German Birgit Zorb-Serizawa has lived and worked on four continents in her career in special education, and she has spent many years providing opportunities and support for international families in Japan with special-needs children.
She has also amassed an impressive collection of books during the more than 35 years her career has taken her around the world. Today, she shares the books through a lending library in a western Tokyo community.
Zorb-Serizawa was born in 1954 and grew up in a small village north of Frankfurt, and her early love of reading and curiosity about people forged a lifelong passion for travel. She also credits her parents’ open attitude toward people from other countries, which instilled a respect for other cultures in their daughter. “This was in an era when even East Germans were considered ‘outsiders.’ “
During World War II, a French POW had worked on her grandmother’s farm. A multigenerational friendship developed over the ensuing years, and Zorb-Serizawa recalls the excitement of taking solo trips to France while she was still in junior high school to stay with the man’s family.
As a young girl, Zorb-Serizawa had thought about studying sociology, not education, but a year spent at a workshop for adults with learning disabilities in the German city of Giessen led to the realization that she had found her vocation.
“In a sense, people with a disability are the ultimate ‘others,’ different in ways that foreigners are different: Some are physically different, some talk differently (or not at all), they act differently in some situations. Yet what we all have in common is our feelings.”
After some years teaching special education in Frankfurt, she applied for the German Development Services (equivalent to the Peace Corps in the United States) and soon found herself in Borneo for a two-year assignment at a Malaysian government-run home for children with cerebral palsy.
While life in the ocean-side city of Sandakan might sound idyllic, the reality of the work was overwhelming in the beginning.
“At first I thought I would die working at this place where the kids spent their day in one big room, either laying in rattan cots or on a big plastic-covered mat on the floor. The stench of urine was overpowering as one entered the building, which was cooled only by ceiling fans.”
A further challenge was trying to understand and influence the mindset of the amahs, the local staff whose main job was to keep the children fed and clean. “They saw the children just as they were, and not their potential to change. Once one of the girls was fitted with calipers and special shoes and began to walk, the attitude of some of the staff began to change and they paid more attention to the kids and to what I tried to teach them.”
Among the other young international volunteers working in the area was a group from Japan. “About six weeks before I was supposed to leave, I met one of them ‘properly’ at a party, and something clicked.” Talk quickly turned to marriage and so another chapter in Zorb-Serizawa’s globe-trotting life opened.
Her fiance, Toshi, followed her back to Germany after four months of exchanging letters. “He never actually read them because, A, he couldn’t read my writing and, B, his English wasn’t good enough. He only told me that much later!”
After a simple wedding in Germany, the couple settled in Japan in 1985. While most new brides would be nervous about meeting their foreign in-laws for the first time at the airport, Zorb-Serizawa claims she had no real qualms at the prospect. “His mother had sent a very sweet letter to my mother before the wedding — I liked her just from that,” she recalls.
Once in Tokyo, it wasn’t long before she found an opportunity to put her professional experience to good use. She met members of the Support Group for Parents of Children with Special Needs, which later metamorphosed into the Tokyo International Learning Community.
As the first school in Japan for English-speaking children with special needs, TILC filled a void not covered by the other international schools. She was hired as the school’s first teacher at the original premises in the Baptist Church in Shibuya, helping to establish the curriculum.
Keen to learn more about special education in Japan, she also volunteered at Japanese schools, working with children with Down syndrome. “One day, however, someone from outside the school sat me down and told me I would probably never be hired over a Japanese national. I decided then and there that my future lay in working with the English-speaking community.”
The ensuing years found the couple crisscrossing the globe for her husband’s work and study, including two stints in Thailand, one in California and one in Zimbabwe. They welcomed daughter Mine during a posting to Thailand, where Zorb-Serizawa volunteered at a government-run home for orphans with disabilities in a suburb of Bangkok.
The family finally returned to Japan in 2004, settling in western Tokyo so their daughter could attend the American School in Japan, which seemed a natural choice for their third-culture child’s education.
Zorb-Serizawa resumed teaching at TILC, and then in 2006 became the coordinator of the Exceptional Parenting Program under the umbrella of Tokyo English Life Line. The group offers information, resources and seminars in English to families raising a child with special learning needs.
Membership of the program continues to grow each year and she is proud of her networking efforts to reach out to the community. “At first, members were mostly expat families, but now we see more and more local families joining, including Japanese.”
Although she loved the satisfaction of being able to help the families, she began looking for a new challenge after facing the reality of an empty nest when her daughter left for college in the U.S. in 2010.
She took up a full-time position in special education at the German School in Yokohama. Despite a 90-minute commute from her home, she is enjoying being back in the classroom, this time working with children in her native tongue.
Zorb-Serizawa also wanted an opportunity to connect with the local community and saw an avenue for this with her books.
Since 2006, she has been sharing them through her Book Ideas lending library at the Momojigaoka Community Center in Fuchu, western Tokyo.
“Anyone can come to Book Ideas and check out books for free. A lot of the books are in English, but there are many other languages represented, too. It’s also an opportunity for people to meet and chat with others interested in different cultures.”
In addition to the lending library, Book Ideas has become a forum for regular cross-cultural events, including travel lectures, craft shops and talks by published authors. Speakers donate their time and no participation fee is charged for attendance.
While Zorb-Serizawa can hold Book Ideas days at the community center, there is no room to house her books there permanently, so each session involves carting the books back and forth from her home — literally. “Since we don’t have a car, I have to make a total of four round trips to get all the books there in a cart. That’s about 450 meters one way, with the books in boxes — sturdy Zimbabwean boxes from our move.”
Asked about writers she admires, she names fellow German and Nobel Prize winner Herman Hesse, and Frank McCourt, author of “Angela’s Ashes.” Currently, her favorite book is “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollen, which deals with such issues as the food chain and sustainability. A long-time vegetarian and carrier of her own chopsticks long before it came fashionable, Zorb-Serizawa lists environmentalism as another of her interests.
Despite the physical effort involved, she insists the lending library is no burden. “I love sharing my books and seeing other people enjoying them. I just don’t like the packing up at the end.”