When I’m in Japan, I almost forget that I can speak Spanish. Being from Peru, Spanish is my native language, which surprises quite a bit of people here, especially the Japanese. People say I don’t really have an accent and that’s mainly because I went to ESL classes since I was 5. Since I started at such a young age, I quickly picked up on the language. I honestly don’t remember much of the ESL classes except that the teacher was nice. Just for a brief moment though, I was a kid who was in a school where I understood next to nothing. I honestly couldn’t tell you how that felt because I was too young to remember it. I can’t imagine how it was like with my brother and parents though—moving to a foreign land with next to no knowledge about English seems daunting to me.
I was reminded of this when the Board of Education called me the other day about helping out a family. The entire family was from Peru and could only speak Spanish and very little Japanese. It was hard not to compare it to my own family’s experience when we moved to the U.S. Despite being really sick that day, I agreed to see them. According to my boss, when he passed over the phone to the mom and she heard me speak in Spanish, her worried face quickly transformed into a glowing one.
My boss picked me up and I went to the Board of Education Center. Heading into the BOE is always a little weird because you get side glances from everyone. I suppose a foreigner entering the building doesn’t happen too often, even though we work for them. I was able to recognize a bunch of people I have worked with over the years though so it didn’t feel unwelcoming.
Anyways, I sat down with my boss, the family, and another BOE staff member. What ensued was a trilingual conversation. The BOE staff member would say something in Japanese. If I was able to understand, I’d translate it to Spanish to the family. If I had no idea what the BOE said, my boss translated it to English for me. I almost never had a situation where I’m using all of the languages that I (somewhat) know, so it was quite the juggle. Being really sick didn’t help either. There were a few times where I’d screw up and be speaking to a person in the wrong language. My boss laughed when I accidentally started talking to him in Spanish.
Somehow or another, we got through the conversation. The family wanted to enroll their 11 year old boy to an elementary school. I had to tell them what school they’d be going to, what grade he’d be in, and what to expect from school life. We also had to figure out how to get this boy accustomed to school since he spoke no Japanese. When I heard he was going to my Friday school, I was a little worried. It’s not a bad school, but there are some really bratty kids there. Also, in the past three years of teaching at various schools, I have witnessed bullying a few times. Like when I was young, people were bullied for the most awful reasons—they had a learning disability, they weren’t Japanese, they dressed “funny”, etc. When I thought about a boy who was a foreigner and didn’t speak the language at all, I was really worried. Even my good schools have students that happily say “I don’t like China!”. When I would ask them why, they couldn’t come up with a good reason.
It was decided that the first day that Hiro, the Peruvian boy, would come to school would be my final day there. I felt bad, but since the school year was coming to an end, it really couldn’t be helped. I decided that I wanted to do as much as possible for the little guy on that one day. I knew he was going to need all the help he could.
During our meeting, I learned that Takahama-sensei was going to be his homeroom teacher. Takahama-sensei teaches the fourth graders so I almost never interact with him. However, he would come to my desk from time to time and we would chit chat in Japanese and English. I knew he was a really good teacher just by talking to him and how he interacted with other teachers. A really friendly guy who isn’t afraid of a challenge, I knew he was a perfect match for this situation. Even the mother had a good feeling about him.
Hiro’s first day started out by meeting the principal and Takahama-sensei. They gave me a run through of the day’s schedule, which involved me in every period that I wasn’t teaching English. It was going to be rough, but I couldn’t complain because I was the only lifeline between Hiro and the school. First period involved going to one of the empty classrooms to introduce him to all the fourth graders. When we came in, I saw all the fourth graders sitting down on the floor in awe at us. I heard whispers from everyone ranging from “Whoa, he looks like a badass!” to “Hey, nice to meet you!” Everyone happily greeted him to which he shrugged and hid behind us. I couldn’t blame him but I knew he had to get out of that shell if he wanted to connect with his classmates.
