Minnesota Monthy: Journey
This is the original essay of Ayako Mochizuki that was published in the Journey section of the Minnesota Monthly in January 2003. This essay was edited before publication.
By Ayako Mochizuki
St. Cloud State University
Garrison Keillor changed her life. She never imagined studying in Minnesota until she listened to “A Prairie Home Companion” by Minnesota Public Radio in Japan. Ayako Mochizuki now enjoys her major in Social Responsibility at St. Cloud State University.
The time to derail from the customary Japanese life has come. Imagining my deadly busy and purposeless future as a worker in Japan, I think to myself, “Thirty years from now, what will I be doing? Should I live all of my life like this?” My inner voice tells me, “Be adventurous! Take risks… to be me.” It is the best choice I can make. In Japan, most people have no choice but to work incessantly 10 to 14 hours a day, or else you would be thrown out of the business world. If you have a part-time job, you may not be able to obtain the security for your life. If you are not a teacher or do not work for an unusually kind company, the longest vacation you get would be a week or so, which means you would never have time to relax or travel around the world. Many women in Japan “retire” when they get married or have a baby because it is very hard for them to manage both work and marital lives.
In the old-established Japanese company I work for, traditional gender roles remain in people’s minds. I belong to a team where the only two women out of eleven workers are responsible for coming thirty minutes earlier to clean the office and make coffee. (If you are an American born after the 1970s, you may doubt what I write, but these gender roles still tend to be the usual custom in Japan. It is not surprising for me, because not until my second year in junior high, was the girls’ home-economics class integrated with the boys’ technical arts class. Change takes a slow pace.)
The other day, I called on my courage and spoke up at a morning assembly. I took a deep breath and said; “I think that is not fair, so please treat me as if I were a male worker!” Well, it did change some of co-workers consciousness, but even after I spoke up, my future seemed to be limited in that environment. I began to dream of an adventurous future in a place where I would be free of all sorts of boundaries.
After another job, I get an opportunity to study English for short 8 months in Washington State. Every English word I hear sounds like gibberish . In the lab class, Garrison Keillor’s monologue “The News from Lake Wobegon” is used as teaching material. No matter how carefully I listen to the monologues, they meant nothing to me due to my limited listening ability. Grogro-gor (the monologue), Hahaha-pachipahi (audience’s applause and laughter) is what I heard during the monologues. I cannot tell how funny the stories are, who is telling the story, nor where these stories are from.
By the time I returned, I could understand English on the National Public Radio broadcast in Yokohama, Japan. One afternoon, I listened to Garrison Keillor’s monologue again. The story is about a lady who may have hit a raccoon on the way to her church. The description of her reaction to the accident is so funny I cannot help laughing out loud. My stomach hurt with fits of laughter.
It took awhile before I realized that the storyteller is the same person as that of the teaching material in the lab class. I find that “A Prairie Home Companion” is broadcast on Sunday afternoons from 4 to 6. It is strange that I can hardly wait to listen to the next story. I decide to record it every week and to listen to it repeatedly while taking a walk with my dog, on the way to my work, and before falling asleep. There is nothing like his story to fill me with happiness. The stories are about family ties on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, sowing seeds, and such things. They are funny, sometimes cynical, and always heartwarming. As he talks, I imagine the scenes in which lovely (and ordinary) Minnesotans spend their days with nature’s beauty all around in a small town called Lake Wobegon. Many stories make me cry with gentle warmth and a sense of love.
Stories about the severe cold winter make me shiver! I think, “Maybe I would freeze there. Maybe listening to the stories is good enough. Why would I choose to study in Minnesota out of all 50 states?” Hawaii used to be my dreamland. The cultural richness and the beautiful natural environment attracted me. A college in Hawaii also accepted me for its graduate program, but the tuition and estimated cost of living on Oahu Island were too expensive. Even so, Minnesota now seems to me even more lovable. Apparently, Garrison finds humor in people’s lives in the coldness. The eloquent description of the snowy landscape takes me to the heavenly shining Minnesotan winter.
I found an agent that could introduce me to the schools that offer a scholarship program to international students. To my surprise, the agent recommended an option for a variety of Minnesota State colleges. Oh, my dreamland Minnesota!! Lucky me! Thanks to the News from Lake Wobegon, I could meet the requirement for admission to a graduate program.
It is time to earn money for my future education. I begin working at a busy sweets and souvenir shop at a department store in Tokyo. Despite the work stress and commuting hell of crowded trains, my imagination of life in America makes me forget about all this distress.
I plan to major in Sociology so that I can have a whole view of the world and decide what to do in my life. The world is an extremely complicated place, so I would like to study about it from as many dimensions as I can. What are the dynamics of social changes? What is the future for the world?
I realize that the best candidate for my future school, St. Cloud State University, does not have a Master’s course in Sociology. Instead, there is a new program called “Social Responsibility.” Have you ever heard of such a program? Neither had I…until that moment. “At first, I did not get the meaning. Is it something like “Criminal Justice”? Anyway, I checked the course description of Social Responsibility on the Internet.
I find that Social Responsibility is a program to study global social and environmental justice. Two professors, John Alessio and Julie Andrzejewski, developed this interdisciplinary program from Human Relations, Sociology, and Women's Studies. It teaches how people can take actions to make a better world for all life on the earth. The program was designed to foster knowledge and skills on the interrelationships of race, gender, class, disability, age, national origin, sexual orientation, global human rights, the environment, and you name it.
This program is just right for me. It did not take much time to decide. I applied for it.
