Brandon Armstrong

Personal Statement

The written work I have submitted is a literacy interview essay. For the essay, I interviewed my mother and her experiences growing up in Hiroshima, Japan, in the early 70s. I asked questions about her views and experiences with learning Japanese literacy, and English literacy, once she moved to America. She highlights many of the economic differences where she grew up and the difficulties she faced learning English in America.


Lululemon, a multibillion-dollar clothing brand, was founded in Canada in 1998 by a guy named Chip Wilson. Unknown to most of their customers, the founder, Chip Wilson, stated he created the name because he thought the inability of Japanese people to pronounce Ls was comedic. I honestly had a lot of trouble deciding whom I wanted to interview for this essay until I learned about the origin of Lululemon’s name. My mother, Junko Nakashima, was born in Japan and this story reminded me of her struggle to learn English literacy. My sister worked at Lululemon for some time, and I recall how difficult it was for my mom to pronounce that word. Literacy has been a very large part of my life, and as I grow older, the more I realize how little I know about my parents and their younger years. Therefore, for this essay, I decided to choose my mom to interview. There has always been an unusual aspect of a language barrier between us. We are very close, but I have never been told much about her younger years at all. My mother was born in Hiroshima, Japan, in the early 1970s, and her mother and father had moved to Hiroshima just a few years before her birth. She grew up with an older brother and a younger sister and describes her life as well off compared to the people she grew up around. After the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the communities were devasted for decades. Although she grew up in Hiroshima twenty years after the bombing, the effects on each family lasted for generations and resulted in a very impoverished community. Her parents both worked, and her father was balancing two jobs. She describes how everyone in Hiroshima had a very different living situation. Most people had divorced parents and were often raised by a single mom or dad. My mother described how her financial situation, compared to the common financial situation was very fortunate, and how it enabled her to not have such a difficult life.

Although her life was not difficult in terms of financial stability, we went into very small detail about her family life and school which brought difficulty to her life. I believe my mom was one of the best people I could have asked to answer this prompt. It has given me a lot of insight into her life and the culture I feel somewhat disconnected from. Unfortunately, there is still a very distinct language barrier between my mom and me. I am mostly fluent in Japanese and can understand her speech most of the time but discussing sophisticated topics or below-the-surface questions, there are a lot of dialects I am unfamiliar with. I tried my best to capture her responses to my questions in a matter of details and ideas rather than quotes. Romaji is the Romanized version of Japanese writing, in which you write Japanese words out in English lettering. It is very difficult to keep up with and I believe Japanese to English translation does not bring justice to certain descriptions of some words, which is why I decided to structure the responses this way. I began the interview by asking her what her childhood was like, where she had grown up, her financial situation, family, etc, to get an idea of how it could impact her experiences with literacy.

“What was your childhood like growing up in Japan?”

She was born in Hiroshima Japan just a few years after her older brother, An-chan, and her younger sister was born a few years later. Throughout her whole childhood, she had moved eleven times in all in Japan. She was the second child in her family, and her father thought it important to move into bigger households as the family grew bigger and older. She had to move throughout elementary school many times and wouldn’t stay at one school for more than a couple of years. She had gone to three different elementary schools by the time she was in fourth grade. From then on, her family would still move, but she stayed in the same school and didn’t switch schools after that. Where she grew up, she was considered significantly more well off financially compared to everyone else where she lived. She describes it as upper middle class in an area where most people were poor. She grew up in Hiroshima twenty or so years after the nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. She describes people being very impoverished and many families being affected for decades. Neither her parents nor herself knew the true effect of the bombing on the population because they had moved to Hiroshima, but she did know it had catastrophic effects on the citizens who returned.

“What was it like learning Japanese in a Japanese schooling system? How is it different than the American Education System?”

When she was growing up going to school in Japan, she describes it as very strict. Compared to America, the school week was Monday through Saturday and they only had around forty days of summer break. Japanese teachers adopted a very serious and strict pedagogy. Course loads were very heavy even in elementary school, and days lasted from around 7 am until after 3 pm. The first elementary school she went to was a Christian school led by foreign American teachers. She explained that the “sisters” were very strict, and they would learn English and Japanese. After my mother moved, the focus on English was not the same and the coursework for Japanese became immense. Japan technically had four main languages that they use. Children in Japanese schools would learn Hiragana, Katakana, and Romanji at a young age. They would then begin learning several Kanji every day throughout school. There was new Kanji to learn every day, and the experience was very rigorous and meticulous. She recalls being tested multiple times a week on new and past Kanji even in elementary school. My mother explains that school was never hard for her, but also not easy. Her view on the education system was never negative, but she also didn’t particularly fiend over it.

“How did your financial situation affect your ability to learn? Did you observe how it affected other people in your school?”

