The Oberlin Stories Project

On her winter term in Tokyo

Amy Hourcade ’15

“I was thrust out of my comfort zone, thanks to Oberlin, and have never been happier.”

American students with a Japanese family

Communication is a funny thing: so effortless at times and seemingly impossible at others. This past winter term I became well acquainted with the latter case. I lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 3 1/2 weeks with a host family that spoke little English. I had taken only one semester of introductory level Japanese, so my knowledge was limited to introductions and basic getting around. My first challenge was getting from the airport to my hosts’ house. It involved a lot of pointing, one word questions and answers, and a challenging ride with a cab driver who spoke no English but was feeling very chatty anyway. One thing was very clear at this point; my Japanese was going to get me almost nowhere when it came to real conversation.

My first dinner with my host family was exciting to say the least. Also staying at the same house was a girl from China, a guy from France, and a guy from Canada. We all ended up together thanks to the homestay program that I had chosen for my trip. Dinner was a highly multilingual affair with English, French, and Japanese flying around the table. It was the most interesting dinner conversation I had ever had.

Outside of the house, it seemed very difficult to get people to speak to me in Japanese (my cab driver was an exception). I would order food in Japanese, they would respond in English. I wanted to practice my Japanese and they wanted to practice their English. In the end, just enough information was communicated for me to get what I was asking for. It went like this my whole trip. I wasn’t too disappointed though because my host family chose to speak in almost exclusively Japanese so I spent plenty of time lost in translation.

At Senso-ji Temple, I was stopped by three Japanese kids who looked like they were about middle school age. They were there with their class, doing what I am assuming was an English language assignment. They introduced themselves in heavily accented English and asked if they could ask me some questions. They then asked me things like where I was from, what foods I liked, and if I liked sports and I responded in slower English. Basically, they asked the same sorts of things that I learned how to say in my first semester of Japanese 101. They were adorable! I had to sign their workbooks and write what country I came from after their interviews. Then they all gave me little origami as a thank you for helping them. It was one of my favorite encounters of my whole trip.

I found it was not always necessary to speak in order to communicate. I stumbled upon a ramen shop in Odaiba. I walked in, sat down, and looked at the menu. I could read the characters for “ramen” but that was about all I could make out. There were great pictures that looked delicious, but I couldn’t tell the differences. So when my order was taken, I ended up choosing one at random by pointing at its picture. My random choice turned out to be wonderful! The whole meal came and went without one word uttered in either English or Japanese. This “non-speaking” method, however, was not always effective. I managed to get lost for about 45 minutes while in Shinjuku station for the first time. Despite knowing which train I was supposed catch, I didn’t have enough Japanese to ask where it was, and they didn’t have enough English to tell me! In the end, I Googled a map of the station and wandered around until I found the correct subway.

When I first arrived at Oberlin, I knew I wanted to spend time abroad but I never thought I’d end up in Japan. My advisor first suggested the possibilities for Japan and I found them appealing and more and more exciting over time. Through some of the many opportunities at Oberlin (ExCo classes, the wide range of courses, and winter term projects), I further developed my interest in Japan, began studying Japanese language, and spent a month halfway around the world. Oberlin encourages me to pursue new interests outside my major, and it is through Oberlin that I am applying for fellowships to return to Japan after I graduate. I was thrust out of my comfort zone, thanks to Oberlin, and have never been happier.