I started studying Japanese as part of my foreign language requirement almost on a whim: I had watched a lot of anime, started to figure out fragments of the language, and decided to pursue it further. When I found out that Wheaton has an exchange with Waseda University in Tokyo, it seemed like the logical end goal after completing the two years of study available at home. When I discovered that the default period for the program was an entire school year, concern about being able to spend a year studying something completely unrelated to my major and still finish it in a reasonable amount of time almost prevented me from applying. Now, with five months of living and studying under my belt, I can say that applying to go abroad was absolutely the right decision.
The ability to handle being lost and/or confused, both geographically and linguistically, is currently the most valuable skill I’ve acquired while abroad. Previously, I had used my various comfort zones as a sort of shield: speaking the official language of the country I lived in fluently, living in small, easily understandable spaces like Wheaton’s campus. By contrast, after two and a half years of Japanese classes I speak at maybe a middle school level and can barely read most of one of the three writing systems (although the other two are fine); Tokyo covers a massive area and is the most populous metropolis in the world, leaving me more likely to be lost than not. Deciding that confusion was an acceptable mindset allows me to appreciate the progress I’ve made while understanding that I have so much more to learn.
An important part of adjusting to Waseda was dealing with the differences from Wheaton’s academic program. For one thing, course selection is not first come first serve, which on the one hand removes the urgency and stress that accompany frantically logging onto insideWheaton before the dreaded busy server message pops up, but on the other hand leaves the students with other, equally unpleasant kinds of stress; classes that are over-enrolled have their numbers corrected by randomly dropping students, causing me to miss out on a class on kanji (the aforementioned challenging writing system). Japanese classes are taught entirely in Japanese, which is a major change from the gradual progression of mostly English instruction to (mostly) Japanese instruction at Wheaton. The other courses are liberal arts courses in a variety of subjects: I’ve had a course on modern Japanese history, a course on English poetry, and one comparing English and Japanese linguistics thus far. The quality of these courses is decidedly mixed, but with that in mind my main goal in coming to Waseda was always to study Japanese.
All the effort I put into learning Japanese is paying off in a very satisfying way: as I write this post, my parents are in the middle of a ten-day visit to Japan, and being able to order food at restaurants, check for potential food allergy problems, make requests for directions while traveling, and do a thousand and one other small but important tasks shows how far I’ve come since starting the language. Speaking of starting the language, if you’re at all interested in Japanese I highly recommend Wheaton’s offering. Professor Tierney conducts my favorite classes I’ve taken at Wheaton, teaching the Japanese language with a keen eye for understanding and assisting each individual student, and a wonderful sense of humor about the numerous jokes and references that are made after someone finds the Japanese word for ‘space alien’ in the text book glossary*. Now that my shameless plug is out of the way, I also want to say that I can’t recommend studying abroad enough: I’ve learned so much about myself (and the world) in five months, and I still have another six months in Tokyo! Sayonara ‘til next time!
*The Japanese word for space alien is 宇宙人uchuujin, literally “space person”