Meet Aida Cheung, our 2nd Place winner for International Education Week (November 13-17)! Aida is a IS and HIS double major student here at IWU. She spent a semester abroad at KEIO University, Japan, Tokyo,during spring of 2017.
International Education Week (IEW) is an opportunity to celebrate the benefits of international education and exchange worldwide. International education is hailed as a life-changing and eye-opening experience stimulating personal growth and expanding perspectives. This year we invited international students and students who studied abroad to share their experiences with new cultures and describe how they overcame obstacles. Aida presents her experience studying abroad in Japan. Happy reading!
IEW ESSAY WRITING CONTEST: Aida Cheung, 2nd place
My excitement could not be contained as I was on the plane to Japan in late March. I was finally going to this country full of rich history, unique culture, and heavenly food. As I finally stepped off the airplane, I realized that the only Japanese word I knew was “konnichiwa,” or “hello” in English. What a great way to begin my study abroad journey for the next four months—not.
My time in Tokyo absolutely contains some of the best memories and times of my entire life. While only being 21 years old, there is still a long road of life ahead of me, but Japan was truly a different experience. Still, the early stages of living in Japan were filled with lots of gesturing, miscommunication, and general confusion. I am Asian, so it was quite easy to blend into the generally homogeneous society. However, this was to my disadvantage because people assumed I was Japanese and could speak the language, which made everyone overlook me despite being the distressed “gaijin,” or foreigner. Even though people were very willing to help me if I asked, it was still difficult because not many people knew English. Other foreign students would tell me that not knowing the language was fine and “shouganai,” or, loosely translated, “it can’t be helped.” But, it definitely could be helped! For the first few weeks in the land of the rising sun, I was extremely frustrated with myself. I did not know how to order food at a restaurant, how to read the subway map, or even how to greet my dorm manager. Why did I not think to study Japanese before I came here? It was an absolutely foolish thing to assume that people would be able to speak English and that it would be simple to assimilate into a place so unlike home. However, I was able to slowly overcome the language barrier as I started to learn the language in my elementary Japanese classes. It was an accelerated class, and slowly but surely, I was learning a considerable amount of vocabulary and phrases so that I could actually begin to communicate with others.
The learning of the Japanese language is not an effortless task. Yet, I was determined to learn as much as possible because visiting a foreign country and living in one are two very different things. I wanted to be deserving to say that I actually lived in Japan; I do not think that I could say this without knowing any Japanese. Japanese is a highly expressive language filled with various honorifics to address the relationship you have with the person you are speaking to, delicate and subtle differences in vocabulary, and phrases that range from encompassing a specific emotion after a certain event or everyday trivial actions. Being able to learn the native language not only allowed me time to truly appreciate the beauty of the language, but also opened up my opportunities to be able to really communicate with others. Finally communicating with the locals and other Japanese students, albeit with very basic Japanese, allowed me to form actual relationships with people. I could start ordering all the delicious array of foods that Japan had to offer, I could read the subway map and travel on my own, and most importantly I could greet my dorm manager as I arrived home everyday. I could even properly use the phrase “shouganai” when I encountered other problems like not having an umbrella when the clouds decide to pour or missing just one 100 yen coin that could have bought me a yummy ice cream after dinner.
However, I think that the most significant thing about learning Japanese was being able to really delve into and understand more about the culture and people. The language gave me a lot of insight into how the Japanese people communicate and interact with one another. I have always heard that the Japanese are very well-mannered. This statement certainly held true while I was in Tokyo. People are extremely polite and kind to their colleagues and peers. This was particularly illuminated through the use of honorifics and courtesy when talking with others. Being able to speak some Japanese also gave me the chance to really befriend and get to know those around me. I made a few close Japanese friends even though our conversations were somewhat limited as we bounced back and forth between Japanese and English. Despite such difficulty, it was worth it because this was a bond between one person and another, from completely contrasting backgrounds, a chance to actually know each other. It truly made a difference to be able to speak Japanese to others, not only for my sake, but for the establishment of a real relationship with others. After all, if you talk to someone in a language they know, you speak to their mind. But, if you talk to someone in their native language, you speak to their heart. – Aida Cheung