What Our Alumni Say
Celia Langford, 19’
Celia (class of 2019) graduated with a degree in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies with a focus on Japanese. Celia is also starting a Master of Arts in Asian Studies this fall at University of Hawaii Manoa.
Jaime Fields: Can I start by having you introduce yourself please?
Celia Langford: My name is Celia Langford. I graduated class of 2019 from Whitman, where I was an Asian and Middle Eastern Studies major. I wrote my thesis about Japanese manga. I was always mostly focused on Japanese culture and Japanese literature, as well as the language. I studied abroad my junior year with the AKP (the Associated Kyoto Program) and I stayed for eight months with a host family there. And then when I graduated, I went on the JET Program…, and I was in Aichi prefecture outside of Nagoya. I was working at a small town government office–not a 市 [city], but a 町 [town]. So I was working for a town hall for about a year, and then the pandemic started and I came home because it seemed like we weren't going to be able to travel in-between countries anymore and I didn't want to be separated from my family, so I came back. But yeah, the Whitman Japanese department was just massively influential to me in my life and has empowered me in almost every way to be who I am. So I'm happy to be here and to support the department.
JF: Did you start studying Japanese when you came to Whitman, or was it an interest you previously had?
CL: I started when I came to Whitman– I had studied French in high school, and then I came to college and I wanted to try something new… In high school, I had discovered manga and fallen in love with manga, right? And then after I had taken the three years of French I was… ready to move on to something new. And then I came to college and I discovered the Japanese program. Strangely, I fell more in love with the Japanese language, almost, than I had with manga–like it was actually more fun to me to be a student of Japanese language, if that makes sense. And it was totally love at first sight. I was in 一年生 [first year] with Shigeto sensei, and from the first day of class [I was] like, “Oh, this is so fun. This is so good.” And then I just made it my major. Did it for the rest of my life up until now.
JF: There wasn't a Japanese major, was there? You were a Asian and Middle Eastern Studies major… Did you have a Japanese minor, or did you just take the classes?
CL: At that time, Asian Studies was the way to major, basically, in Japanese or in Chinese… It wouldn't have made sense to make it a Japanese minor because the credits, I think, only counted toward one or the other… I was doing a focus in Japanese, [not] a separate minor.
JF: Do you have any favorite classes you still remember?
CL: Oh, so many. I mean, language classes, obviously. I had some great literature classes that I took with Shigeto sensei, too. One was a class that she team-taught with Professor Dott from the History department–it was called ”Questions of Colonialism” and it was looking at Japan's colonial history through a literary lens. It was really, really interesting. And changes your perspective a lot on the whole history of East Asia–the more recent history of East Asia is often not taught in detail in American high schools, so to have that and to have the literary lens was really, really interesting.
Takemoto sensei’s second year language class was also big for me. I mean, I love the language classes taught by all the professors. But when Takemoto Sensei would have us doing the 敬語 [keigo; honorific Japanese] and learning about traditional Japanese language, and then arts and culture and the いろは poem… it gave me a different lens that wasn't just scholastic. I think that I then began to look more holistically at Japanese culture and history.
Fourth year Japanese with Shigeto Sensei also was a big standout because by then, we were reading literature in Japanese and she always picks cool stuff to read, like she always has really good taste in choosing poems, short stories, and novels to dive into for class. And the way that expands your use of Japanese from functional Japanese to like, beautiful literature [and] art Japanese was very inspiring for me.
JF: And then so you studied abroad junior year–was that like half a year, the whole year?
CL: It was the whole year.
JF: Oh, wow.
CL: I did not have a junior year at Whitman.
JF: How was that?
CL: Oh, it was amazing and life-changing and strange… studying abroad is always such an experience. I feel like everybody says, you know, “do a study abroad, it's going to be so great,” and like, yes, it's going to be great. And also it's going to be super challenging and it's going to be like the best and the hardest thing you've ever done, in my opinion. I lived with a host family there, who are great people, and just being a part of the place… I lived there in Kyoto for eight months, you know, and there's sort of this funny insider-outsider [feeling], like I feel like this is my place, like this is my home, but also I feel different from everybody else–that kind of dynamic that goes on.
The AKP program itself is lovely, the classes that you take, the teachers you have. I took a great class on the story The Tale of Genji. The first novel, right? It's by a female author, which is really cool, written around the Heian Period. And a lot of it is set in Kyoto… So I took a class on the Tale of Genji from this cool professor… she was an American professor who had come over to teach the class, and she would take us on these field trips to all the places that were mentioned in it–we read the whole book and then she would take us to the places that were mentioned in the book. It was really cool because Kyoto is so rich in literary history and so it was a great opportunity. I was really glad to be there.
JF: That's so cool. And then after you graduated, you went on the JET Program. So you were working… were you just alone in Japan?
CL: Oh, that's a good question. To what degree is the program there to support you… you’re kind of alone in my experience? It was a little different from AKP, definitely. And I think that it really depends on where you are, because some people end up in places where there are a lot of other JETs who live nearby, and they all get together and like, have dinner together on Friday nights and things. I was in an area where there really was only me. I was the only foreigner who lived in town. And I was also the first one, like the first person to ever come and serve as a coordinator for international relations in my town.
I met and worked with so many amazing people in that position. At the same time there was the challenge of fitting in with the Japanese business etiquette, and all of that stuff that I hadn't known a lot about, right, so I was lucky to have help from lots of kind coworkers and friends. In the end, yes it was challenging, but I also feel like I had a lot of good friendships and professional growth come out of that role. I'm really grateful to have had that experience.
JF: If you were going to talk directly to people who are studying Japanese at Whitman right now, is there any sort of advice you'd give them or anything you'd want to say?
