Photo: Unsplash/Benjamin Hung

How a Decision to Study Japanese in College Led to an Experience of a Lifetime

Of all the different language courses my high school offered, I chose to learn Spanish because my friends told me I should.

“It’s the easiest class ever,” they explained.

Indeed, the grammar structure was similar enough to English that I found it relatively easy to digest. I didn’t really have to exert much effort to complete homework assignments and succeed on exams, and I was on a roll to getting straight A’s in Spanish each semester. And yet, it surprised me that three years later I couldn’t hold a proper dialogue with other Spanish speakers.

To be truthful, I wasn’t wholly invested in the idea of learning Spanish from the outset. All I really cared about was passing my classes, not actually learning and mastering the language. In class, I would raise my hand to answer questions and get my participation points. I would memorize conjugation rules and vocabulary only to regurgitate them onto my test paper.

I would soon find myself having regrets because of this. It wasn’t until I entered community college that I discovered a true passion for a new language; it was Japanese.

When I took my first Japanese course, it was the first time that I truly fell in love with a language. What fascinated me most about Japanese was how artistic and elegant it proved to be. And because I was inspired by my own curiosity to do something different, I secretly enjoyed knowing that I could speak a language my friends couldn’t.

When I eventually transferred to the University of Washington, I continued my pursuit to master the Japanese language by taking a first-year intensive course followed by a second-year segmented into three quarters.

My teachers were impressed by my performance and dedication to the language, so much so that they wrote me letters of recommendation to study abroad in Japan—and I got in! I also received a $2500 scholarship, which would sustain me on my wildest adventure!

Arriving in Japan and Meeting My “Family”

In Japan, I lived in a homestay with a family in Hakodate, Hokkaido. The family was comprised of a dad, mom, and their young son. My “dad” was a full-time barber for his own garage-based barber shop, which connected to the living room on the ground level of their two-story house.

Japanese Dad Cutting Hair in Barbershop

My “dad” cutting hair in his barbershop

My “mom” was a full-time cook for a restaurant specialized in serving tonkatsu dishes. My younger “brother” was a middle school student who played the outfield position for his school’s baseball team. My “family” in Japan was a handful of fun and excitement, which was a refreshing change to the routine life that I had back home in Seattle.

Japanese Mom Working at Restaurant and Brother Playing Baseball

My “mom” at her restaurant and “brother” playing baseball

The first day I arrived at their home, my “parents” took me out to a soba restaurant. Afterwards, they drove me all across the town, where we stopped to get desert at a chocolate shop and then went to a seafood market.

I experienced my first culture shock at the market when my “father” ran up to me with both of his hands sandwiching a white, jelly-like substance—live squid legs! “Tabete, John,” (Eat the jelly) he exclaimed while trying to make me hold them.

My mind was racing. What is going on? I’m holding a bunch of squirming squid legs. Saying no the first day here is going to ruin my entire chances of fitting in with this family.

“Yoosh,” (All right) I remarked nervously.

I stuffed them all in my mouth. It took me an entire minute to process chewing the squirming legs, but the taste was indeed exquisite! “Oishii otouchan” (That was delicious, dad). He smiled at me with approval and decided to buy more for dinner, where I would meet his friends and have food and drinks with them that night.

The First Day I Biked to School in Japan

I made my way to school each day using my brother’s bike. It was a 20-minute bike ride that required me to trudge up a steep 45-degree angle hill, which was roughly the length of a football field. Now, I’ve been riding mountain bikes just like his all my life – and I even used to bike to school back in Seattle – but for whatever reason, this bike was cursed.

After I had finished my first day of school, I unchained my bike and began heading home. When I reached the hill, I began to slowly pedal down it. I wanted to be careful because there were at least four intersections I would need to pass before I would reach the bottom. Well, with momentum and gravity working together I quickly started to gain speed – a lot of speed.

As I neared the first intersection I tried to gently pull on the right handlebar brake, only to realize it stopped working. “Ohhhkaaayyy, the other one” I muttered under my breath while my trembling hands reached for the left brake. Nothing.

