Dear Yao-sensei

February 18, 2019

It is a fairly young Friday night; Jhené Aiko's voice, dreamlike and sensual, croons as we pull up on Delmar, overlooking The Loop ahead. Its neon lights—which normally illuminate the district—are subdued by February flurry. A modest quiet lingers some: there is just mellow R&B, our steady breathing in the absence of words, the starting of a vehicle in motion as the green light overhead signals forward.

"Do you think the other language departments are like Japanese?" Michelle asks from the driver's seat. There is the four of us this evening—Michelle, Ako, Justyn, me—an otherwise unlikely friendship that has its roots in taking Japanese together, a six-times-a-week endeavor, and continued in the form of weekend night apartment (usually Justyn's) gatherings since. "I know some people in French, and I don't think they're like this."

"German too," Ako agrees. "Maybe it's that with Japanese in particular, we have some kind of common interest."

"Well, we have to band together in Japanese," Justyn says. "It's just that hard, that unique of an experience."

We all laugh, reminiscing about those blue ballpoint pens, the infamous huroshiki, Bailey-san from Texas Oil, and the phone calls—oh, not the phone calls. Where do you even begin? 


. . .

Japanese language at Washington University in St. Louis is—as previously noted—a six-times-a-week course, five of which are ACT classes, one of which is FACT. While FACT class is essentially lecture-style, meant to teach the week's new grammar rules, ACT class, as delineated by the syllabus, "[requires] that you PERFORM [their all-capitalization, not mine, but this is no exaggeration] in Japanese 100 percent of the time." A perhaps more accurate portrayal, however, is this: the fifty-minute period, to anyone taking Japanese that you ask, is one of ongoing alertness and anxiety. You don't think a simulation of, say, going to the store and buying two red ballpoint pens and three blue ones could possibly be the source of great fear—not just your own, but your classmates, the onlookers—but it is.

On some odd Monday at one in the afternoon, I sit in on a first-year Japanese class—one section of the three—and so it begins: on the PowerPoint in front of the classroom is an image of an ordinary office as makeshift scenery, and a frantic-looking Yao-sensei peering around, seemingly in search of something. "Nahass-san, do you have a pen?" she asks a red-haired, thick rim glasses-wearing boy in her line of vision—sort of like a predator locking in on its prey—and there is palpable, resounding relief in the other students who were not unlucky enough to be the one put on the spot, especially as the first target of the day. Their shoulders loosen, postures relax. Everyone looks in the direction of Yao-sensei and Nahass-san, whose fidgeting fingers have come to a halt as he sits up straight.

"A pen?" he asks. "No, I don't."

"That's a shame." Yao-sensei looks troubled, her face resting in her hand, eyebrows scrunched. "What should I do?"  

A pause. Nahass-san turns to his classmates on his left, then right, then back down to his hands, in attempt to find an answer. It finally comes to him: he quickly forages his backpack, and pulls out not a pen, but a stubby #2 pencil. "You can use this?" he suggests, his cracking voice rising to match his uncertainty.

Yao-sensei, to Nahass-san's shaky response and surprise, seems to accept this improvisation. "Thank you," she says with a smile. She pretends to write on the paper she is holding with the graceful whirl of her hand. "This is a really wonderful… pen." Laughter then penetrates the once nervous silence—Nahass-san and Yao-sensei included—and so the class continues on, something like this.

Let me revise my previous statement: the fifty-minute period, to anyone taking Japanese that you ask, is one of ongoing alertness and anxiety, but also of inside jokes and laughter, anticipation of what is to follow, who is to follow, wondering what sort of scenarios to act out for the day. Students practice their lines from their textbooks with each other before the hour, chanting then repeatedly to themselves until the words roll smoothly and clearly off their tongues, and when the time comes, carry their studies to perform—largely via ad-lib—in class. It is, arguably, an everyday oral test, but call me a masochist if you will when I say that it is one to look forward to, despite the nervousness that it brings. "It's surprisingly a lot of fun," student Qianyi tells me after her ten o'clock session. "We struggle together, but we also laugh together. There is no other class that I've taken quite like it." WashU's Japanese language department, then, brings its students hand-in-hand through mutual camaraderie, and at the heart of it, perhaps, orchestrating this ongoing performance, is Yao-sensei herself.


