Back when I was preparing to graduate from college I remember looking back over my time at school and thinking, “Wait, did I learn something?” Please don’t misunderstand me: I loved my time at university. I was diligent with my studies while learning to back off and not push myself to academic perfection I sought in high school. I especially loved my general education classes, and I truly believe I learned an abundance from them. It was my major that I had a harder time with. I chose to study anthropology because I saw a judgmental nature within myself, and I wanted to lose that. I wanted to be more accepting of American culture and lose the ethnocentrism I saw within my heart. And I was successful, at least to a certain extent. I don’t know if I’ve lost all of the pride, but I know I have a lot less of it now than I did when I was 18. I know studying anthropology was a good decision for me. But when it came to explaining what it is that I learned over those 36 credit hours, that was a little bit more difficult.
Recently I’ve been asking myself a similar question about Japanese culture. I read an article in a recent issue of Smithsonian magazine that taught me about an element of this culture with which I was entirely unfamiliar. (For that article, see here). “Have I learned anything in my time here?” I wondered.
Then came today. My seventh graders have already learned the grammar to give descriptions in first and second person. Soon they will learn how to describe a third party. My Japanese Teacher of English asked me to put together a series of flashcards with characters the students could describe. I was happy to oblige, and sat down to piece a list together.
In some ways, I feel like I don’t know anything. The lead singer of any band in Japan could pass me on the street and I wouldn’t have a clue that I brushed by fame. I can’t describe the likes and dislikes of the most popular anime characters, and I don’t know where Dragonball is from. But the longer I looked at the list, the more I realized that it illustrates what I HAVE learned during my time here. I know the names of the bands my students like the most, even if I can’t tell you the songs or the names of the band members. I know that Mickey and Minnie are popular but Goofy and Pluto are not. I know that everyone knows Snoopy and no one knows Charlie Brown. Winnie the Pooh is popular, but Piglet is basically unknown. I know that even a preschooler knows who Santa Claus is, but no one here knows he lives at the North Pole. I can tell you the most popular soccer player from Japan’s world cup team, and I can name the most popular anime characters. I may still feel out of the loop, but I have learned enough to teach well, or at least to come up with a list of characters the students will know.
It’s something. It isn’t everything, but it is something.