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Photo of students from Moravian College and Japan with text "Peace and Justice Studies"

Peace & Justice Studies: Focus on Communication

June 21, 2018

Traveling to any Asian country as an American, one is bound to experience culture shock.  The social behaviors, eating habits, landscapes, and languages are so different. As an ambitious person, I was eager to engage in all of these new experiences.  However, beyond the initial excitement of it all, it became quite exhausting to continuously entertain these unfamiliarities.

Moravian students pose with Japanese student in middle for picture

Elizabeth (right), Mana (middle), & Me (left)

Communication has been an evident element of growth for me.  During the first leg of the trip, we spent time with fellow young scholars, students from Osaka-Ohtani University. Conversing with the Ohtani students was very challenging but got easier as our time together proceeded.  As we built relationships, we became more aware of each other’s’ personalities, which aided in our mutual interactions. It was at Osaka-Ohtani University that I realized the minimal commonalities in language amongst conversationalist have little effect on the intensity of a discussion.  Together, Moravian College and Osaka-Ohtani University tackled the tough topic of world peace with a very limited common vocabulary. By keeping our word choice basic, we all were able to have a deep and meaningful conversation.

Image of Japanese bedding (futons) on floor with striped blankets

Futons at Osaka-Ohtani University

It is also in Osaka that I learned words are not the only form of communication. When brought to our sleeping quarters at Osaka-Ohtani University, our student host, Mana, began setting up the sleeping arrangements for the 6 girls that would be sharing our room. Mana’s English is not advanced and she probably does not even possess the vocabulary to verbally ask for help in setting up the futons for us all to sleep on, nor would her Japanese nature permit herself having her guests help set up. However, my own nature would not permit me nor my American peers to allow another young lady make beds for 6 others while we are passively standing by and watching.  I followed suit and began grabbing from the piles of sheets, pillow cases, and Japanese futons that Mana was taking. She tried waving me off, but I refused to stand down. My Moravian compatriot, Elizabeth joined in, while the rest of the girls were downstairs taking care of other nightly duties.  I started assembling the beds as I thought they were meant to be done, but I was wrong, and without using any words, Mana demonstrated how to do so accurately. We then arranged the beds in rows, tucked the futons into fitted sheets, then had a system of one person putting a top sheet down and another person putting pillowcases on the pillows. Without speaking a single word, I was taught a lesson, we all communicated effectively, we established a system, and we bonded.

With these new skills acquired throughout the trip, communication certainly became easier.  That being said, the exchange of information still required a heftier amount of effort than it does in the homeland. At a certain point in the trip, I no longer wanted the burden of having discussions with native Japanese.  Particularly on day 10 when we met with students from Nagasaki University, I was not exactly eager to immerse myself in more Japanese. I was tired and cranky by the end of that day, unsure if I had the patience that interacting with foreigners requires. At first, I endured some casual conversation, but I ended up engaging in some really insightful discussions with people that are now my friends.

Moravian students take a group pic with Japanese students from Nagasaki University

Moravian College Students with Students from Nagasaki University

Being in Japan, I felt an unavoidable guilt-by-association as an American. Western music and television are prevalent in Japan, in addition to English being incorporated into the school curriculum. Therefore, most of the Japanese people we have interacted with have some basic English exposure under their belts, whereas for me, my prior Japanese knowledge does not expand beyond “sashimi.” I do feel guilty that my Japanese counterparts always met me further than I could meet them in discussions.  Logistically it makes sense for the Japanese students to speak more English with me than I speak Japanese, though I still cannot help but feel ashamed that I am only monolingual.

The social positioning of participants of communication plays a major role in the attitudes towards conversation.  In the case of the assembly of the futons, Mana was in charge of the situation.  I enjoyed learning from her instruction.  However, in most cases, my inability to speak Japanese caused me to lead many discussions in basic English, which I found tiring and made me feel somewhat culpable. Despite the shame I feel for speaking no more than one language, I do not plan to take formal lessons in Japanese.  As much as I love Japan and admire Japanese culture, as an American, there is no dire personal need for me to become an expert in this language. I will first prioritize mastering Spanish, the second most commonly spoken language in the United States. Learning another language will help me in my humanitarian efforts to be a more global citizen.

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