26 September 2017 ~ 2 Comments

Is Baye-Sensei a Nee-Gah, Too?

There’s a cute little 13-year old ハーフ hafu  (biracial African-American and Japanese) among my 1st year students. Her name is Risa (not her real name) and she kinda favors Rue from “The Hunger Games”. After living in Mississippi for a few years, her family recently returned to Japan, so she speaks both English and Japanese fluently. She transferred to my school in August and seemed to be adjusting to life back in Japan and at our school fairly well.

That is, until yesterday.

There’s also a Returnee in the same class, 100% Japanese, named Hideki. His family lived in Saudi Arabia and Dubai for several years and he’d attended an international school there, so his English is fairly fluent as well.

I learned yesterday that, beneath my attention, a bit of a rivalry had sprung up between the two.

I had noticed from our first meeting that the girl was a bit outspoken, compared to her Japanese classmates, and not shy about her English ability whatsoever. This is remarkable because generally the English-speaking students at my schools have only spoken to me in English when their friends were not around or totally buried the ability for fear of becoming outstanding or even ostracized (it’s been known to happen). But Risa seemed to be unaware of these possible outcomes and displays conspicuous pride in her own bilingual-ness. The boy, Hideki (not his real name) was not as shy as most of his classmates but not as outspoken as Risa. Recently, according to Risa, he had taken to teasing and criticizing her and apparently it had gotten to a point where she felt compelled to bring it to my attention. In the rest period just before English class was to begin, we had the following conversation:

Risa: Mr. Baye, Hideki says I have an accent.

Me: Really? Speak, let me hear you talk.

Risa: What do you want me to say?  I don’t…”

Me: What does your father do?

Risa: He’s uh Petty Offisuh in duh Navy. He’s been in duh Navy since befo’ I was bawn. He’s from Mississippi and you kinda remind me uh him…

Me: Hideki’s right, you do have an accent…it’s a southern accent, kinda like my mother’s. It’s only a slight one, though. But, big deal! He’s got an accent too. His sounds British. I have an accent too, though I might be losing it living here. Everyone has some kind of accent.

Risa: He said my accent was a black accent.

Me: How would he know? What does that mean anyway?

Risa: I don’t know, but he said it was black and the way he said it made it sound like a bad thing. Is a black accent bad?

Me: There’s no such thing. And if there were it wouldn’t be a bad thing, so don’t pay him any mind.

I should mention that whenever her and I have a conversation, all eyes are riveted and ears are glued. It’s so rare for Japanese to see two native English speakers go at it live, especially if one just also happens to be their classmate as well. I worry about how this might impact her school life- her being able to communicate with the teacher better than anyone in the school that isn’t an adult (trying to be nice here…she’s actually better than all the Japanese English teachers put together), so I try to keep our interactions to a minimum. Risa jumps at every opportunity to flash her skill, though.

As she reported her conversation with Hideki to me, I picked up on something in the tone of her voice. Though she presented all of this with a nonchalance and a giddiness that I can only attribute to her youth, I knew that what Hideki had said had upset her.

So, now Hideki was on my radar.

And, from my vantage in front of the class, I could see what was happening. I’d ask a question and, if it weren’t too difficult, several hands would rise but if it were difficult only two would: Hideki’s and Risa’s. All the answers were simple for both of them so I avoided calling on them as often as possible. It felt fair, but as far as they were concerned they had as much right to answer the questions as their uni-lingual’d classmates. Hideki seemed to grasp what I was up to though and refrained from raising his hand every time. But, Risa was oblivious. She continued to raise her hand every time (forcing me to call on her from time to time.) Moreover, she’d even raise her hand to ask questions or volunteer remarks (which she’d happily translate into Japanese for her linguistically-challenged classmates)- something that other bilingual students rarely if ever did.

Yep, I could see what was going on. It was older than the club. It was probably what prompted the use of the club as a murder weapon rather than for protection from beast in the first place: jealousy.

I decided I had better do something to dial it back but I wasn’t exactly sure what. I decided I’d speak with the staff at my company at the next monthly meeting to see if they had any suggestions because I suspected my Japanese co-workers would be just as clueless as to how to resolve this equitably as I was. I mean, it is such a rare thing. In the years I’ve been working there, there have been a dozen or so English-speaking biracial kids or Returnees but,  by and large, somehow, whether through experience or intuition, they knew to downplay their ability as much as possible because that which might be cool and impress friends can also be intimidating for those lacking the ability.

Then, Friday, Risa, with a girlfriend in tow, runs up on me in the hallway, still her giddy and ostentatious self, and says:

Risa: Hi Mr. Baye.

Me: Hi Risa-chan, what’s up?

Risa: Well, it’s kind of funny, but not.

Me: What is?

Risa: Hideki called me a Nee-gu-ro.


Risa: It’s bad, right? I thought so…

Me: Well…er…what…what did he say?

