It’s April here in Japan, and as the cherry blossoms begin to bloom and scatterーpink sun-kissed pedals lighting the streetsーthe seasons change, marking the start of a new academic school year.
Emerging from the underground subway, I arrive at Shibuyaーthe world-famous business capital of Japan, where as many as 2,500 people cross the intersection every time the signal lights change. As I make my way up the grueling steep metropolitan streets, my spring blazer doused with more sweat than I would prefer, I pass by more people in my morning commute to school than I do in a whole day in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. I realize every single day that I really am in another world.
My universityーAoyama Gakuin Universityーis a prestigious private Christian school located in the heart of Shibuya. Right at the city’s doorsteps, it is separated by a giant steel fence that resembles British royalty. Unlike Shibuya, a metropolis where towering skyscrapers are crammed together in an area too small to fit them, Aoyama Gakuin is a private haven of greenery, compromised of ten spacious victorian architecture buildings, encompassed by lush shrubbery and Sakura (pink cherry blossom) trees. Although I have never been to New York, I imagine this is what it feels like to walk into Central Park from New York City. Passing through the entrance, Aoyama’s main road is tucked under a grove of trees blanketed by its scattered cherry blossom petals, resembling pink snow.
Today is my first day of school, and as I walk through the gates, I am overwhelmed with emotions. I am here on a mission to become a Japanese Interpreterーthrough tour guiding jobs for Japanese students and interpreting courses in my hometown Oregon, I have spent the last year and a half honing my language skills for this journey. Dressed as if I’m going to a job interview for Harvard, my palms are covered in sweat. Excitement mixed with anxiety, I begin to question myself. Am I ready? Is my Japanese good enough? No matter how much I may have thought I prepared, for the first time in my life I am now in a country where English cannot be relied on. This time is the real deal.
As foreign exchange students, today we have our placement tests, where based our individual skill levels, we are divided into seven different classes. The required Japanese classes range from beginner level one to native-speaking level number seven. One of the main reasons why I chose to go to Aoyama Gakuin was because this was the only university in Tokyo where I could take not only Japanese language courses, but subjects taught in Japanese alongside native students. I decided long before coming to Japan that no matter what, I would take business courses for my major in not English, but Japanese. If I am to realistically work and live in this country one day, I need to comprehend and succeed in the same courses that natives do. Instead of being secluded in a class with other foreigners, I would be in an environment where I could make native friends as well. For that reason, it was imperative that I had to do well on this test.
Before our exams, we met our Japanese tutors for the first timeーvolunteer students with an interest in befriending foreign exchange students and assisting them in their every day lives.
My tutor is named Risaーa 5’3” bright eyed girl with jet black hair down to her shoulders. Always upbeat and full of spunk, she reminds me of a perky 16-year old high school student. Splitting up into groups of threes, I get to know Risa as she gives me a tour of the school. She is unexpectedly easy to talk toーwe talk about surprisingly good school lunches to the glory of having a Seven Eleven on our campus (convenient stores are completely different in Japan, and some students even call them “God”ーmore on that later.)
Continued in Part 2…