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If You Love Your Children,
Send Them on a Journey
by Robin Barnes and Pamela Houston
“How do you feel about Kochi?” The newspaper reporter leans back in his chair waiting, his pen poised. My Japanese comes slowly as I try to explain something that is too difficult for my language ability. The words “challenge,” “culture,” and “friendship” come to mind and I wonder how I can explain them so he will understand how I feel. I stumble over a word, take a breath, and start again—this time in English.
Robin Barnes (right) chats with Estelle Schneider at a Global Options international program for and about disabled women. [Photo compliments of Mobility International, USA]
I arrived in Kochi on a very hot, windless Wednesday afternoon just three days ago, though sometimes it feels longer. Everything is new and seems too difficult for me to ever learn. The streets are too narrow for the cars and trucks that drive on them. It is too humid for my liking and when it rains, I feel like I am in a sauna. The cicadas are so loud that when I talk, I have to raise my voice to be heard over their raucousness.
Everyone seems to know my name and I can’t figure out how or why. I’ve already had one newspaper interview and ever since, people stop me on the street to tell me that I’m great. “Erai, suggoi,” they say. I don’t like being famous. It makes me feel as if I should be doing something amazing when in actuality, I’m just trying to get settled.
I feel overwhelmed by everything. On top of the heat, the noise, and the crowded streets, I can’t understand the local dialect. I came here to teach; yet I’ve never taught before. What was I thinking? I’m not the person for this job; clearly there must be a mistake.
Late Summer, 2001—First Day at Work
The entrance to the Kochi Prefectural Blind School is hot and humid as I change from my street shoes into a pair of school slippers. Today I meet my future colleagues, none of whom, I’m told, speak much English. The stifling air seems to close in around me and I swallow a knot of nervousness as I follow Katosan, the principal, down a hall and into a large room filled with soft cushioned chairs. About six people stand and immediately bow upon my entrance. I can’t imagine that I should deserve a bow—if anyone should be bowing, it’s me. My new colleagues introduce themselves to me, but their names all run together. The heat and endless chatter in Japanese makes my head spin. Gratefully, I sink into a chair and sip cold green tea. I wonder if I will ever learn enough Japanese to make close friends. Will I be able to learn the city independently? And, because Japanese society is so group oriented and because I’m the first blind assistant language teacher at a blind school, how will I be treated? Am I strong enough to do this job?
The staff room window faces the baseball diamond at Jose Junior High School. On these autumn afternoons, the sound of the ball on bat and feet pounding the dirt is comforting. The breeze that blows through the room smells of freshly fallen leaves and I realize that fall is beautiful no matter where you live.
The seasonal fruit seems to change weekly—right now the markets are filled with oranges, persimmons, and pears bigger than my head! Not a day passes that I don’t leave school with some fresh fruit, Japanese crackers, or fresh bread that someone has baked.
I am the first full-time assistant language teacher Kochi Mou Gakko has ever had. They had me lined up to teach for three years even before I came! There are thirty-three teachers and twenty-seven students, but I only teach about four students. Teaching one-on-one is very hard, harder than teaching a class of forty I think. Lately I’ve felt that I’m not doing this job justice. I suppose it’s all part of the experience and a challenge, such as this one, builds character.
Not only do I teach at the blind school, but also at schools for children with mental and physical disabilities, elementary schools in the mountains, and the school located inside Kochi Medical University Hospital. All of my students are wonderful and are always giving me things, mostly sweets. I see so many different kinds of people each day and I’m thankful for my interactions with them. Sometimes, I get to go onto the wards in the hospital and teach students who can’t leave their beds. To me, that is one of the most rewarding experiences I think I’ve ever had.
Everyone speaks to me in Japanese, so I get plenty of practice. Lately, when I try to speak English, only Japanese comes out. It’s strange and I never expected this to happen to me. There are times when I almost feel immature and uneducated when I can’t express my thoughts in my native language.
Every day I go a little farther from home and speak a little more Japanese. The past few weeks have taught me to be patient, to treat each day as a gift, to laugh, learn, and enjoy every opportunity that I am given.
Winter, 2001—Holiday Season
Christmas is everywhere in the city. It is completely commercialized and sometimes I have to stop and remind myself why I am celebrating this holiday! My friends and I often spend our weekend afternoons looking in all of the little shops that seem to appear just for the holiday season. This is the first year I won’t be with my family so I’m having Christmas dinner in Mou Gakko. Celebrating Christmas is a new experience for most Japanese people and you’d be surprised to see how excited everyone is. Traditionally, New Year’s has been more widely celebrated than Christmas.
We had Christmas parties in all of my schools. I found myself playing a recorder at the Idai Bunko Pediatrics’ Ward party. It was probably the most interesting Christmas party I’ve ever been to. You don’t often see doctors and nurses singing and dancing and I can only imagine the smiles it brought those children.
I’ve lived in Kochi for five months. It doesn’t feel like it—five days, maybe. It suddenly turned from hot, humid August to January, with its misty rains and cool evenings. I’m left wondering where the time has gone.
If someone would have told me upon my arrival that I would do well here, that I would be known everywhere for my blindness and the things I do every day, I would have laughed. And while I don’t like being famous, I am proud of the things I have accomplished. I speak Japanese every day, I have Japanese friends, and I love my job. What more could I ask for? While many people tell me that I am brave for leaving my home and my life, and jokingly I add that it might be stupidity, what I am doing here is one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences of my entire life. If I can give courage to others through my smile and enthusiasm, then I will.
When I was a child, my parents used to tell me an ancient Japanese proverb: “If you love your children, send them on a journey.” And I never realized until this very moment that my life now is my journey.
Editor’s Note: When Pamela Houston of Mobility International submitted the article above she included the following information about the authors, about Mobility International, and about international travel and exchange opportunities for disabled students:
About the Authors: Ms. Barnes, a recent college graduate, is a teacher in Kochi, Japan, with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET). The program aims to enhance foreign language education in Japan and to promote international exchange at the local level through fostering ties between Japanese and foreign youth. College and university graduates have the opportunity to serve in local government organizations as well as public and private junior and senior high schools. For further information about exchange opportunities with JET, call (202) 238-6700 or visit its Web site at <www.mofa.go.jp/j_info/visit/jet>.
Ms. Houston is the public relations coordinator for Mobility International USA. She has volunteered internationally for two years each in Peru, South America and in Kiribati, Central Pacific.
International Exchange Opportunities: Robin’s experience in Japan thus far has changed her on many levels. She has gained a new perspective on the world, she has come to thrive in a culture that is very different from the one in which she grew up and she has gained tremendous confidence. The skills Robin has developed will serve her well in future employment. As parents, you can nurture an interest in other countries and cultures in your children. You can share stories such as Robin’s so that your child will know that they can participate in international exchange programs of any kind, including study abroad, international volunteer, and short-term work abroad programs.
Parents can begin exploring options with their children by accessing the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE). NCDE is committed to opportunities being available to people with all kinds of disabilities and to making people with disabilities aware of the value of international experience. NCDE provides invaluable information, resources, and encouragement to individuals with disabilities and disability organizations. It also provides international exchange organizations with practical how-to consulting and training on including people with disabilities in their programs. Established in 1995, NCDE is managed by Mobility International USA (MIUSA) and sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the United States Department of State.
I wonder how many times Robin’s story would be multiplied if more blind youth saw their lives as a journey…and knew that that journey could take them around the world?
For More Information Contact:
The National Clearinghouse
on Disability and Exchange
PO Box 10767
Eugene, OR 97440
Phone: (541) 343-1284 (voice/tty)
Fax: (541) 343-6812
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site: www.miusa.org
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