Sticking Out, Together

Read why Val writes "[In Japan] my citizenship as an American was the only thing that made me feel like an outsider."

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Published: Wednesday, 13 Mar 2019 Author: Val Norman

Hello, my name is Val Norman. I participated in the JCMU program in spring of 2012. I took the accelerated course for Business Communications in Japan so I stayed in the dorms in Hikone for less than three weeks, but that was plenty of time for a crash course in living and conducting business within the social guidelines and norms of the Japanese culture.

A woman sitting in front of Hikone castle

My concerns prior to my study abroad were not related to color. Japan was the first country I had visited other than Canada. The language barrier and self-government made me anxious, but meeting with my future classmates ahead of time in Michigan built the foundation for friendships I still have and cherish today. I also learned that some of my classmates spoke fluent Japanese while others were in the same boat as me. This greatly eased my worries.

The program was phenomenal! We visited other cities like Kyoto and Osaka. We visited temples and gardens. We met with actual Japanese companies like Brother and Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. In our down time, we bonded by venturing out to karaoke and the izakaya.

Two girls posing with a cutout of 'Totoro'

I never felt my color was a factor. If anything, my citizenship as an American was the only thing that made me feel like an outsider. Knowing zero Japanese, I quickly picked up on several words and "foreigner" was at the top of list. Japanese people saw me as American, not black. White, black, Asian; we all were foreigners who stuck out like sore thumbs.

The experience made us a tight knit group and humbled me immensely. I have so much more compassion for the struggle of "foreigners" in the States now and I almost view it as an ugly label. With all of that being said, there were also many people who showed me great kindness and patience as I struggled to speak bad Japanese. Most locals were friendly and welcoming. Every experience I had in and outside the classroom was educational.

A group of alumni posing

To people of color considering a study abroad, I say "DO IT!!" You will not regret all of the incredible things you gain getting out of your comfort zone.