When I was 23, there was one basic question I couldn't figure out how to answer:
What is America, anyway?
I found my answer in an unlikely place: a town of 20,000 people about a hundred miles north of Tokyo.
It was 1994, and this country seemed caught in a constant, bitter argument between followers of President Bill Clinton and followers of Rush Limbaugh, with the media baiting both sides. America seemed loud, crass, angry and anxious, and I wanted out, maybe forever, but at least long enough to view the country from a distance and see what it looked like. The Japan Exchange and Teaching Program was hiring English-speaking college grads to work in their schools.
Somehow I got the job, as an assistant language teacher in the small town of Ishikawa. (My wife, also a Kentuckian, got a job in a neighboring town.) I soon realized that many of the folks there were asking the same questions about my country that I had asked, except that from their vantage point, America seemed like less a country than a concept, and a complicated one at that.
Once, I visited a class of college-bound high school seniors who had studied English for five years, and I asked them to write an answer in English to this question :
What is your image of America?
Among their responses:
■ "We are longing for American lifestyle. We think American families have a large house, a wide garden and a pool. ... If I lived in the American house, my life would become interesting."
■ "Americans discriminate by the color of skin."
■ "America is filled with freedom and hope but it may be dangerous. ... Guns is the representative of it. Perhaps not all Americans have guns, but we think guns very terrible."
■ "I think American people are cheerful because they are always laughing. And I think they don't get nervous anywhere."
■ "Americans are gluttony, especially they eat oily food. It is bad for their health."
These were perhaps the only specifically critical comments about America that I heard in Japan, and I was really grateful that these kids shared them because it clarified the most important aspect of my job: I wasn't really there to teach English vocabulary and verb tenses. I was there to tell America's story, even if I wasn't sure whether I understood that story myself.
I started small. I showed students the America I knew, as pictured in my own yearbooks from Winburn Middle School and Bryan Station High School. We talked about school customs such as homecoming, for which Ishikawa schools had an equivalent, and prom and voting for Most Likely to Succeed, for which they decidedly did not.
We did our best to work through the narrow overlap of the students' English, my nascent Japanese, and the translation capacity of the hardworking Japanese English teachers. I told them (or tried to) about segregation, immigration and America's history with guns. I cringe to think what might have gotten lost in translation. Once, the students started snickering when I talked about apple pie. I later learned that the English word "apple" sounds like the Japanese word apo, a slang term for poop.
At an English-language bookstore in Tokyo, I picked up a collection called Japanese Children's Favorite Stories. These turned out to be Japan's equivalent of Mother Goose or Grimms' Fairy Tales. I liked the stories: even though they were filled with heroes and magical creatures I'd never seen, they felt familiar and comforting in some way. I started using them in class to test the students' comprehension.
"What is the one about the warrior boy found inside a peach?"
"Right. What about the samurai who stood only 1 inch high?"
Gradually, in the three years I was there, I figured out what America looked like, at least to me. It looked like a kind of a family. In a family, there's joy and pride, trouble and hurt, and you can see all of that and still love your family, and recognize that these are your people, and you are one of them.
After I came back to Kentucky, I received invitations from some teachers I knew to talk with their students, many of whom had questions about Japan. I didn't know what to talk about, so I started telling stories. I told Issum Boushi in Berea, Momotaro in Munfordville.
I'll be sharing the stories again on Saturday, at the Japan Summer Festival in downtown Lexington.
Japan had once hired me to tell America's story; it never asked me to share its own. But I hope the folks there don't mind. The way I see it, they showed me two countries: theirs and mine. The least I can do is return the favor.
IF YOU GO
Japan Summer Festival
What: Kentucky's largest Japanese cultural celebration, featuring family-friendly activities, Japanese food, games, music and entertainment. Sponsored by Japan/America Society of Kentucky.
When: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sept. 7
Where: Robert. F Stephens Courthouse Plaza, Main St. and Limestone
Learn more: (502) 209-9630, JASK.org/festival.
Graham Shelby is a storyteller who lives in Louisville with his wife and three sons. You can contact him through his website, Grahamshelby.com.