Christopher Nguyen '15: Lessons in Many Classrooms

Christopher Nguyen was one of the 2015-2017 Shansi Fellows at J.F. Oberlin University. This is his first year narrative.

As a first year Shansi fellow in Japan, I realized early on that I have been experiencing two major transitions in my own life: going from student life to working life, and starting my post-­‐graduation life outside of my home country. Each transition is already a challenge by itself; to experience both at the same time has heavily shaped my perspective on culture and provided me the opportunity to grow in ways only possible through living abroad.

Needless to say that as a new teacher, standing in the front of the classroom has had its frustrations. Teaching college freshmen who are required to be in my class has led me to already witness numerous counts of sleeping, sighs of resignation during class activities, and many deer-­‐in-­‐headlights moments of students staring blankly, making me wish for just a single nod or sign of life. Fortunately, however, the moments that genuinely lift up my spirits while teaching far outnumber these low points. One unexpectedly fulfilling experience was learning about the importance of high school life to Japanese students first hand by using it as a theme for a writing assignment. College in the US is typically thought of as a time of relative freedom, especially compared to the routine of high school.

However, many of my students wrote that they preferred high school, a time for becoming closer to classmates that they would spend three years with, even meeting everyday for homeroom. In contrast, college classes in Japan tend to only meet once a week, and with most students commuting an hour and a half on average, this provides much less time for making those kinds of connections, and thus less opportunity to enjoy their education with friends. It has been through hearing my students’ experiences directly from them, such as through this assignment, that I have been able to gain a deeper cultural understanding of Japan, as well as appreciate the effort my students put into sharing their own thoughts and feelings in a language that they are still learning to master.

Students playing a game called ‘Mafia’ (played as ‘Werewolf’ in Japan).


Outside of my work, I have been seeking chances to explore Japan and go beyond just where I am living in Machida. One especially enjoyable trip was being invited to teach at a cram school in Ibraki Prefecture, located about two and a half hours away by train from where I am currently staying. A friend originally from Ibaraki Prefecture that I made through connections from Waseda University (where I studied abroad two years before) invited me on this trip. I had never before worked with small children nor did I think I would have the opportunity to help teach a special English lesson in a part of Japan I had not yet been; yet, eventually I was in the middle of the circle with ten kids, singing the alphabet song at the front of the class and helping students practice what I assumed to be some of their first English phrases: “Hello”, “My name is…”, and “Nice to meet you!” Even after a whole semester of teaching college students, nothing could prepare me for a seven-­‐ year-­‐old student’s burst into tears when he felt terrified by telling me his name during the lesson. In the end, though, the students happily stood by the other teachers and me for a picture, some even thanking me personally at the end. The teacher in charge of the cram school was incredibly generous for allowing me to participate in the lesson, and thanks to her and my friend I was able to have a unique teaching experience, and later on I was also able to explore my friend’s hometown of Tsuchiura in Ibaraki Prefecture, which felt more in touch with nature while also moving at a more relaxing pace than I was used to in Tokyo.

Madoka and I are practicing introductions in English to the children through puppets.

Cram school being taught by the lady on the right (she is a friend of my friend’s mother). In both photos, there are ten children who participated as well as the other teachers, including my friend Madoka who originally invited me to Ibaraki that day. In this photo, everyone is posing for a photo at the end of the class.

As I continue my first year of the fellowship, I expect there to be more challenges ahead. Yet, I am confident that each one will also be an opportunity for growth and possibly even enjoyment and appreciation that I cannot possibly imagine right now. I know that I must be pro-­‐active in order to truly make the best of my time here, and while that has proven difficult at times over the last ten months, learning how to do so has proven fruitful so far, and will also be helpful in my endeavors to come both during and after the Shansi fellowship.

Students and myself posing as it was the last day of class for the semester.