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.








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.













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.








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!

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Nope, it’s a Language Plateau!

When I tell people I’ve been studying Japanese for 5 years now, most of them expect me to be fluent. While this can be reasoned away with a short explanation of difficulties of Japanese for English speakers and my meager beginnings, there’s still a little voice in the back of my head whispering, Yes, but shouldn’t you be?

That voice has gotten progressively louder over the past two years as I’ve been taking proper (rigorous) courses in Japanese since freshman year of college and studying abroad in Japan. I took CET Osaka’s fourth year class last summer and passed with flying colors. While my conversational ability and listening comprehension sky-rocketed, my reading comprehension had not improved enough to land me in Yale’s fifth year Japanese class. However I did have a chance to audit the class and it wasn’t that I couldn’t understand the material, but it was that I couldn’t properly express my own opinions on more serious issues such as politics. So, sophomore year I took Yale’s fourth year Japanese class along with those who hadn’t studied abroad (ouch, my pride) in which I also performed relatively well because I invested so much time into memorizing kanji and writing example sentences like a good student. However it became pretty apparent that I was learning kanji and vocabulary to get the grade, not to dedicate those words to memory. I was reading to get the gist so I didn’t look dumb in class, not to deeply understand. I did enough to get by, but not  enough to make permanent improvement. To this I thought, “Well, my attention is so divided because I’m working on so many other classes/projects/clubs. I simply don’t have enough time right now…” It was easy to forgive myself when I was acing the class.

Now I’m studying abroad in Japan yet again and the error of my ways is glaringly apparent. Though technically I’ve taken fourth year Japanese twice I’m stuck in Nanzan’s fourth year Japanese class AGAIN. With people who just started learning Japanese two or three years ago (how do you like that cookin, pride?). I’m not doing poorly, but my performance hardly reflects the time and energy I’ve invested into Japanese thus far. In class I see kanji and grammar structures that I’ve seen before or that I used to know. If I have to learn how to present graphs and charts in Japanese one more time I think I’m gonna scream. I should be able to understand the news with high percent accuracy or give an impromptu speech on a familiar topic in class without it turning to gibberish halfway through.  My language learning experience now is one big deja vu: Haven’t I done this before?! Why haven’t I gotten it?

What am I doing wrong?

It’s sad that it took me this long to realize that I’d hit a language plateau and I’ve probably been stuck on one for the past calendar year despite taking more challenging classes. Thanks to our good friend Google, I learned that I’m not the only one who hit a brick wall in language learning. There are tons of personal blogs posts and academic-sounding articles (with graphs!) from people who have hit the same brick wall but after some self-reflection took a few steps back a deep breath, a nap, a bowl of Wheaties and vaulted themselves over it. I’ll spare you the inspirational details and cheesy motivations (if you want them, click here and here) but by surfing through these websites I’ve found a few useful things:

Japanese language learning has become routine. I have been stuck in a classroom the past two years taking kanji and vocabulary quizzes, reading short stories and articles aloud and answering reading comprehension questions. Sure, teachers are doing their absolute best to vary the material and projects (to include speeches presentations popular media, so on and so forth) and while it was challenging and new at first, once I mastered the motions to get through Japanese class, I figured my Japanese was good enough, so I subconsciously stopped trying to get better.

The general attitude during this “autopilot” mode is: My Japanese is good enough for the teacher and native speakers to understand the gist of what I’m saying, so that’s good enough. This attitude was only cemented last summer when I realized I knew enough Japanese to get by in Japan or watch a movie completely in Japanese. Wasn’t that the goal? No one in Japan expects my Japanese to be perfect and no one is going out of their way to talk to me about deeper topics like international politics, Japan’s aging population or social hierarchy, so why should I bother in the first place? I don’t even talk about those things in English.

Which leads to another good point mentioned in both articles: marginal benefit, and diminishing return: “The law of diminishing returns is actually taken from the field of economics, but when applied to language learning it means something like this: the more effort you put into learning a language over time, the smaller your increases in fluency become. The more time you invest, the smaller your returns on investment become.” (From Lingholic.com)

The Japanese I’ve been learning the last calendar year has been grammar, vocabulary and kanji found in newspapers or academic articles. As great as it is to learn these words for the sake of literacy, I simply don’t use the grammar in everyday conversations and especially because I don’t live in Japan, these are not kanji and vocabulary I would encounter on a daily basis. So I get less use (“return”) out of these words, and I’m more likely to forget them as opposed to basic vocab and grammar structures.  It’s like taking a step forward only to be pushed three or four back. And it sucks.

A lot of people give up at this point, apparently, and I certainly understand why. Every day I ask myself if I really want to continue. Is it necessary for me to be perfectly fluent to land a job? Can’t I just be happy with where I am now?

…But wouldn’t it be a shame to come this far only to stop? I don’t think I could live with myself if I did throw in the towel. I would probably run into this same problem with other languages (like Korean) so it would probably behoove me to learn how to divide and conquer now.

This requires some thinking, planning and re-assessment: I’ve got to rekindle my motivation for learning Japanese, isolate my weaknesses and tackle them one at a time. Find some new study methods. Keep it interesting. Hopefully there will be a series of posts mapping out my divide and conquer strategy. We’ll see.

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.

The Great Bingsu Review [August]

It is with a very heavy heart that I post my last bingsu review (for this year at least). I had a lot of fantastic bingsu this month, because I know how to pick ’em now! Here’s the final round, Round 3!



