TOKYO — Alex Sayle is perhaps the ultimate foreign student.
The child of British and Australian parents, Alex was born and raised in Hanbara, a small village in Kanagawa prefecture, and left only two years ago to begin college in Australia. He attended public schools in the area and took part in his local toko han, an organized group of children who walk to school together.
His immersion was total, and that experience has given him a unique perspective on the pitfalls and advantages of being a foreign student in one of the world's most homogeneous countries. While some aspects of his experience are peculiar to Japan, much of it speaks to the challenges all expatriate children and their parents face when they eschew international schools and go the local route.
Alex's world has always been balanced between two languages. At home, he spoke English with his mother - who taught English in local schools - and his father, a writer. Japanese was the language of the outside world, and he has been speaking it for as long as he can remember.
His bilingualism isn't just linguistic, it's cultural. He understands the way things work in Japan even as he can stand back and analyze it. "I have a wider view of things," he says. "I can understand both sides of what's going on."
Alex carries himself with the composure of a much older person. He's just finished his first year of a computer-science degree, but he feels secure that between his studies and his language skills, his future is assured. "I won't be out of work at any stage," he says.
It wasn't easy, though. Elementary school was hard because he ran into the perennial problem of Japanese education, bullying. This often happens to students who do exceptionally well, or are different in any way.
Pale and lanky, with blond hair and cornflower blue eyes, Alex was definitely different. He was called names, there were fisticuffs in the schoolyard, and his shoes, which children take off when they enter school and leave on a shelf, would sometimes disappear.
There were other difficulties, but Alex made getting through them an advantage. "Homework was a killer," he says, recalling bringing home his textbooks to parents who couldn't read Japanese characters. "Explaining my math questions to my father took longer than figuring it out myself," he says with a laugh.
School documents like notices and report cards were a problem for both the school, which didn't translate them, and his parents, who couldn't read them. Alex occasionally took advantage of that gap.
"Sometimes, I just signed school papers myself - as long as it was neat, the teachers couldn't tell," he confesses. "I'd tell my parents if it was important."
There was the challenge of never being "normal." "The unspoken Japanese attitude is that being different is somehow wrong," he says. "I always had this feeling of wanting to be common."
At college, he feels some gaps in his education, but none that he can't fix. "I'm not a great speller in English," he says. In Australia, he realized that he had vocabulary gaps in English also. "At home, we'd talk about common house things and economics, so I had to work on that. Writing my psychology exam was a killer. 'OK, what's a better word than 'do'?"
Still, he feels his education has prepared him well. Not only had he covered the math in his first-year university classes in high school, but he feels he's learned better discipline than his Australian classmates.
For kids starting at a foreign school, he offers some advice. "It's tough to start with, but once they get used to you and you get used to it, it's quite nice."