Chul Kim '15: Awkward Social Situations and the Rewards That Follow

Chul Kim was one the 2015-2017 Shansi Fellows at J.F. Oberlin University. This is his first year narrative.

Learning Japanese was a major focus of my undergraduate career, and it was one of the strongest factors that inspired me to be a Shansi fellow. I was always confident in my ability to study in the classroom, and unfortunately believed that my Japanese ability would translate easily to the real world. However, I soon learned that I underestimated the determination and courage it took to shift from textbooks to real-life applications. I’ve had a lot of embarrassing interactions with native Japanese speakers, ranging from a normal exchange with a store clerk to conversations with new friends. As such, I thought it would be fitting to share two stories about such linguistic struggles that I faced in the past year.

The first of the two stories takes place just a couple months ago. I went to a 20代交流会, which is an exchange party at which many people in their twenties meet up and make new connections. My friend Julie had invited me, explaining that it would be a great way to make friends from the Tokyo area. Having had troubles making friends before this, I responded yes without a second thought. But then she said something that caught my off guard: everyone at the party would be a native Japanese speaker.

I’d be the only non-native Japanese speaker at the party!? I froze. Most people at this point would say, “Isn’t this what you wanted, Chul? It’s perfect! You’ll meet tons of Japanese friends and also improve your Japanese!” In theory, it was the perfect situation. But for some reason, I hesitated to give my final RSVP until the very last minute. It took a while to admit it (even to myself), but I was nervous about speaking Japanese in such an environment. Small talk is hard enough in English, let alone Japanese! But I knew I would regret not going, so I took a deep breath, and made the final decision to go.

The language barrier at the party, as expected, was overwhelming to me. I had recently passed the highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT N1), but I rarely had chances to practice speaking. Also, I found that native Japanese youths in their twenties are very difficult to follow in excited conversations about work or politics.

The language barrier was also complicated by a cultural disconnect. I was culturally unsure of whether I should use Keigo (formal Japanese), and whether I should use –san at the end of people’s names. And most of the time, I went around awkwardly barging into groups, nodding through a few conversations, and bowing out when the conversation got too difficult.


By the halfway point, I was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted. Just as I was about to give up hope, the host of the exchange party had introduced me to a group of engineers. We hit it off immediately, and I prayed to the heavens I was able to make at least one meaningful connection during the party. This brings to mind a conversation I recently had with a fellow foreigner who also lives in Japan. He told me that it felt like every ounce of fun required four times that amount in sheer effort. This rings true to the experience I had at the exchange party, but I feel that the extra effort makes the success much more meaningful.

I’ve had similar difficulties in other social settings, such as during my Koto and Shakuhachi lessons. These lessons are exclusively in Japanese, which can make for a fairly confusing and difficult 2 hours. The confusion mostly stems from the Keigo and unfamiliar musical terms my teachers use. It wasn’t rare to leave the lesson feeling defeated and lost. But there are moments during which a lesson would suddenly click, or when I would understand something new. Although I can count those moments all on one hand, they’re meaningful exchanges that I’ve had that I will never forget.

My experience at the exchange party and my koto classes helped put my time as a Japan Shansi fellow into perspective. At Oberlin, I was confident in my ability to meet new people, start conversations, and become friends. It was silly of me to think that this would translate so easily to my Shansi experience. But I think it’s also silly to assume that a language barrier would ruin my whole experience. With the right people, you can work past language barriers and have wonderful successes in friendship, conversations, and personal growth. I hope that as the next year comes, I will be more comfortable with these language barriers, and continue to make meaningful relationships that will help me grow outside of my comfort zone.

Chul's first koto recital with Cassie Guevara '13, Chris Nguyen '15, Chul Kim '15, Ariel Powell '14, and a JET friend