First Draft, Participant #1: English Language Learning History
Why and How I studied English and How it Affected my Sexuality
“The most comfortable thing in speaking in English was that I call myself “I”. In Japanese, there are so many words refer to yourself and it differs by their sex and age. For instance, women usually call themselves “ Watashi ” or “ Atashi “ or sometimes “ Uchi “ (Osaka dialect) and men call themselves “ Boku “ or “ Ore “ or “ Washi “( older men ). When I was in Japan, I hated and refused to call myself “ Watashi “because I did not recognize myself as a girl. But I did not want to call myself “ Boku “, either because it was too weird. In Canada, the problem was easily solved. I just call myself “ I “. Everybody call themselves “ I “ regardless of their sex or age.”
Let me introduce myself first. My name is Rika and I am 36 years old now. I’ve been teaching English, mostly conversation, for more than 15 years. Now I have my own little school where I teach a wide range of people. Some people want to study English just as a hobby, others need to study for their schools examinations or TOEIC Test. Since I was a child, I liked women. So I thought I was a lesbian. But now that I have a boyfriend, it makes me a bisexual. I am in between lesbian and bisexual.
I was studying English in a little town near Vancouver for 4 years. 3 years as a high school student and I took a University Transfer course for a year. I learned not only English but also how to communicate with people, to be myself, to help others and it is OK to be helped sometimes. Anyway, I learned many things in Canada.
The reason I went to Canada was not to study English, but to get out of Japan. I was different in every way from ordinary girls. I wanted blue things while other girls wanted pink or red ones. I never wore skirts. I’d rather play baseball with boys than play with dolls. When my friends and I played house, my role was always a father or brother. I wanted to be a boy, but I could not tell anyone about it. I knew it would upset my parents even at age of 5 or 6.
I entered a very strict elementary school which is a mission women school and it has Junior high school, high school, and even a college. This kind of school is called “ An escalator school” because once you entered the elementary school, the students do not have to take special examinations to get into Junior high school and high school unless your behavior is too bad. We have to take an entrance examination to enter the college, but it is an external one. The school role was so strict that even our hair style was decided by teachers. The role book said how long our hair should be, but it did not say how short hair we could have. Therefore, I had my hair cut extremely short like a boy when I was 14 or 15 years old. Then, the Principal hit the roof and told me that I was an alien in this school.
At this time, I was having my first relationship with a woman. She was an older sister of my friend. We had dated for about a year and a half and broke up because she went to a college. It was the time I started thinking about getting out of Japan. I had lost her and it made me so depressed. I started searching for something. Something that could make me happy or feel fulfilled. I did not fit into this strict school which we seldom had freedom. Moreover, I was not good at anything, Japanese, Math, History, PE or even music. I wanted to get a special skill so that I do not have to relay on getting married and having a husband feed me. I knew I didn’t want to get married.
However, my parents did not allow me to quit the school. They had paid so much money since elementary school to put me into the college. And I am the only child. They wanted me to stay with them. It took me over a year to persuade them. The Principal, who was a sister, told me that I would never make it. Nobody was on my side, the Principal, teachers, or my parents. They believed without doubt that I would fail and come back to Japan within a month. My friends did not support me, either. They said I was running away from an entrance examination of a university. But what they had said was totally ridiculous. Studying academic subjects in English and graduate from Canadian high school is much more difficult than that. I had courage of my convictions. I told everyone “ What would you do for me if I gave up this dream?” Can you take full responsibility for my life? I want to decide what I want to do because it is my life and life comes just once”. And finally they let me choose my own way. Actually, it was my very first time to choose my own way. I was never happy while I was in Japan.
The country could have been anywhere. I did not have particular liking where to study. The language could have been anything, too. I was not planning to study English from the beginning. But my father knew a Canadian Ambassador and he recommended me to go to Vancouver. At age of 16, I left Japan and started living in a home stay in a little town called “ Port Coquitlam ”.
The school I entered is a Canadian private school with many foreign students from all over the world. Therefore, the school has ESL classes of 4 levels. You can not take academic subjects unless you finish the ESL level 2.
The first semester, I had to take 4 ESL classes which I learned listening, writing, reading and speaking English. The teachers were all nice and the very first time in my life, I thought studying was fun. I studied very hard and I got very good marks. Then I became sure of that I had chosen the right way.
I learned a lot from my host family, too. The host parents told me to call them “Mom and Dad “ while other friends call their host parents by their first names. I was lucky to be in this house. They treated me like their own child. They opened a surprise Birthday party for me, celebrate Christmas with me, took me to a church, and so forth. That is how I learned Canadian culture. There were a host sister, Nicole, who is the same age as me, and a host brother, Ryan, who is younger than me by 2 years. They taught me many slangs or helped me with my homework. I spent my life just like an ordinary Canadian student. When I was having a problem of pronouncing Ls and Rs, my Mom and Dad told me that having an accent or grammar mistakes automatically proves that you are able to speak at least more than one language, so you should be proud and confident. They encouraged me a lot. My English was getting better day by day. And three months later, I was able to say what I wanted to say, but with a poor grammar.
