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.