The Obama Effect

November 13th, 2008 by Steph

…wherein I make heroic efforts to avoid words like “historic”, “hope” and “change”.

It started with the bulletin board. I’ve worked here for over two years and haven’t put a damn thing up on that English corner bulletin board. I’m just not a cutesy cut-and-paste scrap-booking bulletin board type. But last month? I finally had something to say.

I usually don’t talk about America in the classroom. I figure the students get inundated with enough crap American culture, I’m not going to force more on them… but, inspired by receipt of my absentee ballot, last month I made an exception and posted some information about the upcoming election. Pictures of McCain and Obama went up, along with a rudimentary explanation of Democrat vs. Republican. High school students began to gather around the board, giggling and pointing, looking confused but interested. This could be good, I thought.

Then last week in the days leading up to the election, I had the good fortune of working with my favorite Japanese teacher of English. Let’s just call him Rockstar, for his stellar teaching talents. Rockstar and I started class like we always do, by asking the students how they’re doing, and they respond in kind. In lieu of my usual schtick however, I responded by physically jumping up and down. Why, you ask? On Wednesday morning, I told them, we’ll find out who the next American president is. Be excited.

We then asked our 13 and 14 year-old students (impartially, of course) who they would vote for, McCain or Obama. To my surprise, everyone had very passionate opinions, like, way more passionate than I would expect from an American teenager. As it turns out, 95% of my students are for Obama.

How to explain this overwhelming majority? Some cynics theorize that Obama is popular in Japan because his name fits nicely into the Japanese syllabary. There’s also the small matter of Obama, Japan, a little fishing village which existed long before Obama the politician burst onto the scene a few years ago. However, Obama’s popularity with the kids is really no surprise… if you’re not avidly watching the campaign unfold, with the policy debates and the supposed scandals, all you have to go on is looks. I mean, who would you vote for, if you were 14? The young, hip guy with a smile or the old codger with a grimace?

My students verified this suspicion when we asked them to explain their reasoning. Most said they would vote for Obama because “He is cool!” or “He is black!” (which seems to lend one a certain mystique in Japanese pop-culture). One student though, blew everyone away when he simply replied: “Because Obama will see everyone as equals.”

Amazingly enough, one girl supported McCain to the bitter end, even after seeing all her classmates go for Obama. In a country that is all about not sticking out, at an age when you are dying to be just like everyone else, I was incredibly impressed that she stuck to her guns. Why does she support McCain? Because “Obama is too popular”. I didn’t delve any deeper, so we can’t be sure if she’s rocking the pity vote, or making blithe commentary on Obama’s messiah-like status. All in all, I was impressed with the students’ ability to express their personal opinion, especially when you consider that they’ve studied English for a year and a half, tops.

As Wednesday morning rolled around and electoral votes trickled in, I was on some kind of giddy caffeine-induced news high, drunk on information overload. Simultaneously chatting with friends, family, and my husband, we made the play-by-play back and forth as results began to pop up (Look, quick! Before it flips! Texas is blue! Go Dallas!) News began to trickle in about the rest of you as well: driving voters to the polls in Miami, last minute campaigning in Seattle, working long shifts at the polls in Ohio, stuck in chem lab in Texas, on the edge of your seat, waiting breathlessly in Harlem. As Obama’s electoral votes continued to inch towards 270, I raced off to teach for two hours. As usual, Rockstar and I brought up the election in class, that it was happening RIGHT NOW people, THIS IS NOT A DRILL! and if students wanted to know the results, they could come and ask me in person around 2pm to find out.

Little did I know that the entire school had been working on a research project about their hometown, culminating in an all-afternoon presentation. While this was a pretty awesome project, it may have stolen a little thunder from my election-fever. No matter… I went around from poster to poster, listening to students give speeches about the elementary schools they all came from, or what kind of fish swim in the river, or the best season to enjoy the local park, and it was incredibly sweet, actually. What a lovely way to celebrate and take pride in small town life (you know, the REAL Japan where the hard-working people with values live… ).

Then 2 o’clock rolled around. We were still rotating around the gym from presentation to presentation. But during those in-between moments, students inexorably gravitated towards me from across the room in groups of 3 or 4. In hushed conspiratorial voices, they would ask me「オバマかマケンか誰勝ったの?」After making them ask in English, and making a big “O” sign with my arms (also the sign for “Yes! Correct!” here in Japan), they would jump up and down, giving me high fives and celebratory terrorist fist jabs, then rush off to tell another cluster of students, who would approach me to start the process all over again.

