An Interview with AMS student Saori Ono, of Doshisha University, Hiroshima, Japan

saorionoTraveling to a foreign country is always full of struggles, but Saori Ono, who was for the year as a participant in the American Studies Diploma Program, has her own unique way of dealing with problems that arise. As a graduate student at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, Saori is focusing her thesis on a topic many of us are not bold enough to pursue: comedy. Specifically, she uses comedy as a method of combating negative stereotypes in Arab-American culture. Studying in America is a great opportunity for her to do research, and learn more about negative stereotypes and how to refute them.

But stereotypes aren’t strictly an American concept. Saori says she had plenty of misconceptions about the United States before she visited and experienced the culture firsthand. When asked what kinds of things most Japanese people associate with the United States, she rattled off a list of terms that came as no surprise: “big, freedom, hamburgers, barbecues…” In Japan there are restaurants like New York Burger that serve typical American food, much like our idea of Japanese cuisine. The surprising part was Japan’s idea of America as a “white country.” Saori says even her textbooks always depicted Americans as “white, with blue or green eyes, and blonde hair.” But she’s seen a wide array of hair colors at Smith?brown, black, red, even pink or blue. The diversity at Smith definitely goes beyond what any Japanese textbooks might imply.

Saori finds her own proof of Smith’s diversity in all the friends she’s made from various religions, ethnicities, and backgrounds. But she says sometimes other students are “really hard to understand” because they tend to speak much faster than professors. She enjoys the idea of classroom discussion—an aspect that many foreign students find pleasant about the American liberal arts education—but she says the conversation is sometimes hard to keep up with. She has studied English for several years, but is learning more from being immersed in the language every day than she did in the classroom back home.

Although this is Saori’s first time in America, she’s no stranger to traveling. She recently stayed with a family in Morocco, where she taught Japanese at a local school. She said the people there were very nice, but not very reliable, and the streets were dangerous at night. Being in a smaller town like Northampton is a positive change for her, it seems. Saori says of her peers in the AMS program, “everyone is complaining it’s too small, but I like it!” The architecture and landscapes have won her heart. She adores the natural beauty of New England. “Everything is so cute here!” she says with a smile, from the buildings in town to the squirrels that populate the campus.

So the slight change of pace is the good thing for now, but as far as extending her stay goes, Saori explains, “my family is in Japan.”

The AMS program has given her a more intimate perspective on the topics she’s spent so much time studying, and has heightened her appreciation of American culture. She’s even considering working toward citizenship at some point in the future, but Japan will always be her home. One thing that concerns her about her home country is that “in Japan, it is so hard for graduate students to get jobs,” a familiar trend in the United States, too, as of late. But evidently in Japan women have an especially hard time finding work. Still, Saori is confident and has good hope for the future, whatever it might bring.

“Inshallah,” she says, the ubiquitous phrase taught to her by her friends in Morocco. “God willing.”