By: Patricia Maclachlan
As a restless teen growing up in a quiet suburb of Vancouver, Canada, I looked to study abroad not so much to expand my intellectual horizons as a ticket to adventure. Since I would have gone just about anywhere in those days, I jumped at the first interesting offer that came my way: a two-week study tour of France. Organized by the French program at my high school, the tour included visits to places that were connected to Canadian history, like Saint-Malo, the birthplace of the explorer Jacques Cartier, and the Normandy beaches where Canadian troops landed on D-Day. To a 16-year-old who’d never left home on her own or even flown on an airplane, that trip couldn’t have been more exciting. It also inspired my next adventure: a French summer immersion program at Laval University in Quebec City. (Quebec certainly doesn’t qualify as “abroad” for Canadians, but for a native English speaker like me it came close enough.)
Although my engagement with things French proved to be short-lived, that trip to France and summer in Quebec City made an indelible impression on me. Intellectually, I gained valuable insights into French and Canadian culture. Personally, venturing outside of my comfort zone helped me to grow up. Nothing builds maturity and self-confidence like having to fend for oneself on unfamiliar terrain—and in a new language.
As a sophomore at the University of British Columbia, I had an “ah ha!” moment during a class on Japanese history that led to a life-long connection with Japan. Our professor had invited a friend of his from the local business community to address the class about career opportunities for graduates who could “combine a marketable degree with knowledge of Japanese.” It was 1984, just when Japan was nearing the peak of its remarkable economic rise. The message really resonated with me for some reason, and I resolved then and there to learn Japanese, spend some time in Japan, and become an international lawyer.
As luck would have it, I did not get to Japan until several months after graduation when I landed a two-year position as an English teacher with a northern Hokkaido branch of the Japan YMCA. Not exactly “study” abroad, but it was a formative experience nonetheless. I traveled the country, worked on my Japanese, and made several friends, all the while learning things about Japan that could never be gleaned from newspapers or college textbooks. And as often happens when people struggle to adapt to new cultures, I learned more about myself. I got a better sense of my strengths and weakness, my likes and dislikes. I also realized that my temperament was ill suited to the legal profession and that I would be happier pursuing an academic career in Japan Studies—a realization that would have come much too late had I gone straight to law school after college.
I returned to Japan again and again in subsequent years. In 1991, I arrived for a one-year stint of Japanese language training at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Yokohama, followed by nearly two years of dissertation research in affiliation with Keio University. Those years were very eventful ones for me, filled with exciting new experiences and, yes, plenty of challenges, both personal and academic. There were times when I thought seriously about throwing in the towel and taking up a new profession that didn’t require such heavy personal sacrifices. But I stuck with it in the end, and I’m so glad I did because my work in Japan soon opened doors that I never thought existed. I remind myself of this every time I make my annual two-week sojourn to Tokyo as a Japan Studies professor.
Clearly, my study abroad and other foreign adventures had an enormous impact on my personal and professional development. I often share those experiences when I encourage my students to take advantage of similar opportunities. Live outside your own cultural box for a while, I tell them, and see where it takes you. Take a chance before life’s responsibilities pin you down!
Next year, my seventh-grade daughter and I will mark milestone birthdays. To celebrate, we’ve decided to travel somewhere special for a couple of weeks—just the two of us. I let my daughter pick the destination, so long as it was a place that really intrigued her.
We leave for France next June.