“That’s Just Asia”

Well ya’ll, I might’ve spoken prematurely when I said I couldn’t have asked for a better housemate. In my defense, she did come bearing gifts and she DID offer to handle the cooking for the household and she DID buy me bingsu for my birthday, so I might’ve been a little biased when I spoke. One thing that happens when you meet someone decent in a foreign country is that the pace of your friendship is accelerated– the honeymoon phase of friendship hits you fast and hard, you open up to each other too fast too soon to imitate the intimacy of (real, stable) friendships back home, and just as quickly, you’ll hit the sink-or-swim part of the friendship, in which flaws are exposed, you find out you have opposing values, and you might even start arguing. The reality of spending the rest of the semester with this person looms large…and I’m looking for a life vest so I can jump ship.

We don’t have any problems when it comes to day-to-day living. She’s very clean. She’s not loud. We have opposite schedules– I wake up at 7:30 everyday and (ideally) go to bed around midnight and she wakes up at noon and goes to bed some time between 3-5am. It’s not our opposing schedules that create a problem, it’s her habit of blaming every difference we have on the fact that I’m American and she’s Singaporean. For example, this girl loves shopping, like big brand names. When she comes back from shopping, eager to tell me all the name brand bags or shoes she’s bought, I just nod and smile. I think she’s almost offended by how little I care about a bag or shoes; several times I’ve said to her, “I just never thought things like brand were very important; I just buy what I like.” To which she replies, “Well, I guess it’s just because you’re American, but welcome to Asia–bags and brands are important here. So, get used to it.”

She also loves taking pictures….of everything. We can’t get on the subway or the bus without her whipping out the camera. You might think, “Well, Carmen, maybe she’s just excited…it’s her first time in Korea, after all.” Well…it’s not. She’s been to Seoul 7-8 times, so none of these common city views are new and yet, snapshots of everything, all the time. She’s even taken several photos of me without my permission and sent them to some other friends in Korea and at home. I’ll let the manic tourist picture-taking slide, but when I confronted her about taking pictures of me and sending it to people I don’t know without my permission, she said, “Oh, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal….it’s very normal in Asia.”

(That gives me flashbacks to that time a group of Chinese tourists chased me around Gyeongbokgung to take creeper pics of me, but whatever….)

Once, she promised to take me to a store in Hongdae that I was having trouble finding online. Halfway there, it started to drizzle a bit and she insisted we go home right then because she didn’t want to get sick. “You said the store is like….5 minutes away from here. Can’t we just run there and take a quick peek, so I know where it is at least?” I asked.

“No,” she insisted, covering her head with her hands and turning towards the station, “If a drop of rain touches my head, I’ll have a fever by tomorrow. I’m not getting sick for this.”

“I don’t think you’ll get sick if we just run there now….”

“I guess you don’t understand because it’s an Asian thing, but in Asia people get sick from the rain.”

I wanted to say, “Oh really, because YOU are the only person on this entire street freaking out about a little drizzle. Every other ASIAN person here is completely fine.”

It’s not that I have a problem with her wanting to stay out of the rain. I don’t have a problem with her liking brand names, or liking photography. The problem is that every time we disagree about something, she’s quick to blame it on “cultural differences” when it’s really just her own personality quirk. Yes, I know that in Korea and Japan (maybe less so in Japan…?) brand-names, how you dress, what car you drive is extremely crucial to how other people see you. In America, though, there are also tons of people who also think brand names are very important and will judge you (perhaps less overtly) on what bag you’re carrying, or your shoes. I can easily run off a list of friends who care deeply about brand names. She had an equal chance of meeting an American who REALLY cares about brands.

Similarly, people who live their entire lives through instagram, snapchat, etc, are all over the freaking world, so the obsession with taking pictures isn’t an “Asian” thing. I wish she would just own up to it and say, “Yes, I am one of those people who will never put down the freaking camera (phone).” Instead of speaking for the entire Eastern Hemisphere.  I’m very sure there are people living in Asia who don’t feel this compulsive need to record every single moment of their lives on camera.

Most of all, I’m reluctant to categorize “Asia” as one big culture. When she says “That’s just Asia or it’s an Asian thing,” I think she’s speaking from her experience of Singapore, China, Malaysia, and maybe even Korea, and other countries I know she’s lived in or visited very frequently. But these aren’t the only countries that make up Asia. What about Japan? Countries in Southeast Asia? What about India? After being exposed to its diversity, it’s hard to think of Asia as this one big homogeneous blob. I’m not saying that these countries don’t have anything at all in common, but it irks me when she uses such a broad brush. There’s no way I’m going to travel to Indonesia or Nepal expecting it to be like Japan. Korea and Japan, though often lumped together, are radically different. Hell, even Okinawa, Japan, and Tokyo, Japan are worlds apart.

At the same time,  her experiences growing up and traveling in Asia as an Asian (Chinese-Singaporean, to be specific) person are valid. Clearly the culture she was raised in values things like brand names and photos and being terrified of the rain, and she has incorporated those values into how she lives. How can I respect that while also telling her, “No, that’s not all of Asia, sometimes, it might be Singapore, or it might be just YOU”?

 

 

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Well Butter My Butt and Call Me a Level 3 학생

If you recall, last time I studied in Korea, I was in Level 2 at Sogang. As much as I loved the conversation-focused instruction at that school (read my semester report here: https://thecarmensutra.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/so-long-sogang/ ) I wanted more balanced instruction this time– listening, speaking, writing, reading, with vocabulary quizzes and cultural excursions, the whole nine yards.  The language school that best fit the bill happened to be Ewha, a women’s university famous for the sprawl of cheap clothing and accessory shops right before the main entrance (that had nothing to do with my decision….)

