Ohio Today: For Alumni and Friends of Ohio University

Aki Tanaka
University College

Aki Tanaka

'All culture is fascinating'

Hometown: Tokyo, Japan
College: University College
Major: International Studies and African Dance

Can you explain why you chose to enter University College and design your own major, a bachelor of specialized studies?

I came to America as an international student five years ago. I started in Pennsylvania and then transferred here. I started learning English in OPIE (Ohio Program in Intensive English), and then I started in dance. I changed my major to international studies because I started to like studying, so I combined it with African studies. I really enjoy dancing and studying at the same time. I feel very excited when I dance, but when I was a dance major doing modern and ballet, the techniques here were very high, so I couldn't catch up, and I didn't feel I was dancing.

I went to Ghana last year and saw how local people dance and saw the culture itself. Dance, music, art and everything combined makes me very happy.

Why did you choose Ohio University?
My dance teacher in the previous school, Wilson College, told me that I should go to Ohio University because they have a good dance department. And of course, it was fate. Ohio University and the bachelor of specialized studies fully allowed me to be in the way I am.

Describe what you have accomplished and what is most significant to you.

Graduation will be my great accomplishment. I cannot believe that once I wished not to go to a university and wanted to work (with) horses forever. When I was dreaming to become a professional rider and work for stables all my life, my boss told me, "You are not a person who ends up here. You should study."
Although I was not good at studying in Japan, my parents never discouraged me. They told me to go to the U.S. after high school. Now, I am graduating from a university in the U.S. and going to a master's program with a scholarship. I would like to appreciate all the teachers of my life  -- my family, first of all, and the boss, teachers and my friends -- who let me accomplish this. I also think that I wouldn't be interested in international studies, African dance and African studies if I hadn't met my teachers and my friends.  

Describe your study abroad experience in Ghana. What prompted you to stay an extra month after your program was complete?

I had considered that the OU (African Culture through the Arts) program would provide me an introduction to African/Ghanaian society or culture, and I had felt that I needed to stay longer to experience lives of local people. I knew that through the program I would be protected by American culture to some extent, and I did not want to leave the country by not fully experiencing Ghanaian lives.

I am really happy that I started from the art program and stayed in Ghana for one more month. The first month was to learn Ghanaian culture through arts, and the second month was to learn the culture through political and historical aspects of the country. I was working with street children in the second month. I also learned Ewe culture in the Volta region through the OU program, and I learned the city life of Accra during the second month. I learned the lives of Akan people, who mostly speak Twi, and immigrants from the northern region of Ghana.
What were your experiences with the street children like?

My experience with street children cannot by expressed by a few words. I learned an enormous amount of lessons from them. Their pureness and smiles made me cry. Everything that I experienced and I saw there has changed me. I cannot talk about my experience in Ghana without mentioning a 6-year-old girl I met.

Her name is Abigail, and she was shining among children because of her maturity and passion to people. She was often carrying her small sister on her back. She was always leading her class by teaching others or leading a dance piece, etc. She told me to learn (their) language as soon as possible, and she even tried to teach it to me. Whenever I arrived to work (with Lifeline Street Girls, which was coordinated by the Center for African and Diaspora Affairs) every morning, she ran to me and greeted me by a warm and cute hug. Before I left Ghana, I gave her a picture with a comment saying, "Please contact me when you grow up. I am always for you whenever you need me." She was my favorite girl, and I believed that she has changed -- and will change -- the world around her.

A few months later, after I came back to the U.S., I got news that she passed away due to an illness. I could not believe it at first, since she was always running around so healthily. I wondered why it was her, the most shining one. Yes, she was caught by the eyes of God. I guess that she finished the mission on the earth and now is in the warm, beautiful heaven. 

What cultures fascinate you?

All culture is fascinating. I have closely experienced Japanese, American, Italian, Georgian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Thai, Malay, Omani, Turkish, Chinese and African culture because of my friends, teachers, roommates and my life-partner, but I do not think that one is superior to the other. They are all wonderful and beautiful. And I have realized that there is a thing like "world etiquette" and "world culture." My friends and I sometimes interpret things differently because of our distinct cultures, but there is also a culture that we all share. For example, we know that we all want people to love each other, and we know that we are all sisters and brothers. I think my friends and I have proved that peace can come to people, although it is not easy.

Finish these sentences:

I am most proud of …
my life itself.

Someday I hope to ... continue meeting people from different countries, travel and introduce myself, learn as many things as possible and exchange our values. Working at an NGO/ international organization will help me to achieve those things.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

I see myself still surrounded by people from all over the world and continuing to learn about the world and myself. I would like to work for NGOs and exchange values with people, but I also would like to be with my family and continue learning many valuable life lessons from them. I know that we can learn lessons from somewhere far away, but we should also not forget that the fundamental values of human beings that we need to learn are in our closest people. 

What does your family think?

My family is missing me, but at the same time they are always encouraging me. My family made me who I am. In Japan, I went to a Roman Catholic school, so it was a little bit different than other schools. I couldn't get into my education. I was suffering. But my parents were not pushing me even though I wasn't doing very well. They said, "Maybe it is education here; don't feel bad." So they helped me get to the U.S. I respect American education.

Do you think you inspire others?

No one else is doing specifically what I am doing, but it is not lonely. I have met many specialized studies students. I really like it. ... When my friends struggle, sometimes I say, "Maybe you want to do the bachelor of specialized studies?" I think it helps students.

Explain the differences you see in culture.

I have met students from many different countries. I realize the common things that we share. But there are also differences. I grew up with common sense, but when I came here, I realized that my common sense is not really the same common sense. I have learned other cultures and other values, and lived with students from Oman, Turkey, Ukraine, Thailand, America and Republic of Georgia. ... We lived or gathered in the same apartment, stayed up until midnight talking about things. Our experiences were totally different, but the values are the same. Culture itself is different, but values are the same, even our beliefs.

Interview by Jenaye Antonuccio, BA '95. Photo by Kainaz Amaria.

Posted 05-16-08


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