To begin, we present Yoshi Grote, a lecturer in intercultural skills and gender at Kyoto Sangyo University. Her research interests include the visibility and belonging of liminal identities with a special focus on third culture and LGBTQIA+ issues. In 2019, she organized the first Living on the Edge Conference in Kyoto. She has lived in 12 countries but is now somewhat settled in Northern Kyoto with her wife and five-year-old daughter. She was interviewed by Michael Ellis. Michael coordinates the EFL program at International Christian University High School in Tokyo. He holds an MA in TESOL from Teachers College Columbia University. His research interests include reflective teaching practice and the use of CLIL to amplify marginalized voices. Without further ado, to our first interview!
Michael Ellis: Your bio indicates you have lived in 12 different countries. Could you explain your upbringing and how it has influenced you as an educator?
Yoshi Grote: My father worked for the foreign office, so that meant we moved every three to four years, and I attended international schools. That had its own benefits and pitfalls, but mostly benefits, as you can imagine. One of the unexpected consequences was that the momentum had started, and it was very tough for me to stop living in that way. After university, I tried to stay put and get a regular job, but it didn’t really work out for me, so I took a teaching certificate and went to Tanzania at first, and then I took a position in the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme. This influenced me as an educator by making me more aware of intercultural issues and intercultural communication. Especially in my time as a JET, I found myself in a position of mediator between ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) and JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English), and I developed a fascination with that kind of communication and conflict resolution, which then led me to study intercultural communication. I feel that I bring that into the class a lot as an educator; that language and culture can’t be separated and shouldn’t be separated. Of course, you have to be level-appropriate with your approach, but especially because I teach content related courses, many of which were multicultural, I was able to bring in intercultural general training into the classroom. I guess my overall pedagogical feeling is that we really shouldn’t teach language without teaching culture.
It sounds like from your experience that you flourished from moving around so much, and you feel more natural in motion than staying put. Is that accurate?
Yeah, I think so.
You’ve written that it isn’t uncommon for third culture kids to lack a true home in this way, and the concept of nationless belonging. I wonder if this is one reason it isn’t uncommon to think of third culture kids as economically privileged and to lack sympathy for them. Can you speak to people who hold this belief, about why a home culture is important, and the difficulties that come from not having one?
First of all, I think it’s absolutely understandable to lack sympathy because as you say, for the most part, third culture kids do tend to be economically privileged. I think there are some exceptions; for example, some missionary kids, but for the most part, we do tend to come from privilege. However, I think also research from wellbeing has taught us our relationships tend to contribute to wellbeing more than money, so when I was doing the research into home and belonging with these people a very long time ago, I found that some people, like me, very much felt a sense of what Janet Bennett calls constructive marginality, a feeling of belonging everywhere, a feeling of being at home everywhere, having a sense of belonging to an invisible community of other people like you, and therefore, didn’t really struggle much apart from when they had to answer, “Where are you from?” But there are other people who struggle far more, and I think it depends a lot on your experience, the depth of your relationships, and whether you consider home to be in people or in places. For example, I think my daughter would technically be considered a third culture kid because her parents are from different cultures, and her nationality and where she’s living are different. If she were to grow up her whole life here in Japan, she might feel quite a strong sense of belonging to the place, but it may not be reflected back to her. I don’t know how that will affect her, but some of the people I interviewed echoed that sentiment of belonging being a two-way street, and they might feel very much at home somewhere, but they are not considered as belonging, which can be quite difficult. I think it also depends on your experience growing up, whether you had a tight-knit community of people in your family. These days, it may be different because when you say goodbye to people in a country, you’re still relatively connected by Skype, Zoom, and social media, whereas when I was a kid, it really was farewell forever. Unless you were willing to write letters that took two weeks to get somewhere, you probably were never going to see that person again. At least you didn’t think you would.
