By Benjamin Narkmon For The North American Post
Editor’s note. This is the third article in a series tracing the author’s journey through the University of Washington during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2021-2022 school year brought with it the promise of a “return to normalcy” for us college students. Thus, I approached my sophomore year of university with rose-colored lenses, wide-eyed and optimistic. However, no sooner did the school year begin than I realized that things would not go according to plan. Many of my classes were fully or partially online. I struggled to balance my course load, part-time job, socializing, and simply eating and sleeping properly. If anything, the school year for me was a trial of perseverance.
In my article in August 2021, I wrote that I would look into studying abroad in Japan. As it turns out, I was accepted into a year-long exchange student program at the University of Tokyo beginning in autumn of this year. This would be my first major step in my “Journey to the East.” However, shortly after being accepted in January, I was informed that my program was canceled due to COVID-19. I was so shocked that I found no solace when I was later told that the program was no longer canceled, but now projected to be only one semester starting in spring. Essentially, my program had been cut in half. The shock caused me to spiral and I no longer understood why I was studying Japanese in the first place. I began questioning if all the hard work I put into studying had been worth it.
Despite the major setback this posed, I was able to get back on my feet with help from my peers and mentors. In fact, I would argue that the 2021-22 school year was one of the best of my life. And, after months of asking for an extension, I was told in late August that I will be permitted to study abroad for a year.
One of the many highlights was that I took a heritage Chinese class, a course designed for students who speak some Mandarin at home. For many children of immigrants, not being able to speak one’s heritage language can be frustrating and sometimes painful.
This is precisely why (re)learning that language can be deeply empowering. Through my Chinese class, I feel more connected to my family overseas and found myself able to better communicate with them. Relearning my heritage language felt like I was picking up puzzle pieces of my linguistic knowledge that I had lost and was putting them back together.
As part of my class on teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) and JSL (Japanese as a Second Language), I tutored a Japanese international exchange student for English and they tutored me for Japanese. I learned how rewarding it feels to be a teacher and got a glimpse into how much work it requires to teach a foreign language. My tutor/tutee helped me become more comfortable speaking Japanese and taught me about various aspects of Japanese culture. For instance, one day they helped me navigate the club recruitment process at the beginning of each Japanese college school year.
One of my professors allowed me the privilege of being a guest speaker on a symposium panel discussing her course, “Japanese Language in Society,” along with two other students. The course covers topics such as minority languages, language revitalization, and government and educational policies. When my professor asked if anyone would like to speak on the panel with her, I enthusiastically replied yes. Participating in this panel in front of faculty made me realize how rewarding stepping out of one’s comfort zone can be.
That same professor also began offering a course, “Japanese through Songs,” where students learn self-study skills through music. While the course was originally intended for second and third-year Japanese language students, a handful of my peers and I were given permission to form an “upper-level cohort.” Unlike the rest of the class, our group sang karaoke and did song analysis.
Finally, I took a fifth-year Japanese class which now has a special place in my heart. Including me, there were only five students, which made us close for a class that only lasted about ten weeks. The coursework was mostly up to us, the students, to take in whatever direction we wanted. For example, our reports ranged from the history of why Japan drives on the left side of the road to “Takarazuka” (a musical theater troupe), the state of the Japanese animation industry, Japan-Taiwan relations, and the history of coffee in Japan. One particularly amusing episode was when my classmate, for a news report presentation, completely fabricated a story and only revealed to us at the end of his presentation that it was “fake news.” In addition to my amazing classmates, my professor helped me recover from the shock that the study abroad situation left me in. She set aside time for me almost every week to chat about what I had on my mind. My professor helped me change my way of thinking for the better and for the first time in my life, I genuinely felt like I could take whatever life threw at me in stride. At the end of the year, I found my reason for learning Japanese again — simply because it is fun.
Back when I was in Bellevue College as an officer in the Japanese Culture Exchange Club, my advisor taught me about the Daruma doll and the phrase “seven times down, eight times up.” To me, the 2021-22 school year was the embodiment of this philosophy. While my study abroad being cut in half knocked me over, I managed to get back on my feet, thanks to the support from those around me. When I look back on this school year, I will remember it not as the time I spent down, but as the process of learning to get back up.
I am projected to study abroad at the University of Tokyo starting in spring of 2023 until early 2024. In my next article, I hope to report on my experience in Japan.
Benjamin Narkmon is double majoring in Japanese and Linguistics.