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Thoughts from the airport

Posted by Shaun

Saturday, September 10, 2011 11:12 AM CST

            As I wait out my layover at O’Hare before my 1:10pm flight to Narita Airport, it’s really starting to hit me that I’m on my own from this point forward.  I didn’t meet Karen in St. Louis, and Madi, Young-sensei, and Shipplett-sensei aren’t going to be sitting by me on the thirteen-hour flight to Tokyo. I’m not going to meet up with the rest of the bleary-eyed Knox College Japan Term group at Narita Airport, with Schneider-sensei instructing us on how to exchange our traveler’s checks for yen.
            Instead, I’m going to get on and off the plane surrounded by people I don’t know, and when I clear customs, I’ll find the unfamiliar faces of the Japan Study participants waiting for me. But the fact that I’ve done this all before eases my nerves. I can picture the currency exchange counter outside of customs, and hopefully this time I can find the Meeting Point.
            I’m not worried.
            Now, would someone please pass that message on to my stomach? I took some medicine, so hopefully it will finally feel better by the time I board the plane. I have a window seat, and while I’ll appreciate something non-fleshy to lean against, I’m not looking forward to having to clamber and crawl over a sleeping aisle-seat stranger should my guts decide to rebel.
            My dad told me that the number one question he gets asked when he tells his friends about my study abroad is “Why Japan?” I’m going to try to answer that while I wait.
            I’m going to Japan to grow up. To become an adult.
            Yes, I’m going to be independent. I’m going to have to make my own choices in a foreign culture without my mom a phone call away for advice. I’m going to learn about myself, about how I react under pressure, about how I adapt to new people and new circumstances. But I’m not just talking about that.
            Junior year of high school, when I was in level 1 Japanese, the Japanese professor at the college in our city came to our class, specifically to talk about his bunraku puppetry, but also to talk about his teaching methods. He told us that there was no way around learning kanji, the complex Chinese characters that are tangled up in the Japanese language. The reason?
            “You’re not an adult unless you learn how to read.”
            That’s stuck with me all four years that I’ve studied Japanese. “You’re not an adult unless you learn how to read.”
            Japan Study recommended that we explore the website At Home in Japan, which gives advice for students on Japanese home-stays. It refers, again and again, to the “cultural child.” A “cultural child” is someone who, regardless of her biological age, is living in a culture new and different from the one in which she grew up. Since she is physically an adult, she’s expected to know the proper behavior that adults know in that culture. These often are not things that people from the new culture think to teach her. They’re just cultural assumptions everyone’s unconsciously aware of. Once the cultural child becomes aware of these unconscious cultural assumptions, she can begin to grow up.
            I’ve been studying Japanese for four years. It’s time for me to take my language study out of the classroom and into the real world. It’s time for this cultural child to finally be born.
            When I step off the airplane and set foot in Narita airport, I begin my baby steps toward Japanese cultural competency. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll finally learn how to read.
We’re boarding in fifteen minutes. Here’s to a great year!
Note: I'll probably be doing a lot of my blog entries in this style, where I write them ahead of time and then post them when I can.

One Response so far.

  1. Laurie says:

    Shaun, You are such a gifted writer and thinker. Your thoughts from the airport in Chicago brought tears to my eyes. I hope you get a fabulous host family, the weather improves and you get caught up on your rest. love you-Mom

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