But the most compelling moment was yet to come, when I returned to school on Thursday. Rockstar-sensei and I were on our way to class when he asked me to explain a little bit about Obama’s speech to the students. Unbeknownst to me, he had burned a copy of Obama’s acceptance speech to CD, and printed out hard copies for all of his students. I didn’t really have anything specific prepared. My impression was that he was planning on a 10 minute discussion, tops. To his credit, when I asked how much time I could use to discuss the speech, he replied “Take as much time as you want.” Anyone who has taught English in Japan while bound by protocol, anyone who has attempted to reach outside of the textbook, or tried to teach something which doesn’t fit neatly into the rigid government-determined English framework knows that setting aside agendas and schedules to learn from current events using real English is nothing short of miraculous.

We spent the entire hour going over the last 11 paragraphs of Obama’s acceptance speech, the part where the 106 year-old lady shows up to vote, and we stop for a moment to consider all she’s been through, to consider not only the hardships we’ve overcome in the last century, like war and inequality, but also all the progress society has made through technological breakthroughs.

To their credit, the junior high school students were familiar with just about every historical event mentioned in the speech (although it kind of blew their minds that this lady was born in a time without planes or cars). They nodded with hesitant familiarity as we went over (in English!) World War II, the first man on the moon, and even the Berlin wall coming down. They could understand how decades and decades ago, people were prevented from voting because of race, gender, or lack of money. What they hadn’t heard of and could barely comprehend was the Civil Rights Movement.

Using basic English we explained to our students about segregated buses and stores. We identified the “preacher from Alabama” as Martin Luther King (flashes of recognition here when Rockstar mentioned his name in Japanese) and that even though this man believed in protesting non-violently, he was still killed for his beliefs. When we stressed that all of this had happened less than 70 years ago, that was the kicker. That’s what they couldn’t believe. And that’s when it hit home, how this woman mentioned in the speech had been born some 40 years after the end of slavery, and had experienced the Civil Rights Movement and then lived long enough to witness the election of first African-American president. You could see the light go on, as students recognized the continuity and proximity of all these events, as they understood the context that makes this election’s results so extraordinary.

I am not a sentimental person. As such, I refuse to disclose the number of times that tears have come to my eyes since the election was called last Wednesday; frankly, it would be embarrassing. But I will tell you that each time we began this lesson, my tear ducts would ambush me. First it was discussing the Civil Rights Movement. When I got that under control, I then lost it when we got to WWII, which Obama describes as the time when “bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world”. Try translating that as an American standing in front of a class of Japanese school children. But the amazing thing was… we could all soberly acknowledge that this event happened, free of animosity on either side, knowing that even though our countries fought against each other in the past, we don’t have to be pigeon-holed by history. Tissue, please.

We wrapped up the lesson by discussing the “American Dream”, mentioned in the last paragraph of the speech. Until we began this conversation, I was unaware that many teachers and students alike in Japan have a very specific understanding of the American Dream. As it was explained to me, the Japanese interpretation has to do with the opportunity (possibly the right) to become rich and famous if you live in America. I explained my broader interpretation of the American Dream by making a list of some of the classifications that have divided our country in the past. Black and white. Rich and poor. Gender. Religion. And (in light of Prop. 8, thank you very much) gay and straight. And that no matter how you identify yourself, no matter what mix of all these things you are, you (should) have the same rights as anyone else. And (call me sentimental if you will) that if you work hard, you can achieve anything (even being rich and famous, if that’s your thing).

Now forget for a moment the larger-than-life oratory, the rhetoric, the poignant references to Lincoln and JFK and Martin Luther King. Forget the beautifully constructed arc of the speech, how Obama calls upon the citizenry for “service and responsibility,” the (dare I say it) historic drama of it all. Instead take in these words for a moment: “While the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility…” Humility. A word I’ve scarcely heard in the last 8 years, certainly not from anyone in the reigning administration, certainly not regarding current American policy.

