Episode 74 │ Movies, Amusement, & Apology Letters (OSAKA)
Updated: Sep 22
"I just wanna see people do great and see the world. 'Cause I mean it's here, we're here... why not?" (Dai'jah, Episode 74)
Tried something new this time around! Last month I did an experiment of sorts, which involved contacting a few selected strangers on Twitter about being guests on Young, Gifted and Abroad. And to my surprise, it worked! Every person I contacted expressed their interest, and Dai'jah Todd is the first one whom I got to interview. (Look forward to more guests from Twitter in the weeks to come!) I was eager to speak with her because not only is she a filmmaker and photographer from Detroit—there's always room for Detroiters and other Michiganders on this show!—but she also spent a year studying in Osaka, Japan, and I wanted to know all about how that went down.
Before going to college, Japan wasn't really on Dai'jah's radar. She was initially more interested in China; growing up she witnessed how much her stepdad enjoyed watching Bruce Lee movies, she loved the movie 'Rush Hour', and she even studied Chinese in sixth grade. But when she started pursuing a film/video major and African American studies minor at Grand Valley State University, a mentor of hers got her interested in Japan. He kept raving about a Japanese class he was taking, and even tutored Dai'jah in the language before she started taking Japanese classes herself.
In no time she "fell down the hole", discovering anime and J-pop and diving headfirst into a new passion for all things Japan-related. Dai'jah hadn't previously had a strong desire to travel abroad, but after hearing her first-year resident assistant talk about studying in the Netherlands and how easy the process was, Dai'jah figured, "Okay, I'm studying the language. Why not go [to Japan]?" After her sophomore year, she chose to spend the 2015-2016 academic year at Kwansei Gakuin University (in the Osaka/Kobe area), in a program facilitated by a GVSU-affiliated organization called University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC). This program focused on intensive Japanese language learning and offered electives related to Dai'jah's film major, including Japanese cinema history and pop culture.
Studying abroad for a year is a feat in and of itself, but in Dai'jah's case just studying abroad at all was a huge deal because this was her first time traveling internationally, and she was the first person in her family to do so. Furthermore, she was the only student from Grand Valley participating in this program, and was also the only American, the only Black person, and one of only two native English speakers living in her all-girls dorm at Kwansei (a.k.a. KGU). Kwansei as a university values fostering exchange between Japanese and international students, and Dai'jah's dorm was the same way, rooming one foreign student with every three Japanese students.
It felt like she was "doing a homestay but with people my age", and initially it was overwhelming for her to not always understand what was happening or being said around her. She also realized that her dorm had markedly strict rules and security, even requiring curfew-breakers to write apology letters and read them in front of all the other residents (Dai'jah had to do this once). At the same time, however, living in this dorm was an amazing opportunity for her to make new friends, and the language immersion pushed her to learn faster both in and outside of class. Over the course of that year Dai'jah's Japanese proficiency went from beginner to intermediate, and she enjoyed conversing with Osakans and flexing her grasp of the local/regional dialect known as Osaka-ben. Being exposed to Japanese cinema and filming techniques was also revelatory for her, since in-class examinations of "world cinema" back at Grand Valley had only included European films.
Outside of class, Dai'jah made a point of exploring and socializing rather than simply keeping to herself. Her friends kept her up-to-date on campus events that she might want to attend, including a Halloween party, talent shows, club activities, and a special choir rehearsal where she actually met a fellow Detroiter (a young man attending Kansai Gaidai University, or "the other KGU" as Dai'jah put it)! She was able to identify a handful of Black students on Kwansei's campus, and she met even more Black people in the area by networking in Facebook groups and reaching out to Youtubers whose videos had helped her research Japan before arriving.
Beyond campus, Dai'jah enjoyed wandering around Osaka, visiting Universal Studios Japan at least once a month, taking a pottery class on the side of a mountain, and venturing with her friends to other Japanese cities including Kyoto, Okayama, and Tokyo. They even flew to Okinawa together at one point, and as the program was ending a couple of her friends invited Dai'jah to visit their respective hometowns, so she spent a week each in Seoul, South Korea and Taipei, Taiwan before flying back home to Michigan. She wished she could've had more time to get the full experience of those two cities, but she still managed to see a lot, enjoy the hospitality of her friends and their folks, and even use what remained of her sixth grade Chinese skills in Taiwan.
No matter how much fun there is to be had while in a new country, a year can still be a long time for a person to be away from home. Although her parents had taken a little persuading before she ultimately decided to leave, Dai'jah appreciated how supportive her mom and stepdad were of her interest in Japan and her desire to go there. Receiving care packages from loved ones and video chatting with them comforted her whenever she was feeling homesick, or disoriented from watching police brutality cases and Black Lives Matter protests ramp up from thousands of miles away. All in all, Dai'jah's glad that she chose to study abroad for the duration that she did, because it allowed her to see Japan at different points of the year and experience all the major holidays, hanami (sakura-viewing in the spring), summer festivals, and so on. Whether within or outside of Japan, she always traveled with her KGU friends, and being in a group of people with varying interests led to many impromptu discoveries.
Since her Japan trip, Dai'jah has been eager to get back to traveling or at least help other people venture out into the world like she did. She worked in GVSU's study abroad office while she was still a student there, and she later helped her sister get a passport and go to Bali. When I asked Dai'jah where her interest in travel and her ambitions as a filmmaker might intersect, she revealed that she'd like to make a documentary about people's experiences studying abroad ("kinda like what you're doing", as she explained it to me), and/or do projects that shoot on-location around the world. She's also interested in collaborating with international filmmakers and even observing or working on set for J-pop and K-pop music videos, so she can see what elements she might incorporate into her own work. On top of all that, she's eyeing Lagos, Paris, London, and Dubai as destinations she wants to visit in the future. Dai'jah can be found on Twitter (@_DaiLaSoul_), Instagram (@_dailasoul_), and YouTube (DaiLaSoul).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Movies, Amusement, & Apology Letters (OSAKA)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
PigglesDiGaijin (YouTube channel)
Alyse/NANAIRO Arts in Japan (YouTube channel)
Ayana/Yana_Yz (YouTube channel)
Kurly In Kansai podcast (Ayana and Alyse)