She has come a long way since studying abroad in Japan in the 1960’s, but EAP alumna Beverly Gray cherishes the experience and its impact on her personal development.
It seems like yesterday that I said goodbye to my parents at LAX before flying off to Tokyo to spend my Junior Year Abroad at International Christian University. Actually, it was over thirty years ago. This was only my second plane trip, and my first real visit to a foreign country. When I landed at the old Haneda Airport, a new phase of my life began.
I was not totally ignorant about Japan. A Japanese friend at my high school had introduced me to sukiyaki, and I knew how to eat with chopsticks. I had also taken one UCLA course on Japanese culture. But I did not speak the language, beyond a few polite phrases, and I wasn’t sure what to expect of my fellow students. When I moved into my dorm, the oldest and most spartan on the ICU campus, I discovered that daily student life was very different from what I had known back home. For one thing, four girls were assigned to each dorm room. Most rooms contained a freshman, a sophomore, a junior, and a foreign student like me. On a daily basis, we rotated a set of chores, and it was unthinkable to forget when it was your turn to empty the wastebaskets, wash the teacups, and provide the evening snack. We had dorm chores too: I scrubbed toilets, cleaned kitchen sinks, swept autumn leaves from the walk (even though they were falling much faster than I could sweep), and stoked our furnace with coal so there would be hot water for the evening bath. Speaking of that bath, or ofuro: it was the only thing that warmed me up on cold winter evenings when the dorm’s ancient radiators simply weren’t up to the challenge. I was amused to discover that my highly modest roommates (who never revealed a hint of underwear when they changed clothing) had no problem stripping off everything and lounging with the rest of the girls in the big common tub.
In that era, of course, there was no such thing as e-mail. Phone calls to the United States were prohibitively expensive (in fact, there was only one telephone in the entire dorm), and so the only way to connect with loved ones back home was via letter. But I was never lonely. I became close friends with two of my three roommates, and also enjoyed the friendship of several EAP pals. Everything changed, though, when—midway through my year—my campus was paralyzed by a student strike. A group of dissident Japanese students, upset about something to do with a national exam, occupied the main campus building, and life came to a standstill. Ultimately, after several weeks, the non-striking Japanese were sent back to their homes for the remainder of the school year. We foreigners managed to finish up our trimester, after a fashion, but then all my closest American friends decided to return to California. I stayed on, facing the prospect of limited course offerings and a campus that felt like a ghost town. Fortunately, by this time, I had learned enough of the language to be able to put it to use. I began spending my free time visiting friends of friends all over Tokyo, and traveling throughout the country on Japan’s wonderful trains. I went to remote villages where being a foreigner made me an exotic but very welcome guest, and I met people with wh om I’m still in contact today.
I have not gone back to Japan since 1970, the year I worked at the U.S. Pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka. Over the years, Japan has changed so much that I am almost afraid to return. My life has taken me in a very different direction: today I write books on the entertainment industry and teach screenwriting at UCLA Extension. But my love affair with Japan and its people continues. In 2001, my daughter Hilary flew to China to spend a year teaching English at Beijing University of Science and Technology. The following summer, before coming home, she traveled to Japan, and spent a happy few weeks with the Japanese friends I haven’t seen in three decades. One of them was Yoko Wada, my sophomore roommate at ICU so many years ago. Hilary also stayed in the homes of Yoko’s two nephews, who lived not far from the ICU campus back in my student days. When I was a student, Dai and Ken were rambunctious pre- schoolers, and we spent hours romping together while I absorbed the rhythms of Japanese family life. Now they’re grown men with families of their own. More and more I realize that I want to go visit them, to flex my rusty Japanese language skills and find out what kind of people they’ve become. Of course they’ll discover that I’ve changed too, but here’s something they won’t really grasp: that my experiences in their country have helped make me the person I am today.
Beverly Gray is the author of the newly-published Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond (Rutledge Hill Press). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through her website, www.beverlygray.com.
Published: Tuesday, May 13, 2003
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