Learning, Unlearning, Re-learning

written by Melody Wong (岡山県)

Melody Wong was the co-founder and former National Co-Representative of the Asian Pacific Islander Association for Japan Exchange and Teaching (API AJET).


The clock hits 9:25am and I burst through the security doors at the consulate saying my good mornings to my colleagues. Ohayo gozaimasu. Ohayo. Ohayo gozaimasu.

After returning from Japan to Los Angeles in August, I was fortunate enough to land a temporary job at the Consulate General of Japan in Downtown LA. The month prior to that, I felt like I had to get my groove back into being American. Let’s go to Costco and buy all things big! Let’s chat up a storm to everyone around me in English! Let’s learn how to do the Miley Cyrus twerk! But the minute I became an assistant to the JET Programme Coordinator, I was immediately surged back into the Japanese work environment. Bow your head, respect your higher ups, don’t talk back, and work with a computer that has no internet. It was a little bit surreal, being in Japan…in America.

Having said that, my experience at the consulate has definitely been an amazing one and I would never give it up for anything else. I was given the opportunity to switch back and forth between a Japanese work place and an American university environment at the same time.  I worked my butt off at the consulate and recruiting on campuses while talking a thousand times over about JET. It’s something most post-JETs would love to do: get paid to talk about your JET experience fresh from coming back.

However, when my contract position was up, I found myself a little torn up between the cultures. What do I do now? I’ve been practicing being Japanese and unlearning my American ways for two years and now I’ve got to relearn how to do things.

Of course, being Japanese can be taken offensively. There are many qualities to being a Japanese person as there is simply being a human; but because Japan is such a homogeneous society, there is a certain aspect to their culture that can be generalized and grouped easily. So when I am referring to being Japanese or being American, it means to uphold the values of the respective cultural ways.

As a Chinese American born and raised in southern California, I have always been torn between eastern and western ways. Having lived in a western society all my life, it always seemed to have an upper hand with my upbringing. The importance of independence, being opinionated, speaking up for yourself, and treating everyone equally are strong suits of what it means to be American. When I lived in Japan, I found myself being heavily reliant on people, quieting my opinions, not speaking up, and not being treated as an equal. I was essentially stripping my Americaness, and part of my developed identity, away. Coming back, I have carried my newly learned Japanese ways and discovered that I am sinking in western society. I’m getting pushed around more so than ever, I feel immensely guilty even at the thought of speaking up, and my hyper humility has made me more shy than I have ever been. What happened to that strong, independent woman who had no trouble standing up for herself before?

So, now I am on a personal path of learning all over again. I’ve learned to be me in the states pre-JET, I’ve unlearned a part of me to assimilate to Japan, and now I am re-learning everything I have gained through all my experiences and tacking it on to being a stronger, better me.

The clock strikes 5:00pm. I’ve finished my time at the consulate and I’m ready for my re-newed life in America. Otsukaresama deshita, Nippon. You’ll always be a part of me as I continue learning. ◆

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