Japan: The Halfway Point

It may be the middle of summer in Cville, but Leah Corbett, a rising 4th year Japanese major, is still finishing up her 3rd year spring semester studying on the JF Oberlin University: Reconnaissance Japan Program in Tokyo. Read her thoughts from halfway through her semester below, check our her own blog at https://leahandjapan.wordpress.com/, and watch her “daily snapshot” video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLN6dASZnU4.

 

I am almost halfway through my semester in Japan already! Looking back, I’m realizing how far I’ve come since I first arrived here. There was a lot of adjustment, though I didn’t notice it at the time. There were a lot of smaller things that I had to get used to.

For instance, the cars driving on the left side of the road was hard to get used to, and I still sometimes get momentarily turned around by it. Crossing the road without walk signals took extra thinking at first, because I had to double check that the coast was clear. Or, when a car stopped to let me cross, I would nod and wave at the front left seat of the car as I always do, but then realize afterwards that I had accidentally thanked the person in the passenger seat for stopping for me instead of the driver.

Another thing is that Japan is very environmentally conscious, which I think it great! But the annoying thing about it is that there are rarely hand towels or dryers in the bathrooms, so I have to shake out my hands and wipe them on my jeans or shirt. Some students carry hand towels with them for this reason, though I decided that’s not absolutely necessary for me.

For a while after I arrived, I felt very self-conscious when walking around in public. Since Japan is a homogeneous society, I felt like I stick out a lot. One of my first days here, a friendly Japanese man said “hello” to me in English when I walked by, which made me think even more about how not-Japanese I look. The longer I’m here, though, the more I realize it’s not a big deal to Japanese people, especially since there are a lot of foreign students around campus and in Fuchinobe, which is where the international dorms are.

Before I went abroad, I saw a graph on several occasions explaining the cultural adjustment timeline/curve. Right after you first arrive, there’s a honeymoon phase where you’re so excited about everything. Then at some point later the graph drops, which is when various frustrations start to take hold and the initial excitement wears off; the graph goes back up once you’ve more fully adjusted to the environment. There may be more than one drop in the curve.

(Here’s a simple example of the cultural adjustment curve. And yes, I made this in MS Paint.)

I think that right now, I’m in one of those valleys. Midterm season is upon me, and because I and my friends have been so busy I haven’t take much time to go sightsee or hang out much lately outside of school days (though I do have some plans for the upcoming weekend). Life is starting to feel more normal and my weekly schedule is fairly regular, but my subconscious is telling me I should still feel constant excitement and that I’m supposed to have an amazing day every day. When going abroad for an extended period of time, though, I’m realizing that’s not a realistic expectation. Yes, overall I’ve had a good time so far, but it’s okay to have mediocre days, and those don’t take away from the experience as a whole.

Once midterms have died down and once I settle even more into life here, I know my feelings will once again change. I thought that adjustment would happen for a while and then it would be static, but it’s more ongoing than I had previously thought, and I’m curious to see how I will react during my remaining time here.

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Classes Begin: School in Shanghai, Negotiation Tactics, and a Trip to the Market

Julia Thompson is a 3rd year currently studying abroad with UVA in Shanghai: Fudan University. She is a student in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Check out her experience so far!

 

Classes have finally begun — almost two months after UVA’s first week of classes. Normally, class sign-ups take place months before the first day of class. However, due to our unique position as international Fudan students (rather than local Chinese Fudan students or international exchange students), our class registration took place on the same day that classes began. Fortunately, my class schedule did not include any Monday classes; I had some roommates who registered for classes then immediately raced out the door to attend the class they had just registered for.

The enrollment process went much smoother than I anticipated. In addition to a Chinese language class, I registered for Chinese Society: Past and Present, Energy & the Environment, Political Culture & Public Opinion in Contemporary China, and Conflict Resolution & International Negotiation. During this first week, two professors noted their dislike for the BBC — I wonder if this is a coincidence or if this sentiment is common among Chinese citizens. A more definitive similarity across classes was the mention of Donald Trump (shocker) and consequent stares at the Americans (us). Embarrassing!

The mix of students in each class varied—one had exclusively international students while the others generally had a mix of both international and Chinese students. In Chinese Society: Past and Present, our professor recommended Chinese students not take the class; on the other hand, my roommates were asked to leave an International Business class because, according to the professor, the class was for those who wanted to improve their English. From these experience, there seemed to be a division of Chinese and international students, so I expected the Political Culture & Public Opinion class to consist of just international students; but to my surprise, when I walked into the classroom, the majority of students were Chinese students who knew little, but wanted to learn more about, their peers’ political opinions.

