I participate in Kyoto University’s Hiking Circle. Although due to weather and field trips, I did not end up getting to go on any of the overnight hikes, I did actively participate in the more mundane events hosted by the circle. Groups of 6 or so would gather in the room which the circle had access to and do anything from make gyoza to watch the Rugby World Cup. Even though it would have been a great opportunity to camp out with the members, I still enjoyed getting to know them over the course of the semester.
I was recommended Bazaar Café by my classmate as my CIP. Of course, since I do not have a high cooking skill that could be compared to a professional chef, volunteering at Bazaar Café basically equals to helping around chores like washing dishes or ironing aprons. Yet, when the kitchen is not very busy, other volunteers or regular staff are very willing to teach me using some special kitchen tools or allowing me to do some side works while preparing the orders.
Clearly knowing how poor my keigo is, I was very nervous on my first day. Luckily, Bazaar Café is a place where everyone is here to support each other, and thus keigo is not something mandatory even when you are speaking with the manager. Regardless of that, I was still able to learn some nuances in workplace culture. For example, there is a co-volunteer, nice middle-aged lady, who always greets me with “おはようございます” even though I usually go to Bazaar Café around 3 pm. Then my friends, also my co-volunteers explained it to me that in Japanese workplace culture, one would always greet his or her co-workers with “おはようございます” when starting to work. Besides, sharing snacks or small souvenirs after a trip among co-volunteers is rather common as a way to build up the relationship.
In addition to my new findings of unique Japanese culture, meeting different kinds of people at Bazaar Café is my best memory within these several months. As some of us might have known, Bazaar Café is like a harbor for minorities, LGBTQ, foreigners, and immigrants. It is also the reason why on my first day of work, the manager suggested me to not ask some sensitive questions on personal background. I then struggled a while on how to get into the group without being sure about what are the topics that I could talk about. To my great surprise (in a good way), they accept me naturally by leading me through the things I could help around and inviting me to share food. After around three weeks, although my co-volunteers are still trying to memorize my name as I was struggling on writing down everyone’s name, I was settled in the kitchen as well as I know where I should put dishes back.
I haven’t mentioned the details of my conversations with these lovely people because it might involve a lot of personal information. Nevertheless, if there is one thing I have learned from this experience, it is how to communicate with your heart. I know it really sounds like preaching or those old talks, but to treat other people with respect and trying to help whatever is within one’s ability range is never a wrong thing to do.
For my CIP I volunteered at Hiyoshigaoka High School as an English teaching assistant. While I regretted not getting to use my language skills more, this was a valuable experience nonetheless. As I hope to return to Japan one day as part of the JET program, it was incredibly informative to see what the day-to-day life of an ALT looks like and hear about their experiences. Every Wednesday there are 5 ALTs at the school, which I hear is extraordinarily high number. Fortunately for me, I was able to talk to all of them about their time in the program and gained further insight into the experience. During one visit I sat in on a tutoring session where an ALT was helping a student with pronunciation differentiations. It was fascinating to observe how he described the mouth movements to better facilitate the sounds. I quickly found myself following his instructions and mouthing the words. I had never before considered the stark contrast between English and Japanese in terms of facial movements.
Since I go in the afternoons there is no fixed class, but an after-school, free-form English club. On Valentine’s Day there was big event where many students participated in themed, student-run activities. One such activity was こくはくreenactment skits in English. Students were given example situations in which to they had to こくはくsomeone (for example: on a train, at the beach…). This resulted in some high-quality acting and hilarious moments. Another one was a ‘speed dating’ activity, which I participated in along with the ALTs. We had to talk to the students and answer Valentine’s Day-related questions, which ranged from “What kind of candy do you like?” to “Should couples live together before marriage?” Needless to say the questions escalated realllly fast.
Engaging with the students was incredibly entertaining. One week we played an American pop music recognition game and they beat me with flying colors. Another week a student asked whether the McDonalds hamburgers in America were enormous in comparison to those in Japan. Unfortunately, the high school academic year started wrapping up last month and is now finished. I was unable to go in for a number of weeks because students were studying for and taking final exams. I wish I had known that this would be the case from the start of the KCJS semester and could have found an additional CIP activity, one that perhaps involved more Japanese practice. However, I hope to return at least once more before the end of the KCJS semester as the students return for the new school year.
During a semester in which you often find yourself on the wrong side of a language barrier, seeing others work on a foreign language is encouraging. In the English circle Klexon, I was not only able to interact with Japanese participants of various backgrounds– I was afforded a different perspective regarding my own Japanese studies. For all the moments you feel insecure, unsure, or even embarrassed during your interactions with native speakers, Klexon is a reminder that the embarrassment or discomfort is not mutual. In many ways, Klexon motivated me to study harder, interact more freely, and test my own Japanese in areas I initially may have shied away from.
