As my mother drove me to my first day of high school, I mentally rehearsed the questions and comments I knew I would hear. They would no doubt echo the words I heard on my first day of elementary school, and later when I introduced myself at the school I transferred to at age 9, and then again when I took my place in line to receive my classroom assignment in junior high.
Assuming I could not understand them, kids would shout to their friends that they were in the same class as the gaijin (Japanese slang for foreigner), ask me in their halting English if I could speak Japanese or use chopsticks, and sometimes even touch my skin or hair. My response was always the same: I was born and raised in Japan — just like them — but to American parents.
My appearance and nationality came with a unique set of expectations. It was a given that I would outperform all others in traditionally Western sports, ace every English exam and possess expert knowledge on all U.S. trivia. It often came as a surprise when I performed well on Japanese language, history or culture-related exams, or knew how to write a word that my classmates could not.
When another student scored poorly on a quiz or exam, it was because they lacked focus or were unprepared; when I did, it was because I was a foreigner. This never angered me, but on some days I couldn’t hold back the frustration. I wished I could be perceived as the same as everyone else.
The pressure I felt to live up to others’ expectations pushed me to research American events that might come up in conversation, as well as to perfect my grammatical knowledge. Naturally, I performed well in English classes. But because of my dedication to the high school basketball team, my other subjects suffered. I spent almost all my free time practicing, training or watching basketball, instead of studying for the classes everyone seemed to think I would do poorly in anyway.
My academic standing was subpar. I fit the gaijin role that had been laid out for me.
This was all about to change.
Early in my second year, a knee injury left me with considerable spare time that would have otherwise been spent training. I decided to use that time to study for the upcoming midterms, especially for my weakest courses. I discovered that I could drastically improve my grades if I dedicated myself fully. When the midterm results were released, to my and many classmates’ astonishment, I ranked seventh overall in my class. My rank prior to midterms was in the 25th percentile.
That day, I set a goal: I was going to graduate as the valedictorian of my high school class. This challenge was different than others I had taken on before; this time it was to prove that I could succeed in an area where no one believed I could.
With determination and perseverance, I disproved expectations and raised my grades in all courses — often finishing first in kanji tests. When the day of graduation finally came, I was honored with the valedictorian award and even found myself featured in the newspaper. The award meant more to me than an acknowledgement of my dedication to coursework: It was proof to myself that I could overcome challenges — regardless of others’ suppositions about me.
That summer I left Japan to attend college in the United States. Strangely, the challenge that now raised its head came in the form of what I had initially yearned for in Japan: to fit in. People who shared my appearance seemed to think I would behave similarly to them, yet so much about them was foreign to me.
What used to be my strongest courses in Japan, those relating to the U.S. and the West, became my weakest. Again, I dedicated time and effort to courses in which I struggled, determined not to fall behind. And yet again, I successfully pulled my grades up.
These experiences taught me a broader lesson about who I was. I realized that no matter what environment I was in, people were going to make assumptions about me, and I shouldn’t let those dictate my behavior.
This realization freed me. Until then, I had been compelling myself to meet expectations or prove others wrong, basing my actions on what others expected of me. Now I was free to find and follow my own ambitions.
Life is not about shoulds or should nots; rather, it’s about what you do or do not do. Only by laying aside my concern about the notions of others have I come to discover who I really am.
These days I am driven by my own curiosity, and I have come to appreciate that indeed, “Learning is its own reward.”
Samuel Tincher is currently a graduate student at Boston College Law School. Foreign Agenda is a forum for readers’ opinion on issues related to life in Japan.
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