Settling in

June 25, 2016

Despite my energy in my last post, I am having trouble with the difficultly of the program. Last week, I even had to sit down and remind myself of all the hard work that I did to ultimately get that point in time to keep myself from quitting. Pathetic, right? A number of circumstances out of my control had made me convince myself that I was a victim. The textbook we are using is not what I expected, the curriculum is different than what I am used to, I do not have time to make friends here or to enjoy my time abroad because of the difficult work, etc. Ridiculous stuff like that.

To fight these thoughts, I had to put serious effort into self-reflection. What were my goals? Why did I come to Japan? What are my real priorities and why are these (somewhat) self-erected barriers holding me back and distracting me? Even as a student at the University of Notre Dame who is no stranger to difficult work, I had great trouble working out these issues. Eventually I realized that, as a successful student, I often lose myself in whatever my mind is set on at the moment, regardless of its importance to my overall goal. And, thus, I found that perfectionism was restricting my success.

After I put those thoughts of victimhood to rest, I was able to improve my test grades, enjoy spending time with other students, and genuinely improve my Japanese ability. While important, the pursuit of knowledge and the betterment of oneself is hardly the peak of the hierarchy of ordered desire. This is, in fact, one’s unity with the will of God. Through my reflection, I discovered that, in my frantic scramble to do well in the program, I had allowed my prayer life to fall by the wayside. As soon as I realized this, I made an attempt to pray the rosary as often as I could. Who knew the solution was so simple? The second I shifted my priorities, I began to improve my ability and worry less. And the best part is that this time of struggle has taught me an extremely important lesson about prayer and its importance. I pray that I can remember this time in my life if my prayer life ever seems unimportant in the future.

In a few weeks, I will be moving to my next host family’s house. Hopefully it will bring more wonderful people and experiences into my life.

Anyway, here’s a picture of many of my classmates:


Back in the US, thinking of Japan and my Host Family

I can’t believe that I am already walking on the right side of the sidewalk again, and handing store clerks my credit card with only one hand instead of two, and throwing trash in public outdoor trash cans instead of having to carry it home. After 8 weeks, I felt like I was really starting to get the hang of Japanese culture! I was finally automatically using the Japanese filler “ano” instead of “um”, and was getting used to using all my new grammar in everyday speech, and now I can hardly imagine what it will be like to try to continue studying the language without it surrounding me all day every day!

That said, I’m really excited to continue learning, and I hope to eventually achieve a high  level of proficiency! I am determined to find my way back to Japan, whether I can get an internship there, or possibly find a job there for a little while, or go there between graduation and grad school with the JET program for teaching English there. I really want to be able to use my Japanese in the future, and be a link between Japanese and American cultures. This program has really changed my life, and I am so grateful for the opportunity!


Above is the nighttime view from Mount Hakodate, overlooking the city with the ocean on either side. It’s the most famous sight in all of Hakodate, and I remember taking a trip to the top of the moment with my host parents on the last night. This picture is very sentimental!


Also, near the end of the program, my host parents symbolically welcomed me into their family by christening me with my own kanji name. My name in Japanese is アリソン (arison) which has to be written in the Japanese phonetic syllabary used for foreign names. Japanese people use the borrowed Chinese characters, kanji, to write their own names. So, my host parents found me kanji that have the correct pronunciations for my name and gave me my own Japanese name: 愛里孫 (a – love; ri – home, son – granddaughter). Basically every Japanese person has their own stamp with their name that they can use to sign formal letters or artwork; it’s often given to them on their 20th birthday, and is an important cultural symbol. My host parents generously had a stamp made for me with my new kanji name. Below is a picture of my stamp (center) alongside my two host mothers’. I will treasure it forever!


I will be missing Hakodate for a long time! What an incredible experience! I can’t wait to return!

More Truly Japanese Experiences

One emerging trend in modern Japanese culture is the concept of animal “cafes”. These are little shops that let you pay by the hour to play with a particular type of animal – the various cafes include all kinds, ranging from cats to owls! Originally created Tokyo, where it is difficult for many residents to own their own pets, these animal cafes have spread all over Japan, and I had the opportunity to visit a couple of them and experience this neat piece of Japanese culture for myself. These cafes fit right in with Japanese Kawaii culture! It was a lot of fun – I wish they had some of these back in the US!

