Saeko Mizuta
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Do you know of any children who can speak English and another language fluently? These children may have moved with their families from or to another country. Or their parents may be an international couple. These children grow up with exposure to multiple languages and cultures at the same time. And while this kind of childhood is getting very common, if you actually ask one of these children, "Hey, are you enjoying the experience?" he or she might tell you, "No, it's actually very tough, and I'm struggling. And my parents are struggling with me." Twenty years ago, I was one of these children, and as I was being back and forth between the United States and Japan, I have to tell you that, back then, I hated my life. Each move was traumatizing, and I fell way, way behind academically. But today, now that I'm an adult, the same experiences have become a gift that helps me in many ways. So, what is it that makes an international childhood so hard? My family gave me their full support throughout the journey, and I was very lucky to have them. But now that I reflect on it, I kind of think that it was way too hard for all of us. So, as soon as I got to Harvard Business School as a Fulbright scholar, I started working on an idea that later became my startup. It's an educational service that supports international children through their unique challenges, both academic and psychological. So what is it that makes an international childhood so hard, but later, rewarding? The first thing is language. Do you know how they say that, "Oh, young children, they can pick up a language so quickly. He or she will be speaking in no time." You've heard that before? Yeah, so that's true if the question is: "Can they communicate in that language?" But if the question is: "Can they think and learn in that language?" the answer is that it actually takes a lot longer. Research tells us that it can take five to seven years for a person to reach this level of proficiency. Now, one of our students, he's been in an English environment for six years. His English is so fluent, you won't believe this is not his native tongue. And he has straight A's in all of his English subjects. But when it comes to math and physics, he still prefers that we teach him in Japanese. According to him, "Oh, it's just faster that way. You know, it's easier to learn these, like, hard conceptual ideas. They're easier to manipulate in my head when they are in Japanese." So, in short, it's easier to think. So if you are a child learning in a language that you are not completely comfortable with yet, that can limit your cognition, your ability to learn. So, for any multilingual student growing up, it's essential that they catch up with the school language as fast as possible so that they can learn what they should be learning at that grade level. Meantime, they also need to maintain their native tongue at the grade level, and that is very hard. It's not something that just happens on its own either. It requires commitment and planning and investment, not just from the child, but also from the family. A child going through this stage needs help, deserves help. And it's either the family provides it, or professionals can help them provide it. And I remember that going through the stage, it was very confusing. It almost felt as if that it was a personal problem. Like, "Maybe I'm not smart enough because I'm spending so much time working, but I'm not good enough in either." Language barriers can also be very hard on a child's social life at school as well. Do you ever feel like there are aspects of your personality that you can't really fully express in your second language? You know, maybe you can't be as funny, or seem as intelligent, or be as interesting as you really are because language limits you. Now, imagine you are a teenager, and you need to do that five days a week. Yikes! So, learning a language is a long and hard journey. The gift, of course, is access. Once you've mastered two languages, you can go to school or work in two different countries. You can access information and knowledge created in two languages. And you can build relationships with two very different groups of people. There's so much richness in the bilingual world. It's almost like you're living two lives at the same time. The second challenge is culture. So one day, a little girl in Michigan walks into her classroom in the morning, and her teacher welcomes her with a big warm hug, just like any other morning. The next week, she moves to Japan, where hugging is not really a thing, and we express affection through different means. After one big, awkward social attempt, she notices that you can't really hug people in Japan without making them feel completely uncomfortable and also winning the title of "complete social weirdo." (Laughter) So she stops hugging people, but knowing isn't feeling. She still wants to hug people, and she misses it. But she knows that she needs to follow the cultural norm in order to be accepted as a decent member of the community, and failure to do so would mean that she would be the outcast who can't follow the rules. And because culture is not just about the foods we eat and the holidays we celebrate, but it's this all-encompassing thought process that highlights different aspects of the world and attributes different meaning to these aspects and hence creates completely different experiences from the same world, this kind of difference can exist in anything and everything from, let's say, how to be popular at school to how to sound credible at a job interview, all the way up to how to tell somebody that you like them and how you determine the relationship after a couple of dates with your crush. And because there is no convenient textbook for all these cultural norms, you basically need to learn through trying and making lots and lots of embarrassing mistakes. The pain is worsened because you start to take it personally. You start to think, at one point, "Hey, oh, I need to watch out for my behavior. I need to constantly check if I'm not being weird," just to be accepted. The gift in being brought up in two cultures is this revelation that cultural norms are a social construct. You know, people can believe in wildly different things based on where they were born or how they were brought up. And what seems to be common sense or even the truth in one culture may not be that way somewhere else. And although each culture is this complete, beautiful, and functional and different approach to life, none of them is universal truth. Knowing this can give you two freedoms. The first freedom is to choose which rules you want to follow at important junctions of your life. My choice to go to Harvard Business School and become a female entrepreneur does not necessarily fit the typical female gender role in Japan. But I can choose to feel feminine if I want to because I know that femininity can mean different things in different places. The second freedom is awareness. The tricky thing about culture is that when you are part of a culture, it's very hard to be aware of it. You know, they say that it's the air we breathe and the water we swim in, but once you are fully immersed in two or more cultures, the contrast suddenly makes it easier for you to become aware of how they are influencing you. And if you are more aware of the cultural biases and the stereotypes we have, that makes you so much better at connecting with somebody from a different culture. You know, in today's world of divide and borders, we need more people who are good at this. The final component is identity. An American girl, who had been living in Shanghai for eight years, moves back to DC. And her new friends there jokingly tell her, "Ah, go back to China where you came from." That day, later on, she told me, "Well, I don't belong there either, you know? It looks like I don't belong anywhere now." And this sense of being uprooted and rootless can really eat away at you. I admit that, even to this day, I sometimes struggle with the question: "Wait, who am I really, and where do I belong?" because I feel a deep connection with Japan, and I feel a deep connection with the US, but I don't fully belong in either. I'm a mixture. And being that makes me a minority in Japan, where I am from. And that can be very hard, especially for a child because you want to be able to clearly define who you are and have this safe place in the world where you can just be yourself, and be accepted, and not have to try so hard all the time. The gift in all this confusion is that the confusion is actually an open invitation for us to find a time and place where we can feel belonging. To define what are the meaningful relationships that help you belong in a space, what is it that we can do to give our rather complicated lives purpose and meaning? Sometimes, all it takes for you to feel like "Ah, I belong here" is a couple of really close friends, friends that just get you, you know, both sides of you. Sometimes, it's a mission or a vision you want to pursue. It's something that you want to give back to that environment that connects you to that place. And because concepts like identity and nationality are actually a lot not as concrete and as definite as you would think, there is space for reinterpretation. There is plasticity for you to recreate a sense of belonging that you could have once lost. So the invitation in this identity crisis is an invitation to choose who you want to be and what you want to make out of your life. So if there are any of these international children around you, I ask you today, please be kind to them. Just because they can't speak intelligently yet, don't assume they're not intelligent. Please try not to judge them, to see them through stereotypes, to tokenize them. Instead, please help me encourage them, to tell them to hang in there, to aim higher. And join me in embracing these children and celebrating the potential they have and bringing us so much closer together. And if you are one of these children, today, oh my God, I have to tell you that you are doing something that's extremely hard for anyone. You are not alone. You deserve help. And if you want it, don't be shy to ask for it. The world is counting on you to make it through. Thank you. (Applause)