Looking through the First World Glass from a Third-World Ryuugakusei

Disclaimer: The contents of this article only reflect the views of the author. The writing does not reflect the views of AFS Philippines, Japan, the MEXT, or NPO Kidsdoor.

Once upon a time, in a far-away land in the Pearl of the Orient, opportunities of seeing a world from a different perspective are considered a once-in-a-lifetime premise of adolescent life. Frustrated with her standing in society, Alice wants to raise her status by waiting for an opportunity to go nowhere, for some who are pessimistic. Glass mirrors that teleport people into eye-candy experiences that most of the high-ranking people in society often describe only open once a year. A shocker, freak, and rebel to her community that disregards, belittles, and mocks her creativity and dreams, Alice got nothing to lose besides her unhappy life at the other side and got more to gain on the greener pasture being reflected by the glass mirrors.

Time had finally come, the glass mirror reflected differently than it was. A lot of people, especially teenagers like her age, have already given up on the journey to the unknown. But Alice, full of bravery, naiveness, and curiosity, took up the challenge and followed her intuition to an alternative world. She suddenly got the euphoria of success and the reward of faith in her capabilities. Since the new world is a reflection of her left-behind life, but more utopic, she had a short time adjusting to its wonders. But then, life became complicated where she correlates herself in unending draw-leaning-result chess battles. Her adventure awaits, and it is now her next move that decides whether she prefers living in the realistic view of the glass mirror world, or going back to her original struggles on the other side of the mirror.

Whenever we talk about developed countries, we often associate these places with low poverty rates. We are used to these countries being the crème de la crème, the migrant countries’ dream providers, and the laid-back lifestyles that developing country citizens wish to have. In a clearer sense, they consider these countries as successful for not having huge poverty cases.

All of the places that I went overseas can be considered as a developed country, something that the Philippines wishes to become one day. At the age of 5, I toured around the concrete jungles of Hong Kong. Then, at the age of 15, I experienced the mix of city and suburban life in Taiwan, where nature and technological progress can exist. The two are just short trips, and I surely loved what I learned from those travels. The one that impacts me the most would probably be living in Japan for 4 months as an exchange student.

Japan in A 留学生 (Exchange Student) Lens

As I said in my past articles from Vox Populi PH, and from what I show on my daily blogs during my stay there, Japan is a great country to explore and study. You will never regret any single decision of choosing the exchange student life for a short time – even during this COVID era – once you earned those life-long friendships and volunteering skills in Japan and different organizations.

As a government-funded ryuugakusei (exchange student), we have a monthly stipend for our daily travels and leisure. I was placed in a dorm, making my stipend bigger than students who were placed with host families. Because of the money, we can hangout with our Japanese and international friends in Starbucks, buy expensive items that are authentic in the country, and go around the city. It is only in Japan where I manage to eat expensive foods here in the Philippines like caviars, wagyu slices of beef, sashimi, and authentic sushi.

Not only that, but Japanese school life is also an experience everyone from a petit-bourgeois kid from a developing country wishes to have. In the Philippines, I had my education in private schools and public schools. Being in private schools made my student life pampered and spoiled. I may not be the richest student in class, but I still feel I am rich and above others because I can study in a private and sectarian school. Meanwhile, public schools kicked my face with the realities of life and Philippine society. The victories and sorrow, public schools showed me all of it. In Japan, I only went to a private school so I do not have a first-hand experience comparison to offer. But, if you will compare it, there are just little differences according to my Japanese class adviser with Filipino descent.

In the simplest way possible, she explained that private schools, even though they are private, are actually okay for the average Japanese parents’ salaries. Private schools are just there for the reason of having more perks for students and different curriculum than the public government schools. Public schools also welcome exchange students to their campuses, also have foreign teachers that can teach English to students, and have nice and disciplined environments. The only thing it lacks is that it often has a mediocre curriculum to cater to every student, which can sometimes be a harsh environment for students who have more factors with specific curricula and teachings. Some public schools in Japan are like the Philippine Science or Arts High Schools, but given the exclusivity, not everyone can be catered to like the other Japanese general public schools. Because of this huge curriculum gap, some Japanese parents enroll their kids in private schools to have—for example—English-language inclined education that Japanese public schools rarely provide. This can also be applied to STEM-inclined curriculums, Arts, Sports, or like my class section in Japan, a Global Innovator curriculum.