I started to panic. I was left for dead; there was no way I thought I was going to make it to the bottom without getting slammed from either side of traffic. Fortunately, fate chose me to become the next Evel Knievel for a few moments. As I flew through each intersection, I frantically would try to look out for the car that would finish me off. It never happened. I rushed past all four intersections before the road level off and I coasted to a stop.

I made it unscathed. My heart was pounding, and I was unutterably relieved to have survived one of my most life-threatening moments. I went home and told my dad the story and after he had a good laugh, he went ahead and fixed the brakes himself.

Hill in Japan on the way to school

The fateful hill

School in Japan and the Language Struggle

The school enforced a strict rule known as the Nihongo Dake Rule. Once you passed the threshold of the second floor, where classes for all levels of Japanese were held, you were only permitted to communicate in Japanese; otherwise, you could use English with your classmates.

Should the vigilant professors catch you speaking to others or even soliloquizing anything in English, they would take out a pen and notepad and put a tally next to your name, which would negatively impact your grade for participation. I thought it was the most ridiculous thing ever! Who subconsciously thinks in a language other than what was hardwired since birth? Nonetheless, I did manage only two tally marks throughout the entire program.

My class was an intensive language course for the third-year level. For four hours a day, I practiced Japanese in a classroom with 12 other students from universities statewide. What took us all by surprise was how fast our teachers spoke! If we had any hope of learning anything, we needed to adapt to their normal speed. Surprisingly, we all eventually did within the week.

Class was still exceptionally burdensome, however, and the material we had to cover each day was overwhelming. For the first since I started learning a foreign language, I was unable to keep up with the workload pace; I was discouraged.

I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I did the same amount of work as my classmates, but they were performing better on their tests. We seemed to understand the language and communicate at the same level, so I couldn’t understand what was holding me down. Well, after much introspection, I finally realized that I just needed to commit more time to studying. That wouldn’t be easy as there was so much I wanted to see and do while in Japan.

A month passed and I was still struggling. When I stayed out late one night, my “dad” called to ask where I was. I told him I was getting homework done outside, but he told me to come home for dinner. When I got home, my “mother” had just finished setting the table with rice and fish. She called my brother down to join us. I kneeled down across my father in the seiza position as was customary around the kotatsu (low table).

Traditional Dinner with Japanese Family

A traditional meal with my Japanese family

After dinner, we all watched some Japanese comedy shows together and flipped through other channels. It was getting late and both my “mother” and “brother” said their goodnights. My “dad” was sipping beer while he continued watching TV. He broke the silence between us by asking about how I was doing in school. Something struck a nerve as I could feel tears beginning to well up inside.

“Not good,” I started to explain, “I’ve done my best to work hard, but it’s not enough…I’m sorry.”

What my “father” did next was remarkable. He tried to explain to me something using the limited English he learned from traveling to the states:

“John is family,” he said while pointing to me.

“John…my son,” he stated while pointing back to himself.

I raised my arm to hide the stream of tears falling down my cheeks. He got up from his spot to give me a hug telling me, “it’s okay.”

What I Learned From My Trip to Japan

At the end of my trip, I reminisced on what made this journey possible. It all began with a passion to pursue the Japanese language and a curious nature to seek out the unknown. I never imaged that I would find myself in Japan, learning their customs and culture, enjoying new experiences, and communicating with people I never thought I could.

When I focused on viewing a language as simply a class to receive a grade, I did not really learn. But when I studied a language intently and immersed myself in the country and people, I learned more than I could imagine and was left without disappointment. That’s why I didn’t care much about the less than perfect grade I received in the end. I could have been a superstar getting full marks on my exams and homework, but that would never reflect the true growth of learning through my experience in Japan.

If not for my willingness to accept invitations to see new places, try new foods, and meet new people, my trip would have been purposeless; it would have been better for me to remain in Seattle and simply learn the language if I did not take the time to experience and learn about the Japanese culture.

The challenges of a language barrier could not interfere with the connection I made with my host family. We grew close, we learned from each other, and we enjoyed our outings at local eateries and sight-seeing. The overall experience was incredibly rewarding. Until this day, my “father’s” touching words serve to remind me of the importance of counting one’s fortunes in life.

