You don’t look native enough to teach English

by Erika Tavesa

Growing up, I never thought much about my ethnicity. It wasn’t until I moved to Japan that I realized how much my appearance would affect how people perceived me. When I first arrived in Japan, I was surprised by how often people would come up to me and start speaking in Japanese. I would have to explain that I didn’t speak the language, and they would look confused. I quickly learned that people assumed I was Japanese because of my appearance. As I started to meet more people, I realized that my ethnicity was a topic of fascination for many of them. People would ask me questions like “What kind of half are you?” or “Who’s Japanese in your family?”

The truth is, I’m not really “half” of anything. Both of my parents are ethnically Chinese, but they grew up in Indonesia. My name, Erika, sounds Japanese, but it was actually a German name that my father picked out, meaning “eternal ruler”, because he wanted me to be strong and independent.

However, my appearance often causes confusion as well. Although I was born to Chinese parents, I have been told that I look Japanese. This can have its perks. For example, the “gaijin seat” – the phenomenon where there is one empty seat next to the foreigner in Japanese public transports — has never occurred. However, there are also some downsides to being mistaken for Japanese. This has been particularly challenging in my professional life, especially as an English teacher. I was once looking for a part-time job when a friend offered me an opportunity. The first question he was asked by his boss was, “how native is she?”

As someone who has pursued a career in teaching English in Japan, I have noticed that there is often an emphasis on finding teachers who not only have a strong command of the language, but also fit a certain mold in terms of appearance and cultural background. It can be frustrating for someone like me, who may not fit the preconceived notions of what a “native” speaker should look like. Especially in the realm of eikawa (conversational English) schools, there is often an expectation of how teachers should look and sound like, particularly from a Western country, which can be problematic for those who do not fit this description. Eikawa schools often use the appearance of their teachers as a selling point to attract students, with the belief that having a “foreign” teacher will provide a more authentic English learning experience.

Overall, the emphasis on appearance and cultural background in the English teaching industry in Japan can be frustrating. Despite these challenges, I try to remain proud of my heritage and my unique background. My Chinese heritage has instilled in me a strong work ethic and a desire for success, while my exposure to Western culture through my education has given me a more global perspective. I believe that my diverse background has allowed me to connect with a wider range of people and has given me a unique perspective that I can bring to my work as an English teacher.

I hope that more schools will start to value a diverse range of teachers who can bring unique perspectives and experiences to the classroom, rather than simply relying on a narrow definition of what a “native” English speaker should look like. At the end of the day, I’ve learned to embrace my identity as a Chinese-Indonesian woman living in Japan. I’m proud of my heritage, and I’m happy to share my culture and experiences with others. While I may not fit neatly into any one box, I’ve come to realize that that’s okay. My identity is complex and multifaceted, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. As I continue my journey in Japan, I hope that people will begin to look beyond appearances and focus on what really matters – a person’s abilities, knowledge, and passion. I hope that one day, the question of how “native” someone looks will become irrelevant, and that language proficiency will be valued for what it truly is – a skill that can be learned and honed with hard work and dedication.