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Educator with a mission sends out support from Hiroshima

by Louise George Kittaka

Some people seem to have a knack for turning their hand to anything that comes along and, moreover, making a success of it. This is certainly the case with Hiroshima-based Adam Beck. Over the years, the American has been a children’s theater director, an English teacher, a newspaper columnist and the co-founder of an arts-themed NPO to benefit young people.

For Beck, recognition and financial success have always been less important than getting his message across to his audience in an authentic way, regardless of the medium involved. Currently he divides his time between editing and translating for the Hiroshima Peace Media Center and running his popular Bilingual Monkeys website, which supports families raising their children in two languages.

While it seems hard to believe now, Beck readily admits that he spent a restless youth. He grew up in Quincy, Illinois, just a short drive across the Missouri state line from Hannibal, the hometown of iconic writer Mark Twain.

“It’s a nice area but I didn’t want to stay there after high school,” he says.

After his first try at college life didn’t work out, he found himself living with a friend in a trailer park in Alabama for some time.

“I delivered pizza in the evening, made doughnuts all night and then slept during the day. I’m not sure that I actually learned any life lessons during this time, but I did realize I didn’t want to stay up all night making doughnuts,” he says with a grin.

Deciding to give college another chance, he relocated to New York to major in theater.

“Growing up, the one constant in my life was attending a summer camp every year with my family in Massachusetts,” he explains. “In my late teens and 20s, I came back as a counselor every summer for about 10 years and ran the theater program for the kids.”

Beck comes from a creative family. His father was a professor of art and his mother taught piano. Since both parents worked every year at the summer camp, it was natural for their son to follow in their footsteps as soon as he was old enough to graduate from being a camper to a counselor.

“I started as a tennis instructor, but then I directed musicals with the kids,” Beck recalls. “Some of the musicals I wrote, and others were traditional musicals that I edited to suit the situation. And each musical had to go up on stage in just a couple of weeks! But I loved my summers there. It was a big part of my life.”

Having developed a definite taste for city living during his time in New York, Beck’s next port of call was San Francisco for a master’s program in theater. However, it wasn’t long before wanderlust kicked in again, and after taking leave from graduate school to join the Peace Corps, he found himself in the Czech Republic teaching English and drama to university students in the city of Pilsen.

He arrived just three years after the Velvet Revolution, the bloodless revolt that saw the collapse of communism and led to the breakup of the former Czechoslovakia.

“It was an exciting time to be there,” he remembers. “After the revolution, everyone was keen to learn English. They knew it was their passport to the future.”

It became apparent to Beck that English might well be the ticket to his future, too. After returning to San Francisco to complete his master’s, he was deeply in debt and in search of a financial injection.

An English teaching job in the city of Mihara, Hiroshima Prefecture, seemed a good bet, and led to more than just financial reward, he says. “I actually met my Japanese wife in Mihara fairly soon after arriving in 1996, and since then I’ve been based in Japan.”

After their marriage, Beck went to work at Hiroshima International School (HIS), teaching English and drama for five years.

“It was secure work and I loved the kids there,” he says, “but the school is located on the outskirts of the city and I felt a bit removed from the community. I was ready to explore other opportunities.”

Upon leaving HIS, he and his wife poured their energy and resources into creating Hiroshima Starship, an organization that brought together programs in education and the arts to help children in need.

Hiroshima Starship’s programs included English classes and a candle-making venture, but its crowning achievement was the popular annual Art Party charity exhibition, featuring pictures drawn by children in orphanages both in Japan and overseas.

“We invited children’s homes to take part by having the kids create artwork for the Art Party exhibitions,” Beck explains. “Each year we had around 300 pictures on display, from about 15 different countries. Visitors could buy the pictures for a minimum donation of ¥1,000, and then 100 percent of the proceeds were returned to the participating groups.”

Beck says that Art Party was about more than just helping raise money for underprivileged youngsters.

“Their artwork was a window on their world. People in Japan could come to the exhibition and learn about the life of a child overseas without leaving Hiroshima. For example, a picture drawn by a child in Afghanistan showed bombs dropping and people dying, because that was their reality. Visitors were seeing something beyond their limited perspective. It opened up my eyes, too.”

In 2007, Beck was presented with a unique opportunity that was too good to turn down when the Chugoku Shimbun newspaper asked him to join as their first full-time non-Japanese employee. With two children of his own now in the picture, this new job offered a welcome measure of financial security to the growing Beck clan.

“I felt it was the right time to move on and to hand Art Party over to other supporters,” Beck says. “I’m no longer a part of it but I’m very grateful for what we managed to achieve.”

Beck came on board to help the Chugoku Shimbun launch their Hiroshima Peace Media Center in early 2008. Content on the center’s bilingual Japanese and English website includes historical documents and testimonies from survivors of the atomic bombing of 1945, as well as articles on current issues in Japan and the world.

In addition to managing the English content for the site, for several years Beck wrote a bimonthly English column for the paper linked to the center’s activities. “The idea was to challenge local people to learn about Hiroshima in English. In turn, they could pass on this knowledge to the world.”

“The work has been very gratifying. I’m glad that I can help get Hiroshima’s message out to the world,” he says. “In 2010, though, the newspaper made some budget cuts and wanted to downsize my role and have me work from home.”

While many people would find this devastating, Beck insists that it was actually a welcome change. “I was finding that the salaryman lifestyle didn’t really suit me, and I wanted more time for my own writing projects and for my kids and their English. So, while it meant some cutting back for us as a family, the timing was actually very good.”

After the birth of his first child in 2004, Beck had started what he calls “a daddy blog,” sharing snippets of daily life in a bilingual and bicultural household. However, it was hard to develop the site alongside his other activities. While still working at HIS, he had become involved with the Bilingualism Special Interest Group (B-SIG), a nationwide research and support group for families raising children with two or more languages.

“I had edited one of the B-SIG publications and I was excited about bilingualism even before my kids were born, so I started thinking of ways to expand on the first blog,” he explains. “I thought, here I am with all this experience as both a parent and a teacher, so why not draw on that?”

The result was Bilingual Monkeys. In his chatty and humorous style, Beck shares creative suggestions and practical hints that parents can apply to their own situations. The stars of the website are two cheeky monkey cartoon characters representing Beck’s own daughter and son. Since he is writing about intimate details of his family’s daily life, he came up with the monkey motif as a way to respect his wife’s and children’s privacy.

With more than 200 visitors a day at present, Bilingual Monkeys has quickly gained fans all over the world.

“If parents are successful at nurturing two languages, this can have a huge impact on the family, far into the future — even for generations,” says Beck. “A lot of people feel lonely in their bilingual journey and aren’t sure where to turn for support, so hopefully my site can help them continue moving forward.”

Beck is frank about the amount of time and energy that goes into producing the website content and responding to every email and comment from readers.

“Sometimes I feel like a mouse on a wheel, but when I hear that someone finds the site helpful to their family, it spurs me on.”

With Bilingual Monkeys’ first anniversary under his belt, Beck is pleased that the site has developed into a solid platform, which he hopes one day soon will be financially sustainable, supported by the sale of e-materials and other items. For now, however, he is grateful that his work is reaching an appreciative audience.

“Being creative is the backbone of my life,” he says. “Nothing makes me happier than using my experience and skills in a way that feels fulfilling and gives value to others.”

Hiroshima Peace Media Center: www.hiroshimapeacemedia.jp/mediacenter. Bilingual Monkeys: bilingualmonkeys.com. Send your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.