. . .


Kanako Yao is a petite Japanese woman standing at around five feet, three inches in her caramel toffee-colored buckled boots, but emits an aura in class that stirs fear in even those two heads above her height. Bunches of her long, black hair are always neatly clipped back; she wears a black turtleneck long-sleeved shirt underneath a silver-sequined black dress, humbled by a pair of grey wool tights. Then, in contrast, is her signature magenta scarf that cascades from her neck, encircling her chest. "She's definitely the type to like dark chocolate," Ako once speculates as we are baking yet again in Justyn's apartment. "I mean, think about it: a woman as powerful as herself could not possibly like mere white chocolate." The politics of chocolate aside, Yao-sensei has a walk sort of like a march, heels clicking like steady thumps of the heart along the Eads Hall floorboards on which she reigns. The Monday I shadow her throughout the school day, I notice that among first- and third-year Japanese students alike is this pervasive apprehension as Yao-sensei paces around the room, her authoritative footsteps resounding in otherwise nerve-racking silence. Her face—when posing a question to a student—can be stern, her lips pursed, arms crossed as she awaits your answer. But when she smiles, when she laughs, her cheeks raised, softened eyes squinted in so that you can only see them glisten amid the whites—there is warmth, so much of it.

"Since her first day at Washington University she's been full of energy," Hayashi-sensei, another Japanese language professor, tells me as we sit in her office a following Friday afternoon. "Endlessly hardworking—she's the kind of person that perseveres no matter how hard it gets.

"During the time she was working towards her PhD last year in particular," she continues, "really seemed like a difficult time for her. When she wasn't teaching, she was working on her dissertation."

So echoes an earlier conversation I have with Yao-sensei that week, in which she advises me against undertaking such a laborious task: "Juggling a full-time teaching job while working towards a PhD, I had no free time at all," she says with her hands folded together, recalling one of the most stressful points in her career. "The only time that I could have fun was with my Japanese classes, and I became more enthusiastic than ever before—I would walk in the classroom each day with such zeal like, 'Let's enjoy studying Japanese everybody!'" She laughs heartily, her head thrown back. "But really, it was wonderful to be able to see you all during that time—I felt as though we had become closer. It gave me the patience and motivation to continue."


. . .


"Have you noticed that Yao-sensei seems a lot happier lately?" Justyn asks as we are leaving Japanese one day last year. "There's more bounce in her step, and she's been more playful with us than she was before."

"Maybe it's because she's found a partner," our friend and classmate Ancy hypothesizes. "I asked my roommate about what could contribute to someone's improved mood, and she thinks it might have to do with love."

We all nod in agreement at this possibility, and in our minds conjure up an image of who could be making our teacher so happy. It is as though her mirthfulness has a pulse; it is so palpable, so infectious. You can sense the difference that it creates in the class dynamic: when Yao-sensei is energetic in her questions, we reciprocate the energy in our answers; when she is in high spirits, it emanates from the click of her heel, the melody of her voice, and in turn we feel nothing but happiness for her.

There is, then, however, this enigma surrounding her—sometimes, when we congregate in Justyn's apartment, we speculate, we wonder: is Yao-sensei happy? Are there instances in which she feels lonely, when she wants to cry? There is no other professor at WashU with whom we have spent so much time, have invested so much of ourselves into—this is the accumulation of two years, on an almost-daily basis at that—and so inevitably, we cannot help but think. "She deserves so much," Ako says, to which we murmur a yeah in harmony. "Everything in the world."

And so I find myself sitting across from Yao-sensei in her office a year later, during the hour-long interval between her one o'clock and three o'clock classes, trying to get to the bottom of a mystery that was not necessarily there. I had crafted a mythology—I think—projected myself onto her the story of a Japanese woman isolated in the Midwest, and as a result, felt a sense of unfounded loneliness for her.

