By Ivanhoe/The AS Review
A group of students sat in a ring of desks arranged along the perimeter of a classroom in Bond Hall last Wednesday. Facing them, in another ring of desks, was a second group of students. Five minutes at a time, the students exchanged introductions and talked about themselves, their hobbies, their families and anything else they felt would make a good first impression. At the end of five minutes, someone would shout, “Rotate!” and the inner circle of students shifted one desk clockwise to commence a new introduction.
“It sort of looks like speed dating,” Laura Carney, the coordinator of the event, said.
But it’s not.
This is the typical format for a meeting of the Japanese Conversation Club (JCC). The outer ring of desks seats the JCC members, mostly American students who are studying the Japanese language at Western, while the inner ring seats native Japanese-speaking volunteers, most of them newly-arrived students from Japan enrolled in Western’s Asia University America Program (AUAP), where they study the English language and American culture.
The JCC welcomes members with any level of experience with Japanese. Last week, out of the 23 club members in attendance, six identified themselves as beginning students enrolled in Japanese 101 this quarter, while at least two have already had the opportunity to spend some time in Japan. Though most of its members are enrolled in Japanese classes, it is not a requirement to join, Carney said.
Though last week’s meeting was devoted to basic introductions, future meetings will focus on different topics. Carney and native Japanese speaker Risa Kuramitsu brainstorm topic ideas each week and develop handouts with conversation and vocabulary ideas.
“We always try to come up with a good topic,” Kuramitsu said.
Carney and Kuramitsu rattled off a list of topics from last year, among them shopping, blood type, body language and superstitions. Slang is always a popular topic, Carney added, though she cautioned that generational and even year-to-year differences in slang can make you seem woefully uncool if you aren’t up-to-date.
Though conversation is the main focus of the club, the JCC sometimes puts on other events.
“We’ve worked together with the Japanese Student Association and thrown Japanese events,” JCC President Chi Xiong said. “Last year we had a Halloween party.”
Second-year Japanese student Emily Sakuma, who attended her first JCC meeting last week, said she will definitely return.
“It was really fun,” she said. “You don’t really speak that much in class—it’s mostly looking at writing—so it’s good real-life experience.”
Xiong, who took three years of Japanese in high school and is now in his second year at Western, agrees.
“It’s really helpful because last year I wasn’t really that good at Japanese and it really helped me to the point where I can have a conversation in Japanese,” he said.
For AUAP students, it’s an opportunity to speak Japanese (they are required to speak only English in their program) so when Carney announced, “No English!” at the beginning of the meeting, many of them laughed.
Koichi Hirata, a Tokyo resident, studied English in Japan for six years, but his arrival in Bellingham in mid-September marks his first time in the English-speaking world. He said he enjoyed talking to JCC members about hobbies, food, sports, animals and subjects in school.
When asked if he had any difficulty with the language barrier, Hirata gave a wide smile and said, “No problem!”
“Even though we’re from different cultures, we still have a lot in common,” Xiong said of his interactions with Japanese students. “I don’t think of it as meeting someone that’s very different. I think of it as meeting a peer.”
The key to the club’s success, according to Carney, is the symbiotic relationship between the JCC and the AUAP. Since the JCC was founded in January 2008, the club has been fortunate to have nearly one-on-one access to conversation partners for its members most of the time, she said.
As an English instructor with the AUAP, it is perhaps not surprising that Carney helps recruit volunteers for both the JCC and the AUAP. While AUAP students volunteer their time for the benefit of JCC members, she said, some of the members return the favor as classroom volunteers for the AUAP, where any native English speakers are welcome to apply to volunteer.