Standing on a raised, open-air platform in the heart of Tokyo,
my friend and I gazed at the crowd of people bustling below us.
He noted, “Not a single American. I looked around, and all I saw
was a sea of Japanese.”
The utter homogeneity of the Land of the Rising Sun was striking,
to say the least. Schoolgirls broke out into giggles and adults
stopped to stare when my fellow exchange students and I took walks
around Tokyo. In terms of diversity, what a sharp contrast this
land makes to America.
It was extremely helpful that, for two years, I had taken advantage
of the Japanese classes at my high school. Even though the particular
home-stay program I chose offered three-hour Japanese courses
every weekday, much of it was a review for me, and the actual
learning came more from my conversations and interactions with
my host family and people on the street. However, the same could
not be said of most of the other American students in my group.
Because few high schools across the nation offer Japanese as a
language option, the majority of my peers had no formal training
in the language.
Communicating in Japanese was most certainly a challenge even
for me and the handful of others who also had experience with
the language. As with all foreign conversations, the native speakers
would talk so fast that it seemed impossible to comprehend the
jumble of strange-sounding words and phrases. Luckily, my host
family had a tremendous amount of experience in English, since
they had hosted several other English-speaking guests in their
home. In addition, my host father had been an English teacher
years earlier, and my host sister had recently taken the SAT and
the TOEFL to gain entrance to a university in California.
For most of the month-long home-stay, our conversations consisted
of my speaking in Japanese and my host family responding in English,
or vice versa. Communication, with the occasional exception where
we had to whip out the dictionary, was far easier than I had expected.
I felt blessed to have had a host family so fluent in English
and sorry for my fellow students who not only had little knowledge
of Japanese but who had host families who, conversely, had little
knowledge of English. As a result, some students ended up relying
heavily on sign and body language, while others, unfortunately,
ended up not communicating with their family at all.
Even though my main goal was simply to practice my Japanese, my
entire experience was definitely enlightening and enjoyable in
several aspects: Through my visit to another culture I was able
to immerse myself in Japanese lifestyle and language and discover
things about myself, about the United States, and about the rest
of the world. Going to Japan not only shifted my sleeping pattern,
but it shifted my perspective as well.
Lapinig is a junior at Stuyvesant High School in NYC.