Ask Away: 5 Questions with a Gilman Scholar on Bringing Japanese Culture Home
We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success…
Meet Megan—a Brandeis University triple major (in History, Anthropology & East Asian Studies) and English minor whose Gilman Scholarship project shares her love of Japanese culture with some of the youngest learners.
1. You studied Spanish for six years in middle and high school… What inspired you to learn Japanese, and when did you begin?
It’s a bit of a ridiculous story, but I actually became interested in Japan from a book I read in middle school. About vampire ninjas. Cliché, right? But the author did an amazing job of weaving in bits and pieces of Japanese culture and life during the seventeenth century. It was the first time I heard about the samurai class system and the importance of honorifics in the Japanese language, and I was absolutely fascinated.
My mission at that point was to learn as much about Japan as I could, and I read and read, novels and nonfiction, and then when I ran out of those I got into anime and manga… I just loved to pick up the small cultural side notes, anywhere I could. It was only natural that I started learning Japanese at the first opportunity—when I entered college.
2. You recently studied abroad in Osaka, Japan, as a Gilman Scholar. What would you say is the most important lesson you took away from being immersed in the Japanese language and culture—any major surprises?
It wasn’t a surprise, but learning a new language is terrifying. I lived in a house with Japanese roommates and they were great, but at the same time it’s really nerve-wracking trying to use your second language with a native speaker; I felt like I was constantly making a fool of myself. But then I started realizing the street signs were making sense to me; at some point, I could understand what the train conductor was saying, and I could hold conversations with random people on the street.
There were days when I couldn’t stop grinning on the train home because I’d talked with the convenience store clerk or translated an old fairy tale; little things, but they just made me so happy.
So I guess what immersion taught me is that of course you’re going to make a fool of yourself—it’s part of the deal. But there are just as many opportunities to prove yourself and those are even more rewarding.
3. As part of your Gilman Scholarship project, you are now exploring Japanese culture with young children at the school where you work… That’s so great! Can you tell us about their reactions to the materials you’ve shared?
For my project, I basically planned a Japan Day for the preschoolers I work with, bringing different activities and games for them to explore. It was really an incredible experience. They loved the games and were really interested to see their names written in katakana script. They didn’t really go for the ABC book I brought about Japanese words, but grabbed onto the little things from it, like how a cat in Japan says ‘nyan’ instead of ‘meow’.
Their absolute favorite, though, was a playground game called Daruma ga Koronda. It’s pretty similar to Red Light, Green Light, with a couple of added rules: Once you’re tagged, you have to grab hands and help the oni (the demon—or ‘it’ as we’d say) get everyone else. At first, there was only a couple of students, but the game slowly grew and grew and I spent the entire recess period chasing after all the players. They still ask for it almost every time I’m on the playground.
It’s a great reminder that kids really don’t care where the game came from; they just want to run around and have fun. It’s important to make sure the little ones don’t lose that open mindedness as they grow up, and as a teacher and a traveler, I think I’m in a good spot to do that.
4. Have you got any advice for current students considering a study abroad experience?
Do it. Honestly just do it. It’s expensive and it’s terrifying, but you won’t be able to look at your school and your home the same way ever again.
Staying home, in a little bubble, things don’t really change. When you go abroad, you pick up other perspectives, other ways to look at the same thing—even random stuff like recycling or the fact that everyone around you probably speaks the same language as you; when you come back, you just think about it differently.
I have no doubt you’re hearing this from all sides, but it’s just true and so important in order to grow as a person.
5. What’s next: How will language and cultural skills play a role in your future professional plans?
I plan to become a Japanese historian in the future, working and teaching at a university somewhere. I’m primarily interested in the history and culture of warfare, particularly in Japan.
As I’m writing my senior thesis, I quickly realized there are gaps in the historical literature in my field—at least in English. Knowing Japanese will open up so many doors as I pursue my research, to the point that it would be more difficult if I’d never studied Japanese. Understanding the culture and having experienced it firsthand will also give me an advantage in understanding the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of Japanese history.
As Megan explains, studying abroad can change your perspective on everything—and while it can be expensive at first-glance, that doesn’t mean that you have to do it all on your own! For more information on a range of nationally available funds—like the Gilman Scholarship—check out our page on Grants & Scholarships.
Also be sure to visit our Choose your Language pages, like Lead with Japanese, for language-specific opportunities, and inquire at your school and with local clubs or organizations.
Does one of the above questions speak to you? Share your answer by joining the conversation @LeadWLanguages on social media!