My turn finally came to give a presentation for the University of Toyama‘s Global Cafe on Friday, May 19. The instructions were relatively simple, “to talk about yourself and your country” for about 30 minutes, but of course I had to complicate things.
First things first, I should probably explain what the Global Cafe is. It’s an initiative started by a few faculty at the University of Toyama to try to provide students with opportunities to experience communicating in English. There is usually a Japanese guest speaker from the university faculty invited to talk about their experience of using English professionally and their career and a foreign resident of Japan from the university faculty to talk about their country.
I’m largely supportive of the motivations underlying the Global Cafe and impressed by the organizing efforts of the faculty who have put their time and energy into coordinating it. That said, with the four of five events to date that I’ve attended, I’ve felt there was an imbalance between the guest presenters. My impression has been that the Japanese presenters have been able to put themselves forward as professionals who have used their language skills to further their interests and careers, which I feel casts them in a very positive light. I hate to say on the other hand, but perhaps in contrast the foreign residents of Japan faculty have presented on the theme of ‘My Country’ which in my opinion has limited the range and depth of the presentations they have been able to give; they don’t seem to have been as successful at sharing their stories as professionals furthering their interests and careers. Their presentations have tended to be more along the lines of my country is here, these are its geographical and linguistic features, and these are some of its cultural features. The presentations on people’s countries have generally all been done well, but that was simply not the kind of talk I wanted to give, nor the kind of presentation that I feel I could do particularly well or successfully. And therefore I made things complicated.
Just in case you want to dive into my talk without further explanation, the slides I used are included below. If you want to read an explanation of what I presented on, I’ve included that below.
Being too clever for my own good, and knowing that the kind of presentation I was expected to give was one covering my country, the USA, I had a bit of a brainstorm about how to approach the issue. I concluded that the pivot point from the kind of presentation I was being asked to give to the kind of presentation I wanted to give revolved around the definition of country. Being an English teacher, I did what I’m always telling my students to do; I checked the dictionary to see exactly how country is defined. Here is the definition, courtesy of Merriam-Webster:
I noted the first definition as an indefinite expanse of land as a good place to add some humor, but not something I could build a 30 minute talk around. The second definition includes, “land of a person’s birth, residence, or citizenship”, and I thought that gave me something to work with. I decided to chart just where I’ve lived over the years, which was an instructive exercise. I decided to make two charts, one tracking the countries I’ve lived in, and one tracking localities within those countries. I’ve included them below for reference. I think the first, detailing the different places within countries that I’ve lived over the years, makes the better case for the direction my presentation ended up going in:
My opinion was and is that the first of the two graphs give me a good reason to question just where I should talk about when discussing ‘my country’, especially in light of the definition of country being the land of a person’s birth, residence, or citizenship. I started by noting that I really have very few memories of Iowa; it’s where my parents are from, but I haven’t spent a substantial portion of my life there, and while I still have family there, including my mom, my formative memories aren’t really anchored there, and so I could only talk about it as a place I’m not all that familiar with.
Kansas is a good candidate; that’s where I went to high school and university, although the last time I spent any substantial amount of time there was more than 17 years ago, and so my memory is of a place that I very much doubt exists any more, at least not in the form I remember it. I made my case by asking if Toyama is the same now as it was 20 years ago, and was answered with a resounding no. I also explained that the house I spent my high school years in has since been sold, and so if I let myself in the door and sat down in the living room, the police would be called on me for trespassing, and I would end up in jail needing to explain myself. If I’m lucky. I didn’t talk about the proliferation of guns in the US generally and Kansas more specifically; I didn’t want to get too deep into those kinds of issues during my talk. I preferred to try to keep things light.
That said, I couldn’t resist the “indefinite usually extended expanse of land” part of the definition having lived in Kansas, and so I shared with my students my favorite geography paper of all time: the Kansas is flatter than a pancake article. Here the two most relevant graphics are as evidence.
First, the photos:
And second, a surface topography:
They conclude that on a measurement of 1 being perfectly flat and 0 being perfectly round, a pancake comes in at 0.957 and Kansas at 0.9997.
I then included an image of what this can look like in real life:
Going back to the topic of ‘my country’, I noted that I live in Toyama now, but that most of the people in the audience do, too, and I didn’t think that was why I was invited to present at the Global Cafe.
After this, I explained that the place I’ve lived the longest, and where I have my one and only house is Nagano. Then I just talked about Nagano, which is what I wanted to do all along anyway.
I explained that one thing I quickly discovered is that, particularly in Japan, where people are expected to visit seems to be largely predetermined, and that if you take the time to step off of the beaten path, you can find all kinds of amazing and interesting wonders. I noted how one of my past times was finding agricultural roads through the mountains, and that I would tend to cycle those, although I’ve walked many of them as well. I noted how those roads lead to hidden gems such as the Jindaizakura, a 1,200 year-old cherry tree, and that there are all kinds of other interesting treasures out there to find.
I then went through a series of photos of my life in Nagano, which you can see in the slideshow itself.
I was pretty happy with my presentation overall and it was quite well received. The only person I feel a bit bad for is the coordinator whose email I quoted, and who kept apologizing for the wording of her message. I feel bad that she felt bad, but I didn’t think there was anything specific wrong with what she wrote; she was writing from a common perception of people’s identity, particularly in Japan, and I was more interested in challenging those assumptions than going along with them. I felt that yielded a better presentation overall, and that challenging my audience’s assumptions about place and identity would be an excellent overall goal for my presentation that night. Also, in her defense, the Japanese definition of country seems more based on translating from Japanese into English than it does the other way around; it seems to only deal with the ‘country’ side of the definition, including concepts such as place of birth and citizenship, but not residence, in contrast to the Webster definition. Also, the Japanese lists country as first, rather than the open expanse definition Webster uses. I could be wrong, though; my Japanese isn’t far enough along to understand all the nuances of the kanji in the definition:
What treasure have you found near where you live? Please let me know in the comments.