I’ll spare you the gory details of my placement test and the bit of placement drama afterwards and just tell you that I’m taking Level 3 this quarter. I was disappointed to say the least. The Level 3 teachers teach the class in slow, dumbed-down Korean, and my classmates speak in very slow, broken Korean, if they speak in class at all. Not to shade anyone’s speaking abilities, of course; my speaking is less than stellar, but my classmates in Level 2 at Sogang could talk circles around my current Ewha Level 3 classmates, so it’s hard to feel like I haven’t gone backwards.  Additionally, when I flipped through Ewha’s textbooks, I knew most if not all of the Level 3 grammar already. “What good is Level 3, then?” I thought.

The short answer is: Level 3 at Ewha is good for vocabulary and reading comprehension. Within the first 3 weeks of class, we had completed 4 chapters of the 3-1 textbook and learned approximately 400 new vocabulary words. (And they are very useful words. I’m surprised I’ve been bebopping around Korea without knowing them….)I can skim Korean websites about food, health, and travel, and usually understand at least half of what I’m reading. I’ve had the chance to write about the benefits of yoga and meditation and how to ease symptoms of insomnia (Things I’m actually interested in….!) I definitely see why the professors thought it would be best for my to stay in Level 3. There’s a lot to learn here. (Whaddaya know, Level 3 has MERIT!)

Though Ewha’s program is technically very “balanced”– as in, we don’t spend any more time reading/writing than we do listening/speaking– the methods for teaching reading/writing just produce rapid results. When we do the speaking portion of the chapter, it’s usually a very practiced conversation with set phrases that you have to use; there’s really no opportunity to express your own feelings or opinions, or talk about your own experiences. The professors will usually ask for people to share their own feelings after you practice the set conversation, but by then, I guess everyone is tired of talking and doesn’t want to say anything else…

It’s easy to follow my classmates and stay silent, but I know if I get into the habit of not talking in class, my speaking will never improve (and this is a crucial skill if you’re LIVING IN KOREA, y’know…?). So, I try to talk more in class, even if I don’t feel like it or don’t really have anything enlightening to say. Still, I can’t help but feel like it’s not enough speaking practice. Because I’m not living with a Korean family this time around, I really only speak Korean in school, or if I’m with my classmates, or if I go shopping or something (…..it’s for the language practice, okay?) If I really want my speaking to improve I know that I’ll inevitably have to find a language partner or a language exchange group or something….

 

 

 

I Ain’t Your Personal Movie Star

If you’re my friend on any social media outlet, you’ve probably noticed the sudden influx of high-quality (non-selfie) pictures of me and two other lovely ladies. Here’s the long, grueling tale of how those pictures came to be.

One morning I was asked by the property owner to play a role in the property’s new promotional video. I took a quick look at the script, which only had me saying 8-ish lines, and thought, “eh, what the heck, why not? It looks pretty painless. I’ll do it.” Because going abroad is all about ADVENTURE, right? And trying new things, right? Right? Hoo boy, am I an idiot…

Guess what? the filming was scheduled for 2 days AFTER they asked me to be in it. So, as soon as I agreed, my Kakao inbox was flooded with messages from the director and the property manager about where to meet, what time to meet, what to wear. I had to send several photos of different outfits to the director for her approval. Specifically, she wanted me to dress in a simple, casual clothes, like a student would. I’m thinking, “Well, I AM  a student, so wouldn’t anything I wear on a normal day would make me LOOK like a student?” Apparently not. Since my small summer wardrobe I brought with me to Korea mainly consists of neutrals, I sent her pictures of me wearing combinations like a black shirt and jeans, a white shirt and jean skirt, simple, but very American style things (V-NECK. PLUNGING NECKLINE). Each picture was met responses like “No, no, no, don’t you have anything brighter?”  “Is there something with a pattern?” “Do you have anything other than black?” If they were going to be so picky about what I’m wearing, they could’ve had a freaking wardrobe ready for me or bought me new clothes, but I digress… (Strike one.)

Eventually, I just decided to wear whatever I wanted, as long as it had some color in it and didn’t make me look like a sack of potatoes. White shirt, jeans, red headscarf from The Wrap Life. Turns out, this was a good idea because the director LOVED it. The other two girls who were asked to be in the video were very pretty and dressed in the casual Korean style (WHITE SHOES). Most of the morning was spent taking individual and group photos (which no one told me we would be doing….) After that, we were taken to different parts of Ewha’s campus to shoot our parts in the video. Luckily, we didn’t actually have to say any lines on camera, we just had to act out our parts and then record the voice-over later. This was a huge relief because it was difficult enough to take stage directions in Korean; I couldn’t imagine having to memorize and deliver lines perfectly too. I already found her directions difficult to follow. Sometimes it was because of the language barrier, and other times it was just because I found her directions nonsensical. She told me, for example, “look lonely without looking sad.” I have yet to figure out that the heck that means, but I just kept making faces until she was satisfied or gave up.

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(Real talk, we were pretty cute though…)

After lunch, we were taken to another location– the cafe in one of the new apartment buildings the property owner just had built– and were told to “eat, drink, and chat comfortably.” Mighty difficult to do when you’re being told when to take a bite of food, when to sip the coffee and which way to angle your chin, but there it is. Finally, after we shot all the scenes scheduled for that day, they let me do my voice-over and go home.

The second day of filming was pretty similar to the first, except I grew increasingly irritated when the director kept asking me to stare in the direction of THE SUN for a long period of time (Do I look like Trump during the eclipse to you, lady?) and she wouldn’t let me stop until I had a “thoughful, hopeful about the future” look on my face.