The end of August, I traveled from my hometown to my dreamland Minnesota. My parents and my sister sent me off at the Tokyo/Narita airport. Usually, I try not to cry in front of my family members because I am too shy. It is difficult to hide my painful face this time. I know I would not be able to see them for at least 10 months. My dad and mom... they trust me and always let me choose the way I want to believe. They have been supportive and understanding. Maybe partially because of the Japanese custom, and maybe because of my shyness, I could never tell them that I love them. They know it. I wished I could actually say it at this kind of occasion, but I could not tell them since I knew my dad is also too shy to hear it.
The airplane flies above the state of Minnesota. The view from the airplane makes my heart leap with expectations. I have never seen such a scene! Hundreds of lakes! Wow! I sigh at the sight of green, yellow, brown colored patchwork of the fields. I wonder if the farmers planned to plant their field so colorfully. Nobody else did, but I take photos of the field. (Am I a very Japanese person?)
Soon after the first classes began, there comes the news from New York. In the morning of September 11, my roommate started screaming and pointing at the TV screen. What? The World Trade Center is hit by airplanes!? Terrorists attacked the buildings killing innocent people? Why?
At this point, I had no idea that this terrorism would bring huge changes in all aspects of our lives. Yet, the atmosphere changes rapidly. The television alerts us about the danger of bio-terrorism, shows American flags, and plays the national anthem. Newspaper publishers distribute copies of the American flag for free. Soon after, the U.S. congress decides to strike the Taliban in Afghanistan.
I love America, as much as I love Minnesota, but all these events shock me. My headache has lasted for two weeks. My “dreamland”, America, was attacked and it is going to strike back. Above all, to be honest, the patriotic atmosphere scared me. If I saw this kind of patriotism in Japan, not only I, but a lot of Japanese would be frightened. Many Japanese have been more sensitive about the usage of the national symbols since the end of WWII. As many of you know, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Japan was very nationalistic. Shintoism supported the policy with myths and legends. The rituals and the national symbols became sacred objects. Such religious practices were adopted to unite the people in Japan during the time of the international conflicts. I hope no country becomes like Japan was 60 years ago.
I hope we can find a way to prevent such tragedies and develop more co-operative and sustainable communities and nations. I heard many people comparing the terrorist attacks with the event of Pearl Harbor. That sounded like there were possibilities that we are going to WWIII. Aren’t we smart enough to prevent it from occurring? What can I do to help prevent it?
Without my classes, my headache would have lasted even longer than two weeks. I did not have enough knowledge about the historical, economic, and political context between the U.S. and Middle East. My classes give me a great opportunity to study all aspects of the issue. I took two classes besides English writing for my first semester: “Advanced Research Methods” and “Change Agent Skills/ Practicum in Social Change.” My classes help me understand what is happening to me and to the world. Through these classes, I learned all things are connected globally. Nothing is disconnected from past events, either. The ways to analyze the situation are critical and eye opening.
The confusion and the shock after the September 11 certainly changed my image of America. Through my studies, I reconstructed my image. It is like being in love with somebody. The affection for her/him shifts from a honeymoon stage to the next stage. In this stage, you discover your partner’s other characteristics, habits, and history. Some of the discoveries give you nice surprises. Some of them give you shocks. Yet, you try to understand and love her/him with more complexity.
It was like magic. I encountered a friendly and gentle boy, Matt, at the coffee shop at the library before the Thanksgiving break. And, here I have been spending the whole winter break with his family – his brothers, mom, and dad. Before I met him, there wasn’t a chance to experience the real life of people in Minnesota because I lived in a dorm room. Now, he gives me many opportunities to meet other families in Minnesota as well. Each time I find out how much they are like the lovely people in the stories of Garrison Keillor, my heart is filled with a nice surprise. His stories were fiction; yet, Garrison didn’t exaggerate the people’s life in Minnesota! I didn’t even know what rhubarb was; only Minnesotans eat a hot dish with rhubarb! He also described their hearts well. They are funny, caring and faithful.
For anyone, it maybe difficult to understand her/his partner completely even if both have similar backgrounds. In the past seven years, I didn’t succeed in getting over crises caused by the differences between my boyfriend and I. I had different interests and views. I felt disappointed by expectations of traditional gender roles that were imposed on me. I used to be hopeless and give up before challenging the situation.
Nobody wants to repeat that kind of tragedy. Matt and I found it challenging, but worthwhile to explain ourselves and learn from each other. There are many differences between us: gender (male and female), characteristics (talkative and shy), ethnicity (Caucasian and Asian), social and cultural background (American and Japanese), religion (Christian and atheist), and field of interest (Math and Social Responsibility).
In both my student and private life, I began learning how to cope with things before giving up. I can feel myself growing. I heard a nice catch phrase in my class, “Think globally; act locally!” Thanks to the Social Responsibility program, now, I gained a habit of thinking globally to find a cause and apply it to my surroundings. In that way, I can try to comprehend the situation and explain it in a reasonable way.
My classes for the spring semester have been deepening my comprehension. All of my studies are linked together. Advanced Human Relations challenges my thinking about social justice, and I began to construct my own framework for understanding global social responsibility. Sociology of Social Responsibility integrates theory and research to explore how we can work for realistic solutions. Sociology of Religion explains how religion functions and shapes our societies and our lives dynamically.
I still listen to “The News from Lake Wobegon” before I go to bed. While my study requires continuous reflection about our society, Garrison’s stories always remind me that every single person has a good and gentle heart.
Ayako Mochizuki is a graduate assistant for the Social Responsibility program. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Law from Dokkyo University in Japan. Information about the Masters’ degree in Social Responsibility is available at (320) 255-4109 or www.stcloudstate.edu/~socresp/