Essays from Akiko Hirano who studied in the U.S. at age 45.
Reproduced and translated with additions from the 2000 Sojusha Publishers' publication (sold out).
The dream of exchange to the U.S.
Invitation to Illinois
The illusory exchange
An 8 million yen investment in me!
The struggle with English begins
Inside a multi-cultural class
Japanese food in
an underground kitchen
My composition appears in a text book
If only I had read more books
when I was younger
The death of
a Chinese exchange student
American style stress relief
Finally, a real university student
Independent students in the states
Amazing silver power
Visiting New York City
Crossing North American Continent by car
Inside a multi-cultural class
The following day I completed my enrollment for ELS and classes began 10 days later. It had been 20 years since I last used English and I was worried that I wouldn't be understood but I was pleasantly surprised to see that I still had it. I got a bit of an ego boost from the young man who picked me up from the airport and who had told me that my English was easy to understand, but I had never thought that the basics I had learned all those years ago in primary school would help me this much. Now more than ever I understood that learning when you are young is very important.
Most of the people taking this special English course were foreigners who had already secured entrance to Graduate Schools or who were professors, and only 20% of the class were people like me who wanted to study or improve their TOEFL scores in order to enter university. So it's only natural that the level of classes was hard and for someone as old as me it was a level so difficult that I was struggling to cope.
My classmates were for the most part in their 20's or early 30's but from a myriad of countries. There were students from Italy, Spain, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Brazil, Ethiopia, Taiwan, Korea and more. In all there were about 50 of us, but the South Koreans made up the bigger share with 18 students. There were so many of them that from time to time during class they would break out in Hangeul to discuss things and the teacher would always react with “English only!” If there were this many Koreans at such a small university in the middle of nowhere, I imagine universities across the nation are full of Koreans.
I was the only Japanese person, and the only ‘old’ person over 40 years of age. After some time a man of the same age as me joined our class. He had come to the U.S. with his family to become a seeing eye dog trainer and for reasons related to his visa was forced to take ELS classes while also attending his formal training.
We had a test of our English skills to sort us into 4 levels, or groups of students. 2 groups became advanced level and the remaining 2 were average level. I was slotted into the advance group for some reason, and found it very hard keeping up. Classes began at the end of January and continued for 4 months, through to the end of May. It was a tough fight with the language. I spent my weekdays immersed in English with no capacity to do anything else.
All of us soon became very close and it was very interesting seeing cultural differences emerge during class discussions. They would ask me questions such as “What do Japanese people eat?”, “What kind of houses do you live in?”, “What is the divorce rate?”…
It was very interesting hearing about life in Asia and Africa, something I could not have done in Japan. For example the issue of crime became a much debated topic, in Colombia for example, a student from that country explained to us that children sometimes kill to survive. We were all dumb struck by this. A student from Kenya spoke about the destitute ‘street children’ of his country, to which someone asked “Do they even have streets in Kenya?! I thought there were only paths!?” and this set everyone off into fits of laughter.
It is well known that Saudi Arabia and Iraq get along like cats and dogs, and what was interesting was that one of the Saudi exchange students looked exactly like Iraq’s president Hussein! He got along well with everyone and was very sociable and liked going out. The exams had finished and he decided to hold a party. In fact, he had talked about having a party even the week before the exam! He couldn’t not invite certain people so everyone, even the Saudi was invited and it turned in a fun affair!
Alcohol was not permitted on campus grounds but we ignored that and drank beer and then went out to a bar to drink and chat. I turned to my Saudi classmate and said “I thought you weren’t allowed to drink in your country!?” and he came back with “That is actually true, we are a Muslim country, but as long as I understand that rule and uphold it within myself it is OK.” He drank, he smoke, he talked with an Iraqi. Many of us in the class talked about how extraordinary this scene was for us. Seeing this interaction on a daily basis, this kind of ‘cosmopolitanism’ ,was very refreshing.
Something that stood out as different to all of us were the Korean exchange students. Perhaps it was because there were so many of them, but I began to realize how different the Japanese are. The Japanese typically formed groups and factions and would congregate together, but recently are doing so less and less. Looking at the Korean students, they displayed these traits and were always together. The hierarchy established on the basis of their ages and etc. was clearly evident in their group. For example the strict politeness to superiors was something you could have seen in people in Japan a long time ago, yet here it was. There was always a notable silence among the other Korean students when one of them was speaking in class.
After I became closer with a few of them they said to me “Actually, we don’t like the Japanese!” to my face. When I told them that as exchange students living in the U.S. we can’t do anything about the past but try to be friends, they all seemed to accept this. Nevertheless their in-grown hatred appears to be something that has been cultured within them since their were children. They had probably been shown TV programs and videos and even told what to think about Japanese people.
This university was a national university and not terribly rich, therefore buildings for example were all built in different styles. To start with the era in which the campus was built was clearly evident with the tallest building being only 4 floors. Private universities are planned down to the color and the beauty of their campus show how much money they have. However in terms of size this campus was impressive, easily fitting the grounds of Kyoto Imperial Palace into it. Built in the mid-1800’s, it was a general university of medium size.
I studied English and general subjects on this campus for a total of about 1 and a half years but the place where I studied as an ‘real’ university student was the State University of East Connecticut. It was a simple transfer to a campus which was only 15 minutes away.
Connecticut University was surrounded with nothing but woods. If it wasn’t for the 18,000 students, the population of this area would be around 500 people. It really was a case of there being nothing in the city except for the university and a few convenience stores. There were a few bars for the young university students but the nearest bar for older people was over 30 minutes drive away.
In Japan a 30 minute drive wouldn’t take you far, but here, in the middle of nowhere, 30 minutes took you a great distance. So as long as I was at school it was as if we were cut off from the rest of the world. Excursions with my English class meant that I was able to get out and ‘see the world’. Thanks to that I was able to travel to New York and Boston and soon enough was able to put things into scale.
This was also the first time for me to experience just how tough it is to live in the cold. Inside we could use as much electricity as we liked and all the rooms and classrooms had central heating, a journey outside would sometimes mean temperatures of minus 15! In these temperatures your voice literally froze and hair stands on its end. But I told myself if old people and babies can survive in this weather, why can’t I? After a while I became used to the cold, even life at minus 15.