Risa: He said I was nee-gu-ro…

Me: Is that all he said?

Risa: He also said neee-gah, but I know that’s bad. I wasn’t sure about Nee-gu-ro, though.

Me: Ummm…er…did you tell your homeroom teacher?

Risa: No, I just wanted to tell you because I knew you’d understand.

Me: Actually, I–

Risa: I said to him…. I said, “Is Mr. Baye a nee-gah, too?

Me: What???

Risa: But he didn’t say anything…he just…

Me: Wait a minute! Let me get this straight. Hideki called you a negro, and a nigger?

Risa: Yes.

Me: Thank you for telling me Risa. And, don’t worry, I’ll get to the bottom of this.

I walked away, a little bewildered and aghast. I mean, every time I hear things like this I’m shocked. One time, one of my third year students, a girl, was caught on the roof giving some of the guys oral sex. I couldn’t imagine any of my kids doing this, on either end of the blow job. If you knew my kids, their innocence, their naiveté, their utter openness and friendliness, you would be shocked, too. But, I had to remind myself that 1- these are teenagers. Experiment, raise hell and  break rules is what they do. It sure as hell is what I did when I was their age, and 2-As far as Hideki was concerned, he was not raised in the same environment as the other students. Who knows what he learned in British international schools in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Whereas the non-Returnee might think the same thoughts as Hideki they are probably less inclined to voice them to Risa’s face (or at least I’d like to think so).

But, I might be wrong about that, too.

I went to the office and immediately reported this to the head Japanese English teacher, who was appropriately angry and, in turn, reported it to Risa’s home room teacher, who was appropriately furious and threatened to send the kid home permanently. In due course, he brought it to the vice principal’s attention and a huddle was held in the center of the office where the three of them, along with a fourth teacher, the head teacher of the first-year students, decided what would be Hideki’s fate.

The huddle resulted in a clarification session with Risa confirming the story thoroughly, followed by Hideki’s being harshly scolded by his homeroom teacher, during which (I was told later) Hideki explained his racist remarks as being provoked by Risa’s character. The way she is always showing off her English ability had made him feel like he was being ignored by the teachers.

He explained that at one point he and Risa had had their hands up at the same time to answer a question and though I had called on him to answer it, following his answer, Risa had made some kind of remark in English regarding his response that he couldn’t catch, and that made him upset because he felt as if she were engaged in some kind of oneupmanship.

I tried to recall the particular incident…and it came back to me in living color.

I had been telling the class about my Junior High School life and explaining the differences between Junior High schools in NY and the ones here in Yokohama. For example, I told them that in NY on graduation day we wear a suit, cap and gown (and passed the pic below around to illustrate–they got a real kick outta seeing me at their age). At Japanese schools, they tend to wear their same uniform and no cap and gown to speak of.

I also mentioned that we had to be at school by 8:25am but if you wanted to have breakfast, you needed to arrive by 8am and breakfast would be made available for you. Also, I told them that classes began at 8:45 after home room.

Hideki had raised his hand and mentioned that in Dubai he had to be to school by 7:30. His voice barely audible but his pride in having a different experience than his entire class was evident on his face. And, at that point, Risa’s hand had shot up and she, once I had looked her way (but I hadn’t called on her) added that at her school in Mississippi, classes started at 8am and there was also breakfast available…and she had some other remarks, related to something I had discussed previously in the lesson, about graduation, which the Japanese teacher had found more remarkable than I had. Risa picked up on that curious energy from the Japanese teacher and expounded, translating it into Japanese for her classmates, and they responded appropriately with oohs and aahs.

If I had been tuned into Hideki at that moment I might have seen the emotions playing on his face, the jealousy seething within, the decision being made to exact revenge on little resplendent Risa … And I might have even caught a glimpse of what the thought (or God forbid feeling) Negro or Nigger does to a child of 13 who understands what he’s saying, knows it’s something that he shouldn’t say, and says it regardless, intent on inflicting pain on another.

I’m almost glad I didn’t notice. Who wants to see that?


PS: For more stories about real life in Japan, like this one, check out my books HERE!!


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2 Responses to “Is Baye-Sensei a Nee-Gah, Too?”

  1. Ariel 29 September 2017 at 6:49 am Permalink

    What an interesting story. I hope Risa and Hideki can learn to share their experiences rather than focus on their differences.

  2. J Michael Carter 3 October 2017 at 9:09 pm Permalink

    My kids spent a school year at a day care in Whitwell, Tn, and it too YEARS for them to shed an accent so heavy that other people in Tennessee call it “hillbilly”. Several years in a college town in Georgia smoothed much of the rest of it away, so it doesn’t seem to be a factor here in Kanagawa.
    My daughter absolutely loathes English class here. She was a gifted student in the states and is really chaffing under the yolk of introduction to her native tongue and doesn’t understand why they won’t let her read Wuthering Heights. Personally, I’d like them to pull her from that class and give her more Japanese practice.

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