Imagine sitting all day in the same classroom, with the same group of classmates that you’ve had class with since the age of four. Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., the instructor teaches completely in French — from grammar and history to math and science. Then, Saturday and Sunday afternoons are spent independently studying Japanese. Every kanji and kana with worksheet after worksheet. Add on top of that ten years of English classes as well, just to keep life interesting.
For first-year biological sciences major Celie Furukawa Carmona, this was the normal way of life up until she started school at UC Irvine this year. Born in Tokyo to a French father and a Japanese mother, Carmona’s upbringing was a true cultural melting pot.
So, what is Tokyo like?
“Big and crowded,” Carmona said immediately. “I lived pretty much my entire life in Japan, except when I was three years old and my dad moved us to Georgetown, Washington D.C. for work. I was in a Hebrew school, so I learned Hebrew there too!”
Once Carmona moved back to Japan, her father enrolled her in the only French school in Tokyo, since he wanted her to learn his culture and language. As a result, her education was a novelty in Japan, somewhat secluded from the rest of typical Japanese culture and childhood.
“Going to a French school in Japan was the most important thing that shaped my life and who I am now,” said Carmona. “I was in school all day with the same people every day for 14 years. There were three groups: the Japanese students, the French students who liked to party and then the French students who did not party so much.”
Since Carmona connects equally to both sides of her culture, she was able to fit in well with the French and Japanese students.
“Social life in Japan depends on if I was with my French friends or Japanese friends. My Japanese friends would always go out — shopping, to cafes or restaurants. French friends stayed in mostly, just at each other’s houses hanging out.”
Even though French socializing differed from Japanese, both cultures bonded in terms of having an overwhelming amount of studying to do.
“We had a lot of homework, especially in middle school,” said Celie. “Mostly weekends, I just studied French and did my independent studies. I was learning the same things in two different languages, so I had to do a lot of translating of everything, which is hard.”
Upon coming to UCI, one of the things that surprised Carmona the most was how casual and relaxed the relationship between older and younger students was compared to Japan.
“In Japanese school, you have to be really polite to older people — even if they are just one year older,” said Carmona. “We have to call them by their last name and use senpai, which you call any person who is older person or upperclassman. It’s really strict and I always thought it was hard to communicate with older people.”
With such a cross-cultural experience, Carmona’s relationship with Japanese versus French customs was blurred and difficult to define, especially when it came to following these rules of respect.
“Since I wasn’t really in the Japanese school system I wasn’t sure if I had to do that too; it was ambiguous for me. If I say I am French and Japanese, people would consider me as French,” said Carmona.
When it was time for Carmona to decide where she wanted to go to college, she knew she wanted to try studying outside of Japan and live somewhere new.
“First, I had the option to go to France or America, since my grandma lives in San Francisco,” said Carmona. “In France, you cannot pick your own classes or change your major, so I picked the United States. When I visited my grandma two years ago, she introduced me to college counselors to help me fill out applications and look at schools. I applied to a lot of schools, most of the UC’s. I picked UCI because of how sunny it is here!”
Americans have an idea of what life for young Japanese students are like if they watch anime or are exposed to other forms of Japanese pop culture. Similarly, Carmona’s main preconceptions of college life in the United States came from looking at these media outlets.
“The only images I have of American young people is by watching movies — dramas, comedies and sitcoms, so I was a bit scared at first actually to come here,” said Carmona. “Besides that, I had my grandma telling me things, but she’s like 60 years old so that’s not really reliable. Everyone here is really nice though.”
When international students first come to California, they may be most excited about the weather, the beach or Disneyland. Carmona, however, loves one aspect of American life in particular.
“I’m just glad I now have Netflix!”