JCMU: The Road to Japan Not Taken

I was a junior at Michigan State University when the plan hatched its little egg self in my brain. I couldn’t think of anything that I’d ever decided to do with my life that was as bold as this. Living and studying in Japan, who does that? This girl! And maybe 2.73 million other people. But aside from that, I felt special, I felt called, I felt … wait, it’s going to cost me how much to study abroad? And that’s just for a couple months? Are you nuts?

Sitting at the Japan Center for Michigan Universities advisor’s desk, I thought it would be a session on how to make my dreams come true. Instead it was a lesson in pragmatic dream crushing.

“Yeah, you could do this, you know, fundraise, or try to convince your parents to lend you money, or whatever. I mean, if that’s what you want.” He pushes his glasses up his nose and runs a hand through his feathered hair in one smooth, elegant glide. Immediately my thoughts go down their wacky road of distant associations: Does he practice that every morning before he does his shift here? Did they teach him that in Japan? Should I feather my hair? Are my glasses falling down? And then finally, did he say fundraise?

I smile, hoping this will magically make his answer a good one. “How much does it cost to go?”

He grabs a brochure, folds it back to reveal the second to last page, with the quintessential pricing table for all varieties and lengths of stays at the Michigan “sister city” language center and dormitory. Slides it over to me like a handler giving his agent the file to her next “hit”, as though he’s afraid that by saying it out loud he might cause the music on the speakers to screech to a sudden scratchy halt.

I look down to where his index finger is pointing and stop smiling. Oh, hell no.

I look up at him. Smile again. “Wow.”

“I bet you’d love it.” By this time we have already been chatting for maybe ten minutes about our mutual affection for all things Japanese, and the amazing experience he had when he went to JCMU, and how much he gained from immersive learning, and on, and on …. so when he says this, I believe him. And hate him for it.

“Yeah, I’m sure. Are there scholarships?”

His turn to smile. “Well, you can fundraise.”

We’ve been over this already. “Okay, well, thank you so much, this was informative. Thanks for your time.” I start to collect my things.

“W-w-w-wait. Hold on. Forget everything I said about this program. This is terrible for you. Awful.”

I stop packing up (and hate him a little less). He apologizes for being so flippant about the costs and insensitive to my situation. I dump on him about my fear of anything that involves spending money, and my desire to go but no real plan for what I want to do once I get there, and my random walk through a Psychology degree that I’m not sure what I am going to do with but I feel like I really ought to pick a job that has something Psychology about it or aren’t I going to screw myself, and how I am absolutely certain that this crazy study abroad thing is going to be one of those things I have to live vicariously through others to do.

He lowers his voice. “Look, there’s ways to go over there and have them pay you to do it. I’m actually going there this year after I graduate to teach English. There’s this really great government-sponsored teaching program called the JET Programme – look it up, it’s one of the best ways to go over there, and you don’t even need an English degree. And if that doesn’t work out, there’s a Michigan boat where you are part of the cruise staff and when you’re not working you are free to explore. There’s so many options. But don’t let the study abroad stuff bug you. You’ll get there, just stay focused and don’t give up.”

I thank him, sincerely, and a little bit sadly. Just stay focused.

Something I’ve heard from countless mentors and family members before — you can do whatever you put your mind to, but you’ve gotta learn how to focus! Could have something to do with the fact that up to this point in my life, I have lived in my head much of the time … and started dozens of short stories and plays but never finished them … and jumped from one music / TV / film obsession to the next with reckless abandon … and procrastinated nearly every task on my plate until the absolute last minute (including my college search – hooray for MSU three-page application with no essay requirement!) … and failed to accept an offer to join an honors program at said university because I couldn’t be bothered to drop it off at their office (seriously, I completed the forms, and all I had to do was get to the building before they locked it at 5:00PM — is that really so challenging for a 19 year-old? Um, yes?) … and so on, and so it goes, and ….

Yeah. Focus.

I leave the building, so much of the above echoing in my head I could have directed a film sequence, ready to be moody and depressed for at least a day about the whole thing — but my brain can’t get over his advice. JET Programme. Michigan Boat. Other ways.

And I can’t stop the tickle inside that was instilled by my grandmother over all those Thanksgivings, the allure of Japan, the excitement of having an adventure, the utter completeness of following through on that story which has been waiting to happen.

And I have to admit, there is a certain inevitability about it.

Spoiler: I did get there (and even met up with that same JCMU guy) but I’ll save that story for another day. Suffice to say, I didn’t give up, I didn’t lose focus. I found my way to Japan, not once, but twice, and may yet get there again. Despite the voices, despite the cynics, despite my track record, in spite of myself and yet because of myself. And it was a hell of an adventure.

But on this day, after this strange conversation and random-happenstance-smattering of advice and direction, I was on that precipice that you think happens only in books, facing a choice of doing what I’ve always done and letting the current of opportunity carry me to the next (easier) thing, or deciding to be that other girl: She Who Focuses, She Who Makes Her Dreams Come True. It’s a feeling I’ve never forgotten, and will always cherish, and again, I’m sure some language other than English has a word for.

Maybe someday I’ll be focused enough to actually look it up.

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