Making Sense of my American Life

By Chihiro Sakagami, Exchange Student at Chatham University

July 2022

“Shut the front door!” “Did I get 63 points! Seriously!?”

This is my reaction when I got an alphabet test result in junior high school, and this tragic event led me to think about my American life negatively.

Due to my father’s job transfer with Mitsubishi Motors Corporation, I lived in the U.S. between the ages of 1 and 5, and I went to Ann Arbor Hills Child Development Center in Michigan during those five years. I gained innumerable experiences, such as making many American friends, holding a birthday party at a dinosaur museum, visiting states in the U.S., and acquiring easy Spanish vocabularies. If I had not lived here, I would not have experienced these cherished experiences in my life. After I came back to Japan and started elementary school, my teacher asked me to hold English lessons for my classmates, and she gave me some opportunities to talk about my memories abroad. I loved telling my story so much that I might have talked a lot then. In elementary school, I believed that because I was good at speaking English, I must be able to get a higher score than other Japanese students.

The first English exam at junior high school came. It was the easiest exam I have ever taken because the only thing that I had to do was to fill the blanks with letters in the alphabet in the right order. Unfortunately, I couldn’t sing the ABC song in the middle of the exam, especially through N to P, which made the task of remembering the alphabet suddenly impossible for me. I remember I sang that song like “…H, I, J, K L, #$%&#$%#, O, P.” One week later, I got the result, and found it to be an impressively low score, 63 points. “What was the point of my life in Michigan? Why did so many other students get 100 points?” I lost sight of myself. I began to feel a kind of guilty of the way I spent time in Michigan and my English proficiency. Since I’m a very competitive person, I started to study English diligently and energetically with my mother who I admire as a fluent English speaker to get a good grade in the next English test. Moreover, I studied English by listening to Taylor Swift’s RED album. However, lamentably, I couldn’t get the top grade in the English test in my class throughout junior high and high school. From my perspective, the reason why I couldn’t succeed in the English tests was that I couldn’t understand the English grammar. In the lecture, my teacher often used words which were difficult for me to recognize, such as adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, and prepositions. I haven’t heard of those words when I learned English in the U.S. I still cannot believe that other students could understand the grammar which makes me feel nauseous even now.

When I was a third-grade junior high school student, I got a ticket to become a school representative in the English Speech contest for students in Aichi prefecture where I lived. To join the competition and win a gold medal was my greatest dream. I did rigorous practice every day with my mother, my American uncle, and a teacher I respected the most in order to make my dream come true. They praised me, “You are a fluent English speaker with good pronunciation and body language.” I got more courage from their support and encouragement, and I started to imagine that I could be a school representative of the speech contest by passing the audition and win at the final English contest. Although I gave my best shot, I lost the audition, and was not able to participate in the contest that I had dreamed of. I realized it is unfeasible to win something regarding English, and I wanted to delete the memory of living in the U.S. This shame and guilt lasted long, throughout my high school and college years, until one miraculous encounter at a café during my stay in Pittsburgh during my summer study-abroad program at Chatham University.

It was a scorching hot day. I found a café in Southside Flats called La Petit Café and Grille. I saw a man sending me a cute smile through the window, so I decided to have lunch there. I ordered a Western Omelet. It was delicious, but I was alone. Two women came into the café and sat next to me. I mustered up the courage to talk to them, “Would you mind if I spent lunch time with you? I am feeling a little bit lonely now.” They said “Absolutely!!” I was cock-a-hoop because they accepted my request. We talked about each other’s country, culture, my artworks, and my life in Michigan. Surprisingly, we talked about Michigan most of the time. And also, I could understand things they shared about their life in the U.S. without having to ask for paraphrasing. We talked for more than one hour, maybe two hours. We were so into the conversation that we forgot all about time. Why could I keep talking for two hours? After I said goodbye to them, I thought in my mind and recognized that it was because I had experienced living in the U.S. I had many memories and knowledge about living in the U.S. to talk about. Before I met them, I felt ashamed of my lifetime in the U.S. because I could not get better grades in speaking and writing English, even though I have an advantage over other students. This shame had been torturing me. However, thanks to this wonderful meeting, I realized I must live life without ever forgetting my feelings of appreciation towards my American life.

Maybe some people have experiences and backgrounds that they are ashamed of. However, I learned that memories have the potential to help you in the future just as my experience in America helped me talk with people for two hours. I now have a changed mindset to appreciate everything that has happened before. If I could go back to talk to my 13-year-old self, I would tell her, “Don’t care too much about your English exam score. Your experience and memories will help you to flourish in the future.”

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