Giving a talk about Tokyo to 400 visiting Chinese students in a nineteenth century Protestant church at Waseda University may seem confusing set of factors to anyone outside of Tokyo, but here, it’s just a day’s work.
Right after the semester ended in January, as my students were sending me papers and excuses about papers, I headed to Waseda University to address three groups of 150-plus Chinese students visiting Japan during the Chinese New Year holidays. They came to Japan to learn about Japanese culture, society, language, food and life, through a busy schedule of lectures, travel, assignments and programs. As an American, I could only offer them another outsider’s views, but one steeped in years of living here.
I lived in Beijing for three years, so teaching Chinese students was an old pleasure. Chinese students are very different from Japanese. They are equally polite, but more active. Rather than hang back, they tend to lean forward into activities. They might reject them or disagree with them, but not before they try them. That difference is startlingly big.
Though I started out speaking in Chinese, the students’ English was quite good, so they preferred to get their information in the global language of English. I switched back and forth, which code switching is usually easier for Chinese students than Japanese because so many Chinese speak a couple different dialects, and are used to moving between them.
My talk was titled “Reading Tokyo: How to Read Tokyo…and Why!” I got students looking at photographs of Tokyo and thinking more deeply about how we experience cities. By starting out with their images of Beijing, New York City (where only a few had visited) and Tokyo, they could see that much of their idea of a city comes from the media.
We moved through that pre-filter to more direct impressions, details, patterns and parts. I encouraged students to read the photographs as practice for reading the city. They had perhaps all grown up mainly in large cities, but never stopped to consider that a city has a story and can be read like a novel, film or other rich text.
Their observations on various photos of Tokyo streets were fascinating. They plucked out details I had missed, and moved easily between visual images and their reactions, guesses and observations. They all chose very different types of streets as “the most Tokyo-like.” Many felt the calm, serene side streets were more Tokyo, though others chose the grand, neon-splashed streets were most Tokyo-like.
We then moved beyond images to experiences. I picked out different areas of Tokyo life as being unique: the time and speed of life; the way of using public space; the balance of traditional and modern; strange postmodern buildings; and interior eating spaces. Those five areas covered the old and the new, the outside and inside, and the flow of life in Tokyo. Talking in groups, in a mixture of Chinese and English, with some students quite fluent in Japanese, we all re-constructed our ideas of what a city means.
Chinese students, in contrast to most Japanese students, are not afraid to ask questions. Here’s a sample of what they asked:
What did I think of Japanese people’s English?
What did I dislike about living in Japan?
What is the difference between Japanese women and Chinese women?
Did I ever see a yakuza?
How is Tokyo different from New York City? And from Paris?
What was my favorite city in the world?
And of course, where is the best place to eat?
At the end of the day, I was exhausted, of course. Lecturing to a room of a hundred people is tiring, no matter how much give and take is there, and there was a lot. It was a bit tiring too, switching between English, Chinese and Japanese languages, communication styles and ways of thinking.
The Chinese students were all so excited to come to Japan, so I felt a bit disappointed my own Japanese students display such little interest in going to China. They had clearly packed away a lot of images from anime films, advertising, pop culture and the internet, and I made a mental note to ask my Japanese students what they knew about China.
A few of the students wrote to me about their experiences after a few days, telling me where they went in Tokyo and Kyoto and what they saw. Their observations were keen and yet always tinged with the sticky images from media.
I suppose that’s the way of the world now, no experience un-mediated. But as I wandered back along the pleasant, rolling streets around Waseda University towards Takadanobaba, I had to wonder how much of the world I see through only pre-constructed images, and how hard it is to push aside the filters, screens and lenses, media-created or self-imposed, to see the immediate environment and try to find its special meanings and feelings.
I couldn’t mull that over for too long, though. I had to get back home to grade 300-some essays from my Japanese students. They were writing in English about American film, art and literature, and would no doubt be struggling with their own images and words, as they created and recreated meaning from those texts.