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International student Aiki Deguchi of Japan

SOU’s Aiki Deguchi: An academic voyager

Aiki Deguchi, a student from Japan who was awarded the “Most Outstanding First Year/Transfer Student in the Communication Discipline” accolade last year by professors, will graduate from SOU this August with a bachelor’s degree in language and communication. The 23-year-old has spent the last two years studying in the U.S., and in doing so, his thoughts on individualism and perspectives on humility, political engagement and the value of student-teacher relationships have evolved.

He began work toward his degree at Tokyo International University and came to the U.S. to study under an exchange program at Willamette University in 2019. With a hundred Japanese exchange students surrounding him, he found that his own language and culture were too accessible, as he wanted to immerse himself in American culture and language. He transferred to SOU that same year, determined to study in the U.S. and earn a degree – he is currently the only college student among his group of friends in Japan.

Students in Japan wear tuxedos to graduation, but Aiki is excited to wear the American regalia cap and gown when he walks across the commencement stage.

Risks and rewards
Aiki DeguchiThe most striking cultural clash for Aiki has been experiencing American individualistic culture, as the foreign frame of mind comes off as abrasive. The self-importance that seems ingrained in American culture has been a confounding adjustment for Aiki. Social behaviors in the U.S. that have stood out to him are that people are friendly here, yet they distance themselves from others and make it clear that other people are “not their problem,” he says, and people are not nearly as consumed with their own agendas back home.

Being presentable and agreeable is a priority in Japan, whereas self-expression and self-praise are a priority in the U.S. – he says that in Japan, self-praise “does not exist,” he says.

When asked about his biggest fear in coming to the U.S., he starts with a concern of his parents – mass shootings. “Even though I am kind of scared of it, I’m in Ashland, so I feel safer,” Aiki says. His most daunting challenge was undoubtedly speaking English in public.

He says the professors at SOU are very friendly, while he describes teachers in Japan as formal and strict. A benefit of the cultural differences has been his ability to experience school in a highly interpersonal way, especially as a communication major. His experience at SOU has been refreshing, as he “can get to know everyone in class,” Aiki says.

An instructor who has made the biggest impact on him at SOU is Erica Knotts. He says that she has been more than a teacher because they have built a relationship, and he views her as a friend. His internship with Knotts as a teacher’s assistant in her mediation course this term has been an outlet for him to “overcome and kind of be confident” when public speaking, he says.

A first time for everything
Proximity to others has been eye-opening for Aiki, as he feels there is a greater distance between people in Japan than in the U.S. – from professor-student relationships to everyday interactions among strangers. Aiki describes Americans as sometimes overly friendly and alarmingly willing to be approached. It was a transition for Aiki to be approached when shopping for food, as in Japan, he says people keep more to themselves.

For him, a positive effect of American friendliness is the compliments he sometimes receives, as those are less common in Japan. Aiki had never received a compliment on a haircut before living in the U.S., as a haircut in his culture is regarded simply as self-maintenance rather than a form of self-expression worthy of praise.

Aiki says it is a priority in Japan to be polite and humble. He describes Japan as a mostly homogenous culture that treats daily attire as an expectation and not a form of self-expression. His own views on that have changed, and now he believes what he wears is “not anyone’s business.” Living in the U.S. for two years has given Aiki “the idea that people don’t have to be the same,” he says.

He has also noticed that young people in the U.S. are highly interested in politics, which is in contrast to Japan. He noticed that students were posting about their political beliefs and voting plans., and he has been surprised by the closeness of election results. Seeing peers his age passionate about politics, and observing youth amplifying their voices through political engagement, have made an impact on him and changed his perspective on voting. He voted for the first time when he went home to Japan last summer.

Seeing the world
A goal for Aiki after returning to Japan is to start working and return to eating well. He says the high cost of living in the U.S. is astonishing, and he feels that it affects quality of life.

Something Aiki has been able to accomplish in the U.S. that he would not have had the opportunity to do back home is travel. He has been to New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco since being in the U.S., and has been to Seattle – his favorite, local big city, Seattle – five times. He has played baseball for 10 years, and is attracted to Seattle by both its authentic Japanese cuisine and the Seattle Mariners.

His aspiration after college is to be a flight attendant on non-domestic airlines. After extensive self-reflection and experiencing the world with new eyes, Aiki has learned more about himself and those around him, and he feels able to impart the wisdom he has gained in another country to others.

Aiki dreams of living in another country one day. Singapore is on his dream board for its beauty and language accessibility, as it is common to speak English in there. The biggest takeaway from his experience as a world traveler is that he has “learned people are so different.” He hopes his exuberance for experiencing the world through a different lens will propel him toward more opportunities.

Story by Angelina Caldera, SOU Communications multi-media reporter