When I was in Montana, I had one professor whom I respected and admired more than any other. She was an elegant, intelligent, worldly woman, and above all else, she was kind and passionate, both about her work, and about her students learning. She was my first friend in Missoula.
She also could see, quite plainly, that I was in the wrong field, and in retrospect, I can see all of the ways she gently tried to encourage me to consider other fields of study besides Japanese. She loved having me in her literature courses, and I always received very good marks in them. She was a wonderfully encouraging editor, and she made me focus like a laser in my academic writing, so that it became much less rambling and more coherent and airtight. But when it came to the language front, I struggled. I’ve always loved languages, but with Japanese, I had a mental block on it. I couldn’t flourish in the language the way that I could in Russian, or Yiddish, or Hawaiian, or, most recently, Blackfoot.
She never discouraged me though, or pressured me to stop taking Japanese or switch majors. Instead, she introduced me to professors in other departments, such as Women’s Studies, Anthropology, English, Liberal Arts, and others. She lent me books on a great variety of topics, including one which sparked and transformed my understanding of colonialism.
This was a very encouraging way for me to eventually come to realize, on my own, that Japanese wasn’t for me, because it meant that I came to that epiphany myself, rather than having someone tell it to me, which is the only way I typically learn, stubborn as I am. It also meant that I already had other options open to me, and didn’t feel like I failed in one field and therefore wasn’t capable in any field at university.
I’m out of Montana now, and I want to write this professor an email. Tell her about how I went from being a struggling, so-so student into a straight-A honours student on the path to grad school and a great variety of possibilities in academia, all of which I feel strongly passionate about. I still use the knowledge I gained from Sensei’s classes. When people who have never taken a course in non-Western literature declare Don Quixote the “oldest” novel, I’m able to cite The Tale of Genji. When I met my hero, the poet Chrystos, we conversed about Japanese literature, and I mailed Chrystos a book of poetry by Japanese courtly women for her to have. I have the tools, thanks to these classes, to read far and wide, internationally, and realize that I am going to carry the baggage of my cultural and historical contexts and assumptions with me when reading, and can do my best to catch them and stop them, so that I can appreciate the work better on its own merits. I appreciate so much because of my beginning in Japanese Studies, and my wonderful Sensei.
If you’re reading this Rabinovitch-Sensei, I’m doing wonderfully, in UVic Women’s Studies. I found my path. Good luck guiding more and more students, wherever it is they end up, I know you make a positive impact on them.