2018 marks JCMU’s 30th anniversary since our founding in 1988. To celebrate, we will be posting 30 JCMU stories of 30 different JCMU alumni from 1989 to 2018 every Thursday from mid-February through September!
Did you find a place to belong in Japan? For the twenty-second installment in our “30 Years, 30 Stories” series, read the story of JCMU 2017-18 alum Bridget Hanchek, and discover how Hikone became a home away from home.
Despite the fact that I’ve had to answer this question hundreds of times in English and Japanese, I can’t really say why I started studying Japanese. Maybe I should blame my older brother, who introduced me to manga and taught me my first Japanese phrase: suugaku wa muzukushii desu (Math is difficult). I can certainly say that his Japanese study abroad in high school made me want to do it, too, and that things really got started from there. I returned from Japan for the first time right before applying to college, and immediately decided to focus my search on schools that would allow me to go back.
So, although it was several states away from my home in Oregon, Michigan State University with its JCMU connection was high on my list. So, as soon as I was accepted and enrolled at MSU, I knew I was going to spend my Junior year in Japan. That’s how I saw it, and how I told it to others—that I was going, for sure. However, as the time drew nearer, I grew less sure.
In the middle of my Sophomore year, after I had already submitted my application to JCMU, I was suddenly hit with a realization of everything I’d be missing while I was gone. The relationships I’d built, my primary major classes, the campus I’d come to love—the life I’d built in Michigan seemed so fragile. On top of that, I was disappointed in myself for not being as excited as I thought I should be.
But, still, I went. I said goodbye to my friends for an entire year, put my university life in storage, and just went for it. I had realized that I had a far greater chance of regretting something I hadn’t done, rather than if I’d done it, and that there were things to be learned about Japan and about myself that I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. And of course, I was right.
There’s a reason you hardly ever hear people say, “I regret studying abroad.” How can you regret climbing to the top of a 16th century castle and seeing the largest lake in Japan spread out below you? Or ordering dozens of plates of sushi and daring your friends to eat the weird ones? Can you regret carrying a float in a festival and shouting words you don’t understand at the top of your lungs? Even the long hours I spent studying for classes were worth it.
Life in Hikone was sometimes difficult, but more often wonderful. I learned to cook, Japanese food as well as American, and got pretty good at riding a bike. I shopped for myself, had a room to myself, and planned vacations for myself. Despite the demands placed on me by my 300 and 400 level classes, I had never felt more free.
With my bike and Japan’s excellent public transportation system, I felt like I could go anywhere. That’s how I spent my time—with trips down to the lake, into town, and over to the neighboring cities. Hikone is a wonderful central location from which to visit larger cities like Kyoto, Osaka, and Nagoya. And every time I went out, I would look forward to recognizing, on the way back, the little things that meant “Hikone” to me.
That one ramen shop sign. The seats on the Biwako line train. The rice patties and the apartment buildings rising above them. Hikone became home, and I think it always will be. I realized something while I was sitting in my emptying JCMU dorm room, packing my suitcases to go back to Oregon, and then on to Michigan within a month. It’s easy to feel unrooted when you move this much. However, rather than nowhere I belong, I have multiple homes.
The feelings I had while I was preparing to go to Japan were those of fear. Fear that I would be lonely and unable to find my place, and fear that what I was leaving behind would disappear. Luckily for me, that wasn’t true. Oregon is still here, and Michigan, and all of my family and friends. And Japan will still be there, too, whenever I decide to return to it.