And I was even more irritated when I was asked (read: told) to edit the English version of the script, to write in natural English and match the Korean script. Like, at that point, I feel like they were just exploiting my native English speaker status. I was asked to be in a video, not be a translator and editor, but I digress…. (Strike two.) If I was more mean spirited, I totally would’ve just mucked the whole thing up on purpose. After that whole thing, I had to sit pretty and smile throughout this welcome party thing the property owner was hosting in the cafe. I couldn’t even relax and enjoy the food, or the traditional Korean music, or the company of my housemate  because there was a camera being shoved into my face (on ZOOM) every few minutes. I’m not very good at hiding me feelings, so I had a feeling the irritation was showing on my face. After seeing the pictures from the shoot, that’s CONFIRMED.

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(My face in all its shady glory)

Hate to be the one to ruin the mood of the party with my sour face but I was sick and tired of the whole thing by then. No one told me the filming would take two whole days, or that I would get stuck editing the crappy English translation of a Korean script that Google translate spat out. (No shade, Google translate; you’re definitely improving.) Plus, this was just three days after I’d arrived in Korea, so I was still jetlagged. I learned (again) that I should be turn into a PI and ask HELLA questions before I agree to ANYTHING. But I got through it. I got paid.  I thought it was all over when I left the party. Hoo boy, am I a BIG idiot…)

About a week later, I get another message from the property manager asking me to come back to the cafe to take some more photos. I thought my face at the party had ruined the first batch of pictures completely and we had to redo them or something, so I had to live up to it and just go retake them. Nope. It was something different entirely. The manager met me in a suit and asked me to pretend to sit down and chat with him in the cafe. The same director from the PR shoot just starts taking a billion pictures of us. No instructions, no nothing. It was somehow even more awkward than the PR shoot. This didn’t take as long though; only 10 minutes. It was after this 10 minutes that the manager said, “If you’re in my new profile picture, it’ll get a lot of likes, don’t you think?”

…..

…..

Was this whole thing for a PERSONAL picture? Not something for promotional purposes? (Strike three….!)

You know, someone I met at Sogang two years ago told me that this kind of thing happens to foreigners in Korea all the time, but I didn’t want to believe her. Hoo boy, am I an idiot.

 

 

All Aboard the Housing Struggle Bus

Finding suitable (student) housing anywhere already comes with its own drama, but it’s compounded if you’re searching in a foreign country. If you come to South Korea to study Korean for the first time, chances are you don’t know anything past the basics, and usually, the basics don’t include questions like, “Are all utilities included? If not, which ones do I have to pay separately?” “Is there a curfew?” etc. Then, even after you move in, there might be something about the place that’s still not quite right. Maybe there’s a cloud of funk that permeates the room every evening, maybe there are roaches or water bugs, etc. A lot of students who come here play musical chairs with apartments and dorms for the first two weeks or so, trying to find the right place for them.

Honestly, I have no idea how people do it. Long flights already leave me tense, tired, and weary; searching for housing as soon as I arrive would just compound that stress. To make my move to Seoul a bit smoother, I decided to take a room in an “international dorm” in Sinchon, which had been recommended to me by several past Light Fellows. This “international dorm” is more like an apartment, and from the pictures online it seemed like a clean, convenient place to stay. I know this sounds ominous, like I’m about to tell you all the pictures are a lie, and there were bugs and roaches, and my next door neighbor is a screeching banshee, but no, it’s actually okay! Even though the room I reserved looked bigger online and the place wasn’t spotless when I arrived, I don’t think the apartment was severely misrepresented on the website. HowEVER, I did have a bit of a heart attack when the landlord demanded I pay 6 months worth of rent as soon as I arrived. Mind you, he never told me how I should go about paying, even though we spent at least a week or two talking about the moving-in procedure and the content of the housing contract. So, for him to blindside me like that was just rude, in my opinion. I only has one month’s rent on me. I don’t carry $3,500+ with my while travelling, and there’s no way I could have a Korean bank account after being in the country for a few hours. And he did not seem keen on waiting for my to get my life together. Long story short, I told him I would only be staying for 3 months; I took as much as I could from an international ATM for several days until I had enough.

Meanwhile, there was a game of musical chairs happening with the other bedroom in the 2-bedroom apartment. The Indonesian girl who was supposed to occupy the other room of the 2 bedroom apartment copped out at the last minute and decided to stay in her school’s dorm. The next day, a French girl moved in to take her place. She seemed nice, but our conversation was limited because her English wasn’t that great, and she had no interest in learning Korean…? Even though she’s in Korea….? I offered to teach her how to read hangul and say basic greetings, but she turned the offer down, insisting that she didn’t need it. So, what is she going to do for communication, you might ask. Well, her solution was to talk to everyone in LOUD, BAD, SLOW ENGLISH. (Head, meet desk….repeatedly). After suffering through a couple of hours of her complaining about why Koreans don’t speak better English (omigodomigodomigod learn Korean) and about the spicy food (WHY ARE YOU HERE?) I wondered how I was going to make it through the rest of the semester with her. Good news is, I didn’t have to. The next day, I came home in the early afternoon and all her stuff was gone. After confirming that we had not been robbed, I messaged her asking what was up. Turns out, she had a family emergency and might have to go back to France but she needed to hear more from the doctor first. When she told the landlord this, he told her to just move out. ASAP. Pronto. Immediately. And he kept her deposit.

Needless to say, I didn’t want to get attached to the next person who moved in because there would be no guarantee that they would stay for the whole semester. But 3 really must be the charm. The 3rd girl moved in the night the French girl was (viciously) kicked out. She’s from Singapore (so she speaks perfect English!) She warmly greeted me at the door, brought be souvenirs from her home country, and even offered to buy odds and ends for the house that night. Since she arrived, we’ve had great adventures at the grocery store, local market, and Daiso. She can even cook, y’all! I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better housemate. As long as we’re together, maybe we can survive this crazy roller-coaster that is 유학생 생활.