While it remains to be seen if Obama will be an effective president, he is already having a profound effect in my small community here in Japan. Instead of asking in class “People who understand, raise your hands”, Rockstar-sensei now says “Yes We Can people…?” and arms shoot enthusiastically into the air. The English teachers aren’t the only ones who are jumping on the band-wagon. The Japanese teacher also took in a translation of Obama’s speech to study with his class this week.

As for the two of us? The night of Obama’s victory we went out to carouse, euphoric on an election high (just like the rest of y’all, apparently). I wanted to run like crazy through streets packed to the gills with humanity, but this being Tohoku, I had to settle for something a little more modest in scale. Eager to share our good cheer with someone, we headed to a familiar restaurant where we know the folks who run the joint. We shared the room with one other Japanese couple. The TV was on, rehashing election results, mostly just showing clips from Obama’s acceptance speech. As the Japanese translation scrolled by on the screen, we could hear the general consensus in the room: “Dude, I totally can’t understand him but he’s SO COOL!”

We knew, all of us, that despite the excitement, that despite all the hype, he’s not the ultimate solution to all things. He’s not our fairy godmother. Of course he’ll make mistakes. But for that moment, we allowed ourselves the luxury of basking happily and without reservation in the election afterglow, drinking beer, feeling that all was right with the world, even if it’s not. At the end of the night, making our way out the door, we congratulated the two lingering couples on Obama’s victory. In return, their cheers ushered us out into the night, all of us flushed with mutual good feeling (and, let’s be honest, alcohol).

I’m not sure how election night unfolded for you, where you were, what you felt, when you heard. But that’s how it all went down here, in the boondocks of Japan.

5 Responses to “The Obama Effect”

  1. mom Says:

    This is a wonderful piece of writing, Steph. Very well unified, informative and emotional at the same time. Please send a special copy to Mitsu; I know she will enjoy it. This piece would make a wonderful “radio blog” (I’ve forgotten the name.) I can just hear you reading it, and closing your speech just like NPR.

  2. Papa Says:

    I can not tell you how proud I am of you. The things that you said are right on, and even though you are a liberal and I am a conservative, I support the views that you express.

    I was also impressed with your realism. Too many democats and republicans put me off because they see things as a swith. Our candidate is good, your candidate is evil. You see the promise, but you also see the uncertainty that comes with that promise. You have an open mind, and that seems to be a rare commodity.

    Love, Papa

  3. Steph Says:

    Obama ’08! Reaching across the aisle to bring families together. Woo hoo!

  4. kathleen Says:

    excellent. i loved reading this!

  5. Steph Says:

    from Mitsuye Yamada
    “I just loved reading your blog about your students’ responses to the Obama election, Stephanie! I’d been reading about the Japanese people’s great interest in Obama’s campaign and election, but your personal account was far more engaging. I’m not surprised that 95% of your 13-14 year olds are for Obama. His charisma is quite amazing, isn’t it? I agree with Michelle Obama but I can say it without apology, “I’m PROUD of this country for the first time in many years.”

    You and Rockstar have certainly managed to turn the U.S. election event and Obama’s acceptance speech into fantastic teaching tools! You captured the excitement of this experience, yours and the students’, in your beautifully written account! It’s no wonder, your Mom and Dad are so proud of you. I’M proud of you too!

    Citing the historical events the 106 year-old woman lived throughout her life certainly brought the events into wonderful perspective. The Voting Rights Act for African Americans were passed before her birth, but do you realise that U.S. women were denied the right to vote until 1920 (the 19th Amendment) when the woman was 18 years old?

    I’ve become cynical in my old age. In 2004, I had said to myself for months before the election of that year that there was absolutely no way that the American people were going to be stupid enough to vote for W the second time. (I thought that the first time in 2000 too because of his record as Governor of Texas, but since he was untried as U.S. president, I excused the general public for voting for him.) Then he won a second term! Then we learned that election was stolen, so I kept wondering if the Republicans were going to steal this election too by somehow tampering with the voting machines! This election resonated with so many of us because he is not only the first African American U.S. president, but the first person-of- color president! It’s time we had a person-of-color alongside Washington, Lincoln, Grant etc. on our greenbacks!

    But you’re right! We must resist the temptation to make him out to be some kind of miracle worker. It will take years to undo the damage W has done these past eight years: on our environment and our civil liberties. Finally! Our faith in the democratic process has been restored!”

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