One thing is for sure, most of the private school students in Japan fall in the middle-class range. They do provide scholarships for less fortunate kids whose parents can’t afford private schools but are gifted enough to be under special curriculums, but it really is uncommon for poor kids to enter private schools. My classmates can be seen as working and middle-class kids, in a developed country context. They are not as rich as people who are close to the elites, and they are not below the poverty line in their country. But if they are compared to citizens of my country, they would probably be under the umbrella of upper-middle-class status.

Living for four months is not enough to see the whole picture of Japan. I only came there to experience the good stuff, the things typical average Japanese students encounter. I have a de-facto diplomatic immunity status and it just took me further away from the realities. Like diplomats and ambassadors who were living in gated communities of their country of assignments, I was shunned from having a clearer perspective of Japanese societal issues.

I did see the tip of the iceberg thanks to my host school, host community, and host family’s lovely open-mindedness that fed my curiosity during my stay, but it really was not enough. It is good to visit and stay in Japan for a short time, a lot of former expats and immigrants said. Living in the long run? Maybe not.

Uncensored 日本 (Nippon)

Japan is a bureaucratic, conservative-leaning country. Add the crippling effect of being thrown to its Lost Decade after the burst of its Bubble Economy, the scars still hurt the nation with the guilt of sacrificing their traditional values to chase facade socio-economic liberty and took-for-granted the short-lived ecstasy of a ceiling economic power. The rest of the country’s rural population is shrinking, while only the major cities are growing.

Being a foreign permanent resident can be a problem, especially in rural areas. Maybe in major cities, foreigners are easily accepted into society. But given that the right-wing idea – like the nation’s genetic purification – is still a strong sentiment in the country that it would be a stressful journey for gaijins (foreigners) to endure, especially if their kids are half foreign-blood and Japanese. Let us not also start with the alarming cases of Haafu children’s abduction’ cases that drive gaijin fathers crazy in a real-life nightmare. Besides the gaijins, even the Nikkeijin (Japanese-descent foreigners) have a hard time adjusting to Japanese society as dekasegi because of the lukewarm social acceptance of Japan to the group.

The best way to explain this eureka moment about Japan is correlating it to what the Japanese call Paris Syndrome. This phenomenon is the sense of disappointment of tourists in Paris after seeing the reality in the long run of being in the city. They pictured Paris as the city full of amour that can give them pinkish nostalgia back home, only to realize that it is a chaotic, mice-driven, gypsies-filled, overrated city. If Francophile Japanese experience this common phenomenon, what else are the gaijin or dekasegi Japanophiles?

Some exchange students who went to Japan would probably admit to having feelings of this phenomenon, too. They dreamed of a picture-perfect experience of Japan giving them the liberation route like it showcased the world during the booming Bubble Economy era, only to be placed in an invisible cage of conformity and bureaucracy. Some probably thought that the Japanese society is as tolerant as their countries with foreigners, only to be caught up in a prejudiced and stereotyped argument with a local. It still depends since experiences can vary. Maybe, I was just one of the lucky exchange students who did not get to the worst-case scenarios of borderline racist experiences towards the Japanese. And maybe, my racially ambiguous features helped to not be under the umbrella of Filipino culture that they know. Well, who knows?

I admit that I was not a massive Japanophile when I applied to the exchange program, so probably my expectations about Japan are more realistic than some. At the same time, I admit that maybe if I stay longer in Japan for years, I will understand the Japan Syndrome like the so-called Paris Syndrome given that I laid the idea of developed country characteristics from above, realizing that they just have the same problem as us, developing countries, but only wrapped in a different idea, context, and experience.

