As we sat down for dinner at the table in a house that was exceptionally large by Japanese standards, my host mother laid out one of my first authentic Japanese meals: tempura and a bowl of rice topped with soy sauce-soaked squid intestines. I was excited but had to ask about the pinkish sludge on top of my rice first.

My questions opened up a conversation about traditional Japanese cuisine and established food as an important unifier between my host parents and myself. Our chatter eventually morphed, evolving from the superficial and lighthearted to the intensely personal. When I asked them about parenting, my host mother’s body deflated, and her eyes sank. The divorce of her eldest daughter had produced an overly critical view of my host mother’s maternal abilities.

Interactions like this one informed my biggest realization about language: a raised eyebrow, a twitch at the corner of the mouth, or a subtle head tilt can convey emotion or thought just as easily as words can, and often with piercing clarity. Our unassuming, honest desire to learn from each other across cultural and generational gaps continuously nourished our relationship.

This is what I hoped for when I decided to study abroad. Rather than practicing new vocabulary and grammar patterns or reading Japanese conversations from the textbook with classmates in the second floor of Boatwright Library, I was now living the language without a script, and it was exhilarating.

Japan always played a significant role in my life while growing up in Northern Virginia. My parents had artwork from Japan throughout our house, and I had several friends who were Japanese nationals. I learned to value cross-cultural awareness. At Richmond, I was eager for study abroad so I could experience Japanese art history in its original cultural context while strengthening my Japanese language skills.

I took my first Japanese art history class with Stephen Addiss, a Japanese art historian and artist specializing in calligraphy and ceramics. The small class size helped me understand the course material. We openly shared our interpretations of the readings, woodblock prints, and calligraphy scrolls without fear of judgment or embarrassment. He empowered us to ask questions and wanted everyone engaged in what he called “an unconditional exchange of ideas and values.”

Despite his expertise, he was genuinely excited to learn from our discussions. His enthusiasm sometimes made him seem more like a student than a professor.

Nothing could have prepared me, however, for the profound isolation and disempowerment I felt due to my social and linguistic ineptitude early on in Tokyo, along with the differences that materialize in an unfamiliar cultural and linguistic setting. Despite the physical proximity with others on the train to school or in cafés and restaurants in the world’s largest city, the disconnect was severe. Thankfully, the unfamiliar slowly transformed into the familiar over time.

These days, I am in the American West, working as an internship coordinator in the College of Humanities at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The combination of incredible resources, opportunities, and mentors during my undergraduate years and in Japan inspired me to work with college students in my own career, inspiring the next generation to also see the value of the unconditional exchanges that Dr. Addiss prepared me to experience.