Mercurio, Gabrielle



Name: Gabrielle Mercurio
Location of Study: Hakodate, Hokkaido
Program of Study: Hokkaido International Foundation
Sponsors: Liu Family



A brief personal bio:

My name is Gaby Mercurio, and I am a rising Junior with a major in Psychology and a minor in Japanese. I come from the middle of paradise, ie Los Angeles, to the middle of nowhere, ie South Bend. Since I was young, I have always been interested in Japanese culture, especially its cuisine which I find very very delicious. I am so excited and thankful to have the opportunity to immerse myself in a culture that I find immensely unique and interesting.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

I spent six weeks in Japan when I was fifteen-years-old. But back then, I had not an ounce of any foreign language ability. I loved that six-week experience in Japan, but I understand that my lack of language comprehension prevented me from truly immersing myself in the Japanese culture. Language and communication are such vital components to understanding culture and another people’s way of thinking. It has become my goal to learn Japanese, go to Japan, and genuinely experience Japanese life for what it truly is, from actions to speaking. Living in Japan, with language struggles preventing a complete engagement with the culture, does not do the experience justice; language is culture, and culture should be fully experienced for oneself.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

The SLA grant has presented me the opportunity to improve my Japanese language skills, from reading and writing to speaking both inside and outside the classroom. Studying in Hakodate will allow me to challenge myself to adapt in a foreign country where I can immerse myself in the culture. I hope that I can escape the bounds of my comfort zone and be proactive, learning the most that I can in this rare and exciting opportunity. Language acquisition, life-long friendships, and memorable experiences, these are all things I can gain through this study abroad adventure.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

  1. At the end of the summer, I will be able to confidently communicate in Japanese with native speakers, my professors, and my peers.
  2. At the end of the summer, I will be able to describe the city of Hakodate, from its unique culture to its people.
  3. At the end of the summer, I hope to learn more about myself, as a traveller who seeks to immerse herself in a foreign culture and pinpoint the similarities and differences between this culture and my own.
  4. At the end of the summer, I will be able to speak, read, write and listen at a level of proficiency equal to two semesters beyond my current Japanese coursework placement at Notre Dame.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

A summer in Japan can result in lifelong friendships formed with the unique individuals I meet. As the Spirituality Commissioner for Notre Dame’s Asian American Association, I share my faith and invite others to participate in club activities, recognizing the importance of engaging myself in the community in a multitude of ways. Perhaps one of the best ways to learn about the Japanese culture is through interaction with locals, especially my host family, with whom I can speak Japanese on the daily. Outside of the home, the Hokkaido International Foundation offers a language conversation table called Sawakai, in which students can converse with Hakodate locals, make origami with them, and play traditional Japanese games. Furthermore, the Hakodate community welcomes the program students with open arms, allowing students to participate in local festivals and club activities in high school. I especially hope to engross myself in an entirely refreshing activity such as tea ceremony, as it is uniquely Japanese and a way to practice my language proficiency and learn about communal traditional Japanese culture. Through participation in such activities, community engagement will only heighten my experience, as I learn the language and culture and find lasting friendships in the very process.


Reflective Journal Entry 1:

It has been a little over a week since I’ve arrived in Japan, and it has been quite the adventure! Hakodate may not come to mind when one first thinks of Japan. Hakodate has more of a rural and country charm to it, and my school, the Hokkaido International Foundation, is located on Mount Hakodate, with a nice view of the waterfront.

My second day after arriving in Hakodate, I went to the onsen, also known as “hot springs,” or public baths. It is a little ironic, as I find Japan to be pretty conservative in the sense that mannerisms are all very reserved, but at the public baths you are expected to bathe in front of everyone before entering the hot springs.

One other big difference between Japan and America is the recycling and trash situation. In Japan, you have to divide up your plastics from your paper, your burnable trash from your unburnable trash. My host sister even brings home her lunch milk carton so that my host mom can take it apart and stack it in a pile with previous days’ milk cartons so she can recycle them. If you are out, you most likely have to carry your trash with you until you return home.

