American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Fall 2015 TRAVEL
by Cayte Mendez
From the Editor: Cayte Mendez teaches first grade in New York City. She currently serves as president of the National Organization of Blind Educators, a division of the National Federation of the Blind. She was honored with the Outstanding Blind Educator of the Year Award at the 2012 NFB National Convention. In a slightly different form, this article originally appeared in the 2005 issue of The Student Slate, the online publication of the National Association of Blind Students (NABS).
Making the decision to study in Japan was actually quite simple. In fact, making the decision was probably the easiest part of the entire study-abroad process. I enrolled at Cornell University as a political science major with a focus on international relations and East Asian studies. By the time my junior year rolled around, my academic interest had shifted to linguistics, but I was still taking six hours of Japanese a week and filling my elective slots with courses on Asian history and religion. Therefore, it seemed quite natural that I should spend my semester abroad at International Christian University (ICU) in Tokyo. The university offered a fully bilingual, multi-disciplinary curriculum in addition to intensive Japanese language courses.
Making the decision to leave the States and my native language and culture was relatively easy, compared to some of the other aspects of the study abroad process. I spent countless hours and expended a great deal of stress and energy filling out academic and housing forms, not to mention coping with the seemingly endless barrage of immigration forms that asked for everything from my mother's maiden name to where I went to elementary school. There were so many forms that I had to hire a separate reader to help me get them all filled out on time.
And then, of course, there were the blindness-related issues. I had studied abroad in the UK for ten months during high school without much difficulty, but of course, in that situation there was no language barrier. I could tell that the academic staff at ICU was a bit concerned. Several blind Japanese students attended the university at the time, but until that point there had never been a blind international student. The staff wanted to know how I was going to survive with limited Japanese language skills. Japanese is an extremely difficult language to master, and even after two years of fairly intensive instruction my vocabulary and communication skills were limited to a range of basic topics. The university staff worried about how I was going to access my textbooks and other classroom materials. In addition, the resident life staff had a whole laundry list of questions. Where was I going to live? How was I going to get around Tokyo? And what on earth did I need to do to get my guide dog licensed in Japan?
I received my visa at the eleventh hour, and the university and I finally struck a deal with the animal quarantine department so that my dog could undergo his two-week confinement on the ICU campus. Nevertheless, I was a nervous wreck by the time I departed for Tokyo. I spent the entire twelve-hour flight with my second-year Japanese textbook open in my lap, getting a cramp in my fingers as I tried to recap all the vocabulary that might possibly be useful--essentially, that meant all the vocabulary. The flight attendants kept telling me I should try to sleep, but there was absolutely no way that was going to happen!
In the end, I was surprised by how well things fell into place. I lived on campus in an apartment-style dorm inhabited by equal numbers of Japanese and international students. The arrangement provided me with excellent opportunities to meet interesting people from all over the world and to practice my Japanese. With only one major mishap, I figured out the bizarre combination of buses, trains, and subways that is the Tokyo public transit system. I derived a tremendous amount of amusement from watching people do double and triple takes when they saw me with my guide dog in the supermarket or the department store. Service animals were still relatively novel in Japan. There had been a great deal of public education about guide dogs over the past few years, but it wasn't uncommon for random businessmen to come up to me in restaurants or in the train station and ask if they could please photograph my dog.
Academically, things also proceeded without any real problems. The Japanese course at Cornell used a Romanized form of the language for the first two years of instruction, so accessing the material in Braille had never been an issue. However, in Japan, they naturally used a textbook written entirely in Japanese characters, which posed something of a translation problem. As an international student I had no access to textbooks through a program such as Learning Ally, but my professors were tremendously supportive. They recorded the Japanese language textbooks onto cassettes for me, and they were willing to give me my exams orally. Several times a week the class practiced kanji, the Japanese graphic writing system. During those times I arranged for one of the blind Japanese students to teach me Japanese Braille. I never got fast enough to do my Japanese coursework in Braille, but I did learn enough to read the Braille signs on elevators, restrooms, and the ticket machines at the train station.
Because ICU offered courses in both English and Japanese, I was able to take four mainstream academic courses in addition to ten hours a week of language instruction. Accessing the textbooks and research materials for those classes was easy. I had brought my computer and scanner with me from the States, and everything was in English.