The Fudan campus is large, but the main campus is just a 15 minute walk from our apartment. One of the main buildings at Fudan University—Guanghua tower—includes classrooms, offices and cafes. The steps leading up to Guanghua tower remind me of the Rotunda or the MET steps; but here, entrance through the front doors is reserved for important figures, and students must enter through the side doors.

Another difference between China and the States that has been consistently apparent is bargaining. In the States, bargaining does not often occur between a customer and business with established prices. However, in Shanghai, bargaining is everywhere—not only at shops, but also at the gym! Normally, I enjoy running outdoors but the crowded streets, busy intersections (cars, mopeds, and bikes will NOT stop for you; at best, they slow to a roll), and poor air quality do not make for an ideal jogging situation. So, my roommates and I went looking for a gym. The process to establish the price for our four month membership included a lengthy back and forth—I need to brush up on my negotiation tactics. Maybe my International Negotiation class can give me a few tips.

One place in Shanghai where bargaining does not take place is the local Walmart. Over the past two weeks, I have probably been about ten times: to stock up on drinkable yogurt, get my fill of Chinese crackers, and get a toothbrush after I dropped mine down the drain. Walmart is just one of several stores where you can buy produce. Our Chinese roommate, Karen, took us to the produce market where my friend bought a GIANT bag of bak choy for 7 kuai (just over 1 USD). This Shanghai produce market was different from a typical grocery store or farmers market in the United States, but were very similar to the Chinese markets I’ve been to in San Francisco. After the trip to the market, Karen and Rosanne cooked dinner for everyone: rice, tomatoes and egg, chicken wings, and vegetables!

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Eleanor Langford is a 3rd year Psychology major studying abroad with The Education Abroad Network (TEAN) in Chiang Mai, Thailand this spring. Check out some of her photos below!

“Staying at the Temple”: The act of “making merit” is a common and important part of Thai Buddhist’s life. There are many ways to make merit, including going to a temple. At the temple, one can purchase small bells with plaques to inscribe one’s name on. These bells are then hung around the temple, with the idea that your presence there can be maintained after you leave, and the merit gaining will likewise continue.

 

“Reverence not Worship”: For the outsider, it often appears as though monks and laypeople are worshiping the Buddha, as they prostrate themselves and make offerings in front of the ornate statues. However, these gestures are done to make merit and to arouse a sense of awe and respect that rids oneself of arrogance and egotism, allowing a better reception the Dhamma (teaching of the Buddha).

“Monk Offering”: Monks and the laypeople of the community can be thought of as livingin a symbiotic relationship. Monks cannot handle money and must beg for their food. The community is therefore responsible for feeding them. Giving an offering to a monk “makes merit” and therefore benefits those giving the offering. Here, you see people lined up with their offering bowls, prepared to give the monks an assortment of food.

“Kitchen in Ban Sri Kun”: Meals are an important part of Thai life, and this can be exemplified through the relative size of the kitchen in most village homes. This kitchen in this home in Ban Sri Khun village was by far the biggest room in the house.

“Dinner Table”: In rural areas, Thais will eat family style on a mat.

“Hill Tribe”: This woman is from the Karen Hill Tribe in northern Thailand. There are many different Hill Tribes living in Thailand, all of whom are without citizenship to any country.

“Rice Farming”: For many Northern Thai villagers, rice farming is a time consuming but reliable and common livelihood, as rice is an important component of most Thai food.

“Rice is a Staple”: Rice is a major staple of Thai food, and accompanies most meals in some form; hence, the large quantities of it sold at most markets.

The Sevier Cough

Blaise Sevier is a 2nd year who studied abroad last semester on exchange at Hitotsubashi University  in Japan. She and three other UVA students ran a blog about their experience, See her original post at https://runningjapan.squarespace.com/wheels-up-dc/2017/10/31/the-sevier-cough-blaise

I’ve been sick with the “Sevier Cough.” It’s not just any cough, but a family hack where my whole chest vibrates with force and I find myself gasping for breath.

Dramatic? Yes. Harmful? No.

The “Sevier Cough” is a family plague that hits my sisters and I right around when the leaves change and the air gets a bit cooler – my mom says it’s a seasonal asthma and always sends us to school.

Here in Japan – my cough has become a somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. On the metro, in the grocery store, walking to class, I find myself getting over a coughing fit, clearing my throat and receiving the death stare from my fellow Hitotsubashi peers, grocery-goers, and metro riders. It don’t blame them. It’s gross!

