“What’s your major?” It took me a long time to be able to comfortably answer this question. At the beginning of my undergrad studies, I arrived with interests in interpretation, Japanese, writing, world history, and diplomacy, and a recommendation to minor in Economics. International Relations was not offered as a major, so I chose to major in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations, and I was set…
My first semester was miserable. Homesickness paled in comparison to feeling out of place in my new environment, personal tragedy, and feeling inadequate in the Introduction to World Politics, Elementary Logic, and the Principles of Macroeconomics courses I’d signed up for.
Taking courses that actually excited me
Following that disastrous semester, I dropped Poli Sci as my major and made my way over to the Asian and Asian American Studies department. I chose to major in Japanese Studies specifically, and signed up for Japanese, Asian Philosophy, The Experience of Literature, and Pop Culture Contemporary Japan. I finished my second semester on the Dean’s List and with a cash award for a short story I wrote. On a personal note, I made friends and was enjoying my college experience. I was doing what I liked and I had passionate professors who further solidified my interest.
I got to be an ESL teaching assistant, an opportunity that led me to getting a master’s degree in TESOL a few years later. At that time, however, education was not offered as a minor. Linguistics, I learned, was related to TESOL, so I added it as a minor (rather than a major, because I wanted to graduate on time). I went on to take courses in Japanese history and culture, African dance, anthropology, translation, and psychology.
Dealing with shame and others’ perceptions
“You’re black. Why don’t you study African American Studies?”
“You should consider medicine/nursing.”
“You’re basically like an English major.”
“Do you think you can get a job with that?”
“If I were advising you, I can’t guarantee you’d get a job.”
These comments filled me with shame about my major. It just didn’t make sense to a lot of people what the path forward with a major in Japanese Studies was or why I, a black woman, chose it. Was I turning my back on black culture? Was I trying to be Japanese? How do I explain it to others? How could I major in Japanese Studies and yet not be fluent in Japanese? It became clear to me that only certain majors were deemed as worthwhile. It became clear to me that people had their ideas of what I should do based on what they knew (or thought they knew) about me.
Even after I received my diploma, I still struggled to embrace my major and making sure my career choice was somehow connected. If I wasn’t going to be a Japanese Studies scholar or translate Japanese to English, what was I going to do?
It obviously worked out
I teach English to university students in Japan, combining many of my interests. I tried a variety of courses, showing what I liked and what I didn’t. I debated what I liked enough to declare as a major, whether I wanted a minor and what that would be, and if anything was worth delaying my expected graduation date. I also did internships and work study jobs to gain work skills and exposure to more interests. A lot of my Japanese Studies professors were gracious with their time and advice and I enjoyed their classes.
Looking back, what I wish I did consider is marketability. It’s hard to market a narrow major like Japanese Studies for certain jobs. I probably would have recommended to undergrad Monique a broader major that could be more clearly linked to a variety of industries. That could mean sticking it out with Poli Sci, or majoring in Linguistics or History. Japanese Studies would then be a minor.
However, I am proud of how I made it work and stand by the choices I made. It doesn’t have to make sense to everyone, because it is not for everyone to understand. My first semester, I wasn’t very different from the other students that had majors that “made sense” but also made them unhappy. The moment I chose to go all in with what interested me, my college experience got so much better. Also, respect for another culture does not mean I don’t stand in the fullness of my black womanhood. Adapting to life in Japan is not me “being Japanese”: it’s me navigating how to exist here.
In college, I explored and selected. Then I worked hard to not only get employed, but ascend. “What’s your major?” Japanese Studies. Yes, I majored in Japanese Studies. And I own that.