Of course, this isn't to say that there were no problems. I arrived at my dormitory after twenty-plus hours of travel, only to discover that I had been assigned to a suite with several staff members. The idea behind this arrangement, I soon gathered, was to ensure that I would have someone available at all times in case I needed help. To say the least, I was not pleased. I didn't want to be singled out. However, Japanese culture is big on the idea of not rocking the proverbial boat, so I didn't say anything. A few difficult situations arose when I had to find indirect ways to tell my overly helpful suitemates thanks but no thanks. These situations were complicated by the need for me to remain strictly nonconfrontational.
Even when one of the staff members moved out to be replaced by another student, things didn't really improve. I'll never forget when this student came to me several days after she moved in and asked bluntly if I could cook, clean, and care for myself. When I responded that, yes, in fact, I could do all of those things, she seemed nonplussed. She told me that she was there to help me if I needed it. I discovered later that she was good friends with one of the blind Japanese students, who made a habit of going pretty much everywhere affixed to someone's arm. I suppose in part this experience explained my suitemate's initial approach to me.
I tried not to let my suitemates' attitude bother me too much, but I'll confess that it rankled a bit. After all, I was there to learn about Japanese culture. I didn't mind being treated like the foreigner I was, but I felt that my suitemates' desire to look after me added an extra barrier. My Japanese teachers seemed to relax after I aced my fifth or sixth straight grammar quiz and got full marks on the midterm. The residential life people relaxed their concerned (if relatively discreet) vigilance after I had made several extended trips to popular tourist attractions in Tokyo and the surrounding area, even taking a weekend trip to Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital. Yet my suitemates remained somewhat overprotective, until one night when I had been in Japan for nearly three months.
I wasn't usually a night owl. I generally organized my social life so that I was in bed by one or so--which seems late today, but let's face it, that wasn't too bad for a college student. However, one Friday night a group of friends and acquaintances asked me if I wanted to go out to a pub with them in another part of the city. I was curious, and I had no desire to sit in my tiny dorm room all evening. I agreed to go, but I was a bit concerned because the bus from the train station to the campus stopped running at one-thirty. I knew we most likely would be out quite late, but I figured that for once I'd splurge and take a cab.
So I went out with my friends. We had some drinks and got to talking about all sorts of things. Before I knew it, it was one-thirty. One of my friends had lost her wallet, so we wandered back to the train station together and then parted ways. I took the train back to the station near ICU, queued for a cab, and gave the driver the address using my by then much improved Japanese.
On the way home, the driver suggested letting me off at an exit that he claimed was nearer to my dormitory than the main gate to the university, which I generally used. I was eager to go home and get some sleep, so I agreed. I paid my fare, and he drove off. I turned and headed for the gate, which he had told me was about ten feet up the sidewalk. I found it with no problem; the only thing was, it was locked.
It was two in the morning, and I was standing outside an unfamiliar gate, with the main entrance to the university who knew where. Undeterred, I proceeded to follow the fence around the perimeter of the campus. I reasoned that if I kept going, eventually I'd find the main gate, which was open twenty-four hours a day. Along the way I came to several openings in the chain-link, which, upon exploration, turned out to be closed-in parking lots or storage areas. Neither my dog nor I could seem to locate any other way onto the grounds.
I wasn't wearing a watch, but I knew that by this time it must be really late. Even so, I couldn't believe that in Tokyo, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, there were absolutely no people on the street whom I could ask if I was going the right way around the campus. Wouldn't it be ridiculous, I thought, if the main gate had only been a hundred yards away from the gate where the driver dropped me off, but in the opposite direction from the one in which I was walking?
Finally I did run into a fellow pedestrian, who informed me that I was in fact going the right way, and that the gate was just around the next corner. I made it back to my room with no further mishaps. I was preparing to shower and get into bed when one of my suitemates returned from a party. We had a good laugh over my misadventure, as did my other suitemates when I told them the next day. Amazingly, after that they almost completely stopped being overtly concerned about my ability to take care of myself. It was as though I had proved to them my capacity to cope with an untoward situation. Apparently I had convinced them that I really could handle just about any situation or task that might come my way, especially the ordinary, day-to-day ones such as cooking and laundry.
Don't get me wrong. Being lost at two a.m. in a foreign city is not necessarily the best way to get people to respect you! In fact, it might possibly be one of the most dangerous situations in which you could conceivably find yourself. However, having the skills and the courage to cope with crazy, unexpected situations like that can be extremely useful. It can help you build self-confidence and help others gain confidence in you and your abilities. The experience of studying abroad, taking that giant step away from home and everything familiar, is one of the best opportunities that college life has to offer. I strongly encourage any student with an interest in study abroad to investigate the possibilities. If it seems feasible, given your educational goals, don't be afraid to give it a try!