|Greg Flynn Spotlight|
I began my fourth year at WMU in the fall of 2006, but I would not call myself a senior. For my first two years I studied psychology with a minor in Japanese. Then, just as I was leaving for Japan, I realized that, rather than study psychology, I wanted to write, and I changed my major to English, practical writing. Starting in September I’ll be taking my first classes in a new major.
Having grown up first in Northwest Ohio and then Kalamazoo, I’m a child of corn, hills, and endless trees. So when I stepped onto a small plane at the Kalamazoo airport at 6 a.m. on a September morning in 2005, I knew Tokyo would grant me some very different scenery. Still, I’ve never been one to build concrete expectations and unbreakable assumptions, and I think that helped avoid any major culture shock.
That plane would take me to Rikkyo University in Tokyo to study Japanese for eleven months. Aside from Japanese, I also took Rikkyo’s “Japanese Studies in English” curriculum, which offers classes on Japanese history, economy and business, and culture. Nevertheless, my primary focus was studying the Japanese language, and the other classes simply served as a supplement, the academic ambience to fill out my study spectrum.
So why would an English major ever want to study in Japan? I asked myself this question more than once. Still, there is a connection. While all writers wish to be Stephen King or J. K. Rowling (though no one can but those two), I imagine most do not plan to end up writing for the local newspaper until retirement. I certainly do not. My original goal was to study business psychology and Japanese with the opinion that this combination could open up several doors. Now despite my change, I feel that having studied at Rikkyo may provide me with a door away from the local newspaper trap. English remains popular in Japan, and there is more than one English-language newspaper with a high status and wide readership. Moreover, there is the possible opportunity of teaching English.
When I refer to my “study abroad experience,” I am thinking of just about everything other than class time. For me there are three components that define the time I spent in Japan. Of least emotional consequence were my travels. During spring break (the Japanese school system’s longest break, from January through April), I traveled to the extremes of Japan. First I met a friend in northern Sapporo for that city’s February Snow Festival, and then I took a few days to explore Hakodate, another city in the snowy north. Later I traveled with friends far to the southwest to a place called Shimane, which is rich in history but poor in renown. From Shimane I night-bussed my way to meet some family in centrally-situated Kyoto.
The second defining factor is the other international students I met. We settled into a little group that went out together, stayed in together, complained together, and celebrated together. This group was the English-speaking island to which I sailed not for safety but simply for familiarity. It is still difficult for me to believe that now, in our home country (most of this group was American), we are further apart than we were when halfway around the world.
The third and most difficult to leave behind defining component of my experience was a club called IFL (International Friendly Lunch) based at Rikkyo. They were my best friends and teachers, and nearly all of my good memories of Japan are thanks to this group. It is a club organized by Japanese students with the purpose of being friends for the international students and speaking with us only in Japanese (there is a bad habit among Japanese people to speak English to any person who doesn’t look Asian, usually for personal English practice).
It is because of this group, more than my classes, that my Japanese improved as much as it did. I constantly feel that I have yet so much to learn. Still, more than once near the end of my time in Japan were the people I spoke with surprised that I had only been in Japan for less than a year. For me, now, while there are still plenty of times when I don’t know words and make mistakes, I don’t feel at all uncomfortable having conversations in Japanese. I often forget later if I have spoken to someone in Japanese or English, and with my bilingual Japanese friends we can fade in and out at times without really thinking about it.
So did going to Japan change my life? A person cannot leave behind all his friends, his family, his school, and everything familiar for a year and expect to return unchanged. Moreover, I do not define my life simply in terms of me; the places and people I left behind in America and those I have since left behind in Japan have all affected me and been affected by me. I came back to a Kalamazoo that is comfortable but not what I left behind. The room and the furniture are the same, but it is all rearranged. The hardest part was saying goodbye to Japan. There it seemed as if I had built the foundation for a beautiful and strong house, but I will never see that house completed.
Still, now I know that I can return that place. Maybe it won’t be the same neighborhood where I was building a house before, but I know some of the faces will be the same. I saw new things in new ways and learned about people from all around the world. Was going to Japan the best thing that ever happened to me? I do not think I have the proper viewing angle, being so recently returned, to judge its overall effect on my life. But what I know is that studying abroad has been an irreplaceable and honestly unique experience in my life. We cannot but live within the walls of our world; yet without the proper experiences we will always see the barriers as nearer than they are, believe the dimensions to be smaller, and limit ourselves to only a small corner of a truly great place. I believe that through my time abroad I have pushed my view so far that what before was periphery now is focus, and now instead of periphery there is only potential.