This is not the case, as Yao-sensei reveals to me, instantly dispelling my theory: "It is not so much being one of the few Japanese people in St. Louis that is lonely," she says. "Rather, I think, being an adult in which there aren't as many opportunities to meet new people."

Our conversation then digresses to other points: she tells me of her childhood dream of becoming a dolphin trainer, a father who jokes a lot, a mother whose cooking is unmatched. A growing fascination with Japanese language and desire to become a teacher, while playing tennis and working a variety of part-time jobs in university. Her parents who were endlessly supportive of her decision to move to and study in America (though they still seem to hope that she return home some time), towards which she felt both nervousness and excitement. And of course, coming to America itself—first Ohio, to learn under the Japanese program professor there, then under Marcus-sensei—the third Japanese language professor at WashU—with whom she followed to St. Louis, where she now teaches.

"Say, have I changed in any way since the first time we met?" Yao-sensei asks Marcus-sensei, before we leave the office together to her three o'clock class.

"As spirited as ever," Marcus-sensei says with light laughter, as she recalls the Yao-sensei from ten years ago. "I was just looking at an old photo of us earlier. I remember how much energy you brought to the department on the first day, and that hasn't changed since.”

And as we are walking to her classroom in Eads, as the rain lightly falls and leaves its ghosts along the campus pavement, Yao-sensei tells me: "I'm really glad I became a teacher." There is only gratitude in her gentle voice. "I wouldn't have it any other way."


. . .


When we think of Yao-sensei, here is what comes to mind:

  1. Once, in second-year Japanese, for example, we are simulating a car ride, in which one unlucky—or lucky, depending on how you see it—student has to make small talk with Yao-sensei, the "driver." Julian talks about the weather for some seconds before Yao-sensei stops him, removing her hand from her imaginary steering wheel and places it on his, and goes, "もっとクリエーティビティーください [Be more creative]," as she always does, in effort to push our limits—

  2. Then there are the times in which no one has the answer to Yao-sensei's seemingly impossible question, to which she responds with—shooting her arm up in the air with such fervor, looking directly into each student's uncertain eyes—"チャレンジャー、誰か [Challenger, anyone]?" If you raise your hand to attempt the challenge, her eyes will sparkle—

  3. During the rare instances in which you utter the correct response, especially one that surpasses her expectations, Yao-sensei will step forward, give you a thumbs up, and say coolly, "よくできました [Nice job]," and the joy her words imbue you with is unparalleled—

  4. "I was telling her with my broken Japanese about feeling depressed," friend and classmate Michael tells me. "That it was hard to wake up in the morning, that I couldn't get out of bed, that I was overwhelmed and overworked and I started crying and couldn't stop. She hugged me a lot, repeatedly saying that it was going to be okay"—

  5. "I keep thinking about the day my aunt died," Ako recalls, "and I emailed Yao-sensei about it, and she responded, saying, 'Here's my phone number. Call me when you get the chance.' And I'm remembering the day after, after we had talked on the phone, when Yao-sensei hugged me, then leaned back and fixed the collar of my shirt. It made me feel safe"—

Then we conjure up the image of Yao-sensei herself, who can be so serious and intimidating one moment—though this is a façade—yet so animated and jocular the next, her smile in which her eyes appear to glisten, her hearty laughter, her warm embrace. "She's just so, so supportive," Justyn says on that same young Friday night, as we driving back from Olive Garden. "And so kind—she knows exactly what to say."

I remember asking Yao-sensei when we are sitting in her office that Monday afternoon, what one of the greatest feelings of being a teacher is, to which she says: "The fact that we are here right now, and that you are trying your hardest to speak to me in only Japanese. I am so, so happy."

And it feels as though we are all yearning for that—Yao-sensei's happiness—that her laughter continues on; we want to make her proud, beaming with an everlasting joy, to return in some way, everything that she has given us.

So Justyn asks, as we pull up to her apartment, her voice seeming to echo in the modest night: "Does she know? Does she know how much we love her?"