For my STEP signature project, I went on the Kobe Shoin Study Abroad program, a 3-week program intended to teach students about Japanese culture, help improve their language skills, and give them a chance to delve into one specific topic through a research project, in order to learn more about Japanese society and values. In addition to the research project, the program also comprised of a service-learning component, where OSU students helped Shoin students practice English.
Prior to my STEP signature project, I had never traveled abroad alone for more than a week. I always knew that I was independent but this trip helped me realize that I was capable of adapting to new environments more than I thought. Even though I’m not fluent in Japanese, I grew confident in my communication skills and was able to navigate myself in Japan. Despite the differences in lifestyle, diet, and values, I was able to learn about them and connect with the many people I met over the course of my trip. I also grew more independent, paying more attention to how I spent my money and better planning out my days. In addition to growing more adaptable and responsible, I also learned more about myself through studying abroad. One big thing I discovered about myself was that I enjoyed teaching. Before studying abroad, I seldom interacted with kids and didn’t think I would like teaching. When I did my homestay, my host mother, who was an English teacher, gave me the opportunity to teach kids aged from 3 years to 13 years. At first, I was a little apprehensive because I’m usually not great with how to interact with children but slowly, I grew more comfortable and started having fun. I found that teaching came naturally to me and I was even able to connect with some of the kids, even though I only interacted with them for a short time. If I didn’t have the opportunity to help my host mother with teaching, I would’ve never discovered my new interest in teaching.
Participating in this study abroad, I gained a new appreciation and understanding of the world around me. During the last few days of my study abroad, I took some time to reflect back on my experience, realizing just how much I learned about Japan in those past three weeks. Even though I’ve been studying the language and the culture for close to eight years and having been to Japan once in the past, I was happily surprised to find that there were still lots to learn. With that in mind, I found that I learned something new every day, no matter how small or normal it seemed. I was joyful to find that there is so much more for me to learn about, in Japan alone. During my stay in Kobe, I was able to meet a diverse group of people. Each person came from a different background and had their own story to tell. I was thrilled to learn more about their travels, dreams, and passions. By interacting with different kinds of people, I was exposed to multitudes of different outlooks on the world. I realized that my learning about how other people viewed the world, one can also learn about what forces in their life influenced that view, whether it be the environment someone grew in or the cultural values one believes in. My outlook on the world also changed as a result of learning about others’ perspectives and from my own experiences. I realized that my perspective on the world will always be changing and by learning through my own experiences and those of others, I can slowly gain a better understanding of the world.
As part of our program, we were each paired up with an LP, or language partner, on the first day. A language partner’s main goal is to help you get better at speaking Japanese and teach you more about Japan. My language partner, Kana, taught me different things about Japan and explained some cultural norms I didn’t know about, such as about Kansai-ben (the dialect spoken in the Kansai area by Kobe and Osaka). She also introduced me to different foods and cultural landmarks in Japan. For example, she took me to Himeji Castle, one of Japan’s first world heritage sites. She also exposed me to kaidan-zushi, a type of sushi restaurant where sushi is circulated on top of a conveyor belt of sorts. Kana also helped me improve my Japanese tremendously. When I didn’t know a word or made a mistake, she would correct me and would even explain certain grammar points extensively if I wanted. More importantly, from my interactions with her, I grew confident and comfortable with speaking in Japanese. Speaking Japanese every day slowly became the norm and I improved my Japanese immensely. Lastly, I was able to connect with Kana on a deeper level, something I didn’t expect. I was elated to find that we were able to become good friends despite the slight language barrier and the differences in our cultures. It made me more curious to keep learning and connecting with people that I met during the course of my study abroad.
Another component of our program was a weekend-long homestay. My homestay was located about 45 minutes outside of Kobe, in a city called Akashi City, which is famous for their special takoyaki (a ball-shaped dish with octopus inside). My host family has experience with hosting exchange students in the past and is well traveled. My host mother, who is an English teacher and a home-tutor, invited me to assist with her English lessons. The first student I helped tutor was a 7th grader named Aoi. Even though it was a little shaky in the beginning, we were able to communicate by using both English and Japanese. If there were things neither of us knew how to explain, we even drew pictures to make it more fun. The two of us talked about our interests and I described the aspects of living in America that she was interested in learning more about. That evening, I realized that I really enjoyed teaching and the fact that it was teaching a foreign language made it more fun. The next day, my host mother took me to her school, where I taught kids aged 2-8 new words in English. After the class, the kids came up to me and happily thanked me. It made me realize how gratifying it is to teach because even though it was only one class, I felt like I made a difference in the kids’ lives, no matter how small it was. Talking to my host mother more, I started to like the idea of teaching in the future. I had originally thought that I was meant to work in the corporate and nonprofit business sector and working in an education institution had never even crossed my mind. After my homestay, I realized that what I plan to do in the future can be ever changing and by keeping my mind open, I may be able to find something that truly connects with me.
Due to my STEP signature project, my view on the world has also changed. As part of my study abroad program, I conducted a research project analyzing Kobe-kei fashion, a fashion style born and cultivated in the city of Kobe. As part of the project, I interviewed a variety of different students, including those studying to be English teachers and those studying to be fashion designers. I noticed that even though both groups generally supplied different answers to my questions, there were lots of diverse answers within each group. Analyzing each of these different answers, I was able to find that the reason they wore their fashion were for different reasons. I had originally thought that the fashion in the area was influenced by foreign influence and expected the answers to be similar, more or less. But what I found from my project was that Kobe-kei had a different meaning to different people and it was very hard to describe the art form, especially since fashion trends change from one year to the next. By learning from others’ perspectives, I was better able to find my own definition for Kobe-kei fashion while learning more about the cultural values of the Japanese people. I found it interesting that I was able to learn a lot about a peoples’ culture just by analyzing what they wore and why. With that in mind, my view on the world grew wider. I found that culture is not only defined through general customs, food, and history, but also such things such as art and fashion.
Lastly, the program was designed where we had free time after our daily morning classes and activities. During this time, I had time to explore Kobe at my own pace. Because I wasn’t familiar with how some things worked in Japan, such as their train system, this free time was when I familiarized myself with such things. Because of the hands off approach by my teacher and the fact that my parents weren’t with me, I had the freedom to explore on my own and learn something new through my own experience. Towards the end of the trip, I felt like I could actually live in Japan as a resident rather than a tourist.
These changes and transformations are valuable to me because it has helped me grow as a person. I now have a better understanding of how to live in other countries and how to adapt to my surroundings independently. I have always wanted to work in a career that would enable me to travel often, such as consulting. Because of my interest and focus in Japanese, I knew I wanted to live in Japan in the future. Through my transformative experience in Japan, I now have a better understanding of Japan and better control over the Japanese language, confident that I’ll be able to live and thrive in Japan. Furthermore, I’ve also gained a deeper understanding of how to interact with different people, especially if there is a language barrier. Lastly, thinking back on it, I realized that one of the biggest reasons I chose to do a study abroad for my STEP signature project was because I wanted to be immersed in a different culture and learn about it first-hand, rather than just reading about it. I believe that I achieved this during the course of my program. The biggest transformation of studying abroad was my newfound interest in teaching. It wasn’t something I thought about seriously as something I wanted to do in the future but being exposed to it, I can now see myself teaching in the future.