Daigaku Z: Mission Creep

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

In official terminology, I’m what’s called a “nontraditional” student. As you can probably infer, that’s a very vague phrasing on purpose, because it’s intended to be as broad as possible without just using the term “everybody else”. It can be very difficult to feel welcomed and included on campus as someone who has a decade of time between the last degree and the first day of classes. Fortunately, I’ve felt pretty lucky in that the group I hang out with seems to accept me.

And that’s where things get weird again, particularly for me.

Ten years ago, when I lived in Erie and was just starting my career at (the now sadly defunct review website) Netjak, I was also part of a local organization called “DDR Erie”. As one of the two elder people in the group– calling it an “organization” is somewhat grandiose– I felt a sense of responsibility for the high schoolers I hung out with. In truth, some of them saw me as a mentor as well, and while I wish I’d stayed in better communication with them after I left Erie, the ones I do still keep tabs on are doing so well for themselves. I still feel a small amount of pride about that.

It was that drive to be a… I honestly don’t know what to call it anymore. I mean, in 2010 I went in to working with the local anime convention with more or less the same goal: to give back to the community and to guide the younger generation that would in turn, guide the next. But it wasn’t meant that I wanted to be an authority figure or a leader. I’m certainly not any of those things.

So you can imagine how weird it was when one of my classmates– the one who liberally sprinkles half-appropriate Japanese into his everyday speech– basically said, “I’m asking you as my <i>nee-san</i> on this,” and I had to blink for a moment. First off, he’d used the correct sibling word (yeah, I came out). Secondly, and more relevantly, I hadn’t prompted this or any other kind of feeling of superiority. He pretty much just dropped that bomb on me. So I answered his question and then got really quiet for a while.

It hadn’t been a conscious thing. I’d just more or less been myself, been the goofy Z who never shuts up about herself and tells boring stories about minor misunderstandings. And here was this kid, ten years my junior, who in between reminding me indirectly just how old I was (“I was, like, three when Final Fantasy VII came out”), was asking me for actual genuine advice. It was humbling.

It also served as a blatant reminder of just what college really is, a lesson I really shouldn’t have needed a reminder of. The American educational system is distressingly one-way; instructors teach the students, and there’s very little opportunity for the students to assist each other. High school is set up like a competition, because so much of one’s future is predicated on such early performance. If you’re at the top of your class, you get into a better college, and so on and so forth. The battle is relentless, and the pressure spills over into a dispassion (at best; antipathy at worst) for the fellow student.

And then, almost overnight, the rules change. College is about collaboration, about working together, about going above and beyond what one can do alone. The rigid structures of teacher and student, upperclassman and freshman, they all fall away. It creates a unity, a melange of humanity, that requires us to unlearn our cutthroat attitudes and to relax our guard once in a while. We can learn from each other as well as the professors; we can teach each other, student and professor alike. We are not rivals, but teammates.

As it turns out, “<i>nee-san</i>”– “big sister”– was the wrong word in his sentence, after all. It really should have just been “<i>tomodachi</i>”– “friend”.