Written by Dawn Huston, CET Campus Relations Manager – West
Occasionally, we log into our Facebook account to discover that people we’ve missed for years have found us. This recently happened to me and I’ve had the pleasure of reconnecting with an entire family because of it. Not long after this took place, I announced plans of visiting our Intensive Language program in Osaka, Japan. As it turns out, one said family member had lived in Japan and brought his Japanese wife back to the states. The couple kindly offered to introduce me to family and friends still living in Takamatsu, Japan.
Let the adventures begin! After visiting with our students in Osaka, I headed to Takamatsu to meet my new found “extended family.” They knew a little English, and I knew far less Japanese. I was understandably feeling a tad nervous. Communication was going to be a challenge, notwithstanding body language (which is culturally very different between Japan and the US.) This family had been exposed to American customs, but had they adopted any of them? Japanese are some of the most polite people I’ve ever met; would this couple feel free to let me know if I committed any social faux pas? The last thing I wanted was to offend them. They opened their home and their time to a near complete stranger. How incredibly kind!
The simplest of exchanges resulted in questions. Do I greet the couple with hugs to show gratitude? This is atypical in Japan. At my relief, I sensed that we were all on the same puzzled page. We wound up exchanging dainty, swift hugs at the bus depot – a fitting compromise for huge hugs versus handshakes.
During lunch, I noticed the couple slurping their udon noodle soup. I immediately decided I should follow suit. It took 6 or 7 tries before I was able to make audible slurps. With each unsuccessful attempt, I wondered if they noticed the silent consumption of noodles.
While crossing a rather large suspension bridge created entirely out of vines, my inner child was ready to skip across in reckless abandon. At the same time, I noticed my host appeared nervous. What was the appropriate way to show support? If hugging wasn’t common, I had no idea how an outstretched hand would have been received. So, I encouraged her bravery by keeping a slow pace near her side. My inner child could play another day.
Over the course of my stay, we used a lot of charade-like gestures and visual media. At the end of the first night, we sat watching a slide show of the couples’ daughter marrying my friend. As I sat listening to the accompanying Jimmy Buffet music (no doubt an influence from my childhood friend), I couldn’t help but think how fortunate I was. I was actually catching up on the important moments of old friends’ lives while sitting on the traditional tatami mat flooring in the home of new friends.
Just in case you are wondering…I did go to bed that night with Disney’s “It’s a small world” theme song in my head. I also thought about how this was all possible because of the efforts of my friends and family to learn a second language.
Written by Lauren Nakasato Resident Director for CET Intensive Language and Culture Studies in Osaka
It was one of those Spring Fever days. The slight morning chill didn’t seem to faze the sun, which promised a roll-up-your-sleeves, roll-down-the-window type of day. Sunglasses and pastels were the themes of our weekend style and we pulled out of the school driveway in our private micro-bus, four rims and a sub-woofer away from being the hottest micro-bus on the road. Despite our City Style, the road south toward Okayama Prefecture was beckoning, and we were ready to shake some of our anomie blues for a return to nature.
Two hours of peaceful naptime later, we ran, bento (Japanese-style lunchboxes) in hand, out onto a grassy ledge overlooking the Seto Inland Sea. One of the symbols of Western Japan, it is, in my opinion, the most beautiful place in the whole country. Spreading a tarp, we giddily dug into our neatly packed lunches, washing everything down with the sweet air coming off of the sea. Real or imagined, the Okayama sunshine seemed to consist of light rays in their purest form, unlike the rays that we usually get reflected off of a building or a train or a car or someone’s glasses. No, this was the real deal.
Depleted vitamin D levels restored, we continued our journey through winding local roads, as I wondered how (if?) larger tour-busses navigated these side streets without ending up in someone’s backyard rice paddy. As we pulled up to our destination, I exhaled with relief that we had escaped any rice paddy peril, and could now enjoy an afternoon of Bizen-yaki, an ancient pottery style using clay specific to the Bizen region of Okayama. The elements of this special clay produce textures and coloration upon firing that cannot be predicted or emulated, which make every piece of Bizen-yaki unique. The students worked their stress and personalities into the clay, resulting in some beautiful artwork, leaving me in awe of the skill and precision of the human hand.
As shadows grew longer, we pulled into our final spiritual cleansing spot for the day, the famous Koraku Garden, for a stroll amongst perfectly landscaped hills, trickling streams and falling cherry blossom petals. With Okayama Castle in the background, our shadows danced on the well-kept grass as we laughed away any City Woes, forgetting the concrete jungle from which we came … nine hours prior.
Pulling into our accommodation for the night, we learned that southern hospitality doesn’t only apply to the Bible Belt – When we were lost trying to find the place, the front desk staff came sprinting out into the street, stopping one-way traffic to let us pull into the driveway. Dropping 90-degree bows at the twitch of a whisker, our friendly hotel-man gave us a taste of local charm. We fell in line, adjusting to the pace of Okayama life, slowing speech and even taking the time to have a 30-minute conversation with the hotel staff about the chrysanthemum blooming in the alleyway garden outside.
