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Taking A Chance with Words?

By Carol A. Tateishi

During a small group discussion on my first visit to Joan's class, I sat in Jeff's group, which happened to be made up of students who were all of Asian descent. No one spoke for the longest time while students in the other groups chattered away about the story they'd read for homework, following Joan's directions to share what they didn't understand about the story and to get help from others in their group. While I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the silence, the students seemed fine with this extended wait time. Finally, Jeff spoke, followed by Dan, and eventually the three girls in the group spoke briefly in voices barely loud enough to hear. And while it was clear they'd done the homework, their comments skirted the assigned questions, no one eager, it seemed, to divulge what they didn't understand in their readings.

I asked Jeff about this later that day. Jeff, a fourth-generation Japanese American whose father was a dentist and who, with his shock of pink hair falling over his forehead, appeared right at home among his peers, said, "I was brought up to believe it was a sign of strength to solve your problems yourself and not to impose them on others. It's really hard for me to bring questions about what I don't understand to class to have others help me find the answer." Jeff's response stopped me in my tracks as I immediately recalled learning the same thing at an early age, that silence is a sign of self-reliance and strength. I was surprised at the abiding strength of this cultural value, extending to this young man whose great grandfather would have immigrated to this country at the turn of the century. In talking further with Jeff, it emerged that his reluctance to participate was compounded by the negative attitude in Japanese culture toward verbosity in men, something that he'd also learned at home. However, his answer was a point of concern, knowing Joan's belief in collaborative learning and realizing these particular students were not reaping its benefits.

In my next visit, Jeff was leading a whole-class discussion, for the first time according to Joan, of "Seventeen Syllables," a short story by Hisaye Yamamato that takes place during the 1930s in California's San Joaquin Valley. Central to the story is the relationship between an Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrant) husband and wife where the wife's writing of haiku and the social recognition of her talents make apparent the class differences between them, and challenges the husband's authority within the family. Told from the young daughter's point of view, the story reveals deep-seated emotions by the father, masked through his silence, and the truth behind her mother's move to America due to a shameful romantic liaison. The meaning of silence and the father's inability to express emotions are important themes.

Jeff pulled a desk to the front of the room and started the discussion with a few questions. Soon, other students were answering his questions and raising their own, but they appeared puzzled by the key incident in the story where the father destroys the prize given to his wife in a haiku contest:

[H]e threw the picture on the ground and picked up the axe. Smashing the picture, glass and all (she heard the explosion faintly), he reached over for the kerosene that was used to encourage the bath fire and poured it over the wreckage.

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