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?

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.

 

Here Today, Gone to Nara

Seems like only yesterday one of my Japanese teachers told us to “Hang in there! Only 8 more weeks until the break!” and I looked at him like he’d grown several heads. Eight weeks is along time. You can’t just POOF and be eight weeks into the future, right? But I feel like that’s exactly what’s happened. The week-long break at the beginning of November marks the halfway point in the semester. Fighting every cell in my body that wanted to go back to Korea to enjoy hot spicy soups, decent coffee and smiles on the faces of strangers, I decided to stay in Japan during the break and experience the majesty of Nara. I regretted not visiting last summer while I was in Osaka and the burning desire to visit has only intensified since taking that fabulous Japanese religions class. It’s been great to get away from the annoying mutt my host family calls a pet and escape the all-seeing eye of my host mother. Traveling to Nara has provided the fix of independence that I so desperately need.

Confession: When I told my host family I was going to Nara with a friend, I might have lied. I had made plans to meet up with a friend who’s studying in Kyoto, but no plans to travel to and remain with that friend over the duration of my time in Nara. Mostly, this is so they wouldn’t worry about me, since they treat me like I’ve never been to Japan before.  Another reason is so they would think I have a social life and not bother me about being introverted. It’s not that I don’t have friends to go with; I do, but I’m around people constantly at school and then bombarded by my host family at home, so there’s really been no place for me to completely relax and recharge.

Cue Nara. While it is a major tourist hotspot and bristling with people, there are quieter parts of the city where huge numbers of tourists don’t venture– forests, hiking trails and religious sights near Nara Park where small numbers of people (and some locals) come to pray and enjoy nature. Places like this are easy to find if you stop from super touristy activities for a second to have a look around. Welcome to my (poorly photographed) visual tour of Nara.

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Walking around Kasuga-Taisha took me back to the days of my childhood, when I stayed up way past my bedtime to watch InuYasha. With moss growing on stone lanterns, grand (sacred) forests, shimenawa everywhere, miko hurrying from one end on the shrine complex to the other in bright red hakama, and Shinto priests dressed in traditional garb, it was like I stepped back into Japan’s Warring States Period.

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InuYasha was the first anime I really got into. Captured by the magic that was warring states era japan, at the age of nine, I set out to learn more about the country of InuYasha’s origin. From there, my interest in Japan snowballed–It wasn’t long before I was trying to learn Japanese by myself as a middle schooler. I was so passionate about Japan and Japanese then; I miss the days when I could study Japanese for hours and not get tired, when the opportunity to talk to a Japanese person energized me rather than stress me out.

While it’s sad that I haven’t found another reason to study Japanese after coming to Japan, I’m glad I rediscovered my original reason: to enjoy Japanese anime, video games and literature. The sights of Nara sparked a sense of nostalgia and reminded me that despite the things I may not like about the culture, something about this country continues to capture and inspire me. I feel like re-watching the entirety of InuYasha now. (And analyze the Shinto elements of the story…thanks to that Japanese Religions class, I understand more about Inuyasha than I ever thought I would…)

No Midterm Murder Mystery this Year

I didn’t have many positive things to say about classes at Nanzan last time I spoke about them, but that doesn’t mean my whole school experience here is miserable. The semester started with great disappointment and a little bit of regret, which tinted my view of everything: people, classes, activities, etc. Getting into the midterm season one would only expect my stress to increase and resentment of Nanzan’s shortcomings to deepen, but surprisingly, I was able to tackle the two weeks of midterms as a well-adjusted international student. Little to no stress. Plenty of sleep. A moderately happy person.

I had a test almost every day during the two week midterm period, ranging from reading comprehension tests, listening tests, writing tests, kanji tests, and a speaking test alongside a presentation of a 7 minute skit we wrote with group members. This was just for the Japanese language classes. It sounds like a lot (okay, maybe not compared to the Yale courseload) but everything was drawn from materials covered in depth during class time. If you paid attention in class and did the homework, there was no way to completely bomb. So many methods of examination could only allow for a more holistic view of students’ progress with Japanese. I hate speaking and presentations and am naturally more comfortable with reading and listening, so I feel the written tests went better than the other examinations, but I didn’t want to completely gut myself after the speaking test, basically. That’s a victory for me.

I’m not saying my Japanese has gotten any better, per se, but I am more comfortable with writing essays and speeches. TV is starting to make more sense, and the Japanese around me sounds less and less like noise and more like language. Slowly but surely, more kanji come to mind when writing by hand. Whether I felt like it or not, the tests say I have been learning something over these past weeks. It’s a pleasant surprise.

