SAGAMIHARA FAMILY HOUSING AREA, Japan – It was like stepping into the unknown when Sgt. 1st Class Georgette Ray’s children first entered a Japanese school last fall.
With no grasp of the language or culture, her three school-aged children were full of nerves in anticipation of attending classes in a foreign land. So were their parents.
Stacks of forms printed in Japanese to enroll the children initially became a daunting task for Georgette and her husband, Roderick, who served 20 years in the Army.
“At the beginning, it was very overwhelming because of all the paperwork and trying to translate it,” said Georgette, the detachment sergeant for Medical Department Activity–Japan.
U.S. Army Japan parents who choose to send their children to off-post schools face similar challenges, but have been known to support each other to ensure the children receive a unique learning experience.
Around the start of the fall semester, Georgette and Roderick befriended another military couple with two girls in a Japanese school. The couple’s oldest daughter later served as a translator for the Rays, assisting them with paperwork and during school meetings.
The Ray family has since hired a Japanese tutor to help the children tackle homework, and the schools have some teachers who speak English to guide them in their lessons.
“Without them, I don’t know that we could have gotten through it,” Georgette said. “We were very lucky to have them helping us.”
Last year, when it was time to decide on the family’s next destination, Georgette said her children unanimously picked Japan.
“They all chose Japan,” she said. “So I didn’t want to come here and not have them experience the culture and not experience what’s outside the gates.”
“I thought it would be good for them to learn a different language,” Roderick added, “and just figure out how to be a part of a group they’re not familiar with.”
Georgette said their children have already been able to have a much different childhood than hers. Besides Japan, the Army has taken the Ray family to Colorado, New York, Texas and the Washington, D.C., area.
The numerous moves her children have gone through are a departure from the small-city living of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where she grew up.
As a child, Georgette said she had the opportunity to build long-term friendships, which military children like hers may find difficult to do.
“Yes, they meet people and make friends, but either they leave or we leave,” she said. “Not being able to establish those roots is one of those things that has been challenging for them.”
On the other hand, her children have been able to travel, meet new people and broaden their knowledge of the world.
“My kids have been able to see and do so much more than I would have ever dreamed of doing,” Georgette said.
Adjusting to the culture
The youngest Ray child, Roderick Jr., 8, who attends nearby Sagamidai Elementary School, has already adapted well. When the new school year starts this month he will be in third grade, where he said he hopes to learn more about science.
At recess, he said he plays games with other students, and he prefers the school lunch in Japan, especially the tofu soup, compared to the food in America.
The energetic boy, who likes to draw and watch Japanese anime, has also picked up a lot of the language and regularly speaks it with his classmates.
“It feels normal,” Roderick Jr. said, “because I’m speaking a language that other people can speak.”
Abigail, 12, will start seventh grade at Sagamidai Junior High, where her 14-year-old sister, Naomi, also goes.
Abigail said she can now read and write Japanese katakana characters and has become more confident in her language skills. She sometimes even helps translate for her parents.
“It feels great to know more than my parents,” Abigail said, smiling. “My parents will have to ask me for something.”
Roderick said that while they are with him when he is grocery shopping, his children will often practice Japanese with commissary employees who speak the language. The children also learn new words from them.
“The culture here is like the whole community,” Roderick said. “Not like in American schools, where ‘That’s your kid and that’s my kid.’ Everyone chips in.”
Naomi said she reads Japanese much better than speaking it, but still likes the challenge of trying to be bilingual while learning more about Japan.
“I love the [cultural] differences, and figuring things out is fun,” she said. “It gets my brain working.”
Naomi, who will be in ninth grade, has an artistic side as well. She said her room is an “art mess” with different canvases, pastels and colored pencils.
In the first week of school, Naomi was asked to create drawings of American culture, which she then talked about to her class.
And, in an effort to engage with other students, she made a few dozen small drawings that represented their favorite things, such as anime, baseball and basketball.
“This was a project I did myself,” Naomi said. “I wanted to go outside of my comfort zone and get to know other people in class.”
Georgette understands the decision to send her children to a Japanese school may set them back a little bit in their studies as they navigate through a new setting.
She believes her children, though, will eventually be able to catch up. And the skills they learn now, such as flexibility and overcoming adversity, could make them stand out in their college applications or during job interviews, she said.
“It’s an opportunity that most people don’t get,” Georgette said. “We’ve been lucky enough to get it, so why not take advantage of it?”
The proud mother added that she is impressed with how her children have been able to transition to an environment that she sometimes finds stressful.
“The fact that they continuously did it on a daily basis until they got used to it, my hat goes off to them,” she said. “I’m intimidated when I go there for a parent-teacher conference, and they go through this every single day. I never hear them complain, and they seem to really enjoy it.”