Monthly Archives: February 2013

Global diversity and the racialized universe of stock photos

Part of my job is “cultural exchange at the grassroots level,” and it’s especially clear in elementary schools that I’m there not only to teach language but to widen students’ awareness of the diverse world beyond their country hometown. So when my homemade flashcards and other activity cards involve images of people, I always try to mix up ethnicities and ages. ALTs work to debunk the Japanese kid’s assumption that all English speakers are white Americans (and being a white American myself doesn’t help me in this respect!).

I feel guilty and fake somehow for using terms like “interracial couple” in my image searches. But I realized today how ludicrous and problematic it is that stock images are invariably of young, attractive white people, unless they have modifying terms. That is, “family at Christmas” will yield exclusively white families, and only by adding a race word can you escape the Internet vortex of beautiful white people.

Yes, it seems like a small thing to harp on, but this is one example of the hegemonic structures of race and institutional prejudice whose repercussions become clearer, perhaps, in this job than in others. I’ve already written about the unequal position of English among world languages, with its overtones of privilege and political and economic power. Just as that issue didn’t become clear to me until I worked closely with EFL* students, the underrepresentation of minorities (especially in English-speaking culture) is a problem that might not be so apparent to me were I not attempting to teach students about diversity and the world abroad.

The problem is not an actual shortage of images. Indeed, there are thousands of pages of images of black, Asian, Latin@ people available online – once you’ve manipulated Google Images with the right combination of descriptors. My complaint is that we can’t conceive of minorities without labeling them by race; that the faces of people who aren’t young and white are lost in a kind of racialized anonymity.

The blanket terms are applied liberally in academia – “underrepresentation of minorities,” “invisibility,” the “politics of representation.” But a few Google searches reveal that there’s actually very little material out there, whether in the academic context or in the blogosphere, that discusses concrete examples of these big ideas. Stock photos are not a very important part of most of our lives, but they are rooted in the milieu of racial language, and this belies the voices out there claiming that we (Americans, but also the whole world) are a “post-racial” society.

*English as a Foreign Language. We distinguish this from ESL because, where ESL learners are surrounded by an English-speaking society and need the language to function in everyday life, there’s no practical application of English for students here. (Combine that fact with teenage ennui and you can begin to imagine the motivational problems ALTs face with many classes!)


Thai curry: a love poem

The road to making Thai curry — my one true culinary love — in Japan has been long and arduous.

It took me weeks to collect all the spices, the coconut milk from various import stores. The tamarind paste I bought at the Asian market in California and brought back with me (yes, it’s easier to buy Thai ingredients 8,000 miles away from Thailand than 2,800). I found the limes — mysteriously not available in Japanese supermarkets — at the little Brazilian market near the train station. I have to open the coconut milk in this star pattern (I should submit it to a museum as modern art) because Japanese can openers simply don’t work. Some things, like fresh lemongrass, are simply not available and I have to improvise.

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I guess I love that it’s been a project that has crossed national and cultural borders and required not a small amount of creativity and patience. That’s the beautiful thing about cooking, right? — like literature, it takes you to far-away places, challenges you, teaches you.

The way I make Thai curry is messy and haphazard. It was always this way (past roommates will remember the war zone that was our kitchen on curry nights), but in my little apartment here I really have no other option anyway. With one burner and a counter space about the size of my small cutting board, there’s just not room to assemble all the ingredients beforehand.

As garlic and ginger — the first step — sizzle on the stove, time is of the essence: I reach for whichever spices I feel like that night, shake them into the oil until things look and smell right. Later, when it’s time for ingredients like lime juice, fish sauce and tamarind paste, I once again go by instinct, barely thinking as I reach for this bottle or that one. It’s the same with the vegetables and the meat, tofu or fish, of which curry seems to accommodate an infinite number of combinations. There’s no logic to my choice of fresh ingredients for each curry besides “whatever sounds good and is on sale.”

I may be doing something right with this slapdash style: The writers at Thai Table describe how Thai culinary philosophy eschews measuring cups and places a premium on personal taste, freeing you from following recipes to the letter.

I think of each curry as organic, living, in a constant state of change from when I first turn on the stove to when I spoon the steaming meal into a bowl and take that first bite. It’s the whole process and experience of cooking, not just the taste, that makes curry worth every bit of frustration with my tiny kitchen; worth the nuclear fallout of ingredients everywhere; worth the time and effort and cost of obtaining all those ingredients in a country that frankly can’t handle the spice and strong flavors of Thai food.

And that’s why, this Valentine’s Day, I’ll most likely be alone in my apartment making Thai curry. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sometimes, the tough nuts do crack

Last term I taught the same four classes of 6th graders every Friday at my weekly visiting school, and many of you know that I was saddened to learn that I wouldn’t be teaching them this term. Luckily, the 5th graders that I’m working with now are adorably enthusiastic. 🙂

This week, however, the 5th graders are on a ski trip, so the other JTE, who’s now working with 6th grade, asked me to come in just for today. I got to see the 6th graders for the first time since early December, and it was a shock to see how they’ve changed. Maybe the class psychology has shifted now that it’s their last term at elementary school, or maybe simply having a new JTE has changed the way they behave in English class (even though the same homeroom teacher is still ostensibly in charge of discipline. Keyword, ostensibly…).

The most surprising change was in fourth period. This class was always the most stressful part of my Fridays last term: there were 4 boys in particular who were unruly and disruptive, and the homeroom teacher was explosive and borderline abusive, in my opinion. So I was apprehensive as they filed in today.

Not only was the class pretty well-behaved, 2 of the 4 boys in particular seemed to have transformed! Last term, they had chatted with each other and the other 2 boys, wandered around the classroom and often didn’t participate in activities (indeed, actively sabotaged them on occasion!). Today, by contrast, both of them seemed really engaged and focused.

One of them — let’s call him Okada-san — especially stuck out to me. He knew all the answers, participated enthusiastically in the games, and had this big smile on his face the whole period. I had always known that he was sharp (the disruptive kids are often the ones who are best at English and consequently bored out of their skulls) but it was still so inspiring to see the change that this 12-year-old kid had undertaken in less than 2 months.

Of course I felt a little sad that all this had taken place after I left — could I have done something differently to make it happen sooner? was there a way I could have better gotten through to the disruptive boys? — but still, it gave me all kinds of warm fuzzies. And I’m more optimistic than before about seeing how these kids will have grown up when they enter my middle school as first years in April.