Poverty in Japan

Poverty is there wherever you go, but it has just become less visible in developed countries. When the bubble economy of Japan collapsed in the 90s, the poverty rate of the nation skyrocketed so much, the Lost Decade reparations still became their  Achilles’ foot. Add the current COVID-19 Situation and the Tokyo Olympics fiasco, these are the ingredients that make a 1st-world country be hit harder by poverty.

Japan is the second nation in the G7 countries that has a high poverty rate, just behind the United States. If you compare it with the Philippines to the Poverty Rate by Country in 2021, the Philippines has a 21.60% poverty rate while Japan has roughly 15.70%, with an estimated 6% margin. In a study conducted by Dr. Aya Abe in 2018, the Japanese citizens under the poverty line are mostly young people, the elderly, and single-parent families. The socio-economic backgrounds of parents also affect the future social status of children, according to Ochanomizu University’s research in 2017. Finally, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare declared that the Tokyo metropolitan area has approximately 1,242 homeless people, having one of the highest rates in the country.

To get more insights regarding poverty in Japan, I once watched a documentary about a Canadian woman who lived in Japan as a young kid and her estranged Japanese friend. Published by the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), the short documentary named Finding Fukue revolves around the story of a singer Jessica Stuart and her travel to Japan to reconnect with her childhood friend Fukue after 30 years of loss of communication.

According to Jessica, Fukue was always bullied in their elementary school for being too poor to befriend. It was only Jessica who had the courage to befriend Fukue despite all the insults the kid was receiving from bullies. But those happy memories did not last long as Jessica and her family went back to Canada after her parents ended their contract as English-language television teachers in Japan. At first, they became penpals until one day, Fukue stopped writing. This baffled Jessica as she grew older, afraid of whatever happened to Fukue after they separated.

In the latter part of the documentary, Fukue stopped going to school for a while after she and Jessica separated. She was bullied again, and she got shy to communicate again to her best friend after everything that happened to her. She did get over the bullying, finished school, and currently lives peacefully with her established family. Jessica never stopped thinking about Fukue, and Fukue was so glad that even though she chose to stop communicating with her gaijin friend, their friendship is still strong. Another crazy fact, even though Instagram is one of the major social networking sites (SNS) in Japan, Fukue created her Instagram only to follow Jessica and nothing more.

If poverty in Japan can do such cruelty to young Fukue and Jessica’s life and friendship in the 90s, what more today in the 21st Century?

Opening New Doors of Opportunity

I am already back in Manila when I had the privilege to be part of a small online intercultural learning about the effects of poverty in developed countries like Japan. It was the AFS-Japan who tapped us, former Filipino exchange students, to speak about our culture to the Japanese and Cambodian students. We were tasked to create a 5-minute video and quiz about our countries. It was a hard duty to live up to as an alumna of a government-funded Japanese scholarship. My Japanese skills are slowly slipping away, but it is not a barrier to continue serving back to the principles of the Asia Kakehashi Project.

Even though AFS Japan was the one that invited us, it was another non-government organization that organized the whole virtual conference. NPO Kidsdoor was launched in 2007 as an NGO that helps Japanese students who are facing crisis and school problems such as poverty, abuse, disability, bullying, etc. They support these kids by giving them free study classes and raising their awareness of social and regional problems they are facing. On their website, they have stories of students facing such circumstances that you will believe are happening in a developed country, not unless they say that it’s in Japan. And even though Japan is fast when it comes to crisis response, the shattering effect of natural disasters scars the mind of Japanese children. A notable example of it was the devastating Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami a decade ago, and because of this, NPO Kidsdoor launched their Tohoku Reconstructing Project.

