By Peggy McInerny
UCLA International Institute, November 22, 2016 — Stefanie Serino (UCLA 2017), an international development studies (IDS) major at UCLA, had wanted to study abroad since she was very young. So when the decision to spend a year in Japan meant that she wouldn’t graduate on time, she didn’t think twice. “It would delay my graduation,” she says, “but I figured it was definitely worth the experience. And it was.”
Stefanie returned to UCLA this fall after spending an academic year at the School of International Liberal Studies of Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. Her experience, she relates, “was definitely different than I expected, but for the better… I thought I would just be in a club hanging out with Japanese college students, but I was able to interact so much more than that, which made the study abroad experience great.”
In addition to studying development and political science from a Japanese perspective, Stefanie volunteered with other international students in Japanese high schools and even did fieldwork in Okinawa. Waseda’s School of International Liberal Studies (SILS), located in the heart of Tokyo, offers an undergraduate education in the English language, drawing a diverse group of international students as well as English-speaking Japanese students.
Navigating another culture
Although she had studied Japanese for two years before she departed, Stefanie notes that “it was not nearly enough, but it was enough to survive.” She continued to study the language throughout the year she was in Tokyo. Yet her challenges were not simply linguistic, they were also cultural.
“There are a lot of unwritten social codes in Japan, “reflects the UCLA senior. Making friends, for example, takes much longer than it does in the United States. “You have to meet Japanese people a certain number of times, and then make small talk and then not-so-small talk,” she explains. “It’s a very long process to really be friends with someone. I think I would not have understood how hard that process is for a foreigner until I actually got there”.
On the other hand, SILS proved to have a very diverse international study body, which allowed the UCLA senior — who lived in a dormitory — to make friends from around the world. Despite the cultural challenges, Stefanie said she found it easier to adapt to life in Japan than many of her international peers. She traced that ease to being a “third culture” child: her parents were born in the Philippines and she was raised in the United States, but she is grounded in Filipino culture.
“The culture shock was very minimal for me because I'm kind of used to feeling a little out of [the mainstream], it but also a little in it, at the same time.” The surprise for Stefanie? People didn’t think she was American because she wasn’t blond and Caucasian, an assumption she traced to the influence of Hollywood.
“It just kind of puzzled them because in a lot of countries, you have a very homogenous population, where everyone looks similar in some way,” she comments. By contrast, points out Stefanie, “In California, you have all sorts of colors going around. So Japanese people were quite surprised to find out that everyone has different ethnicities in the United States.”
Learning in a different educational environment
Educational norms also differed from those in the U.S. At UCLA, says Stefanie, her IDS professors urge their students to argue with them. But challenging one’s professor, she observes, is not the norm in Japan. “Actually, I was happy that the dynamic was so different,” she says, “because it really widened my understanding of how different cultures work in similar environments and how people learn.
“I like observing how each system works because clearly, it works for them, for their purposes. And ours works for us, for our purposes.” She came to the same conclusion through volunteer work. The UCLA student spent a year volunteering for ISA, a Japanese organization that promotes global education for young people. Together with other international students (most of whom were not American), she helped conduct an empowerment program in English in Japanese high schools. The program aimed to teach students critical thinking and debate skills in English as preparation for a short study abroad program in either the U.S. or New Zealand.
Notes Stefanie, “This was something very different for them, because in Japan critical thinking is not exactly encouraged — it’s more following rules and following what the teacher says.” Both the students and the volunteers found the program enormously challenging, but gratifying. Asked to express their opinions on specific topics she explained, young Japanese students were flummoxed, and answered in general terms so as not to offend either Stefanie or their classmates.
“Essentially, we were there to prepare them for these kind of discussions, to wade in the water and allow them to think more globally,” she explains. And because English was a second language for the majority of volunteers involved, they became role models as well. “A lot of Japanese students are introduced to English around this time and they think, ‘This is impossible, I’m never going to be fluent,’” she continues. “So when they hear these international students, they say, ‘Wow, look how far they have come.’”
Joining a student club for global understanding at Waseda University gave Stefanie yet another valuable experience. The club — which conducts all of its activities in Japanese — decided to study how World War II had affected Okinawa. First, members studied the history of the war together, watched videos and had many discussions. Eventually, they traveled to Okinawa and conducted a survey of Okinawans who had survived the war.
The research trip surprised everyone — Japanese and international students alike. “Everyone had their expectations just obliterated,” remarks Stefanie. Most club members, she explains, expected that the Okinawans would resent the United States for having built military bases on their islands. Instead, she said, the islanders they interviewed “were much more frustrated with the Japanese.” The Okinawans believed that Japan had purposely enabled and supported the U.S. to build its bases in Okinawa and not somewhere else in Japan, she said. “They felt neglected and have been feeling neglected since World War II,” she added.
“The Japanese students in our club felt very shocked by all this,” she continued, “and it opened up a very interesting discussion between us.” Ultimately, Stefanie said, she and her peers came to realize that the relationship between Okinawa, Japan and the United States was very complex.
Lessons to live by
Reflecting on her time in Japan, Stefanie says, “I think cultural relativism is such an important concept. Being able to see differences and not feel they are wrong, but to try to understand why those differences work for [another culture.].
By opening herself up to a society so different from her own, Stefanie came to appreciate it. “Japan is a very rules-based society, but in a good way, because everyone knows the rules and that can be very convenient. If I walk down an aisle and everyone steps aside, I don't have to bump into anybody.” The same rules apply to exiting a packed subway train, she says, meaning that no one has to push to get off. “The philosophy there is that rules make a harmonious society and it works for them,” she comments. “I saw people leave their wallets and cell phones in stores, and people would immediately give them to the cashier,” she adds. “You have the expectation that if you lose something, you can go to the lost and found and it will be there.”
Studying abroad, concludes the UCLA senior, “lets you learn a lot about yourself and what kind of person you want to be. People have perceptions of who they think you are as an American and you have perceptions of who they are in whatever country you're studying in,” she says. “You get to change those perceptions and make them more complex, more in depth.
“In recent years,” reflects Stefanie, “many countries have become increasingly more nationalistic. It has created a lot of xenophobia, unfortunately not just in America, but absolutely everywhere in the world. Now that people have become more polarized in their ideas, it’s become a tug of war that’s never going to get anywhere,” she says. “So it’s become even more imperative for us as a generation to see what’s out there and to learn for the sake of understanding.”
All photos provided by Ms. Serino.