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How a Decision to Study Japanese in College Led to an Experience of a Lifetime

Of all the different language courses my high school offered, I chose to learn Spanish because my friends told me I should.

“It’s the easiest class ever,” they explained.

Indeed, the grammar structure was similar enough to English that I found it relatively easy to digest. I didn’t really have to exert much effort to complete homework assignments and succeed on exams, and I was on a roll to getting straight A’s in Spanish each semester. And yet, it surprised me that three years later I couldn’t hold a proper dialogue with other Spanish speakers.

To be truthful, I wasn’t wholly invested in the idea of learning Spanish from the outset. All I really cared about was passing my classes, not actually learning and mastering the language. In class, I would raise my hand to answer questions and get my participation points. I would memorize conjugation rules and vocabulary only to regurgitate them onto my test paper.

I would soon find myself having regrets because of this. It wasn’t until I entered community college that I discovered a true passion for a new language; it was Japanese.

When I took my first Japanese course, it was the first time that I truly fell in love with a language. What fascinated me most about Japanese was how artistic and elegant it proved to be. And because I was inspired by my own curiosity to do something different, I secretly enjoyed knowing that I could speak a language my friends couldn’t.

When I eventually transferred to the University of Washington, I continued my pursuit to master the Japanese language by taking a first-year intensive course followed by a second-year segmented into three quarters.

My teachers were impressed by my performance and dedication to the language, so much so that they wrote me letters of recommendation to study abroad in Japan—and I got in! I also received a $2500 scholarship, which would sustain me on my wildest adventure!

Arriving in Japan and Meeting My “Family”

In Japan, I lived in a homestay with a family in Hakodate, Hokkaido. The family was comprised of a dad, mom, and their young son. My “dad” was a full-time barber for his own garage-based barber shop, which connected to the living room on the ground level of their two-story house.

Japanese Dad Cutting Hair in Barbershop

My “dad” cutting hair in his barbershop

My “mom” was a full-time cook for a restaurant specialized in serving tonkatsu dishes. My younger “brother” was a middle school student who played the outfield position for his school’s baseball team. My “family” in Japan was a handful of fun and excitement, which was a refreshing change to the routine life that I had back home in Seattle.

Japanese Mom Working at Restaurant and Brother Playing Baseball

My “mom” at her restaurant and “brother” playing baseball

The first day I arrived at their home, my “parents” took me out to a soba restaurant. Afterwards, they drove me all across the town, where we stopped to get desert at a chocolate shop and then went to a seafood market.

I experienced my first culture shock at the market when my “father” ran up to me with both of his hands sandwiching a white, jelly-like substance—live squid legs! “Tabete, John,” (Eat the jelly) he exclaimed while trying to make me hold them.

My mind was racing. What is going on? I’m holding a bunch of squirming squid legs. Saying no the first day here is going to ruin my entire chances of fitting in with this family.

“Yoosh,” (All right) I remarked nervously.

I stuffed them all in my mouth. It took me an entire minute to process chewing the squirming legs, but the taste was indeed exquisite! “Oishii otouchan” (That was delicious, dad). He smiled at me with approval and decided to buy more for dinner, where I would meet his friends and have food and drinks with them that night.

The First Day I Biked to School in Japan

I made my way to school each day using my brother’s bike. It was a 20-minute bike ride that required me to trudge up a steep 45-degree angle hill, which was roughly the length of a football field. Now, I’ve been riding mountain bikes just like his all my life – and I even used to bike to school back in Seattle – but for whatever reason, this bike was cursed.

After I had finished my first day of school, I unchained my bike and began heading home. When I reached the hill, I began to slowly pedal down it. I wanted to be careful because there were at least four intersections I would need to pass before I would reach the bottom. Well, with momentum and gravity working together I quickly started to gain speed – a lot of speed.

As I neared the first intersection I tried to gently pull on the right handlebar brake, only to realize it stopped working. “Ohhhkaaayyy, the other one” I muttered under my breath while my trembling hands reached for the left brake. Nothing.

