What Discourse Transition means for an International Students?

“Do you want me to call on you?” The English professor gently asked me the question when I talked to her about my concern towards participation points. Physically being present in the class was the requirement, but I had to offer the opinions in order to satisfy my participation grades. When I was studying in my native country of Japan, the classroom was lecture based and we are not encouraged to have class discussion with my classmates. Instead, the teachers gave the lectures and informed the crucial points, so I learned to sit quietly, listen to the lecture and take notes. In the United States the teachers encourage students to work in a small group to discuss the reading materials and participate in the class discussion.

I am Japanese, and I came to the United States to get college degree as an English Literature major. Being a second language student was something that I struggled with and was not sure if I made the right decision. Not just because the reading materials were hard to catch up, but it was difficult for me to participate in the class discussion.

In the book Social Linguistics and Literature, James Paul Gee defines the meaning of Discourse. “It is not just language and action that must ‘fit’ together appropriately. In social situated language use one must simultaneously say the ‘right’ thing, do the ‘right’ thing and in such saying and doing also express the ‘right’ beliefs, values and attitudes” (168). Gee explains that Discourse means not only language and action need to be expressed properly in order to fit into the society, but people have to have the similar values and attitudes. Coming to the United States as a college student was difficult because I already acquired my values and beliefs as Japanese. Because of my background, I often found myself having a difficult time participating in class discussion.

For example, currently I am taking African American Science Fiction class for my English Literature major, and we discussed about the issues of the racial discrimination in the United States. One of the American students who was a person of the color opened up the class discussion by saying that she was frustrated with the experience of checking off the box of racial categories since she is mix between European and Asian American. Even though I am Japanese and staying in the United States as an international student, it was difficult for me to relate to her experience because I do not have an experience of checking off the racial category box and do not know what it means to be discriminated as American. Since I do not have similar values and attitudes compared to American students, it was difficult for me to be a part of Discourse in the United States.

In his 1987 book, Cultural Literacy, E.D. Hirsch created the definition of cultural literacy including common cultural vocabularies that American people need to know. However, the definition that the author Hirsch created, including names, phrases, and dates and concepts, are leaning towards white American culture and not equal to other ethnic groups of Americans in the United States because Hirsch’s definition of Cultural Literacy is learning toward white American cultural based and not diverse to every other ethnic group. A contributing writer, to the Atlantic, Eric Liu critiques Hirsch’s definition of cultural literacy. In his 2015 article, “What Every American Should Know”, Liu asks this question to the readers: “What? What is the story of “us” when “us” is no longer by default “white?” The answer, will depend on how aware Americans are of who they are, of what their culture already has been. And that awareness demands a new kind of mirror” (2).

In the beginning of the essay, I mentioned about my classmate who felt discriminated from her experience of identifying her race. Just like my classmate, many people do not know what racial discrimination means until they feel discriminated against because of their race. I think that many people live their life without having a mirror in front of them to show who they are. Personally after I came to the United States, I understood better about my culture and country because I was able to step back from my culture and country and see myself with the lens of American people’s perspective.

Eric Liu argues in the article that many American people are not aware of themselves and culture, so that they need to have a mirror to see themselves. My classmate understands what racial discrimination means for her because she saw herself with a mirror in front of her to show who she is with her race. Therefore, in order to understand the meaning of Cultural Literacy, I think that people have to have a mirror to show who they are to know their culture.

Therefore, I wondered how we can accommodate everyone’s different literacy practices into the classroom setting? Is it necessary for the teachers to change the materials or topics so that the international students can participate in the class discussion? Even though international students may face the challenges since they do not have common ground, international students need to acquire and learn by living or studying in the United States.

Personally, after studying in the United States for 5 years, I found myself mastering English by learning and acquiring the language. When I was in Japan, I had an English class that helped me to learn English grammar and writing. James Paul Gee explains, “Learning is a process that involves conscious knowledge gained through teaching” (187). I think that learning was necessary in the process of acquiring English grammar and writing because I have to examine what I wrote in order to improve my English. On the other hand, acquisition is also necessary in order to learn speaking or gain common knowledge that American people have.

Gee provides the definition: “Acquisition is a process of acquiring something by exposure to models, processes of trials and error, and practice within social groups, without formal teaching” (189). Like Gee explains, people acquire by making an observation of how things work in the social setting or group. People gain the skill of speaking through the conversation or practicing the phrases.

