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Diversity is Why I Wanted to Study Abroad

Posted on November 07, 2019


Why did you decide to study abroad?

Even before I graduated high school, I knew I wanted to study abroad. Languages have always been a very keen interest of mine, and I've studied several of them throughout my educational experience. Language and intercultural immersion are probably the biggest reasons for me to study abroad--the best way to really learn a language is to use it and be surrounded by it, and the best way to understand a language is to experience it together with the culture to which it is tied.

Diversity is also a reason for me to study abroad. As someone who grew up exposed to multiple cultures, diversity has always been very important to me. I've studied Chinese off and on throughout my childhood, because my parents felt it was important for me to be aware of my Asian heritage. When I started officially studying languages in middle school, however, I realized that what I wanted wasn't just to read, speak, and write another language(s); I wanted to experience the culture as well broaden my worldview outside of the United States.

Tell us about the program you went on

I participated in the IES Abroad-sponsored Direct Enrollment program at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan. One of the program requirements was taking Japanese communications and writing classes, among other elective courses. Language placement was based on both a placement exam taken during orientation and one's performance during the first week of classes. I was eventually placed in NIJ500, which is the course that follows the completion of the Genki II textbook. My elective courses included "Japanese Culture and Tea Ceremony," "Calligraphy," "Sumie," "Intermediate Translation," and "Creative Writing," but there were a variety of other classes offered, as well. These included a range of history, business, political, cultural, and arts courses, among others. In terms of housing, both dorm and homestay options are available. I was able to do a homestay, and it was one of the best experiences of my study abroad.

The IES Abroad part of the program included a variety of excursions, both weekend-trips and evening activities. The field trips planned for the fall included trips to Kyoto, Kanazawa, and Takayama and Shirakawago. I'd been to Kyoto once before and loved it, but the other two were brand new to me. I enjoyed all of them, but the visit to Shirakawago was definitely my favorite.

What is one thing you wish you would have known about studying abroad before you left?

I would have liked to have known more about the history and geography of Japan before I went there. While extensive background knowledge isn't always necessary, knowledge of places and things you visit will definitely give them greater significance. I also would have liked to have had better awareness of the phone/data options available in Japan before I arrived. That way I could have saved myself some money and arranged an option that was more convenient for me. Sun-Net Mobile, Softbank, and Au are all companies that offer SIM cards and pocket Wifi rentals. I was fortunate in that a pocket Wifi was loaned to me for the duration of my stay in Nagoya, but Sun-Net is also a good option for students. They offer a student discount, and a variety of combination options for prepaid SIMs and pocket Wifis, as well as a phone number option for an extra 500 yen. My advice is to look around online for what options you'll have available in your study abroad country, as well as check with your program advisors about whether or not there will be a section about phones and Wifi acquisition during your program orientation.

The other advice I have about studying abroad is advice I received from students at Knox College who'd also studied abroad: You will acquire stuff. Even if you're saving money, you're still traveling and you will end up buying things. While it's important to save money and budget properly, be prepared to be at least a little free with your spending. This way, you won't limit your experience unnecessarily. Another thing to be careful of is to make sure you know how you're going to get everything home. Every country has their own discount stores and resale shops, places where you can get lots of books for cheap or small things for a decent price. Know your shipping options, just in case you have to mail things home--luggage fees at the airport are expensive, much more so than postage, depending on the type.

Did you experience any discrimination abroad because of your race, sex, religion, sexual orientation or a physical disability? If so, what did you learn from the experience?

I identify as a queer, cisgendered half-Chinese, half-American woman, who subscribes no particular religion. While I was in Japan, I didn't feel much discrimination overall toward my various categories of identification, though Japanese people were often surprised when I told them I was a citizen of the United States. The Japanese image of an American is a white, blond-haired and blue-eyed person; when they look at me, their first assumption is that I'm Chinese.

In terms of gender roles, Japan's system is interesting. While men are expected to work and be breadwinners for their families and women generally become housewives after the birth of their children, women are also usually in charge of the family's finances--men often have little power over this. Individual family practices and gender roles will differ, however. Gender roles are also more rigid in Japan, relatively speaking, but I hesitate to say that women have fewer rights; rather, I would say that in some cases, you just have to be creative about things, or learn to be able to view the world in slightly different ways. I never felt particularly bothered about my gender or gender expression while I was in Japan.

