Wesley Johnson

Major: Physics and Religion

Hometown: Goldsboro, North Carolina

Study Abroad Program: UNC Summer in Japan

My summer spent in Japan confirmed my suspicions—once one visits one might not ever want to leave. When one enters a country for the first time the air seems fresher, the colors more vibrant, and in my case, the rain a lot wetter. We had entered Japan to start our study abroad program near Tokyo in the middle of the rainy season, but honestly, days at a time of cloudy weather did not dampen my initial weeks there in the least. One can read numerous books on numerous topics about a country but until one walks the streets of that country, truly it is difficult to say it has been experienced. On the streets of Japan walk multitudes of similarly uniformed students, an army of salarymen going to work in their suits and ties and then the only informally garbed people: the college students.

I suppose it was for that reason on the day of my arrival I sent all the clothes I brought except my traveling suits to my host family who I was to meet in a few days. I wanted to make a good impression to those I was supposed to make a good impression to, at least initially—most definitely a faulty first step as I had to fend off questions about my business involvement and the like. You see, Japanese college students fiercely guard the individualism they are granted. It is virtually the only time in their lives they will not be wearing some type of uniform.  College students should be college students; though informal, it is unusual for them to wear anything “usual” like a uniform. From these first impressions I was already underway learning how study abroad students should behave. They should make mistakes, altogether look like fools at times, and ask for help when they need it.

In the cities English signs pamper the landscape and it is very common to study English in school. The location of my UNC study abroad program was at KUIS (Kanda University of International Studies) a university where students focus specifically on language acquisition and development. My experience was distinct because at this school from the outset I had something in common with over 2,000 people: the unique struggle of trying to learn the others’ language (and thus about their way of life, as I saw it). Indeed, this experience became so intensely valuable to me because the reason I wanted to learn Japanese was to understand more about a people that fascinated me.

During my brief stay I came away with images of the intense tolerance Japan has for other countries by the way I was respectfully treated as a foreigner and as a study abroad student, even in the face of the chaotic aftermath of the horrific March 11, 2011 earthquake and the resulting tsunamis. Since my trip was immediately following this tragic incident I have since been amazed at the collective cooperative spirit of the Japanese people in dealing with the difficultness of the situation. Though an island nation experienced with earthquakes, and though Tokyo was saved from large-scale devastation it was hard to find someone who was not affected or had no story to tell.

As a foreigner in Japan a cloud of curiosity follows you, especially if you are from a country far away. One of my fondest memories is riding the train to class everyday and watching polite mothers trying to keep their curious children from sending too many glances my way.  I think such an image effectively sums what a study abroad experience should be: curiosity, exploration, and discovery. Indeed, it is difficult to think about learning in the traditional sense after a study abroad experience. There is one type of learning from cracking open a textbook and completing homework assignments, and there is quite another from talking with local people, visiting ancient places, and filling your lungs with the sense of wonder that surrounds a place hitherto unknown. The Phillips Ambassador program encourages students to do just that: to consider studying abroad, consider Asia in the global context, and consider experiencing something you will remember forever.