For instance, one example that can explain that acquiring is more important than learning is that one time I borrowed camera from the professor for the class project. Next day in the class he asked me if I brought the camera with me since he forgot to bring his camera to make the video during the class. Since I could not finish editing, I said “no” to his answer. But he responded by saying “Oh it is okay. I screwed up.” After the short conversation, I understood that he was okay with not returning the camera, but I could not understand the meaning of “screwed up”. After this encounter, I searched the meaning of “screwed up” in the dictionary and started applying the phrase whenever I have a chance to use it. As a result, I acquired my speaking by modeling the conversation with people.

In the process of learning and acquiring English, I started becoming aware of the different style of writing in the United States and Japan. When I was assigned to write response paper for my English class, I argued to the thesis by referring to other texts from the class. However, even though I wrote counter-arguments by using the text, the professor was expecting me to include informed opinions in my counter argument. I was surprised that American people valued informed opinions a lot more compared to Japanese people. The reasons why I was surprised about including informed opinions in my paper because it was not common for Japanese people to include informed opinions in the counter-argument.

In the article, "Contrast Rhetoric and Japanese Writer of EFL”, the author Waiching Enid Mok argues, “Japanese people’s great concern for achieving the harmony, often try to justify the basis of differing interpretation in their source materials and make no attempt to test or evaluate them” (154). Japanese people do not make interpretation to the sources since they put emphasis on making the harmony. What I mean by making the harmony is that, Japanese people try to avoid the argument by agreeing what the person values or says.

For example, when I visited Japan after spending few years in the United States, I went to the restaurant with my Japanese friends. My Japanese friends nicely asked me what kind of food I wanted to eat. Without thinking, my immediate response to the question was Japanese food. So I said to my friends that I want to eat Japanese food. However, I was rather surprised when none of my friends disagreed with my answer. I was not sure if my friends wanted to eat Japanese food, or they preferred other kind of food. However, hanging out with Japanese friends after spending time in the United States for few years helped me to understand that there is a cultural difference between Japan and the United States because Japanese people value group opinions rather than individual opinions by making a harmony.

Just like my personal story about choosing the restaurant, I was trying not to disagree with the author about his/her opinions. And it was uncomfortable to include informed opinions in my papers because I felt like I have more authority than the author.

Another example that we can learn the difference between the ideas of collectivism and individuals is from Fan Shem, who is now an English professor at Marquette University. His article, “The Classroom the Wider Culture: Identity as a Key to Learning English Composition” is based on his experience of acquiring and learning English from Chinese background. He mentions in his article he learned to be himself by using the word “I” in his paper rather than “we”. He explains that using the word “I” often identifies in China as another bad word “individualism” because Chinese people consider “I” as a synonym for selfishness. Japanese ideology is a lot similar to Chinese ideology because collectivism is similar to Japanese idea of harmony. Even though I did not feel uncomfortable using “I” in my essay instead of “we”, I think that Chinese ideology puts emphasis on collectivism rather than individualism.

Nonetheless, I think that coming to the United States for college helped me to understand Japanese ideology and culture better. Gee writes, “When we come across a situation where we unable to accommodate or adapt, we become consciously aware of what we are trying to do or are being called upon to do, and often gain deep insight into the matter. The insight (‘meta-knowledge’) can actually make one better able to manipulate the society in which the Discourse is dominant, provided it is coupled with the right sort of liberating literacy” (200). When I was writing papers for classes in Japan, I had not recognized that the ideas of collectivism was very significant in order to be in a Discourse in Japan since I lived within it. However, coming to the United States to study English allowed me to step back and comprehend the different values between the United States and Japan.

In the beginning of the essay, I mentioned about how the Professor valued the participation for my English class and gave me a hard time to make the adjustment. However, coming to the United States and getting the college degree helped me to learn more about the difference between Japanese and American ideology. And how Japanese ideology affected my learning and way of thinking without realizing it. I still remembered when I first wrote the academic paper for my English class I got a comment by saying that it was difficult for the readers to find the argument in my paper. When I was in Japan, I learned to conclude my paper writing my main points at the end.

Even though it took me a while to find out the difference between Japanese and American ideology, I think that learning American ideology and trying to figure out the cultural difference between Japan and the United State helped me to learn more about the Japanese ideology. Just like the example of my classmate who felt discriminated from her experience of identifying the racial category. Now I feel like I have a mirror in front of me and being able to learn more about who I am based on learning the cultures.

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