Monday, October 26, 2015

Learning new Languages (in more ways than one) (Reid Knight)

When I decided to study abroad, I knew that I would want to join a club at my host institution. It can be difficult for me to branch out in social situations, so having a routine that allows me to get comfortable with a consistent group of people helps me feel more at home in new places. Unfortunately, I found out rather quickly that it can be difficult to access student-run clubs at Rikkyo as an exchange student. Much of the club information is out of date or entirely in Japanese, and although I am competent enough in Japanese to get by in everyday situations, certain clubs that I tried to correspond with over email about joining didn’t seem particularly welcoming to foreigners.
Eventually I decided to get over my anxieties and just show up at the club room of Tebukuro, the sign language club, during one of their meetings to see how I was received. As I consider Disability Studies to be my area of expertise and am always interested in learning more, I wanted to see how much Japanese Sign Language I could pick up while I was in Japan. The name Tebukuro is a play on words- the word by itself means glove in Japanese, but it can also be seen as being named for Te(), meaning hand, the first character in the Japanese word for sign language(手話 - shuwa), and the bukuro in Ikebukuro, where Rikkyo is located.

I arrived at the classroom where Tebukuro’s meetings are held feeling pretty anxious, and I think that reflected in how I was treated by the club members. As the only non-Japanese person in the room, I don’t think the members of Tebukuro knew exactly what to do with me, especially since I came in with no knowledge of sign language while the rest of the club had already spent considerable time learning. Everybody was cordial with me and tried to inform me about what they were doing (in this case, preparing a sign-language performance of a song for the upcoming St. Paul’s Festival), but I still very much felt like an outsider.

Over the next few meetings, I got a bit more comfortable with the routine of the club. As the meetings occur during lunch hour, the beginning of each meeting is spent eating lunch. Then, we either spend the rest of the time rehearsing for the Festival or studying a set of vocab words given to us, then using these words in sample sentences. A club representative always demonstrates how to perform the movements, then the rest of the club follows; sometimes, the club representative will randomly call on club members to demonstrate a sign.

An example of an everyday sign language demonstration at Tebukuro.
While at first it felt like I was treated as a guest, I am slowly beginning to feel like an actual “member” of the club. I’m now included in the conversations that occur while we eat lunch, even if I have to struggle a bit to keep up. The other day, I was called upon to demonstrate a sign; even though I had no idea how to do so, it still felt good that I was being included in this routine. I’ve had a couple of people ask me if I will be a part of the performance at the Festival, and although I doubt I will be able to master the song in time, I was grateful to feel that these club members cared that I was there. All in all, I see these developments as very good signs for my future with the club (and yes, that pun was intended).
A section of the lyrics for the Festival performance. The song is called "Sign" by Mr. Children. The spoken lyrics are above each line, while the equivalent words for each sign are below.
Even though I had to wade through some awkward moments to get to this point, I’m glad that I took the chance showing up for the club meeting that day. I now have a group of Japanese students who share an interest with me to eat lunch with almost every day, and all I had to do was step out of my comfort zone a little bit. Through this experience, I learned that being immersed in a different culture is guaranteed to be challenging sometimes, and those challenges may make you want to not engage with your surroundings. However, by not engaging, everything will become even more challenging. You have nothing to lose by putting yourself out there, so take advantage of the time you have abroad and try new things!

1 comment:

Sarah said...

First of all, that's so cool you are leaning Japanese sign language! I tried to get into a class on disability in Japan that also taught sign language, but it filled up quickly! And yay Mr.Children song~
But I was also really nervous before I joined my club (Trip club/Tabikenkyu-bu), because it didn't seem like it was that common for exchange students to participate, but I really wanted a way to get out and explore Japan, so I reached out to the President of the club and showed up at a meeting. And I agree, that even though it was really awkward to begin with it was definitely the right decision!