Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Scholarship Winner Returns from Japan

Jeanne Vosecky White, Ed.D., our 2007 American scholarship winner, has just returned from her trip to Japan. The following is the story of her experience there.

I have returned from my third trip to Japan. This time I had a purpose, and that was to meet with my old friends and ask them questions about their experiences in going abroad in their graduate student years. I was initially concentrating on their experiences with language problems, but the more I spoke with my friends, the more I saw that going abroad had a much more profound affect on their lives and the lives of their families.
The first home I visited was a friend who had asked me to stay with his wife while he went to Europe one summer when we were in grad school in the early 1970’s. His wife and I became good friends, despite the fact that she had very little English proficiency. It helped me use the Japanese I was learning from another friend. When I interviewed them, I found that she had little use for English except for when she met her former American friends or when she was at important parties that are associated with her husband’s business. However, her view of the world changed when she was transported to a Midwestern university and left to find her way around a strange place. She made new friends and learned how to make new recipes. There were many other countries represented at the university. She learned the differences between not only American culture and Japanese culture, but also the differences and similarities of other people groups and the Japanese. She said it made her appreciate her own culture even more. When I asked her if her experience changed the way she did anything in her life, at first she said no, but then she began talking about her son, who was only three when he was in the United States, it became obvious that she was a bit influenced b y the way she raised her son. Her first son did not follow his father in business. He is in the medical field. He speaks better English than his brother, even though he does not remember his stay in the United States. Her second son, who was born after their return, is in business. He does not speak English very well, but he is good at what he does, and seems satisfied with his life.
Her husband was very specific on what he had learned going abroad. He had learned many new ways of doing business, how different people in different cultures do business, and he also appreciated the new ideas that helped him make more independent decisions in his work. He admired American business practices and the freedom business people seemed to have as opposed to Japanese business’s ties to tradition and government. Yet he appreciated the relationships of Japanese business. His experience helped him capitalize on all the business cultures he explored. His business is international and he is always looking for more opportunities in other countries.
After the wonderful hospitality of my friends in Tokyo, I visited another couple in Osaka with whom I had become close in our grad school years. It had been a long time, but they remembered our experiences at the school. The wife had been the one who taught me Japanese before I started taking classes. She was very proficient in English, as was her husband. He had been dissatisfied with company life and decided to accept the challenge of going to school in America. He attended two universities. When he returned to Japan, he went into a different career, but in the same major area. While he was not totally satisfied with his new job, he felt that it was better than the company job he had before. His wife, on the other hand, did not change her job right away. She stayed in the same field, but was able to move up in her career. Since they had no children, she felt free to pursue her career. While they did not change much in their private lives, they did change their perspectives on the rest of the world. They took vacations to various places around the world. They could look at their own country with a critical eye, yet an affectionate one. They saw the strengths and weaknesses of all the places they had been.
I was able to visit with many others who represented families who came to the United States to study or to teach at an American university. One of the families came to the university where my husband and I were attending because the head of the family knew of the outstanding professors in his field that were there. This man had chosen to put his career on hold so he could study with these professors. He made a choice to bring his family to America for this adventure.
Another of our friends came to the university to study education. He and his wife and daughter came with little money and lots of faith. He received his Ph.D. the same time as my husband, so we became very close. They lived on what his wife could bring by looking after other people’s children or what their families could provide. He went back to Japan as a professor at a university and became a pastor at a church and even helped create a very good preschool program that uses the buildings of the church. The fact that they were Christian did not make it any easier to adjust to American life. They were Japanese, and, as was common with most of the other Japanese with whom I spoke, they were ill the first few weeks they were in the United States.
I wish I could tell you all of the stories of my friends in Japan. My first visit in 2004 was hard for me as well. The people I knew in the states were still my friends, but they were in their own country. I made so many mistakes, but they were very careful in helping me to understand how to behave in Japan. I know that sounds a bit odd, but Americans can really make big mistakes in dealing with Japanese people. While they are in America or in another country, the Japanese watch carefully how others behave. Americans, as well as others from English speaking countries, seem to assume their behavior is acceptable. One example I observed was on the Shinkansen, the Bullet Train.
There are some cars that have reserved seating and some cars are for just boarding. Some trains are all reserved. I had a Japan Rail Pass, and that meant that if I went to the ticket office, I could get a reserved seat. There were some Australian young men on the reserved Shinkansen who did not seem to know that if a seat is vacant when they come aboard, it does not mean they can sit anywhere they like. As we made one stop, a woman came to her seat, which was occupied by a young man talking to his friend in the other seat. She hesitated, probably because she did not speak English, and also because she was Japanese, but she brought an officer of the train to her seat to tell the young men to move. The men were not apologetic at all, but they did move. It was embarrassing to me because my face looked like theirs. I felt that their behavior reflected on all English-speaking Caucasians.
The last place I visited was Iwate, where I actually was able to teach a few lessons of English to some 4- and 5-year old children and talk to the parents as well. I was so glad to be able to observe some of what Japanese kindergarten children did during their days in school.
If only we had a way to communicate the different customs before people travel or immigrate (emigrate) to another country. We need to have better ways of communicating with others of a different culture. Even though I had studied Japanese culture, I still made mistakes. I did know about how polite and law-abiding and careful of others the Japanese were. I knew that one kept one’s promise, one was polite to everyone, and one always would pick up something someone dropped and return it to him or her. I saw this many times and was the beneficiary of this last one. Most children in America are not taught anything about other cultures in a way that would really make a difference when they meet someone who is different. It is important to reach people while they are young, so they can learn and understand others. If I had the chance, this is what I would try to introduce to school children. As the world becomes more interconnected, people will need to know the people with whom they do business, call on the telephone, or email. The reason we have trouble in the world is because of lack of communication. If each individual had a knowledge, a real understanding, of others, there would be less violence between countries.
Jeanne Vosecky White, Ed.D.

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