I initially started out this semester with the intention of volunteering at an NGO so I could improve my formal Japanese skills – something I felt like I was lacking, both in terms of my ability to use it and identify when to use it. I settled on an NGO that a previous KCJS student had had a fantastic semester with, and I was excited to take on the challenge. However, I quickly realized that I did not have the time to contribute meaningfully to the work they did – I felt quite strongly that I was causing them some trouble by being there as a foreigner with questionable Japanese skills. Although my time there was brief, I still learned a lot – I found it really interesting how the keigo dynamics worked in regard to me as a foreigner, and I was called Ellen-san instead of Ehrnrooth-san – then again, I do have possibly the most difficult-to-pronounce-in-any-language name conceivable.
After I came to the decision to switch CIPs, my mind wondered about what was best to do. I had had a less-than-ideal experience at my CIP last semester, which was taking dance lessons. However, I am the world’s most enthusiastic dancer (albeit a not particularly skilled one), and I realized that it was worth giving it another try. Last semester I mostly took K-pop dance classes, which may have been the cause the lack of a community feeling – the majority of the people in the classes were high schoolers and were there with their friends, and it was hard to relate to them in many ways. For that reason, I decided to take classes at a couple different studios with a wider demographic of students this semester, and the styles I’ve focused on have been waacking (a style born out of 1970s Los Angeles LGBT clubs) and hip hop – and I am happy to report they have been a success compared to last semester.
In a sense, it has been a very multi-lingual experience. First of all, the number of random English words that are a part of the vocabulary dancers use continues to surprise me. Both waacking and hip hop find their roots in the U.S., so it makes sense that the technical vocabulary would travel over – but some of the words used have very obvious Japanese counterparts, so the usage of the English words feels kind of unusual.
Not that I am complaining; it does make understanding the instructions much easier, especially when they are combined with the onomatopoeic sounds the instructors sometimes use to describe movements. This has been a challenge, albeit an amusing one. I am really bad at remembering the meaning of Japanese onomatopoeia, and often get it wrong when trying to explain things in conversation, to the amusement of my Japanese friends. However, the power of guesswork can go far, and usually I am able to figure out pretty quickly what I’m being told to do. The times when I don’t, however, are pretty obvious.
Those times of confusion were communicated pretty instantly with my facial expressions, which actually ended up being to my benefit. I think I emote visually a lot, which means the teachers would come over quite often to help me out as it was immediately obvious when I was confused. This was an interesting parallel to my classmates, who tended to just try and focus on drilling the mistakes on their own until they fix them. The different routes we took to get to a place of understanding has been an interesting thing to observe.
Lastly, dance to me is a language in itself – so even when I had some difficulty understanding what was happening around me, when everyone performs the choreography together, there is a sense of mutual understanding. This common understanding went far, and I felt much more welcomed in my classes this semester compared to the last. The teachers took an active interest in asking about me and introducing me to the class, and the students followed suit, with me exchanging contact info with some of them. I think taking classes in more niche styles (waacking and style hip hop fall into that category) helps – people who have niche interests, in my opinion, tend to mostly be happy to find other people who have those same interests, even if there is something like a language barrier that can get in the way of communication.