The second semester, I took 2 ESL classes and 2 academic classes which do not require much English ability, such as Canadian Indian Art and Computer Science. As the time went by, I finished all the ESL classes and started taking academic classes. I took Social studies, Algebra, Accounting, English, and so on. The academic subjects were very difficult, so sometimes I had to burn the midnight oil. I learned so much from learning those subjects. Not only the subject itself, but also so many vocabularies and phrases. Catching up with Canadian students was always a problem, but somehow I survived. Many friends helped me, teachers volunteered their time for me. I could not have passed all the subjects without their warm help. Three years later, I took all the credits needed to graduate from high school and I took Provincial Examinations. Luckily, I passed the examinations on the first try. Some Canadians could not pass them.
The most comfortable thing in speaking in English was that I call myself “I”. In Japanese, there are so many words refer to yourself and it differs by their sex and age. For instance, women usually call themselves “ Watashi ” or “ Atashi “ or sometimes “ Uchi “ (Osaka dialect) and men call themselves “ Boku “ or “ Ore “ or “ Washi “( older men ). When I was in Japan, I hated and refused to call myself “ Watashi “because I did not recognize myself as a girl. But I did not want to call myself “ Boku “, either because it was too weird. In Canada, the problem was easily solved. I just call myself “ I “. Everybody call themselves “ I “ regardless of their sex or age.
Before going to Vancouver, I hated my first name “ Rika “ because it is too feminine. Rika is in Hiragana characters which only girls have. Men’s names are absolutely in kanji ( Chinese characters ). So I did not like this awfully feminine name. But after I went to Vancouver, of course, everyone called me “ Rika “ and I got used to it. I even started to like this name. Through using English, I was able to become” a person with no sex “ The words “ She “ or “ Her “ were kind of new words for me, so I accepted them naturally.
I wore boy’s clothes in Canada and had tremendously short hair, so sometimes I was mistaken for a boy. I was a little happier than being sad when someone called me “ he “ or “Mr “.
People around me, mostly Canadian, Hong Konger, Korean never minded what I wore or how I acted. They accepted me as I was. I think it has a close relationship that Canada is a multicultural country. People in Canada naturally accept people who are different from them. They respect the others. Therefore, it was very comfortable for me to be in Canada, especially Vancouver where there are tremendous numbers of immigrants.
However, I did not come out to anyone about my sexuality. Strictly speaking, I did not care or mind about my sexuality while I was in Canada. I had no chance to meet gay or lesbians. There was an area called “ a gay area “ but I could not go there because I was under age. I was a teenager so that I could not enter bars and clubs. There was no internet at that time, but despite this isolated situation, I was true me in a little town. People could have suspected that I was a lesbian, but nobody asked me or mentioned it to me. So that I could forget about my sexuality and just be who I was.
Needless to say, I had some crushes on girls, but surprisingly, at the same time, I had crushes on boys, too. At that time, I thought I was not completely lesbian. I could be a bisexual. I just had not had opportunities to meet boys when I was younger because I had attended women school. When I found out that I also liked men, I was happy. I felt I was totally free. I did not have to choose the sex to love. I just love whomever I love.
After spending four years in Vancouver, I came back to Japan. I really wanted to go to a college or university, but my father did not allow me to. So I could not help it. Instead, I decided to take Eiken ( Society for Testing English Proficiency ) pre-first grade to prove my English level. Pre-first grade is so difficult that the pass rate for the examination was only 7%. But I wanted to give it a try. Fortunately, I passed and I was so happy. I studied for the examination by myself. I did not attend any schools. I used reference books and studied difficult grammar, such as participial construction or third conditional and memorized tons of vocabularies. Since I had basic grammar knowledge, studying on my own was not so difficult. Actually, it was fun.
I passed Eiken pre-first grade, and wondering what to do next. Well-timed, my friend’s younger brother was studying English to go to Boston, and he had attended many English schools before he met me, but he did not like any of them. So his parents asked me to be his English tutor. It was my very first time to teach, but I took the chance. He substantially liked me and learned good English. His parents and he appreciated me so much that I thought I had found a vocation; to be a teacher.
I put advertisements on town magazines and got some students and stared teaching at my house or their houses. I taught English conversation and also a grammar for their school examinations. As I was teaching English ( sometimes Math or History as well ) I felt I needed to study English for myself . Thus, I found a British teacher near my house and took his advanced class.
