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Saba-san and Me

by Carolie Brekke

December 7,2008

Saba-san gasped, "But Mr. John McCain is a WAR hero!"

For the past year, I’ve been an instructor for the TIME Magazine Reading Club here in Sasebo, Japan. Recently, the articles have focused on the U.S. elections. The class members take turns reading aloud, and then I read the same paragraph again, so they can hear a native English-speaker. Then I answer questions...about the political process and about literary devices, slang terms and colloquialisms. I think the most awkward explanation had to do with a comment by Jesse Jackson...and the fact that despite what their electric dictionaries might say, Jackson was not referring to cutting off Obama's head!

I do my best to keep my political opinions to myself, and answer questions as objectively as possible, but complete objectivity is impossible, of course. One of my students, Saba-san, is extremely conservative. He's a dour, elderly man who still carries resentment from a difficult childhood during the American Occupation. The heavily nationalistic articles he brings for me to read every week demonstrate that his grasp of English is much greater than his heavily accented, limited spoken vocabulary may indicate. Early in the election process, he expressed great admiration for John McCain -- and when it eventually became clear that I was an Obama supporter, Saba-san would often lecture me.

Surprisingly enough, the entire class was absolutely thrilled with Obama's victory. I got several congratulatory e-mails, and each of the students is convinced that Obama's selection will be good for America, and good for the world. As one of my students put it, "when America is strong, we are all strong." Heads around the room nodded agreement.

Moving from Charlotte to Japan has been an incredible experience. I've enjoyed exploring the countryside and immersing myself (or so I thought) in the culture and the people. However, since joining the TIME Magazine Reading Club, an entirely new door has opened, and my life will never be the same.

My friend Kelly, who recruited me as a volunteer instructor, assured me it was only one Sunday out of every five, from 4 to 6 p.m. at the local library. I hemmed and hawed, not sure I wanted to take on yet another activity. Kelly pushed the issue.

"Just come with me once. You'll see. You'll WANT to do this," she cajoled. So I went...and I've never looked back. Heck, these days, I plead with the other four instructors to allow me to take their unwanted classes.

The TIME Magazine Reading Club is a group of as many as 30 Japanese adults, who gather every Sunday for two hours to read and discuss various articles in TIME Magazine. They pay dues, which are used for quarterly club parties and "cultural event" field trips...and to give the volunteer instructors 600 yen (about $6) for parking fees. Almost all the members have college degrees, and most have advanced degrees. We've got a retired physics professor, the head of neurosurgery at a local hospital, two retired CEOs, an ex-newscaster who's moved home from Tokyo to take care of aging parents, a retired contractor running for city council, and more. Needless to say, it's an eclectic, interesting group.

For the first time since I arrived in Japan, I'm spending time with English-speaking Japanese who are something other than employees on the military base, or service personnel. These folks are movers and shakers....they're active and involved in their community, in their city, and in their prefecture. They have opinions -- strong ones -- about local politics, and the international political scene. They've been fascinated with our recent elections, and their insights and thoughts have been fascinating (and eye-opening!) to me.

The concept of absentee voting intrigued the group members. They questioned me closely about the mechanics of voting absentee...and then I got what was perhaps the highest compliment I've gotten since arriving in Japan. Saba-san raised his hand.

"Sensei," he said. "You will be an absent voter, yes?" I nodded my agreement. "Well then." Here Saba-san paused, piercing eyes boring into me. "You use your head, not just your heart. I am glad you are able to cast your vote in the American election. You should be very proud."

I am. I certainly am.

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