A Downer Post

It is interesting, I have been emailed on several occasions by different people saying that our blog is inspiring, that we manage to be so positive about everything that we are experiencing. That is not a result of everything being perfect and wonderful and shiny here, I assure you. It is a result of the fact that we have made a conscious decision to make this a mostly positive place. It is a little space on the internet where we write and reflect on the interesting and enjoyable moments that we have experienced. It is a place where I, also, look to remind me of all the good things that I have experienced as a result of being here. I reread posts, especially when I am having a particularly bad day, and it helps me refresh and focus on what I have learned. As a whole, we have made the choice not to rant about bad things that happen, complain about our work or our lives, because, honestly, it is just not always that helpful and those are not the things that I want to remember and focus on ten years from now when I reread all these little essays.

That being said, today’s post is going to be a bit of complaining. One, because sometimes it is necessary to get it out on paper, reflect and move on. Two, because it may be interesting for you to hear about some of my frustrations and difficulties with being here. And, three, because I think there is something interesting and significant at the root of my troubles, something worth thinking about and considering.

Aaron posted about visiting the deaf school last week. And, I must say, I am insanely jealous of his incredibly positive experience there. After hearing about his time at the school, I got very excited about my visit this week to the handicapped school in Gifu. I thought it would be a welcome change of pace, a chance for me to see a new school and work with new students and people. Even though I was excited, I was also really nervous for the same reasons.

I think, in general, I take a little more time than most people to adapt and adjust to a new environment. I usually spend a little more time sitting back and taking it all in, figuring out what is going on and what my role is. Well, when you are only able to spend five days in an entire calendar year at a particular school there isn’t much time for this adjustment period. I was thrown right in, and I must say, I felt really uncomfortable.

Perhaps, what made me feel the most uncomfortable was that they seemed to have a very defined idea of what an American is and what they should act like, and apparently I didn’t fit that mold. The first day that I got there, within five minutes they wanted me to speak in front of the entire staff in English and Japanese to introduce myself. Given that I have a lot of trouble with Japanese, I am still working on my skills, and that I tend to be quite shy and reserved in a new place and with new people, this terrified me to no end and it wasn’t necessarily the best way for me to start my day in a new place.

Then, after the staff meeting where I successfully introduced myself (with a smile on my face) we started walking around the school. The one teacher who was in charge of me was actually quite good at English and that made me feel a bit better.

Once we got upstairs to see the school I met a few of the teachers I would be working with that day. One of them ran up to me with a santa hat and santa suit and told me that today I would be santa-san. That I would have to wear the suit. Now, this just struck me as incredibley insensitive. First of all, not all Foreigners celebrate Christmas. I am so glad, for their sake, that I do. I can only imagine what a terrible scene would have been created had I been, you know, Jewish. I am continually amazed at how commercial Christmas is here. To them, it is just cake and decorations and presents. They have absolutely no idea that the holiday is a Christian holiday with very strong religious ties. No Idea! The second problem was that I was already in an incredibly strange and uncomfortable situation and now I was being told that I had to dress-up like Santa. I hate dressing up! It makes me feel even more akward and shy than I usually do.

So, now, I am in a new place. The teachers are speaking mostly Japanese and I am struggling to understand, and I am wearing a Santa suit. Great!

Then, I start visiting classrooms to work with the students. Now, I knew this was a school for disable children. I knew that many of their disabilities were quite severe. And I knew that I was going to have to relate to them in different ways because many of them were unable to communicate with me using oral language – Japanese or English. I was told, beforehand, that I would need to interact with the students by touching them. As, sometimes, that physical stimulus would be all that they would respond to. Even though I was told all of this beforehand, I guess I wasn’t really prepared for what I was about to experience.

None of the classrooms (except for two) had desks. Many of the students had very severe physical and mental disabilities. Some of the students had tubes on their faces and bodies. Many of them had splints on their legs. Some of them required suction through their nose or mouth during class. Many of them drooled and required constant wiping of their mouth. Very few of them were able to communicate using any oral language. I was shocked! And quite frankly, I had no idea what to do. I had no idea what the students would respond positively to, what they would enjoy, I had no relationship with them.

I did my best that first day, but I will be the first to admit that I was a bit distant. I sang songs and held hands. I gave high fives to the students that could. I rubbed backs. I read a story in English. I did whatever the teachers asked of me. I tried.

But then, the next day that I showed up, a teacher pulled me aside and explained that she was quite disappointed. She told me that I was cold, that I didn’t touch the students enough, she told me that other teachers were not happy about how I was in the classroom. She explained to me that I would have to speak again at the staff meeting and reassure the staff that I was a nice person, that I would try harder, and that they shouldn’t be so nervous. Wait a second!!! I have to reassure them?! This is just about when I lost it (in my mind anyways).