As for my studies, the pace of my class is extremely fast. What takes about a month to go over in class at ND takes just a week at my program! It is a bit of a tough adjustment, but I think things are settling down and I’m getting a hang of how to schedule myself.

Having only spent a year learning Japanese, I am having difficulties communicating in the real world. For example, when I bought some pens at the department store, it seems I accidentally also asked the worker to gift wrap them. Thankfully, even though my host family does not understand English too well, they are very patient with me. I get to practice my Japanese with them, and my twelve-year-old host sister helps me with my homework sometimes.

This first week went by quickly, so I’m excited for what the next seven have in store!

Reflective Journal Entry 2:

It is amazing how busy you are kept when you are studying abroad! Amidst the academic classes, cultural activities, and all the exploring you have to do, sometimes it’s hard to find time to just sit and take it all in.

Sometimes I marvel at how precise and intricate Japanese is as a language. For example, there are different ways to say a verb that means the same thing. For example, the verb “akeru” means “to open (something).” But if you want to say that “something is opened,” then you must use the verb “aku.” It is a little tricky to get a hang of, but I wonder if the precision of the language reflects the mindset and attitude of the culture. Just a thought.

For my Independent Study project, I have chosen to study izakaya restaurants specifically in Hakodate. These izakaya restaurants are particularly intimate, as each shop has a max of 7 to 8 customers who sit at the counter with the chef/owner immediately behind it. That way, the customers have the opportunity to watch the chef cook while also talking with other customers or even the chef himself.

I have never seen such intimate restaurants before, so they immediately piqued my interest and I knew I had found my IS topic. Given the nature of the izakaya restaurant, I assumed I would easily be able to just strike up a conversation with the owner and learn more about the izakaya business. However, interestingly enough, the first izakaya restaurant I visited was not what I was expecting. The shop seemed to be run by an older couple, and their guests were around the same age, and they all seemed to have known each other well. When I took my seat and ate my food, I could hear the other guests comment on how I was a foreigner, and the restaurant had become a little more quiet. I know they meant no harm, but I could not help but feel self-conscious about my Japanese skills. Not only that, the owner became very busy cooking and taking orders that I was unable to speak to her anyway. And so I left having eaten a great meal but experienced no conversation.

I became a little discouraged. I wondered if my limited Japanese would prevent me from getting to know these restaurants and their owners. However, I knew that this would be a great opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and just use my Japanese. After all, this is exactly the reason why I am in Japan: to learn and practice Japanese. So a week later, I returned to the izakaya area and tried another restaurant. This time, I prepared questions so I would not have to stumble through my words. The owner of this restaurant was also very busy, but I was able to ask him questions in between jobs, such as when he served my meal or when he handed me the bill. Whenever I spoke, the other guests immediately became quiet so that they could listen to a foreign girl try to speak Japanese. It was a little intimidating, but I know that they and the owner were actually very supportive of me. They sent me off with a wave and smile, and I left with much excitement at the fact that locals can understand my Japanese! I am so excited to continue my project, check out more restaurants, and get to know more people.

Reflective Journal Entry 3:

Weeks 4-5:

At this point I am a little over half way done with my program. The last 4 weeks went by fast, but I know these next 4 are going to go by even faster.

This week, my host mom had asked my 12-year-old host sister if she could do her homework, and she responded in English, “Yes, we can!” referring to Obama’s presidential campaign slogan. My host mom then explained that Japanese people like to adopt English phrases into their everyday language. Since we were on the topic, I asked my host family about their thoughts on America, and my host parents said that they did not really have an opinion. When I asked them about President Obama, they immediately said, “Oh, is it true that Obama and his wife are fighting?” Quite surprised, I replied, “No, not that I am aware of…” According to my host parents, it was all over the Japan news that the US president was not getting along with the First Lady. I found it so surprising, that of all issues, the president’s relationship with his wife was such a hot topic.