FullSizeRender (2)

Above I am visiting a dog cafe, which consisted of a large room full of poodles, beagles, and a golden retriever! The customer just sits down on the floor, and dogs come running over looking for pets. The dogs love the attention, the people love the dogs, and it seems like a win-win set-up! They only allow a certain number of people in the room at once, of course, and the line was far out the door. Turns out this is really popular!

original_url: 29975B47-4DB7-4E7E-B0D5-316C091997F9

original_url: C6A3152F-9584-416B-AAF6-705A3ACF5E71

Next was the rabbit cafe! In a room full of the most adorable rabbits I had ever seen, you could sit on a stool and pet a rabbit in your lap, switching rabbits every 10 minutes. Another great idea for a business!! I wouldn’t want the responsibility of owning a rabbit, but being able to play with them for an hour was a lot of fun. I can see why the Japanese really like their animal cafes!


Finally, another great cultural experience I had was the kickoff to the annual Hakodate Port Festival, which was a brilliant fireworks display. Summer festivals are a big deal in northern Japan, where the winters are long, and generally the whole town becomes involved somehow, whether it be in the parade, selling festival food, or visiting the street stands and the events. Most people wear Yukatas (summer kimonos) to festivals, and I got to wear mine and be a part of the fun. The fireworks were spectacular – I learned Japanese firework shows are always long, dramatic, and impressive, and this one was no exception! The following day I walked through the street stands observing the festival food – including colored chocolate-covered bananas on sticks, shaved frozen fruit (frozen fruit through a shave ice machine – amazing!) and yakisoba (a fried noodle dish). There was a also a huge parade (with 10,000 people in it!) featuring lots of squid dancing – Hakodate’s signature dance. This was an amazing experience for the last week of my stay in Hakodate. I hope that someday I have reason to wear my Yukata to a festival again!

Week 3 in Amman

I have completed my third week in Amman. I am definitely getting the hang of things here, especially how to grocery shop and cook for myself 24/7. I am also getting used to certain aspects of the culture, like taxis. In taxis, women always sit in the back but a man is expected to sit in the front. For example, a mother and 4 kids in a cab would sit with the eldest boy in front and the mother and other kids in the back of the cab. Rarely, even if there is 4 women, will you see one ride in the front of the taxi with the driver. I am also getting better at speaking to taxi drivers in Arabic, so I think my Arabic is improving.

I love Qasid! It is very hard but I think it will be very rewarding in terms of Arabic progress. Our teachers are amazing! First we have Ali, who is a hilarious teacher and loves making us perform funny skits in Arabic in front of the class. Then we have our class with Hadeel, an adorable (very pregnant) woman. They are so involved with our learning and truly want us to succeed.

The homework load is a lot each night. We are supposed to do one our of homework for every our in class, meaning we would have 4 hours of homework a night. There are a lot of assignments and vocabulary to learn and I quickly found out that this class was nothing to mess around with. I managed to get to the end of the school/work week, Thursday, and planned fun things for the weekend!

On Friday, I went downtown Amman with one of my roommates and we walked around, took pictures of the amphitheater, and got some hummus and bread. On Saturday, we went to Wadi Mujib which is this amazing nature reserve! It is right next to the Dead Sea so we could look out and see the West Bank. At Wadi Mujib, we grabbed life jackets and began to walk, climb, and swim our way to the top. When we got to the top, there was this amazing waterfall! I wish I had pictures, but I did not have a waterproof case or bag. It was great to exercise and swim! Overall, it was another great week in Amman.

Week 2 in Amman

On Sunday, I had my very first day of school at Qasid. I quickly found out that this particular class used a different version of the book then I use at Notre Dame. The class was great, and of course, the teacher was amazing, but I asked to be moved to another specialized class that followed the same curriculum and books that Notre Dame does. On Tuesday, I went to my new class with other students from NC State and Yale.

