Friday, October 17, 2008

Getting my nerd on

The problem with going back to school after having been away from the world of academia for a while is that you tend to forget what being a student is really like.

I'm so far removed from my undergraduate days that all I remember is how much fun university was. I thought going to grad school at Kyoto University would be like an all-expenses-paid vacation. I pictured myself kicking back in the quad, surrounded by my new Japanese friends, making plans to travel to Tokyo for the weekend.

Yeah. Not so much. Kyoto University is more boot camp than Club Med.

I feel like I've worked harder in the past two weeks than I have in the past two years. Classes, homework, reading assignments, studying, tests. The workday never ends.

It is a complete lifestyle change. Not that I'm complaining (well, maybe just a little bit). Despite the brutal workload, it remains an incredible opportunity. Studying Japanese full-time on someone else's dime? It's amazing, really. The Japanese government has been very, very good to me.

For the next six months, I am getting paid to do nothing but study Japanese at Kyoto University. I am in an intensive language course with classes five days a week, four to six hours per day. Of course, that doesn't include the additional two to three hours a day for homework, reading assignments and studying.

On top of my language classes, I am also taking a kanji (Chinese characters) class, a Japanese culture and society class and a conversation class about the Japanese economy (in Japanese, of course).

Before I can enter grad school in April, I also need to learn the fundamentals of Japanese language necessary for environmental studies. So, once a week, I have to take a science class. This is not a course about science. It is a course to memorize the Japanese vocabulary around science.

Honestly, I think I may be in over my head. I had a mini meltdown yesterday after meeting with my academic advisor for the first time. He handed me a copy of the grad school syllabus, which was entirely in Japanese. Not only is the syllabus in Japanese, but all of the classes are in Japanese as well.

Let me put this challenge into perspective. In order to read a Japanese newspaper, you need to know about 2,000 essential kanji. And that's just to read a newspaper. In order to read literature or to take a graduate-level class at a university, you need to know at least 1,000 additional characters. I know about 100 Chinese characters. One hundred. Out of 2,000 basic characters. This makes me functionally illiterate.

There is absolutely no way my Japanese will be good enough to function at a university level in six months. I'm not being hard on myself. I'm simply stating a fact. It takes years to master Japanese.

I have no idea how I'm going to function when I enter grad school in April (assuming I pass the language exam). So instead of kicking back in the quad, surrounded by my new Japanese friends, making plans to travel to Tokyo for the weekend, I simply sat down in the quad alone and cried.

After about two minutes, I pulled myself together. I just decided to say fuck it. If I fail, I fail. If I succeed, I succeed. This is my job now and I'll just do the best I can.

Besides, I'm not in it alone. There are 14 other scholarship students at Kyoto University. It is an incredibly diverse group of people and everyone is interesting and accomplished.

There are only two of us from Canada. The others are from Argentina, Bosnia, China, Germany, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Philippines, Romania, Spain, Thailand and the U.K. We are a veritable United Nations.

I have bonded with Nadia from Bosnia, Oneika from Jamaica, Elena from Romania and Seema from India. We eat lunch together every day and all of us feel like we're in over our heads. So the five of us are going out for dinner and (well-earned) drinks tomorrow night.

Of course, there have been moments of hilarity too. Like when two Japanese boys (anyone under the age of 24 is a boy to me) approached me on campus today to ask if I'd like to be in the school music festival.

They asked me if I could sing, dance or play a musical instrument. I told them no, no and no. But that did not deter them.

"Please join us," they said. "You can make Japanese friends. And there is a party after the festival."

They were so adorably earnest I just wanted to pinch their cheeks. I told them I would think about it. Encouraged, one of the guys gave me his cell phone number and told me to call him if I changed my mind.

I have also been assigned mandatory tutoring sessions. Every Wednesday afternoon, I have to meet up with Masahito, an ecology grad student, who is studying the behaviour of insects. I assumed this would be some sort of technical tutoring session but it turns out that Masahito's role is more of a life coach than a teacher.

As he explained in an introductory email, "my job is basically to help you in a variety of ways when you are in trouble. Since it is difficult to line a boundary between what I can do and cannot, you may ask anything at first. Please DO NOT hesitate to ask. My biggest happy is that I could help you to make the most of your stay in Japan."

So I have decided to ask him for restaurant recommendations. And where the closest swimming pool is.

As for my social life, I have been too busy getting my nerd on to have anything that resembles a real social life. I mean, I spent last Saturday night playing table tennis in the lounge with some Chinese exchange students. It doesn't get much more nerdy than that.

So there you have it. This is what it's really like to go back to school after having been away from the world of academia for a long time.

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