Actually, my host family hardly watches the news on television. My host parents read the newspaper, but during dinner, for example, we mostly watch television dramas or game shows. In fact, my host sisters’s favorite television program is Sam and Cat, a Nickelodeon show. I’ve noticed how pervasive Western culture can be here in Japan, from the shows and music my host sisters like, to the English phrases they use even though they do not understand the meaning. It is interesting to see how one culture can influence another. Also, many English words have made their way into the Japanese language. For example, the word “juice” in English sounds very similar in Japanese. A lot of everyday words are just English words that were adopted into the Japanese language.

Reflective Journal Entry 4:

This week, I attended a Hakodate annual event, the Goryokaku Park Spectacular, a show that recounts the city’s history dating back to when the indigenous people thrived. Goryokaku Park, by the way, is a 200 year old fort that is built in the shape of a star. “Go” means “five” in Japanese, hence the name Goryokaku. The performance was very well put together, despite all the performers being volunteers. It left a deep impression on me, namely in that one could see how much the Hakodate people love their city. It showed the rich history of a city that is ages old and unlike any other that I have been to. It was through this performance that I was able to see the values that are important to the city, from perseverance to diversity, from community to loyalty.

For example, one of the skits focused on the Battle of Hakodate, which took place in 1869. During this time, the Shogunate army was resisting the Meiji Restoration. Even though the Shogunate army was clearly overwhelmed, Toshizo Hijikata led the Shogunate army as they fought for what they believed in, and for this reason, Toshizo Hijikata is considered a Hakodate legend.

Reflective Journal Entry 5:

This week, I lost my iPhone, and inside my iPhone case was my bus card that still had 5,000 yen in it. I was at a bookstore in a mall and, in order to look through an interesting book that had caught my eye, placed my phone on the shelf. I skimmed through the book for a couple minutes and then proceeded along my way, having left, of course, my phone. About an hour later, I realized I did not have my phone on me and immediately thought that I would never see it again. I went back to the bookstore and told my situation to the saleslady. She said that no phone had been seen, but she would call the mall’s lost and found. Sure enough, my iPhone was there along with my 5,000 yen bus card still in it too.

This experience tells me that the people here in Japan just seem to have a mutual sense of responsibility towards one another. This is proven by the fact that every person here sorts their trash despite its complicated and time-consuming situation. There just seems to be a very neighborly sense of community, where everyone looks out for each other. People do things believing the same will be done for them. I speak, of course, generally, and of my own observations, but my experiences here have led me to believe that in Japan, there is always that sense of comfort that you are being looked out for. Or at the very least, I know this: if you’re going to lose something, Japan is the place to do it.

Well, now that seven weeks have gone by, I only have one more left! I’ll definitely have to make the most of it, starting with making sure I don’t lose anything else!

Reflective Journal Entry 6:


Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

Prior to my experience in Japan, I made it a goal for myself to be able to confidently communicate in Japanese with native speakers, my professors, and my peers. I think that after eight weeks of class and the “Japanese Only Rule,” I am comfortable speaking Japanese for everyday needs. I find myself speaking Japanese more easily with my professor and most especially my classmates.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:
I say with confidence that this experience was some of the fastest eight weeks in my life. I not only knocked out a whole year’s worth of Japanese coursework, but I met incredible people and made new friends. Just as HIF’s program slogan states, I really did “smile” and have a “sense of accomplishment.”

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:
This eight-week experience through the Hokkaido International Foundation has helped me narrow down my interests in Psychology. I have found that I enjoy learning the best methods for learning a secondary language. As a result, I have just joined the Language Lab that researches how students learn and relate a secondary language to their native language. I have only just begun, but I am excited that I have the opportunity to relate my own language learning experiences to future research projects.