But it’s a cough that I have and can’t quite control.

For the past few weeks, I have maintained this blasé attitude about my cough. I pushed passed the smirks, glares, and uncomfortable metro shifts. I was just sick, they were just hypercritical – and I didn’t want to wear a…. mask.

 

 My inital reaction to wearing a mask

Masks in Japan are one of the most common accessory for any woman, man, grandmother, grandfather, and/or child to wear. It is a white cloth that covers the nose and mouth and prevents germs from spreading. It’s practical and considerate when you are crammed on the metro with hundreds of people every day. But until now, I didn’t think *I* needed to wear a mask.

The thought struck me when I was in my Global Network class and we were talking about the effects of colonialism. We discussed several examples on how European settlers rarely conformed to native practices – even if the practice, ideology, method was practical, was for the betterment of the people, or just made sense.

Take for example the Calvinists that landed on the Hawaiian Island in 1893. I learned that they refused to change the way that they dressed. Instead of adapting their wardrobe to a subtropical climate, the Calvinists continued to wear often thick, long cotton pants and dresses.

Gosh, that sounds hot.

Although this is an ingenuous example, it demonstrates settlers’ reluctance to conform to the practical norms of the region. Why wouldn’t they just throw on some linen?

But before I move forward, I want to make a few things clear 1). I am not comparing the Japanese culture to the native people in Hawaii rather, I am comparing my thoughtless act of not wearing a mask in public (which is practical and thoughtful thing to do in busy public spaces) to the settlers’ dismissal of Hawaiian’s traditions and norms.

I was wrong about not wearing a mask in public. What gives me the right to expose other people to my germs, when they are taking precautions to not get me sick. If my fellow community members are considerate – why do I think that I have the privilege to not wear the mask and not be?

 

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I think the answer lies in the fact that I wasn’t being self-critical – I wasn’t acknowledging that I was part of the community and that I was somehow different because I was a “gaijin” or non-Japanese and could get away with breaking social norms.

It’s a crutch that I think many individuals abroad rely on – and something I want to recognize and change.

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Preparing for Takeoff

Leah Corbett is a 3rd year student studying Japanese. This semester she will be on the JF Oberlin University: Reconnaissance Japan Program in Tokyo. Check out her thoughts on starting her semester below!

 

I am less than a week away from my departure date to Japan for a full semester abroad. It would be an understatement to say that I’m nervous. I have never been out of the country before, or travelled anywhere near this far away, let alone by myself. I’ve wanted to study in Japan for years, but it was always a far-off dream. That dream got a little closer when I finally finished my application, but I had to wait. I was ecstatic when I received my acceptance letter! After I took the necessary steps such as ordering plane tickets, I then had to wait some more. I’ve been waiting for so long, and now I’m almost done doing so. While I’m pretty much ready in terms of knowing what to pack and what I need to do, I’m realizing I’m not mentally prepared.

I thought I was mentally prepared for most of my time waiting. One summer as a high school student, I attended a three-week-long Japanese language academy, which was the first time I’d been away from family for an extended period of time, so I was naturally nervous beforehand. It turned out to be an amazing experience! The next summer, I went to a week-long program at NASA Langley Research Center, and I had nowhere near as many nerves going into that. When I left for my first year of college, I felt like those experiences had helped me prepare for it, which they did. I adjusted to college life fairly quickly and have enjoyed it, so I figured a trip abroad wouldn’t be too nerve-wracking.

But here’s the catch (which I didn’t think about until very recently): I’ve lived in Virginia my entire life, and all of those times I’ve been away from home, I was still in Virginia. My home is a 40-minute drive away from UVA. That’s way closer than a lot of my classmates are from. While I’ve been on my own at college, I’ve always had my family nearby as a safety net, and I’m not going to have that in Japan.

In a way, I feel like I’m back where I started when I was preparing for that language academy five years ago. I can still use what I learned from that experience, which is knowing that being nervous is normal, and that it in no way means I won’t have a great time. I’ve wanted to do this for so long, and being a Japanese language and literature major, I know it will enrich my knowledge of the culture beyond what I can learn in a classroom. Having so many friends and family rooting for me helps me to realize my potential and try to be as proud of myself as they are of me, which pushes me forward.

