been getting harassed by foreigners left and right she was so fine.
I asked Terrence in Japanese did he speak English or any other language besides Japanese and he said he didn’t. There was no guile, no shame. Of what use is English to me? I could almost hear him say. As I walked beside him towards the school that morning, a thousand questions raced through my mind, but I felt uncomfortable asking any of them. It was none of my business. But curiosity trumped decorum and rudely I pried.
“Are you African?” I asked. In Japan, I’ve learned that black is black. I’ve yet to meet a Japanese person who could distinguish between African-American and African. Though there are many variations of African and of African-American rarely have I been unable to ascertain with a glance whether a person was from my quadrant of the globe or from The Motherland. I might mistake a Caribbean person, especially Haitian or Cuban, for African, but rarely an American. There are distinct physical differences usually. Skin tone is usually not the cue though people from certain African countries have a certain density of blackness uncommon in the States. Facial structure is usually how I can distinguish between us and them and Terrence’s screamed African, though clearly diluted by Asian, probably Japanese.
He’d shuddered a bit and said that he wasn’t. I was surprised at the response.
“Where are your parents from?” I asked, and immediately regretted it. I could vaguely hear the echo of a thousand 100% Japanese people asking him the same type of questions. But, with the patience of the culture he has been nurtured in, he told me that his father was Kenyan and his mother Japanese. He smiled again, uncomfortably, offering more than a subtle hint that I should drop this line of questioning if I have any sense of Japanese propriety about me.
I did. So, I dropped it. I would find out later in the school year from my co-workers that Terrence’s father had gone back to Kenya while he was an infant and so he was being raised by his Japanese mother and, shockingly, a Japanese step-father.
From that point on I observed Terrence but never paid him any undue attention. I often go out of my way to interact with the students as much as possible. In addition to making my work life more enjoyable, I tell myself I’m doing this for the future of Japan. The more these kids interact with me and experience that foreigners are nothing to be afraid of the more likely that in the future xenophobia will be impacted positively and the foolishness I endure now will occur less often then. But, unfortunately, when I interact with Terrence I feel a certain caution.
It’s unfair but it’s real.
I feel I can not treat Terence as I treat the other students. Maybe it’s one of the side effects of my having lived in Japan for so long. From what I’ve learned of the haafu experience in Japan and from what I’ve experienced as a foreigner / black man living in Japan, and from what I remember of my adolescence and the emotional fragility I had, I figure his life in Japan must be and will continue to be an ordeal. And though I’m very curious how he copes, and would love to offer him any support I can provide, I keep my feelings at bay for his sake. It’s hard enough for a teen to fit in. Even for a teen in a school in NYC fitting in can be a dangerous balancing act. Even for a 100% Japanese teen, I’ve noticed, it can get really tricky. So I knew I had better back off or I’d be responsible for making his school life a great deal less comfortable than it already is.
So, when I saw his face among the kids clamoring to converse with me I figured he had to be curious about the language spoken in his father’s homeland. It gave me a tinge of a feeling I’m not particularly proud of…it’s not pity, but it lingers in that same Pandora’s box of useless dehumanizing feelings better left locked away. Why? Because Terrence, with his half-African blood and half-African parentage is no more African than I am.
to be continued…here’s pt 3