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Marian Wolbers was just 17 years old when she traveled to Japan as an exchange student through the Rotary Club. It was an interesting time to take such a lengthy journey.
"[I was] a young girl in the early 1970s, in the time of hippies and Richard Nixon and Vietnam, [negotiating my] way through a foreign country 7,000 miles away," Wolbers remembers.
Prior to her trip, Wolbers, a lecturer and coordinator of the Degree Start Program at Albright, had no interest in Japan. Today, Japan and Japanese culture have become her passion, her scholarship and even the subject of one of the classes she teaches, "Japanese Culture through Literature." The trip itself resulted in five handwritten diaries detailing every experience she had. Now, she is working to publish those diaries.
During her year in Japan, Wolbers lived with five different host families on the southernmost island of Kyushu, which she describes as "a beautiful little island." Japan's third largest island, Kyushu is a mountainous place, home to Japan's most active volcano. It was while living there that Wolbers started writing what have become known as her "Japan Diaries."
"My self-image in September 1970 as I boarded the plane from New York to Tokyo was that I was knowledgeable, tolerant and
Indeed, once she arrived in Japan, Wolbers says, she had much to learn. "I could barely understand a thing said to me, much less follow the weather forecasters or conversations of actresses on TV; I couldn't read the signs, the books or the newspapers," she says. Prior to arriving, Wolbers had studied the Japanese language for about a month. "But a month of Japanese barely skims the surface," she says. "All I could actually say was, 'How do you do?' and 'My name is Marian.' It all sounded so frustratingly foreign and incomprehensible to my ears upon arrival."
Her first host family spoke little to no English. Fortunately, they wanted to make sure her first few days in their Imari City home went smoothly. "By the time I got to the island of Kyushu, I was relieved to find that an English teacher, Kimie Aoyagi, had been hired to be my personal translator for the first 10 days," she says.
Wolbers comprehended bits and pieces of conversations, but it took months for her to communicate verbally in simple sentences.
And although Wolbers had many Japanese friends and five caring host families, there was still a gap because everything was so different, particularly the culture and the food. She couldn't always say what she thought of things, so she told her diaries. "My diaries were my best friend, definitely," she says enthusiastically. "It was really the only thing that was speaking in English to anybody, and I could read it back and see that I still could communicate with somebody in English."
Today, sitting back in a chair in her office in Masters Hall with one of her diaries in hand, she says, "They're very descriptive. I wrote them as if someone else was going to be reading about my adventures and my thoughts while I was away."
In her diaries, she describes some of the differences between Japanese and American culture.
"Breakfast was often the delicious leftovers from the night before, with rice and cups of hot green tea, fish, miso (bean-curd), soup, and that sort of thing," she says. "For lunch, my host mother packed a metal bento box with rice packed in all tight at one end and some hardboiled eggs and bright yellow pickled radish slices at the other end."
Flipping through the pages of one of her diaries, she thinks about what she enjoys most about them. "I love the fact that I have them; I think that's the biggest thing," she says. "I like the fact that they're in a young girl's head, and I like the fact that I describe pretty candidly everything that I see."
Stopping at an entry dated Oct. 19, 1970, she reads aloud: "I love the walk my host sister and I take to the doctors, for that is one time when I usually review the Japanese I know. She's great at helping me, too. We communicate much better now than in the beginning; it's a good feeling."
One particular experience Wolbers had while in Japan – a visit to the Nagasaki Peace Museum – left her with a profound awakening. "There is a long entry in my diary concerning that very disturbing, but enlightening museum trip," Wolbers says. "Here I was, observing photographs and artifacts from one of the most devastating tragedies to ever occur – one that my own country was responsible for."
Getting to know her classmates, Wolbers hangs out on the school's second-floor balcony with three seniors.
During that outing, she was surrounded by other museum-goers, and the majority were Japanese. "Yet not once," Wolbers says, "even for an instant, did I receive an angry glance in my direction, nor sense even a shred of hatred directed toward myself and my people." Instead, she says, she was moved by the quiet, indescribable sadness that everyone felt as they walked from room to room.
"This was not my favorite moment at all during that year, but it affects me to this day," Wolbers says. Recorded in her dairies forever, this experience helped shape her as a person, and she feels strongly about sharing it with others.
Wolbers hired typists to word-process most of the diaries, and it is now up to her to edit and polish the work. "My task right now is straight-out editing, and I'm trying to establish exactly who my audience is," she says. In addition to her passion for Japan, Wolbers has always been an enthusiastic writer. "It's my foremost identity and has been since I was a child," she says. She wanted her diaries to be made into readable texts for the Westerners she met who seemed to be obsessed with Japan. It's also her way of giving back. "Not only to the Rotary Club, which paid for two years of my life and schooling," she says, "but also to say thank you to the Japanese people who altered my world view."
Someday, Wolbers would like to return to Japan, perhaps with one of her three daughters. "My passport's ready," she says.
In the meantime, Wolbers hopes to have her diaries ready for print by July 2013.
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