Cassie Guevara was one of the 2013-2015 Shansi Fellows at J.F. Oberlin University in Japan. This is her second year narrative.
On Monday evening of June 22, I gave a 47-minute English lecture to students, faculty, and community members at Obirin. My topic was a timely one; this year marks 70 years since the end of World War II, so I chose to present on wartime Japanese-American internment in the United States. What made this topic even more special to me was that I had spent my last semester at Oberlin searching for the names and information of all Japanese-American students who had attended Oberlin College throughout the wartime years. Some of these students had applied from camps. Just before graduating, my quiet research conducted on the fourth floor of Mudd Library was rewarded when I was interviewed for the cover page article in Oberlin’s Alumni Magazine. Because Obirin (J.F. Oberlin University) was founded by a Japanese Oberlin alum and shares the same school name, I decided to include my research in my presentation as well.
I had never given such a lecture other than my presentation on Okinawan and Ainu literature and music at Oberlin’s Senior Symposium, and I was so anxious for that I got stress acne. The whole week before the lecture I was nervous. I knew there would be a bit more fanfare than the usual ELP Lecture (whose topics varied from maps to olive oil to oysters) because of my serious and potentially controversial topic. My anxiety only grew when our boss Damon told me they had borrowed a room double the size of the usual. The Friday morning before, I heard that- surprise! A newspaper reporter would be coming to document our Lecture Series, and my lecture worked best for their schedule. This really got my stomach twisted up. Rather than eating from hunger I was either not eating at all or force-feeding myself from necessity. Then, the day before, Anabel, Ariel, and visiting Shansi Fellow Karl were kind enough to watch a run-through at school, which helped me realize how awkward I still was.
Finally, the big day came. By the time I arrived at the classroom, it was already filling up. I settled my bag down, laid out the handouts I’d prepared, and headed for the bathroom for a last pee and appearance check. When I got back, the classroom was completely full. I looked at everyone’s faces and saw many new and many familiar. There were friends, students from GLEE or my past classes, many coworkers, and other Obirin staff whom I had never met. Compared to my compulsive English Core class, the sea of faces was bright and eager, and pens were at the ready to take notes. It hit me then that I was finally calm, as if some sort of invisible, heavy cape of confidence had draped around me and settled the heart (and stomach) that had threatened to jump out of my skin for the past week. By the time I was introduced and I opened my mouth to speak, I felt like a different person had taken over. She wasn’t shaking, she was smiling. And yet I knew that this person speaking was 100% me.
Damon had told me earlier on that if at least 30 people attended, I would be a success. He was worried that because it was a Monday, fewer people would be able to attend than normal. I found out later that my audience was well over 80 people, including a recently retired Obirin teacher June Nakamura who was born in a U.S. internment camp, rarely-seen Obirin President Rev. Dr. Takayasu Mitani and his wife Ann Cary (an Oberlin College alum), as well as the reporter from “Mainichi Shimbun”. There had been so many people that they had run out of space in the sign-in sheets. I was amazed when a line of people formed to talk to me, even after the Q&A session had finished. One teacher at the high school shook my hand and told me that, because this was part of his own family history, mine was the most meaningful presentation he had ever been to in his life
I was not always convinced that I would want to continue teaching English in Japan after Shansi. I thought that I would pursue graduate studies in Asian Studies or International Relations, and pursue other careers that would make me use Japanese. Although I hardly need to use Japanese in my work environment, I realized through presenting for the ELP Lecture Series that I could still pursue my other passions while being an English teacher. While my first year of Shansi was spent finding my place in Japan socially, my second year has been a time for me to grow professionally, build a network of contacts, and begin a return to academics. I applied for but was denied a Fulbright for researching Filipino stories under the Japanese WWII occupation. This led me to divert my thirst for history to researching the Japanese-American internment in greater depth, and give my first ever lecture whose success surprised myself more than anyone. I also applied for graduate school programs and decided to enroll in the New School’s Online M.A. TESOL program. I have applied for two university positions, and am on track to remain in Tokyo as a part-time English lecturer while pursuing the M.A. online. The most recent development that makes me feel like I am coming full circle, is that the Philippine-based professor who offered to sponsor my Fulbright topic has connected me with a Japanese translator of wartime memoirs, and this woman has now connected me with her colleagues in Tokyo-based NPOs and NGOs. If I procure enough time and energy without going crazy, I may be able to get involved in this sphere after all.
I can’t help but look back and consider how far I’ve come. I started this fellowship excited but insecure. I wanted to make friends, but didn’t know how. I wanted to be a great teacher, but had stage fright and zero experience. Fighting loneliness and finding a community with Oukaji Eisaa (Obirin’s Okinawan drums and dance group) was my first accomplishment. I found friends and was able to finally feel like a part of Japanese society.
Regularly performing with them helped me get over stage fright. Around this time I also became more confident as an individual. I became comfortable being a young Filipina-American English teacher in Japan, who loves Japanese and taiko and karaoke and food. I finally succeeded in obtaining the frustratingly elusive Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. I made more friends with a handful of other part-time teachers. As the end of Shansi approached, I could see a new future in Japan stretching out before me.
I have no intentions to be one of those expats who never goes back to her home country. I owe it to my family and to Shansi to continue bridging the two. In fact, I am visiting home in New York next month, and will probably visit relatives in the Philippines for New Year’s. My dad is always messaging or prompting video chats. While it hurts to see my cousins’ kids grow up without me, I will bring home stories of the far away land that is “Japan”, beautiful and perplexing, modern and traditional, easy to live in yet frustrating to foreigners. Two years was too quick, so I’ll keep challenging myself to carve out a life here in Tokyo. At least, for a little longer.