I’d like to pivot now to queer inclusion and acceptance as that was the main topic of your talks over the weekend. You’ve written on how the queer community can seem to be an invisible abstract, the historical reasons for this, and the importance of visibility of sexual and gender minorities and allies. I wonder if you have any advice about ways to come out to students and colleagues as queer allies or as queer ourselves? Personally, I felt relief from coming out to my colleagues once in a faculty meeting several years ago in order to say thank you for a wedding gift from the teacher’s union, but the teachers who have joined the school since then don’t know about my sexuality. I think there are many teachers like me who would like their colleagues and students to know about their queer identity, but don’t feel comfortable saying, “Hi, nice to meet you. I’m gay.” In your plenary, you gave one example of a teacher who put a rainbow sticker on his laptop. Can you recommend any other subtle but effective ways to “shake our tail feathers?”
The first thing I always say is I think the most important thing to consider is your own sense of comfort with your own identity as well as your comfort with your job security. Those two things are vitally important. Coming out is the responsibility for those who feel comfortable and want to do so. I don’t think that people who don’t feel ready or comfortable in themselves yet should feel pressure to come out in any way. In terms of my own experience, I didn’t do it like you in a faculty meeting. I think that’s very brave. I became slowly more visible with my coworkers over time until I was in a place of security. In terms of security, I also mean likability in the workplace by students and coworkers. Unfortunately, I think we need to be more likeable in order to come out in an effective way. Then, of course, it is a process as you mention. Coming out isn’t just a one-time thing that we do and it’s over. If you do want to come out yourself, it is easier if you have a partner because that’s not as direct. That’s not saying, “I’m gay.” It’s saying, “My partner was in the garden yesterday and she …,” and just using that pronoun. As for allies, support can come in terms of really small things like stickers, key chains, words of allyship on PowerPoint slides, anti-discrimination policies in our materials or syllabi, pronouns in our email signatures, and even the way that we get involved in the community. You can be a part of your institution’s diversity committee or help plan a pride festival, and you can do all of those things without explicitly coming out.
Thank you for those practical suggestions. By the way, during your plenary, since it was online, I opened another browser and ordered a rainbow sticker which will go on the homework submission box outside my office.
Oh, that’s awesome! That’s so great.
That story was a great impetus for me to finally do that.
I’m so happy.
Can I ask more deeply about the suggestion of referring to your same sex partner to come out indirectly? During your workshop, you challenged us to consider how to bring our authentic selves into the classroom, and I understand that mentioning our partners certainly is one way to do this. However, you also say that coming out is a choice that not all queer people have to make. This actually describes my partner, and this has become a bit of a hindrance for me in bringing my own authentic self to my classroom. Our relationship isn’t just mine to share. Could you speak a bit about the ethics of this? I’m curious if you have any strategies for being authentic while still respecting the privacy of others close to us.
This question really gives me pause. I have known a lot of couples with this struggle, especially bicultural couples in Japan. Please take what I say with a pinch of salt as my experience is not of the same context as yours. You said that your relationship is not just yours to share, and I would agree that’s true, but also say that your identity is not synonymous with your relationship. If I were in your position, even if it was hard for me, I would absolutely not mention my partner’s name or share any photos in the work context with my students, but many of us feel that our sexual identity is a part of us regardless of whether or not we’re in a relationship. I would still be gay regardless of who my partner was, and that would be part of my identity. I would want in my relationship to be able to share that about myself if I wanted to, if I felt that was something important for my authenticity or job. In your job, authenticity is more important than, for example, it could be for a banker, so that’s another layer of complication. But again, you don’t have to be authentic about your sexuality to be authentic in the classroom. There is a certain level of ownership in your own identity, and the decision for me would be about what extent of pain it causes me to keep that hidden. I would balance that in the discussion with my partner but keep the partner and their identity definitely private.
I know you don’t want to speak for people in bicultural couples, but your advice really resonates, specifically the point that we can be authentic about our gender identities and sexual orientations, separate from our partners. For me, teaching language classes at high school rather than content at university, these issues don’t come up so much outside of discussions of my partner, but perhaps that can be my homework: how to make them come up.
