This post is by Loco In Yokohama, author of Hi! My Name Is Loco And I Am A Racist and Loco In Yokohama which cover his English teaching adventures in Japan. The post itself is an excerpt from his new book (Loco In Yokohama), covering the topic of “Haafu” (half Japanese, half something else) children in Japan.
One of the most significant challenges of being an English teacher in a Japanese junior high school, for me, has been deciding how to deal with students who aren’t Japanese– in the strictest sense. In particular, those of biracial or multiracial heritage, or what are known among the Japanese as Haafu (Japanese for “half”, meaning half Japanese, half another race or ethnicity).
In the ten years I’ve taught here, I’ve taught a number of these kids. Some were blended with Caucasian, some with African, some with even other Asian ethnicities like Chinese and Korean. And I’ve found that though their experiences here in Japan had some similarities, that each child presented a different set of challenges.
In my new book, Loco in Yokohama, I describe in detail the situations that arose, both positive and negative, out of their being classified different from the rest of the student body. I also go into my thought process as I addressed these varied issues, as well as the emotional toll this can have on the teacher even when s/he is endeavoring to keep a certain emotional distance.
As a bonus to Tofugu readers I have submitted the following excerpts:
The first is the tale of “Terrence” (not his real name) a biracial first-year student who’d never stepped foot out of Japan.
Terrence wasn’t the only so-called haa-fu (what Japanese call people mixed with some other ethnicity or race) in Mendokusai, but he was the only black one among the third-year students.
His father was Kenyan and his mother Japanese, but as far as who he was, how he carried himself, and how he interacted with the world, he wasn’t half-anything. He was all Japanese. It had taken me several months to get that through my thick skull, but eventually it got through.
Terrence was tall, lanky, and fairly dark-skinned with a curly Afro. He had a scratchy husky voice that was going through adolescent changes, but I imagined at the far side of that vocal maturation would be a Barry White baritone that’ll drive the girls wild.
Terrence and I had the strangest relationship I’d 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 Mendokusai Junior High 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. Kawaguchi-sensei (my co-worker) introduced me to the class while I scanned this sea of young, nervous, excited Japanese faces. That’s when I came upon an island in this sea, Terrence’s black face. He was just as nervous, just as excited, and just as “Japanese” in every respect aside from his 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, though. No more or less embarrassed than any student would be if put on the spot on the first day of class. And that was when I realized, abruptly, what I had done. I had done to him what has been done to me ever since my arrival here in Japan, I’d singled him out as different.
I tore my eyes off of him and ordered myself not to set them on him again in any significant manner or in any way different from the way I set my eyes on any of his presumably full-blooded Japanese classmates 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 despite my efforts.
And I seemed to be having the same effect on some of the other students, particularly 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 happened to be 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 that 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 appeared to be, I’d secretly hoped the same thing!
Editor’s Commentary: The most interesting part of this excerpt, to me, is that Loco (who stands out) looked at Terrence in the same way that people look at him. It’s a super interesting phenomenon, where when you spend some time in Japan you automatically start to try to fit in, because that’s just what everyone does. In a sense, he was doing this so well that he was shocked by someone else who stood out, even though they were both in the same shoes.
There was a cute little haafu, all of 13 years old, among my first-year students. She was half-African-American, half-Japanese, and went by the name of Risa. She spoke both English and Japanese fluently. She was tall and had light brown skin, with what my mother would call good hair—long and curly straight like a professional hair weave, only natural. Her eyes were an alluring mix of Asian and African. One day she was going to have to carry a baseball bat to keep the boys at bay, and an industrial-sized can of mace in her purse for the pervs!
She was born in Yokohama, and after having lived in Mississippi for several years, her family returned to Japan. She then, mid-semester, was enrolled at Mendokusai and, by all appearances, was adjusting to life back in Japan and at the school fairly well.
That is, until that day.
There was another English speaker, a returnee (had spent a significant amount of time abroad), in the same class. He, however, was 100% Japanese, but his family had lived in Saudi Arabia for several years and he’d attended an international school there, so his English was fairly fluent, as well. His name was Hideki.
I learned that day that, beneath my radar, a bit of a rivalry had sprung up between the two.
