“Okonomi-what-now?” Living in the middle of nowhere Minnesconsin like I have much of my life, I know what it’s like to feel like Japan and the rest of the world is just as far away as Middle-Earth and Mount Gagazet. But just because it is a world away, doesn’t mean it has to feel that way. Even if you can’t change your actual location, you can change the environment around you. I’ve been studying Japanese in Wisconsin for awhile now, and so I’ve found a few of my own tricks to motivate myself and make Japan seem less of a pipe dream.
If you’re anything like me, a lot of your time is spent in your room, so that is where this magical journey of transformation will begin. First, look at your walls! Are they an indecent, barren land with no more decoration than that nail still sticking out of the wall from that ‘NSYNC poster you once had? Then it is time, my friend, to revamp your space. If you are a visitor to this website then you probably already have an idea of what Japanese-related topic you’re into – start there! It should be easy for you to find at least one poster online that interests you. Or you can always make your own. You may say you can’t draw anything more than an ovular circle, but you don’t necessarily have to be a master of the paint brush. When I was in high school I’d make my own collage posters out of pictures cut out of magazines and pictures I printed off computers. Otherwise if you’re seriously studying Japanese, why not a poster of the jōyō kanji? That’s also something you could make for yourself, and you can highlight the kanji as you learn them. Posters aren’t the only thing that can decorate your room – consider figurines and the like as well. And if you really want to go all out, why not make a diorama of cat island or a battle scene from Japan’s Warring States period?
Also, what’s on your shelves? I’m sure you’ve already heard the ridiculous amount of time the average person spends watching television or surfing the internet. Why not try to spend at least some of that time in Japanese? The hardest part is just making the media available for yourself. So try ordering your favorite book in Japanese, or downloading a Japanese band to your ipod. In addition, don’t discount used book stores*. It’s true that you can find nearly anything there. I’ve actually managed to find books in Japanese at a nearby Half-Price Books store. A lot of times it’s just textbooks for learning the language, but I’ve found a couple novels and manga before! It’s worth a shot.
There are also studies showing that the average American spends over 3 hours a day on Facebook. If that rings truer to you than you want to admit, why not turn your Facebook into Japanese? It can be frustrating at first, but if you at least know katakana you’ll probably be fine, and you’ll gradually start recognizing more. That way each time you refresh your news feed at least you can pass it off as studying.
Food is another issue – I Iove Japanese food but I’m not so sure I trust the sushi here in the land of cheese. However, there are more options to make Japanese food than you might be aware of. I was lucky that one of my best friends also loves Japanese food, and she scoped out all the grocery stores nearest to us. She found that, in fact, many of them had ingredients we had assumed were impossible to find here. It turns out that even Wal-Mart and Target carry things from Pocky and Hi-Chew to ponzu sauce and instant yakisoba. Grocery chain stores like Cub and Rainbow Foods had even more, including miso ramen and Kewpie mayonnaise. Local grocery stores even carried things like adzuki beans and sweet rice flour (it’s mochi-makin’ time!). Of course some things you might just have to tighten your belt and save up for to buy on the internet (like matcha), but if you take the time to explore the grocery stores around you, you might be pleasantly surprised. Unfortunately they all tended to be different so there is no “go ____ to get ____” recipe that I can give you. But take a couple friends and have an adventure searching around your local supermarkets (if that sounds weird to you, you probably don’t live in the middle of nowhere). However, speaking of recipes, a quick search will give you access to blogs of people outside of Japan making Japanese food and dogs named Francis teaching you how to make Japanese food.
Now, most of these are, or could be, solitary activities. So, how to find like-minded people? It can be hard when you live in places that force you to come to grips with the fact that not everyone has come to the realization that Asia isn’t one big continent (“You’re going to Japan? But you can’t even speak Chinese” “…Yeah, somehow I don’t think that’ll be a problem**”). Meetup is a good place to start. You can find meet-ups for groups of people that want to speak Japanese or discuss J-Dramas in your area, or at least, the cities near you. It might still be hard if you’re really far from any sort of larger city. But it’s worth searching, at least. Conventions are another way to meet people too. Even if you’re not into anime, there are usually panels about other aspects of Japan and Japanese culture, not to mention it’s a way to snag interesting flavors of ramune.
You can also check out your local college. Sometimes there are Japanese culture or language clubs, and I believe most would welcome new people, even if they didn’t go to that school. And if there’s not one and you’re a student, most colleges allow you to create new clubs if you can find an advisor. If there’s not a Japanese teacher at your college, you might be able to find someone from the international studies department as long as you can make it obvious you’re willing to do the leg work. Another option is to look up the sister cities or sister prefectures for your city or state. I was surprised to find out St. Paul is sister cities with Nagasaki, thanks to the Japanese garden in Como Park, and that Wisconsin is sister states with Chiba. This can mean they support anything from matsuri to positions as an ALT.
If all of that fails and you’re still stuck with no activities or groups, well then, I have one more idea for you. Why not host your own DDR or karaoke night? DDR is pretty self-explanatory. Get out your mat and select the music! For karaoke, search on youtube for some songs you like plus “karaoke version” or “カラオケバージョン.” Whether there’s a video or not is kind of a coin toss, and mostly depends on how old and popular the song is. Also check each one to make sure it’s not actually a cover, or someone simply filming themselves singing in a karaoke booth. But with some forethought on your part and perhaps a survey of those you plan to invite, you could set up a playlist and be ready to go before the party. Then for extra song-blasting power, connect your laptop to the TV and let the karaoke shenanigans commence! For either of these activities you can also, of course, invite your friends that aren’t as interested in Japan, and slowly change their minds through your gorgeous rendition of ミュージックby Sakanaction.
Last but not least – what do you do with your spare time that isn’t devoted to teh internetz (and those other pesky obligations like school and work)? If you can find some hobbies that are related to Japanese culture or do some of your already-existing hobbies in Japanese, you may find an internet community, at the very least. If you want to go the traditional route, tea ceremony, calligraphy, and shamisen-playing might be pretty rare hobbies outside of Japan, but they’re not non-existent. In some cases there are even American styles.
If you want to do activities that are more related to the Japanese language, you could try finding a Skype partner or tutor on italki. Something else you might consider is volunteering to translate for anything from TED Talks and the UN to Khan Academy. There are plenty of NGOs and websites that would love your help (not to mention being a great resume-builder). Otherwise, try doing some of your favorite activities in Japanese. Why not search YouTube for your favorite way to exercise – in Japanese! This is a great way to learn; usually there are no subtitles and they’re demonstrating the majority of what they’re saying. And of course if you’re diligent about it, you’ll repeat videos and learn more each time you watch the video.
This next tip might be difficult if you’re still a beginner in Japanese, but if you’re an avid gamer you could search for a fan page in Japanese on mixi and perhaps find some new buddies from Japan to join your guild on Tyria or to team up with on Summoner’s Rift. If you can’t create a mixi account, it might be a little more difficult, but I’m sure for a lot of games there’s a forum out there in Japanese. You just might have to do some digging!
Hopefully there were a couple things in this article that might help those of you feeling lost in the tundra/desert/forest/what-have-you. You may have more control over your environment than you realize! Especially if you have an internet connection, in this day and age there are a lot of options out there for you to be involved in the world without even leaving your own home. So try a couple of these and let me know how it goes! I know that for me, snuggling up with a Japanese copy of Harry Potter with a homemade matcha milkshake allows me to forget, sometimes, that I took this picture outside of my window at the end of last April (and that there was still snow in May).
If you have any other ideas on how to make the middle of nowhere less no-where-like, let me know in the comments below!
* Pun intentional
** Actual conversation