Monday, December 15, 2008

School daze

The following post is dedicated to my sister Jane, who sent a mass email to the entire family congratulating our two younger sisters on getting through the fall semester at their respective universities. My name was conspicuously left off the list of studying Marchildons.

"How could you forget I'm in school?" I wrote. "What the heck do you think I'm doing out here?"

"I don't know what you're doing," she replied. "You just write on your blog about your adventures, so I forget you're doing work."

She has a point. So instead of writing about my adventures, I'm switching gears and writing about what it's like to be a Canadian student at a Japanese university. Jane, this one's for you!

In addition to studying Japanese five days a week, I am taking a variety of other classes, including one called "Japan in Charts and Tables." This does not accurately reflect the content of the class so I have privately renamed it, "How Japan is Going to Hell."

Every Tuesday afternoon, from 4:30 to 6:00, we learn about the various ways Japan is going to hell. The formula is always the same. Each class is devoted to one serious economic issue facing Japan. The professor takes us through a series of mind-numbing charts and tables (all of the data is in Japanese) to illustrate the severity of the problem and underline its causes.

In addition to bombarding us with charts and tables, the professor also hands out long lists of obscure Japanese vocabulary. Pages and pages of words I will never use and promptly forget.

Seriously, what's the point of learning the Japanese words for "crude steel," "appreciation growth," "detailed aggregative analysis" or "foreign currency exchange reserves?" I don't even talk about that stuff in English.

After the lecture, we break up into small discussion groups to solve the problem . . . in 10 minutes or less. (Here's a sample discussion question: "What should be done to balance the burden of medical expenses in Japan's aging society? Discuss especially from hospital management perspectives.")

Hospital management perspectives? The only perspective on hospital management I have is from watching Grey's Anatomy.

None of us are even remotely qualified to solve Japan's complex social issues. We're students, not government policy advisors. It is a credit to the professor -- who is keen and earnest and absolutely wonderful -- that he actually thinks we would have something worthwhile and intelligent to say.

Trying to get my discussion group to agree on anything is like herding cats. Because we all come from different countries, we all come at Japan's problems from different perspectives.

When discussing poverty, Seema from India refused to acknowledge poverty was a real problem in Japan.

When discussing unemployment and the slowdown of Japan's economy, Onika from Jamaica suggested that maybe Japanese people shouldn't work so hard.

Ricardo from Mexico can't speak English so he usually sits there not saying anything at all.

I tend to fall into the role of the peacemaking Canadian, who just wants everyone to get along. Our solutions to Japan's problems tend to be the same every week -- more government regulation is the basic theme.

We then present our solutions to the class while the professor furiously writes down all of our ideas. We suspect he is feeding our solutions to the Japanese government. We also suspect this whole "scholarship" thing is just a cover for the Japanese government to get some cheap international consulting. We're getting paid to solve Japan's problems. (I'm totally putting that on my resume.)

How Japan is Going to Hell is one of my favourite classes. The professor is incredibly intelligent. He is Japanese, speaks fluent English, has a PhD in economics and spends his spare time installing environmentally sustainable technologies in developing countries.

Plus, it's refreshing to hear about Japan's problems, especially from a Japanese person. Everyone else wants to talk about how wonderful and special this country is. How Japan has the best food, the most polite people, the most beautiful cherry blossoms, the most cutting-edge electronics, the most efficient trains, the cleanest cities. A lot of people believe Japan is perfect. Well, it's not. It's good and bad. Just like every other place on earth.

There you go, Jane. A little bit about what I'm really doing out here in Japan. So the next time you give a shout out to the students in the family, I hope you remember to include me.

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