Single mom, sons taste the expat life


In August this year, Nhora Prieto, a native of Colombia, and her two sons arrived in the tiny town of Shichinohe, Aomori Prefecture — with a population little over 10,000 — where she now works as an assistant language teacher of English.

Prieto, who worked as a consultant in Washington, D.C., before getting a degree in marketing and international business, came to Japan on the JET program to get multicultural experience before embarking on a career in international business.

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent closing of the New York Stock Exchange, Prieto foresaw the bleak future of the U.S. economy. This was confirmed by the bankruptcy of Enron and other giant companies. To her, this signaled a downturn in work prospects in the field of international marketing, so she took up on her professor’s suggestion and considered the JET program. Looking at the program’s Web site, however, her initial enthusiasm soured.

“The marketing strategy for the JET program is a funny thing,” Prieto comments. “They are advertising for assistant language teachers, and for someone like myself, who studied business for five years, I didn’t want to be a grade-school teacher’s assistant. The program is actually a fascinating opportunity to be a kind of cultural ambassador, an interpreter of one’s own culture. If the Japanese government emphasized this aspect of the program, they’d recruit a hell of a lot more quality people from diverse backgrounds looking for multicultural experience.”

Prieto’s interest in Japanese culture began at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. While researching the cultural adaptability of expatriate businessmen from the United States, Europe and Japan, she discovered that Japanese businessmen are the best expatriates in terms of their ability to successfully assimilate into new cultural environments. In this study, according to Prieto, U.S. businessmen ranked last.

“With so much cultural diversity in the U.S., one would think Americans are more exposed to other cultures,” Prieto points out. “[But] Americans tend to want others to adapt to the American way.”

It was this research that got her interested in the JET program. “I started to see why Japanese businessmen were so culturally adaptable,” Prieto comments. “Even in the smallest places in Japan, there are JETs bringing international awareness to local communities. The Japanese government is paying so much money for JETs to come here, not just to teach kids English, but to expose kids to other cultures.”

Prieto contrasts this situation with what she has found in the U.S. “With the United States being a cultural melting pot, most Americans don’t take the time to learn about other cultures,” she says. “The country has so much money, but when it comes to cultural education so many programs are being cut from the nation’s school budgets.”

As a way to remedy this situation, Prieto suggests developing sister-city exchange programs, whereby young people from around the world are invited to communities across the U.S. to develop more global awareness and cultural sensitivity.

“Here I’m giving a tremendous cultural experience not only to my students, but also to my children,” Prieto says. “For me, too, it’s an excellent opportunity to learn Japanese and to also learn all about myself as an American of Colombian descent. This experience has become my final examination in international business — an expat experience — before going back into the marketplace.”

Although Prieto, who teaches at two high schools, never saw herself becoming a teacher, she enjoys teaching children and finds it gratifying to see them want to learn and interact with her.

In her private time, Prieto has developed a network of friends among women in the community. They include the mothers of her sons’ friends. Before coming to Japan she was concerned about how life would be in Japan for a single parent like her. Educating her children was of particular concern. The only Web site she could find on single parenting as a foreigner in Japan focused so much on the problems of single parenthood that it made her reticent about putting her children into the local school system. She initially considered home-schooling as an alternative.

However, at her sons’ school in San Antonio, Prieto had been a member of the English as a second language advisory committee. She frequently advised parents of non-native-speaking children that direct immersion into the regular school curriculum was the best way to achieve language proficiency. In Japan, Prieto decided it was time to practice what she had preached.

She enrolled her sons into the local Japanese elementary school. Since their first day of classes, three months ago, Victor, 11, and Brandon, 8, have enjoyed unexpected popularity.

According to Cameron Wrigley, the ALT at their school, “The Japanese teachers see Victor and Brandon as their ‘little ALTs.’ What’s more important is now the Japanese kids feel they have a reason to study English. They want to talk with their new American friends.”

When asked about school life, Victor comments, “It’s really cool. It’s a great experience coming to Japan.” After school, Victor, who loves basketball, is seen on the school’s indoor court most afternoons playing with the local kids. The two brothers are invited to Japanese friends’ homes and have been asked to play the piano at school events. Most evenings, Prieto tutors them in Spanish and in American-school courses.

“The local community is getting three ALTs for the price of one,” comments Prieto, who has become a sort of surrogate mother for other JETs in the area. “During one of my studies, I found that expats had better chances of success when they were sent abroad with their families. It is important for many of the JETs to have good emotional support while in Japan. Since it’s a lot easier if you have someone with you, whether family or a partner, there should be more flexibility for such arrangements on the JET program.”