This Friday we went to Madaba and Mount Nebo. Madaba is a Christian town south-west of Amman. It is best known for its insanely cool mosaics and archaeological sights. We chose to go there because it is a Christian town which means some restaurants and sights will be open on Fridays, even during Ramadan. We got there with our trusty guidebook and went to the first stop on the tour, “Madaba Archaeological Park”. We started wandering around aimlessly (there were no descriptions) until the guy we bought tickets from offered to give us a tour! He was very knowledgable and there were so many cool things at this site. In this park there was a Roman Street, Hippolytus Hall (6th century), Church of the Virgin Mary (6th century), the crypt of St. Elianus (595 AD), as well as the Mosaic Exibition which includes a mosaic from King Herod’s Fortress (as in Bible Herod!). He showed us his mosaic shop after the tour and even showed us how they are made! After the tour, he helped us set up a ride to/from Mount Nebo with his brother, a taxi driver, for later that day. I am continuously amazed at how helpful and welcoming people here are!

We then went to several historical sites, one of which was a Greek Orthodox Church of Saint John the Baptist. We looked around a bit and then discovered a staircase that led to the bell tower. it was unclear whether or not we were allowed up, but we couldn’t pass up the opportunity! After climbing up to the very top, we had an amazing view of all of Madaba.

After lunch, we went to Mount Nebo with our friendly taxi driver. He was very chatty and showed us pictures of his adorable 3 year old daughter on the way! Mount Nebo is the place where Moses saw the promised land, but he died before reaching it. Some people think he even may have been buried in the mountain. From this point, you can see a lot of the West Bank, the Dead Sea, Jericho, and even Jerusalem on a good day. It was amazing to be there, not only because of its religious significance but its historical significance as well. I didn’t expect, coming to a Muslim country, to visit so many places that relate to my own religion. After Mount Nebo, our driver showed us a Bedoin camp where we talked with some of the Bedoins. Then, our driver took us to an awesome restaurant and then back home to Amman.

Post-Immersion Reflection

After spending six weeks in Montreal doing intensive coursework in French, and making my way through daily life communicating in my second language, I’ve realized that language learning constitutes a far more intuitive process than I had realized before my stint in Canada.  It also made me reflect more on my use of languages in general.  When I communicate in English, my first language, I typically do not devote much energy to the use of tenses, or how I relay complex ideas.  My spoken English, in other words, is lazy.  When speaking in French, however, I spent a great deal of time contemplating what tense, or what turn of phrase would most convey in the most accurate manner what I wanted to communicate.  I found speaking French in a precise way challenging.  Consequently, I now also give more thought to my English-language delivery, reflecting more (when I can) on what words I use, or how I string together phrases to best articulate ideas.  Even subtle differences can produce a world of new meanings.  While I had not anticipated this going into my intensive immersion, I realize now that these skills will help me not only in my pursuit of French fluency, but also as I write my dissertation.

The complexity of language, as well as the ways in which others use their native language, taught me to appreciate language as a facet of culture.  While many think of culture as the arts, music, food, etc., I found that observing (especially bilingual) people operate in two different languages fascinating, as it exposed the cultural differences between Anglophone Canada and Francophone Canada.  Describing the same thing in each language recalls different histories, different cultural assumptions, and different connotations which make Quebec a fascinating place to study the French language.  I would encourage anyone who wants to study a foreign language to pay special attention not just to how people go about their daily lives in their host country, but also how they describe their quotidian experiences, as it can reveal a good deal about how they think about the world, or what they find important, or most interesting for me, their history and the historical assumptions implicit in their day to day lives.

For me, I will use this knowledge, both linguistic and cultural, to continue my research for my dissertation.  I will return to Montreal in the fall of 2016 for the entire academic year to research and write, and where I will continue to expose myself to the Quebecois culture and language.  Having the six weeks of immersion during the summer will help me to jump straight into my work with my mental toolkit already prepared, and I hope, of course, to continue to speak French and refining my skills in the language!Fontenot 3

The Peculiar French of Quebec

Montreal sports the second largest French-speaking population of any city besides Paris.  Yet the French spoken by natives of Quebec differs markedly from standard French.  Residents of Quebec have noticeable accents; so strong that in some cases those from France itself have trouble deciphering the local accent and patois.  Quebecois films often sport two sets of French subtitles: Quebecois French, and the translation into standard French.

