Chris Nguyen '15: Language More As a Means to an End

Chris Nguyen was one of the 2015-2017 Shansi Fellows at J.F. Oberlin University. This is his second year narrative.

During my Shansi fellowship, feeling accomplished was always tied to the balance between learning a new language to communicate and actually making connections with people. As early on as my study abroad experience in Tokyo three years ago, improving my language ability was one of the main ways in which I measured my own personal success. Fast forward to living in Japan for another year and half through the Oberlin Shansi fellowship: I have quickly come to realize my own personal measurement for how well I am succeeding in Japan has become less focused on the tool of language, and more about the actual connections I am making with the people around me, as well as the people who only enter my life for fleeting moments.


Language More As a Means to an End

By no means have I forgotten about my language study: I am proud of finally passing the highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, I find myself reading books at an actually decent speed, and I enjoy talking about certain news segments in Japanese with older individuals. Language of course has been essential to connecting with many of the people I have met in Japan, but I never could have imagined the difficulty that came with the first year of my fellowship in terms of making friends even having studied Japanese for a number of years. Scheduling to meet people was sometimes difficult, opportunities to meet new people were sometimes scarce, and quite frankly, I just was not meeting with people who really clicked with me. Elements of culture (people in Tokyo are sometimes called tsumetai or cold), as well as language barriers (expressing my humor and essentially the most important parts of my personality in Japanese was immensely harder than I could have predicted) were tied into this difficulty, but I knew I had to also make the effort whenever possible to make this situation for myself better. I thought at first that just studying my Japanese textbooks harder would solve my problems, but I came to learn that there was more satisfaction from focusing less on language itself, and more on finding a human connection. Often, this meant talking more to Japanese friends who had experienced being abroad, or other friends from different countries that understood my struggle. I still do not have a clear answer to overcome the “Tokyo freeze”, but I have learned to let go of the negative interactions and focus more on the individuals that I am not afraid to be myself around and who reciprocate the desire for a deeper connection.


The Abstraction of Distance and (Language) Barriers

Finally nearing the end of my two years at JF Oberlin University, I am grateful to look back at my time and remember that my travels and experiences have provided me chances to meet people I probably never would have had I simply stayed in the US. The friends I have made live thousands of miles apart with oceans in between, but somehow our common interests brought us together. Whether it was a professional interpreter from France that I met while on a one-day tour in Vietnam, or PhD researchers from Puerto Rico and China who just happened to be staying at the same hostel I did in Beijing, I continue to be amazed by how quickly one simple conversation can make two strangers into (potentially) lifelong connections. While English is a great common language, I was surprised at the relationships I could build with non-Japanese friends even in Japanese. For example, I became good friends during my study abroad with a classmate from Korea who was kind enough to start a conversation with me randomly, and would three years later introduce me to another PhD student from Korea working on urban design. There are so many other stories of random introductions that I cannot really keep track of anymore. While many of these friends have gone home, I know many are just a phone call, or perhaps more realistically a Facebook message, away, and I try not to forget that distance does not have to be limiting factor to the connections you make and maintain.


While many friends are far away, I feel immensely lucky that I have made good connections with many who are nearby. Whether it’s my co-fellows, former Shansi fellows still in Japan, connections from study abroad, or friends of friends that have lived in Japan, I feel like I finally have a circle of people I could consistently call up for a conversation, advice, or just a meal to catch up. I enjoy hearing about the many stories and experiences they are going through, such as a Taiwanese friend’s work at an educational technology start-up, a Thai lawyer’s graduate studies in order to become a judge, the engineering work of another graduate student from Kenya, or the absolute passion for birds and wildlife one Masters student from the U.S. has. I could go on forever about the kinds of people I have met, but I mainly want to express thanks for the chance to even build this network. Of course, as time goes on, some relationships fade. Perhaps even without any major conflict, some threads just become a bit thin. I have had plenty of interactions with no connection, so I understand how bitter it is when, despite how genuine both parties might be, the invitation for another meal never comes. Regardless, throughout my life I have never thought that any failure is a worthless experience. So even if some of the friendships I have now fade, if I can walk away with one good memory about someone else, then all of it was worth it.


But wherever possible, I hope I am able to maintain this kind of network going forward during my life in Japan. I cannot predict where I will be ten years from now, what difficulties will present themselves at work or at home, or how Japan, and of course the world, will change. However, just two years ago I would not have been able to say I could predict where I would be today. If it was not for one conversation over ice cream, I may not have learned to think of language more as a tool to help achieve what I really want. If it was not for dinner with a friend about to leave Japan, I may not have had the courage to cut off a toxic relationship and focus on enjoying myself. If it was not for a phone call from a new mentor encouraging me to push for that job interview, I might not find myself looking so optimistically at the future. I am confident that by surrounding myself with good company, I can figure out a way to make the best of things.


















(From left to right) Myself, co-fellow Chul Kim ’15, three friends I first met in Sapporo, and my girlfriend,

Yuri. While most of the people in this picture live in a different part of Japan, somehow we are all

enjoying some Korean shaved ice in Shinokubo.
































While I met first met many of these folks just before this picture, it was through my friend in the middle,

currently living in Yamagata, that I was blessed to make these connections tonight.

Reconnecting with one of my best friends Loan Lu ’15 (middle) and meeting her friend on the right while

traveling in Singapore. Another perk of international friends is the free housing!

An Obie reunion with (from left to right) Chul Kim ’15, Cassie Guevara ’13, and Jordan Prescott White ’13

over Vietnamese food in Tokyo.

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