Cassie Guevara '13: Finding a Home Away From Home

Cassie Guevara was one of the 2013-2015 Shansi Fellows at J.F. Oberlin University. This is her first year narrative.

It is currently the twelfth week of school, with only three remaining. In addition to living in a more comfortable environment than last semester, I am also feeling much more content regarding school and my social life.

Although I have been interested for years in Eisaa, Okinawan taiko and dance, I never thought I would find a student performance group at my own Obirin University. Luckily for me, I was welcomed and accepted wholeheartedly. Joining the group twice a week for 2.5 to three hours each has been the best thing I have done in Japan. Not only do I get to practice the art first-hand as a shime-daiko (hand-held taiko) player, I get to use Japanese on a regular basis and witness the inner-workings of a microcosm of Japanese society.

In every Japanese group there is a clear established hierarchy. In the world of companies and salarymen, those with more years on them have more authority, regardless of the actual quality of their character or work. In school organizations such as clubs, “circles”, and sports teams, the revered “sempai” (upperclassmen) lead the younger, reverent “kouhai” without question. While this group is particularly and wonderfully lenient for welcoming exchange students, teachers (that’s me), and alumni to practice with them, they still run with that defined hierarchy. This is the opposite of my experience with Oberlin College Taiko, where members freely exchange creative advice and ideas regardless of grade level. Currently I am in an interesting position as a teacher, a foreigner, and a complete beginner: Beginner Me is the same boat as the “shinnyusei” (freshmen), but English teacher “Cassie-san” or “Miss G.” can be a recipient of highly respectful language and treatment. Foreigner Me is not expected to be as intense as other club members, and this in turn pushes me to surprise them.

My group, named “Oukaji Eisaa” or “Cherry blossom wind Eisaa”, has a repertoire of eleven to twelve songs that we play continuously for twenty minutes. At 6:00 PM on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and some Fridays, members gather at the club room to carry equipment such as drums, bachi (sticks), sanshin (3-stringed, snake-skin Okinawan shamisen), and vacuum cleaners to our practice space. From 6:30 to 8:30 we play. First we run through the whole repertoire, though in the beginning of the semester the newbies have no idea what we are doing. After the run-through, we bow exhaustedly and say “Otsukare-sama desu. Good work”. Then upperclassmen teach us the songs for the bulk of practice. As the semester goes on we begin to cover more specific details regarding form. After this we run the full repertoire for a second time, again ending with a bow and “Otsukare-sama desu”. From 8:30 to 8:45 or so we sit in a large circle and the upperclassmen who have been designated that day’s sectional leaders report what each group has accomplished. There are four groups: “Odaiko” (large taiko players), “shime-daiko” (small taiko players), “te-odori” (dancers), and “jikata” (sanshin player and singer). Before and after each report everyone says “Otsukaresama-desu” and bows. Needless to say, there is a lot of bowing. Finally, half of the members bring equipment back to the club room while the other half pick up every wooden splinter that had fallen from our bachi and drums, then vacuum the floor. If we borrow a classroom, every desk and chair is moved exactly into the right place. Then students attempt to pile on the overcrowded last shuttle to the local train station. Because we end so late and members tend to stay with the group until the very end, often they will walk twenty minutes to the station before having to commute up to two hours to get home. I am always amazed at how willingly these students stay with the group late after school, thinking that I myself would run home as fast as I could. In this case, all I need to do is run across the street.

There is one fourth-year student whom I admire very much. Her name is Katherine, and like me she is a foreigner of Filipino descent who has played taiko throughout college. Unlike me she has spent much of her life living in Japan. She does both Odaiko and Jikata and is one of the leaders of the Eisaa club. In many ways I see her as a version of myself, if I had spent as much time living in Japan. I am amazed by how flawlessly she, despite being a foreigner, fits seamlessly into Japanese society and leads over forty students in perfect formal (or casual) Japanese. I cannot help but wonder how long it would take me to get to that level.

Before joining Eisaa, I felt like a complete outsider to the very society I was living in. I thought separating myself from students, the largest, closest demographic around, would give me a sense of authority or adulthood.  Every day I would work in an English-speaking office and go home to speak English with the only good friends I had: fellows Anabel and Lissette. As a result, I found myself failing to find fulfilling ways to socialize and use Japanese. Then by complete luck and good timing I found the closest thing to my OCTaiko family that I have experienced in Japan. This month I will perform with the group on three occasions throughout Tokyo. In August, we will go to Okinawa for a week to bond and practice with an original Eisaa performance group at Ryukyu University. I look forward to the trip as a way to break down walls and truly feel part of the group.