As far as my other classes go (Japanese Religions, Japanese Syntax, and Japanese language and Culture), things are progressing slowly. We only meet once per week and discuss one topic per class, so you would think that the teaching must be very in depth and satisfying, but this isn’t always the case. For Japanese Religions (by far my favorite) each class is dynamic: the professor is engaging and really knows his stuff, answering any question people throw at him and giving interesting asides about his own travels and experience in training at temples. Plus the subject is super interesting stuff: religious syncretism, little rituals or habits we see everyday in Japanese life that have religious origins; I’m beginning to understand the history and importance of temples and shrines across the country. I really could talk about this class and all we’ve discussed thus far, but I’ll spare you the details (for now).

Japanese syntax is lacks the depth of a regular syntax class to give more attention to the differences in Japanese and English grammar structures. While this may be fine for people who have an understanding of syntax already, it is very confusing for those who have never taken a linguistics class before. The professor will throw linguistics jargon without explaining it or ask people to construct trees without teaching tests for determining syntactic constituents. I am only able to follow his explanations because I know the long versions of them. While some parts of syntax may seem intuitive (we do these things every second of every day, after all) analyzing why the sentence is grammatical/ungrammatical and uncovering the hidden structures in our heads is often counter-intuitive. If your reasonings aren’t backed up by some tests or logical thinking, then it will definitely never hold when trying to understand how another language works. I understand my classmates’ frustration, but for me this class isn’t particularly challenging. I’m using it as an opportunity to study Japanese from a linguistics standpoint which is easier than from the standpoint of a language learner because I am somehow more removed. (And no speaking necessary!)

I was most excited about the Japanese language and culture class when I signed up for it, but it is slowly lowering me into the grave week after week. I’m totally into the topics on the syllabus because they’re things I’ve always wanted to know about: why Japanese women have high-pitched voices, Japanese women’s language, how politeness in Japanese ties into the cultural aspect of 建前(tatemae) and 本音(honne), sexism in Japanese language, etc. While the readings do a great job of answering my questions, class lectures leave me feeling irritated at best. The professor is super sweet, but sometimes her lectures have nothing to do with the readings; I think she’s too nice to really get into the meat of the matters like the papers and articles do. This isn’t entirely her fault though. You have to adopt a type of sensitivity when talking about such controversial subjects in a room full of people from different countries, cultures and backgrounds. She works to include everybody, but my classmates also feel a little awkward voicing their real opinions in such a divided classroom. Yes, it’s good to be sensitive to other people, but staying completely quiet isn’t productive. (and you know how I feel about not being productive….) Whenever the teacher tries to engage the students with a question, the classroom steadily dissolves into an uncomfortable silence where people want to speak and some might even start and then stop. The classroom atmosphere is just all wrong, if you ask me. But it’s just the right atmosphere for researching other things, like cognitive science experiments and finding sociolinguistics textbook PDFs online…

Though I’m a little disappointed by slow pacing in some of my classes, perhaps it is one reason why this midterm season went so well. The annual midterm murder mystery never occurred. There’s no reason to wonder who/what did it– Was it the Linguistics final that killed the student? the English paper? the week of all-nighters? the weight of the world and uncertainties of the future slowly crushing her bones into dust? Don’t worry! This student was not murdered by midterms this year! Yippee!

Nanzan the Tortoise

I should have taken the hint during the application process when several of my emails requesting a paper copy of the Fall 2015 Nanzan CJS application went unanswered, neither confirming that the application had been sent nor the time I could expect it to arrive. Yet again when I wired the tuition fees to the overseas account, I received no notification that it had been received, dues and fees paid, or that my spot in the 2015 Nanzan program had been confirmed. In both instances, it was weeks after deadline that they sent me a polite email apologizing for the delay in responding and affirming, yes, the application had been sent and my tuition had been received. My first few interactions with Nanzan set the tone for the rest of the semester.

A little background: I chose to study at Nanzan University this fall semester because it was one of the few programs approved by Light Fellowship that offered Linguistics courses that would count towards the major at Yale and I’d heard nothing disparaging about their Japanese language program. Specifically, they offered a course on the comparative phonology of Japanese and Korean, which would suit me just fine as I’d just spent three months living and studying in Seoul. In a nutshell, I saw this as an opportunity to explore Japanese or Korean linguistics coursework which is not available at Yale.

