We all know what the word “peer” means. Our teachers and parents use it often. We hear the terms “peer pressure” and “peer review” and know how to react. There's usually no question who our peers are - they are the people around us in our age group. Everyone is your second grade class is your peer, but not every second grader in your county. Second graders in France are not your peers, unless you’re a French second-grader.
It is these people (peers, not the French) who have the most influence over us as we grow up, exhibited linearly in grade school and then exponentially in high school. Our peers influence what we wear, how we talk, and what music we listen to. We know where we fit in amongst them; who’s cooler than whom. It is painfully obvious who fits in and who doesn’t, but we certainly don’t imagine that there are people who don’t feel that they belong in the peer group. Of course everyone is included, the logic goes. We say you are one of us, so you are. We compare ourselves to you, so you have to do the same.
Yet as a missionary kid growing up in Japan, I never felt I belonged in a set peer group. I was never purveyed that acceptance. My situation, though, is rather unique in that I had a few different groups from which to choose as my peers.
At an early age I was whisked off to Japan - a white missionary kid in an Asian country. I had three potential groups to choose from: white kids, Japanese kids, and missionary kids (MKs). All three of these groups seem equally large when you’re a missionary kid, though that idea of course seems silly now.
The straight-forward choice is that I should have decided to fit in with the Japanese kids. After all, I spent almost all of my elementary school years in Japan, going to both Japanese kindergarten and public elementary school. They were my classmates - my peers. I spoke their language. This was really the best choice, but I didn’t take it for reasons explained later.
The worst choice was to consider the white kids in America as my peers. Even though they looked like me, I only saw them once every four years due to the missionary home assignment cycle, and kids change a lot in four years. Yet this was half of my peer group. See, I had the unfortunate lot of being born in June. American schools run the school year Sept-May, so people born over the summer, myself included, are tacked on at the end as the youngest in the class. Japanese school, however, runs April-March, meaning that kids with June birthdays are some of the oldest in the class. That was also me. The result was that, because of my family’s moving schedule, I enrolled in American first grade, completed seven months, and then enrolled in Japanese first grade. (The later result of this is that I only attended two months of fifth grade, but that is irrelevant.)
If I had not taken Japanese first grade, I think I may have adjusted to the Japanese as my peers. My parents would have explained that I was a big second grader now and that is what second grade was, like how the Japanese did it. I would have accepted that and everything would have been fine. The problem was, I had my American first grade experience to compare to this new Japanese first grade, and I liked the American one much, much better. I knew the kids there looked like me and that I fit in with them. American kids were cool and played with cool toys. Japan, I soon thought, was the opposite of cool. I had to speak a different language. Kids at my school, kids who played with less-cool toys*, all pointed and giggled at the little blond kid. Hence, pretty much my entire Japanese elementary career was spent comparing the “crappy Japanese system” to my “utopian American experience”. Very early on I forged a massive superiority complex; I saw myself as a super-gifted and special kid forced to live in a system that was so far below him it wasn’t funny. Since I saw myself this way, it was only natural that I developed a feeling of learned helplessness. I was stuck; I wanted the American kids as my peers, but they were no longer around.
I tried to deal with this by finding other white kids around me, other missionary kids, and using them as the other half of my peer group. The problems with this were that A) I only saw them a few times a year and B) I didn’t confine my peers to my age group. As long as they were missionary kids, I saw them as peers. As stated earlier, our peers influence how we behave as we grow and mature. My cues as to how to act, dress, and talk, then, came from two sources - my memories of my “peers” in America, and my fellow missionary kids whom I saw but a few times per year. With these two groups largely absent, I spent a lot of my elementary years alone.
Since a good chunk of peer interaction is comparison on a daily basis, and I didn’t have that, I saw myself as constantly behind the times. Every time I hung out with missionary kids they had newer, cooler shoes or were throwing around a new slang buzzword that I didn’t know. I was constantly playing catch-up, which only added to the frustration of being stuck in Japanese school. Not only was I stuck at school with kids who weren’t my peers, but I was on the low side of cool every time I was with kids who were. Older MKs got to do stuff that I could not, and I would look at that as my failure to meet some universal standard of cool rather than just, you know, because I was younger.