Nanzan in a Nutshell [Final Report]

日本での留学生活を送る中で時間が立つのが速いと実感するようになった。

It was when I was studying for my Japanese for Communication final that I rediscovered this example sentence I had written for homework. Y’know, one of those sentences that you write because it’s appropriately cheesy at the beginning of the year when you’re taking the ‘studying abroad for a whole semester’ pill with a bite of bread to help the medicine go down. It’s terribly ironic that now at the end of a long and terribly slow semester I look back at this sentence and realize how true it is. Bags are being packed; Goodbye parties are being partied; finals are being written; parting tears are being cried. With the end of my semester at Nanzan comes the obligatory reflection post.

In previous posts, I might have dragged Nanzan’s classes a little bit because the teaching style and speed may not be what I’m accustomed to at Yale, but I’m realizing this might not be an entirely fair comparison. Just because classes weren’t what I expected doesn’t mean they were completely ineffective; there were definitely pros and cons to every class and instructor. The weight of those pros and cons could be different per person, so I want to take this time to talk about Nanzan Japanese and elective classes more objectively, drawing on my own personal experiences/observations as well as feedback from other Nanzan students.

Nanzan’s Japanese classes are labelled as intensive because students cover a year’s worth of material in one semester, but what’s considered “a year’s worth of material” varies by college. According to a friend of mine, the general consensus among Nanzan students is that Nanzan Japanese classes are markedly more difficult than those at their home universities. Whether it be purely the length of the classes themselves or the actual content is unclear, so I’ll just talk about the general layout of classes and let you judge for yourself.

I was placed in NIJ 600, the second highest level offered, appropriate for students approximately at the JLPT N2 level. NIJ 610: Japanese for Communication covered five different readings on topics based around issues in modern Japanese society including the absence of fathers in Japanese homes (always work work work), welfare and healthcare, and environmental issues. Some of these were editorials or actual newspaper articles from the 90s (Would’ve been more relevant with recent material, but I digress). Each chapter, we did prep homework where we looked up background information relevant to the reading or wrote our own opinions or what we knew about our own countries’ policies. This also was a chance for us to get familiar with the vocabulary and grammar that would appear in the reading. We had grammar practice every chapter, where we would write example sentences and go over them as a class. Then we went through the reading sentence by sentence with the professor asking clarifying questions and giving us the opportunity to pose our own questions. Usually by doing this in-depth reading, we could fix our reading comprehension homework before turning it in if we made a mistake. Some readings were supplemented with videos, clips or recommended websites or extra newspaper articles, and we did debates or group presentations to learn how to express our own opinions on the issue in Japanese. The class was very structured, almost to a point where it was irritating. The debates weren’t spontaneous or natural discussion, rather each person on a team talked about a particular point using suggested key words and ideas during a time limit. There was a specific time for posing questions and for one side to refute the opponent’s point and no clear winner. Even in answering homework or test questions, if the answer wasn’t posed exactly how the professors wanted it or how they answered it in class, it was marked as incorrect. (Just to throw a little salt in here: I was told that an answer that was marked correct on my homework assignment would be considered incorrect if I answered the exact same question the same way on the test. And what kind of sense does that make? Exactly, it doesn’t. Okay, that’s my little pinch of salt to the recipe. Moving on.)

NIJ 620 is the class focused on reading and writing. This class was less structured and repetitive than 610, but this could simply be a difference in the professors’ teaching styles. The readings were more geared towards literature and personal essays than the ones in 610 and in my opinion, much easier to digest. Despite reading comprehension being the backbone of the class, we spend a great deal of time reviewing basic grammar points and addressing mistakes in common grammar usage. This was actually very helpful because we teased out the differences between は and  が, and found out linguistic motivations for what appears to be a silly distinction. We spent time learning new ways to study kanji (by origin, groups of meaning, and radicals) and learned the formats for emails and letters in Japanese (yes, there are numerous rules and etiquette when it comes to this too.) Overall, it was a fun class with a lively teacher that everyone seemed to like, even if it lacked the structure and good planning of the 610 class.

I thought this might be unique to my NIJ 610 teacher (who was the least favorite of the 600 level teachers, but that’s a topic for another day), but Nanzan Japanese teachers can be strict and inconsistent when it comes to grading, which just confused students at all levels. Some other students had things marked incorrect on a test that were marked correct on homework, or the same answers were marked as correct and incorrect, depending on the student. When students asked about these discrepancies, they were either told to look up the answers themselves or given some vague response like “both answers work, so don’t worry about it.” As far as I heard, mistakes with grades were never corrected, instead it was the student’s responsibility to “think a little harder.”  Though the teaching is in-depth, my general impression is that the teachers want to stick to the book at all costs, a golden reward that all students are to strive for absolute perfection through memorization and regurgitating what was taught. If you can’t do that, you will be cheerfully and politely left behind. Between this and the rigid structure of the classes, many American students just seemed done with Nanzan right around midterms. Depends on the type of teaching style you’re used to/whatever works for you, I suppose.

