The First Semester of Being A Clueless Gaijin in Japan

So I am done with my first semester at Waseda University. Last week, actually, after my final examination for syntax. I’ve even had the time to go back home for Chinese New Year, which was great, really.

And then I sit and I think about the past four or five months. What a ride.

When I first saw the programme to Waseda on the USP website, some late night in March 2009 as I clicked through pages investigating my options for a tertiary education, I was a little apprehensive. It sounded good though, two years in Japan (that’s a lot compared to six months or a year of exchange!), plus a second degree from Waseda (doesn’t hurt to get alumni status elsewhere too) and wow, I did hear of Waseda’s repute back in Singapore

Only catch: I didn’t know Japanese, or have any interest in Japan at that point. Japanese buffets and food does not count.

But it didn’t matter anyway. Japan! Land of strange and cool gadgets! Tasty food! Yadayada! I didn’t even know how I would fund myself but I reckoned I would figure it out along the way, as I always have.

Fast forward four years. It’s 2013, September. I am at the airport, about to leave for Tokyo. My friends come to send me off, and I am truly touched by each of their efforts and happy that my two years in USP, Science, Campus Crusade and all the other activities I did were filled with memories and people I loved. But I still didn’t know Japanese, nor anything much about this country. Oops.

Landing and then setting up life here was the first hard bit. I’d been to Japan once to represent NUS at the Fuji TV Brain World Cup contest in 2012. Back then though, I had people to take me through everything and everything was easy. This time was the real deal: getting bombarded by Japanese left right centre, figuring out the bureaucratic procedures (do I want a baito? did I write my name correctly? how much of my firstborn’s life would I have to pledge in return for a bank account?). But hey, survived. Picked up a few basic phrases, developed my latent communication-by-body-language-and-huge-sign-language skills, set my room up, got hit by a choked cistern disaster, moved out, moved in again, resetup and hey, all set.

But the next bit was harder: figuring out the culture and integrating myself in as inconspicuously as possible. I can hear the HAHs in the background, as people snort that “Yingjie” and “inconspicuous” never fit into the same sentence, unless a negative particle sits somewhere in between. But well, I joined the Waseda fencing bukatsu, which I don’t regret one bit, because it’s what keeps me happy even when things get sian, getting good fencing and really getting stuffed into Japanese-only groups. My teammates have been amazing, of course. And then I went for class (this almost sounds like an afterthought).

I won’t deny it. Class was a little disappointing. I was used to the silence of NUS tutorials, but that was nothing compared to my Japanese classes where no one really said anything. So I put my hands up often, and ignored the looks and stares. I’m getting my education, thank you very much, even if you don’t quite want yours. But I loved some of my classes. I had good fun in sociolinguistics, because I had some good classmates to debate with, and good friends to sit beside in class and laugh at stupid silly jokes when things got dreary. I learnt quite a bit about physical geography from one of my classes. I went for a crash course in Japanese with Comprehensive Japanese 1. Hurt like hell, I didn’t do that well probably, but I had great teachers and fun classmates. And then there was Fundamentals of Generative Syntax, which blew my mind away. I had never really struggled with any syntax linguistics class that much actually, not until then. But I learnt lots, challenged the professor lots (he encouraged it) and learnt how to be braver about calling out theoretical problems. Thank you, Namai-sensei, for a true “college-level education”, as you wrote in the course bulletin. And thank you for the hours you spent in consultation helping me figure things out, debunking my theories and talking to me about Japan, graduate school and linguistics in general.

Then there were the Singaporeans: Wei Guo and Pei Ying especially. I had lots of opportunity to unload and destress from the pains of figuring out a foreign land and I really can’t thank all of you enough.

There has been so much to learn and assimilate in the past semester about Japan, and things in general. Culturally, socially and intellectually.

One semester in. Do I feel different? A little. Do I regret coming? No. As I wrote somewhere else, Tokyo will always have a place in my heart from now on: a familiar, special place I will come back to.

But for now, I must leave for home, and for the US (on my way to travel and attend EPIIC in Boston). See you in April, with your cherry blossoms, Tokyo.

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