“Memoirs of a Certain Sansei” by Elsie Higa

Memoirs of a Certain Sansei

I could be considered a Honolulu-born sansei as well. My maternal grandparents were the first generation born in Hawaii. My paternal family has been in Hawaii longer, and my father taught in a local public high school for over 30 years.  So I was curious to read about Higa’s sansei perspective and experiences.

Optimistic, practical, and easy to read, “Memoirs of a Certain Sansei: A Japanese American Mother and Teacher” (2015) by Elsie Higa, a Japanese language teacher at ‘Iolani School in Honolulu and mother of three, is a collection of experiences and advice “to create a new generation of caring and responsible young adults.” Higa is a sansei, a third-generation Japanese American who still observes traditional Japanese values and passes them on to her children and students.

Much of the writing is done by Higa’s adult-age children and students – evidence that her teaching values and attitudes are effective and deeply appreciated. We see her mostly through the eyes of her children and students, and Higa’s love of teaching really shines through.

The book is divided into three sections: The Early Years and what Higa learned from her former teachers; As a Mother, with entries from her children Shawn, Charlene and Amy; and As a Teacher, with excerpts from students’ end-of-the-year course evaluations.

Advice from her Early Years: Befriend students who are different and treat all students fairly. Provide hands-on activities, friendly competitions, and skits. Challenge students to do better. Keep personal problems out of the classroom.

Advice from a Mother: It doesn’t matter where you live or how much stuff you have – what matters is love and quality time. Treat children like adults – give them a sense of sekinin (personal responsibility) and give them opportunities to make their own choices. Teach siblings to share. Be on time to show your respect for others.

Advice from a Teacher: Create welcoming and positive classroom that is a safe haven. Don’t tease or embarrass students – take them aside with any criticism. Smile and sound excited. Play games to make sure that everyone knows each others’ names and to help them build friendships. Expect responsible behavior and good manners. Keep your word. State your expectations clearly. Have a clear agenda/schedule on the board every day. Have students serve as “Teacher for the Day” to help correct homework, develop leadership skills, and let the teacher circulate around the classroom for individual attention. Ask for parent involvement to extend lessons outside the classroom.

My experience growing up has been very different from Higa’s, more local than Japanese. I really enjoyed reading about Higa’s teaching experiences, her focus on giving students personal responsibility, and the practical wisdom she shares.

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