There are a number of elective classes to take: from academic Japanese, to Japanese culture/society classes to the arts, and I can hardly speak for the teaching style of all of them. The workload also varies, so just take the time to read the syllabus at the beginning of the semester or ask someone who’s taken the class previously. Since most of these classes meet for a huge chunk of time once a week, the teaching was less in-depth since we only spent once class on one topic and we had so much to cover by the end of the semester. Some teachers talked in technical terms without explaining in-depth, causing more confusion for students than necessary, and some teachers lost their lectures in story-telling so we were all confused about what we were actually learning, but some managed to find a balance. Either way, grading for these classes was overall significantly less strict than the Japanese language classes–any homework was taken purely for completion and a lot of mistakes were allowed to slide. Because of infrequent graded assignments, students had no idea of how the teacher graded or what their expectations were, which caused a bit of anxiety when facing final papers and exams with very vague guidelines.

Outside of the classroom, there are a bunch of clubs and activities for international students to participate in like sports and dance teams. The Japanese students in these groups seem pretty receptive to foreigners joining them (not in my case, but nevertheless) and it’s a great opportunity to practice Japanese outside of the classroom and make Japanese friends to hang out with on the weekends. Be aware that some clubs and circles require a lot of dedication: practices and meetings are particularly long and drawn out close to the school festival, which also happens to be right around midterms.

So, would I recommend Nanzan to another student? Sure, why not. Any problems I encountered were because of my preferences for a certain teaching style, and those issues didn’t keep me from learning– I think my reading comprehension has come a long way from what it used to be; Japanese newspapers and television don’t scare me anymore. If anything, I’m even more motivated to read and write in Japanese than ever, as long as I’m actually interested in the subject matter. If you’re looking to Nanzan to make you completely fluent, then maybe reconsider. Though some students found it intensive, I’ve definitely had worse (er….better?). To be honest, no matter what program you do, it’s up to you to push yourself and practice until you reach the level of fluency you desire. The program alone won’t do it for you, but you could certainly do worse than Nanzan.

 

 

Dear Japan

I don’t hate you, but I don’t think I can live or work here.

For starters, you are not good for my mental health. In a previous post about feeling homesick in Korea, I noted that there was a distinct lack of “emotional breakdown pit-stops, culture shock potholes, and what-am-I-doing-with-my-life detours.” Needless to say that my visits in Japan are all but characterized by these experiences, and I really can’t put up with it much longer. By now, you know that I’m an anxious person, always self-conscious of what I’m doing, where I’m doing it and how. You just make me even more paranoid than I already am with your strict societal rules and regulations. I know that as a foreigner, people may not expect me to get everything right, or follow the rules to a T, but after being here long enough I can’t help but wonder when I’ll stop making mistakes, or wondering if the reason no one wants to be friends with me is because I’ve made some huge social faux-pas that people are too “polite” to tell me about. As much as I’m for reading between the lines, in recent years I’ve also found that this is creates a huge block in communication and can inspire numerous misunderstandings. I want you to communicate with me, so I can understand where you’re coming from, and maybe listen to me when I speak Japanese instead of letting your panic deafen you to what I’m saying.

Maybe I’m just at a rebellious stage, but I’ve kept a tight rein on myself for most of my life to strive for what I perceived as social perfection and peace, and now I’m just tired of it. I’m tired of holding everything in, quieting myself down to keep people comfortable. To live here, you must care too much about what other people think. I’m tired of hiding behind my shyness, and the longer I’m here, the longer I want to give into my shyness and the people-pleasing mentality. It’s time for me to bust out the box I’ve been living in for so long.  As it is, you are on the verge of giving me a crippling social anxiety that I just can’t afford to shoulder.

Also, I need hugs. Hugs are an integral part of my life, Japan. My life is made richer by meeting people from all walks of life. Diversity, encountering people from different countries and backgrounds has really made life worth living. You know, variety is the spice of life and all that. Here, there’s a definite lack of inclusiveness, drawing bright red lines between who is and isn’t Japanese; the people who aren’t “Japanese” face a whole load of discrimination and criticism. Even Japanese-Americans. Not saying we don’t have that in the States, but at least in the states you can speak up for yourself and there are marginalized people who will stand up with you. It can get a little crazy sometimes, but at least we have a way of recourse to right those injustices instead of taking the beatings quietly.

I’ll never work here. Strict hierarchies within Japanese companies are not for me to begin with, but especially as a woman, the Japanese workplace ridden with sexism and sexual harassment, the Japanese workplace is a dark land I have no desire to venture into. I could go on and on about the Japanese work ethic (equally incredible and frightening) and the treatment of women in the workplace, but these would be stories I’ve only heard, as I’ve never entered the Japanese workplace myself. There’s another blogger who worked in Japan for three years and makes observations about the Japanese work ethic. I suggest you read what he has said here. Spurred by some recent incidents in 2014, Eryk has also written on sexual harassment in Japan and more specifically for sexual harassment in the JET program. If you are at all interested in the treatment of women in Japan, women’s rights, working in Japan and especially if you’re considering applying for the JET program, I highly suggest you read these posts (click here). Like I said, I’ve never been victim to these myself, but I’ve seen business outings at izakaya, even had encounters with Japanese youths that have sent off tiny warning bells in my head, small but meaningful indicators of what life is like on the inside. I have to say, I certainly don’t envy it.

People say that it’s changing, and I’m sure the treatment of women and non-Japanese people has changed over recent years. By no means am I trying to say that people can’t change, but the way it is now is not the Japan for me. And that’s fine. Foreign countries aren’t made for my comfort. As many pros as there are for living in Japan, the cons that I’ve listed here far outweigh the pros, according to my value system. Ultimately, I’m a guest, and this was just a test-run. Far be it from me to tell someone how to run a country or what a whole culture is doing “wrong”. But what I can do is experience the good, learn from our differences, and work on making myself the best me I can be. And Japan, you’ve played a huge role in the person I am today. I will always be grateful to you and appreciate you. It’s time for me to be the best person I can be somewhere else. No hard feelings, right?

