From a very young age – whether it was playing with toys brought back from Japan by an aunt or watching TV shows like Pokémon from Japan – Revere High School (RHS) senior Shannen Donovan has been attracted to the Land of the Rising Sun.
And this past school term, she got to live there full-time.
“From a young age, we all watched Pokémon and that introduced the culture to us,” said Donovan in a recent interview. “I could even speak Japanese before I went, but I never had to speak it every day like I did in Japan. It wasn’t really hard at all. It was actually harder re-learning English when I came back. I was terrible on the plane back to Boston. In Japanese, the sentence structure is backwards to us, so I kept starting out my sentences backward in English. It was brutal.”
Beyond television, though, it was the Revere-Tsukidate Exchange Program that prodded Donovan to actually go to the island nation and take an extended stay.
Donovan participated in the program in 2009 when Japanese students visited Revere. Then, she was ready to go to Japan in 2011, but had the trip cancelled after the March 2011 Tsunami devastated the nation. However, a 2012 trip was quickly scheduled and Donovan was a shoe-in to go.
On Aug. 6th of last summer, the Revere crew arrived in Japan and began a whirlwind tour of the country – staying in the City of Daté where they were very warmly welcomed and hosted.
Then, on Aug. 23rd, when the visit came to an end, Donovan was just beginning her adventure. While the other Revere students were heading home, Donovan had signed up to stay in Japan by herself – attending a Japanese high school for several weeks.
“We went to the train station and waved at the train of Revere kids as they left,” said Donovan. “I was the only one who stayed behind. That was probably the hardest part, that first day alone.”
But after that first few days, it was off to school.
Donovan donned the traditional Japanese school uniform (which looks like a sailor’s suit) and became the first-ever American student to attend Hobara High School.
“I didn’t fit in at all,” she said. “It was fun though. People I didn’t even know would yell ‘Hello’ at me all the time and everyone gave me gifts all the time. I would have people waving at me a lot.”
Surprisingly, Donovan said there was a lot of English present in Japan, but not a lot of the kids spoke English.
“There was a lot of English,” she said. “They know a lot of words, but it’s not always right. Just like we get tattoos with Japanese writing, even though we don’t really have any idea what it says, they do the same kind of thing with English. They knew Obama’s catch phrase, ‘Yes We Can.’ A lot of the students would say that to me all the time.”
Donovan said she has immersed herself in Japanese dramatic television shows via the Internet for quite some time, so there weren’t a lot of surprises about the culture once she was immersed in it. In fact, she said it was very similar to what she had watched on television.
However, school was a bit different than one might expect.
“They still hang out and talk, but the structure of the school is more like an elementary school,” she said. “They don’t change classes and if they go somewhere, they all go together in a line like our elementary students would do here. They don’t say a pledge, but rather they bow to the teacher at the beginning of the day. Then, at the end of the day, they move the desks to the back of the room and clean up the floor. There aren’t janitors to do that, like here.”
Donovan said she had also taken up the hobby of calligraphy, which is enormously popular in Japan.
“Over there, calligraphy supplies are something you can pick up at a convenience store,” she said. “It’s very popular. It was the subject of a club at the high school and I joined it. I plan to continue with it here.”
In early October, Donovan’s Japanese experience came to an end, and she returned to Revere having a new appreciation for the language of Japan and its people.
“I love language and I like that it allowed me to make a lot of good friends,” she said. “I wouldn’t have met a lot of the people I met and if I had met them, I wouldn’t have been able to speak with them and learn about them. To me, that’s the importance of any language.”