It’s a Small World When You Are Japanese in Montana

When I was first hired to teach, there was something that used to rub me the wrong way; students would interrupt my lessons to ask me questions about my hometown or cultural practices. My job was a specific task of teaching key grammar points in each lesson, and I would try to stay on track. My family has lived in 8 different countries, and my students were curious. As months went by, I realized it was a battle I would never win. So I would try my hardest to incorporate their questions with the grammar indicated on the students’ learning cards.

My ‘temp’ job turned ‘career,’ and two years later, I had my game down pat. In my locker at work I had a small box of US coins and Canadian coins for realia. There was a small book of maps I used in class to quickly show places because Japanese names for countries don’t always match what we say in English. I also had a collection of used tickets to help with bookings and changes to schedules. Nothing seemed more frightening to travelers in the United States than to hear the following five words: “Your flight has been cancelled.” I worked skits into classes, and we figured out contingencies. There was always someone with a request for a ‘what if’ role play: What if my flight is late? What if they cannot find my reservation? What if they lose my bag?

Then came the recommendation phases: What were the safest neighborhoods? What were the best schools? What would be an exceptional souvenir for my boss? What is the best food that Austin is known for? Please tell me.

As I got more and more feedback from my students returning from business trips, home stay programs and vacations, there seemed to be a desire to share experiences of their trips. It was before cell phones, so photo albums would come out. Then came the grievances that occurred while abroad and how they should have been handled. Some were about missed flights due to delays, some were about dirty luggage and some were about bad service in a restaurant. They explained their problems on trips, I would listen and then offer to teach them how to file complaints, follow ups or commendations. That was also part of my job.

All the while I continued my task of teaching the scheduled grammar points and working them into role plays students might need or ask for. My students remembered a lot from my lessons, and when one student came back from a trip to the US, we had a follow-up conversation:

“You were right about Montana not having many Japanese.”

“Did you have a good trip?”

“Oh, I did. My dad will be there for another 8 months, so maybe I will go one more time. Something ‘small world’ happened.”


“I sat down in my seat on the plane in Seattle for the flight to Montana. The flight attendant said, ‘Your father is so excited you are coming to visit him!’ So I asked her how she could know that. ‘Your father told me on his flight last week. He is very proud of you! I figured it had to be you.’ So you were right, there are only two or three Japanese in Montana!”