Tuesday, October 16, 2012

American Guilt: The first time Mollee wanted to be Canadian

As a whole, my experience in Japan has been incredibly pleasant. The people are great, the culture is great, the bugs are less great, and the food is fantastic. I haven’t encountered any outwardly racist people and I’ve only scared one small child (oops). As a whole, I would describe this experience as a success. That being said, I had one of the most awkward moments of my life last week.
 It’s October which means it’s time for students to start preparing for their speech competitions. As was expected, my JTE (Japanese teacher of English) asked me to help them prepare and I said yes.  I was told that during lunch break I would meet with the students from each grade level and help them practice their speeches.
The first year students went first. They recited a two person conversation from the book. Basically, one student tells the other that it’s “quiz time” and asks them to identify a bunch of random items. It is short and is about as interesting as a real-time video of a snail in mud. The second year’s speech was similar in the sense that it wasn’t particularly entertaining. Again, I helped them with their words and even suggested some gestures that they could use.
Then the third years came in. They had an actual story rather than a simple conversation. It was called “A Mother’s Lullaby.” I was excited – this could be interesting.  I got excited. Then, they started the speech. In order to help you, dear reader, relate more precisely to the panic and “HELP ME” that I experienced during this speech, I am including the exact story (via italics) with my thoughts (bolded)
“A Mother's Lullaby”
This sounds nice…
A big, old tree stands by a road near the city of Hiroshima.
Hiroshima? Uh oh…

Through the years, it has seen many things.One summer night the tree heard a lullaby. A mother was singing to her little girl under the tree. They looked happy, and the song sounded sweet. 

So it’s not about the bomb – thank Cthulu, Xenu, the Flying Spaghetti monster and whoever else is up there!

But the tree remembered something sad."Yes, it was some sixty years ago. I heard a lullaby that night, too."
                                                                                                         This can’t be good…

On the morning of that day, a big bomb fell on the city of Hiroshima. Many people lost their lives, and many others were injured. They had burns all over their bodies. I was very sad when I saw those people.
It was a very hot day. Some of the people fell down near me. I said to them, "Come and rest in my shade. You'll be all right soon."

Oh fuck me. Hey God, we haven’t talked in a while. If I jump back on the wagon could you make me Canadian – like right now? Thanks.

Night came. Some people were already dead. I heard a weak voice. It was a lullaby. A young girl was singing to a little boy.
                                                                                                   There’s a little boy? Aw, crap.
"Mommy! Mommy!" the boy cried.
"Don't cry," the girl said. "Mommy is here." Then she began to sing again.
She was very weak, but she tried to be a good mother to the poor little boy. She held him in her arms like a real mother.
On behalf of America I would like to apologize… 

"Mommy," the boy was still crying.
"Be a good boy," said the girl. "You'll be all right." She held the boy more tightly and began to sing again.
After a while the boy stopped crying and quietly died. 

He dies? What is this shit?! I take back everything I thought about the “quiz time” speech. I want Becky to find out what those items are!!! 

But the little mother did not stop singing. It was a sad lullaby. The girl's voice became weaker and weaker.
Morning came and the sun rose, but the girl never moved again.

Oh God… it’s over…. I have to say something now…. Words… I need words…

After the story ended, there were thirty seconds of pure awkward silence. What happened next, though, is what makes this story truly awkward. One of the girls said “Mollee Sensei, I have a question.” I told her to go ahead. 

She looked nervous which made me nervous. She took a deep breath and said: 

“JTE Sensei didn’t tell us what this story was about. A lot of the words are big so we don’t get it. Can you explain it?” 

Now, there are many things that I would much rather have done. I would have eaten a gallon of natto or taken my chances jumping out of the second story window, for example. Unfortunately, neither of those was offered as barter options. I spent ten seconds wishing that I didn’t know any Japanese (which would have got me out of translating) and another ten wishing I was from Canada. Neither of these wishes came true (screw you too Cthulu) and I proceeded to answer. 

I think the girls realized that this was going to be awkward once I explained that the tree watched many people die. I then explained that the girl sang to the boy until he died and she died too. My version was a lot less poetic or something. After I explained, we all sat in silence which I broke with “pronunciation. Let’s work on that.” Before we did, one of the girls piped in that “um… all countries do difficult things.” 

Yes, yes they do. I wanted to give the kid a hug, but hugs seem weird here. So I told her she was right and got on with the lesson.


  1. Sad the kid gets it more than you.

  2. I don't think it's necessarily a matter of "not getting it." I think that as an American, it is normal to feel embarrassment and shame over that horrible act of our country. In a lot of situations that shame comes off as "awkwardness," like I depicted above. When I applied for the program, I was warned that kids often ask "why did American leaders think it was okay to kill that many people?" I think the majority of my nervousness was a combination of shame and fear of having to answer that question.

  3. Not saying the attacks on Japan weren't fucked up, cuz it was all civilians... but Japanese children should know about Pearl Harbor too.

    1. Pearl Harbor was a military target. Of course they should know it, they should know history, but Pearl Harbor isn't remotely comparable to Hiroshima/Nagasaki. It would be vastly more valuable to educate Japanese children about the Nanking Massacre and other atrocities.

  4. Awkwardness okay, shame for an act you weren't even alive to commit nor understand seems weird to me. So you feel more shame for this than slavery, or hitler lets say. I think by you being here alone and your care enough to educate yourself abroad proves it is in the past. You are a great example of a new era, and shouldn't feel ashamed for history but explain it fairly as you can, but remember you are making a difference.

  5. Patrick, you're definitely right. I think if we had been reading a passage about Pearl Harbor the roles would have been reversed (they'd feel awkward and I'd be the one saying "all governments make mistakes...").

    And to Mr. (or Ms. or Mrs.) Anonymous, you're absolutely right. :) I don't think I did a very good job of wording my thoughts. It's a shameful blemish on America's history (like slavery was for America or like Hitler was for Germany). You're right that it isn't a personal shame.

  6. All I see when I read this article is "it's so hard being white"

    Please. Get over yourself.

  7. I just heard about how when Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War (the title has since been changed to the euphemistic "Secretary of State") during WWII received the list of possible civilian targets for the nukes, he immediately crossed Kyoto off the list. Apparently, he and his wife visited the city and they loved the food and thought is was terribly beautiful.