Why I Started Learning Japanese

I started learning Japanese because I wanted to go to Norway.

Martine's Lake House

When I was in high school, my dream was to be an exchange student. I entertained the thought of leaving everything was was known to me behind so that I might broaden my world view and experience the world in a different way than the people around me had.

I’ve always been particular to sunny places, beautiful beaches, rich vegetation, and a relaxed spirit. These attributes are quite different than my home in Seattle (although we got the vegetation √). Stepping into my bedroom, you’d be taken into an oasis – or a rendered one on my walls at least. This wallpapers I made myself included pictures of Bali, the Maldives, Hawaii, and Thailand.

These places were paradise to me. My little escape from the downpour of rain or ever present overcast outside. These images were gradually accented or replaced by dramatic scenes of rock and water, most of which were from Norway and Switzerland. I started researching more about the region, the locations, the culture. It reminded me of where I lived, a quaint Norwegian settled town near Seattle. The culture was unique and strange to me, yet familiar all at once because of the town I grew up in. I decided that I would visit Norway someday, and as that dream festered, so did my ambition for travel and language.

I began learning Norwegian because I wanted to go on an student exchange to Norway. My idea was that I’d spend my senior year of high school there and then come back to the states to attend university. It was so set and final in my mind, perhaps naively so, that I told my friends that I was going to study there before I even had done any research on exchange programs. Everything seemed perfect until the end of my junior year when I actually started to do a bit of work toward my goal.

Student exchange in Norway is expensive. In fact, it was almost twice as expensive as say, studying in Japan (which is also expensive). This is point one I didn’t consider as a young person: valuable experiences often require valuable resources, lots of time, and/or lots of work; something that I understand much better as a 4th year university student. I didn’t anticipate the price because I didn’t do the initial research. I worked for a year and a half and saved $4k for the exchange (I was 17-18 years old then) but that wasn’t even close to the $13k base price for participating. I also didn’t anticipate the difficulties in coordinating my graduation from my high school with the Norwegian program because I hadn’t even applied for one. My parents pointed many of these things out to me when I told them I wanted to go. Dismayed but still hopeful, I resigned the idea to study in Norway and decided that I might take a short trip there in the summer.

Learning Norwegian by myself was really fun. It fit into my daily rituals, and became part of my life. But not being able to talk to anyone other than my two Norwegian conversation partners (who are awesome), was beginning to feel a bit demotivating. I wasn’t going to stay there long after all, and I didn’t have many people around me that could speak the language. I started pondering other languages I could learn: Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, German. I took three years of Spanish in high school, but the environment was so boring and unstimulating then I didn’t have much interest in continuing my Spanish (I absolutely want to continue now). However, a few of my friends took Japanese and were interested in Japanese, so I had a conversation with them about it. I decided to start learning so that I could practice with them, and within a week I learned the basic writing system (hiragana ひらがな and katakana カタカナ).

Around this time was when I realized that I really enjoyed the process of learning languages and learning about other cultures; it wasn’t something specifically unique about Norway. I enjoyed practicing both Norwegian and Japanese, and because they were so different, it was easy to differentiate them in my head.

Traveling alone to Norway seemed exciting, but also terrifying. Before I did that, I felt that I needed more experience traveling with people. However, finding people with the same passion I had for Norway and traveling was near impossible in my friend group at the time. I was 18 years old. My friends wanted to focus on school. They like the idea of traveling, but didn’t want to put in the work. They weren’t passionate about what I was passionate about. They didn’t think what I wanted to do was possible for them; it was just a nice thought. So I changed tactics.

My friends were very interested in Japanese culture, tv shows, movies, and video games, and so one day I asked the group.

“What if we all went to Japan together after we graduate? It could be our graduation party of sorts.”

I thought this was the ticket. This was the way I was going to get them to come. They would be able to visit Japan… Or maybe not.

“I don’t think I can go, Patrick. I have school I need to focus on and I can’t afford a trip like that.”

Almost all of them responded in the same way. Too busy, need to focus on school, can’t afford it, I have family things. I think that I really don’t want to go would have been a better answer. Frustrated, I tried an even more persuasive approach but none of them were budging, save one. I felt defeated because the majority wasn’t interested. This was supposed to be the cap on my high school years, something I would remember and tell my kids and grandkids about when they asked, “What did you do after high school?”. I gave up on trying to persuade all of them. One of them responded late.

“Dude, that’d be sweet! I think I can do it.”

My friend Zak was the only one out of that group that seemed interested in going. Nice! It might actually happen. I knew in my head that I really wanted to visit Norway, but visiting Japan seemed more exciting and new because I knew less about it. The trip was happening.

Clothes

At this point Japanese was becoming more and more fun than I anticipated. I found conversation partners easily because many Japanese people have trouble finding English speakers to practice with. The knowledge that I was going on the trip in mere months served as my masthead, and I dove into an intense study of the language. I didn’t tell my parents or friends about the trip until I was sure I had all of the money I needed for the ticket and the traveling, and that all of the basics were worked out. We bought the tickets, and we were off.

Airplane

Beard Snap

Meeting every one of my Japanese conversation partners in person was a goal of mine from the start of trip planning. Exploring with your friends is that much more fun and having my Japanese friends show us around made it that much better. I documented the entire trip on YouTube, but it would suffice to say that my Japanese level, and haircut, were poor.

Friends

Hats

Deer

Gang signs

This first real trip outside of my country is what fuels me today. If I never went to Japan, I probably wouldn’t have ever had the motivation to eventually make it to Norway, and then back to Japan, and then to Canada and Sweden. The friends that I’ve made since then are way more traveled than I probably ever will be, and I’ve learned so much from the people I’ve met on these adventures. Zak traveled across Europe last summer, and we managed to meet up in Norway while we were both there.

The travel bug is a real thing, and everyone case is a mutation. Mine is definitely the opportunity to interact with locals, learn about culture in a hands-on way, and make connections between members of a global community. Your motivation is unique to you and it will evolve. If it’s strong enough, it will help you conquer your fears and take your further than you ever imagined.

Keep your motivation strong, work hard, stay humble, and I guarantee you’ll accomplish your goals.