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It's the wee hours of Saturday morning in a quiet all female low-rise dorm room at NDSU. Residents are either sleeping soundly or out having a good time some place off campus. But in one dorm room a social gathering is in full swing. I'm not talking about a swing dance either. As I walk down my motel-looking dorm hallway, I hear a male's voice with a sharp and harsh intonation. I pause in front of the door for a second, my curiosity piqued. There is silence for a moment and then I hear the voice again and I realize it's not English, but Japanese. I proceed down the hall, shuffling in my slippers, not wanting to be an eavesdropper. On my return I hear a loud electric razor coming from the same room. Again I pause in front of the wooden door, brightly decorated with two nametags, Yoko and Michelle, made by the creative RAs of our dorm (All names are pseudonyms). What's going on in there, I wonder. I see Yoko weekly at the International Student Association meeting, but only know that she's from Japan and is here to learn English.
I knock at the door, still hearing the razor and voices in the background. The door pops open and I'm greeted by a petite Japanese girl with dyed brown hair. It’s Yoko. She invites me in and I see the pile of different sized shoes near the door. My Hong Kong etiquette that I learned when I lived overseas with my family comes back to me and I promptly take off my shoes. To my left I see Kiyo, a tall Japanese guy with spiky hair, standing behind Watashi, who is quietly sitting down with a black garbage bag covering his upper body. There are garbage bags covering the floor around them and short pieces of black hair decorate the dark plastic.
The haircutter and haircutee don’t say much to me. Watashi just says “hi” when I come in the door and then looks down to prevent getting freshly clipped hair in his brown eyes. Yoko walks towards them and checks out the progress. Cutting hair in the dorms is something one doesn’t see often. I don’t think most guys cut their hair in the dorms like this.
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I take a chair and curiously watch the haircut, but become distracted by the TV. "Sailor Moon," a Japanese cartoon, is on. The heroes of this movie are some Japanese schoolgirls, ironically without the typical physical Japanese characteristics, and wearing very short skirts. They have every color of hair except black and some have blue eyes. The corny yet addictive English lyrics of the Sailor Moon theme song vibrate through the small dorm room, and for a few moments I am saving the world with Sailor Moon and her friends. The buzzing vibrations coming across the room bring my focus back to the haircut. Kiyo is making the finishing touches, and the product is rather impressive.
I notice the plastic, see-through box filled with noodles and other Japanese goodies near the TV where I am sitting. Pictures of Yoko and her boyfriend back in Japan decorate the wall behind her desk and a Japanese laptop sits on her desk. Kiyo and Watashi clean up the mess and all the garbage bags, and it's Kiyo’s turn for the barber chair. Yoko applies some red hair dye to his already bleached blond hair. Kiyo's hair changes weekly; sometimes I don't recognize him when he is sporting his latest do. The smell of hair dye permeates the room, and I start to wonder how carcinogenic this "fun" activity is, and worry about the condition of Kiyo's scalp being exposed to hair dye so often. Are all the Japanese from Yoko and Kiyo’s northern Japanese island such good hair professionals?
Yoko and Kiyo talk in Japanese and I have no idea what they are talking about, but just assume it's something to do with hair dye. I’m not too bothered not understanding what they are saying since I have been in many situations where English wasn’t spoken. After Kiyo has rinsed out the dye and all the guys are beautified, Yoko makes some noodles in our floor's shared kitchen. I keep her company in the kitchen, while the guys remain in the room. I start some chit chat and Yoko politely replies, but doesn’t keep the conversation going. We stand silently, waiting for the water to boil. After the noodles are dumped in the pot, I go back to the room, not wanting to just stand around. It’s either a communication problem or just different personalities that makes talking to her difficult.
The long noodles are cooled with diluted soy sauce. They are drenched with so much of this sauce that it's almost like soup. We sit in a circle on the floor and eat with small chopsticks (I'm used to the larger Chinese type) out of hardy, plastic cups of different sizes and shapes. Everyone is rather quiet when we eat the snack. Kiyo eats his noodles and then suddenly drinks all the brown, liquidly sauce. I have to hold back not to squirm. I can't believe he drinks it all. I like soy sauce, but personally can’t handle that.
They start talking in Japanese, and wanting to be active in the conversation in some way, I laugh when everyone else does. I try asking questions in English to remind them that I don’t have any clue about the Japanese language, but it’s not successful. They either forgot while being too wrapped up in their conversation, or didn’t care. After awhile I give up laughing and trying to somehow understand their conversation. Without being asked, Kiyo and Watashi gather all the dishes and leave the room. They come back with clean dishes and I am impressed with these guys’ etiquette. Their mothers must have taught them well.
Wondering how other Americans respond to being left out of Japanese conversations, I asked Michelle, Yoko’s roommate. I asked if she ever gets annoyed when her roommate speaks Japanese with her friends. "Not really, it just pisses me off if they talk super loud. And it seems kind of rude when I ask them a question about what they are talking about and they reply in English, but then go back to Japanese. I deal with it."
To get an American's perspective on Japanese international students, I asked Michelle some more questions. I asked how she likes rooming with an international student. "I like it. At first I was nervous and thought it would suck since she wouldn't be able to talk, but now we get along. I'm learning new things and I'm exposed to a different viewpoint of the world. I think it’s funny that she thinks her town of 3 million is small. I hadn't thought things were different from the surrounding area".