I started to panic. I was left for dead; there was no way I thought I was going to make it to the bottom without getting slammed from either side of traffic. Fortunately, fate chose me to become the next Evel Knievel for a few moments. As I flew through each intersection, I frantically would try to look out for the car that would finish me off. It never happened. I rushed past all four intersections before the road level off and I coasted to a stop.

I made it unscathed. My heart was pounding, and I was unutterably relieved to have survived one of my most life-threatening moments. I went home and told my dad the story and after he had a good laugh, he went ahead and fixed the brakes himself.

Hill in Japan on the way to school

The fateful hill

School in Japan and the Language Struggle

The school enforced a strict rule known as the Nihongo Dake Rule. Once you passed the threshold of the second floor, where classes for all levels of Japanese were held, you were only permitted to communicate in Japanese; otherwise, you could use English with your classmates.

Should the vigilant professors catch you speaking to others or even soliloquizing anything in English, they would take out a pen and notepad and put a tally next to your name, which would negatively impact your grade for participation. I thought it was the most ridiculous thing ever! Who subconsciously thinks in a language other than what was hardwired since birth? Nonetheless, I did manage only two tally marks throughout the entire program.

My class was an intensive language course for the third-year level. For four hours a day, I practiced Japanese in a classroom with 12 other students from universities statewide. What took us all by surprise was how fast our teachers spoke! If we had any hope of learning anything, we needed to adapt to their normal speed. Surprisingly, we all eventually did within the week.

Class was still exceptionally burdensome, however, and the material we had to cover each day was overwhelming. For the first since I started learning a foreign language, I was unable to keep up with the workload pace; I was discouraged.

I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I did the same amount of work as my classmates, but they were performing better on their tests. We seemed to understand the language and communicate at the same level, so I couldn’t understand what was holding me down. Well, after much introspection, I finally realized that I just needed to commit more time to studying. That wouldn’t be easy as there was so much I wanted to see and do while in Japan.

A month passed and I was still struggling. When I stayed out late one night, my “dad” called to ask where I was. I told him I was getting homework done outside, but he told me to come home for dinner. When I got home, my “mother” had just finished setting the table with rice and fish. She called my brother down to join us. I kneeled down across my father in the seiza position as was customary around the kotatsu (low table).

Traditional Dinner with Japanese Family

A traditional meal with my Japanese family

After dinner, we all watched some Japanese comedy shows together and flipped through other channels. It was getting late and both my “mother” and “brother” said their goodnights. My “dad” was sipping beer while he continued watching TV. He broke the silence between us by asking about how I was doing in school. Something struck a nerve as I could feel tears beginning to well up inside.

“Not good,” I started to explain, “I’ve done my best to work hard, but it’s not enough…I’m sorry.”

What my “father” did next was remarkable. He tried to explain to me something using the limited English he learned from traveling to the states:

“John is family,” he said while pointing to me.

“John…my son,” he stated while pointing back to himself.

I raised my arm to hide the stream of tears falling down my cheeks. He got up from his spot to give me a hug telling me, “it’s okay.”

What I Learned From My Trip to Japan

At the end of my trip, I reminisced on what made this journey possible. It all began with a passion to pursue the Japanese language and a curious nature to seek out the unknown. I never imaged that I would find myself in Japan, learning their customs and culture, enjoying new experiences, and communicating with people I never thought I could.

When I focused on viewing a language as simply a class to receive a grade, I did not really learn. But when I studied a language intently and immersed myself in the country and people, I learned more than I could imagine and was left without disappointment. That’s why I didn’t care much about the less than perfect grade I received in the end. I could have been a superstar getting full marks on my exams and homework, but that would never reflect the true growth of learning through my experience in Japan.

If not for my willingness to accept invitations to see new places, try new foods, and meet new people, my trip would have been purposeless; it would have been better for me to remain in Seattle and simply learn the language if I did not take the time to experience and learn about the Japanese culture.

The challenges of a language barrier could not interfere with the connection I made with my host family. We grew close, we learned from each other, and we enjoyed our outings at local eateries and sight-seeing. The overall experience was incredibly rewarding. Until this day, my “father’s” touching words serve to remind me of the importance of counting one’s fortunes in life.

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