By Catherine Mendez
Editor's Introduction: Catherine Mendez is a student at Cornell University and currently serves as the president of the New York Association of Blind Students. She is always doing things that force her out of her comfort zone and challenge her. Recently, Catherine visited Japan, where she had an outstanding study abroad experience. Here she shares a story from that trip.
Making the decision to study in Japan was actually quite simple. In fact, it was probably the easiest part of the entire study abroad process. I started at Cornell as a Political Science major with a focus on International Relations and East Asian Studies and, although by the time my junior year rolled around my academic interest had shifted to Linguistics, I was still taking six hours of Japanese a week and filling my elective slots with courses on Asian history and religion. That being the case, it seemed quite natural that I should spend my semester abroad at International Christian University in Tokyo, which offers a fully bilingual, multi-disciplinary curriculum in addition to intensive Japanese language courses.
As I said, making the decision to leave the States -- and the familiarity of my native language and culture was relatively easy compared to some of the other aspects of the study abroad process. I spent countless hours and a great deal of stress and energy filling out academic and housing forms, not to mention coping with the seemingly endless barrage of immigration forms that asked for everything including information about where I went to elementary school and my mother's maiden name. There were so many, that I actually had to hire a separate reader in order to get them all done on time.
And then, of course, there were the blindness related issues. I had studied abroad in the UK for ten months during high school without much difficulty, but of course, in that situation there was no language barrier. I could tell that the academic staff at ICU was a little bit concerned-several blind Japanese students were attending the university at the time, but until that point there hadn't been any blind international students. They wanted to know how I was going to survive with limited Japanese language skills-it's an extremely difficult language to master and even with two years of fairly intensive instruction my vocabulary and communicative skills were limited to a range of basic topics. They were worried about how I was going to access my textbooks and other classroom materials. In addition, the resident life staff had a whole laundry list of questions. Where was I going to live? How was I going to get around Tokyo? And what on earth did I need to do to get my guide dog licensed in Japan?
I'll admit to being a nervous wreck for weeks before my outgoing flight, even after I had received my visa at the eleventh hour and after the university and I had struck a deal with the animal quarantine department so that my dog could undergo his two week confinement on the ICU campus. I spent the entire 12 hour flight with my second year Japanese textbook open in my lap, getting a cramp in my fingers as I tried to recap all the vocabulary that might possibly be useful-essentially, that meant all the vocabulary. The flight attendants kept telling me I should try to sleep, but there was absolutely no way that was going to happen.
In the end, even I was surprised by how well things fell into place. I lived on campus in an apartment-style dorm inhabited by equal numbers of Japanese and international students, which provided me with excellent opportunities to meet interesting people from all over the world and to practice my Japanese. With only one major mishap, I figured out the bizarre combination of busses, trains and subways that is the Tokyo public transit system, and was able to derive a tremendous amount of amusement from watching people do double and triple takes when they saw my guide dog in the supermarket or the department store. The idea of service animals is still a relatively new one in Japan and although the concept of a guide dog is not entirely unfamiliar (there has been a great deal of public education over the past few years) it wasn't uncommon for random businessmen to come up to me in restaurants or in the train station and ask if they could please take a photograph of my dog.
Academically things also proceeded without any real problems. The Japanese course at Cornell uses a Romanized form of the language for the first two years of instruction, so accessing the material in Braille had never been an issue. However, in Japan, of course they were using a textbook written entirely in Japanese characters, which posed something of a translation problem. There was no program like RFB&D-at least, not one that I had access to as an international student-but my professors were tremendously supportive. They recorded the Japanese language textbooks onto cassette for me, and were willing to give me my exams orally. Several times a week the class practiced kanji, the Japanese graphic writing system, and during those times I was able to arrange for one of the other blind students to teach me Japanese Braille. I never did get fast enough to do my Japanese coursework in Braille, but I did learn enough to enable me to read the signs on elevators, restrooms and the ticket machines at the train station. Because ICU offers courses taught in both English and Japanese, I was able to take four mainstream academic courses in addition to the ten hours a week of language instruction. Accessing the textbooks and research materials for those classes was easy, since I had brought my computer and scanner with me from the States and everything was in English.