A Pep Talk

When I realized that my time in Japan would be ending, I thought I would be happy to never have to set foot in my Japanese classroom again; instead I was seized by a sense of panic about the future. As my friends in the states gently reminded me, spring semester of junior year is the time to search for summer internships. A thought which inevitably led to thoughts of graduation, entry-level jobs, career paths, etc, etc. Basically, life is about to get real real, real quick.

Since I’m not a STEM major, my choices of internship opportunities are already rather limited and limited even further by the fact that I lack very “marketable” skills like computer programming and graphic design. When it comes down to internships for Linguistics majors, the few that are available revolve around programming skills or research; if there’s a language requirement for the internship, it usually involves work in Spanish or Mandarin Chinese. Neither of which I speak (yet), by the way.

Ones requiring Japanese language skills staunchly call for someone of native or near-native fluency. From an employer’s perspective, this makes perfect sense, but for someone looking to improve their foreign language skills through an internship, it’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place. At this level of Japanese, I need to be using the language as it will be spoken in the workplace (somewhere else practical) not stuck repeating after an instructor in a classroom or going on another whirlwind tour of Japan’s top tourist attractions. To get to a place where I can use my Japanese in the workforce, I first need experience, but no one will give you an opportunity if you’re not already at that level. It’s a vicious cycle, my friends.

So then I think, “oh great, did I just screw up my entire life by pursuing my passion?” Was everyone right when they said that arts and humanities majors will never find sustainable, well-paying jobs? Am I really going to be living in a box somewhere on the highway in the Alabama countryside, fighting off possums with a lacrosse stick I found in a recycling bin behind a local community college student union building? Relying on my own urine to keep me warm when it gets a little chilly at night? Exiled from home because my parents invested all this money in a college education for some slimy low-life who couldn’t even get a low-paying entry job if she begged?

It’s funny when you write it out like that, but that’s really what’s been swirling around in my head for the past few weeks and all the fear, anxiety, and doubt came a nasty head in the form of a spectacular panic attack.

Don’t freak out on me. I’m okay now, but having that panic attack resulted in a lot of self-reflection and discovery. One major problem is that I’m trying to control too much and I’m relying too much on me for everything; like a cheesy Facebook post, I’m here to tell you that by controlling everything yourself, you limit your experiences to your knowledge and understanding. And that’s such a small box to live in, y’all. No wonder I got claustrophobic. Whoever says you won’t be able to find a job doesn’t know the millions of jobs available out there, and even if your dream job doesn’t exist yet, doesn’t mean that it won’t. What’s keeping you from creating your own job, starting your own business or finding your own cause? And what if you technically don’t qualify for what you dream to do, whether it be because of your education, background, appearance, etc. It doesn’t mean you can’t get there. You never know what forces are working out there to your advantage or whose heart has been touched to help you get to where you want to be. While it is important to practice diligence, organization and put your best foot forward in everything, don’t limit yourself to the small work done by own two very human hands. Even that effort is not guaranteed to give you the result you want. Be open to the possibilities of things you haven’t thought of before, or the possibilities no one has thought of before. If you don’t believe in new possibilities, opportunities if we are not open to discovery, then is life even worth living?

And who said passion and financial stability are mutually exclusive?  The very reasonable side of me says I should probably get some more marketable skills under my belt. It wouldn’t hurt to learn how to code so I could build my own website and do other cool flashy computer-related things. I might end up learning Spanish or French one day for traveling purposes, find out I have an interest and talent for it, and end up using it over the course of my career path. I’m going to use marketable skills to aid my own goals and talents, bring them into a 21st century reality. Blogging, website design, language education, some job that doesn’t have a name yet… who knows? The possibilities are endless.

The dreamer in me wants to dream, she wants to write and speak and prance in a field of her own flowery words. Despite what statistics tell her or what the world tells her, she wants to carry on, touch the hearts of thousands, she wants to inspire. As terrifying as it is and as dangerous and risky as it is, I will let her. If you would label me a fool for this, then indeed, I am a fool. A stupid, happy fool.

 

日本語道

南山大学CJSの600が始まる前3ヶ月ぐらい韓国にいたから韓国語のせいで日本語が悪くなったと思いました。大学の授業で一所懸命勉強した漢字の読み方を忘れてしまうこともありました。話し相手が言うことが分かっても自分が考えていることを日本語でちゃんと伝えられなくて困りました。コミュニケーション力について心配していました。日本語の勉強の最初からずっとその問題がありました。

600が始まってから、同級生のみんなの素晴らしい日本語を聞いて、やっぱり私が日本語が苦手でコミュニケーション力がないと実感しました。読み物の内容が難しいというより、授業で細かいところをはっきり説明することや言い換えることは難しかったです。でも先生が質問に答えてくださって、生徒たちに深く考えさせてよかったです。このような勉強で日本能力が急激に上がるはずだろうと思いました。

伸ばしたい得意な部分は聞き取りと読解です。どうやって伸ばすかというと、自然な日本語を聞いたり読んだりことをする方法が良いです。時間があったら興味がある小説を読むつもりでしたが時間がありませんでした。テレビを見たら、漢字が書いてありますし、速い日本語を聞けますし、聞き取りと漢字練習の両方に役に立ちます。毎日ホストファミリーと一緒にテレビを見て私がわからないところを教えてもらいました。直したかった弱い所は二つあります。一つは漢字を書くことで、もう一つは会話です。毎日読み物についての質問に答えたりするから、自然に自分の意見を書けるようになりました。後は宿題のおかげで記憶にする漢字の数が増えてきました。日本語のコミュニケーション力を上げるにはできるだけ日本人と話す必要があります。日本人の友達を作ろうと思うが、なかなか日本人の友達ができないのが現状です。コミュニケーション問題はまだ解決できません。

