Obies Using Languages: Garret Wallace ’15

Garret is a current senior finishing a major in psychology. He has also completed an East Asian Studies minor while pursuing an interest in Japanese. Garret will be graduating from Oberlin in May.

I finally did it. Years of training and saving, months of planning, hours of plane travel…I did it, and it couldn’t have been more right.

Stepping onto Japanese soil – or rather Narita Airport’s neat carpet – in early January, I should have been overwhelmed. The jet lag helped desensitize me, but the sheer amount of kanji (Chinese characters) should probably have been stressful. Yet armed with my professors’ words echoing in my head and flashes of textbook pages in photographic memory, I faced the complicated linguistic shock to my system. I was ready.

Tokyo is crammed with an unbelievable amount of language. The Japanese capital drenches you in visual and auditory stimulation, demanding your attention and urging you to understand. Neon signs flash and fill your field of view, while salespeople call out welcomes and announce sales with unceasing repetition. I dedicated my short seven day trip to absorbing the naturalness of the language and bound myself to communicate as much as possible. In this task, Tokyo pushed so many of my boundaries: to act alone or even with the occasional friend I met required proficiency, confidence, and courage. This sounds like an exaggeration or maybe even a humblebrag, and I’m sorry for that. But even my minuscule week in Tokyo changed me and my experience with Japanese in ways I am still trying to fully understand. (Where did that confidence in my voice come from?)

They say immersion is the fastest and most natural way to learn a language, and I would like to endorse this assertion. I would like to, but I am not sure if I can so casually and wholeheartedly. Oberlin and my Japanese sensei have already done so much for me in the learning process; my travels were just the cherry on top, a final-seeming push further into the Japanese language.

By this Winter Term I had been studying Japanese for two and a half years. Simply put, the Japanese department at Oberlin is exceptional. Spending a week in Tokyo all alone can be a daunting challenge, but my later studies with professor Sachiko Kondo and former visiting professor Atsuko Kamezawa especially gave me the conversation skills and much-needed confidence to make my way in one of the world’s major hubs. It is because of them, as well as professors Sukegawa, Gay, and Sherif, that I could finally realize my dream of visiting Japan. And I sparked a new one: going back to do more, to stay for longer, and to push myself even further.

The daily question asked of me was ここで住んでますか?– “Do you live here?” No, I was just on vacation there. “Oh, traveling! Then where did you learn Japanese?” With deep gratitude to my professors and a warm feeling, I would answer.


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