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Essay in a Language Seeking Life

Essay in a Language Seeking Life

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Published by Scott Watson
A young American male leaves for Japan to teach English for two years and stays more than 30 years and counting. This is a cross-cultural auto-ethnographic probing into that experience.
A young American male leaves for Japan to teach English for two years and stays more than 30 years and counting. This is a cross-cultural auto-ethnographic probing into that experience.

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Published by: Scott Watson on May 15, 2013
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11/04/2013

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Essay in a Language Seeking Life
It is close to nine in the evening sometime in the year 2001. An email is just in from thevice principal at the international high school our son attends. (We live in Japan.) In it heexplains to me what is explained to my parents back in America when it is me who is inhigh school and it is time for me to take a Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Back thenthere is a ready made package of talk that is given to parents; that package has notchanged much in thirty years.That email starts me wondering. Wondering, I begin writing. At this moment the testingordeal is being brought home because it is our son who is involved. His future is to bedetermined--to one degree or another--by a few hours spent in an uncomfortable andunhealthy sitting position in a coldly stressful atmosphere trying to answer questionsabout things in which he might have little or no interest.Just what is it about these exams that is so important?It seems that being human in this age is in part about keeping ourselves statistically fitaccording to whatever criteria happen to come down from the powers in the system thathappens to be. Exams are a way to measure. SAT exams have become for some partof a socioeconomic rite of passage in America. In other places, in other ages, there wasfeet binding, penis tying, rib crushing girdles, male or female circumcision, and muchelse that is condoned and seen as important by those particular societies for reasonswhich seem valid to people then. It can be interesting to look at what we as humansocieties fancy from one age to another, from one culture to another. Statistics, exams,certification--that whole package--are so important now. Not many look at theseanthropologically though.*****My writing nook has a little window. My wife asks a carpenter to cut one in the wall so Ihave a bit of light. The window
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s glass is glazed so that from outside looking in I can't beseen distinctly. I am a blur. It is a window that, looking out of it, seems permanently icedover. Could I see clearly through it, or if I open the window, I have a partial view of ourneighbor's house and, if I lean forward, can look at a parking lot farther down the street.My wife, Morie, is Japanese. I am from America and am an ethnic mixture. A fusion. AScottish German English Russian Jew. My father's speculation has it that I am partAmerican Indian too (Osage it would have been) mixed in through my maternalgrandmother's side from when her people were mud hut dwelling sodbusters in Kansas.
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Now, with what is called our mixed, interracial, or international, marriage, our childrenare fusions even more.In America it is as a white person I go through life. My skin has an earthen tone that isnothing like white, but "white," in American society, doesn't mean an actual color on aspectrum. One thing that growing up in America teaches me, even if it is not a formallesson like ones at school, is that white people are privileged in ways that many codedwith colors other than white are not. Another thing that growing up there means is thatforces behind the scenes keep me in the dark about the color business, or in the white.Labeled by my society's color coding as white, coerced to live within that color's socialand psychological range, I innocently absorb attitudes that are racist. With no choice butto be the color my world puts on me, I--along with every person who has ever thought ofhimself or herself as "white"--directly or indirectly, knowingly or unknowingly, get along inlife by burdening those who had neither asked for nor agreed to a subservient role. Weeach are an accomplice to an injustice, and, for those who believe in it, it means badkarma. Though unable to articulate it at that young age, there is a wilting, unwholesomefeeling to that process of becoming white, there is a sense of complicity in an immoralact. This comes with the benefits being light skinned offers.*****My father's mother is Jewish. She immigrates to America with her family from Russia.They sail to America from Liverpool, England, and it is said by my cousin Marilyn thatmy grandmother might have been born while crossing the Atlantic. She grows up as aHebrew, but when she marries my grandfather she converts to his religion. He isChristian, a Methodist. Through the two of them, different religions, different ethnic andcultural backgrounds, come together. Often--as is told me later in life as a middle agedadult--theirs is not often a peaceful joining, but they manage to stay together until deathdoes them part.My paternal grandfather dies when I am three or four. My grandmother lives with usthroughout much of my childhood and, in all those years of her bickering with mymother, with my father, or, later, with me, throughout those years with her perpetualharping on sundry points, I can't remember her ever once mentioning anti-Semitism orany kind of discrimination. She doesn't talk of the Holocaust or the ovens. Her familyhas not experienced that. Though there are pogrom in the Russia her family flees, sheis not yet born.But, with her conversion to Christianity, marrying outside her religion, does she ever feelrejected by her Jewish relatives? My father tells me that her parents initially are againsther plans to marry my grandfather but that after they meet him and see what kind offellow he is they consent.
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After marriage, does she ever feel isolated or unwanted surrounded as she is by mygrandfather's connections, surrounded by those who attend his church, his friends, hisfamily? She grows up in Philadelphia and, married, lives in Eastern Pennsylvania in asmall partly industrial town surrounded by fields and pastures. Royersford. Many aroundher have German or Dutch surnames.My cousins on her side of the family, around my age, across the river in Philadelphia arebrought up Jewish. Because of that fact are their lives in some way more restricted thanmy own? Or less?When one of those cousins, Sara Lee, travels with her husband to England during theBush administration (2006) she meets, she says, with anti-Americanism as well as anti-Semitism. If it is me alone there might be just the anti-Americanism. Is there aqualitative difference? I'm thinking there must be for her, especially since she is notunaware of history.On the other hand my wife, a Japanese, and I are aware, when we live there a coupleyears after being married, that there are people in America who do not consider us agenuine American family, and we become aware that there are people in both Americaand Japan who do not approve of mixed race marriages, or miscegenation, which in theU.S. when I am young is still illegal in some states. We are aware of all this.Is it ever allowed for any of us to be just human? From what I can gather from our familyhistory the answer is no. On the Scottish side, things--English aggression--in the homecountry drives people off the land to work the mines. That is what they do when theyimmigrate to America. They settle in Shenandoah, which is a coal mining region ofeastern Pennsylvania, and work in that industry though not in the mines. He is a hostlerat a coal mine, that ancestor.The Jewish side comes from Russia but before Russia they are—according to anuncle--in Spain. Spain they are forced to leave because of the Inquisition. Then they areforced to leave Russia due to the pogrom.Do I come from an environment where the way of looking at the world is not bright andsparkling?*****At school some classmates no doubt suffer more than me because their skin color isdarker. Because of their skin
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s color, many, most, or all are often at a disadvantagewhen it comes to getting into higher education or finding a job.Until a certain age, until exposed to a scene beyond my immediate family, I am unawareof the word race and what it means in my society.
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