勉強すればするほどうまくなるとよく言われますが、必ずしもそういうわけではありません。確かに初級か中級だったらそうです。授業で学ぶ単語や文法が日常生活に出てきますのでよく使えてコミュニケーション力が急激に上がります。しかし上級の授業で学ぶ時難しいアカデミックな単語や文法は日常生活に出てこないから、勉強する時間は勉強の結果へと直接結びを付かないことが気がします。大学の授業を取りたくないと思います。授業の勉強が役に立たないと言うわけではない。ただ、興味にあるものを使わなくて、やる気がどんどんなくなります。この上級レベルで大切なのは自分から日本語をぺらぺらになるまで勉強したい気持ちを持つことです。自分からもう一度一人で勉強したらまた日本語を学ぶ理由を探して、夢を叶えるための対策を考えてからやる気を回復します。

Infiltrating the Japanese Family Unit (Part 1)

I know it’s strange to introduce you to my host family ten weeks into the program, but it’s taken this long for me to go from ‘honored house guest’ to ‘(host) family member.’ It wasn’t that the family excluded me. They’ve been nothing but friendly, polite and sensitive to my needs. As I’ve mentioned before, it can take a longer time for me to sense closeness with people, and it didn’t help that I wasn’t particularly assertive about spending time with them. I was just existing in their home, trying to be as less of a disturbance as possible until my inevitable return to the States.

At first I was extremely uncomfortable living under the eagle eye of parental figures again. Not that I was doing anything unsavory, but one would naturally feel uneasy if people were watching and assessing your every action, down to the way you fidget with the hem of your sweater. During the first month I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything without some sort of instruction. Apparently, the students they’d hosted before had never been to Japan, so they were just used to teaching them about how things are done. Even though I told them I’d studied abroad in Japan last summer, they still took it upon themselves to lecture me on every little detail about living in Japan, including how to use the buttons on the toilet, use the subway, which side of the sidewalk to walk on, how to eat sushi, so on and so forth. Somehow I’d gone from a somewhat capable young adult college student to someone’s overly protected child. My host mother knew my schedule at school better than I did, down to the minute and gave me a rundown on what I was supposed to do everyday. I thought it was simply because I was a foreigner and she didn’t think I was competent, but I noticed she does the same thing to her daughter, always knowing where she is, who she’s with and what she’s doing. My host mother takes running her household very seriously, and to do that as efficiently as possible, she has to know everyone’s schedules so she can best meet their needs.

My host parent’s marriage runs like a well-oiled machine. She handles the home, and he handles outside business matters and brings home the bacon. Maybe it’s the result of being married for so many years, but they are never affectionate with each other. (To be honest, Japanese couples in general aren’t as affectionate with each other as say Western couples…but that’s a topic for another day.) My host dad makes out more with his dog than with his wife, responds faster to the dog’s whining than what his wife says. (That dog is disgusting anyway, why would you want to kiss it, of all things? The face-licking that happens in this house is vomit-inducing.) Strangely enough, my host father reminds me of my real father– a stern penny-pincher, practical even at the cost of others comfort or feelings. Incredibly stubborn, with a knack for doing things the old fashioned way. Short tempered. Stir it all together and you’ve got a carbon copy of my real dad. And if my host sister has been living with a Japanese version of my dad all her life, I can understand her irritation.

With two very controlling and parents (one with a dangerously short-temper), I can understand why my fourteen year old host sister lashes out so much. These are the parents who go through her flip phone when she’s not home because the cellphone bill was high and they want to see how many emojis she uses; they won’t let her use LINE and other social media apps because it’s dangerous and could possibly be used as a medium for bullying; they made her stop eating ham completely because of a special on TV that reported processed meat could increase the risk of cancer. I can completely understand why she would feel irritated, but at the way she speaks to her parents is appalling. I wouldn’t be here today if I’d said half the things to my parents that she says. My mom would’ve slapped the caps off my knees and I’d be bed-ridden for life, if I was lucky. Slapped into next week? I would be perpetually flying through the months if I’d even fixed my mouth to say the things my host sister says. She also cries at the drop of a hat. She cried because her parents said she couldn’t have a smartphone, cried when she wanted spaghetti for dinner instead of ramen, and even cries to get out of studying. Sometimes I understand her feelings but most of the time I think she’s just bratty. And her parents let her continue her bratty behavior.

I’ve only seen them get stern with her two times. The first happened when we were at a kaitenzushi restaurant and had placed an order for a particular dish. When you place a specific order instead of taking something random directly from the conveyor belt, the plate comes out on a red platform. Thinking our table had ordered two of the same kind of sushi, my host sister took both of them instead of just the one that belonged to us. For which her parents immediately and profusely berated her, saying she was an “idiot” and “inconsiderate of other people’s things” “Where is your head? Maybe you should pay attention every once in a while.” It went on and on. When they called the waitress over to tell her what had happened the waitress simply said, “put it back on the conveyor belt” and everything was solved. Did something that can be solved so simply really call for such a harsh tongue-lashing in public? The poor girl looked like she was going to cry.

The other time made me inexplicably happy. One morning my host sister left for school while I was eating breakfast. By the time I was done, the intercom was ringing because she had come back, telling her mom that for some reason she couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t hear most of it because the intercom is very static-y, but my host mother didn’t seem too bothered by whatever situation. While I was waiting for the elevator to the bottom floor of the apartment building, I saw my host sister walking towards our unit. My host mom met her at the door; as soon as the door closed my host mom let my host sister have it. I don’t know exactly what she said because she was shrieking, but I definitely caught the words for “idiot” and “no excuses” and “next time, you’d better do (something something something.)” To hear this tiny yoga-practicing woman absolutely go IN on her bratty daughter was beautiful and terrifying. I was mashing the button for the elevator before she opened the door and still saw me standing there in the hallway. (I didn’t want to be next!) But the sound of a mother yelling at her daughter, being slightly scared for your own life, somehow all conspired to create a beautiful sense of nostalgia. Ah yes, the sounds of home sweet home. I never felt like such a part of the family as I did right then.