Of course, that isn't to say that there weren't problems. I arrived at my dormitory after twenty plus hours of traveling only to discover that they had put me in a suite with all staff members. The idea behind this residential arrangement was, I soon gathered, to ensure that if I needed help I would have someone available at all times. Needless to say I was not pleased-I didn't want to be singled out, but Japanese culture is big on the idea of not rocking the proverbial boat, so I didn't say anything. There were a few difficult situations where I had to find indirect ways of telling my overly-helpful suite mates thanks but no thanks-situations which were made even more complicated by the need to remain strictly non-confrontational in accordance with the Japanese cultural preference. Even when one of the staff members moved out to be replaced by another student; things didn't really improve. I'll never forget her coming to me, several days after she moved in, and asking me quite bluntly if I could cook, clean, and care for myself. When I responded that yes, in fact, I could do all those things, she seemed a bit non-plussed and told me that she was there to help me if I needed it. I discovered later that she was good friends with one of the blind Japanese students, who made a habit of going pretty much everywhere affixed to someone's arm, which I suppose in part explains her initial approach to me.
I tried not to let my suite mates' attitude bother me too much, but I'll confess that it rankled a bit. After all, I was there to learn about Japanese culture, and while I didn't mind being treated like the foreigner that I was, I couldn't help but feel that their desire to look after me added an extra barrier. My Japanese teachers seemed to relax after I aced my fifth or sixth straight grammar quiz and got full marks on the midterm, and the residential life people relaxed their concerned (if relatively discrete) vigilance after I had made several extended trips to popular tourist attractions in Tokyo and the surrounding area, even taking a weekend trip to Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital. And yet my suite mates remained somewhat overprotective, until one night when I had been in Japan for nearly three months.
I'm not usually a night-owl. I generally organize my social life so that I'm in bed by one or so-which seems late, but let's face it, that isn't too bad for a college student. However, one Friday night a group of friends and acquaintances asked me if I wanted to go out to a pub with them in another part of the city. I was curious and had no real desire to sit in my tiny dorm room all evening, so I agreed. I was a bit concerned because the bus from the train station to the campus stopped running at 10:30 and I knew we would most likely be out quite late, but I figured that for once I'd splurge and take a cab. So, I went out, we had some drinks, got to talking about all sorts of things, and before I knew it, it was 1:30 AM. One of my friends had lost her wallet, so we wandered back to the train station together and then parted ways. I took the train back to the station near ICU, queued for a cab and gave the driver the address in my by then much improved Japanese. We were chatting on the way home, and he asked me if I wanted to be let off at an exit that he claimed was nearer to my dormitory. I'll confess-I had drunk a few more than I was accustomed to drinking and was eager to go home and get some sleep, so I agreed. I paid my fare and he drove off while I turned and headed for the gate, which he had told me was about ten feet up the sidewalk. I found it no problem-the only thing was, it was locked.
So, it was two in the morning and I was standing outside an unfamiliar gate, with the main entrance to the university who knew where. Undeterred, I proceeded to follow the fence around the perimeter of the campus, reasoning that if I kept going eventually I'd find the main gate which I knew was open 24 hours a day. Along the way I came to several openings in the chain-link which upon exploration turned out to be closed in parking lots or storage areas-neither my dog nor I could seem to locate any other way onto the grounds. I wasn't wearing a watch, but I knew that by this time it must be really late. Even so, I couldn't believe that in Tokyo, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, there were absolutely no people on the street that I could ask if I was even going the right way around the campus. wouldn't it just be ridiculous, I thought (still rather fuzzily, although I was sobering up pretty quickly), if the main gate had only been a hundred yards away from the gate where the driver had dropped me, but in the opposite direction from the one in which I was walking.
Finally I did run into a fellow pedestrian, who informed me that I was in fact going the right way and that the gate was just around the next corner. I made it back to my room with no further mishaps, but as I was preparing to shower and get into bed, one of my suite mates returned from a party she'd been attending. We had a good laugh over my misadventure, as did my other suite mates when I told them the next day. It was amazing though-after that they almost completely stopped being overtly concerned about my ability to take care of myself. It was as though my capacity to cope with a situation as bizarre as the one in which I had found myself that night convinced them that I really could handle just about any situation or task that might come my way, especially the ordinary, day to day things like cooking and laundry.
Don't get me wrong. Being a little bit intoxicated and lost at two A.M. in
a foreign city is not necessarily the best way to get people to respect you-in
fact; it might possibly be one of the dumbest and most dangerous situations
in which one could conceivably find oneself. However, having the skills and
the courage that allow you to cope with crazy, unexpected situations like that
can be extremely useful in terms of helping to build self-confidence and helping
others to gain confidence in you and your abilities. Even just the process of
studying abroad, and all the responsibilities associated with taking a giant
step away from home and almost everything familiar, is one of the best experiences
that college life has to offer. I would strongly encourage anyone who has an
interest in travel abroad, even if your interest is not directly linked to your
planned career or course of study, to investigate the opportunity fully, and
if it seems feasible given your educational goals, to give it a try.
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