This inability to consistently engage with people I considered peers cultivated my belief that what was important was owning things that cool kids had. In order to be cool, you had to have what the cool kids had and dress the way they did. It never occurred to me that they were probably just as insecure as I was, or that they were influenced by others as to how to dress or act.
I’ll acknowledge here, then, that, yes, I was completely unaware that experiences I had were not universal. I grew up thinking that I had a super-vanilla, mega-boring life, and that every other MK got to have way more fun then I did, all the time. It didn’t occur to me that I had had experiences that others would envy. I assumed that every MK had everything I did, plus more. So thus, I was determined to make up that difference. This obviously never happened, because we can’t all have the same life experiences.
With sixth grade came the rotation of one year in America, and I was anxious to get back to my “real friends” and my “authentic” peer group. I was enrolled in a private Christian school full of kids who looked like me - the same kids whom I had learned with as a first-grader. I had a lot of catching up to do, but that was the easy part - I just had to buy (or get my parents to buy) the right stuff. Having my own interests took a backseat to what I thought would make me cool. Soon my room was full of basketball gear and apparel, street hockey equipment, Tech Decks, Beanie Babies, a portable CD player, sports trading cards, Hot Wheels cars, and vintage American coinage. From a fridge full of Gatorade to Atomic Warheads in my mouth and Lee Pipes on my legs, if I thought it would make me more American, I wanted it. Though this strategy would prove to fail as a long-term strategy in the near future, that failure was not something that my sixth-grade self had to face, because I moved back to Japan after a year.
The four years between ages twelve to sixteen, my family’s third term in Japan, marked what I like to call the Span Of Floundering and Alienation, or SOFA for short. Seventh grade was the year that I was enrolled at the Christian Academy in Japan (CAJ), a school for missionary kids - a school of, that’s right, my peers. I had gone for twelve years without a set peer group, and now I had one with which I had to interact every single day. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know how to act on a daily basis around kids whom I knew to be exactly like me. I was white, spoke two languages, had lived in two countries, had lived in the Japanese system and had educated parents, just like most of them. I couldn’t use the excuse of being white (as I did in suburban Japan) or the excuse of being a missionary kid (as I did in the US) to explain why I did things my way to these CAJ kids, and buying stuff alone wasn’t going to get me accepted into their group. I had to learn how to interact with a peer group, my peer group, in a dynamic, flowing, relational way. I never thought that I could be part of such an intimate peer group and all of a sudden I realized I could be, if I could only figure out the cryptic rite of passage. The SOFA was marked by my consistent failure to do so.
Why was this so hard for me to do? A small part of it was, no doubt, my lack of access to unlimited money with which to buy my acceptance. Another (less tongue-in-cheek) part of it was that a large part of my class had grown up together through elementary school, and it’s always hard for an outsider to break into a close-knit group. The biggest and most glaring problem, though, was that I was a teenager who didn’t really know how to make friends. In America I had made friends with the children of my mom’s friends, or with kids who had wanted to hang out with the “kid from Japan.” I had kids practically lining up to talk to me, and could pick and choose those to whom I would grant my friendship. In Japanese school I was pretty much a loner who made a different new best** friend every year, though I think they may have befriended me out of pity. I had four, maybe five kids who I enjoyed hanging out with and would rotate among them every few months.† The missionary kids I hung out with I saw as friends by default - their camaraderie not unlike that enjoyed by prisoners of war.
Seventh and eight grade were the years when my superiority complex was destroyed. I realized that I wasn’t some superkid who everyone wanted to hang out with. I had to earn my place in the peer group. I wasn’t some, as Tyler Durden puts it, “beautiful and unique snowflake.” I was floundering. I had to find my niche, my talent that set me apart. Most of those two years was spent by myself, trying to make myself special, and I tried a lot of things. I wrote for the middle school paper, ran for student government, and acted in plays. I taught myself some BASIC programming and spent countless hours learning my way around the Internet, Windows 98, and Mac OS. I played soccer, basketball, ran track, and wrestled. I wore skate shoes, rode a Razor scooter, sagged my jeans and backpack, and used adult language with increasing frequency. None of that seemed to matter, though, because I still didn’t watch the right movies, listen to the right music, own an MD player, wear the right clothes, or get invited to any sleepovers. I wasn’t popular with girls.†† I wasn’t cool.
