1.Did you find any similarities between the Japanese and Americans?
I found that like many Americans, most Japanese individuals have a healthy sense of curiosity and are very open-minded even when it comes to learning about things that they are unfamiliar with. While I was abroad, I encountered many people that asked me many different questions about what life in America is like, my faith and how it ties into my personal lifestyle, and what I'm interested in pursuing as a career. They would ask questions regarding the significance of fasting during the month of Ramadan, why I pray five daily prayers, and my dietary restrictions regarding the consumption of pork and alcohol. Many times these sort of "icebreaker" questions would lead into much deeper dialogue such as the role of faith in society and overlapping principles in religions like Buddhism and Islam. Despite Japan existing primarily as a monoculture nation, many people that I met there were eager and open to learn more about different cultures and societies that are vastly different. The way I see it, there would seem to be a greater demand to learn more about the different types of cultures and backgrounds in America since much of the population consists of individuals, or parents, that originally came from different countries. This demand also existed in Japan and I saw it in manifesting in many things such as the lessons that were given to elementary school students to the effort that many restaurants and other service-based companies that cater to people from different backgrounds. While I was one of the junior high schools, I witnessed a lesson being taught in an English class on the diversity of gestures across different cultures and I was asked to give a short lesson on the globalization and localization of the market. I also had the opportunity to meet one of the previous ambassadors from Yanai who came to Champaign a few years back. She told me that her job as a flight attendant for All Nippon Airways requires her to be prepared to handle patrons from all backgrounds and that her training required her to know how to respond to specific such as if a passenger wanted a special meal due to any dietary restriction. I think more people in the US are also understanding the demand to accommodate more people from different backgrounds and examples of this can be found all over the UIUC campus. There are many businesses in the area that are East-Asian oriented and registered student organizations have been formed to accommodate students that are coming over from abroad and as our campus, and the rest of the country, expands on the ability to cater to the needs of minorities, so is Japan in its own way.
2. What is one (or more) difference between Japan and Illinois you would like to have in your own country?
I really appreciated how consideration for others is deeply ingrained as I've noticed that much attention is paid to subtle matters and people's non-verbal cues. There were several occasions where people would comment on my subtle mannerisms such as my tendency nod a lot while paying attention to a conversation and my positive body language. Another thing that I took notice of is how many restaurants take into consideration the health of their customers by opting not to season dishes with too much salt or adding to much sugar to a drink. Rather, the option to add more sugar, salt, or other condiments is provided at most establishments. This is something that I feel is lacking in many establishments over here and it seems that it could be contributing to the many health problems that Americans, particularly those who can only afford to buy high-sodium and cholesterol foods on a regular basis, face here such as diabetes and obesity. Healthier alternatives felt more within reach even in fast food restaurants and I felt that there was more of range in available foods to eat.
I also noticed that the social and collective responsibility of the individual is taken more seriously in Japan and this idea is reinforced even in elementary schools. A small segment of every school day is devoted to students taking part in cleaning the classrooms and the hallways. I found it interesting that most schools opted to have the students be responsible for maintaining the school as opposed to hiring a janitor. I believe that such a system would be very meaningful to implement in grade schools here in America since it would instill a shared responsibility for each person to keep the environment clean. I think implementing this system early on in children would encourage positive habits that may carry on into adulthood.
3. How did this exchange help you personally or professionally?
It was during my stay in Yanai that I realized how rare and remarkable this type of international opportunity even compared to the countless, study-abroad programs that are offered by the university. For starters, in Yanai, there isn't the luxury of having someone around that can translate for you so I had to come knowing at least some basic phrases and being able to recognize common words and symbols that one would find on shop signs. Taking the time to learn some Japanese made the experience much more immersive as I was able to communicate somewhat with everyone I met with my broken Japanese and even though my speaking skills were mediocre at best, I could see that they appreciated that I was at least trying and challenging myself to learn new phrases. It's one thing to say that you can adapt to a completely new environment and then actually being plunged in such an environment with no idea of what to expect and experiencing this opportunity really challenged me to step into uncharted waters.
As a premed student, I found this experience to of great benefit since I was able to embark on several occasions that were relevant to areas of work and research that I was interested. I visited the Hiroshima Radiation Effects Research Foundation, a facility run by researchers and medical experts that carry out longitudinal studies on individuals who were affected by the radiation caused by the A-bomb. I was particularly impressed by a machine that they kept at the facility that automatically stored and organized bio samples from patients. One of the families I stayed with had a general surgeon who worked in the field for many years and was kind enough to show me around the hospital where he worked and he shared his experiences training abroad in America.
Apart from the many gifts I brought back from Japan, I also took with me a newfound appreciation for the simple things in life: waking up in the morning to witness the sun rising, indulging in rare, ephemeral moments of peace in my hectic college life, and enjoying my meals one sip/bite at a time. I have to admit that I lost sight of these things during my freshman year of college after spending countless hours worrying about classes and extracurricular activities, which by no means am I saying that they aren't important but I found that I was way too preoccupied with these matters that I had no time or energy devoted purely for self-exploration. Unlike most study-abroad trips, this program didn't impose a strictly academic curriculum but rather it provided me the opportunity to learn more about a different culture but also more about my self and what I truly value besides my education. For example, I was truly touched by how simplicity and minimalism is embraced in Japanese culture, particularly in Yanai, for it interestingly reminded me of how much privilege I have to live in a society where it is common for people including myself to get used certain extravagances such as access to modern technology and furniture and appliances designed purely for comfort and take for granted necessities such as good health and roof under our heads. Many traditional Japanese homes stray away from the popular notions of luxury (at least in the context of Western society) and embrace the bare necessities of the hearth and I feel that much of traditional Japanese culture strives to find meaning in simplicity rather than preoccupying with extravagance.