Cartoonist and teacher Khalid Birdsong lived in Japan for two years working as an assistant English teacher on the JET Program. Last spring he launched the original webcomic Fried Chicken and Sushi, which is published twice a week and based loosely on his real-life experiences in Japan, mining the cross-cultural humor that living abroad provides.
Birdsong now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, whom he met in Japan, and baby daughter. He plans to visit Japan next year, which he feels will inspire even more stories. I spoke with the artist about his time on JET, life as a teacher, and the future of his creation.
Where did you grow up, and what is your history with comics?
I guess I’d call Atlanta, Georgia, home—that’s where I’ve spent most of my life. I’ve traveled quite a bit. I’ve lived in several countries—in Nigeria, Germany, the Bahamas and also Japan. So I’ve kind of had that international view of things. I’ve always enjoyed reading comics no matter where I might be living. I’ve always liked to draw them, but I didn’t really read American comics until I was in middle school. Mainly, I would read Asterix and the European comics, and I’d watch a lot of animation. But I’d still draw my own comics and make up my own characters and do my own comic books and then sell them for a quarter to my friends; people always knew me as the comic book kid. So I just kept it going—even in college, I went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., and I studied graphic design and illustration there. Everything I learned, I tried to bring it back into comics and cartooning. I also did T-shirt designs, and did some freelancing for a couple of years on my own, which meant that I was freelance working, but I was also a security guard, and I was waiting tables, and all the other things that you do. And I just fell into teaching art in elementary school, and I’ve been teaching ever since. I really, really love it. It’s great.
How did you get hooked on Japanese culture?
I think like most people in high school, at least when I was in high school in the early ’90s, it was this brand new thing, when trying to look at Japanese animation when you didn’t have a translation and watching stuff you couldn’t understand with friends—and trying to read any certain comics that you could get your hands on—it was something new and exciting. I just always thought, “Boy, it must be interesting to actually live in Japan; that must be something amazing to do.” But I never thought I would really ever do it. I was just interested in the art and language. Even in college, same thing—it became more prevalent. I would enjoy more and more anime and manga, along with American comics. So I think that’s what really started me off. I was drawing comics, but I was still drawing in an American-type cartoony style. I didn’t have that quote-unquote manga style, but that’s what kind of started me into it. And then I started thinking what it would be like to live over there once I started actually teaching art.
That’s when you discovered the JET Program?
Yeah, when I was teaching art, I guess I had this feeling—I was in my mid-20s, and I just thought it would be nice. Me and my friend Jason, who’s actually the J in the Fried Chicken and Sushi comic—we both talked about going to Japan just to visit just for a couple of weeks. And so we tried to plan a trip, but we didn’t have the money and all this—didn’t quite happen. And then, he actually found out about the JET Program online, and then I looked into it, too, and we said, “We should try to apply, let’s do it.” I was already teaching [in the U.S.], so we applied, and I went through the, whatever, nine-month span of time that it takes to go through everything, and I made it in and he didn’t, and it really was not cool; it really hurt us both. But he’s a good friend, so he said, “You need to go on ahead and do it,” and so I did.
So the relationship between the two characters in the comic is based on real life.
It is. A lot of what I’m telling in the comic is based on truth in my life, but there are things that I may change or over exaggerate or add on as time goes by, as Karl’s character develops and becomes more of his own character and individual, and the same with J. So there’ll be things that I make up, but I try to keep as much of it as I can based on some of my real experiences—I think people can tell what comes from truth and real experience.
So you’re saying you didn’t have a talking tanuki spirit haunting you?[laughs] That’s great! You know, the thing with that is, in real life I really do have a very overactive imagination. You might have known some Japanese when you went over there, but for me, I really didn’t. I listened to some CDs and studied some basic greetings and everything, so when I was there I had no idea what anyone was saying. I would just get lost in my own imagination, and there were tons of stories going on in my head and all this—I would imagine things moving around that weren’t moving around. So no, I didn’t have a tanuki, but I wanted to have something that would represent that state of craziness I was in, where I’m there but also kind of detached from it all.
Because of budget woes, there’s been talk of the Japanese government trimming or potentially cutting the JET Program altogether. As a JET alum, what are your thoughts on the value and benefits of the program from your own experiences?
I think that for me, it was great to be able to travel to another country and to get international experience as a teacher and teach English and be able to travel in a place where I never thought I would and learn a new language, so that is very valuable for me. I think that even though people argue, saying that maybe having a native speaker in the classroom is not that all that important for Japanese people, I think that it’s still great for them to have someone from another country, because I feel that Japanese people don’t really get a chance to really experience or talk to or have someone that’s not Japanese around them typically. So I think it’s a great way for them to not just learn about other cultures and what’s around them, not to mention English, but in terms of international relations I think it’s a really great program for that.
And the work you’re doing now is an extension of those ideals.
I totally agree, it’s really great. It challenges stereotypes, and I wish we could have more of it instead of cutting it down.
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