Upon arriving at Nanzan, I was made to endure the longest, most boring orientation of my life. Ten days of events, speeches and lectures that could have been summarized in a few simple words; some days they just read the student guide to us word by word. If the agenda for that day was supposed to end at 4pm, sometimes they would end early at 1pm or so, saying more information would be covered the next day. Why? Why not just talk about dropping-out policies now, while you’re on the topic of academic honesty? It’s on the exact same page in the manual. Please, spare me the pain of having to show up early tomorrow just to hear you tell me something that’s already written in the guide. Eight days into this pointless orientation, we finally got to register for classes, I quickly checked the classes I wanted to take and was ready to hand the form in to my section’s representative Nanzan CJS staff member. When she saw me approach, she flailed a little bit before asking me several times if I was really ready to hand in my form and when I assured her that I absolutely was, she mumbled a string of ‘um’s before calling someone else over to take a look at it. A man came over, checked everything and accepted the form in under a minute. The woman (keep in mind, this is supposed to be her job) then asked him to double check every single form from there on out. Are you kidding me? That just extends the whole process into a gross amount of time. But that’s just the way things are done here. I’ve never seen so many worker bees look so busy to accomplish absolutely nothing. Am I being overly critical? Sure, I know I am. Sorry, I’ve been getting in touch with my inner Virgo lately. We are an efficient people.

It may be harsh to call them completely ineffectual. It’s just the Japanese way to be very by the book, following all the long-established laws and policies to a T and sometimes to a fault. Occasionally this may seem ineffective to outsiders like me who are not familiar with or sympathetic to the system. If something about the system isn’t at its best, naturally, I want to optimize it even at the risk or throwing out methods that have worked for years. (But that comes with its own problems…) Their by-the-book mentality and attention to detail does have its benefits when it comes to teaching traditional textbook learners like myself. Though the readings in Nanzan’s Japanese classes are much shorter than the ones we received at Yale (the course packet is laughably light) the teachers spend careful minutes on each sentence of the text, stopping to ask questions about meanings and nuances of adverbs that students thought they knew well. Because there’s no rush, no one feels bad for asking clarifying questions or for further examples. It’s just what I need to improve my reading comprehension skills. The teachers are very sensitive to the students’ needs, sensing when we really not understanding even when we say we are and also sparing the students embarrassment in class when it looks like we don’t know the answer to a particular question. It’s a slow and steady learning environment.

The elective classes are a different story. Only after leaving Yale did I realize the rigor of the classes and exactly how much of a heavy workload i’m used to handling. Besides two intensive Japanese courses, I’m also taking Japanese Language and Society (which is really more like a watered down socio-linguistics class) Japanese Religions and Japanese Syntax. That class I came here for? The Korean-Japanese Phonology one? Yeah, it was one of two or three classes that got cancelled. Just my luck. The one class I was looking forward to the most got cancelled and I’m stuck with two other pseudo-linguistics classes taught in very slow English designed for students who’ve never taken a linguistics class. I feel a terrible intellectual itchiness, here and in a very Carmen-like fashion, I’m setting out to scratch my own back: finding texts on Japanese and Korean phonology, finding the original books the required reading articles come from and doing all the supplementary reading. I guess no matter what, you can’t take the nerd out the girl.

Japan Round 2

As my friends celebrated Round Three of Yale with triple-filtered posts on Instagram of residential colleges and selfies with friends they haven’t seen in months, I was tearfully packing up my life in Korea, not to return home to celebrate with them, but to study abroad in Japan for the second time. I wish I could’ve been excited, but more than anything I was overcome with nostalgia for Yale and sadness as I left Korea. Fittingly, I know the perfect word for this in Korean now: 섭섭하다. While that old saying “distance makes the heart grow fonder” is definitely the case for Yale and eventually will be for Korea, this is not the case for Japan. Well, I suppose the saying is ‘grow fonder’ so one would have to hold a certain fondness in the first place. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Surprise: I didn’t exactly enjoy Round 1 of Japan. Summer 2014. Carmen vs. Osaka, I was immediately KO’d. My bravery lasted for all of two weeks before the rose-colored glasses were smashed into pieces, breaking my nose and reducing me to a puddle of regret and tears. Yes, I cried. Yes, I wished to go home. And why shouldn’t I? When the culture you’ve spent most of your adolescent life learning to respect and understand does not offer you the same courtesy, who wouldn’t beat their chests savagely out of grief and loneliness and wish for all the time back that you felt you’ve lost? The language barrier was not the cause of my alienation, because I was proficient enough to hold a conversation and also discuss societal issues such as the treatment of women in the workplace and the aging population. But these conversations never happened because no one wanted to get to know me or what I thought or who I was. The people I encountered just wanted to take a selfie with me because I looked weird, or point and laugh like I was an exhibit at the zoo. Language is not the only necessary thing to bridge gaps between human beings, I learned. Putting aside languages, you also have to extend love, understanding, empathy, some degree of kindness. A smile would be nice. Every time I smiled at someone, they ignored me completely or turned away. That’s just the culture. Since I felt no one was even trying to meet me halfway, I shut down and let the whole bridge crumble.