After the introduction, we went outside to play dodgeball. I had to explain to Hiro how dodgeball was played here and he looked really confused. The fourth grade boys here really shone though and were trying to explain him through gestures on how to play. They also huddled around him to protect him from any incoming balls. It was really sweet, they were acting if they were escorting a VIP and protecting him from terrorists. I saw a boy take a hit for him and he yelled out “Oh good! It didn’t hit Hiro!” I got some attention too; kids were really impressed when I hit a kid with a long shot. Everyone cheered, myself included (I suck at dodgeball).
As the bell rung, I hesitantly ran off to get ready for English class. I usually have all day to prepare but today I had to quickly grab all my teaching materials and go over my plan before barely getting to class on time. While I was teaching my kids, I was simply thinking about how Hiro was doing. His class was currently doing Math and Takahama-sensei said he could participate if he wanted to but if it was too much, they’d send him back to the teacher’s office. Hiro mentioned earlier that he really liked math so he was curious how it was taught there.
I ran back to Takahama-sensei’s class once the bell rung, and asked how Hiro was doing. He simply looked at me and gave me a thumbs up and showed me today’s classwork. Hiro had aced the entire sheet, making no mistakes. “The kid’s a genius,” he told me while some girls were saying “Aw man. I wish I was good at math!” I later asked him about it and Hiro told me that he was confused at first because the way they do certain math is different but as soon as he realized what they were doing, it was a breeze.
Third period revolved around walking Hiro around and showing him the school grounds. We chatted for awhile. I asked him how it was going and he said it was good, and that if he could survive lunch, he wanted to come everyday. School lunch was Hiro’s biggest worry: he had never eaten Japanese food before and he hated stuff like fish and milk. Just hearing that he was having fun though and wanted to come everyday was a good sign that things were going to be alright.
Fourth period came around. Here Hiro was going to properly introduce himself to his class, 4-1. During third period I had been teaching Hiro how to do a self-intro in Japanese. He nailed it when it came to do it in front of the class. The entire class erupted in cheers and applause, especially when Takahama-sensei told them he just learned it last period.
This was probably the most heartfelt part of the day. All of Takahama-sensei’s students introduced themselves in Spanish. I had no idea this was going to happen as the teacher did not consult me at all on how to do a self-intro in Spanish. All the kids were very energetic, especially one boy named Kakeru who kept yelling “Me gusta futbol! ( like soccer!)” The rest of the period involved Hiro pulling name cards out of a box and having to guess whose name belonged to whom.
After that was the hour of truth: lunch time. I was invited to eat with 4-1 and I agreed—I had a feeling Hiro was going to have a rough time with lunch. I was right, he could barely eat a quarter of his food and kept proclaiming that tofu was fish (despite me telling him otherwise). Takahama-sensei laughed and simply said “Don’t worry Hiro, anything you can’t eat, you can give to the boy next to you. He’s a walking garbage truck.” The boy next to him happily nodded and took everything Hiro couldn’t eat and ate it all up. I couldn’t blame Hiro not liking that day’s lunch, even I had difficulty finishing it. However, he wasn’t giving up. “I hate this stuff, but if I have to get used to it if I’m going to come here everyday.” I definitely wouldn’t have said that at his age!
I was busy teaching my students English so I didn’t see Hiro again until sixth period. We met at the principal’s office and we got a rundown from both Hiro and Takahama-sensei on how the day went. We also planned how they were going to understand each other since I wasn’t going to be there until maybe next school year. Hiro was very eager to come to class everyday for the entire day, even though we told him he didn’t have to. I was very impressed at how the school staff treated Hiro. He got a bunch of free stuff from the principal, Takahama-sensei didn’t treat him differently at all and was all chummy with him despite not being able to communicate with him well, and other staff members were looking out for him in between classes.
After planning their schedule for next week, it was time for him to go. I didn’t know if I was going to be seeing Hiro again (since I don’t know if I will change schools), but after seeing all the acts of kindness he received from all the staff and his classmates, I wasn’t worried at all. Was it like this when I was a boy and just entering school? I can’t help but parallel his experience with mine—history is repeating itself and I’m simply passing down the baton to a new generation. As long as we’re kind to one another, it doesn’t matter if we can’t understand each other very well. Kindness is a universal language everyone understands, and I’m glad that I was able to witness the strength of it.