For many Quebecois, these differences add to the complexity of their relationship with language, compounding the already contentious relationship with their English-speaking neighbors and creating a sort of double inferiority complex when it comes to language.  As the minority language within Canada, Quebec’s defenders of the French language have taken a militant stance towards maintaining the integrity of the French language and prevent the encroachment of English into daily life.  This has often been an uphill battle, especially with English necessary to travel and work outside the province of Quebec.  Add to that the idea that Quebecois French represents a deviation of the norm from standard French, and one can understand why some Quebecois adopt a defensive stance toward their language.

In some cases, Quebecois French and standard French differ little.  Quebecois French tends to collapse words together, relying more on contractions than would regular French.  Quebecois French speakers also tend to speak more from the back of the mouth than from the front, as would a speaker trained in standard, international French.  The Quebecois, as one native French woman told me, “swallow their words.”

Quebecois vocabulary also differs substantially from French proper.  In formal language, Quebecois French borrows fewer new words from English, as does French proper, preferring instead to come up with neologisms to avoid capitulating to the historical power hierarchy of English in Quebec.  France, with no history of English rule, lacks the same source of hesitancy.  Quebec French, as a testament of Quebec’s long separation from France, also tends to use older forms of French more relevant in the eighteenth and seventeenth century than the twentieth to twenty-first century.  Many obscenities and profanities in Quebecois French draw from the language of the Catholic Church, or relate to particular religious themes, a holdover from pre-Revolutionary French society, where the Church had far more influence in day-to-day life.

In the area around Montreal, one can find a number of speakers of the joual, one of the most distinctive dialects of Quebecois French. Most particularly associated with the working-class suburbs of Montreal, some deride the language as an uneducated corruption of proper French, while others have celebrated it as a symbol of a distinctive national identity.  Speakers of standard French have great difficulty in understanding this form of French, insofar as its speakers have heavy accents, and often use contractions and pronunciations unrecognizable in standard French, as well as non-standard word order and sentence structure.

The presence of the many varieties of French in Quebec, as well as the historical nature of the language, make it a fascinating linguistic study, especially for anyone interested in history.  Paying close attention to the way that the Quebecois language functions, as well as the terms that it uses provide insight into the historical evolution of language, as well as hos the province’s history has influenced the way in which its residents communicate.  It also serves as a constant reminder of how distinct Quebec remains within both Canada, as well as the francophone world.  Small wonder, perhaps, that many Quebecois have strong opinions about language.

Post-Program Reflection

Looking back at my language experience, I find that one of the most interesting things I have found about learning a new language is the importance of outside the classroom interactions. As much as my language skills developed from attending lecture and drilling grammar structures, I found that possibly the greatest growth took place when I interacted with people outside of the classroom. Even studying vocab from a book is only helpful to a certain extent.  Without being able to make use of it, and solidify it in one’s memory in the context of actual conversation, it does not do much good.

The language shock of going to China for two months can really only be compared to the cultural differences that were experienced.  After spending so much time in a different country, one is bound to get accustomed to a lot of the different ways of doing things, but this is only after a long time, and there are still bound to be many things that one never gets used to.  In China, even street manners are starkly different.  One thing that I found funny is that staring is much more acceptable.  Experiencing different cultures was an opportunity that the SLA grant provided me, as valuable as the language experience.

Going forward, I do not think that class alone is sufficient for sustaining the language level that was attained during my time in China.  In addition to formal studying, I think that it is important to practice more informal conversation with other people in order to maintain the same type of fluency.  After all, I feel as though that is one of the main benefits of studying in a different country;  aside from studying language in the classroom, one can communicate in a more common way, which is bound to yield improvement in ways that traditional classroom settings simply cannot.  These language skills are invaluable moving forward, as speaking any foreign language in any field of work opens the doors to a myriad of opportunities through being able to connect to more people in a more personal way.

