While many Asian cultures are “group cultures,” Japan is perhaps one of the "groupiest" of group cultures. I had a very clear illustration of this truth – and the contrast with my own values of individualism – in an experience with a private junior high school student of mine while we lived in Obihiro, Japan.
An Atypical Student
Hiro was not typical of my high school students during my two-year stint teaching English in Japan. While most of my high school students wanted to be in a group class, Hiro wanted individual lessons.
And, even though most of my high school students had never left Japan, Hiro had spent two years living with his parents in Boston. While most of my students had a hard time communicating simple thoughts in English even after four to six years of classroom study, Hiro’s English sounded almost native.
As I got to know him through private lessons that first year, I was impressed by how Hiro's demeanor towards English stood in sharp contrast to that of my other high school-aged students.
Working as a Cultural Ambassador
Then, an interesting thing happened. During my second year teaching in Obihiro, I received some new duties in my job. These included visiting each junior high in Obihiro as a type of cultural ambassador.
I visited each class and tried to get them to break out of their grammar-and-repetition-oriented curriculum to actually communicate something orally in English. There were not many gaijin (foreigners) in our city at that time, so my visits were an opportunity for students to meet a “real live” American.
As the days went by, I encountered quite a few students who were so shy to speak that they could barely get out intelligible words when called upon. Imagine how excited I was see Hiro in the sea of uniform-clad students as I visited my third class of the day at Obihiro Middle School Number 4. I tried to catch his eye as I stood at the front, but he studiously avoided eye contact.
A Chance for Hiro to Shine
I began the class by introducing myself, then gave the students the chance to ask me questions using the sentence pattern “Do you like…?” The first few students had horrible pronunciation, so I called on Hiro and said, “Hiro! How are you? Why don’t you ask me a question and show them how it’s done?” (In my mind, I thought I would give him an opportunity to shine and gain some prestige as the student who could talk freely with the gaijin.)
“D-do you raiki beesoboru?” (“Do you like baseball?), Hiro stuttered in highly accented Japlish.
I was astonished. Here was a student who could speak near-fluent English acting as if he were a beginner! What a contrast to my expectations! I thought at first that he was joking, but his other opportunities to speak during the class resulted in the same kind of unpolished utterances. I left the class wondering if Hiro had a twin brother whom I hadn’t met.
A few days later Hiro and I met for our weekly private lesson. When I asked him why he had behaved that way in class, he was a little evasive.
“I didn’t want to seem different from the other students,” he finally said.
“But you are different! It was a chance for you to shine!”
“I don’t want to shine. Please don’t single me out in class when you come next time,” he requested.
In discussing Hiro’s reaction with other Japanese friends, they were not surprised.
Nail or Wheel?
“Japanese people do not like to stand out and be different,” my colleague Asaume-sensei said. “We have a proverb, ‘Deru kugi wa utareru,’ which means ‘the nail that sticks up gets beaten down.”
“That’s funny,” I said. “We have a proverb in America, too. ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease’ which appears to mean just the opposite.” Yes, contrast.
A Need to Fit In
At the time this happened, I felt like the American way was better. Why not take credit for skills you have and show your expertise openly? Yet, over the years I’ve thought about it, and the truth is that Americans also want to belong. We seek acceptance from others. The contrast, at first so sharply defined in my thinking, became less obvious over time.
As a high school teacher in America now for the past 22 years, I’ve observed the intense need for acceptance by popularity-seeking teenagers in America. Often we pay lip service to wanting to be unique, but in reality we want to be like each other.
Although Hiro didn’t extend himself to show his skills amongst his peers, he did take the initiative to set up a private lesson with me and to consistently improve his English over the two years we were in Japan. That shows a strong sense of purpose and individuality in a country that doesn’t promote individuality. I admire Hiro for that.
Which of your desires is stronger – to fit in or to be unique?