Friday, January 13, 2017

Being a Student v. Being a Deshi

One of my colleagues, the Budo Bum, wrote recently about the differences between training in Japan and in the US. His major point was that Japanese budo students have a culturally-learned sense of discipline that they bring to their practice. While he does not state it specifically, the strong suggestion is that US students do not.

This point has lately been on my mind, as well. I find the difference rather stark; like the difference between someone being a student, and being a deshi (弟子). Most American budoka would consider themselves students. In the current climate, a student is someone who pays a teacher or an institution (like a college or trade school) in order to access knowledge. While the definition of deshi is a little harder to pin down, one of the attributes is to not only be a paying and passive learner, but to also take some responsibility for the health of the group as a whole. This sense of responsibility could mean helping to take care of the dojo space or assisting the teacher, not just on the dojo floor, but at other group activities as well.

In former generations in the US, being a student might have been closer to being a deshi, entailing a more personal relationship to a teacher. My parents, when I was a young child, would sometimes drop by to see an old university professor of theirs (I don't remember his name; I remember both of them referring to him, affectionately, as "prof"). They visited and corresponded with him until his death, and considered him a big influence on their subsequent life and work. Former students of my father, in turn, would come visit him occasionally, just to say hello.

Nowadays, however, college students are treated to a more consumer-based experience. They pay tuition and the teachers deliver information which will hopefully allow them to graduate into good jobs. As an adjunct professor many years ago, I experienced the beginning of this phenomenon. Typically, students would sometimes plead for passing grades for doing almost no work. More surprisingly, I recall a former student who actually launched an investigation (on his own, but involving the university) because he got an A- from me and thought he deserved an A. As a consumer, he felt he was being ripped off. Silly me - I thought he was there to learn.

Budo dojo in the US face a similar quandary, in a way. The budo teachers who strive to give as authentic an experience as possible find themselves up against a pay-for-services environment. The students pay a fee, and, in return, feel they are entitled to the knowledge (and sometimes even the remembered experiences) possessed by the teacher. While some US dojo have adapted a consumerist line, with varying degrees of success, the more traditional places find themselves a little out of step with the times.

When I was first training in the US, the consumerist model had not quite caught on yet. My original teacher was Japanese, and, though he emigrated shortly after the Pacific War and had lived in NYC for many years, he was nevertheless a fairly traditional guy. The sempai who was dojocho at the time was a very uptight person who seemed to me to perpetually have a pencil stuck up his butt. However, he taught us newbies something invaluable - how to behave in the dojo, and how to behave around Sensei all of the time.

"Sensei will never tell you when you're being rude," he once said, "but he will remember everything that you do." As I said, the dojocho was a real stickler, but a good teacher of the types of protocols that would be expected of kohai in the dojo. One thing he did consistently was assign a deshi to assist Sensei whenever we had a public demonstration. That person helped carry our teacher's equipment and keikogi, made sure his zouri were turned around for when he left the demo stage so he could easily step into them, and made sure he had water or food or anything else he needed. Eventually that job became mine more or less the whole time, and expanded to include duties as dojocho after the original person moved on.

Eventually, as I became a teacher on my own, I was impressed that even Japanese students in the US had no interest in modeling behavior more in tune with a deshi rather than a student-consumer. I don't know if it was because they did not have a more traditional upbringing or if it was because they simply got used to the American way of doing things. One time, I was late for okeiko and gave instructions for it to start without me. Upon entering the room, I was gratified to see the students diligently practicing, but disappointed that no one acknowledged that I was there. When I mentioned it to my Japanese student (who, as a senior, should have called the group to attention), he simply said, "Yes, but this is America." I responded that it was America, yes, but also the dojo.

I have, in my experience, met good students who were bad deshi. Good students are attentive at okeiko, and pay their fees on time, but are much less likely to pitch in when help is needed, whether taking care of equipment or planning a demo. I have seen students simply observe a senior or a teacher struggling with a heavy suitcase or equipment bag and do nothing to help. I have also seen guest teachers from Japan left alone after teaching a seminar, somehow expected to manage on their own in a strange environment by the host dojo once practice is over. I have stepped in on at least one of these occasions, and was surprised, when I asked the host dojo, that no one had even considered the possibility that someone who speaks no English in a foreign environment might actually be in need of assistance.

Mostly, though, I have seen passivity when it comes to the life of the dojo - students come to okeiko, but the relative health of the group doesn't seem to matter. It's as though, as long as they pay their class fees, there should be a practice to attend. I have met teachers who will shell out the difference between fees and studio rents from their own pockets when the number of dojo members drops through attrition, and no one notices. Instead of the sense that the teacher might be imparting valuable knowledge, the students feel that since they paid, they are entitled to a "product" in return.

I may sound like I am whining, but as one of my old sempai used to say, this is basic. My original teacher would have written me off ages ago for such indifferent behavior. Instead, because I paid attention to my hardassed sempai, my relationship with my original teacher was much closer. He arranged for me to homestay (and saved a starving grad student a lot of money) during visits to Japan. He also arranged for me to study with teachers there. Was it sometimes exhausting? Yes, of course - all those extra hours schlepping out to his home in Queens, getting to events early so that I could help him, snapping to when he was on the other end of a phone line and asking how I could be of assistance. However, my practice, and, in fact, my life, would have been much less rich without his help and advice.

One of my non-budo friends has pointed out that Americans do not necessarily know traditional protocol. That's true, but I responded that he himself assists older or disabled people who need help on the street. He even carries extra bandaids with him in case he comes across someone who needs one. While specific protocols have to be learned, courtesy, or supporting the welfare of a community, is not that culturally-specific. My dilemma now is how to teach my budoka-in-training what they should know already - that they should give a damn.

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