Tokyo, Japan

Rachel White is a 3rd year studying Foreign Affairs at Waseda University in Tokyo for the 2017-2018 school year. Check out some photos from her first semester below!
Lake near Mt. Fuji2
Mt. Fuji can be seen from this lake in Shizuoka Prefecture. Mt. Fuji is Japan’s tallest volcano and symbolizes Japan. Because my exchange university is in Tokyo, natural scenery like this is not very common. Also, I thought it was interesting that some people live on that island because they would have to commute by boat to get groceries.
Fried Oysters at Hiroshima
Fried Oysters at Hiroshima: Hiroshima is known for having fresh oysters around fall, so this is a common dish sold there.
International Exchange Halloween Party
International Exchange Halloween Party: I joined an international exchange group at Waseda, and was able to meet a lot of other exchange students and Japanese students. The international exchange group is connected to other universities as well, so I am able to meet people from other parts of Tokyo. Halloween was not a common holiday celebrated in Japan, but has recently become very popular.
Torii Shrine at Miyajima
Tori Shrine: This is the most notable landmark at Miyajima, an island near Hiroshima. During high-tide, water covers the bottom of the pillars. However, during low-tide people are able to walk up to the shrine.
Red Spider Lily field in Saitama (1)
Red Spider Lily: This flower was once believed to be a flower sent from the heavens, and is a very popular plant during the fall.
View from Odaiba
This is a view of part of Tokyo from Odaiba. Odaiba is a man-made island in Tokyo and is a very popular tourist spot. This area will host the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, so they are currently constructing more buildings in preparation.
Odango at Mt. Takao
Odango at Mt. Takao. Odango is a traditional Japanese food, and can be served either sweet or salty. The one picture on the left is mochi with a layer of soy sauce type sauce that is grilled. The one on the right has a layer of “azuki” or “red bean.”
tokyo station
In 1914, Tokyo Station was built and was known for its red-brick
appearance. It became damaged in WWII, and recently was renovated back to what it looked like in 1914. Many Japanese businessmen use this station because of the various company buildings surrounding the station.
Mitama Festival
Mitama Festival is one of Japan’s biggest Obon festivals, and it celebrates the lives of the dead. The festival is held at Yasukuni Shrine, which is a Shinto shrine that commemorates those who fought for Japan. However, it is controversial in the Asia-Pacific region because it also commemorates class A war criminals. Mitama Festival: Although the festival is located in a controversial location, the festival attracts tourists because of the 30,000 lanterns on display. There are also traditional Japanese performances.

Religions of Korea

Jonathan Thomas is a Second Year student, currently enrolled in the UVA Exchange: Seoul National University Program in Seoul, South Korea.

Seoul National University is nestled into a contour on the side of one of Seoul’s largest mountains, Gwankak mountain. The mountain is located to the south of the city, and like most of Korea, is particularly picturesque during the fall months when the trees covering the mountains turn from green to autumnal colors. Getting off at Gwacheon station puts you at the base of the mountain path that begins the ascent to the top of Gwanak mountain.  The path winds its way up, following a clear stream which makes it way down the mountain in the opposite direction.

Just before the peak of the mountain, there are a series of buildings, where you’ll find an ornate and active Buddhist temple, with its members still operating and maintaining the temple. However, this isn’t out of the ordinary. Walking up to the top and finding a temple is quite common in Korea, with many of them located on or around mountains. This doesn’t mean that Buddhists or Buddhist monks are in anyway secluded. Often times you’ll see monks with their heads shaved dressed in gray robes riding the subway. Additionally, if you take the bus from Seoul National University to the closest subway station on the east side of the school, you will be thrust into the busy area of Nakseongdae station. The busy streets are home to coffee shops, restaurants, stores, and churches. The churches are highlighted by the spires jutting up from them, but apart from this they look like any other building on the street.

What is remarkable about this is the coexistence of both of these religions in harmony. Many times, religions butt heads, clash in their ideology and generally don’t get along. While there have been rises and falls in popularity of both religions in Korea over the centuries, Korea has had a history of religious acceptance, especially of foreign religions, and the divide between Christianity and Buddhism is about fifty-fifty. This has created a dynamic that has continued into the present. The religious order of Korea isn’t something of tension, but rather a virtue, where the religion you hold is your belief and the religion another person holds is their own belief. This has created a society where Buddhist temples and Christian churches sit virtually side-by-side without the slightest hint of animosity.

While this may seem trivial, to me it’s a refreshing reassurance. Currently, there are quite a lot religious conflicts spread across the world, and these conflicts are some of the most difficult to resolve. Therefore, to see a country and culture like Korea where two religions can coexist, sans conflict, gives me hope that those conflicts have some sort of resolution, and makes me appreciated Korea for its unique cultural aspects like this one.