I boarded the plane to Japan not expecting Round 2 to be anything spectacular. I’d already started a countdown calendar, trying to think it shorter: it’s only one semester. 107 days to be exact. I don’t have to stay here for the rest of my life. By Christmas, I’ll be at home stuffing my face with buttery, mouth-watering, artery-clogging, seasoned to perfection Southern food. I won’t have to pretend I don’t want or need, or pretend that the hole in my gut is hunger when it’s actually something darker and deeper. And best of all: I won’t have to separate the garbage after all the eating is done.

Recently, I’m taking comfort in the fact that time in Japan will pass regardless of how I feel. Whether days are crappy or awesome, they’re just hours, minutes, seconds. The two minutes I spend willing for my host family’s dog to catch fire could’ve been two minutes spent laughing at Engrish on a T-shirt. What a terrible waste of a semester it would be, to come halfway across the world only to wish to go home. Surely there are others who want to be in my position; though I can’t imagine it now, there will come a time when I’ll wish I’d taken full advantage of this opportunity. So here I am, a week into my study abroad semester trying to change my attitude towards it all.

Culture Shock It To Me

I used my week-long vacation from Korean class to make a trip to Japan, where I learned that Japan is the worst place to relax. Feeling the pressure to maintain the careful balance of Japanese society– to do things the Japanese way–caused enough tension to warrant another vacation to recover from my vacation (but that didn’t happen because… school). Having been to Japan once last year (for 10 weeks), I am under the impression that you must leave and come back to Japan to understand that it is a very…..unique place. That may induce neurosis.

Ready…Set…Apologize

In Japan, you must apologize for everything. When I stopped at the airport 7-11, I found myself apologizing for giving the cashier a hundred dollar bill for my three dollar purchase. In Japan this isn’t uncommon, as carrying large denominations of bills is the norm; I’ve been told that convenience store cashiers are used to it. I wasn’t sure if the slight look of panic on her face was because of the bill or who was handing over the bill. Either way, I apologized.

You must also apologize for creating a situation that would warrant an apology. My AirBnb host in Kyoto was a wonderfully sweet woman who brought me fresh fruit everyday after I’d come in from sight-seeing. After a day of hiking, I’d hopped straight in the shower. When I got back to my room, I was greeted by a flurry of bows and apologies. She was sorry for bringing me fruit while I was on the shower, and went on about how terrible she felt that the peach was discolored now. She apologized for not bringing it sooner. And then I apologized for being in the shower. The peach was still a lovely color. To this she replied, I’m sorry.

It’s no surprise that I look like this every time I go to Japan:

People even bow while they’re on the phone. It’s pointless to bow when the other party can’t even see you, but it’s the principle. When you say sumimasen or gomen nasai, there’s a bow that comes with it. It’s practically ingrained in the lexical entry.

Even the buses are polite

I’ve written about the special terror that comes with riding the bus in Korea. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think public transportation is supposed to scare you at least a little bit. Kyoto bus-drivers are so polite it’s scary. In his low hissing voice, he warns passengers when he’s coming stopping or taking off. He apologizes for abrupt stops and announces the name of each bus stop even though the pre-recorded voice tells you several times before arrival. This pre-recorded voice also warns you when the bus is turning left or right, which is followed by ご注意ください (please be careful). After being in Korea, I didn’t know whether to think this was hilarious or incredibly pitiful. After all, this politeness slows the buses down considerably. Can you believe buses in Kyoto stop at every red light? The nerve. How will I ever get anywhere on time? I could get to my destination faster if I walked.

Public transportation is eerily quiet. No one is talking with friends, swearing/cooing at their significant other, or calling their children failures. There’s no drama to be had. I thought I would appreciate being able to hear myself think, but it just made me stress more about keeping quiet. I also became hyper-aware of what they were doing so quietly. People watching is in Japan is a bore. It’s especially difficult to people watch when everyone is watching you.

Staying under the Radar

At every turn in Japan I’m reminded that I’m a disturbance, a blockage to their well oiled and smoothly running wa machine. People stare and comment; they make extra space for me on the train that I don’t need. They struggle to remember their middle school English to tell me I’m sorry or to piece together directions that I asked for in Japanese. By making a show of accommodating me, I feel more pressured to fit in, but the more I try to do that the more impossible it seems. It just compounds the original stress. I’m not any less foreign in Korea, but no one cares if I’m trying to fit in or not. They go about their business: people don’t make extra space for me on the bus or train; every little brush of skin does not call for I’m sorry. I do not have to apologize for existing.

When people ask me how my experience in Korea differs from my experience in Japan, I must admit that despite my Japanese being light-years ahead of my Korean, I’m more comfortable in Korea (read: Seoul). I could see myself staying here for a longer period of time, a year or two. People who live in Japan for years on end baffle me. Perhaps you must let Japan settle in your bones.