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I Had to Push Out of My Comfort Zone
The modesty I learned in Japan made me feel like a misfit in New York
Marin Yamaguchi
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I’m from Japan, and before I moved to New York, I didn’t hesitate to participate in class and answer my teacher’s questions. In fact, I regularly had my hand in the air.

However, in Japan, you don’t just raise your hand to participate like you do here. When you are called upon, you stand up, push your chair under the desk, stand behind it, and then finally answer the teacher’s question or give your thoughts on the lesson.

Furthermore, unlike here, everyone respects the teachers so when they are talking, everyone is expected to be silently taking notes. We do not even think about interrupting our teachers.

Although this might sound like prison to someone from the U.S., school life is still fun in Japan, even if it is more disciplined.

When we are learning, we show our best behavior, but during recess, we embrace the childish aspects of ourselves and scream while running around the playground.

But when my family moved to New York and I started middle school, I felt shy and not confident because kids and teachers acted so differently from what I was used to in Japan.

One day, one of my classmates started laughing and called out a teacher for making a mistake on what he wrote on the board. I was shocked.

I thought, You could be expelled for that in Japan! However, the teacher said, “Oops! It’s all right, everyone makes mistakes.”

I was surprised to see how casual teacher-student interactions were in the U.S. It was common for students to yell across the room to the teacher.

Even outside of school, I noticed people speaking with huge gestures and loud voices.

It’s funny seeing Americans incorporate hand motions even when they are out alone on the street, making a phone call to someone; the person on the other side of the phone can’t see them.

I figured out that in America, speaking up was a highly valued skill and that I needed to be more outgoing. My teachers kept telling me, “You should participate more. Your classmates will benefit from your insights.”

In Japan, “Everyone” Is Japanese

But it was not that easy to change my behavior because I had been raised so differently in Japan.

Also, everyone is Japanese there, but here in my New York school, students were mostly white and from lots of different countries.

Being one of only a few Asian kids made it even more difficult to feel comfortable.

I felt an increasing pressure to be more outgoing, although I did not know how. Sometimes, I overheard my classmates complaining about me in the hallway: “How does she get all As? She never participates.”

Kids also made fun of my quietness.

Once when I laughed at another classmate’s remark, she said, “Oh my God! I made her laugh!” Another time, when a teacher told a girl to be quiet, she pointed at me and said, “It was her! She’s always making all the noise.” Everyone laughed and I smiled too, although I felt embarrassed.

Loud People Are Not Superior

One day in history class, the same girl that had teased me was being super loud. A girl who I’d noticed was also quiet rolled her eyes while covering her face so only I could see. I smiled back.

“You know, we’re quiet, but she’s way too outgoing,” she said. “There has to be a middle ground somewhere.”

I realized that just because the loud girl teased me, she was not superior to me. Being extroverted was not going to be my sole goal. I was glad that I was able to make a friend who helped me realize this.

However, even after I made other friends, I was still shy in class. I was in the highest reading level, and teachers continued to write on my report cards that I should participate more.

But Japan is mainly a “book smart” country where people are not expected to speak up. It is enough—and expected—that they prove their intelligence on exams. It was hard for me to change overnight.

I spoke to my mom about it. “People aren’t paying such close attention to you. Try to speak up without worrying so much about what they will think,” she said.

image by YC-Art Dept

That made sense, but even if I was ready to change, I felt embarrassed to do so. I thought others might find it weird if I suddenly started participating a lot. That’s what my mother meant about trying not to be so self-conscious: Probably no one would notice, but I couldn’t help how I felt.

Do I Have an Accent?

I was also shy because I was self-conscious about my accent.

Even when I was outside school, at a fast food restaurant, for example, I felt embarrassed to yell out my order because of my pronunciation. I especially disliked English classes where I had to read a passage aloud, because sometimes I would encounter a word I did not know.

One day, I was sitting in the back row with my friend and my teacher called on me to read a passage on Apollo from the Greek myths. My voice shook, and I read faster and faster as I progressed through it.

I felt the shakiness echo through my body. I moved my legs back and forth to try to calm myself. “You have to read much slower. Start over,” my teacher said, and in that moment, I despised her.

Little did she know I sometimes spent the night preparing for the next day’s reading, searching for and listening to the pronunciation of words I did not recognize, just in case she called on me.

My pronunciation was not as much of an issue as I imagined.

My teachers and friends were shocked when I told them I had only learned English when I was 8 years old: “I would never have known if you hadn’t told me,” most of them said.

But I still did not know how to break out of my shell; all of their comments were not enough to boost my confidence.

Strategies for Speaking Up

To push myself, I created a document where I wrote down how many times a day I was able to participate in class. Although I was only able to participate about twice a day in the beginning, I started to improve.

By visualizing my progress, I could see I was getting better at speaking up. This helped my confidence a lot.

I learned that Spanish class was the best class to participate in, since it was small and I knew most of my classmates. By the end of 7th grade, I participated at least once in most of my classes every day.

Although I was still nervous about doing this, I got better at choosing when to participate.

For example, I was more confident answering questions from the homework, since I had spent so much time the night before reviewing it. My parents were also happy about my progress when I told them excitedly how many times I participated each day.

I also tried other strategies to increase my participation. For example, I usually had a set amount of time that I allowed myself to go on social media each day. However, if I participated more than three times a day, I rewarded myself with more social media time.

Sometimes, I would also apply the same concept with my daily snacks and give myself an extra bite of chocolate for a reward. Getting things in return for my progress motivated me to work harder.

Laughing Out Loud

Now that I am in high school, I’m able to see how much certain social norms in Japan made it challenging for me to adjust here in New York.

For example, even though Japanese culture now places less importance on this than in the past, there is still the notion that what older people say is absolute.

In Japanese society, the boss-worker relationship applies to all aspects of life.

Rather than openly challenging other people’s ideas or stating our own, we tend to be more thoughtful in what we say.

Modesty is also valued; we praise others rather than ourselves. This all contributed to my difficulty in being more outgoing here in America.

I also feel less shy now that I am taking several AP courses, which have fewer students. There is a natural intimacy between my classmates and my teachers that makes me feel comfortable about being myself.

I laugh out loud and share my thoughts freely. These smaller classes, along with my efforts, have helped me overcome my shyness.

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(NYC-2020-03-09)