 

On (not) Making Friends in Japan

The study abroad program representative with the big grin and flashy powerpoint will tell you to befriend the locals to make the most of your study abroad. I’ve seen many an extroverted classmate get buddy-buddy with the natives (sometimes snagging a romantic partner!) and reap the benefits of more natural Japanese, knowledge of the latest trends and the hip young lingo. I feel like this is solid, common sense advice, but is easier said than done depending on one’s personality and social life preferences.

Let’s discuss my personality and social life, since I happen to know mine the best. I’m an introvert. I don’t hate people, but being around of a lot of people is draining; I periodically need space and me-time to recharge my emotional batteries. I feel the most disconnected and overwhelmed with a group people, regardless of my relationship with each individual person. This isn’t necessarily related to being an introvert, but it takes me an incredibly long time to make friends. Freshman year of college was absolutely miserable because it seemed like everyone else was forming meaningful relationships so quickly while I struggled with loneliness. I was also, during this time, thought to be a recluse because I wasn’t surrounded by a caravan of people during all hours of the day. Yes, I know: boo-hoo poor me. Freshman sob story. Okay, the point is, I don’t force friendships. I believe they develop naturally from common outlook or interests, compatible personalities, etc., and forming these kinds of bonds can take quite a bit of time.

It was naive of me to think that simply because I changed my location in the world, my entire personality and tendencies in human relationships would also change. Still, because I did not want to “waste my time abroad” I did my darndest. During my first study abroad in summer 2014 to Osaka, I completely embraced this advice and tried everything I could to make Japanese friends: agreeing to go out with large groups, initiate conversation with Japanese roommates in the program, I smiled so hard and so large my teeth started to hurt; I laughed at things that were no where near funny. Everyone else who did it was popular, so maybe it would work for me too. And for a while, it did. I was continually invited to events and made plans with groups of Japanese students. The lack of me-time made me agitated, tense, and emotionally drained. I should be happy, but honestly half the time, I was on the verge of tears. This is what study abroad is all about though, right? Getting out of your comfort zone? Growing up? I was finally making friends like the pamphlets said I would and it looked like I was the life of the party on social media. I learned slang terms so I could finally talk like a cool kid, and isn’t that what I wanted all along? To be a cool kid? (If sarcasm isn’t your thing, the answer to this is: No, it’s not what I wanted at all.)

The conversations among group members about celebrities, food, music, shopping, romantic interests, sports, etc were nice and pleasant but they run out of steam relatively quickly and I don’t feel any closer to the people I’m talking to by the end of it. Any trek into deeper topics such as the differences in Japanese and American culture, for instance, usually ended after a few minutes with the Japanese student(s) saying “Oh, America is so different.” or “I want to go to New York!” Nice. Great. But this doesn’t tell me anything, really. Why don’t we really get to know each other instead of saying what the other person wants to hear?

Which brings me to another roadblock in making friends with Japanese people: the idea of wa (和), meaning ‘peace’. Conversations are kept on light, pleasant topics or things everyone in the group can agree on for the sake of ‘keeping the peace’. Having a respectful difference of opinion, though considered constructive in American culture, can make the air rather tense in Japan. Heavier topics seem to be avoided most of the time, but I suspect that these heavier conversations might happen between close Japanese friends. It’s difficult to say whether Japanese people that I’ve met don’t want to get close (what I call close) with me because I’m a foreigner or more because they’re trying to keep the atmosphere peaceful. It could be both–not excluding a myriad of other reasons–but for me to get close to someone we have to be mutually vulnerable, willing to share and empathize with each other’s problems and concerns. Mostly, we need to discuss our honne (本音), true feelings. Not only does this entire process seem to generally take a long time in Japan (among Japanese people) it can be even harder for a foreigner (the outsiders of the outsiders) to achieve the same level of closeness.

Simply put, a summer abroad was not enough for me to make real, sustainable Japanese friends. Even this semester, I haven’t made a Japanese friend (as in, born and raised in Japan, who didn’t attend an international school). While this is a little disappointing, it’s not the end-all for my study abroad experience.

I found other people in my language programs who I connected with because of either shared interests or similar dispositions. The intense study abroad experience brought us closer together in a short amount of time, and it is these friendships that I rely on for emotional and moral support in Japan. I made one or two friends like this last summer in Osaka and we kept in contact occasionally after we returned to our respective institutions in the States. Turns out, they’re both studying abroad in Japan this semester again and I had the opportunity to meet up with them. (FRIENDSHIP!) This time around, I’ve also made two close friends whom I cherish dearly and I sincerely hope we keep in contact after the program is over. For me, having fulfilling friendships is more important than the number–whether those friends are American or Japanese (or from any other country) also doesn’t matter.

To those who can’t seem to become close with the locals no matter how hard you try, my advice would be to not stress about it. You’re not alone. You’re not weird or socially inept (well, you may be but that’s not my business). Just do you. If you want a Japanese friend/acquaintance for the sake of improving your Japanese language ability, or someone to show you around, then my suggestion would be to find a language partner. If you actually become friends with your language partner, good for you! If not, well, at least you’re getting exposure to native Japanese and also helping the other person with their language skills. Win-win, I would say.