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  • Writer's pictureAntonia Rainey

TikToker Teacher Shares Experience Teaching Overseas and Why Representation Matters

By Antonia Rainey | WeINSPIRE Journalist

AUSTIN, Texas — It’s a few days into Patrick Smith’s job as an English-speaking teacher in Tokyo, Japan. The metropolitan capital is well-known for many things— its bustling intersection at Shibuya full of glittering buildings that feature huge televised ads, heavenly pink cherry blossoms, and the innovative fashion street district of Harajuku. This place will also be where Smith will work for a year and a half and counting.

Photo Credit to Jezael Melgoza from Unsplash.

Smith had taught abroad before in Japan and China, teaching English to mainly middle and high school students. However, this time Smith would be teaching kindergartners, some of whom didn’t have much exposure to foreign nor Black people. As such, the children’s interactions with Smith were rather curious.

“It was a lot of kids touching my hair and just kind of rubbing my arm in my hand because they hadn't seen brown people before,” Smith said. “I got my hand licked at once by a kid who was holding my hand, a little kindergartner. He thought that was chocolate, and so he licked my hand. That was a kind of like, ‘I can't believe I just happened’ sort of thing.”

Photo Courtesy of Patrick Smith.

The interaction shocked Smith a bit, finding it funny, but he wasn’t too surprised. Japan is a homogenous country, with around 98% of the population being Japanese and the rest accompanying Chinese, Korean, and other ethnic groups according to the CIA’s World Factbook.

Smith has been teaching abroad for around ten years. His interest first started in college during a month-long trip to China. Wanting to learn more about Chinese culture and the language, Smith got involved with a teaching abroad program in his university after his final year. From there, he ended up in China, teaching English to middle and high schoolers for three years. Afterward, Smith transferred to a school in Sendai, Japan expanding his teaching age range to older elementary students for five years before he moved to his current job in Tokyo to primarily teach kindergarteners.

Smith enjoys his job as an educator, finding the experience fun, often sharing the more hilariously memorable moments on his TikTok @thepaperpat. Sometimes Smith does get comments about his race both from students and those around the school. However, the questions usually come from a place of innocence, most ranging from why his hair is curly to why his skin tone is darker than theirs. Because the questions often come from genuine curiosity rather than malicious intent, Smith tends to answer more lightheartedly. However, that's not always the case when comments tip on being offensive.

One instance was with his fifth-grade class. Smith had given them an English practice assignment to partner up and compliment each other before saying something outlandish. Smith could tell from the murmurs and perplexed looks that the students were confused on the last part, so he gave an example by saying a gorilla was outside the classroom window. Immediately, the classroom filled with the children laughing.

“The kids in Japan, they always find gorillas very, very funny. I don't know why it is. But anytime you mention a gorilla, kids here just think it's so funny,” Smith said. It was then when a student asked if he could call Smith a gorilla.

Smith knew the student didn’t mean anything offensive by the implication as the children in his class often liked to joke around with him. Regardless of whether his student knew, though, the comparison to Smith, a Black man to a gorilla, has a profound racist connotation that emerged during chattel slavery when Black people were regarded as animals, not people and thus undeserving of human rights.

“The kids in that class specifically they love to make fun of me all the time, and I know it's not because I'm Black. It's just because I'm their teacher. Kids in that age group they just love ragging on the teacher, and so, he was trying to be funny and be like, ‘Oh, you’re a gorilla,’” Smith said.

Nevertheless, Smith saw the moment as an opportunity to educate his students on racism and discrimination against Black people.

“I was like, ‘okay, so everybody. I know that you know, it's funny or whatever to call me a gorilla, but I want you all to understand that this is not something that you should ever do or say to someone who is Black like me.’ I explained a little bit about racism in America and a bit of the history of Black people in the States and how we really don't appreciate being called things like gorillas and monkeys because there's a history to that,” Smith elaborated.

He further explained the Black Lives Matter movement and how Black people encounter discrimination outside the U.S., like in Japan, which surprised his students.

Moments like these show Smith proof of how his students take what he shares close to heart, brooding their understanding of others with different experiences from themselves. It’s for that reason why Smith feels being in the classroom and having diversity in teaching is so important, especially in countries similar to Japan.

“I think it's really important because the kids are growing up in an environment where everyone looks like them for the most part, everyone thinks like them, and when you have this exposure to someone who does not only think differently and has experienced a different culture but looks totally different from them,” Smith said. “I know my students are going to grow up just that much wiser when it comes to relating to people from other cultures and other countries and forming relationships with them because they've had that experience with me already.”

In general, diversity in the classroom is beneficial to students; it builds their empathy, allows them to become more open-minded to different people and cultures, and prepares them for a diverse workplace, according to Drexel University and research from Queens University of Charlotte.

Smith’s impact on his students is evident from how students still keep in touch, messaging him and following him on social media—but teaching abroad also opened Smith’s eyes to different perspectives too. He encourages others to travel, assuring people of color that while xenophobia and racism exist in East Asian countries, most people he meets are respectful and friendly.

“I think if you have the opportunity to travel abroad, whether it's through teaching or some other way, I think you should definitely do it,” Smith encouraged. “You really realize that your part of the world is so small. There's so much out there in the world, and what you know what you're used to is just a small, small piece of it.” For more information about Patrick Smith and his experiences in Japan, visit his TikTok and Instagram.


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