Monday, July 6, 2015

Living With a Tattoo - Sensei (先生) Vs. Kyoushi (教師)

As of this writing, I have had my first tattoo for a few days.  No itching or peeling yet, but I've already started the regimen of moisturization suggested by the tattoo parlor I visited.  And, there hasn't been any pain, only a slight sensitivity, like a very mild sunburn.  Indeed, there was hardly any pain while I was having it done.  The real test for me will be the itching.  I have a tolerable threshold for pain, but an incessant itch will drive me to distraction.

But, now that I've had a few days with the permanent (for all intents and purposes) addition of color to my body, pangs of worry have begun to rear their annoying little heads, and I have found myself reflecting on the years of thought and months of research I put into getting a tattoo in an effort to recapture the certainty I had about getting inked.  Specifically, I've begun to worry if the Japanese kanji for sensei ("teacher") was appropriate for me to get tattooed on my body.  And, I started to doubt my rationale for getting that particular tattoo and felt the assuredness I had when I walked into the parlor wane ever so slightly.

I knew I wanted to get Japanese kanji characters in a tattoo.  Not for some phony-baloney spiritual reason, but simply because I love the aesthetics of Japanese kanji and how they make language look like art (at least to the eyes of a westerner) even if it doesn't always sound like it or have a very artful meaning.  And, I knew I wanted something that would reflect a truth about myself that would always be true in some form or another, so I chose to represent my love of teaching.  Those things are immutable certainties for me.

Still, some doubts persist.

When I first announced that I would be getting a tattoo, I got the predictable deluge of questions:  What are you getting? Are you afraid it's going to hurt? Does your mother know?  Then one person asked me why I felt the need to get one.  I kind of sidestepped the question because it was a little personal and one that had a complicated answer.  Why did I feel the need to make a permanent change to my body?  Why does anyone feel that way?

As I've already implied, the idea of getting a tattoo has been with me for a very long time.  The desire to get one started when I was finally able to feel that becoming a teacher was actually going to happen for me.  In a story too long to recount here, my path to becoming a teacher wasn't straight at all, and there were times when it looked like it wasn't going to happen.  I had people in my life who supported me through this journey, and I also had people essentially telling me to give it up and find some other path.  Both sides offered love and support, even the naysayers were coming from a place of love, and both gave me the strength and determination to follow the path I knew was right for me.  Becoming a teacher was one of the seminal moments in my life, a moment in which a large piece of me finally came back to the whole, and so commemorating that in a tangible way on my body seems right and proper.

Getting a tattoo isn't the worry for me.  And, "worry" really isn't the right word for what I'm feeling.  It's more concern because I have appropriated a word from a foreign language, and I wish to be reasonably respectful to the word's proper usage in its home language while still signifying the concepts and ideas I want to convey within my own culture and language.  That's why it took me months to arrive at the decision to use "sensei", and why I still continue to have doubts about it.

In my initial research, I found several Japanese terms and references for the concept of "teacher."  Each of them have varying degrees of meaning and different connotations in which they are used, but the two that became sticking points for me were "sensei" and "kyoushi".  Both are terms used to refer to a teacher, but I had to decide which one best fit my own sense of self without bastardizing how the word is actually used.

"Sensei" is an honorific, a term of respect one uses when referring to a teacher (among other types of professionals) and is often added to a surname.  According to several sources, one should never refer to oneself as "sensei" as it would be considered arrogant and ostentatious.  If someone asked me what I did for a living, the proper term for me to use would be "kyoushi" as the word connotes a position (classroom teacher) without the additional sense of honor and respect.  I must admit I found that to be rather appealing in its simplicity and directness.

However, I also had to consider the fact that "sensei" is a term assimilated into American English, usually in the context of martial arts instruction, and carries with it a certain connotation and familiarity within my own culture.  In short, since my tattoo would most often be viewed within the context of English-speaking America, I felt it should carry at least some significance I wouldn't have to spend 10 - 15 minutes explaining, thereby risking the irony of coming across as a pompous ass by explaining how using "sensei" might make me look like a pompous ass.

And, some of you are probably wondering, "Steve, why are you even bothered by what others think?  It's your tattoo, so what?"

To that I would reply that tattoos by their very nature are forms of communication, meant to express meaning and elicit conversation.  Tattoos are meant to be seen in some situation, and so considering that others will view it and derive meaning from it should very much be part of the process.

With that in mind, the final deciding factor for me was that in Japan "sensei" is invariably the term used when a specific teacher, particularly one's own teacher, is addressed directly or referred to in the third person, as in "He is my teacher."  And, students use the term in any situation, and so sensei connotes the student/teacher relationship in way that kyoushi does not, at least to my understanding.

Since this is the reference a student would use exclusively, I am intrigued by how it shifts focus from the teacher to the student and what a teacher means in that context.  To my students, I am sensei, one who is respected and knowledgeable and seeking to impart that knowledge, even if I would never directly refer to myself as such.  And, the word that focuses on the student/teacher relationship is very appealing to me as it fits best with my own philosophy of student-centered instruction.

I also like how sensei, although having a much more complex meaning, is expressed in much simpler and more elegant kanji characters than kyoushi.

And, so that's my rationale, why I decided to get a tattoo and specifically get the Japanese kanji for sensei.  Putting it all out there in this blog has helped me regain some of my certainty.  If anything, I've been able to express that there was at least careful consideration in the process and no disrespect was intended.

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