Haruka Yuminaga’s experience moving back to Japan has been a challenge — but has helped her become a better scientist.
A light grey room is filled with 23 grey desks, scattered in pens and books. In one corner sits a refrigerator packed with snacks. Next to it is a rice cooker. The walls are covered in pictures of fun lab memories. Amidst the clutter, some students joke and laugh; chat with a professor about their experimental procedures; analyze data on their laptops and unconsciously wrinkle their brows.
It is a usual morning at the Ushiba lab where I’m doing an internship this summer. I am a rising junior at Macalester College in Minnesota, USA. Before spending two years in a U.S college, I spent all my life in Japan, and expected being back in a Japanese lab to feel natural. But my assumption was wrong.
Reverse culture shock
When I first started working here two months ago, I was surprised that I did not know the Japanese for most of my research nomenclature. Luckily, my professor utilized as many English words as he could, whilst I tried to relearn Japanese jargon. It was a weird feeling: my mother tongue is Japanese but I only understood English when it came to my research. Every time I looked up a new word, I felt that Japan had become more and more foreign to me.
I was also shocked by the tight schedule here, which I had forgotten. I now spend four hours a day commuting, which is considered completely normal. Early in the morning on a crowded train, I wonder how much work I could do with those hours. Looking back, as a Japanese high school student, I used to spend a lot of time on a train — at the time it didn’t cross my mind, now it seems impossible.
Furthermore, although the Japanese culture of “working late is mandatory” is gradually fading, most people still think that working late represents a serious and hard-working attitude. My colleagues usually go home after eight pm while I go home at six. I feel incredibly guilty leaving early, and have to overcome that feeling each time I step out of the door. Many things that used to feel natural now feel like they’ve changed. Then I realize that I’m the thing that’s changed.
Looking at science from different dimensions
When I moved to the US, I was very aware of being from the outside. My out-of-the-box introduction was “I’m Haruka, I’m from Japan, and I have Chinese heritage.” Since I came back, I realized how much I deviate from a normal Japanese scientist. I was shocked and confused. I don’t fit here as well as I expected. A thought occurred to me — if I’m not from the US and I’m not like other Japanese people, who am I?
However, the more time I spend here, the more I’m aware that it was a phase I had to go through. Having parents from Shanghai, growing up in Japan, and studying abroad in the U.S. does not make me “less Japanese”. How I perceive myself is the most essential thing. My time at the lab helped me to rediscover and accept both positive and negative aspects of my multicultural background.
My background has nurtured multiple “me”s. I have a Japanese “me,” a U.S. “me,” and a Chinese “me.” Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, multiple “me”s make up who I am today. They change how I look at the world by showing different aspects of one phenomenon. When it comes to science, a universal intellectual activity across borders, having different “me”s help with discovering and exploring new perspectives, and has deepened my understanding of science.
For example, studying the same subject in the US and Japan has given me some insight into neuroscience education. Many US colleges offer undergraduate neuroscience degrees, while Japanese universities do not. At Keio University in Japan, undergraduates enroll in the department of Information and Computer Science to do neuroscience research when they become graduate students. At Macalester College in the US, on the other hand, undergraduate students take neuroscience courses and spend the last two years of college doing research.
Overall, the field of neuroscience is more pervasive in the US than Japan. More American people are familiar with and open to information and technology derived from neuroscience research. They also have a deeper understanding about what neuroscientists do in practice.
Besides identifying the differences in societal attitudes towards neuroscience, the US and Japanese “me”s also expanded my career choices. Now that I am more familiar with how neuroscience research is conducted at Japanese and American institutions, I can place myself in either country later in my career.
Furthermore, I have access to a much broader range of information with help from different “me”s. I can read scientific journals in English and Japanese. Articles in each language provide a distinct advantage. The Japanese “me” reads articles about how neuroscience contributed to the development of rehabilitation strategies for stroke patients in a rapidly aging society. The US “me” can learn what particular area of the brain is activated when people face racial discrimination. I’m helped as a scientist — able to see different neuroscience trends, expand my career paths, and reach information from multiple sources.
Realizing how the time abroad changed me was hard. It took some time to create a new lifestyle and my readjustment phase continues. My background can be alienating, but it makes me flexible, considerate, and who I want to be as a scientist — as long as I accept and treasure the different aspects of myself.
Haruka is a junior undergraduate student at Macalester College, Minnesota, USA, majoring in Neuroscience and International Studies. She spent two years in the US since 2015 as a freshman in college. Her parents are from Shanghai, China, and Haruka was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan. Over the summer, Haruka is working at the Ushiba Laboratory for Rehabilitation Neuroscience at Keio University. You can find Haruka on LinkedIn or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org