August 09, 2006


I originally wrote this post for the Saga JET communal blog, based on some thoughts that I've been turning over in my head for a while here. I'm not sure if they've really been fully expressed here, but it's a start. The post is reproduced below.

If I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that I'm not always sure about the degree to which my presence as an ALT here in Saga really makes a major difference in the lives and learning of my young students. I think that it might be doing something, perhaps in subtler ways than I can easily discern, but even with that thought it's not clear how much of it is directly connected to me, as opposed to any other friendly gaijin plunked down in my spot. I do think, though, that my being here has definitely had an effect on me, which I suppose is at least something.

Smack in the center of the sweltering Saga summer (say that five times fast), it may require a powerful stretch of the imagination, but if you'll recall it was only six or seven months ago that we were all sitting around, shivering in the biting Siberian-tinged air, tethered to the warm envelopment of the kotatsu. That is assuming we were at home; in the half-century old concrete hulks that serve as schools here in Karatsu, there was no respite. Except that, as a teacher, I could get away with wearing a heavy jacket, and retreat between classes to hover over the space heater in the shokuinshitsu to thaw my hands; unless they could think of an excuse to come visit a teacher for a few minutes, my poor sailor-suited students had no such escape.

I think it was probably the unreasonableness of teachers who would yell at students who dared to put on gloves or scarves in the frigid classrooms that was the most maddening aspect of it all, but almost equally galling was the thought that here I was, in one of the richest nations in the world, and they can't even manage to heat their children's schools! Aside from the basic issue of social priorities, the cold also had clear and demonstrable effects on the students' ability to learn and function — namely, they were too busy shivering to be bothered. It did give me an opportunity to teach the words "central heating" and "insulation", but that didn't really do much to solve the problem.

One day I expressed some of this frustration to one of my JTEs; her sympathetic response was "Yes, that's true... but Japan has no oil." At the time I think I was pretty dismissive of this idea: they appear to have enough energy to keep the city hall and the goddamn 7-11's warm, so I think there might be a little more to it than that. I still think that's the case — and tomorrow I'm going to make an effort to explain why I think these priorities might become distorted in the Japanese system —but I have to admit that her comment has stuck with me and, in a way, made me reconsider — or at least reassess — some of my assumptions.

I was born into an era of American supremacy. Although I was alive for its last few years, I have no memory of the Cold War, and my formative young adult years during the 1990s were ones where the American model appeared to be ascendant and essentially unchallenged. By virtue of my birth I have been extremely lucky in the opportunities available to me — the JET program's shared requirement of a college degree means we have all been extremely lucky, relative to the majority of the rest of the world today. In raising me I think my parents made a real effort (one I hope I'm able to emulate, some day) to ensure that I would be aware of and grateful for these gifts, and I've tried to do my part for others less fortunate, to date principally through volunteering with Habitat for Humanity during my four years at college. But surrounded by the social and physical infrastructure of the world superpower — clean water, cheap energy, good schools — it's hard not to take some of it for granted. The Japanese don't have abundant natural energy reserves, or a globe-spanning navy capable of stabilizing shipping lanes, or the world's biggest economy. The United States does, and while it doesn't explain the whole story about why my students are expected to suck it up and deal with freezing, uninsulated, unheated schools, I think it might well have more to do with it than I initially recognized. And if this is coming from the world's second-richest economy (even if we are living in one of its poorest sub-divisions), what about the rest of the world?

The implications of this are challenging. One of — if not the — best things I've done in my life has been my work with Habitat for Humanity. While I recognize that the elimination of substandard, poverty housing across the globe (as Habitat aims to do) is a goal far greater than anything I'll ever be able to achieve, I know that I have personally contributed my sweat and money and effort towards build an affordable home for over fifty families across the United States. However small the scale, that has made an undeniable impact for those families, helping them achieve a baseline of stability and opportunity, and I'm grateful for the chance to have been a part of it. (Building a house is, incidentally, also tons of fun.) But my experience in Japan, and on my trip to Bangladesh this past Golden Week on a Habitat Global Village trip, has shown me the great degree to which poverty can be relative. I don't think it diminishes the real need of poor Americans, but this gap between the U.S. standard of living and that of other countries may mean I have to reassess my assumptions. What constitutes a "simple, decent" home in the United States is drastically different from one in Haluaghat, Bangladesh, and one in Japan.

What's difficult about this is the accompanying notion that the world cannot, in fact, afford for all of its peoples to enjoy the standard of living that I as an upper-middle class American was born into thinking as "fair". And not just unaffordable in terms of monetary economics but also the natural resources that build and fuel that economy. To take an extreme example, China has been developing at full tilt for the last couple decades, the authority and legitimacy of the Communist Party largely dependent on continued economic success, and it still has huge masses of rural poor in its center waiting for their turn. Personal automobile ownership — a symbol of the American Dream if there ever was one — is growing, which is liable to raise demand for energy even further. China's growing hunger for energy reserves has driven up prices worldwide. All this development has had horrific environmental consequences, poisoning China's rivers, stripping its mountainsides, and polluting its air — and ours. An attempt by the whole world to bring their standards of living up to those of America, barring some miraculous discovery of cheap, clean energy, would probably have seriously negative consequences for the future.

America got there first — but can anyone else join us?

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