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Flying with swans: A Japanese-American’s journey

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By Sean Kawakami

Contributing Writer


Last Friday I got first place in the Advanced Japanese division of the 23rd Annual East Asian Studies Speech Contest, and it felt surreal. I am the first Japanese-American to ever compete in the division at the University at Albany, and the first to win as a Japanese-American.

I was born an only child and raised in the United States. I am currently the only native English speaker in my family. In other words, everyone else in my family speaks perfect Japanese – except for me. Sometimes I feel left out, as if I am with a group of graceful swans, and I am the baby bird who can’t fly.

Although I can handle a basic Japanese conversation, and my pronunciations are on-point, I’m not a native speaker. I cannot read many of the kanji characters. When I was younger my mother and I spoke in baby language Japanese, but I never learned the proper grammar, vocabulary and syntax until college. Growing up, I learned Japanese colloquially. Even today, my mother would speak in a mix of English and Japanese, and I’d reply in English.

What frustrates me is that I’d always blend in with the crowd whenever I visited Japan. Unlike a Caucasian man, nobody would expect me to be a Japanese-American at first glance. Thus, they’d make reproachful faces whenever they realized I can’t understand what they were saying. Some would even assume that I am mentally disabled.

The pressure gets more intense knowing that Japan is one of the most literate countries in the world. One day, I was at a 7-Eleven in Tokyo purchasing some snacks. The cashier, assuming that I was a native speaker, talked extremely fast to me when asking me a question. I constantly had to ask him to repeat what he said. He was puzzled, almost to the point where he was going to mock me. He blankly gave me a “you-seriously-don’t-know-what-I-said” stare and ever since then I’ve been hesitant when buying something alone in Japan.

I figured that in slow steps, I’d be able to catch up on my Japanese and talk to my family, Japanese friends, and other people with more ease. That’s why I am currently enrolled in Professor Kyoko Mano-Ullrich’s Advanced Japanese class. It’s certainly not for an easy A, as Mano-sensei never gives out high grades that easily. It’s so I can improve on my Japanese. I want to expand my Japanese circle.

Many people would tell me I’m cheating because I’m Japanese, and it irked me every time I heard it from someone. It was annoying to repeat the reason why I was taking the class. The fact is, I was born and raised in the United States, and English was the language I grew up with. Then they’d finally mumble something to themselves and understand.

I feel as though this struggle will stick with me throughout my life. Someday I wanted to prove to everybody how I felt. I wanted to describe my struggles of being in that position.

And that’s when an opportunity arose. While attending Mano-Ulrich’s class, I had the opportunity to enter the Advanced Japanese division of the East Asian Studies Speech Contest. I thought about it very hard. Whether I was eligible as a heritage-learning student, how it may seem unfair to others, and so on. Heritage speakers may believe that they “can’t” compete because they get too much of an advantage over others who have been learning the language from scratch. However, after much thought, Mano-sensei and the entire Japanese faculty gave me permission to enter after they saw my speech topic: my thoughts on being a Japanese-American.

So I went for it and entered the contest. Mano-sensei and I worked together and edited my draft day after day. I was afraid that I wouldn’t have time to memorize it all. On the day of the contest, I spent about five hours at her office with Mano-sensei herself, the Japanese teaching assistants, my peer contestant Nick Angelone and alternate Evan McElroy as we prepared for our speeches while nibbling on Mano-sensei’s delicious homemade rice balls and sandwiches.

The contest was held at 7 p.m. on April 17 in the Humanities building. A crowd of nearly 100 people gathered around. The entire East Asian Studies faculty were there, as well as many students. Each language division – Korean, Chinese and Japanese – were split up into three corresponding levels: beginner, intermediate and advanced. There were two contestants and one alternate for each level, and a 1st and 2nd place for each language level.

There were three guest judges for each language and they ultimately decided the winners. Professor Dejun Cao, Dr. Yu-Hui Chen and Dr. Fang Zhao judged the Chinese division. Ms. Miki Imai, Dr. Katsuya Izumi and Ms. Yoshiko Kojima judged the Japanese division. Ms. Eileen Myunghee Lee Chang, Ms. Eunhyoung Kim and Ms. Min Kyoung Yun judged the Korean division.

I had just gotten a haircut and felt as ready as ever. I had on my gingham shirt and a blazer over it. I wore a pair of jeans to keep it casual. Of course I was nervous, but that was inevitable. I was also excited, because I’ve never given a speech before, let alone in a foreign language. It went smoothly, and I could look down at my speech notes from time to time.

Yet near the end I shed a tear after glancing at the sentence: “I want to be able to talk more with my loving grandparents while they are still healthy.” It hit me, it moved me to tears, and I couldn’t control it. But I finished strong and reached the end of my speech.

I entered the contest because I wanted to get across a message. How do I become a swan so that I can be able to soar the skies with my Japanese family and friends? To be able to interact with my Japanese circle freely? To be able to communicate with my mother entirely in Japanese, to understand better what my Japanese friends say? To instill a closer bond between them? And, of course, I want to be able to talk more with my grandparents in Japan while they are still healthy. It’s something I must do, soon.

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