After studying with him approximately half a year, he asked me to be his school’s teacher because he wanted to make his school bigger. Actually, he was the only teacher at his school and he thought I could be a big help as a teacher and a manager. So we started a new school where I taught variety of people, from three years old to people who had retired from their work. I did not come out to this British boss because I was afraid of losing this job. I worked at this school for about three years. Since I was teaching and managing the school almost all by myself ( which made me mad because everyone at the school put all work to me because I was the only one who can speak both English and Japanese ), I thought it could be possible to open my own school. After thinking twice, I quit this school and opened my own. I had no intention of working at a company, where I have to wear a uniform.
English is my bread-and-butter now. ( Or should I say it’s rice-and-soy sauce? )I teach, translate, and sometimes interpret. When I speak in English, I feel more comfortable and freer than speaking in Japanese. I think that it is because my English ability, especially vocabularies, is so limited that I have to use direct and simple words to express myself. When I use simple words, what I want to say becomes very clear and straightforward. Of course, there are many times that I have to struggle looking for right words, but somehow, I manage to express myself with limited vocabularies that I have.
There is a day that I can never forget about coming out in English. I was invited to a class at a Japanese major women college. My American friend was a professor at this college and he invited me to his class as an interviewee for the students as a model woman who has succeeded by using English. The students spoke quite good English and they had prepared questions for me to ask. They asked me formal questions for the first 30 minutes or so, then the atmosphere became very friendly. Then the students started asking me about my personal life, like if I had a boyfriend in Canada or if I’m dating with his professor. The professor had told me before the class that I could talk honestly if I wanted to, or I did not have to tell the truth if I want to hide about myself.
At that time, I suddenly thought I did not want to tell a lie to these women who were studying English eagerly and enjoying conversation with me. They were honest to me, so why did I have to tell a lie or made up a story. I simply said, “ I’m a lesbian, so I don’t date with boys. “ The students looked a little surprised at a moment, but 3 seconds later, all of them accepted my answer marvelously. And they asked me about how I feel being lesbian or what difficulties I have. I answered all of their questions honestly because I wanted to let them know that gay people could be anywhere, not only in the dramas or movies. Before coming out, they had seemed to like me and been interested in me, so I thought “ You like me, right? Hey, I’m a lesbian. Does it change your feelings toward me? No, right? See? Lesbian can be your friend. No big deal.” I think I was able to come out because we were talking in English. The students and even I, had to look for the right words, used simple English. I could not have done that in Japanese, maybe.
My foreign friends, especially people from western countries, are liberal and self-confident. So that it is easy and comfortable for me to say whatever I want to say. They are greatly patient with my poor English. Foreigners are tend to be open-minded and do not judge people at the first sight. On the contrary, Japanese, there is a trend toward gathering with people who are the same as the are. No wonder Japan had national isolation from 17th century to 19th century. I am not a racist, so I know that there are many plentiful Japanese or judgmental foreigners. What I am saying here is just my opinion. Or I am only very lucky to have warm-hearted foreign friends.
Therefore, coming out to foreigners are much easier than that to Japanese in aspect of language and cultural background. The word “ lesbian “ or “ bisexual “ are kind of discrimination words in Japanese. In English, they are not. So the lesbians in Japan call themselves “ bian “. It sounds cute and much less prejudice.
However, I do not come out to foreign co-workers at an English speaking café where I work once a week. There are/were some staffs I wanted to come out and tell the truth and be true friends, but I just did not have guts. And I will never come out to customers. There is less right information about sexuality in Japan compared to western countries. So that I am afraid of customers get a wrong impression about myself. In Japan, there is a proverb, “ Put a lid on smelly things “ and sexuality IS a smelly thing. They avoid talking about it, or when they talk about it, it’s usually dirty jokes or make fun of gay people. Probably, they do not know how to react when I come out. My mother cried and blamed herself for my being lesbian/bisexual. She can never understand true me and avoid talking about it. She thinks being gay is a mental illness and I should see a psychiatrist. My mother is not the only one who thinks this way. In my opinion, it occurs because of a lack of the right and proper information in Japan. Hence, I just come out only to some of my closest friends who understand and accept me.
When I was writing this essay, I faced a very funny problem: Should I call Japanese “ We “ or “ They “? Maybe I’m not fully Japanese. My nationality is Japan and I was born and raised in Japan, however, by the grace of spending my puberty in Vancouver, I am half Japanese and half Canadian. In fact, many people say that I am very much westernized. I’m proud of that. I can see and have good things both from Japan and Canada.
Living abroad for a long time changed my life completely. I can have jobs that I can be proud of, I became confident that I have something special ( being able to speak English ).
For a girl aged 16, studying abroad was a big and risky challenge, but I think it has succeeded. My English is still far cry from being perfect, so I would like to brush on my English. And it is my life work. So I will keep on studying.
Thank you very much for reading my story.