As I continued to participate in Klexon weekly, I began to recognize a handful of faces, and became friendly with a considerable number of the circle members. Klexon’s Japanese participants vary in age (as do the native English speakers), but every one is extremely friendly, and very willing to talk. As friendships develop, you may find your English conversations slipping into Japanese. In my opinion, this is one of the great benefits of Klexon. For all the English you speak, you’ll find ample opportunity to work in your Japanese as well (in the all-important arena of informal conversation). With the older participants you may want to keep your Japanese respectful and formal, but you’ll find with your younger friends that slipping into comfortable and informal conversation happens quite naturally. This may be a consequence of the importance and function of age in Japanese relationships, and the way in which age affects interactions (especially in first-encounter situations). In a group setting such as Klexon, where internal hierarchy isn’t clearly defined by rank, significance is placed on age instead. In my own observations, I noted the use of polite Japanese between members of different age groups, but not exclusively from one side. In conversations where an older and younger circle member were speaking, both parties kept the exchanges polite and reserved. It seems that for those with less in common, interactions remain more formal by nature.
In direct contrast to this, I noticed that peers in the same age group would sometimes immediately jump into informal conversation once they realized they were students at the same university, or were both the same age. As a foreigner, you may be hesitant to switch from polite to relaxed conversation with a partner, and you may not know when or how to do so. In my experience, if a peer speaks to you informally, you should probably return the favor. It is at the same time a sign of comfort and friendship. Why reject it? I suppose in many ways Klexon helps a student understand how friendships develop in Japan, and when certain barriers of formality can be crossed and discarded.
Though Klexon has an informal atmosphere in general, one curious point I did notice is that at meetings all the English speakers stay seated, while those who came to practice English rotate from person to person every ten minutes. While this is of course practical, I couldn’t help but feel there was an element of respect attached to the gesture as well. We, as English speakers, provide a valuable learning resource for the Japanese participants. As such, we’re treated by the circle leader almost as guests. I suppose its something you might expect in a society where hospitality and manners are valued so highly.
The very first time I found myself at Kyoto Bunkyo, a combined middle school and high school in Higashiyama, something earth shatteringly shocking happened: I was cool amongst middle schoolers.
They laughed at my jokes. They got excited when I showed up. They all enjoyed talking to me. It was all my middle school fantasies of popularity realized a mere seven years too late.
Of course, as I was soon to figure out, this was not because some latent coolness gene had activated inside me sometime after high school. Rather, it was because no one could understand a word I was saying.
One would assume that this lack of communication should have been obvious after a couple of extremely one-sided conversations. And the truth is, it probably was. Just not to me.
And here, after a few weeks of painstaking observation, are the reasons why:
- The English the students know, the students really know. It kind of works like a script. The students know certain phrases and sentences. They have them memorized like they’re preparing for a play. The most infamous is what I like to call the “How Are You” Script.
It goes like this:
“How are you?”
“I am fine, thank you. And you?”
“I am fine.”
As long as you stick to the script, the students can have a pretty passable, if a little bit flat, conversation. Unfortunately, they know the script so well, that your input is barely necessary. It doesn’t really matter what answer you give, the script will continue on regardless.
On one occasion, a student gave the entire script in one breath without my input at all. (“How-are-you-I-am-fine-thank-you-and-you. Good-bye.”)
Nonetheless, the fact remains that when these students are on script, they are in their comfort zone and, although their intonation is a little off, they speak smoothly and confidently. Since most conversations start out with scripts, and frequently contain more in the middle, it’s easy to believe that these students are understanding more than they are.
2.They laugh a lot. Which, as most English speakers are prone to, I usually took as a cue that they were enjoying my insightful and witty comments.
As it turns out, that wasn’t the case. The students frequently used laughter to cover up for times they didn’t understand. I think it was a combination of nerves, a desire to seem more fluent, and behaviors learned from their teachers.
That’s not to say that they never laughed because something was genuinely funny. They did. But it is not the special, “I don’t understand laugh”. The “I don’t understand laugh” is hesitant. All the students take a split second to make eye contact with each other and check if anyone understands. Then, when they do laugh, it comes out in a quick burst and stops just as fast.
But, it’s close enough to regular laughter to convince someone like me that the conversation was on track, and they enjoyed my jokes. Even the one about the platypus. (They actually did know the word for platypus, by the way. They had all studied in Australia.)
Anyway, between the scripts and the laughter, it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that anything was amiss. When I finally did notice, there was much mortification on my part for a few days. Afterwards, I had to slow down my speech immensely, and our conversations degenerated into fairly bland repeats of the same discussions, but at least everyone was on the same page.
So, I guess the end result of this story is that communication mishaps are easy. Correcting them is a little bit harder. But at the end of the day, I like the think that learning to bridge a few differences and learning to detect a couple of new ticks is worth it in the end. If nothing else, I’ve won a few cool points, which is a victory in and of itself.
