Patricia Ferrete Reflects on Living and Studying in Japan

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Recent graduate Patricia Ferrete speaks about her study abroad experience in the Kansai region of Japan.

Your advisor is right: one semester is just not enough to study abroad. After taking two years of Japanese at UMD I decided to put my skills to the test by attending Kwansei Gakuin University (KGU, go Fighters!) in Hyogo for a year. Studying the language is one thing, but living it is another. Arriving at a new place is always fun; you can take in new sights and sounds from within the familiar environment of the airport. As you approach your new home, however, you being to panic. You have a textbook’s worth of vocabulary under your belt, but can only stammer as you try to recall those drills you did so well in class. Even if you wanted to ask for help, convenience store clerks and train station managers give you faltering smiles when the only part of their helpful response you understand is “please”. As a survival strategy, you cling to English-speaking friends to let off steam. You test shaky conversations with the school-provided speaking partner and finally figure out a few things about them (mine was in the bell choir) while clearing up miscommunications (it turns out the word for “cute” can sound like the word for “pathetic” if you aren’t careful!). If you live with a host family, be prepared for nicely-worded criticism. One day I even wrote a heartfelt apology to my host mother because I felt like I was burdening her too much. Her response gave me a lot of courage: of course you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, she replied, and we know it’s hard, so try to enjoy it while you’re here!

The fun part comes when you’re willing to sound like an idiot in front of a native speaker: it’s when you accept that you’re nowhere near fluent, but you can only get better. With newfound energy, I ventured into jazz lounges, had impromptu sports matches on the school lawn, and even wound up dancing on television! I don’t even do those things in the US! It was in my second semester that I determined to speak up more, and my late language skills bloomed with the coming of spring. The humidity rose to unbearable levels, but I came home most days happily exhausted. Besides taking Japanese-only intensive language courses and electives taught in English (I went for traditional theater, literature, and linguistics) there are plenty of extracurricular clubs, which I regrettably did not join, and casual excursions like going out to karaoke and hiking, which I happily enjoyed. You could probably survive here on English alone, but you would be missing out on so much. I got to enjoy rice-cake-pounding, bean-throwing (to drive away demons), cherry-blossom-viewing, sushi-rolling, noodle-slurping, shrine-praying, temple-walking, and many more staples of Japan with host family and friends. The “experience” of Japan is something not even a year can provide, but you will be so much more satisfied if you at least try!