English has always been a big part of my life. Studying English not only opens up the world for me but also teaches me to embrace myself, to be kind to myself. However, my feelings towards English have not always been this way. In fact, I had been feeling a sense of inferiority about my English skills for most of my life. I felt inferior because I could not speak English, although I grew up in an English-speaking area when I was a kid. In Japan, children or students who have lived overseas due to their parents’ jobs for more than two years are usually called “Kikokushijo,” or returnee. Considering my background, I could be identified as a Kikokushijo, but I didn’t even want to since I thought I was not qualified enough to be the Kikokushijo. I had my own definition that “Kikokushijo” had to talk like a native English speaker, so I thought I did not fit in.
The good thing was that the feeling of inferiority gradually changed to positive motivation. Throughout high school, I came to think that enrolling in university could enhance my speaking skills and studying abroad as an exchange student would change my life. But all I was hoping for in the future was to overcome the inferiority and be like a perfect form of “Kikokushijo.”
In my Sophomore year, my hopes were becoming real, and I got a chance to study in Seattle. However, life in Seattle was not as easy as I had imagined. The sense of inferiority I had in Japan was still influencing me in a different way. At first, when I exchanged some conversations with people, they would always say, “I did not realize you’re Japanese. Your pronunciation is great.” I did not have problems with daily conversations, and those comments made me happy. However, things were different in the classroom.
The university I was studying at always had small classes with around twenty people. So, there were no days without discussions, which was the core of my problem. In every first class, we introduced ourselves to each other, and they reacted like I was no different than a native speaker. But the reaction made me think, “If they find out that I am not that good at speaking English later, they would be disappointed…” However, the more I thought that way, the more I hesitated to “practice” speaking English because practicing shows my immatureness. Being a perfectionist about English and not wanting to show my weakness kept me even away from reaching my goal.
The turning point was when my classmate turned her back on me and did not let me into the discussion in a politics class. It might have been because I was quiet, and it made an impression on her that I did not want to talk with her. It was true I got upset by her behavior at first, but at the same time, I felt keenly the need to change myself and contribute to the class discussion. It was slow, but I could change steadily. I tried everything I could from that day. One of the things I did was to study a lot and form my own opinions before the class started. It was demanding, but I came to express my thoughts calmly. But it did not last long because doing that lessened the time I had to spend with friends. Then, I could say the ultimate solution was to tell myself that it was okay to make mistakes and say, “I don’t know,” and ask questions out of my curiosity. These were how my classmates were participating in the class as far as I observed, and when I tried that, strangely enough, it was the best way not to stress myself out. The classmates did not seem surprised with my poor vocabulary and phrases. Rather, they showed more interest in me, unlike how I imagined. And whenever I showed my immaturity that made me feel uneasy at first, I told myself not to worry as if I hugged myself. As I repeated this over and over again, showing my imperfection did not become a big problem.
Looking back at my experience in Seattle, not only did I enhance my English-speaking skills, but I also learned that being myself is most important. In both Japan and Seattle, I tended to be influenced by how I am considered by others. In Japan, “being a Kikokushijo, or a perfect bilingual” was how I wanted to impress myself to others. And in Seattle, “contributing to classes just like a native speaker” was how I wanted to be seen. In both cases, I was putting too much pressure, or the ideal, on myself. And it created a huge gap between them and the real me. This might have been the main reason I was suffering from a sense of inferiority about English. Rather, I learned it is more important to admit that being perfect is not everything so that I can take the first step to move on to the next level. I learned an important lesson that will stay with me forever.