nippon banzai (a language immersion story)

Brief background (ripped from Wikipedia): Waseda University is a private research university with its main campus in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Established in 1882, it is consistently ranked as one of the best universities in the country. Undergraduate enrolment numbers stood at 42,000 in 2018 – about 1.8 times the number that NTU has. It also seems exceptionally popular as an exchange destination for students from overseas. Its list of alumni include seven Prime Ministers of Japan, as well as every bibliophile’s wet dream, Haruki Murakami. (Now you know why I went.)

The application period

I learnt about the programme via an email from GEM Discoverer. Yes, this is a friendly hint that you should check your email more often.

click for more details. picture taken from Waseda University

I had a ball of a time with the application process. Before applying directly with Waseda, I had to be offered placement under GEM Discoverer. Declaring my desire was simple enough, involving filling up one electronic form on the iNTU portal. Considering what was to come with Waseda University’s application, I am obligated to applaud the efficiency of the NTU registration system. In fairness, I will also mention that I was offered placement two days before Waseda’s application deadline.

Upon obtaining NTU’s approval, I was directed to the Waseda University administration, where a separate application was required on that end. For the summer course I was applying for, four levels were available: (1) lower beginner, (2) upper beginner, (3) intermediate, and (4) advanced. Note: being able to read and write hiragana and katakana is expected even for lower beginners. On top of the intensive Japanese programme (3 or 6 weeks), applicants could also opt for a “skill-based programme” held in the morning – it was 3 weeks long and held concurrently with the intensive programme. Each focused on a specific skill e.g. conversation. A peer, despite studying at one level lower than mine, handled restaurant situations better than all of us by the end of the programme because he did a skill-based course related to dining out. As for me – well, I spent my mornings in bed.

good morning, or should i say, good sleep.

The real party was the enrolment procedure, though. Not sure if this implies something about the Japanese bureaucratic practices even today, but part of the process involved physically mailing a series of printed, hand-signed hardcopy documents. Bonus misadventures when I wanted to submit my N5 certificate as supplementary proof, but I couldn’t find it, and it wasn’t available online, so I had to contact JLPT directly to ask for it, and then they had to send me the copies by international mail, and then I had to scan the physical copies, but hey, at least I paid nothing for it aside from my time and sanity. The final round of acceptance documents were, similarly, addressed to me via physical mail. As with all overseas exchange procedures, my advice is to begin early, because the application of certain documents (esp. your academic transcript) takes time to process and collect. Thankfully, despite the tedium of the enrolment process, what was to come made up for my misery many times over.

Adventures in wonderland

Ah, yes, the trip, the main course. Japan gave me the freedom to do so, so much. Here are some of the places I visited, or activities I did:

  • Watched three firework shows

The Japanese take pride in everything, and you best believe their firework festivals are overkill. The largest one I attended was the Adachi Fireworks Festival, which according to this source lasted an hour, included 13,500 fireworks, and was attended by over 600,000 people. And that’s merely the tip of the fireberg. Fun observation at the event: there was extensive choping behaviour. Groups of people came in advance (probably the day before) to lay out their picnic mats to demarcate the zones where they would sit on the grass. Some of them even had family names pasted in scotch tape over them. What was most fascinating was how those choped spots were thoroughly respected, even if the occupiers did not turn up. So in the middle of a packed area you would have a group of people huddling real close to each other on a small mat while an empty large mat that was not theirs lay right beside them. The event was free, but key areas and view spots were reserved and could be purchased in advance. There was even a package to sail down the river and have a lovely dinner below the fireworks.

  • Visited temples and shrines
even got a fortune slip at one. it says my luck will be OK. LOL
  • Screamed for my life at extreme theme park, Fuji-Q Highland (4 world records)
move over, USS.

My friends and I left Fuji-Q trembling. Every adrenaline junkie’s dream. On one rollercoaster, I did not hear my seat partner make any sound because he was frozen in pure terror. Another one launched into silent prayer at some point. It was hilarious. The muscle aches the next day were worth it.

  • Celebrated at izakayas – you know it.
horse sashimi

I tasted basashi, or horse sashimi, for the first time at an izakaya. Horse meat is also known as sakuraniku (cherry blossom meat) because of its appearance and history. It looks like tuna, tastes like lamb but less gamey, and is very chewy. Later on, I chose basashi as my topic when we were asked to present on unique foods in Japan.

