Graham Harvard talks living in Japan and why it's similar to the South

Graham Harvard talks living in Japan and why it's similar to the South

“It's the promised land.”

That's how senior TESOL major Graham Harvard describes his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. He also spent a good bit of time living in Powdersville—a town technically considered a community, too small to have its own high school. As a result, Graham was forced to attend a high school in the next town over.

“Our school system fed into their school system, so because of that this high school had thousands of kids,” Graham explained. “Ninth grade was not a fun year for me. Ironically, I was the only boy in all four of my academic core classes, and it was a really weird coincidence since there were so many people at this school. It was cool at first, but I didn’t have any friends in those classes since most of them weren’t from my town. It made me kind of go into this mode where I would shut down and didn’t really talk to anybody throughout the day. Then at the end of my ninth grade year my grandpa died, and I was really close with him, and that was really tough.” 

But things got better once Powdersville finished constructing their own high school and allowed the students in Graham’s grade to attend for their sophomore year. 

“There wasn’t anyone older than us—just tenth and ninth grade in a big, brand new building. We were the ‘seniors’ for the next three years. The rest of my high school experience was great; I opened back up.”

After high school, Graham didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life and decided to attend a community college to save money. He stayed at the college for one fall semester and then decided it wasn’t the right path for him.

“I was praying a lot during that time, asking God what he wanted me to do with my life because I had no idea,” he said. “Then over Christmas break my dad, who's a Lee graduate, suggested I try Lee for one semester.”

The day after Christmas, Graham applied to Lee and got accepted before classes started in January.

“It was completely a God thing. I got in, lived in BOB and had a great experience my first semester. I loved it and felt like God really wanted me to be here. Everyone was so caring and nice.”

Towards the end of Graham’s freshman year, he found out about a Japanese study-abroad program. A friend in his dorm who had earlier participated suggested he apply for it.

“It’s called the East Asia Institute at Tokyo Christian University. I applied for it but was told I’d be put on the waiting list and would probably not be able to get in for the coming fall. Then a few weeks later I was sitting in chapel and I got an email that had a list of textbooks and classes for Japan. That’s how I found out that I got accepted to go during the fall semester of my sophomore year. I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d spend five months in Japan.”

Courtesy of Graham Harvard

After a summer of working in a Knoxville factory in order to save up money, it was finally time for Graham to make his way to Tokyo, Japan.

“I was the only Lee student that went that particular semester. I was scared and a little nervous, but it was the beginning of an adventure,” he admitted. “I landed in Narita International Airport in Japan after a sixteen hour flight. The moment I got off of the plane, I realized how little Japanese I knew. Even though I tried studying the language as best I could that summer, I could not read or understand anything. Being illiterate is a very humbling experience.”

Graham rode a train to the university with the secretary of the school who came to escort him.

“I was in a sense of wonder and filled with awe. As we were riding on the train, we were going through the countryside, so it was very green and pretty,” he said. “So we rode the train to Tokyo Christian University, which is very small. I’d say there are fewer than 200 kids that attend the school.”

Graham soon met the other sixteen American students who were also a part of the program, and he quickly formed some close friendships with them as well as with the Japanese students. When asked if the language barrier made forming relationships difficult, Graham said that was not a problem.

“Even though we couldn’t have very complicated conversations, we enjoyed sharing each other’s company. There were also a lot of students there who were bilingual that would translate for us and for the students who could not speak English.”

Most days, Graham and his friends would ride their bikes to the train station and from there take the train to different parts of the city. Tokyo is a large city and has distinct, unique neighborhoods, and they explored every burrow they could. They also spent a day in the Nikko Mountains, a place north of Tokyo.

“It reminded me a lot of Gatlinburg: it had the fall leaves, the foggy tops and mostly locals visited it. The really interesting thing about Nikko, though, is that there were a lot of castles and ancient shrines to various deities on top of the mountains that we visited.”

Graham also got the opportunity to live and learn about Japanese culture through this unique experience. 

“Japanese culture is pretty similar to southern culture but with a twist. They are polite and very hospitable, much like southern culture, but everyone is a bit more reserved,” he explained. “Food-wise, they eat white rice with every meal. Actually, their words for breakfast, lunch and dinner translate to morning rice, lunchtime rice and nighttime rice. What I missed most while in Japan was Mexican food and pizza, which I could never find anywhere.”

One thing that stuck out to Graham when he got to Japan was the lack of diversity he saw.

Graham and friends goof around in a Japanese plaza.

Courtesy of Graham Harvard

“It was really shocking when I first got there. The native people there would stare at all of us Americans because we stuck out so much—there’d be people who would even sneak pictures of us. It was mostly because the university was not in a tourist-heavy area.”

Coming back to the United States was hard and a bit of a culture shock for Graham. After getting off the plane, he went directly to Cookout. But the burger was a mistake. Graham ended up sick because the cow meat was a shock to his stomach.

He also had trouble getting accustomed to understanding the language around him again.

“It was weird coming back because in Japan there was always this blissful silence; I could be at the mall cafeteria and everyone could be talking, and I wouldn't pick up a single word of it because I could tune it out since it was another language,” he said. “However, coming back here and going to the mall was very loud and I couldn’t tune out people’s conversations, which gave me headaches for a while until I could retrain my brain.”

After being gone from Lee for another fall semester, Graham was the ‘new kid’ again and had to reconnect with people he hadn’t seen in months. That spring he also took Dr. Blake’s Language Acquisition and Development Class and really enjoyed it. At that point he decided to switch majors to TESOL, which stands for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“I was thinking about going back to Japan for the longest time and teaching there for maybe a year, but I honestly don’t know where I really want to teach overseas—I might even end up taking on the United States. I am ready to graduate, but I’m also kind of scared because I don’t know what the future holds.”

But Graham will always cherish his time as an undergrad, and he encourages other Lee students to seek opportunities in which they, too, can take a risk.

“Come into college with an open mind and look at things from a new perspective. Not only that, but do not be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. If you are given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, just do it—it'll pay off nearly every time.”

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