Back on schedule, Day Two took us to Kagawa Prefecture on the island of Shikoku for shrines and noodle-making. Half of us made it up the 1000 steps to the top shrine, barely descending in time for a lively noodle-making class turned club/karaoke jam session when the staff passed out tambourines and told us to take off our shoes so we could dance/stomp on the dough (in plastic bags of course) to Gangnam Style.
Full of noodles and country air, and purged of any remnants of City Grit, we began our descent back into reality. Student faces dropped as the realization of a night full of homework ahead set in. But there was something comforting in seeing the city lights as we came off of the expressway, reminding me that there is beauty and nature hidden in City Life, too.
One of the most frustrating and yet most rewarding aspects about studying abroad is being constantly surrounded by Japanese culture. There’s no escape here. Every where you go, you’re going to run into the “ripple effects” of being in Japan. Of course, this sounds pretty straight forward and when I first arrived in Osaka I didn’t give it a second thought. However, after a very long last month, I finally began to see how living in a different culture, being surround by people with different world views, effects day to day life. Once the “honeymoon” of studying abroad wore off, I began to get a better understanding of Japanese culture.
So, let me give all of you some background. At the beginning of the semester, some of the language teachers at Osaka Gakuin had really high expectations for the students. The work load was … difficult. Frankly, I was under the impression that I was supposed to become fluent by the end of the semester. That, in itself, is not a bad thing. However, complicating the matters was the fact that whenever I messed up the teachers seemed to take it personally. My mistakes were their problems. If I didn’t live up to their expectations, I knew I was in for a lecture. And I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
After a couple of weeks of this, I began to realize that my teachers felt responsible for my education. I was their product. If I returned to my home institution below the target fluency level, it would be their failure and not mine. I was a tabula rasa that my teacher was writing upon. Thus when I got something wrong, it was like I had intentionally erased the board. In other words, if I worked my butt off and was able to answer all of the teachers questions, it was seen as a reflection of the teacher’s teaching ability. However, if I slipped up, I was an ungrateful student who was not paying attention, not working outside of class, and most of all, just being rude.
Once I understood this, I began to see how this mindset effects other classroom rules. For instance, in contrast to the US where I pay teachers to help me learn, the idea here is that my teachers are working hard to turn me into a fluent Japanese speaker, thus I owe them instead. Therefore, not paying 100% attention to the teacher’s lesson, drawing in class, slouching over the desk with your elbows on table, amongst other perfectly acceptable US college student behavior, is considered disrespectful. Because of this, everyone is expected to be “genki” throughout the lesson. Disagreeing with something the teacher says is not ok, and most of all, skipping class is unacceptable. Due to the cultural disconnect, I thought the teachers making up petty rules, however, it was really just the result of a differences in expectations.
Of course, after I understood this, I had to do a lot of thinking about the way I treat my professors in the US and whether or not I need to change. Though I’ve never thought of myself as a disrespectful student, after seeing things from a Japanese teacher’s perspective, I had to ask myself whether or not I should adapt to the system or challenge it. Coming from a culture that values pro-activeness and people who take the initiative, I had to stop and take time to value the way a different culture views education. I still haven’t figured out where this leaves me. However, understanding has definitely helped me have more patience on rougher days. It’s also helped me get to know the way Japanese people think a bit more. In the end, I don’t think there’s a right answer, but learning to think about when it’s appropriate to challenge another culture’s way of doing things and when it’s better to just to adapt to it seems to be really important. It definitely keeps me humble and open to new ideas. As frustrating as culture shock can be, I am really glad that I’ve had this experience.
Written by Lauren Nakasato
Resident Director, CET Intensive Language and Culture Studies in Osaka
After living in a place for a number of years, you start to get used to your surroundings. Even the most spectacular can become a given, blending into the backdrop of your life, invoking no more than a fleeting afterthought as you speed through your daily routine, attending to The More Important Things demanding your attention. Kyoto is arguably the most historic, beautiful place in all of Japan, and 40 minutes away from OGU by train. Yet “go to Kyoto” may only make my To Do list once or twice per year. “It’s so far,” and “It’s too crowded,” are common excuses.
Cue the students. Our group this semester, as in most semesters, is incredibly bright, inquisitive, and educated. They have a deep interest in Japan and have studied Japan and Japanese for years. Yet no matter how much background someone has in Japanese culture and language, coming here for the first time is an eye-opening experience. Everything is new, no matter how mundane. The opportunity to see Japan again and again through the eyes of the students reminds me of how lucky I am to live here.
Saturday’s trip to Kyoto and Arashiyama was one such opportunity. Seven students and six Japanese roommates and I bundled up and rolled out to make Japanese sweets by hand and tour Tenryuji, a World Heritage Site and one of the most significant temples in Zen Buddhism. Though I take the trip at least once a year, I am constantly surprised by the newness of each experience, as if layers of meaning are uncovered with each trip. With my 14 new pairs of eyes, I watched colorful balls of sweet bean and rice flour become ornate tea-ceremony sweets, watched lazy carp cruise the waters of a tranquil Japanese garden, and watched powdery snow fall through the towering shoots in a bamboo forest, coming face-to-face with the scenes that I take for granted on a daily basis. And through the student’s eyes, I fell in love with Japan all over again.