  • Observed a live tuna auction at Toyosu Fish Market (and had some after)
  • Reached paradise at Oedo Onsen Monogatari, a hot springs theme park. (Really though, a hot springs theme park. #Believe.)
beautiful ladies ready to conquer
  • Visited a cat cafe
  • Visited a maid cafe, where the theme was futuristic cat maids. (Don’t ask me. Also, no pictures, unless you pay. I didn’t pay.)
  • Feasted on sinful foods at random festivals
i had candied apple for the first time. yumz
  • Trekked to see the view from Kannonzaki Lighthouse in Yokosuka, a city notable for its navy and American influences.
  • Entered a Japanese battleship, Mikasa (converted into a museum)
  • Watched an arm-wrestling competition. It is an a r t
the boys were going wild over this ship
  • Donated money to the local arcade centres, damn their claw machines
  • Hiked Mount Takao (it was great, but the onsen at the foot of the mountain was better)
perhaps it’s inaccurate to say trekked considering we took an elevator halfway up.
  • Spent hours in bookstores! SO MANY BOOKS!!!
  • Honorary mention: completed the campaign mode on the original Bishibashi – located in a baseball park. Hit a few hard balls while I was at it, too.
hmu for challenge anytime sis

It’s hard to overstate the impact of the trip on me. It was an escapist fantasy, except very real. Even my health improved – the number of steps I took soared to 9,200 and 12,500 in June and July respectively. It may not seem like much to the typical athlete, except my average in May before I took off was 5,000. I guess this is called relative improvement. My skin cleared (y’all have NO idea. I did not go for any facial treatments in Japan but my face condition was A for Amazing). I lost weight (the first thing a bunch of people would say upon seeing me was “what the hell, you slimmed down!” ??? I’m sure I’ve gained it back, though). I was productive (my final report for URECA was submitted mid-way through the programme, AND I completed another long blog post). Most of all, I was happy. Then again, it’s hard not to be ecstatic everyday when you’re studying what you love, and spending time with people with common interests.

But halt the thought that I was there only to play: sister here was there to work hard. To strive and to achieve. I had opted for the 6-week course. Lessons were from 1pm-4:30pm, Mondays to Fridays, for approximately 90 hours in total (excluding break times). For reference, one 3AU module in NTU counts for 39 hours. This means I completed the equivalent of more than a year’s worth of Japanese in NTU within that six weeks I was there. Correspondingly, I will receive 6 AUs under my UEs. We burned through a 300-page textbook. On average, we had two quizzes per week and one test fortnightly. On top of that, we had to deliver two presentations. And you know mugging is an evolved instinct for us NTU students – it was common to hear “ah sorry, tonight cannot go out cuz I need to go back and prepare” LMAO.

Teaching is learning

The above phrase is taken from one of my favourite lecturers in Waseda. When I first arrived, I was overwhelmed. I could barely speak a word, despite having studied Japanese for three years in Ngee Ann Polytechnic (trivia: I graduated with a Diploma Plus in Japanese. Another reason to go to Poly, kids). But I had not practiced it for so long – since I began university – so I struggled. I recall this incident at a liquor store, around the first week of my studies. As I entered furtively, the elderly shop owner hobbled towards me with his arms curled proudly behind his back.

Owner: [In Japanese] Are you looking for anything? (I inferred this from the context)

Me: Ah… I…. sumimasen.

gwyneth embarrasses herself, part 1/infinite

I wanted to say I can’t speak Japanese, but I couldn’t even say that (at that point)! Absolutely appalling. Amidst my chagrin, he tilted his head and said 大丈夫 (daijyoubu, “it’s okay”) in the driest tone ever. I still have no idea what to make of it, frankly, but he intimidated me enough for me to buy two drinks from that place. Help.

As the lessons progressed, my standard improved by leaps and bounds. I was still having trouble understanding my surroundings most of the time, but there was one moment that stands out in my memory. Later in the trip, I was drawn into a tea shop, where I was offered some sample red tea by a smiling attendant. I sipped it, and was surprised to taste something distinctively gassy and sweet. So I asked her, in Japanese, how to make it (easy enough – point to the cup and use the verb “make”). Where it all came together was when she replied. As she enthusiastically explained that I had to steep 2 of those tea bags overnight in a particular Japanese soda brand bottle, I realised I understood what she was saying! I was shookt. It’s harder than it sounds because the Japanese sentence structure is diametrically opposed to that of English, plus they speak so quickly. (Have I ever mentioned that the speakers in listening comprehension exercises sound like they’re on steroids to me?)

natural loser

The lecturers at Waseda University were wonderful. My class had four lecturers, allocated to specific days of the week. Each had their own quirks and teaching styles, but all were kind and accommodating. All adhered to the predefined syllabus introduced at the beginning of the course. It was specific down to the exact chapters and points that would be covered on any given day – if you missed a class, it was easy to catch up. During class, there were a lot of interactive activities and conversational practice. I believe that’s what made the learning experience stand out – the social element of it. You can study grammar at home, but only in class do you get to rehearse with peers of your standard.