As for sexuality--and this can also be reflected in gender identities, as well--Japan has a more conservative perspective than that of the United States over the past few decades. While I never felt discrimination toward the LGBTQ+ community, I also tended not to bring it up as a topic of conversation. The general attitude is one of heteronormativity, though individual stances will vary. My take on it is that there isn't as much general awareness of the LGBTQ+ identities, at least in terms of the finer points and how to differentiate between some of the categories. My advice for those who are worried--feel out the situation and be prepared for questions and/or comments, but also be willing to see/understand the world through others' points of view.

How has studying abroad benefited you, personally and academically?

Studying abroad has been very useful for me, as I was able to take courses for my Asian Studies major and explore aspects of Japanese culture in ways that would have been difficult for me to do in the United States. Thanks to my semester at Nanzan University, I was able to take practical courses in various types of Japanese culture and artwork, and I was able to apply what I learned in my language courses in a practical manner through my translation and creative writing courses. These last three classes especially will aid me in preparation for my intended career as a translator and as a writer. Creative writing in Japanese is especially useful to me, as I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the nuances of the language, as well as observe some of the special creative techniques and tools unique to Japanese, such as their use of onomatopoeia and mimetic words.

I also became more culturally aware of the subtler, more intuitive aspects of Japanese society, things that aren't always mentioned in classes or "prepping for Japan" guidebooks. An example of this is that it is considered rude to blow your nose in public; instead, people generally excuse themselves to the bathroom and then return to the table. Also, when you have a cold, wear a mask. This is thought to prevent others from catching your cold and will help you avoid getting one from someone else.

What was the most memorable moment of studying abroad?

My most memorable moment was probably the time I spent with the friends I'd made in Japan. They were very patient with me and taught me new words in Japanese that I'd either forgotten or hadn't come across in my language classes, and I also was able to teach them some English, as well. The cultural exchange was more exciting than I was expecting it to be, and we'd talk for hours on the train station platform, not realizing how quickly time flew.

How was the entertainment and nightlife?

I tried to spend most nights at home with my host family, but I did go to see a few movies and concerts while I was there. Movies in Japan are expensive--with a student discount, tickets were about 1500 yen per person, 2500 yen for premium seats in the back. The cinema was really nice, very clean, and quite large, but what was most interesting was that you reserve your seat when you buy your ticket, rather like going to see a play or a symphony in the United States. I'd recommend going at least once, but if you're worried about your budget, it's not something you should spend your money on unless there's a movie you really want to see.

In what way do you feel your experience abroad has prepared you for your future career? (Think both tangible things like language acquisition and intangible like learning to work with people who are very different from you)

My plan is for my study abroad experience to improve my Japanese and make connections (personal and professional) with the people I meet while in Nagoya. When I return, I'll be able to better extrapolate on this question.

Would you recommend the program you went on, if so why??

I definitely recommend it! It was definitely interesting to experience a different teaching style than what I'm used to in the United States, and direct enrollment was a great way to get myself to interact with Japanese students on campus, as well as other students studying abroad in Japan. Also, being able to stay with a host family was one of my favorite aspects of the program--it's a great way to immerse yourself in the culture and language, and have a support network at the same time.

What advice do you have for students thinking about study abroad?

Plan ahead and keep your options open. It's okay to change your mind, but if you're dead set on going somewhere, find a way to make that happen. The hardest things for me were finding the money and keeping morale high when my decisions were met with opposition. Also, don't be too quick to judge people when you're abroad. You may feel pressure to find friends fast, but take things at your own pace. Perceptions change, as do people. The same thing could be said about traveling while abroad or extracurriculars. There's a lot you can do in a foreign country and there's no way you'll be able to do them all in just one semester or even one year. Instead, try to experience something new every day, even if it's just a small thing like trying a new food or taking a different route home. Even in the quietest of neighborhoods, there's something you'll not have seen yet.

Author: Eunice Shek

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