John “JP” Wojciechowski, 25 year-old English teacher and linguaphile, the importance of learning a language and then using that language to cultivate new relationships is the most paramount matter in life.
“I felt like I was learning so much about the world,” he says. “I kind of decided that everyone should learn a second language. At that time and that age, I just had a realization that this skill is a way to communicate with other people in the world and gain such a different perspective. That was what really got me, and for the last 12 years I have pursued that goal.”
Seriously Speaking Spanish
We have just finished dinner in a traditional Italian pizza shop in central Kiryu, a bit of an oddity to find in rural Japan, but nonetheless the Western cuisine provides a nice change of pace from the standard fare to be found in Kiryu. With food in our bellies and travel on our minds, JP began to tell me about how Spanish has factored into his life since that defining moment.
“I was able to see Spanish in a relatively everyday environment,” says JP. “I grew up on the Jersey Shore in a part with a large Hispanic population, so Spanish was never a nebulous concept that I would never be able to use outside of the classroom. It felt like the practicality of learning Spanish made the most sense to me, because I could actually see myself using that common language to learn from the people around me.”
While the time in the classroom did prove beneficial for learning those communication skills, learning to use them in all of their informal applications was a unique adventure for JP to undertake.
“It wasn’t until I studied abroad in Spain during university that I was truly able to use the language in an everyday capacity,” he says. “I don’t recall any specific aspect of the common Spanish versus the classroom Spanish, save the difference between Castellano and Latin-American Spanish, the latter being the type in my classrooms.”
The most enduring experience JP took from this time was the sense of fulfillment that he found in being able to use the language he had studied for so many years being truly present in all facets of daily life.
“This was a moment of realization, of finally applying my lessons to my life in order to survive,” say JP. “Obviously many people speak English in Spain, but being able to speak the native language made for a much more well-rounded and fulfilling time there. My lessons and preparations had finally come to fruition, and I think that’s what all students really want to come from their lessons. They don’t want to acquire a skill for its own sake, they want to put in the effort and then be able to use the skill in their real-world lives. And I really feel like I did that in Spain.
Third Language, Third Home
However, JP did not want to stop at one language. Communicating with people from all walks of life was why he learned Spanish, and with that in his mind he set about learning even more langauges.
“While I was in Spain, I had a realization that I wanted to learn even more languages. This moment came during a short trip I took up to Paris, and I can remember it vividly. I was at the Eiffel Tower like every other tourist, and then I heard this song that I found very wonderful. It made me realize the beauty of the French language, and from there I took on the challenge of learning a second language, not necessarily French, in tandem with Spanish.”
Though with such a vague goal in mind, deciding that second language took some time for JP.
“Because of how important everyone says Chinese is I tried taking some courses in it, but I quickly found that the style of teaching was not the right fit. Dialogue memorization was taught above all else, and I knew those lessons would not be sufficient in helping me learn how to actually use Chinese as a communication tool. I next tried taking French, whose lessons were more approachable than Chinese’s were.”
The studies of French eventually became a minor, and even after the end of his time in university he continued to pursue further studies in the language arts. And it was in this time that JP began his connection with Japan.
“Soon after I graduated from college, I took a sort-of celebratory trip to Japan. And I just fell in love with the language from there. It was on the complete opposite end of the language spectrum from Spanish and French, and I found the challenge invigorating.”
The circumstances of his decision to learn Japanese are remarkably similar to those in regards to French, an observation that does not escape JP.
“I have this thing where I go to a place and wonder, ‘Why the hell am I not speaking this language?” he laughs. “But I have to be careful about that, because I don’t want to just be able to say ‘Hello’ in 50 different languages without being able to hold a conversation.”
Upon returning to New York City and work, JP began attending Japanese classes in his spare time, and with each lesson he cultivated a steadily deepening appreciation for the Japanese culture.
“Japan always drew me to it because of its traditional culture,”says JP. “The way Japan has maintained its identity for so long is almost like a cultural time capsule, and that aspect has always been so fascinating. I definitely feel like that is a big factor in my decision to come and teach in Japan.”
Taking Time for Tea
The most prominent example of this fascination is JP’s love of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, which he has been studying for nearly two years.
“To me, Tea Ceremony is a marriage of all aspects of Japanese culture. In it you have the emphasis of seasonal change in the materials used, the use of flower art to signify nature in the room, the strict control of each and every action in the ceremony, and of course the use of tea, just to name a few. Everything in the spectacle is reflective of Japanese culture, and that harmony of tradition is what I think I find most enjoyable about it.”
And just as learning language has brought about opportunities to learn more, Tea Ceremony has itself allowed JP to learn how to view the world around him.
“There was a phrase my teacher taught me: One time, one experience. The idea of this applies perfectly to Tea Ceremony because no two ceremonies are ever the same. The materials used, guests invited, art displayed, or anything else can change, and that fluidity has taught me to live in the moment. People talk about living in the moment like it’s some recent development, but it Tea Ceremony has been teaching this mindset for 400+ years. There’s really nothing quite like it.”
As a resident of New York City, being able to slow down and appreciate the smaller bits of each moment proved to be a meaningful part of the Tea Ceremony for JP.
“One of the reasons I studied Tea Ceremony in the first place was because of how starkly it contrasted with life in New York. Yes, the fast-paced, non-stop rhythm of New York was invigorating, but it was also exhausting. I wanted a time where everything else could fade away and I could focus on one single thing, so I would devote myself to each and every lesson of Tea Ceremony. My cell phone was off and in my backpack, and each lesson was more relaxing and meaningful because of it.”
Effectively, through studying Japanese language and Tea Ceremony JP created his own immersion in Japanese culture, even before he came to Japan to begin teaching English in summer 2018.
“Living in New York, it was remarkably easy for me to create a small bubble to supplement my studies of the language. But what I missed was a chance to really get a chance at interacting with the average Japanese person, and that is by far the best part of my coming to Kiryu. I had hope and expectations of how my time with my coworkers and students might go, and those interactions, especially with my students, have been the most impactful. I don’t think I will forget my time here any time soon.”
The Last Word
As he has studied and traveled the world, JP has found many different aspects of our world to make life interesting. Be it learning a new language, studying niche aspects of culture, or simply enjoying his time in a new environment, he will continue to learn, communicate, and grow.
“I have found that, especially with traveling, expectations can only go so far, and I guess that can be true with anything in life. You’re always going in blind to some extent, and all that you can do is prepare yourself for your experiences to fall short of, meet, and exceed your expectations. That’s a natural process, and it helps you see what’s what and who you really are.”
JP is one of the more interesting people I have met here in Kiryu, especially given our shared interest in language. I wanted to talk about that with him this week, and I hope you enjoyed our conversation. He will be in Kiryu until Summer 2020, at which point he will move on to greener pastures. And I wish him the best of luck.
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Song of the Week
“Sen no Rikyuu” by Wednesday Campanella
Thanks to JP, the playlist now has a second Japanese song to count among its ranks! JP has this reason to cite for his choice:
“Surprisingly, what drew me to this song was not the song itself but actually its music video. It revolves around Tea Ceremony, and it has all of the aspects of a proper Ceremony present. I just think its so cool how the video is able to tie together both this ancient piece of Japanese culture and the work of a contemporary J-pop star. It really shows how much influence Tea Ceremony exerts on Japanese society.”
If you would like to listen to this song or any of the other prior Songs of the Week, check out the Spotify Playlist linked above!