At the end of the programme, my class made a card for each of our lecturers to thank them for their time and service. I remember their surprised and glowing expressions; it’s the little things that make the memories.

Culture, food, and everything else

The day-to-day experience is not easy. Everything is in Japanese. You are expected to be able to communicate in Japanese, and there is no contingency plan if you can’t. It was most difficult at the beginning, where I often fell into situations that required help. For example, when I first arrived, I lost my way in the metro and did not know which train to take. I tried to ask a conductor for help, but he could not speak English. We could only gesture wildly to each other to no avail. Then, I bought the wrong ticket, and I couldn’t change the fare or the destination. In exasperation, the two conductors simply confiscated my ticket and pushed me out back into where I began without a refund.

The intense environment is not without its perks – you learn to adapt and all that brute practice pays off. Another encounter, when I wanted to top-up my Pasmo card (their ez-link) at the Family Mart:

Me: [In English] Hi, is it possible to top-up my Pasmo card?

Attendant: Uh – ah – (doesn’t understand)

Me: (Oh no he doesn’t understand Eigo)

Me: [In Japanese] Ka – do …. cha – ji….

Attendant: [In Japanese] Ah, you want to charge your card? Sure, please tap here.

?????? All I did was pronounce “card charge” in Japanese

There is a foreigner ‘charge’ of sorts. My friends and I went to a classy sushi restaurant in the last week of the programme. By that time, our skills had been honed enough to read the Japanese menu (armed with an electronic dictionary and a lot of back-and-forth). This also meant that we were able to comprehend the waitress when she explained in Japanese that the English menu charged more for the same dishes. At least they’re honest. Considering the English menu consisted of only set meals and did not offer nigiri sushi (which is the prime reason one visits a sushi restaurant!), all that decoding paid off. That and the surprised gasp of the guy receiving us at the counter when he realised, “you guys can speak Japanese!” – exclaimed in English of course.

That didn’t stop the chef standing at the counter a few steps away from silently judging us whenever we read the name of a dish out loud in a stilted accent, LOL.

Friend [reciting out loud]: Kuruma ebi? What is that? (lit. ‘car prawn’ = Japanese tiger prawn)

(chef flinches in the distance)

Here are some of my favourite classic foods:

sashimi assortment. with alcohol. HEE
negitoro don (mashed tuna over rice). i like to top it off with raw egg.
chazuke topped with tuna. you pour broth from the teapot into a bowl of rice.
raw wagyu beef over rice. thanks cheryl
no japan food selection is complete without the author declaring they ate ichiran ramen.

As you can tell, I had a lot of raw meat/fish, raw eggs, and rice. Want health? #GoRaw

Friendship is magic

I went into the programme not knowing anyone. Naturally, I was filled with a Deep Existential Fear that I would have to be alone for six weeks. Thankfully, the others from NTU were accepting and welcoming, and soon my worries were assuaged. We’d go out almost everyday after class together, feasting on delicacies, visiting new places, and sharing our hobbies. I have them solely to thank for all the things that I managed to do.

judgement-free zone.

I got to meet people from all walks of life via the programme, too. In my class alone, there were students who hailed from the US, Britain, Thailand, Hong Kong, Korea, and Taiwan. I had thought that we would be of similar age too, but no! Not only were there university students, there were working adults and even retirees in the pool. While we might have varying motivations, all of us were brought together by our passion for the language and culture of Japan.

with friends from taiwan.

All in all, I’m deeply grateful to have had this opportunity. Without NTU, I wouldn’t have known about this programme. It also led me to discover a circle of friends with whom I can unabashedly be my weird self around (because they’re weird too). It was the best of both worlds: a time to relax and lose myself, while simultaneously learning new skills and being productive. It is, indubitably, a highlight of my university experience. I learnt a lot and had an insane amount of fun. I’d recommend this programme for anyone who is genuinely interested in advancing their language skills, or who derive joy from learning. P/S: I suspect they don’t bell curve, L O L

my classmates and my other favourite sensei.

Quick summary (tl;dr)

  • Under GEM Discoverer, apply at iNTU
  • Language Immersion Programme
  • 3 weeks or 6 weeks (3/6AUs respectively)
  • Subsidies are available
  • Legitimately beneficial for language skills
  • Amazing environment to practice
  • No bell curve?
  • Lots of admin work (at the beginning)
  • Lots of freedom
  • Culture shock is real
  • Fun and friendship is very real
  • Reality seems unreal
  • Definitely a highlight of uni life
bonus content!

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