Ninth and tenth grades, the later half of my SOFA, were less tough times because I had, in effect, lapsed back into helplessness and resolved that I wouldn’t be able to weasel my way in with my peers. I had to look out for myself and find my own friends. The few close friends I made happened to be those who also, for various reasons, didn’t conform with the normal social peer group. We were the rebels, I suppose - the fringe participants. I was still active in sports and extra-curricular activities, though most of the time spent outside those was spent alone. I had a girlfriend‡, but she dumped me after a month. I cared less about school and more about computer games. I slowly gave up on trying to buy stuff to fit in. I listened to my own music and read my own books. Looking back now, I see that I still had suppressed resentment over being in Japan, because I remember eagerly anticipating the move back to America for my junior year of high school.
Junior year brought with it two revelations: that I was an emotionally stunted person (surprise!) and that I was much less rooted in America then I had led myself to believe. My emotional state was a result of the previous two years, during which I had idealized the military and its lifestyle. Basically I believed that showing emotion was a sign of weakness, a sign of being out of control. My subconscious helplessness that showed signs of bubbling up was suppressed by feeling that I could be in control of my feelings. Since emotion is something you have to cultivate, suppressing it for long enough will diminish your overall ability to feel it, and the early signs of that stage were beginning to manifest in my daily demeanor.
My parents sent me to counseling for it, which I thought was weak but went anyway. After a few sessions my counselor was seriously considering putting me on medication, but I eventually started opening up to him. It was actually an extraordinarily pleasant experience, and now I believe that everyone should have at least three months of counseling. It didn’t help, though, with fitting in with my peers.
Going to high school in America made me realize that there were indeed many aspects of my life that kids with no overseas experience could simply not understand. Many of my habits, mannerisms, and ways of thinking were notably different. Being in America made me realize that I could not refer to myself as “American” as a way to validate my actions. I had to accept that I was, most likely, more Japanese than American.
This I accepted, and my senior year back in Japan was marked by a time of personal growth as a self-confident person. I thought I knew where I fit in in the world and therefore was comfortable with myself. Looking back, I think I was fooling myself and just hiding behind my girlfriend. I had a steady girlfriend during the entire year, a cute Asian a year younger than me, and she was my life. We were together all the time, which meant that I didn’t have to worry about interacting with my peers to gain validation. I had her, and she thought I was awesome. I ignored my peer group, life seemed good, and I proceeded to end high school.
I wish I could say that this story has a happy ending, but it really doesn’t. I still struggle to be comfortable around people my own age. My SOFA mentality still bugs me. I’m fine around kids even one year younger or older than I am, but if someone graduated high school in 2005 like I did, they should prepare for me to feel awkward and inferior around them for no real reason. It’s pretty frustrating that I still feel this way.
So what do I think could have made a difference? Not repeating a grade might have helped. That was where I got the superiority complex and accompanying helplessness. Not being enrolled in a private bubble school in America might have helped. It was there where I had kids line up to interact with me. Those might have been things my parents could have changed. But what could I have changed? I could have not used my skin color (in Japan) or my international experience (elsewhere) to excuse myself. I could have faced the challenges that I chose to ignore or maybe completed my senior year alone in order to grow more. But I didn’t. But you know what? That’s OK, because I got through it and am able to look back on it and learn from it now. I don’t have any regrets, because having regrets means that I’m not comfortable with who I am now, and that’s not true. I write my experiences down so that others, so that you, can learn from them and perhaps find meaning in some experiences in your own life that you have missed until now. The journey is long, and you shouldn’t have to walk it alone.
*This part I suppose I can blame on my parents, who never really let me indulge in the fad-oriented Japanese youth culture. I never had a NES, SNES, N64, Tamagotchi, Digimon, battle pencils, or a battery-operated plastic train set. I never played Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh, never watched Dragonball, Ultraman, Power Rangers, Kamen-Rider, or any animated television series, and never read a single manga series while in elementary. In general, I never watched Japanese TV, and thus was left out of the hype surrounding the newest toys. To this day, I can’t recall a single Japanese toy commercial. To be fair, though, I did have Mini Yonkus, a few hyper-yo-yos, and a ton of LEGOs.
**Or “only” - whichever you prefer.
†Three, if you only count full names that I can remember. Kobayashi Akihiro, Yoshino Yuya, and Nakao Soutaro.
††This is probably still true.
‡She was Japanese, attended a different international school and was a grade younger than I. I did not see her as a peer.