Just a few months ago, I was sitting rather uncomfortably in one of those stiff plastic seats in Temple University’s Anderson building. Munching on a banana-nut muffin, sipping hot green tea, I eagerly awaited the arrival of Dr. Fabienne Darling-Wolf—or “Fab,” to those fortunate enough to know her. A guest lecturer for my Journalism Design class, Wolf breezed through the double doors with a certain nervous glow on her cheeks. It was 8:40 a.m. on a particularly humid Thursday morning, and without a doubt Wolf was to meet more than a few blank stares from her less-than-enthused student audience. Apparently, the Japanese influence on Western design didn’t pique the interest of many present. But, fortunately, I wasn’t one of the disaffected.
I sat attentively absorbing all of the facts, despite the early a.m. hours. Highlighting everything from Hokusai’s Great Wave to the art of ukiyo-e (woodblock printing), Wolf presented a plethora of Japan’s finest arts and design.
Clicking through slide after projected slide, Wolf lured us into the traditional Japan known to samurai warriors and geisha of centuries past. Then suddenly, as if by some mystical means of time travel, Wolf whisked us away from the Edo period to present-day Tokyo.
Standing tall in its architectural glory, Tokyo alone has anchored Japan in a sea of design dull by comparison. Home to over 12 million, and best known for its sheer vibrancy, Tokyo represents Japan’s ultimate cultural merger—uniting the adherence to tradition with the advancement of modernization.
I was breathless, blown away by the beauty of such a sight. How could a country founded on tradition and age-old custom welcome mile-high skyscrapers? Could hand-rolled sushi and shopping malls really coexist? Could courtesans and avid consumerism call one country home?
And much to my surprise, Wolf concluded her presentation by presenting the possibility to find those answers personally, via a journey to Japan. The thought of studying this cultural anomaly, of reporting my findings firsthand, intrigued me. I had, in fact, milled over the idea of studying abroad before, thinking London my destination of choice. I had fancied myself digesting all of the museums, all of the media outlets and a few of the pubs too, of course. I imagined myself in a British episode of Cheers, where you’re kicking back with your mates, enjoying a pint, and you’re always glad you came.
I realize there’s no pubs, no pints and nobody is gonna know my name in Japan, let alone be able to pronounce it. And I’m fine with that, ecstatic even. After all, I did have a slight interest in Japanese culture prior to Wolf’s presentation, albeit an interest that was sparked by an unlikely source.
The spark that started the fire was horror movies. First it was The Ring, and then its superior Japanese predecessor, Ringu. And before I knew it, I was hooked. My slight interest became an all-out obsession, a passion to which I became extremely devoted. Insisting Japanese horror flicks ran circles, rings even, around their U.S. remakes, I sought to see them all. From Audition to Suicide Club, I’m still working my way through the best horror movies Japan has to offer.
And for a while, that was the extent of my Japanese interests. Aside from the occasional fast food hiatus for hibachi and a childhood stint in martial arts, I am virtually a novice of Japanese culture. But since that fateful day in the Anderson auditorium, my interests have been slowly evolving and quickly expanding.
Even now I don’t claim extensive knowledge of Japanese cinema, Japanese art or Japanese history for that matter. But I have a strong grasp on what interests me, and I’m willing to take my interests far beyond my local Temple University obligations and destinations.
And so, I filed the necessary paperwork, made the necessary appointments and played the waiting game. A few excessively long weeks later, I received word of my official acceptance to Dr. Fabienne Darling-Wolf’s Contemporary Media Culture Workshop at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. And to tell you the honest-to-God truth, I haven’t really had much to time to think about what I’m about to do, until now that is. One minute I’m chewing on Cheetos and watching Battle Royale, the next, I’m a foreign correspondent with a weekly column for an Internet magazine, prepping myself for a six-week study in Japan.
It’s now two weeks until departure, and I’m ready to pack my bags and head East. Of course, there is still much to do. Exchanging currency pre-flight, paying a few last-minute bills, picking out the perfect outfits and preparing myself body-and-mind for a complete nervous breakdown.
Oh sure, this is an opportunity of a lifetime, an amazing adventure and a considerably sizeable student loan expenditure. But all I’ve been hearing for the past two months is “culture shock, coach seat, communication barrier.”
“Yes, mom, of course I’ll miss the family. Yes, it is a 12-hour flight. Well, no, I really have no knowledge of the language,” I find myself repeating. Actually, I’ve grown somewhat tired of explaining the situation’s few setbacks. I’ve pretty much come to the point where I’m dropping mention of my summer abroad rather casually. “Oh Jackie, did you want to go see that movie on global warming?” Sorry, I can’t. I’m going to Japan.
Talk about prior obligations. And while it seems my words of excess wit and little wisdom describe my impending trip quite lightly, quite the contrary is true. And in spite of my seemingly casual attitude, I’m taking all the necessary precautions and packing in a few extras along the way. Just the other day, a good friend of mine bought me one of those 8-disc audio immersion tools, where I’m supposed to learn the language in no time flat. And I’ve dedicated a few good hours to the cause, with high hopes of its effectiveness.
Realistically speaking, I do anticipate a little mix-up regarding the whole language barrier thing. But I have successfully learned one integral phrase, for life’s little emergencies, “Ichi biru, kudasai.” Translation: One beer, please.
Stay tuned for next Wednesday’s exciting pre-departure adventure in Talking About Tokyo: An American Journalist in Japan.