MARTINEZ, Calif. – Konomi Murata intends to become a researcher, hoping one day to work in a laboratory to grow skin, possibly to repair eyes or grow organs to save or improve lives.
But getting into college, such as the prestigious Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine, was difficult for this resident of Chiba, the capital of the Chiba Prefecture.
Japanese universities have close ties to other schools, and Murata applied and was accepted to Diablo Valley College (DVC), a stepping stone in her education that also gives her a chance to learn more about California and the United States.
“I wanted to study overseas,” she said. “But at first I couldn’t decide which school.”
Murata applied her researching skills to narrowing the field, and consulted with advisors who were familiar with good options. Ultimately, DVC was the selection.
Then Murata began attending classes to prepare her for studying in California, especially English and how to make presentations in that language. Others in her language class took additional studies in American culture, so they would know what to expect when they left home.
“DVC has home-stay programs,” said Carol Taylor of Martinez, with whom Marata currently lives. Under the program, foreign students can stay with individuals or families while they take their course of study at the college.
“Many of these are retired women or couples,” Taylor said.
Taylor said she and her husband, Rolf Lindenhayn, became friends with several of DVC’s Japanese students when they attended a party the students also attended.
There are students from all over Japan, Marata said – Hokkaido, Okinawa and Kyoto, in addition to her home city and prefecture of Chiba.
After meeting them at the party, Taylor and Lindenhayn began taking some of the students to various places in California. Murata accompanied them to see the Hearst Castle and Lake Tahoe. In Columbia, California, she got to pan for gold. They also went to San Francisco, taking in both Japan Town and Chinatown districts.
“They’re like substitute kids,” Taylor said, explaining that the couple has a daughter who is attending the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. “We do a lot of things, and we take the Japanese kids. We’re always on the go.”
Before long, they agreed to let Murata stay with them to get settled in her new home. She soon will be in an apartment with some other Japanese students.
The shift to Martinez puts her closer to DVC than she was in her previous home, and that’s convenient since few of the students have transportation other than bicycles.
“Some travel 45 minutes or an hour each way,” Taylor said. It also means many don’t get to see the state, and that’s why Taylor and her husband invite the students to accompany them on their own excursions.
Murata said some things about California have intrigued her.
“This is my first time to go abroad, so everything is surprising,” she said. She marveled at Hearst Castle. She’s had to become accustomed to differences in transportation and the amount of food that is put on a plate.
“The classes are different, too,” she said. In Japan, she said, students are passive. Water is permitted in the classroom, but never food or gum. Teachers dress more formally, and students are expected to be respectful of a teacher’s age and experience.
That discipline tradition starts early, she explained. In grade school through high school, students wear uniforms and even carry the same type of backpacks.
“In Japan, students are passive, and the Japanese people are passive,” she said. “When the teachers speak, we keep silent.
“In the United States, it’s quite different. The teacher is speaking, and the students say their opinions and ask questions. At first, I think this is impolite, because the teacher is older than us. The teachers give us their knowledge and experience.
“But as I learn and I notice, it’s a good thing in the United States to ask questions and say opinions. They have an interest in the teacher and the class. The students can show their passion to study and learn the subject, and I think that is very good.”
She got another taste of that when Taylor and Lindenhayn took her to a Martinez City Council workshop on the Strategic Plan. Few in the audience were silent. While most spoke from the chamber lectern, some shouted criticism from their chairs.
In addition, Murata got a special rendition of the Martinez dog park advocates’ “Who Let the Dogs Out?” rally cry.
“They do that at the meetings?” Murata asked, and was astonished when Taylor assured they did.
Murata wants to see more of the country she’s visiting, not less. “I want to see the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes,” she said. She would also like to ride a train and go horseback riding, a skill she learned in Japan.
She is here for two years, then will decide whether to pursue further education in the United States or Canada. She communicates with her parents and sister by Skype.
Murata will get a chance to see her family in December, when she goes home during a break in the DVC academic year.
But that will be too late for them to celebrate her 21st birthday, which was Monday. And she finally told Taylor what she’d like to do for the event, and it was a very California choice for someone reaching 21. “I want to go to Wine Country!”