Right, and every little step that feels tiny to you can be so huge for someone. Even the choice of film that you make, which has the smallest line about someone’s gender identity or someone’s sexual orientation, can have a huge impact on a student. I think we’re all quite hard on ourselves that we’re not making as much of an impact as we can.
Thank you for saying that after a full week of conferencing. It can feel intimidating that there is so much to do! In your plenary, you explained how a specific student’s struggle with their queer identity and that was the catalyst for you to become more open about yourself in your classroom in order to better help and support all of your students. Since this change, I wonder if you’ve noticed any changes, positive or negative, from your colleagues and how they treat you?
Rather interestingly, the same people that were asking me to proceed with caution ended up being my biggest supporters, I think mainly because those people were my friends. Those are the ones who are worried about you, your job security, or any kind of harassment that you might receive. They saw I was fortunate in not receiving any harassment and in fact, that it seemed to be having a positive effect on the students and the university. For example, I was asked to make a presentation to our diversity committee about how to make our university more inclusive, and I brought a student who was this fantastic, very open, and powerful activist type. We did it together, and those friends who were concerned about me saw this positive impact that it was having on everyone and became wonderful supporters. I think I haven’t noticed any negative changes, only positive.
You gave four clear steps for teachers who want to make their classrooms a generally more inclusive space. Do you have any practical advice for teachers who are interested in explicitly approaching queer content in their classrooms, but don’t feel confident?
Yes! The advice that always comes to me is you don’t have to be perfect, and you don’t have to do it perfectly to be doing a good job. When I first started introducing gender issues into the classroom, I remember teaching to my class the term transexual and—surprise, surprise—just being gay doesn’t make you well-versed in gender issues. Later, one of my students, an exchange student, came to me and said, “That term is really offensive, and you shouldn’t be teaching that.” So I researched to make sure that she was right and the next week I went in and said, “I’m really sorry. It was brought to my attention that this is really offensive for these reasons, and people are now using these terms.” I think that’s the important thing. We shouldn’t worry about being perfect. We’re never going to be perfect because the language and terminology is evolving all the time. The only thing we need to aspire to be perfect about is owning our mistakes, owning that we’re human. I think that’s vital for language teachers because that’s what we want our students to do, too. So don’t worry about being perfect, and also as a gay person who’s been asked a lot of questions by people who have hesitated to ask those questions because they’re not sure if they’re phrasing them correctly, I would say that for me and many people I know, dialogue is always better than uncomfortable silence or not asking. I would much rather that someone use the wrong words and say offensive things if it’s in the context of them trying to learn or comes from curiosity.
That’s very encouraging. I think teachers often don’t want to make mistakes, but if we give ourselves permission to, then even with an imperfect unit on these difficult topics, we can do a lot more good than we would by completely avoiding them.
Yeah, and you can always say to your students, “I’m no expert in this area, but I think it’s important. Let’s learn about it together.”
Surveys you conducted have reflected positively on the open-mindedness of Japanese youth in understanding and accepting sexual and gender minorities. I wonder if you’ve seen any cases of prejudice among your students. You mentioned in your plenary that LGBT discrimination in Japan takes the form of invisibility rather than hostility. Is that consistent with the nature of prejudice you’ve come across in your research, or have you come across any hostile attitudes towards queer people?
Before I was out to my students, I would occasionally hear the term “gay” or “homo,” just being bandied about. I often didn’t understand the context because it was being done in Japanese usually, but I pretty much always jumped on that person and just asked them some questions in English. At that point, it never escalated from there. It usually just ended in the student feeling a bit embarrassed, usually because they couldn’t explain why they were using that word because I was asking seemingly innocent questions. “Why are you saying this person is gay? What evidence do you have?” Because I have been open in the university setting for quite some time, and because people tend to be quite conflict-averse, that has kind of protected me. It’s a selfish motivation for coming out, as it has protected me from discriminatory talk or thoughts. That’s not to say it hasn’t happened at all, but it hasn’t happened from a student. I’ve not had that experience.