This is a Royal Milk Tea Bingsu from a famous bingsu place in Ichon. Famous as in, we had to wait in line for 20 minutes just to get a seat, and that wasn’t even their busiest day. In my opinion this should be called Sundae bingsu because it features bananas, chocolate syrup, coconut flakes, walnuts and almonds, and ice cream. Where is this supposed milk tea flavor, you might ask. Well, I was asking that too. BECAUSE IT’S NOT THERE. Hahaha, I’m kidding. Kind of. It’s waaaaay down at the bottom under the mountain of useless toppings that do nothing but keep me waiting in needless anticipation for the advertised milk tea flavor. And it’s not even that great by the time you get there. I spent so much time waiting to get to the flavored ice that I didn’t even pay attention to how finely the ice was shaved and the overall mix-ability of the entire dish. My advice if you go to this shop? Don’t get this one. The strawberry looked fabulous though.


Mango coconut bingsu from Meet Fresh. This huge mountain of fluffy coconutty goodness is best shared among 3 people. There’s mango syrup layered throughout the ice, but largely the dominating flavor is coconut. The sad dollop of mango sherbet and the actual mango (which was really fresh by the way) just felt like another attempt to balance out the coconut. It didn’t work. I had to search for the mango sherbet hiding behind the mountain of ice, and since you have to carve the mango pieces out to eat them, you end up losing a lot of it. I really enjoyed the coconut flavor of this one, but the lack of balance (of mango/coconut flavor and of ice and toppings) isn’t going to get it on my favorites list.


Isn’t this cherry blossom bingsu just darling? The ice is pretty standard and plain on the outside, but the middle is softer and sweeter like milk had been poured over it. There are two layers of cherry blossom paste: on the top and another halfway through. (Not sure if those flowers on top are supposed to be edible or not….) The crumbly-looking flower pieces have a more intense flavor than the paste. It’s hard to describe the cherry blossom flavor to someone who’s never had it, but it’s kind of like rose + strawberry, maybe? I dunno. Floral flavors are hard to describe. Anyway, this bingsu is light, delicate and refreshing. It’s the kind of bingsu you eat while writing poetry. Makes you stop and appreciate the little things. It’s definitely cute and charming, but more of a novelty. I don’t think I’ll crave this one, but the time we spent together was nice (read: romantic and confusing) while it lasted.


This injeolmi bingsu is from a cafe near Sungshin Women’s University. With real milk ice, two layers of injeolmi goodness, and plenty of red bean to go around, you don’t even need condensed milk to power through this bingsu. The milk ice and sprinkle of soybean powder strike the perfect balance between earthy and sweet, and the red beans keep things mildly interesting. Plus, no danger of choking on a spoonful of powder! Yay! In a nutshell, this bingsu has it together. It’s professional. Solid. Dependable. It’s the bingsu in a well-tailored black or navy blue suit. The kind of bingsu that could do your taxes.


This is a mango cup bingsu from Meet Fresh, and may I say that it is the most attractive and impressive of their cup bingsu selection, judging by the display at their store. This is the only one that comes with sorbet and other non-fruity goodness on top. The quality of the ice is the same as any regular Meet Fresh bingsu, so texture does not disappoint. However, the flavor at the top is very weak, and I had to rely on the actual mangoes for most of the flavor. They were so sweet…too sweet….and a little mushy. As in, 5 seconds away from being rotten. Some were even turning brown. About halfway through the bingsu, however, is another layer of sorbet (I’m guessing) which is flavorful enough to revive the body of the whole dish. Basically, this one started off a little shaky, but definitely gets better as you eat it. And the improvement happens fast enough so that you don’t throw in the towel early. Maybe just go to a store with fresh mangoes. Because this Meet Fresh was not so fresh.


This is an Earl Grey bingsu from a cafe called Goddess near Ewha. The ice is beautifully shaved into fancy layers; though the ice may look a little brittle, the layers fall away under the spoon smoothly like over-priced Urban Outfitters curtains. Don’t mistake thin ice for weakness of flavor. This was truely like eating a (sweet) London Fog, and the blueberries on top are a nice touch. It looks bare because all the toppings came on the side: crunchy rice granola, red beans, and frozen cranberries (read: they were more like pebbles.) Usually, I love toppings but these conflicted greatly with the smooth, light texture of the bingsu, so I did without them. Even the condensed milk (which I love) seemed to overpower the Earl Grey flavor. It’s hard not to feel elegant when eating this bingsu. So classy y’all.


This is the specialty bingsu from 별다방 미스리!  I had this bingsu for the first time in early June, before the bingsu diary existed. It’s only fitting to close my last bingsu review with this one. This one includes a hodgepodge of toppings: watermelon, kiwi, bananas, Chocolate frosted flakes (??), almonds, granola, rice cake (떡), red beans and (I think) vanilla ice cream. Basically, it’s a whole lot of EVERYTHING and is sure to please even the pickiest of your friends. Eat it section by section, mix it together….the possibilities are endless. The fruit is sliced into small pieces for maximum mix-ability. Every spoonful is delightful. With so many toppings, it’s hard for me to comment on the quality of the ice in detail, but I can say it’s not crunchy. It kind of stays in the background. Most of the sweetness in this bingsu comes from the ice cream, so when it melts, the vanilla flavor permeates the entire dish and it’s just sooooooo great. No condensed milk needed. No complaints here. Nope. None. This felt like eating a big bowl of cereal, actually….I like extravagant breakfasts okay? Don’t judge me. That’s rude.

There were a lot of fantastic bingsu recommended to me, and several shops I saw myself that I didn’t have the opportunity to visit; I’m positive there are billions of bingsu treasures hiding somewhere in Seoul and all over Korea. (I’m looking at you, Jeju.) My bingsu review days were cut short by my departure from Korea, but be rest assured, my bingsu mania still lives on! I shall return!