Before we even had the main meeting, AFS-Japan already told us about the scenarios these kids were facing. The harsh reality of being poor in a rich country, so to speak. As scholars who had stipends, we can hang out with our Japanese friends by going to Yakiniku or even coffee shops. Still, insensitivity comes in during that time, that my complaints during my stay in Japan were not locating an open Benetton store in Fukuoka and Kumamoto to buy my perfume, whining about not having enough extra stipend money to buy a Chanel perfume, or not having a Tim Horton’s coffee and instead, forced to go back drinking my less-favorite overrated Starbucks! Reflecting on it again, it is quite bratty given that other Japanese kids cannot even order a frappuccino in Starbucks, or even buy high-end goods like Benetton or Chanel, just to save up money for their education plans or for their family’s daily expenses.

I was quite embarrassed thinking about those memories while our AFS-Japan alumni coordinator, Mai Wakoh-san, is asking me if as a journalist, I will pitch an article about my experience with the kids soon after the event finished. I was lavishing myself with Japanese taxpayers’ money while being insensitive that not all Japanese people can have the same experiences that I had in Japan as a student. As I’ve said, I was only there to experience the typical Japanese student’s way of life, and not the experiences that the marginalized Japanese kids are having.

I agreed with Mai-san’s idea and hurriedly pitched it to Vox Populi PH. Maybe in this way, I can have redemption with my pettiness and insensitivity. I should have known better, and personally talking to these kids would bring closure to those embarrassing memories that I had in Japan last time.

Bicycle Trips Down Under

After the successful reporting and quiz bee about our countries, the organizers gave us breakout rooms where we can exchange thoughts about what happened in our daily lives and how we can support each other. At first, everyone was shy, but it is better to break the ice first than wait for it to melt. We only have 10 minutes to talk together, and 10 minutes can change everything, especially establishing new friendships.

The kids still enjoy school and life like the rest of the students around the world. They like joining high school clubs like the Table Tennis and Quiz clubs. Extra-curricular activities sure do give vibrant life for them. The envious part for Filipino students is reminiscing about our face-to-face classes in Japan, as the full opening of schools in the Philippines is little to no chance this year. Shaun (not his real name) enjoys cycling by the riverbank after school since it makes him calm and appreciates nature’s wonder. If only Manila is more bicycle-friendly with the Pasig River still clean, maybe I can relate to his everyday routines. Like us former exchange students who were hooked by anime to chase the opportunity of studying in Japan, these students are also being inspired by their country’s anime to live and push through life.

I also found common ground with other students I talked with. Harold (not his real name) enjoys eating food, especially ikura (salmon roe), the same caviar that I compared to Nemo, making my host family laugh with my comparison. Like him, I also take pride in my hometown, sharing the best facts about it with people who I meet for the first time. Meanwhile, Eoin (not his real name), also enjoys the warm comfort of Japanese ramen. Ara (not her real name) and I like having sessions with the karaoke machine to flex my singing skills and hope that others will not get annoyed by singing the whole time.

Doja Cat made us closer to one Japanese student as we discussed her latest album, Planet Her. We hummed and sang Woman, while we recommended that she listen to the Doja Cat song covers in Japanese such as Say So and Kiss Me More. The boys, on the other hand, have a broader music taste. They like artists like Charlie Puth, and we told them to listen to Coldplay. We also had a discussion about Japanese artists like YOASOBI, where I claimed that I love listening to their album, The Book. The Cambodians also recommended songs from their countries such as BABY សុំទោស by YT and Sophia Kao ft. GRAVE. On the other hand, we recommend Ben & Ben and Up Dharma Down as OPM Bands to listen with.

The highlight of our conversation would probably be the Cambodians’ question of which living they prefer in Japan: Rural or Urban life. Some Japanese students prefer the simple countryside life where it is less populated and dense, while one different answer stands out. It was Ara, who explained to us that she is already living in the countryside, that is why she wants to live more in a city. She dreams of studying in Australia one day, and I do hope that her dream will come true. I can say that Australia fits her curiosity and bubbly personality, especially that this country boasts how mates and kangaroos can coexist.