It’s great that you haven’t seen any active discrimination from your students, but I imagine that there are some students who hold problematic beliefs. I wonder how you handle them in your classroom. This is something I’m struggling with right now. We do a unit on racial equality, and there are students who hold passive but unambiguously racist ideas. I always question, is it our responsibility as language teachers to open their minds, and if so, how can we approach this?
First of all, I think a language teacher’s job is to teach language, and language’s function is communication, and communication in its essence is about exchanging ideas, so you’re automatically opening minds. The extent to which we open minds is connected to our content, and content has to be level-appropriate of course. But I think a huge benefit of being language teachers is that we can put content in at any language level; content that actually motivates the speaker to communicate. I certainly know from my own experience of learning Japanese that I feel far more motivated and interested in learning when I’m trying to express something to a friend about cultural differences or a difference in parenting styles than I am when I’m trying to be Ken-san in Minna no Nihongo going through those roleplays. So firstly, I think that one way to open minds is to be aware of your content, choose content that will inspire students to exchange those ideas, and also teach language that helps them know how to disagree, agree, negotiate and state their opinions. That’s one part of it. Then you have the problem of students having discriminatory opinions, and I face that too. The first thing that I do is question the student because I feel it is better if they arrive at a change of thought process themselves rather than me simply telling them I think that’s incorrect. I’d rather they revise their opinion by themselves. We can’t always change their opinions about others. We can only engage them in dialogue. However, I do feel that there are things you can do outside of that exact moment. I often have students who say, “Some people think…” and then state a racist idea. They find it hard to see themselves as having any bias, or that the thing they’ve just said is biased. We do a lot about implicit bias in the classroom. We use that Harvard implicit bias test, which is something you can find online to see if they hold implicit biases about gender and race. We do The Danger of a Single Story, and at lower levels I do the Japanese translation and talk about what their single story is, what people have assumed about them that is not true. We go through various different groups of people and how they might be perceived. Then I try to show TED Talks or films that might break that stereotype. Occasionally, I tackle it head-on. I’ve had students come back from overseas who say things that do sound quite racist or otherising, though they don’t know it. The intention isn’t there, so I try not to put that person on the spot because I’ve found students are incredibly sensitive to that kind of criticism. They are devastated if they are considered to be racist.
Not just students. Adults too!
Right, everybody. So, I try to then pull up something that maybe a few students have said; maybe include something that one of the students in the class has said recently and try to lead them through a process of looking at that and talking about implicit bias. If it’s actually discriminatory action, as there’s a difference between voicing a discriminatory opinion and then saying something directly to someone or open hostility towards someone else, then I feel it’s absolutely the teacher’s responsibility to step in, stop that, say it’s not OK, and explain why. Otherwise, you’re just a bystander, and we have to model being upstanding citizens for our students. In general, I struggle with this topic so much because I also worry about how much I put my own opinions on students, especially in a culture where teachers have quite a lot of power. I don’t want my students to feel that my opinion is inherently superior. One of my students was trying to be culturally aware while describing a time he had had overseas and how he had been the victim of a lot of homophobic harassment, but that he had to respect that because it’s a different culture and there are different opinions. He said that some people think this, and their opinion matters too, so at that point I just said, “No, there are some things that are just not right, and what happened to you was not OK.” I still wonder if that was the correct thing to say as a teacher in the classroom, but we all make personal choices as teachers.
There must be some balance of how much to let students decide for themselves and how much to lead them. Perhaps the takeaway is that doing nothing is not enough, and that we need to actively search for that balance, even if we make mistakes.
Yes. It’s so hard, but in my experience, having an open dialogue is always better.
Adichie, C. N. (2009, July). The danger of a single story. TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en
Bennett, M., & Bennett, J. (1993). Developing intercultural sensitivity: An integrative approach to global and domestic diversity. Principles of training and development. 25(21), 145-65. http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452231129.n6
Project Implicit. (2011). Implicit association test. https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html