By: Hannah Perry
Dartmouth College, IES Tokyo (Kanda University of International Studies), Fall 2013
Chiba Prefecture, Narashino City, Yatsu. District 2, block 22, house number 4. My home for the next four months. A narrow, cement-brick building three stories high, with each room distinguishable from the outside by a sliding door providing access to a small balcony protected by short iron railing from which laundry could be hung to dry. The downstairs was occupied by a family of four, a mother and father and their two young sons, who oversaw the operations of the dorm and directed the adjacent “Kids’ Club,” a children’s English learning center. The second and third floors housed sixteen residents, both regular university students from Japan and international exchange students, many of which were waiting in the dining room to greet me, since at 9 PM I would be the last to arrive. Night obscured my image of the dormitory even more than my fading consciousness as I stood before the stone walkway leading me through a small, quaint garden area up to the entrance of the dormitory. Besides trying to piece together how exactly I had arrived here in the first place, I wondered how my fall exchange term at Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS) would unfold.
Disembarking at Narita and rolling my way through customs and baggage claim were a huge blur. And though only two hours had passed, navigating the train system from the airport and wandering the streets of Yatsu in search of my dormitory for the first time were even cloudier in my recollection. However, the initial feelings of overwhelming excitement and perpetual confusion, bitter discouragement and burning determination will forever remain in my memory.
September. Figuring out the independent lifestyle in Yatsu International Dormitory, I realized that my daily activities in Japan would be very different from my ordinary routine back at Dartmouth College, or even the Japanese homestay in which I had participated the previous year. I owe my smooth transition to my “Buddy” Saeko. At KUIS, each exchange student is assigned a “Buddy,” a regular Japanese student who volunteers with the international office to offer guidance throughout the program. With Saeko’s help, I was able to accomplish many tasks during orientation week – procuring a commuter train pass, purchasing national health insurance, registering for classes. Out of the various excursions we went on that week, I consider running errands at local department store our most memorable. For me, everything was novel and interesting. For instance, while in Japanese supermarkets, entire aisles are designated for the vast multitude of brands of soy sauce and seaweed, in US grocery stores these ingredients are typically harder to come by. Conversely, if I was craving a peanut butter, I would unfortunately have to wait four more months to find a jar sold at a reasonable price back at home. For Saeko, my enthusiasm for such ordinary things may have been strange, but this shopping trip became a wonderful setting to engage in an afternoon-long conversation about cultural differences – from a playful comparison of the eccentric but kawaii idol Kyary Pamyu Pamyu to America’s very own “fashion monster” Lady Gaga, to technical subjects such as the most frequented methods of transportation, to broader issues like the influence of the rigid, test-based compulsory education system on English instruction. Returning together to the train station with bags full of household items, cooking ingredients, and everything necessary to start my journey as an exchange student, I felt so fortunate to have her support in my adjustment to everyday life in Japan.
October. After spending two weeks in class, I was already starting to second-guess my language ability. Earlier during orientation, I had taken a series of placement exams, a combination of written and oral, and entered Interaction Level 4. In the KUIS exchange program, there are six Interaction levels, Level 1 for students beginning Japanese and Level 6 for students who have already passed the JLPT N1. Since I had only studied Japanese for two years in college, I was daunted by the challenge of immersing myself in six high-intermediate Japanese classes with limited kanji knowledge and speaking proficiency. I felt so behind my peers as I spent hours painstakingly trying to make sense of my assignments. While my classmates actively participated in discussion, the extent of my responses to professors’ questions was usually just a quizzical look and a sumimasen, wakarimasen. This month, we would begin our next major class project, directing the rest of the exchange students on a bus trip to Nokogiri Mountain, and with this internal struggle, I was especially nervous about assuming such a leadership role. As we continued our preparations for the trip, from working out the details of the itinerary to planning musical activities to be played on the bus, I came upon a song by SMAP called Sekai ni hitotsu dake no hana, or “The Only Flower in the World:
Sousa bokura wa sekai ni hitotsu dake no hana
Hitori hitori chigau tane wo motsu
Sono hana wo sakaseru koto dake ni
Isshoukenmei ni nareba ii
We are all flowers unlike any other in the world,
Each and every one of us carrying a different seed.
In order to make them blossom into flowers,
We should try to do our very best.
Contemplating the meaning of the lyrics, I realized that instead of comparing myself with others, I could achieve a more positive outlook by accentuating my strengths, improving my weaknesses, and setting individual goals, one of them being a successful bus trip. From then on, I worked to overcome my self-consciousness and contribute my own talents and ideas to class preparations. Taking in the enchanting natural scenery of Chiba at the edge of Nokogiri Mountain, by the end of the month I finally felt that I deserved my placement into Interaction Level 4.
December. Stepping back through security at Narita airport upon my departure, I looked back at Saeko, both the first to welcome me into Japan and the last to wave goodbye. By the end of the exchange program, she had not only fulfilled her job responsibilities as a “Buddy,” but had also become one of my best friends. As I continued to the concourse, I thought of other familiar things that I suddenly would not see again tomorrow. The sign at Yatsu International Dormitory, the cubbies at which we would exchange our outside footwear for slippers, the area in which cleaning teams would sort garbage into groups more specific than recyclable and non-recyclable, the gas range on which my cooking companions and I often experimented with new recipes. Though back in September they were reminders of how far away I was from home, I have come to remember them as symbols of home. Waiting at the gate for boarding, I put on that special SMAP song, which had since made it to the “Most Played” list on my iPod. For the rest of my time at KUIS, whenever I was discouraged I would recall the important message of isshoukenmei, doing your best. Even now the lyrics resonate in my mind, reminding me of what I have learned and experienced over the past semester as an exchange student of KUIS in Chiba, Japan.