I had noticed from our first meeting that Risa was a bit outspoken compared to her Japanese classmates, and not shy about her English ability whatsoever. This was remarkable because most of the English-speaking students at my schools would only speak to me in English when their friends were not around or totally buried the ability for fear of appearing outstanding, a no-no in these parts, or even being ostracized. But Risa seemed to be unaware of these consequences and displayed conspicuous pride in her own bilingual-ness. Hideki, however, though he was not as shy as most of his classmates, was much less outspoken than 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. She caught me in the hallway during the rest period just before English class was to begin, and said, “Mr. Loco, Hideki says I have an accent.”
“Really?” I hadn’t noticed. “Let me hear you talk.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“What does your father do?”
“He’s uh petty offisuh in duh Navy. He’s been in duh Navy since befo’ I was bohn. He’s from Mississippi an’ you kinda reminds me uh him.”
“Well, Risa, I think Hideki might be right. You do have an accent. It’s a Southern accent, kinda like my mother’s. But, big deal! He’s got an accent, too. His sounds British. I have an accent, too. Everyone has some kind of accent.”
“He said my accent was a black accent.”
Now, how the hell would he know that?
“What do you think he means by that?” I asked, curious about how this was affecting her. Outwardly, she wasn’t giving me much to work with, looking just as perky as always.
“I dunno, but he said it was “black” and the way he said it made it sound like a bad thing. Is a black accent bad?”
“There’s no such thing. And if there were, it wouldn’t be a bad thing, so don’t pay him any mind.”
Whenever she and I have a conversation, all the Japanese eyes in the vicinity are riveted and ears are glued. It was so rare for them to see two native English speakers go at it live, especially if one happened to be their classmate, as well. I worried about how this might impact her school life with her being able to communicate with the teacher better than anyone in the school, and all the Japanese English teachers put together, so I’d try to keep our interactions to a minimum. Risa, though, jumped at every opportunity to flash her skill.
As she continued reporting her conversation with Hideki to me, I started picking up on something in the tone of her voice. Though she presented all of this with a nonchalance and a giddiness that I could only attribute to her youth, I knew that what Hideki said had upset her.
So, now this situation was on my radar.
And, now that it was, I could see clearly what was happening.
I’d ask a question and, if it wasn’t too difficult, several hands would rise, but if it was difficult, only two would, Hideki’s and Risa’s. All of 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 mono-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 as often as possible, obliging 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 I’ve taught would rarely, if ever, do.
Yep, I could see what was going on. It was older than the spiked club. It was probably what prompted the use of it as a murder weapon in addition to hunting and protection from beasts in the first place—good ole’ fashioned jealousy.
Editor’s Commentary: I’ve also seen this as well, so I’m wondering if this is a pretty normal occurrence. Not only with people who speak fluent English, but with exchange students studying abroad in Japan as well. It’s almost as if they’re put in their own group and they have to compete within it. This is pretty true across the board, though. If you’re on a baseball team, you compete to practice the hardest. Or, if you’re taking a test, you compete to get the highest test score. It just so happens that kids who speak English are part of a very small circle. So, when they compete it really, really stands out. At least, that’s what I feel is going on here.
While appearance-wise so-called “haafus” might stand out among the masses, I’ve found that they are essentially struggling with the same issues of identity, maturity, and finding a place in society as their presumably full-blooded classmates. Only, their struggle is compounded by this additional burden of fitting in against the odds in a fairly homogeneous society. It is my hope that this kind of classification is removed some day, not only from Japan but from other nations as well so that anyone of any race can live up to their fullest potential. As Dr. Martin Luther King once said I hope they will “…be measured by the content of their character.” I’ve seen a number of hopeful signs of this kind of thinking taking hold in Japan during my tenure teaching here, and I described a lot of them in my new book.
I want to thank Tofugu for allowing me to excerpt my book here, and I hope you all enjoyed this taste of Loco in Yokohama. For more on Terrence and Risa, and a number of other amazing students of both unicultural and multicultural backgrounds, as well as some remarkable educators tasked to introduce the world to them, pick up a copy of Loco in Yokohama. More information on the book is available at locoinyokohama.com.