This is a story I have told often. It is a story that brought an aha moment. Not just an aha moment, but an aha moment when I realized that I’d wronged someone else. Most aha moments seem to be about a self-realization, or an intellectual or philosophical revelation. This one was an aha moment with deep remorse. Those are the ones that stay with you.
Kyoto is a university town. It is often compared to Boston, and they have a shimai toshi relationship. Kyoto values the students because so much of their income comes from these students. The school I was teaching at catered mostly to college students, but had a unique set-up that brought in all types of people, mostly mavericks. There were no real classes at REC. We taught conversational English through having conversations. There were kyōkasho, but the teachers were free to go off on tangents, and only used the kyōkasho with very low level students, or when met with a wall of silence. Students came in anytime during the day, signed in with their names and English level, and then took a seat in the waiting room. REC was first come, first served. We teachers took a look at the sign-in sheet and took in either one student or a group up to four, if they were at similar levels. A lesson with just one student would last for 20 minutes. The time increased depending on the number of students one teacher took. All lessons were together in a big room with round tables. It looked a little like a kissaten without coffee or snacks, and there was a comfortable noise level.
Sakamoto-san was an unusual student. Most of our students were college-age, or college graduates. We had shūfu and older women coming in early in the afternoon or morning. We had a few elementary school age kids, and some very enthusiastic junior and high school kids. They were mostly onna no ko. And we had some otoshiyori, who amazingly had learned their English solely from watching NHK public television English lessons and broadcasts. Sakamoto-san stood out purely because of his educational background. That is, he appeared to have almost none at all.
In 1979 English was a mandatory subject in junior and senior high school. Anybody who had graduated from high school would have had six years of English. This did not mean they could speak it but it usually meant that they had a rudimentary grasp of bunpō and we could—by speaking slowly and writing down words—communicate with them. I suspected that Sakamoto-san had gone to a technical school, or had stopped his education after graduating from chūgakkō, which is when gimu kyōiku ends. He was in his late twenties and he usually came in after work, still wearing his suit. Yes, a suit, but a cheap one. I guessed he worked in some kind of service industry.
Sakamoto-san’s English level was the lowest of anyone I had taught. Though I would try to make conversation with him, it simply wasn’t possible to get very far. I would usually give up after five minutes, and turn to the kyōkasho. He simply needed practice and repetition. It was interesting that he’d chosen to study at a school like ours which was geared towards conversation, because he wasn’t at that level.
That night, we struggled to have a friendly conversation. I liked Sakamoto-san. He seemed nice and funny. I thought I’d enjoy his company if only we could communicate. I think he was amused by my efforts to communicate with him, and appreciated the effort. But soon enough, we got to the textbook.
After checking the notes on his records, we started a new chapter. I was happy to see that it was on colors. Everyone knew colors. This couldn’t be too difficult a lesson and I knew how I could jazz it up. So we started out with some sentence repetition, and color identification. Then it came time for me to ask him questions:
"What color is the sky?” I asked. “The sky is blue,” answered Sakamoto-san. “What color is grass?” “The grass is green,” came the answer.
This was going well, and I continued in this vein. When I came to the color orange, I asked an obvious one:
“What color are carrots?" “Carrots are red,” said Sakamoto-san, stammering a little over the r sound. “No, carrots are orange,” I said, since they are. (This was 1976.)
I wondered why in the world he’d said red. That had seemed like an easy one, but after correcting him, I moved on to another question.
The thing is, I remember something in his eyes. It’s something that others probably saw in my eyes over and over again, as I struggled to learn Japanese. It’s a reflection of the inner struggle and frustration that a person feels when they have something to communicate but realize that they are unable to do it because they don’t have the necessary language skills. I saw that moment in his eyes but I ignored it. Had to get through the lesson. And so we continued.
A couple of weeks later, on a free shūmatsu, I was riding my jitensha through a yet unexplored area of Kyoto. Kyoto is one of the easier cities to explore in Japan. It’s flat, and it is built on a grid. Even without a map, it is hard to get lost. I simply started out on a big street near my house and went north.
