Backtrack #6: The Language of the Colonizers (David Titterington, Niihama ALT 2005-2010)

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Taken 2008 or 2009 (I’m on the right)

What’s your name, when and where was your placement, and where are you from originally?

Pandemic greetings! I’m David Titterington from the USA, specifically from land stolen from the Pawnee and Kickapoo Nations – what we now call Kansas City. I lived in Niihama, Ehime, Shikoku (or New Port, Love Princess, Four Lands) from 2005 to 2010.

When did you find out about JET, and what led you to apply?

I found out about JET during my freshman year of high school. I was a dumb queer atheist who wanted to have an extra hour at lunch to smoke cigarettes with my friends. Lucky for me, Japanese language was offered alongside Russian, Chinese, and Arabic at an alternative school in my district, and we had an hour and a half to get there! I went every afternoon, all four years. My Japanese teacher and mentor was a former JET.

With her help, I was able to visit Japan twice, Kurashiki and Maebashi, where I met ALTs and got to bathe naked with my friends. I felt like I was finally home! (Zensei de nihonjindattakamoshiremasen.)

What did you hope to achieve on JET, and did that change during your time here?

I think I really just wanted to learn Japanese, make friends, and study Buddhism.

I traveled to India to study meditation with the Dalai Lama at his monastery before I moved to Ehime. Thanks to JET, I got to meet the Dalai Lama a few more times! It turns out he’s friends with a Shingon priest who lives in Niihama. What a coincidence!

What’s more, my apartment was down the street from a large Soto Zen monastery, Zuioji, so I was able to continue my Buddhist training with monks every week! It was perfect. My understanding of mind, pedagogy, religion, gender, class, race, sex, and friendship all changed as I absorbed as much as I could from my international friends and local misty mountains.

I was promoted to Regional Advisor and discovered I had a knack for organizing seminars, camps, and helping fellow JETs adjust to their new homes.

I taught English, the language of the colonizers, the language of power, to thousands of Japanese children. But as you know, an English class with an ALT is also an exercise in ‘intercultural communication,’ and a lesson in history, art, improv, game, music, and culture studies, depending on the team teacher. The ALT isn’t just a tape recorder; they are the “other” for the day.

My job was pretty typical. I educated public-school children ages six to fifteen. By bicycle, train, and bus, I visited 17 elementary schools, 6 junior high schools, a boarding school for juvenile delinquents and orphans, and of course city hall.

One of the schools was deep in the mountains and had only 5 students. We would garden, cook, dance, spend time with animals, hike, practice Taiko drumming… I should have been paying them for the experiences! Instead, they paid me. It was a dream.

In exchange for food and friendships, I taught English to a “religious organization” (cult) whose church was right down the street from my house. It was an ambitious, kind-hearted group of mostly middle-aged women who loved to talk about all kinds of stuff. I learned a lot about cults! One year they took me and another JET by bus to their headquarters in Shiga prefecture for a concert (“Always say yes,” am I right?). It was fascinating. Sometimes cults exaggerate the dominant culture and amplify its more subtle features, and this one was refreshingly cosmopolitan. It blended Christian, Buddhist, and Shinto aesthetics with white tuxedoes, healing hands, and belief in magical amulets. We had a blast!

I wasn’t expecting such a nice apartment in Niihama, but JET hooks you up! I had space for a painting studio, and there was a small art supply store down the street. I was able to exhibit and sell paintings every year (www.davidtitterington.com). I mostly painted sacred sites around the island–shrines, mountains, stones, trees five times older than my home country, and some portraits. I discovered an island landscape theology that was unthinkable to my land-locked, Kansas, Judeo-Christian imagination. Island-mind seduced me, and I lost touch with a lot of my friends and family back home.

I was befriended by a family who ran a daycare center/dying house, and I somehow got involved with the Shikoku drum-n-bass scene. I met and trained with Butoh dancers, Kempo teachers, Kodo musicians, and on top of that, I made all kinds of love with people from all over the world. And my experience wasn’t atypical!

I explored my sexuality, participated in local festivals, had side-jobs, was in a band, was an MC for a friend’s wedding… I almost died swimming in the ocean! One of my best friends broke his spine after surfing in Kochi! He’s fine now, but it was terrifying.  

So yeah, I got way more than I expected.  

What is your lasting impression of the work you did on JET and the communities you were part of?

I’m not sure I helped them learn English as much as I helped expose them to other ways of being. I’m still in contact with some of my students! The unrelenting generosity, humor, love, and devotion of my Japanese friends and host families is proof that the universe is divine and humans are basically good.

Where did JET lead you?

It led me into an MFA program in painting and Indigenous studies. It led me back to the classroom; now I teach Art at a Native American university. And it still leads me back to Japan every couple of years. My friends in Japan are my family, and I honestly feel like Ehime is my daininofurusato.  

Right now, some incoming JETs have been delayed by more than a year, and are in the difficult position of choosing to indefinitely wait for Japan to open up or to give up on coming here. Do you have any comments or advice for them during this time?

I have to say that one of my best friends, she’s more like a sister, got into JET a few years ago and was so excited, but she had to cancel her teaching appointment at the last minute. Soon afterward, she met someone, and they are now married with two beautiful children. Sometimes not getting what we want is a stroke of good luck!

But I would hang in there, especially if you haven’t lived abroad. 

If you had been in their position, do you think you would have gone on JET if you’d been in limbo for a year?

Absolutely. Live in Japan. Do whatever you can to get there. Visit Koyasan.

Do you have any teaching advice?

Fear keeps most people from learning, so we’ve got to create a space free from fear. I did this by not correcting young students at first, but instead celebrating their attempts at speaking. After all, they are speaking in a foreign language in front of a native speaker and their entire class. Are you kidding me? What a brave person! Faces light up when the ALT responds to whatever the brave student said with a “Perfect!”  “One hundred percent!” “You’re amazing!” With the initial positive feedback, the student is more likely going to try again, and now they associate English, and you, with positive feelings. It bothers me when teachers “correct” students too early.

If you’d like to read some of my research into Japanese material religion, please check out my Medium posts Death By Cherry Blossoms and Sake and the Soul.

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