by Mizuko Ito
First in a series on "Chanpon LA"
A Profile of Michiyo Masabuchi: model, mother, alternative educator.
Michiyo Masabuchi is passionate about alternatives to conventional wisdom and lifestyles. And she has guts and energy to pursue these passions. As an eighteen year-old model for a Japan Airlines commercial, Michi made her first visit to the US, spending a week each in San Francisco and Los Angeles. From that f irst visit, Michi was determined to return to LA, next time to live. 「空が青くてきれいだった。日本とはスケールが違う。いつかもう一度ここに戻ってきたいと思った。それに、一番多きな理由は、自分が自分でいれそう、と思った。」
The Japan Airlines commercial was her first modeling job that she had gotten after her first audition. After that, she went on to visit countries all over the world as a successful model, but she never forgot Los Angeles. Five years later, with a healthy savings from her modeling work, she set off on what she imagined would be a world tour: first stop, Los Angeles. Over twenty years later, she is still living in the LA area, now with four children and her own preschool catering to chanpon children.
It was not an easy journey from here to there, but Michi never gave up the conviction that she wanted to make a place for herself in LA. 「希望を持って気軽な感じで来た。」Her first, challenge was the language. 「ロスに来る前は自分では英語ができると思っていた。だって、私の英語はしょっちゅう訪れていたグアムとかハワイでは通じていた。それなのに本土に来たら全然通じなくて、その時初めて、自分は英語ができないという事がわかった。ロスに来て間もない頃、when I would talk to people “I don't understand you” と、言われたり “Would you say it again?” と、よく言われた。そんな事言われたって、他の言い方を知らない私は、
Before long, Michi was settled in LA with her husband, son and daughter. Her first awakening into the merits of alternative education happened when her son was being interviewed for Kindergarten. During the interview, he was zooming about the room as an airplane and answering the teacher�fs questions �gon the fly.�h After the interview, the teacher told Michi: �gI don�ft think he is ready to come to our school.�h Her reason: �gHe can�ft sit quietly. I think he has to go to special education or one more year of pre-kindergarten.�h Michi was shocked. She had thought that she had left conformist education behind in Japan.
Thus began Michi�fs journey into humanistic education, a journey that came to unite Michi�fs passion for the human spirit with American progressive education, the overseas Japanese community, and Japanese motherly affection.
Santa Monica Alternative Education
I met Michi in my first weeks after moving to LA with my family. I was looking for a preschool on the west side of LA where my two year-old son could learn Japanese. I had arrived in LA with high hopes and a list of possible alternatives. I visited one Japanese school where the teacher explained that their goal was to get Japanese kids proficient in English and they discouraged Japanese as much as possible. I called other schools that were based on the Saturday-school model, where children would be getting an English education during the week and a crash-course in Japanese on Saturday mornings. I knew this would not provide enough Japanese immersion for my son, who would be growing up in an English-dominant household. I discovered that the Japanese expat weekday schools were south of LA, catering to the Japanese community around Torrance, and I could not bear the thought of a one-hour commute for daycare.
I had just about given up hope when a friend emailed me about a school called �gSMAP.�h I called immediately. Michi�fs preschool, Santa Monica Alternative Education Place (SMAP), it turns out, is the only one providing weekday care in Japanese for the west side of LA. I made my first visit to SMAP with my son and a snack and instructions to expect to stay for an hour or more to experience the �gmorning meeting.�h I sat on a tiny plastic chair with a handful of other kids while Michi busily filled in the chart at the front of the table, soliticiting responses from the kids and throwing in her own two cents when she had something she wanted to add. The columns read: 「こまったこと、やりたいこと、みせたいもの、いいたいこと、」Even little two year-olds with only a handful of words raise their hands and volunteer their contributions. Soon the columns were full with comments and suggestions for the day.
Later I talk to Michi and hear that she has learned her teaching skills as a parent and a teacher at Play Mountain Place, a small LA school that is based on the growing movement of humanistic education and the communication skills promoted by Thomas Gordon’s “parent effectiveness training.” After her son was turned away by their local kindergarten, Michi started researching alternatives. A friend’s mother handed her the book 「学校がおもしろい」by 福田みずほ、and she found in it a description of Play Mountain Place, a school that sounded like トモエ学園 in 「窓ぎわのトットちゃん」。When Michi visited the school, her impression was reinforced. 「まさにここは、アメリカ版トモエ学園だ！と思った。私の子供の学校は、Play Mountain しかないと思った。」Soon she had her son and daughter enrolled in Play Mountain and she commuted one hour each way to send her kids there and eventually to teach there herself for five years. 「私のライフは、play mountain一色となった。」
A few years later, she found herself a single mother, now with two more children, that had just started elementary school at a public alternative school, Santa Monica Alternative School House (SMASH). By then, Michi was the local parenting expert for all her friends, benefiting from her many years at Play Mountain immersed in a context that honed communication and parenting skills. She needed to find something to do to pay the bills, and of all the ideas she floated, doing a preschool was the one idea that all of her friends agreed upon. SMAP was founded in 1997 as a “Play Mountain 日本語版.”
Now SMAP is a small but well-loved fixture of the chanpon community in LA. Some families even commute from Torrance so that they can provide not just a Japanese education, but a humanistic one as well. Children at SMAP run barefooted through an enormous sandbox and a jungle of play equipment in the yard of Michi’s daycare-converted home. Michi presides over a revolving group of eight children and two staff members, as well as running communication skills & conflict resolution workshops for parents, based on materials that she translated from English. Thanks to Michi, my two year-old son is not only warmly expressive, but is also growing up bilingual. He can ask 「触っていい？」before he grabs his sister’s toy, and can say 「それいやだ。ちょっとまっててね。それ僕のだいじだいじ～。」if he is not ready to share himself. The other day the two of us had a disagreement over something he wanted to do, and he had a characteristic two-year old meltdown. He soon came padding over to me, still sniffling, “Mama, I want to talk.”
Michi continues to struggle every day as a single parent, a small business owner, and a Japanese woman abroad, but she has a lot to show for her labors. Her own children, as well as the glowing faces of the children in her yard, are testament to her skills and passions as a mother and chanpon educator.
Q & A
Can you tell us one story about when your CHANPON background helped you?
Can you tell use one story about when your CHANPON background hurt you?
What do you miss most about Japan when you are away?
I miss my family the most.
What do miss most about the US when you are in Japan?
FREEDOM of expression!
What makes you feel Japanese?
When someone is speaking to me in English and I just sit there and smile. I pretend I understand. わっはっは
What makes you feel you aren't Japanese?
I have felt like I was never fully thinking like a Japanese person. I always thought that the way Japanese people thought was a little off.
Posted by Mizuko Ito at 2003年06月12日 04:19