Eventually I came to what looked like a big farmer’s market. It was right on the street, so I hopped off my bicycle, and walked through it. I was always interested in finding new take-out foods, since I wasn’t doing much cooking in those days. And markets usually had take-out stalls.
The market was crowded, but not so crowded that I couldn’t leisurely stroll and stop to look without blocking the way of busy shūfu who tended to rule in these places. I was struck by all the yasai. So many shades of green, and they all looked so fresh. I couldn’t even imagine what kind of vegetables they were. Living in Kansas had given me no great wealth of knowledge to draw on, and I wasn’t any kind of cook at all. As I walked and marveled at the variety, I suddenly saw something red amidst all the green. In fact, it was no wonder I was drawn to the baskets of ruby red vegetables. The color and brilliance of it is almost indescribable. Ruby red said it best. Ruby red carrots.
The minute I realized that these ruby red vegetables were carrots I stopped dead in my tracks. I was looking at red carrots for the first time in my life. And I was mortified. All I could think of was the look on Sakamoto’san’s face when I blithely corrected him about the color of carrots. Why hadn’t I stopped to give him the benefit of the doubt? Why hadn’t I asked him why he thought they were red? And mostly, who was I to assume that everything in Japan was the same as it was in the United States? I was deeply embarrassed and felt like the biggest fool in the world. I’d thought I was a relatively sensitive person.
Obviously I was a total idiot.
So, the red carrots are something I have never forgotten. That moment of seeing them, and the aha moment when I realized that I’d made a wrong assumption. Years later, I was still wondering. Red carrots were a specialty of Kyoto. They are in a category of vegetables native to Kyoto called kyo-yasai, or Kyoto vegetables. Orange carrots are the norm in Japan, too. So, why did Sakamoto-san say red? Had he grown up on a Kyoto farm that grew red carrots? Was he from a traditional family and was he proud of kyo-yasai?
Back at work, I anxiously awaited Sakamoto’san’s next visit. It took a while before our paths crossed again, and we sat down together at a table to begin our lesson. I was eager to tell him that I knew why he said carrots were red, and I knew that I had been presumptuous to tell him he was wrong. I wanted to apologize to him. I needed to apologize to him. And as I sat there, I realized that there was no way to explain this to him in simple English. I could only give it my best try. And, so I did. I told him I’d seen the red carrots. I told him I was sorry that I didn’t know that carrots could be red in Japan. I told him it was the first time I’d seen a red carrot, and that I was so very sorry for presuming that carrots were orange. I explained over and over again. Sakamoto-san smiled. He wasn’t understanding a word of it. But he was smiling because he could see that something was important to me, and he wanted to give me some assurance that he was listening. It was a moment that I could not undo, nor make up for.
Sakamoto-san continued to come to REC to study English. He didn’t improve much at all. But he was a constant reminder to me to slow down and take the time to listen and ask questions. I tried to throw my
presumptions out the window and I think I became a better person for it.
***And as I write this in 2022, I see all kinds of carrots; my Trader Joe has purple ones, white ones, etc. But at the time, it was as surprising to me as it would be to see a purple hamburger…. (which I hope I never do see….)
- shimai toshi – 姉妹都市 sister city. Kyoto has a number of these relationships. For the US, it is Boston.
- kyōkasho – 教科書 textbook
- kissaten – 喫茶店 coffee shop
- onna no ko – 女の子 girl, young girl
- otoshiyori – お年寄り senior citizen
- bunpō – 文法 grammar
- chūgakkō – 中学校 junior high school or middle school
- gimu kyōiku – 義務教育 mandatory education. In the USA, it is until age 16. In Japan it is until the end of junior high school. This makes a lot more sense, right? Think about it.
- shūmatsu – 週末 weekend
- yasai – 野菜 vegetable(s)
- kyo-yasai – 京野菜 a term for the speciality vegetables grown in Kyoto which include round eggplant, red carrots and much more. Google it.