Kikkake (or, what possessed me to start learning Japanese)

My father and high school Japanese studies teacher made me go to Japan for the first half of my senior year. 

… Or, at least that is how I remember it. I know I didn’t really have a desire to go, but I obediently agreed to their crazy idea because I was that kind of daughter and student.  

Never in a million years would I have imagined the transformation that was to occur because of this trip: a shy, unconfident girl from suburbia Michigan would eventually live in 4 different countries and travel to even more all because she studied Japanese and applied it in her many dream jobs. This shy girl would eventually adopt “carpe diem” as her favorite motivational saying, experience sky diving, make friends with people from all over the globe, and learn the important lessons of diversity and the contradicting conclusion that we actually are all the same. Knowing a language helped me understand other people and cultures, and opened my eyes to the beauty that can be seen in all areas of the world.

Why Japanese?

My answer is easy: I had to select from either French, German, Spanish or Japanese for my high school language requirement, and I selected nihongo because some high school students came to my junior high school geography class to talk about Japan. I thought I wanted French, but they convinced me otherwise. Little did I know then how pivotal this class would be to my future and the trajectory set forward.

One Amazing Teacher

I wasn’t very good at nihongo, mostly because I was spread too thin with other classes and various clubs. The teacher, however, was one of the most memorable teachers I have had. Mr. Van Camp was well-traveled and told us amazing stories about the Japanese culture. Nearly 25 years later, I still remember various Japanese hiragana characters by the way he showed them physically: “sa” as a soccer player kicking a ball, “nu” for noodles and “chi” for a cheerleader making a pose. 

Van Camp Sensei also played a key role in developing an exchange program between our local high school programs and a high school in Shiga Prefecture. Every year, a student from Kokusai Jouhou High School would be an exchange student in Michigan for a year, and 2 students from Michigan would travel to Shiga for one school semester. There were also shorter summer homestay programs, but I don’t remember much about them. 

“You’re Going to Japan!”

With each passing year, the number of students studying Japanese in our local area’s high schools seemed to drop. When it came time for the application process to go to Japan for someone in my junior class, there were no applicants to fill the 2 openings. I don’t remember wanting to apply for the program, but I do remember a lunch meeting at the local Big Boy restaurant with Van Camp Sensei and my dad to talk about the trip. My fate was sealed to travel to Japan by myself as an exchange student later that same year.

All About a Boy…?!

I wasn’t too keen on going to Japan, especially not for 4 months, so Van Camp Sensei did what ended up being the perfect strategy: he got a boy to convince me. It is important to keep in mind that I was severely shy and most definitely not used to being seen by anyone, especially boys. Since this popular boy had traveled to Japan the year before and was very convincing, I decided to jump headfirst into an adventure that would change the course of my life forever. (P.S. I haven’t been able to reconnect with this person to thank him for the push.)

What I Learned

My reasons for starting this adventure weren’t astounding by any stretch of the imagination (unless you count the boy story), but it has taught me a few things:

  1. Our lives are a series of baby steps, and we may not know where they are leading.
  2. It’s exciting to see where that path is leading you, even if you have no idea what to expect. 
  3. I believe we can change the direction anytime and in any direction.

Photo by Arthur Edelman on Unsplash

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