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!
How different would your life be today if you decided not to study abroad in Japan? For our final installment in the “30 Years, 30 Stories” series, read the story of JCMU 1998-99 alum (and current JCMU Resident Director) Ben McCracken, and learn how he very nearly ended up going down an entirely different path in life.
When I went to the Office of International Programs at Northern Michigan University in the fall of 1997, I had no idea how much the visit would change my life and the lives of so many others.
I remember sitting down with John Weting, the former Director of International Affairs, and telling him that I was thinking about studying somewhere in Asia. He gave me a big smile as he told me about his daughter Paige’s experience at JCMU. I left the meeting excited about the prospect of going to Japan but not yet sure whether I would choose JCMU or a program in Vietnam (those were the only two choices in Asia at the time). I was looking for a challenge and both programs sounded like great opportunities.
I contacted Paige by e-mail (still a fancy new toy in ’97) and heard from her in less than 24 hours, which I thought was amazing considering she lived in Thailand at the time. Her initial email and many that followed convinced me that JCMU would be a great place for me to study. I remember being moved by how she wrote about JCMU, Hikone, and their wonderful faculty and staff. It was clear to me that she loved the place.
Though I decided that Japan was where I wanted to go, this led me to the second hurdle I needed to clear: my parents. I worked hard to convince them that it was important for me to study abroad. Thinking back on it now, I’m still not entirely sure how I managed to convince them. Up to that point, no McCracken in my immediate family had been on an airplane, and the furthest I’d ever been away from Michigan was Wyoming. Little-by-little though, they understood that this was important to me. Finally, they were fully convinced after considering the professional benefits studying Japanese would provide me.
I went to the JCMU pre-departure orientation with my mother in the spring of 1998 and felt overwhelmed. Up until that point JCMU and Japan had just been places on a map. Right in front of me though, I was getting a crash course on what to expect during my time in Japan. All-of-a-sudden, the reality of the situation set in, which scared me enough to sign up for summer Japanese courses at Michigan State. I probably could have managed starting from scratch in Japan, but I’m not going to lie, taking those courses really made me feel at ease before heading to Hikone. They also made me realize just how hard I was going to have to work there.
Days before I was scheduled to depart, Northwest Airlines (now Delta) went on strike. I was devastated. I went to the airport where they moved me to a United flight leaving a few days later. I still remember how my stomach dropped when I went back to the airport ready to go, again, only for them to tell me there was a mistake with my reservation and that there was no seat for me on the flight. Perhaps sensing my growing anxiety, they quickly found a workaround that made me feel a whole lot better almost instantly: they put me in first class to Chicago, then in business class from there to Osaka. It still wasn’t an ideal situation, but hey, can’t really complain about flying in such comfortable seats for the 13+ hour trip.
On the flight to Osaka, I ended up next to a Japanese man who was completing a trip around the world. He shared stories with me and challenged me to do well in Japan while we sipped a bottle of sake together. As far as first flights go, this was the best possible thing that could have happened, and reminded me that sometimes things happen for a reason.
I could write pages, if not a whole novel, on my time as a student at JCMU, but I won’t do that here. One question I get a lot now is whether I intended to have a future with Japan when I finished the program. As a current resident of Shiga, you might think that the answer is an obvious “Yes!” from me. The truth, though, is I decided during my final weeks at JCMU when I was struggling after a year of intensive study that I was totally, definitely done with Japan and Japanese. I can even remember the exact spot where I made that decision. I laugh now when I drive past it.
Of course, I did not give up studying Japanese and am very thankful for the opportunities I’ve had because of it. In fact, if not for my time at JCMU and the language I learned there, I would not be the person I am today. I really learned how to study when I was in Japan, which helped me during my time at law school. Honestly, I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to say that my classes in Hikone were more difficult than law school. After graduating from there, I soon became JCMU’s Resident Director in Hikone. Now, I get to help hundreds of students every year have their own life-changing (and frequently frustrating) experiences at JCMU.
Sitting here now, I can’t help but wonder what my life would have looked like if I instead decided to study in Vietnam instead of Japan. I can only say that I am thankful JCMU was there to help me reach the goals and dreams I didn’t even know I had.