30 Years, 30 Stories: I Hated JCMU


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!

Study abroad is difficult and full of ups and downs. Despite this, your time in Shiga will no doubt stay with you for a lifetime. For our twenty-seventh installment in the “30 Years, 30 Stories” series, read JCMU 2008-09 alum Justin Choe’s journey of self-discovery in Japan, and discover why he says “you’ll have learned something about yourself [during your time at JCMU] and hopefully you’ll have grown and made some life-long friends.”

JCMU in Hikone, Japan. What a trip. Studying abroad for me was the single best decision I’ve made in my life. How’s that for an opener?

But I don’t say that in the typical sense. Quite the opposite, really. I’d be lying if I said that my year abroad was all puppies, rainbows, and happiness. In fact, between the recession, the culture shock, and the language barrier… if you had asked me how I was doing and what I thought of Japan as I was wrapping up my year, I’d have responded with a wave of expletives. I did not have a good time.

A few weeks ago I saw this email notification pop up on my phone from JCMU, asking alumni to share their experiences. I almost ignored it. I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed that when I had initially left, I left with such a negative attitude. I was not a happy camper. I was not able to fully take advantage of what Hikone had to offer me.

So what could I say about my time at JCMU? What could I possibly have to say to contribute to this conversation and add value among other people’s testimonies? I’m not quite sure yet, but I will share this one story.

My time in Japan in 2008 was my first time living away from home. This was my first time living with a group of strangers from all over the country, from various cultures and backgrounds. This was my first time living among people whom I couldn’t communicate with beyond simple greetings and platitudes. It was a lot to take in, and what made it more challenging was the fact that we were so far away from the major metropolitan areas. It didn’t take long for cabin fever to kick in, and I started to hate all of it.

And so I left. After one semester, I got in touch with a friend in Tokyo and moved in with him. I applied for a school in the city, thinking that Tokyo would provide for me what I thought was missing from my JCMU experience. What I found was that all of the issues I had in Hikone only compounded due to the fact that I brought these preconceptions and negative energy with me to the city. The problem wasn’t Hikone. The problem was me. But that’s a topic for another day.

As my flight date came nearer I received a text message from a friend I made in Hikone. Masa was his name. “Hi Justin, how’s Tokyo? When are you coming back?” With a few days left on my rail pass, I thought to myself, “what the heck. I’ll go back. It’s only a two hour trip on the bullet train, anyway.” And so I did.

I returned to Hikone and met up with Masa at the train station. He was standing there with the rest of the ESS (English Speaking Society) club members, new faces and old. I was told then and there that they were going on a camping trip, and that I should join.

“This is Justin! He helped us cook the donuts at our festival!”

“Oh, he’s the one that taught us the cool English! He’s an amazing tutor!”

“I thought you’d never come back!”

They presented me with a giant, hand-made heart-shaped card, signed by everyone. “We love you Justin!” it said on the center. “I’ll see you in America!”

Justin Choe.jpg
Justin (crouching in the center) with ESS club members

I was not expecting that kind of reception. I can’t begin to describe the emotions I felt, surrounded by all of those warm smiling faces. Frankly, I felt like an idiot. I had left these kids behind without telling them where I’d be going. I dismissed all of the interactions I had with them throughout my first semester at JCMU, thinking, “oh they just liked me because I drank with them, they probably do the same with all of the other foreigners.” It was at that moment I realized how wrong I was. What I thought were dumb, trivial moments we shared to pass time in Shiga, they all remembered. The silly conversations we had about who liked who, the times we rode our bicycles through thunderstorms by Lake Biwa and ate insanely hot peppers while cooking donuts at the school festival… these moments all meant something to them. They made me feel like I actually contributed to and enriched their student lives. We started a fire, popped open the cans of beer and ended up chatting all night. It was the single best night I had during my year in Japan.

Fast forward ten years, I’m still in touch with a good number of my friends from JCMU. My Japanese friends are scattered about but we still hit each other up on Facebook and Line from time to time.

After I graduated college I went on to work in music entertainment in Korea and Japan. Now I work in audio, film, and as a consultant in the higher education sphere.

I take myself way less seriously now, with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. And I treasure every interaction I have with every person I come across.

I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self to be more open to new experiences, and to do things differently while I was at JCMU. I wish I could tell my younger self to be nicer to those who have tried to reach out to me when I was all dark and mopey. But it’s too late for that, and even if it were possible to time travel, I’d be creating a lot of terrible paradoxes that even Rick and Morty couldn’t fix.

I’ll say this though, for what it’s worth. For anyone considering signing up for JCMU, just do it. You might have a great time, or you might have a bad one. At the end of the day though, you’ll have learned something about yourself and hopefully you’ll have grown and made some life-long friends.

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