A few weeks ago, my students had an assignment to interview someone about a culture different from their own. Before I share their experiences on this blog, I wanted to share my own. I did my homework this week, meeting the Japanese teachers with whom I’ll be collaborating during the Japan US Teacher Exchange Program for Education for Sustainable Development.
Day One: I felt like a nervous kid in the cafeteria on the first day of school. The other American teachers and I sat down at the tables, carefully leaving every other seat empty for the Japanese teachers. When they walked in, we smiled awkwardly and spoke tentatively, unsure whether they could understand our invitations to join us. We wondered if they would want to be our friends.
At first, we were very careful. We made sure to accept their business cards with two hands, looking thoughtfully at the card before finding a special place to put it, never in the back pocket as our hosts had advised us not to do. Little by little, we got used to using the little radio transmitters that piped in the voice of our translators. We got past the basic questions (What is your name? Where are you from? What do you teach?) and started getting to know each other. Our new friends showed us all sorts of photos and even offered us gifts from Japan.
And then we laughed together. One group of Japanese teachers who had visited Nashville called themselves “Team Hot Chicken” and did a dance routine in matching t-shirts. I shared my balloon skills and made sure that the Japanese teachers had lots of silly hats. We all made silly faces for the camera – no language needed to understand that one.
On our final night, we all got dressed up, loaded a bus, and headed to the residence of the General Consul of Japan. The bus doors opened at the top of a hill, and there we stood — looking down on the city of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. We piled out of the bus like little kids being released into a candy shop. We could barely contain our excitement. We took a zillion goofy pictures in front of elegant decor, stuffed ourselves with California rolls and other American style sushi, and just enjoyed being together.
In one of the serious moments of the evening, my Japanese colleague Tsuyoshi Nomura gave a beautiful speech thanking our hosts for this opportunity. He described his visit to a professional baseball game while visiting the United States. He watched as the fans tried again and again to get the wave to make it around the stands, always fizzling out part way through. He noticed that they kept trying, over and over, until finally they succeeded. Perhaps that’s what it’s like to create powerful collaborations across cultural differences, he suggested. We may stumble, and we may hit road blocks, but we’ll keep trying and eventually create something beautiful.