by Jess Mancoo
“By making bridges today,
we can prevent the construction of walls tomorrow.”
As a “citizen of the world” the talk circulating about “building walls” makes me worried. I’ve traveled extensively and hope to continue doing so in future, but I worry. As a child, I was greeted with racial slurs when I was sightseeing in Switzerland, is this something that will happen again when I travel? Should I expect this to happen again given the rise of nationalism and far-right ideologies across America and Europe? When I watch or read the news I am plagued with worries for the future, so much so, that I forget about my present: my life in Japan.
As part of the JET Program, our role is not to build walls. It is quite the opposite, our role is to demolish walls and build bridges in their place. In Japan, the most common wall we face is preconceptions. “You’re American? Have you shot a gun?” or “You’re British, I hear your food is disgusting!” We share our cultures in class, expanding the understanding of our students. We ourselves experience school life in Japan, an experience we can bring back to our own home countries. For those lucky enough to take part in community events, we build strong bridges through friendships and we can see that even with the rigidity of Japanese culture and the emphasis placed on conformity, not every Japanese person fits into the formulaic patterns associated with being Japanese.
A lot of my eikaiwa participants like to form questions as follows: “Japanese people do this… how about in your country?” It always makes me laugh to myself, as I think exceptions to the behaviour described. One participant in particular is very fond of these questions. However, one session he told me, “Jessica, I’ve met many people from different countries and you can’t really say people from one country are this way! Everyone is so different!” I was shocked that in the Japanese countryside, where there was very little diversity, this person was able to come to this conclusion when people in areas of more diversity could not. Having always questioned the motives of the JET Program, I was happy to see that the presence of myself and other JETs in my town had helped someone come to this realisation.
Some ALTs may struggle with their purpose in Japan. Many are faced with a less active role in the classroom than they had expected however, it is important to be reminded that the main focus of the JET Program is grass roots internationalization – and this is not classroom centric! We can achieve this goal by simply existing In Japan. With every interaction, we show members of the public that not all foreigners fit prescribed stereotypes and with more community involvement, the quicker this conclusion can be reached.
While we are on JET, there is little to do to help societal issues back home. We cannot go back in time and prevent our societies from being swayed by racist propaganda and misinformation. However, we can promote inclusive attitudes and cultural exchange here in Japan, preventing Japanese society from falling into the same pitfalls of the west. By making bridges today, we can prevent the construction of walls tomorrow.
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