When English teacher Scott Dennis recently returned to Pennsylvania from Japan for the first time in six years, he experienced what he termed “reverse culture shock.”
The 36-year-old, who grew up in Fleetville, said he had trouble speaking English “without wanting to throw Japanese in.”
“I kept talking to people as if I were talking to a student (of English),” he said. “I was really dumbing down my English.”
Dennis has lived in Japan for about ten years. His wife, Asako, and children, son Taiyo and daughter Hinata, are Japanese citizens, and he hopes to secure a permanent residency visa when he returns to the country. The Japanese rarely confer full citizenship upon foreigners, he added.
About a decade ago, Dennis was an art major at Keystone College in La Plume, where he met his future wife, Asako, a native of Japan. The two moved to San Francisco and “bounced back and forth” between Japan and California for a few years.
When the couple decided to marry, Dennis looked into how to go about marrying a non-citizen in the U.S. and ran into a lot of redtape.
“We didn’t know if we wanted to get married in America or get married in Japan, so I got all the paperwork to get married in America with her being a Japanese citizen and it was huge,” he said. “It was like ‘Crime and Punishment’ plus every phonebook in the county.”
On a visit to Japan, Dennis went to a courthouse and the paperwork there was “a file folder.” The couple wed in Japan. After the the wedding, the Japanese government issued Dennis a spousal visa, allowing him to do “everything but vote.”
Today Dennis and his wife live with their two children in Tama City, Tokyo. He explained that while in the American mind Tokyo might conjure images of a bustling urban landscape, it is actually a sprawling region that includes a metro area and surrounding suburbs. Tokyo is prefecture, one of 47 in the nation and is divided into 23 wards.
“There’s downtown Tokyo, which is on the water and the bay…but there’s this whole prefecture,” he said “It gets quite rural out here.”
Living in Japan presented a number of challenges for Dennis. He didn’t know the language, the customs, the cultural mores.
And he was afraid to speak Japanese.
“You pick up somebody from here, middle of nowhere Pennsylvania, you drop him in a major metropolitan area—it’s overwhelming,” he said. “And on top of that you don’t understand what anyone’s saying. It was quite terrifying.”
The American expatriate soon realized that the Japanese people didn’t mind if he made mistakes. They recognized that he was trying, and they were entertained by some of his language mistakes.
“I called myself a slope,” he said. “I’m a slope.” He meant to say he was he was on a slope.
Another time he committed a faux pas with his mother-in-law: “I called my wife’s mother old in a really rude way.”
Dennis teaches English to Japanese elementary students. He said he can empathize when they’re struggling because he experienced the same growing pains learning Japanese.
“I understand how my students feel,” he said.“It’s OK to make a mistake. It’s OK if it’s not perfect.”
He added that immersion is the best way to learn a language. Dennis purchased a few books to learn about Japanese grammar and structure, he said, but the real learning was on the streets of Tokyo.
“There’s so much nuance,” he said. “Even if you say the sentence correctly, you can really come off kind of rude.”
So he took to the Tokyo streets, rehearsing words and phrases in his head.
“All day I would walk around sort of talking to inanimate objects,” he said. “I would play conversations in my head. It built more confidence in speaking.
“The best way to learn a language like that…is to listen how people communicate with each others.”
Dennis said he taught English in Tama City schools as an Assistant Language Teacher. He became very involved in teaching, developing a curriculum.
Then Japanese government then mandated that English be taught in elementary schools—it had only been voluntary before—and Dennis found himself sought-after as a native speaker with extensive teaching experience.
“I was already writing the lesson plans,” he said. “I already had everything in order. The (other) teachers were like, ‘Do what you do; it’s yours.’ ”
Dennis even met with school and government officials who sought his guidance on implementing English programs at Tokyo schools.
A native speaker of English is a rarity in his city, he said. There are probably more Asians in the Abingtons than there are caucasians in Tama City, which has a much larger population than the Abingtons.
Dennis plans to remain in Japan. His son and daughter have only been stateside a few times, and their grasp of English is not as good as he would like. Dennis plans to open up a private school for elementary students when he returns to Japan in May.
While in northeastern Pa., Dennis has been visiting friends and family and taking photos. He’s an artist, and back in Japan he’s part of a local coterie of photographers.
During his visit to the U.S. he has been trying to capture our landscapes, which are expansive and open by contrast to the dense metropolitan Tokyo.
“One of the first things I’ve noticed when I came back here is how open everything is—almost a little agoraphobic,” he said. “I had a feeling I was going to fall off the planet. There’s nothing holding me down.”
He said he his aim was to capture that feeling of being untethered in an open space in his photography. He shoots in black and white, and wants to capture the “tonal range” of an open, cloudless sky here and “touch on this idea of expanse.”
“It doesn’t exist in Tokyo. That’s for sure.”