Reflection Essay

Reflecting on My Relationship with Japanese and Asian Studies


I began my education at St. Olaf College with the general idea that I might major in Chemistry and I had an interest in Asia. I studied Spanish in elementary school, French in high school, and Korean on my own starting in late middle school. I had no idea what language I should take to fulfill the foreign language requirement. Beyond that, I just wanted to study hard and enjoy my classes. However, not surprisingly, it has been a journey of discovery. At the end of four years, I will graduate with majors in Chemistry and Japanese, and concentrations in Environmental Studies and Asian Studies. I never would have guessed that I would take seven semesters of Japanese by the end of college!

A few days before the start of my first year at St. Olaf, I registered for Japanese 111 without any prior knowledge or much interest (sorry). I arrived at college with a basic understanding of Korea and a growing interest in the films created by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, but it never occurred to me where (both mentally and physically) these budding interests might take me. Now, the situation is entirely different. I have become enthralled by the Japanese language and the culture of Japan.

In the past two years, I have traveled to the Asia three times. I traveled to Asia (China, Japan, and South Korea) for the first time in January 2017 of my sophomore year with Asian Conversations. I returned to Tokyo the following summer to complete a business internship at EF Education First, while simultaneously performing independent environmental research through a LIASE (Luce Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment) grant via St. Olaf. The next winter I again traveled to Japan, this time with Professor Katherine Tegtmeyer Pak for the Environmental Sustainability in Japan course in January of 2018. In short, I’ve seen a lot of Japan in the past two years. I guess you could say I was enchanted by Japan upon first encounter.

As I near graduation with majors and concentrations across a spectrum of disciplines, I reflect upon my broad liberal arts education. On one hand, I plowed through a series of challenging STEM classes and labs, strengthening the so-called left side of my brain. On the other hand, I spent an almost equal amount of time with the right side of my brain, studying Japanese and journeying through the Asian Conversation program. Due to my interest in the subject, a significant portion of my Asian Studies work has focused on environmental topics. As a result, a lot of my work in one discipline overlaps with other my interests in other disciplines, so many of the materials featured on this website discuss one environmental topic or another. Within the environmental strain, my chemistry background often appears. My wide variety of interests has become more and more obvious over time, which is both a challenge and a gift. Even if I sometimes feel that I am unable to fully immerse myself in the things that I want to spend more time on, I am able to converse across a variety of topics with a wide variety of people. After each visit to Japan, it was apparent that my control over the language improved, but never as much as I wanted.

Returning from each trip, I felt myself easily performing in Japanese class and speaking with more ease than before and the language started to click. My first foray to the other side of the world was with the Asian Conversations trip in Interim of 2017 to Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Nikko, wrapped up with independent travel with some friends to Seoul. As my first trip to Asia, I was blown away at first impact and fell into a committed relationship with Japan. I left with increased curiosity and a burning desire to study more about Japan and Asia in general. Shortly after, I spent the summer of 2017 as a business intern at EF Education First, learning more about Tokyo (specifically Shibuya and surrounding areas) and how a company (specifically an international one based in Japan) operates. I learned so many things from the experience. Beyond figuring out how to use the massive printer or a poster-laminating tool, I learned how to organize and execute an event, how to befriend and support coworkers, and how to appreciate the complexities of working within a company. I also learned how to live in a share house and fluidly navigate the largest subway system in the world. Additionally, I had a few unbelievable experiences. I was lucky enough to meet the men’s gold medalist gymnastics team at their well-known training gym, Konami, and teach them English twice. I went to the first live performance of a musician friend, and helped scope out a few night clubs as a location for a future company event. I was given tickets to see an orchestra concert in celebration of the approaching 2020 Olympics and listened to short speeches given by multiple Olympic athletes. I also ate at highly-rated restaurants and visited famous universities. The flood of amazing opportunities was continuous during my summer with EF Tokyo—my coworkers and bosses treated me royally. For that I am so thankful, and to the Hayman Fund and LIASE grant I will be forever grateful for the path they paved!

When my immediate family came to visit me at the end of the internship in Tokyo, I think they finally realized that I had grown up. I had become self-sufficient in the largest city in the world. I took my older brother all around Tokyo, taught him the train system, and fed him good food, an impressive feat for his kid sister. We also took a short trip to Nikko to absorb the good vibes of ancient temples, shrines, and trees. When my parents arrived, I enjoyed seeing their reactions to the different sights, smells, sensations, sounds and tastes. They were certainly happy to have a translator, mistakes and all. I could have a conversation with our taxi driver or the owner of a restaurant and widen their world by just a bit. They told me that they were surprised at my level of comfort speaking Japanese after just two years of classes, and were pleased that the locals could understand me. After their visit, my parents encouraged me to continue my Japanese education, and they too understood why I was mesmerized with Japan!

Japan captured the greatest percentage of my attention, but China and South Korea also hold a special place in my heart. Seeing all three countries in one month gave me an extraordinary opportunity to contrast their similarities and differences, both at the time and later. In my language learning, I have found it useful to know all three countries. The Korean I independently learned in high school supported my initial understanding of Japanese; my study of Japanese characters eases the process of learning Chinese characters as I took Mandarin; Chinese vocabulary seems to feed into my ability to remember Korean vocabulary. I find learning one language indispensable in the effort to learn the other two.

Beyond my studies and travels, I have been highly involved in extracurricular organizations for the entirety of my time at St. Olaf. I joined the student organization Korean Culture Association (KCA) the first week of my first year, acted as co-chair for two years, and have continued to be a highly-involved senior member, which coincided with the creation of the first Japanese culture club on campus, Japanese Organization, Yay! (JOY!), of which I was a founding member. Closely related to the activities of both of these groups, I have also given hundreds of volunteer hours toward the annual Lunar New Year celebration in the beginning of the spring semester. This year, the year of the pig, we brought fresh updates to this evening of performances and fun (see the livestream here). In all, about 30 students form the center pillar of effort for the event, and the process often begins in October. In the past I acted as the main chair of the event, a performer and choreographer, and most recently as an emcee! All in all, Lunar New Year, KCA and JOY have been a highlight of my extracurricular involvement at St. Olaf. The friendships I have made through these groups are priceless.

In the future, I hope to use Japanese and my understanding of Asia in general to assist my environmental efforts, whatever form they may take. The ability to communicate with people across the globe and understand the complexities in communication that may arise due to differences in culture will prove indispensable. My understanding of Asia and ability to perform in Japanese are constantly evolving and developing, a pattern I hope to sustain into the future.

My brief four years in the Asian Studies Department of St. Olaf has taught me many good things, but leaves me wanting more. As I leave the Hill and this community, I take with me greater ambitions and skills, as well as a greater hunger to learn more about Asia and the Japanese language. The time and effort I have spent at St. Olaf has given me the skills and understanding to comprehensively enter the world, ready to make positive changes in the challenges our society faces today.  I hope to travel to Japan to do environmental research sometime in the next few years, and very soon want to continue to work on my Japanese language skills. I would like to thank my St. Olaf professors for opening my eyes to the beauty of Asia and Japan. I will carry these lessons in my heart.

March 1, 2019