Staring Contest

aka What does "Grassroots Internationalization" REALLY mean?

So today I want to talk about something that's been on my mind this week.

Awhile back, I was hanging out in town with another ALT at a restaurant and we had two kids actually come over to us and stare.

So since they were there, I smiled and said "hello," à la Sarah Busche. May as well practice English with them, right? But it's not until I turn around that I see my fellow ALT, glaring them down before asking what?! in Japanese.

I joked that it was totally a "good cop/bad cop" schtick. Well, I was amused anyway.

So then we started talking about the staring thing. If you were in the Culture Shock workshop at orientation, we talked about how you can react when Japanese people find you oddly fascinating. (I also kibbitzed that Arkies found freshman-me, with my crazy, heathen, blue hair worth staring at ... so I was kind of used to it.) Nine times out of ten, I'm too oblivious to notice anyway.

But the other ALT and I started talking about how your reaction DOES depend a lot on your mood (and to be fair, I was feeling pretty magnanimous that night. And my dining partner wasn't. We both agree that it's probably not good to be so capricious about it-- but that it's easy to forget when you feel like shit.)

Here's what I've been thinking about. During our discussion, he said something like "It's rude to stare at people. So these kids need to learn that."

And I totally agree. They would probably not do something like this to other Japanese people. But evidently, being gaijin creates a whole new set of rules. (Admit it, if you're female and like to go drinking in mixed company, you've played the gaijin card, too! We've ALL played the gaijin card at some point.) So the rules work both ways. They make life easier for us, but also give Japanese people an excuse to do things that would otherwise be unacceptable.

But we can't change the Insider/Outsider mentality here. It's pretty deeply entrenched. Hell, I find myself being vaguely xenophobic towards unfamiliar non-Japanese people!

("Who's that foreigner!? What's he doing in MY city?!" )

Of course this is ridiculous. ("Hello, whitey--Look who's talking!") But it still crosses my mind. Because being Japanese (or not) is a big deal here--and because people, wherever they are, like to categorize their world and make sense of it. This usually means having to make assumptions about people.

Sometimes, this is a good thing. It helps you make decisions on whether, for example, to trust the fellow backpacker in your hostel, or that it's probably a good idea to tread lightly when you're stranded in rural Alabama and the locals want to talk politics and you 're a firm Democrat.

But (and you know where I'm going here) other times it just leads to blanket generalizations: "Americans don't know how to use chopsticks;"
"British people are terrible cooks;"
"Japanese people are really into high-tech stuff."

But I'm digressing.

Returning to the whole "rude" thing:

  1. Yes, it is offensive to be ogled.
  2. And yes, doubly so when the ogler walks right up to you like you're in a zoo.
  3. And yes, learning this should be part of children's education and socialization.
  4. And yes, we are here for that purpose as educators in and out of the classroom.

So why did we end up doing good cop/bad cop?

I can't lie. A lot of it had to do with how I was feeling. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the intent of a teacher is not as important as what the student takes from the lesson.

I know this because I remember slogging through stupid, god-awful school projects ...only to find myself thinking two months later, "Hey, I think it would really be cool if we did [insert similar project here] to learn this thing."

So here's the big question turning over in my mind:

When you stare back at shougakkousei who wander over to stare at you, and when you ask them what they think they're doing in Japanese, what do the kids REALLY learn?

You wanted them to learn that this behavior is not okay, right?

But if I were a kid, my 5-year-old self would just think that gaijin are categorically mean and I should be afraid of them.

I think kids have a right to be curious. That's how they learn about their world. Even if we want to teach them polite behavior, is it worth suppressing that natural curiosity? I'm inclined to say "no". I'd rather let them satisfy their curiosity and try to get them to realize that people are all different and paradoxically the same. Now, I can't explain that to a 6 year old, even if my Japanese were any good. But maybe I can show him.

Eventually, I expect my novelty to wear off for the people in Moro-patch. But I don't think there is an easy or immediate way to teach kids about other people. I wish there were. I try to go into situations in good faith because I think it helps smooth over cultural differences. The best I can do is try to point things like this out in my classes and hope that word gets around.


I know this post reads like an insufferably pedantic rant. I'm not trying to say that "my way was the right way". I'm not sure it was. I'm posting because this week sort of inadvertently turned into my blogging week and I want to see what other people think about the issue. Also, apologies for my poor examples. I know they're not water-tight, but they're the best I could do between classes.