My mother describes her view of school and education in general: “Japanese is very large. There are 3 different main languages and a lot of things to learn just for Japanese literacy. We had to learn things about every single aspect of the Japanese language. Japanese schooling was only required up until junior high school. If you wanted to continue going to school, you needed to pass tests to be admitted to public high schools and college. I think because everyone had a very different living situation, some people couldn’t always spend time studying. Many people in tough living or financial situations didn’t have an opportunity to go to high school or college. Their fate was decided essentially the minute they were born. My mom always pressured me and my siblings about going to college, I knew I could get into college, but I didn’t want to try extremely hard in school either. I feel like my financial situation didn’t push me to exceed my abilities like other people because I took it for granted. I was still able to go to college, but it was never a significant accomplishment”.

“How compelled did you feel to learn literacy as a child?”

She said she never really felt pressured or specifically interested in learning Japanese. Japanese was everywhere, and it just came around. She learned it and put in the required effort, but never felt compelled to pursue increased amounts of dedication. However, she was always fond of music and biology. She never had to study or try very hard, and she was always at the top of the class getting A’s and perfect scores. She feels that subjects like English and Japanese are very subjective to where you are born. If you are exposed to an environment that is predominantly Japanese, you will learn it one way or another and it doesn’t compel you to exceed in it. Especially if you do not have to worry financially and have a stable and safe life.

“Did anyone have a major effect on that interest or non-interest?”

“I recall this one time during my younger years of schooling, either elementary or junior high but I am not sure which. Anyways, I think one of my teachers told us that if we read a lot, we could become better at everything. My friends and I liked that idea, and we would go to the library every day. I would read hundreds of pages a day and I was reading all the time. Sometimes I would check out a book and return it the next day. After a while, this immense desire to read began to dry up as I had to put more time into studying.”

“What was your experience like learning English?”

When she was in kindergarten, she learned how to learn English for about two years at a Christian American school. They would learn simple pronunciation and some simple words. In first grade, she began learning the alphabet and more English words. She describes how she never really had the senses for a foreign language and that it was very difficult to pronounce the different dialects. Growing up primarily speaking Japanese, she didn’t develop the ability to use certain vowels in the English dialect and she was embarrassed by her pronunciation. She explains that her senses and ears were unable to process English and it made it extremely difficult to listen and speak. She explains how her dentist told her about how she has a “Japanese Tongue” which is an instance where Japanese speakers do not develop the tongue muscles or techniques to use certain aspects of English pronunciation like R’s, L’s, and vowels. She never really developed the fluency to speak like typical English people, therefore it was extremely intimidating and difficult. Every time she would try to speak, she would become very nervous, and people were unable to understand. In her mind, she would think she is speaking fine, but people insisted they couldn’t understand, and it caused a great deal of trauma. She didn’t try to speak as much and would just listen, but she still couldn’t understand. The communication was so difficult and so intimidating she got to a point where she just hated English and didn’t want anything to do with it. She recalls that some people were very rude about how they couldn’t understand her English when she first came to America, and it affected her desire to continue practicing English.

“What has the communication layer been like trying to speak both Japanese and English in America?”

Because she couldn’t communicate and was nervous about speaking English, she would try to speak as little English as possible. For a long period, my dad would just communicate in English for her. When her first daughter was born, she would just let her daughter communicate for her. She tried very hard to learn English in ESL classes in libraries. But she was even ridiculed by her teachers who said very inconsiderate things about how they thought her speaking mannerisms were not normal. She gave up on trying to learn English for a long time. But eventually became dedicated again so she could get a job. Several years ago, my mother enrolled in LWTECH to learn English. My mother described her English teacher as very compelling and reassuring. She put in a lot of effort and tremendously increased her confidence in speaking. She doesn’t feel like she learned a lot in that class, but it revolutionized her confidence to speak and revitalized English importance for her. Her teacher recommended that she start taking harder English classes and took CNA English American classes. The class was very inconsiderate and rude once again. Most of the students were a lot younger than her and would speak about how she didn’t understand anything and how she shouldn’t be there. My mother ignored the crude remarks and passed the test first try. Ironically, most of those students in her class did not pass the first time.

This essay provided a lot of insight for me on a much deeper level than I expected. I went into the interview assuming that I would only learn about my mom and her experience with literacy on a Japanese and foreign level. But instead, it has highlighted ideas on many different parts of society and how differences in financial situation or origin have such great effects on people. I relate to a lot of her general experiences with people and learning foreign languages. Becoming so exposed to the persistence and pursuit of English literacy, it has made it increasingly difficult to adopt Japanese literacy despite my exposure to it. My experience compared to my mom’s is exactly the opposite in terms of subjects, but inherently the same below the surface level. I have always felt the same embarrassment and shy nature when I speak, because of insecurities about my pronunciation and vocabulary. I always thought my experience of learning a language would be so different compared to my mom’s because of what I assumed is a difference. Literacy is an essential aspect of life, and I think it indirectly highlights details of everyone’s life in certain ways. An individual’s ability to pronounce the name “Lululemon” instantly allows you to know where someone is from. It highlights differences and inabilities in a subject so full of difference and variety. Some argue that the name is insensitive and racist, although I think those are very serious allegations and are quite possibly true. I think the name brings up the idea that no matter how different you might think you are from someone, your experiences may be exactly alike.


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The Lion's Pride, Vol. 16 Copyright © 2022 by Brandon Armstrong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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