Coming to an End

As my time in China comes to a close, I cannot tell if the trip has flown by, or has felt as though it lasted a lifetime. On the one hand I cannot believe that it 2 months have already passed since I first arrive, but on the other hand, looking back to the first day being here, that seems like it was ages ago.  Looking back I feel as though my Chinese definitely has progressed. I don’t necessarily think that I am fluent, but I would be pretty comfortable being on my own in China trying to figure out what people are saying.  If there is ever a word or phrase I don’t know, I know enough to fill in the gaps with other phrases and descriptions.

For the second to last week we had our Chinese night and talent show.  The program would not be a Notre Dame Chinese department event without one.  I helped out as an MC and did a dance in a group.  It was a little hectic since it took place on a Friday, which is our test day, but overall everyone rallied very well to make it happen, especially the teachers who all put an enormous amount of effort into it.  I think people really enjoyed themselves that night, and to me it seemed even better than the typical Chinese nights we have on campus.  We closed out with pizza, which was definitely not United States pizza, but after having so much Chinese food, you’re not picky.  I am looking forward to going home, but I there are definitely aspects of China I will miss.  I will especially miss the cheap food and having the chance to talk to random people out of the classroom in Chinese.

The Civic Pride of Montreal

For only a fraction of the year can one tolerate the outdoors in Montreal.  The winter presents a forbidding obstacle to Montrealers enjoying their many public spaces. Needless to say, Montreal packs the summer full of events to take advantage of the brief time during the year when one couldn’t plausibly mistake the streets of Montreal for the Siberian wilderness.  Montreal’s civic pride comes to the forefront during these summer celebrations.  Montrealers exhibit a fierce pride in their city, on full display throughout the summer months.  Deterred only by the omnipresent road construction during the summer months, Montreal makes the most of their warm weather and the amenities that their city has to offer.

The eponymous Mont Royal dominates the center of Montreal, barring travel across the island, but also offering stunning views of all parts of the city.  An outcrop on the mountain facing the southeast sports one of the city’s most stunning views of downtown Montreal.  Here, on the lookout overlooking downtown, the city sponsors a series of evening concerts of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.  These performances, casual affairs, are dedicated to the city itself and draw huge crowds.  The large crowds testify to the civic spirt of Montrealers: the Kondiaronk Belvadere, where the concerts take place, sits near the top of the tallest peak of Mount Royal, a climb of about seven hundred feet.  For those unwilling or unable to make the climb, the city provided public busses to shuttle concert-goers there and back.  By the time the concert started, several hundred people had gathered to hear the orchestra, despite the heavy winds and the chance of rain that evening.

Venture down the slope of Mount Royal, through downtown, and one will find themselves in the Quartier des Spetacles.  During the summer, this part of the city plays host to a great number of festivals, including notably the Montreal International Jazz Festival near the Place des Arts.  This space, a massive pedestrian zone located off of the Rue Ste-Catherine, serves as a hub for Montreal’s cultural scene during the summers.  Montrealers gather here throughout the day to dine, socialize, listen to music, and have coffee.  Faced with the prospect of a long and cold winter characterized by short days and long nights, it should come as little surprise that the residents of the city find joy in escaping the indoors during the summer, even if the temperatures sometimes soar into the eighties and nineties Fahrenheit.

Once the temperature cools down in the evening, a short ride down the Orange Line of the metro will bring one from downtown to Parc Jarry, one of the larger urban parks of Montreal.  On summer evenings with good weather, residents of Montreal flock in droves to the park to enjoy dinner with friends and family, to socialize, to gather and play music, or to do whatever strikes them.  Perhaps the most striking about this scene, however, is the number of people who venture out to the park, as well as all of Montreal’s public spaces.  People appear happy to venture out and about; the very act of doing so seems to demonstrate their pride in the city.  Being out in the city’s public spaces allows them to appreciate the city more fully; more so than just living in Montreal, the city’s public spaces and public functions and festivals allow Montrealers to revel in their city in the company of others who feel the same way.IMG_6113