CL: I just want to say that I'm so happy for you. Like, honestly, I think that you're in the best possible place, you're in the best possible hands, and I just hope that you can nurture this passion and love yourself too. I think that there's a sort of–not a compulsion, but sort of an instinct, like I have to become more and more Japanese, like I have to use more and more Japanese mannerisms or language, like somehow to belong or to succeed you have to fit seamlessly into Japanese society. And I think at some point, …we need to let that go, and just celebrate that we're here, having an intercultural experience. And Whitman campus is such an amazing place to have it–like at the Tek. The Tek is such a good estuary space. It's like a meeting place for different cultures, and you don't always totally realize it while you're there. It's like, obviously, the Japanese culture is strong there, and so is the American, sort-of Walla Walla culture. You're in this old house that was built in, like 1910 in Walla Walla Washington, right, with a kimono closet in it, and you're living there–at least I was living there–with people from many different countries. There were many international students who were also studying Japanese who were living in the house together. And so I was sitting in the Japanese house in Walla Walla, Washington, eating Korean food that was made by my one friend, and I just feel like it was such a powerful and positive experience for me.
Hold on to that, hold on to the richness of that… The Tek and Whitman always offer a great sense of belonging. So I would say to the current students, yes, explore your love and passion for Japan and Japanese as much as you can, as much as you want to. And also hold on to your love of diversity and the many-faceted and different cultures that can also exist in Japan. When you go - like if you go on vacation, or if you go to live there - go as yourself too, and while you’re learning about the local culture, also embrace who you are and embrace the differences. Because the diversity is what it’s about, really, that's where the richness comes from, and that's something that Whitman allows us to experience.
Megan Murayama, 14’
Megan graduated from Whitman in 2014 with an art major and a Japanese minor, although she added “I feel like I spent so much time in the Japanese department that it’s always felt like my home on campus.” According to Megan, she chose Whitman in part because of the Japanese department:
“I had definitely wanted to study Japanese in college, and I sat in on one of the first year Japanese classes when I was a prospective student, and I had a really nice time talking to Takemoto Sensei. That happened to be the very day that they opened the Chikurakken (tea room). Hearing about that, and also that they had the opportunity for a one year long study abroad in Kyoto through the Associated Kyoto Program, and also the interest house community and the Tekisuijuku… knowing about those things really cemented my decision to go to Whitman.”
“[Whitman] had a huge impact [on where I ended up, from] improving my language skills… [to] being able to study abroad in Kyoto. I think that that year in Kyoto really made a big difference too, because that was the first time I ever actually was able to come to Japan and see what it was like, and that just made me even more sure about my dream of always wanting to come here and trying teaching English. The foundation of language and Japanese culture that I built up at Whitman has been so useful during my time here. Not only was it really important for the language, but I think having that cultural background has really helped things go a lot more smoothly here. I think Whitman's Japanese program was amazing for that.”
She also still fondly remembers her time in the AKP. “Studying abroad through AKP was a really fun time. I think that was my first time actually ever leaving the States, so that was a really new experience in a lot of ways and it was definitely pretty overwhelming at first, all the new information and things to see, but it was also so much fun to finally come here after having wanted to for my whole life, traveling all over and seeing different things, especially castles. Living with a host family too, was such a good opportunity to practice language skills and it was so nice to have them around for support. So I had a really good experience that way. I was really lucky… it was hard to leave Japan. It was so much fun. But it made me really excited to go back and teach English.”
For current students, Megan advises having fun with your studies: “often the weird things stick in your memory. So if you have interests in this specific area, or you want to make up weird stories for your assignments or anything, do what works for you and have fun with it—those kinds of things are really memorable. Even now I feel like a lot of the way that I have picked up new vocabulary and things is by playing video games and watching movies. In addition to traditional studying, doing those things and finding ways to study that you enjoy and that fit your interests will also help you pick up a lot of new words. Have fun with it!”
Raisa Stebbins, 11’
Raisa graduated from Whitman College in 2011 with a degree in Theatre and a minor in Japanese. Currently, Raisa is in grad school at University of Colorado, Boulder for Japanese Literature.
Raisa went to Japan as a JET three months after the 3/11 disaster. It was “profoundly heartbreaking in a lot of ways.... But it was a really unique time to be in a community,” Raisa said. After two years as a JET, Raisa returned to America, but soon realized that she wanted to go back. “I went on a long and engaged career path and basically I decided I wanted to go back to Japan. I'd loved living in Japan. I really enjoyed the challenge. I love using Japanese, [and] I wasn't using Japanese in the US.”
She reached out to her network of friends, and one connected her with a hotel job that she was leaving. After working in the hotel industry for a while, Raisa moved back to the US to attend grad school.
Raisa reflects fondly on her time at Whitman: “I would say Whitman’s Japanese department is unusually strong. Specifically because it's not just like a hard language and grammar program, but because there's a cultural component to, it actually makes you a lot more fluent, a lot more literate in culture… When I was on the JET Program I lived in nowheresville…There's not a lot of foreign language support. This is not Tokyo. You can't just find English everywhere. Like I was the only English speaker in my town. So everything I did, every action I took had to be done in Japanese. So that was a bit of a learning curve. But I think that what I got from Whitman is the tools to do that, to be able to step in and figure it out and be able to tell funny jokes right off the bat. That made a big difference… cultural context in another language is another step, another degree of fluency. And, to be totally honest, it opens doors, it opens doors to make friends, it opens doors to go places in a way that I think pure language memorization learning doesn't.”
For current Whitman students, Raisa recommended: “Stick with it. It's not ever going to get easier–it doesn't matter how good you get, someone is still gonna say something, and you're still gonna be like “I don't know what you mean.” But I think it's a really good skill. I think it really makes your brain flexible… Hang in there. It won't get better. But it will still be really fun and you'll get to eat lots of good food.”