For my CIP I joined a Wadaiko class taught by a group called Bati-Holic. Prior to this semester I had never done Taiko before, or indeed practiced any sort of drumming. I was nervous that I wouldn’t have enough experience, or that I wouldn’t understand enough Japanese, to be able to participate. Luckily both of these fears were unfounded. Most people in this class were complete beginners to Taiko, and in addition to the fact that my sensei spoke a smattering of English, there were several other foreigners in the class and learning Japanese as well.
It quickly became apparent that these classes were mean to be fairly casual. The class consisted of mostly women in their 20s or early 30s, though there were a few other men. Many people would come for only one month and then stop; in fact by the time December came around I was one of only four or so students who had been there for over 3 months. As such it was difficult at times to keep track of the people I met, and I forgot names often. Still, I feel like I became fairly close with those other long-term students.
Because of the casual nature of the group I did not experience much of the senpai-kohai relationships that many other KCJS students have mentioned in regards to their CIP. In fact I hardly ever heard keigo at all. My teacher, 黒坂先生, asked us to call him by his nickname Kuro. It seemed to me that most people, especially the senpai students, seemed very comfortable talking to Kuro and often used short-forms and casual speech. Furthermore, he was addressed almost always as Kuro-san, not Kuro-sensei. This was surprising at first, as it clearly went against my expectations of the structure of a Japanese club or class, but it also made for a very comfortable and relaxed atmosphere.
I was happy to find that, perhaps because of this relaxed attitude, everyone was very open to having me, a foreigner and a beginner, as a member of the group. The first few lessons I was approached with the standard “Where are you from?” “Why are you in Japan?” “Your Japanese is very good!” that I have come to expect when meeting a new Japanese person. However after a while, perhaps when I became a familiar face, conversations became a bit more personal, regarding subjects such as what I was studying in school, what I had done over the weekend, as well as the songs that we were playing in class. Of course, this being only my third year studying Japanese, there were many conversations that I simply couldn’t participate it. In many ways I still felt like an outsider, but I think this is the result more of the language barrier, and certainly not because of any rejection or exclusion from the group itself.
In the end I am a bit upset that I am leaving this winter and won’t be able to continue taking Taiko. It feels as though I am finally starting to make some connections and form some friendships in my class, and it will be tough to leave those behind. I am very glad to have had this opportunity to meet and talk with members of the Japanese community outside of Doshisha. And of course, I have now fallen in love with Taiko, and plan on studying it further when I return home.
At the beginning of this semester, I knew my hobbies and I knew my interest in Japan, but I had no idea how they might intersect. I had lots of ideas: perhaps a regular photography blog or maybe a travelogue video or two to illustrate my time in the Far East. However, the CIP program soon seemed like a great outlet for creativity. I weighed my options and found one of two that I liked – initially, the Doshisha student television circle seemed promising (because I do student television at Wesleyan) but I had no idea if they’d let some foreign stranger jump into their production. The presentation for Impact Hub flicked a switch: it was exactly what I was looking for.
There, I would have a chance to use my creative skills and also have a tangible result that is not just self-satisfying but serves a somewhat larger purpose. The photographs I take and videos I create are used as promotional outreach to reach wider target audiences. I get to hone my skills and build my portfolio while also meeting a great group of like-minded people, more of whom walk through the doors at each event.
Initially, I was once again a foreign stranger with worth to prove. Impact Hub already got photography done casually on the side by some of their employees, but I felt like a devoted photo/video person could do them some good. It took a couple weeks to find my niche there: I attended two events to do photo and take some video. At my Wednesday afternoon sessions at Impact Hub I was careful to protect my work from prying eyes – in hindsight that absolutely reinforced the skepticism but I wanted the result to be a surprise. In early October, at the first intern presentation session, I showed the pictures I had taken and the event recap video I had made. The reactions were instantaneous and enthusiastic; my worth had been proven. Afterwards I was soon given much more slack to work at my own pace with my own method. A mutual trust had been established between myself and my superiors and co-workers at Impact Hub.
Now, the goals have extended beyond event photography and short documentary-style video. My last video was a short spurt of live-action animation set to classic American bebop, and a two-month project that I’ve been working on is slowly coming to fruition. The latter is a very cross-cultural project, which in itself epitomizes what Impact Hub is all about. A 60-second long animated promotional video describing what happens and what one can do at Impact Hub isn’t too much of a burden to take on, but to make it bilingual is something that I can safely say I’ve never done before. The translation into Japanese was a challenge twofold: firstly, the meaning needs to stay approximately the same, with connotations and conversational tone in mind. Secondly, the video has a very distinct flow and rhythm – things that occasionally need to be tweaked when switching the tongue from English to Japanese. Overall, I’m very pleased with how it has turned out – last week I received some excellent feedback, and soon I will settle down to knock it out and hopefully create something that they can use for a long time ahead. If I can leave a legacy somewhere in Kyoto, using my creative skills to make a difference is something I’m definitely proud of.