Studying for a Better Life

Studying for a Better Life

My new classmates are mostly from Uzbekistan. One, an engineer by training, now works the night shift cleaning a hotel. Another, a dentist by profession, hauls boxes at night for a courier. Another classmate works the graveyard shift as a bookkeeper.

Then it’s my turn to introduce myself. Your kids go where? ASIJ? What’s that? I say I’m taking time to learn the local language. So you’re taking Japanese class here because you just want to? I feel like a foreigner in the room.

Tanaka-san, the head of the Japanese language school, informs us that two new people are joining our class. While they work as hotel maids in Tokyo, in their native Nepal, one is an English teacher and the other a folk singer. English Teacher answers every question correctly. Folk Singer eagerly blurts out answers. Engineer meticulously completes his hiragana homework. Bookkeeper has every study guide on earth. 

By the eighth week, I downgrade my status to the dummy in the room. My classmates’ Japanese skills seem to be light years ahead of mine. That’s because they are.

They are professional Japanese language students. This class is not their first “beginner” class. And they all share a common story: the immigrant who leaves home, family and friends with the hope of forging a better life in a foreign country. 

My classmates have student visas that give them permission to work in Japan, so long as they attend school. Dentist has been working both night and day shifts. Engineer sometimes trudges into class looking like a zombie. Folk Singer had a two-week bout of toothache but dutifully attended class each day. English Teacher, meanwhile, is unfazed, always present and always perfect.  

I wonder what I’m doing there. After one holiday break, I reluctantly call Bookkeeper to ask about the upcoming test. Bookkeeper tells me Tanaka-san recently passed away and that his wife would be taking over his duties. Test day arrives. English Teacher finishes first, followed by the others. Few minutes remain on the clock and large portions of my test are blank. A few days later, I tell Tanaka-san’s wife that I’m going to take a break.

I feel down about dropping out. I realize, though, that I have more in common than not with my classmates. They are on a journey similar to the one my family undertook when they emigrated from the Philippines to the United States. Through persistence and hard work, I earned bachelor’s and law degrees. I now make a comfortable living to help raise a healthy family with no real wants. 

Upon reflection, my dropping out from school does not represent failure. Rather, it reveals my gratitude to Tanaka-san and my classmates for reminding me to both count my blessings and acknowledge the sheer courage and perseverance it takes to overcome challenges unique to immigrants. I hope their hardship, sleepless nights and dedication lead to good things and, one day, success.

Words: Rusty Yuson
Illustration: Tania Vicedo