Why should I have to reassure them???? They know the students. They know where the classrooms are. They know what to do, how to touch the students (without hurting them), they know what the students like, they know the language they are speaking, and they know each other. I am the one that should be nervous. I am the one that needs to be reassured. I am the one that doesn’t know anybody, doesn’t understand what is going on, doesn’t know how to interact with these students, doesn’t know where things are and doesn’t really know what is expected of me. I am the one that shows up and does my best and tries really hard only to find out that they were unhappy and disappointed. I was stunned!

So, then the staff meeting started again and I was handed the microphone. I felt like quite the fool, but as I was fighting off tears I told the staff that I would do better. That they shouldn’t be nervous with me. That I would try my best to speak Japanese and that they should try their best with English. That we could understand one another. That we could have a good time. It was ridiculous. The words spilled out of my mouth when every part of me wanted to say something else. But I didn’t. I held it together and I kept telling myself in my mind that it would be ok. That I would do my best and that was all I could do.

After the meeting I had a full schedule. I visited six different classrooms, without the Santa suit, and the day did go a bit better. Of course, I felt a little more comfortable because it was my second day there. I knew my way around a bit. I knew where the bathroom was. I knew a few of the students and I had talked to a few of the teachers. I tried my best to interact physically with the students, but I must admit that I was still afraid. I was afraid that I would hurt them, that I would touch them in an uncomfortable way. They all seemed so fragile.

And, with all my trying, I did have a few cool moments. One student, in junior high, was so happy to see me. So, I went to join her for lunch on the second day. We ate together speaking Japanese and English as much as we could and had a splendid time. I was so glad that I could understand her and she could understand me. I also had a good time in Music class. During that class I spoke almost entirely in Japanese and was really proud of myself. I was even able to crack a few jokes in Japanese which was a pretty cool feeling.

And, at the end of the day the Principal pulled me into his office. We talked, again all in Japanese, about my experience and he thanked me for coming. Then, he walked over to his cabinet filled with Japanese tea cups and pulled one out and presented it to me. He is an avid collector of these tea cups, he has hundreds (he showed me pictures in a picture book) and he wanted me to have one. I was so flattered and honored and I thanked him about a hundred times. Obviously, he was happy that I was there.

So, yes, there were some good moments and I did have some fun times. But when I got home I was exhausted. Speaking in Japanese for two entire days is so difficult on so many levels. And, for whatever reason, the only thing that continued to repeat in my mind was that they were disappointed in me. That I was cold. I couldn’t get that thought out of my head and I couldn’t forget it. Finally, I told Aaron about my day and what they had said and I fell apart into one big sobbing mess.

He gave me a big hug, he took deep breaths with me, and reassured me that I had done my best and that is all I can do. I know he is right, but somehow, even now, I feel pretty badly about the two days. I have to go back for three days in January. And, I must say that I am actually dreading it. I am not quite sure how I can make sure that those days are a positive experience, but I will try. And, I know that is all that I can do.

Posted on Thursday, December 20th, 2007 at 11:08 am. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Responses to “A Downer Post”

  1. Your "Mom" says:

    Wow. When you have a bad experience, you REALLY have a bad experience. I can’t imagine how I would react in a situation like that. I do know this. I would never have and will never have the courage that it would take to do what you and Aaron have done. For this I admire and respect you both immensely. You are learning things that people twice and three times your age will never learn. Your lives are being enriched at such a young age. Just think of who you will be when you are Forty (yes this will happen). This is not because you are in a different country. It is because of your positive (and rather idealistic) outlook on life. We all could learn lessons from you.

    P.S. Any pictures of you in the Santa suit?

  2. Alycia says:

    Danielle, I think that even the way that you started out this post is really admirable. I have been having some really severe problems in the workplace lately and I definitely tend to vent about good as much as the bad. But this situation sounds pretty emotionally impossible, and you should be proud of what you have been able to do, and that you still maintain a goal of keeping positive, sticking with it, and helping where you can. I think it’s great that you were able to connect with one student in particular and that you made their time better while you were there.

    I also know it’s really hard when you’re in a situation where you feel like it’s inappropriate to point out your own style and comfort level in ENGLISH, so I can imagine it is that much harder when you throw in cultural and language issues. So props to you for all of this.

  3. […] up to spend the first three days of the week at the handicapped school in Gifu. Remember that experience from last month??? Believe me, I sure do. So, it didn’t surprise me that I wasn’t […]

  4. Grandma says:

    I am very proud of you!

    Love, Grandma

  5. […] my time in Japan, all 17 months of it, I can easily and clearly pick one day that was my ABSOLUTE worst day here. That day is still so vivid in my mind, as though it just […]

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