JET Program, Up Close and Personal in Japan

Khalid Birdsong wakes up every morning and rides his bike toschool surrounded by mountains and beautiful scenery.  As anEnglish instructor in Osaka, Japan Birdsong knows he is gratefulfor the opportunity to teach abroad having graduated from Howard in1997.Through the JET Program, Birdsong, who was a former graphicdesign major, is able to teach halfway across thecountry. The program sends applicants to variousplaces in Japan to teach English to school-aged students. Birdsong, worked as a freelance cartoonist/illustrator inWashington, D.C. and Atlanta, when a friend recommended him to theprogram.Having no prior knowledge of the Japanese language orculture, Birdsong decided to take a gamble and try somethingdifferent.  As a cartoonist, he didn’t know Japan has one ofthe largest comic book industries.  Birdsong has published oneof his own comic books while teaching Art at an elementaryschool.

What interested you about JET?  Did you have anyconnection to the Japanese prior to deciding on thisprogram?

“There were many things that interested me about the program.Japanesehistory and culture was something I liked to learn about onmy own.  TheJapanese language seemed interesting to me but toodifficult to learn in theU.S.”   “The JET program hirespeople to work as assistant language teachers thatwork withJapanese English teachers in Junior and Senior High Schools. The factthat I would not be working alone in the classroom (since Ididn’t know anyJapanese!) appealed to me.  I would mainly bethere to teach pronunciation andReading, while adding creativity tothe lessons.  The school schedule in Japanwould also give meplenty of time to travel in Japan and throughout Asia.”    

What were your expectations of Japan and have they beenrealized since you’ve been there?

I had many expectations of Japan before coming.  There areso many, I don’thave space to list them all.  I really thoughtthat JapaneseJunior High School students would be very quiet andwell behaved in the classroom.  Other assistant languageteachers tell me that their students talk loud in class, sleep, andyell at the teacher.  It can be a problem because you can’tsend a student to the principal’s office if they misbehave inclass.  There is no detention or expelling.  I was sad tofind out that discipline in the classroom is very poor.  Evenif a student fails every class during their first year of JuniorHigh, they are promoted to the second year.  So, each studenthas to be self motivated to succeed.” “Compared toAmerica, there are few foreigners that live here.  Japaneseare not accustomed to dealing with foreigners unless you live inthe big cities.  Being a tall black male, I feel like an alienhere.  I get stared at wherever I go and most people have noideawhat African-Americans are like. They have limitedknowledge about people of different races.  I have had manyconversations with Japanese people explainingwhat black people inAmerica have accomplished and are still going through.They reallythink that after the civil rights movement, black people havenoproblems!”   

How do you feel Howard has helped you in the program?

“One of the major things that attending HowardUniversity hasdone for me isgiven a sense of pride and confidence in being anAfrican-American.  With allthat I have learned at Howard, Ican really see the world from a perspective ofa black man thatknows his history and is aware of what is going on intheworld.  Without that understanding, I would have a verydifficult time here inJapan dealing with so many culturaldifferences.”

Would you recommend JET to others?

“I would recommend the JET program to others because it is anamazingexperience.  If you are a person with an open mind, whowants or enjoystraveling and are interested in Japan, you shouldapply.  There is a smallnumber of African-Americans in theprogram and they are always looking for more–especially, blackmales. Even if you are not interested in becoming a teacheras yourprofession, this experience will help prepare you for anycareer.”

What are your plans after you return to the states?“WhenI return to the states, I plan to move to Los Angeles, Californiaandpursue a career as a storyboard/pre-production artist foranimation and film.  Ialso plan to catch up on eating a lot ofAmerican junk food!”

Has this experience changed your views on life?  If so,how?

“Life in Japan is showing me how simple life can be and howimportant it is to appreciate it.  I have learned to payattention to people and not only rely on their words to know whatthey are really saying.”

“I have also learned patience.  When I first arrived here,because I couldn’t speak Japanese, I couldn’t do anything formyself.  I had to rely on others to help me put my lifetogether.  It’s frustrating to have lived as a responsibleadult in the states and come here and feel like a child!  I amstill adjusting to life in Japan, but I have come a long way sincethe beginning.”

What would you like other Howard students to know?

“I would like for other Howard students to understand that theycan use theirexperiences and knowledge anywhere in theworld.” 

What has been the best thing you’ve done since you gotthere?    

There are so many “best” things that I have done here inJapan.  It’s hard tochoose.  I was able to get discounttickets to a Kabuki play.  They are veryexpensive!  Itwas absolutely amazing!  It was a bit scary because near theendof the last play, there was a real earthquake in our area. It was my firstearthquake during my first Kabuki play! Unforgettable!”

For information about the JET Program see:www.jetprogramme.org.