Teaching had never really crossed Ayumi Amama’s mind as a potential career path, but her most recent role has allowed her to have the rewarding experience of sharing her Japanese culture with others.
Amama, 44, is a Japanese instructor in K-State’s Department of Modern Languages, a position she has had for about two years. She also teaches a few Japanese-centric classes, such as cooking, baking and calligraphy, through UFM Community Learning Center, which she has done since 2018.
Amama said she enjoys being able to teach not only her native tongue but some of the cultural practices and nuances she grew up with. When students take that interest a step further to actually study or work in Japan, she considers that a personal success.
“I think that is the real joy of teaching,” Amama said. “I don’t want to be just a language teacher, because the culture is so different, and being able to convey that and have them get interested is very rewarding.”
Amama was born and raised in southern Osaka, Japan. While modern Osaka is known for being a large port city and commercial center, Amama said her hometown was part of the rural countryside, so each day she’d walk or bike to school past the many rice fields.
During her youth, Amama said she took an interest in helping her mother cook. She’d be assigned to cook the rolled egg omelets they’d pack in her and her sisters’ lunchboxes. As Amama grew older, she’d help make dinners or entire meals for her family and friends.
Amama also started to discover interior design in her high school years, and she said she’d often read magazines on the subject. Her intrigue gradually shifted to architecture as she learned about the many dimensions and styles it could encompass, becoming interested in combining traditional Japanese architecture with newer designs.
Amama eventually went on to study architectural design for her bachelor’s degree and environmental engineering with an emphasis in architectural design for her master’s at Yokohama National University.
Amama said after graduating, she landed a job at a global architecture company working out of Tokyo. As part of its Japanese technical team, she helped with design work and production of high-rise buildings.
Amama’s boyfriend at the time — now husband, Placidus — was working on a postdoctoral fellowship program in Connecticut. After about two years apart, Amama said the two of them got married, and she joined him in the U.S. Together, they moved all over the Midwest for her husband’s work and educational endeavors before he eventually obtained a job at K-State in 2013. Along the way, they had three children, ages 9, 13 and 16.
For a few years, Amama said she was a stay-at-home mom, raising her young children, but in 2018, a friend told her that UFM continually looked for new instructors to teach classes on any subject. Amama connected with one of its coordinators and she first began teaching Japanese cooking and baking classes before adding calligraphy into the mix this year.
Not long after, another friend notified Amama that one of K-State’s longtime Japanese instructors was leaving the program, so the modern languages department was seeking a replacement. She decided to take a chance and applied, securing the position.
“I never thought of teaching Japanese, but because I love Japanese culture and being a bridge, I’m trying to bridge the students here with Japanese culture and introduce them to different (opportunities) that help them to either study in Japan or work in Japan,” she said.
Amama said though she was aware of her own cultural practices and customs, teaching them to others helped her to more deeply understand the meaning and significance of them.
“Trying to teach Japanese language and culture led me (to) dig deeper (into) why we do those cultural things and what’s the meaning of this,” Amama said. “That made me realize many things that Japanese culture does has some kind of underlying tone of trying to live in harmony with nature and trying to find beauty or to appreciate in the things that are not super elaborate.”
For example, she said, in Japanese poems like haiku or tanka, the themes are not always about the obvious beauty of blooming cherry blossoms or the powerful waves of Kanagawa. Some poets may choose to focus on quieter moments of a blade of grass trying to sprout through a thin layer of snow as spring is being ushered in, she said.
That perspective can be seen in many different art forms, Amama said, whether that’s in traditional tea ceremonies, calligraphy, architecture and more.
Ultimately, Amama said she tries to impart the same lessons on her students that she does her children: to not think that what they know now is all they will need to know in their lifetime and to explore as much as they can.
Amama said one of her favorite lessons her father taught her was while she was in high school trying to figure out what to do next with her life. Amama said her father likened her to a ruler, explaining that the more demarcations, or experiences, she gained, the more she would be able to measure things, or see things with a full perspective.
“Let’s say you finish elementary school, your measurement is maybe just 12 inches without any smaller units,” she said. “But as you go through other experiences or exposure not just to school, those lines start getting more dense or increase in length so that you are more capable of measuring, like observing things in more meaningful ways. That (is the) kind of visual I have and appreciation in different experiences and different cultures each time I meet with people or go somewhere.”