When the breakout rooms ended, some of my fellow Filipino alumni shared that their rooms talked about visiting each of our countries one day. The Kidsdoor volunteers tease us that our Japanese skills are good, even though I swear that it was just my other fellow exchange alumni who are good while I cannot even comprehend a lot of Japanese conversation anymore after repatriating to the Philippines. AFS Japan shared with the Japanese students how they can apply to scholarships being offered by the institution, which can give them a heads up with language learning and resume. We ended the virtual event by having a picture and giving each others’ Instagram accounts. Their IG accounts are actually far more decent than the account that I’ve been handling since I was 12 years old.

After Party Hangover

Recalling the happenings, I somehow thought…

What if I was born in Japan with parents who earn the same salary as my parents in the Philippines?

Maybe I might be under that poverty line too. And…

What if these Japanese students were born in the Philippines with their parents earning the same salary as their natural Japanese parents have?

Maybe they will also be part of the huge working-class Filipinos who are striving every day to live.

This theory is not as strong as a thesis paper, but a good reason to begin research with.

It is hard to fully compare poverty in developed and developing countries, but as a whole, it is a never-ending problem for countries around the world. The Philippines, with statistics or not, is still a developing country with deeper problems such as cultural identity crisis, unshameful socio-political corruption, and long debates whether there should be a separation of church from state. These societal problems draw the line between third-world country problems and first-world country problems. Different problems, same headaches for its citizens.

Can I consider myself lucky for having these privileges academically and socially during the pandemic and abroad? Yes, but it is not an excuse to turn blind-eye with the reality’s bigger picture. Privileges are there as weapons for enlightenment or destruction, and it is a person’s decision how to use them thoroughly.

From the session, I not only had the reconciliation from the guilt of whining about how I should spend the Japanese taxpayers’ money as their scholar, but also peace to remind myself that I took a step further from their expectation of me as their scholar. They hosted me in their country despite their aching back from the country’s recession, and I gained knowledge that can benefit both the Japanese and Philippine society today and in the future.

Social classes set aside; me, my colleagues, and the Japanese students that we talked with have rhyming dreams, skills, and likes. It is true that the exchange student experience somehow gives us an elite status in society as someone being regarded as global citizens, but it should not hinder us from being empathetic to our peers that are facing harsh poverty in a 1st world country.

Our exchange program’s goal is to raise awareness and knowledge that bridges the gap between countries, not crash and burn bridges to show elitism and class purity. As someone who was entrusted to be the beacon of intercultural understanding, it is our lifelong job to broaden the understanding of our homes when it comes to contemporary issues that the past generations outlived, which we inherited and are facing today, and what the youth will probably still face tomorrow.

Developed nations are not spared from unending social problems. Maybe in this perspective, developing country citizens can stop whining about how utopic rich these countries are and how great that their overseas relatives are “rich enough” to live there.

Did Alice have a happily-ever-after? It is still unknown for now. She did get back to her origin after winning the dizzy chess game that she had from the glass mirror. But the grass is greener in other glass mirror portals, and adventurous Alice wants more.

But her origin world is at the crossroads of downhill and hope, and her participation for change is highly needed. It is still Alice’s decision whether she prefers living in the world of the first world mirror for good, or to stay grounded in her origin world and wait for what it holds for her dreams and aspirations.

The call for applicants for the Asia Kakehashi Batch 5 (2022–2023) was released by AFS Japan last November 2. Interested applicants should contact their country’s AFS offices or other official sending organizations for the local selection dates.

Micah Corin A. Salonoy

Micah Corin A. Salonoy is a HUMSS graduate of Manuel A. Roxas Senior High School – Manila. Salonoy became Ang Gulong’s editor-in-chief in the school year 2018–2019, becoming a two-time RSPC Qualifier (2014, 2018). Together with 17 other Filipino students, she represented the Philippines in the third batch of the MEXT’s Asia KAKEHASHI Project. Email Micah at: micah@voxpopuliph.com.

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