Living In Another Language

Hunter Oberg, History Major, UMass Amherst

Hikone, Japan

Hikone, Japan

During the summer of 2014, from June through the beginning of August, I undertook what was the most challenging, yet rewarding academic experiences of my undergraduate career: studying Japanese in Japan. Having been fascinated by Japan and its language, culture, and history for a number of years, I had finally gotten the opportunity not only to spend time there, but to study the language and culture up close. The program I studied at, Japan Center for Michigan Universities, requires that only Japanese be used during classroom hours. The instructors communicate with students using only Japanese and the students, in turn, respond in Japanese, unless asking permission first to use English, which may be, and usually was, denied. Initially this was one of the most overwhelming experiences of my life. One of the biggest challenges of living in another country, especially when the language used is not your own, is communication. English isn’t uncommon in Japan. There will be signs in English, stores or restaurants that use English names, like say a Starbucks, and the names of Japanese places might be translated into Romaji, which is the translation of Japanese into the Latin alphabet, but the English Language itself will be rarely used outside of big cities.

Part of the Peace Park in Hiroshima

Part of the Peace Park in Hiroshima

I got my first taste of this after leaving the airport in Nagoya when I was attempting to make my way to the program. Having next to no usable Japanese, I was lulled into a false sense of security at the airport, the flight attendants spoke English, announcements were made in English, so I was little prepared for trying to buy a subway ticket, a train ticket, and further, trying to read and make sense of what was on the ticket, which happened to be mostly in Japanese. This isn’t to say getting around or experiencing Japan is impossible if you don’t speak Japanese, but it will be tremendously helpful if you do. One of the most rewarding experiences in all of this, of course was when I was able to understand or communicate in Japanese. But, even when I couldn’t understand, even during the moments when I had no hope of figuring out what was being said, I was still able to appreciate and enjoy the fact that I was surrounded by a language and culture that wasn’t my own.

The dome at Hiroshima

The dome at Hiroshima

The best example of this was when I, along with four other students from my program, hiked ancient pilgrimage route into the small mountain town of Koya to stay at a Buddhist temple. Koya, generally referred to as Koyasan, is home to a large number of Buddhist temples, which offer lodging called Shukubo, where you’re given a room, meals, and the chance to watch the monks perform their morning prayers. Despite having spent almost all of my waking hours studying Japanese, I could barely understand the chanting of the monks. This didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the experience at all, in fact in some ways it might have enhanced it. I stopped any attempt at trying to translate what I was hearing and instead only enjoyed the moment, which was unlike anything I’ve experienced to this point in my life.

Garden at the temple in Koyasan.

Garden at the temple in Koyasan.

Studying Japanese in Japan provided a unique experience, one that isn’t readily available in the United States. I was forced to use the language inside the classroom by my professors and of course, had to use the language outside of it to survive. Whether I was in a grocery store attempting to figure out the price or location of an item or in the train station trying to ask for directions, I had the chance to use what I learned in a meaningful way. I also had experiences in Japan where I couldn’t understand what was going on, but was able to appreciate that moment for what it was. Initially it can be terrifying experience when people are speaking and announcements are being made and you can understand almost none it, but it can also be exhilarating.

Itsukushima Shrine. A famous Shinto Shrine located on the island of Itsukushima, popularly referred to as Myajima.

Itsukushima Shrine. A famous Shinto Shrine located on the island of Itsukushima, popularly referred to as Myajima.

All of this would not have been possible without the help the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. The scholarship, provided by the State Department and only available to those receiving a Pell Grant, seeks to help individuals study abroad that ordinarily might not be able to. You can find out more about the Gilman Scholarship and studying abroad by going to the Education Abroad Office located on  455 Hills South, 111 Thatcher Road on the UMass campus.

Floating Torii

Floating Torii

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