Michelle and her roommate had a little communication problem at the beginning. “We didn't talk that much first. Maybe a month . . . not quite that long. It was hard to talk to her. Now I talk differently, I slow down. I'm used to it now, since she isn't totally fluent." I find that I have to speak differently with some of the Japanese people here too. At times it can be frustrating if I want to know something about them quickly, and it seems difficult to have a deep conversation.
Michelle and her roommate have some things in common. "We both have long distance relationships, obviously hers in much further away, and we were both homesick. Those are the bonds that tied us together. We also stay up late for no apparent reason." They have some differences too, like study habits. It seems like Michelle and Yoko are friends and have the standard NDSU roommate situation.
Through the NDSU International Student Association (ISA) I met Yoko, Kiyo, and Watashi. Two years ago in my freshman year at NDSU, my Turkish friend invited me to come to an International Student Association meeting. She thought I would be interested in it since I had lived in Hong Kong. I decided to go since I made some very close international friends in Hong Kong. During the meeting everyone introduced themselves and said where they were from. I was impressed by the number of countries represented in one NDSU conference room. Even though I was the only American there, besides the advisor, I felt comfortable.
Talking to some Japanese students, I found why they hang out so much together. They also shared some of their experiences here at NDSU. According to Watashi, a student in his second year here, they hang out with other Japanese people because they can communicate easier with them. They also find out useful information, like what is cheap and which restaurants are good. They get together on the weekends at around midnight to have Ramen noodles and talk. There, they talk about friends and communicate about what is going on campus.
Another contributing factor to hanging out so much is that most of the Japanese students live on campus. They have easy access to each other, even if they don't own a car. Since they are on the meal plan, they sometimes go and eat at the dinning center together and they study at IACC together. Watashi, Yoko, Kiyo, and some of their other Japanese friends go to the Bison Sports Arena on the weekend and swim or play basketball. They shop at West Acres for fun when they get a ride there and went to Chicago together once. When they are not together in one of their rooms or somewhere on campus, they still remain connected by communicating through the internet, where they chat.
Tomossy, a senior in computer science, ICQed me about being a Japanese international student at NDSU. "When I came here, I felt kind of isolation. That isolation came from the lack of speking English ability. I lived alone in Japan, so I did not miss my family.” I was curious why he wanted to come here. "I was thinking to study abroad since I was highschool student!" As a sophomore in high school he participated in a Homestay in Oregon for three weeks and after that experience he wanted to study in the U.S. I asked him if he has a lot of international student friends and he replied with, "Mostly, because I only have some American friends whom I am familiar with.” Most of the activities he does with international students are through the International Student Association. They went to Minneapolis, to South Dakota to see the Black Hills, and they go on picnics. The association acts like an extended family for the international students here.
I wanted to know if most of the international students at NDSU come here for science. Tomossy told me, "I cannot say most of, but so many international students are CS (computer science) major. More than half of students are international in some classes. I think they are especially from China or India. Sometimes even the teacher is an international. In those class, I think I fit good, because other students are also international, teacher take consideration of those students. But if teacher is native, he speaks so fast and I cannot catch up his speech sometimes". I think most American students have a different view towards international TAs. We usually complain that it is hard to understand them and it makes learning difficult.
I asked what he thinks about Americans. "They are bright . . . cheerful. But they are really strict about bad things. They are more open to the others, sometimes not . . . though. I asked him how so and he replied with, "I feel being discriminated because I am Asian”. He's not sure if it is because he is Japanese or just Asian in general. "I sometimes feel that they are trying to avoid or they are afraid of me because they don't know me. Or North Dakota is kind of country, so they are not familiar with Asians or foreign people".
On an international student trip I went on, we took two big university vans. On the way back sitting in the vans, I got bored and started to daydream out the window. I began to notice that the people in almost every car that passed stared at us in amazement, as if we were aliens. I looked around the van to see what the fuss was all about and just saw people with darker skin than the average North Dakotan.
I asked Tomossy if it ever happens on campus. "At first, but I am accustomed to that. Last semester, in the class, we supposed to make group, so I asked other American, then they said they had enough people including the guy who was not there. I was like troublesome, I was really sad." I know this is not an isolated case because one of my Vietnamese friends encountered the same thing. When I heard about it, I was surprised and disappointed in his classmates. In another conversation with Tomossy, he told me that the people he played soccer with did not talk to him at all the first time he played with them, but now they are.
Perhaps it’s these reactions from North Dakotans that drive the Japanese students together to form their own Japanese community within NDSU. But at the same time the Japanese students I spent time with excluded me by communicating in their own language. At times they would not tell me key things in their conversation, and I would be left asking, “So, where are we going? or “Now what’s happening?” I believe the Japanese students primary stick together because they want to communicate with ease with each other. They have a bond—coming from the same country and being in a foreign country. It makes it easier to develop strong friendships since there are no basic communication problems. In a sense it is ironic that they spend most of their time together when they are here to learn English. By speaking Japanese with their friends they are not improving their English, which would help them extend their friendships to a wider group of people.