Opinion Writing in a Different Country

I find cultural differences fascinating. Our personality and knowledge and habits, when we think of it, are made up of some many influencing factors. Environment, economical, gender, parental, societal, cultural…And nowhere is that more clear than when you’re teaching adolescents in another country.

I’m grading opinion paragraphs, very simple ones where the students say what their favorite thing (be it book, movie, food, season, or sport) is. For a month and half we’ve been practicing mostly with opinion writing’s form: how to make a topic sentence, how to make an example sentence, how to write a conclusion sentence, etc. And yes, I’m pretty forgiving. I realize that in Japan, opinion writing (especially western style) is just not really done. If you are presenting an opinion, you usually start off by giving nods and shout-outs to all the opinions that have come before yours, and then giving your own, but then ending with acknowledging that your opinion is just one and there are many different opinions out there.

If you’re from the West (America in particular), you’re probably raising an eyebrow right now. Acknowledging your opinion is just one of many? What?

So yes, I am lenient. I know I’m fighting against cultural conditioning here. I’m specifically trying to teach them western style writing (since college entrance essays for the top schools in Japan are now shifting to that style of writing), but I’ve also cognizant of the fact they have years of learning one type of way and only one type of way.

It’s been a year in Japan and the cultural differences of saying your opinion still fascinate (and frustrate) me. And I can see these differences in my students’ paragraphs. It’s been taught to them as young as 16 and it is a hard habit to break.

One difference I keep seeing is “that’s the way it’s always been” and/or “everybody says so” as being a valid reason. For example, today I came upon one student’s essay in which was written:

I like to read books very much. Fall is the best season to read books. Fall is called “the season of reading.”

…And that was it. To them, fall being called “the season of reading” is a valid reason to read books in fall and a valid reason why fall is the best season. No explanation as to why fall is so book-friendly; it’s just what everyone calls it. By now, I’ve read tons of sentences which start “(blah blah blah) is called…” and that’s the whole reason for something.

In juxtaposition, American students (also teenagers, as I taught the same grades in America that I do in Japan) always gave “because it’s what I believe” as a valid reason, as if the fact they thought something should be reason alone for why their opinion was valid.

The diference of what makes an opinion “a fact” is what fascinates me: in Japan it’s what everyone else believes while in America it’s what the person believes. If I asked an American student, “But why do you have this opinion? What’s your reason?” Many would look at me and say, as if it should be obvious, “It’s what I believe.” In Japan, if I asked the same question, they look at me and say, as if it should be obvious, “That’s just what everyone says.”

Individual vs. group thinking.

And the funny thing? Taken to the extreme, where that’s your only reasoning, both ways of thinking are wrong.

Blindly following public opinion is wrong.

Blindly thinking your opinion is important simply because it is yours is also wrong.

On the flipside, one thing all adolescent students seem to have in common: Nobody reads directions.

It would drive me bat-shit crazy when I’d say on an assignment, “Don’t forget a topic sentence!” Put it in bold, big text at the top of the page, and say it in class, write it on the white board, point to it, do everything but an interpretive dance and throw glitter, and still have 50% or more of my American students forget to write a topic sentence.

And you know what? Japanese students are exactly the same. On the top of the assignment in bold text, I wrote, “Don’t forget a topic sentence.” Then I wrote that on the white board, pointed to it, said it in class, and added it to the checklist of things they needed at the bottom of their assignment and in the rubric I gave to them, and 50% of them still didn’t do it.

I guess I can take comfort in the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same.


One Reply to “Opinion Writing in a Different Country”

  1. I feel for the teachers in today’s world. You are competing with I-phones, computers, video games, etc. These things just come on. Where is the beginning, middle and the conclusions?

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