Baylor Study Abroad: Sean Nixon in Japan, Part 1

For many years, Baylor University has operated an exchange program with Hosei University in Tokyo, Japan, allowing Baylor students to spend time studying and living in one of the world’s most vibrant cities. The program is directed on the Waco end by Yuko Prefume, a lecturer in Japanese in Baylor’s Department of Modern Languages and Cultures in the College of Arts & Sciences.

In the first of two blog posts, Baylor exchange student Sean Nixon reports on his time spent at Hosei this academic year. Sean is a senior Baylor Business Fellows and finance major from Eagle, Idaho.

September 2014

My experience in Japan started with a one-week homestay. I got to sleep on a futon in a traditional Japanese tatami mat room. This was definitely a cool experience, but I found out quickly that it is not very comfortable. There was also a little household shrine in the room that they burned incense at every day, which my host mom explained was for their ancestors. That was definitely interesting to see and hear in real life.

In this first month, I’ve visited many different areas of Tokyo, from Shibuya to Shinjuku to Akihabara to Asakusa. The first major impression I have had is that Japan, or at least Tokyo, is a very fast paced, busy place. People are always bustling from place to place without giving others so much as a glance, and the rush hour trains are as bad as everyone warned me.

Sean NixonThe other thing I realized, though, is that Tokyo is a city of contrasts. Modern j-pop and anime mix with traditional temples and shrines. City landscapes are interspersed with beautiful parks like the Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park, and generally secular culture is mingled with elements of religion. Seeing all these contrasts has made for an interesting first month in Japan.

There are of course many other things that I could talk about that I have seen and experienced in this first month, but overall, that was probably the biggest impression I have gotten so far.

One other thing of particular note, though, is the language. I have already found it very frustrating not being able to communicate effectively in Japanese. I’m learning very fast, naturally, but it has still been a struggle. It is particularly difficult when the Japanese people I meet all want to speak English with me and all the other exchange students speak English.

Starting this week, I’m going to join a ping pong circle and hopefully make friends that cannot speak English, but it has definitely been a rollercoaster of emotions getting frustrated with myself for not speaking more Japanese and not being able to express things well in Japanese. This may affect me particularly because of my personality, but I didn’t quite expect to struggle with this to such a degree.

October 2014

Having lived in Japan now for just over two months, I have begun to settle into life here. While in the beginning I was overwhelmed with shrines, skyscrapers, vending machines and a barrage of a language I had little confidence in, over time I have begun to notice a lot of the more subtle elements of Japan and Japanese culture. At the same time, I have realized things about how I think about the world and other people.

English Camp 11-2014The best way to explain is with a specific example. The experience that left the biggest impression on me was volunteering at an English camp for Japanese children. For three days, I got to talk and play with Japanese kids who could speak next to no English. I also got to see how they interacted with each other and with the other adults and supervisors of the camp.

And finally, I got to see how a Japanese camp was run. Over the course of three days, I concluded two things: (1) Camp is camp no matter where it is, and (2) Japanese kids are essentially the same as American kids. They talk, laugh, run around, fight, get hurt, cry and pout just like all kids. In the end, kids are kids.

This was an important revelation because, for better or for worse, I came to Japan with stereotypes in my mind of Japanese people. Having met a variety of people here in Japan, some people have of course conformed with these conscious and unconscious stereotypes and some have not.

Perhaps more than any specific stereotype, however, I felt a sense of otherness. Japanese people were somehow different from me or other Americans. They ate with chopsticks and bowed and apologized for everything. And most importantly, they spoke Japanese.

The language barrier is a formidable wall that is difficult to break. Even if you understand the basic meaning of what a person says, it is difficult to see behind that meaning and sense the person’s emotions, the actual person behind the words. I feel like I have had slight glimpses, but with my limited experience in Japanese, glimpses are all I get.

This is why my experience at the English camp was so notable. Kids are not like adults. They wear their emotions openly on their face, so I was easily able to get a grasp of what they were feeling, and what I grasped was refreshingly familiar.

The result of this was that the camp reinforced an impression that had slowly been growing over time — people are the same, regardless of country or culture. Of course, that is not to say that they are exactly the same. Things such as culture do indeed create subtle differences in ways of thinking and behavior. For example, I have watched baffled more times than once as Japanese people stood at a crosswalk waiting for the light to turn when there are no cars to be seen.

However, when you learn things like cultural differences in school, it is easy to fall into the trap of creating a stereotype, consciously or not. This is because we tend to separate other cultures from our own and single out only their differences. This dehumanizes the people you are studying in a way. They become a giant mass to be studied as a whole instead of human beings with individual emotions, personalities, goals and motivations. We fail to really dig deep into the real-life people behind the culture.

Learning about cultural differences is not a bad thing by all means, but I would encourage people to reflect more on how people are the same, not on how they are different.


Photo captions (from top down):

* “I am standing at the entrance to an ice cave located in Yamanashi Prefecture.”

” “Here I am with some kids at English Camp.”

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