Episode 99 │ From Second Lung to Rising Sun (TSUKUBA/TOKYO)
"We have to [give back], we have to. There are way too many selfish mindsets. But then when you go around the world you realize people need what you have, no matter how small you think it is. And it's always a good thing to try to give back as much as you can." (Yllah, Episode 99)
This is the 99th episode of Young, Gifted and Abroad! June 19th (a.k.a. Juneteenth, a.k.a. this podcast's 4th anniversary) is coming up soon, so here's the plan:
June 7th (today): Episode 99
June 14th: Episode 100
June 19th: 4th Anniversary Episode/Celebration of 100 Episodes!
Now, on to our 99th guest, Yllah!
Last month I said to my good friend Irene (from episode 4), "For the month of May I'm kind of just willing my 99th guest to appear to me somehow." And that person did appear one day, when I looked through my YouTube subscriptions and realized there was a potential guest that I'd overlooked. I've been subscribed to Yllah Okin's anglophone channel (Crazyllah) and francophone channel (Les rues du Japon) and following her on Instagram for who knows how long, and somehow had never thought to invite her onto Young, Gifted and Abroad. And I can't even fathom why, because she has so much uniqueness to her: She's a Congolese woman in Tokyo, she's both a model/content creator and an environmental scientist, she speaks French and English (in addition to four other languages), and her Japan-focused online content is an entertaining mix of wholesomeness, style, sarcasm, social commentary, asking worthwhile questions, and not taking herself too seriously. There are so many reasons to be intrigued by Yllah! So I'm elated that she agreed to be my guest so I could ask her about how she wound up moving to the "Land of the Rising Sun" for graduate school, and how she balances her academic and professional aspirations with her creative activities.
Hailing from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Yllah was born in Lubumbashi and spent the majority of her life in the capital city of Kinshasa. She studied environmental sciences and biology at the University of Kinshasa, and since she comes from a family of professors, pursuing a master's degree and then a PhD seemed like a no-brainer. She had become interested in environmental sciences in college when ozone depletion was a hot topic (no pun intended) in the news, and when she realized that the Congo doesn't have much say within international organizations that make environmental policy decisions. Despite being the "second lung of the world" due to the humongous swath of forests in the Congo Basin (second only to the Amazon rainforest), the Congo is not seen as an authority on what should be done to reduce global CO2 emissions. Yllah decided that she wanted to play a role in helping her country have more of a voice and more decision-making power regarding environmental issues, and she wanted to diversify her knowledge to understand how the field of environmental sciences works in other countries. So after graduating and working for a while, Yllah started applying to graduate scholarship programs.
At this point, Yllah didn't know much about Japan except that most of the cars and electronics used in the Congo came from there. She explained to me that due to colonial history—the DRC was colonized by Belgium, and the Republic of the Congo was colonized by France—Congolese people tend to look toward Europe when seeking out education that appears more sophisticated than what they can get in their home country. They might even look toward the US too. But Japan was nowhere on Yllah's radar until her applications to European and American scholarships kept getting rejected for what seemed to be overblown reasons (like supposedly not filling out forms correctly). Then she heard that a Japanese governmental agency called JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) was offering a scholarship to Congolese people with a certain level of education (JICA's African Business Education Initiative for Youth, a.k.a the ABE Initiative), and she applied without thinking very much of it. Fortunately for Yllah, however, after a selection process that spanned a year and a half of language tests, interviews, and documents upon documents, she was among the three recipients out of 1500 applicants that year.
Having already selected her discipline during the application process, and despite the fact that the options for English-language environmental science master's programs were few in Japan, Yllah was thrilled to get accepted to the University of Tsukuba. Located in Ibaraki Prefecture, known for its JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) space center and Mount Tsukuba, and being about an hour-long train ride away from Akihabara Station in Tokyo, Tsukuba is "very science-y as a city" and was closest to the capital compared to a different potential school in Mie Prefecture. (Mie would've put Yllah closer to Kyoto and Osaka.) She moved to Japan in 2017, and after a three-week orientation where she and other African grad students received a crash course on Japanese culture and interacting with Japanese people, Yllah settled in at the University of Tsukuba.
Even though Yllah was in her program of choice and found being an in international classroom to be "such a blessing", adjusting to life in Japan was not easy. She was surprised that so few people outside of her program spoke English, and not knowing any Japanese before arrival, she had a tough time communicating with people. This was also her first time living alone, and the communication issues combined with the loneliness of being in a two-bedroom apartment all by herself took a toll on her; in hindsight, she's pretty sure she was depressed during those first six months. The earthquakes and her lackluster encounters with Japanese cuisine didn't help. Thankfully, she'd already made most of her closest friends during that initial orientation and was excitedly discovering the diversity among African cultures that even she as an African person hadn't been aware of before, so she built up her social life within what's often called a "foreigner bubble". Her friends from Tunisia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and so on helped her feel at home, but she had to try even harder to immerse herself in Japanese society and broaden her network to include Japanese locals once she graduated from Tsukuba after two years.
Of course, there have been several positives as for Yllah well. While sexual harassment is a major concern in Japan—a creepy man followed Yllah during her walk home just a few months ago—in terms crimes like theft and murder, she feels safer than back home. And she appreciates how getting to know a new culture "opens your mind to different realities and opportunities," which has included exploring pretty much any creative outlet that interests her. With aggressively enthusiastic encouragement from her friends, Yllah's artistic endeavors in Japan started with modeling and have gradually expanded to include Instagram posts and YouTube videos, with the most recent addition being TikTok content. She treats all of these as hobbies, which helps to keep things light. This means that she's aware of issues like discrimination and limited job opportunities for dark-skinned Black models like herself (white models and half-Japanese models are more popular as far as "foreign" models go), but she doesn't sweat it. She focuses on the most rewarding part of creating, which is "the satisfaction that you're doing something you like... You just create something from scratch that you don't really imagine what people could think of it, and then you put it out there, and people pretty much reward you. They like it, and they like the way you did it."
Yllah's creative side is often a respite from juggling work and school, but that's not to say that she hasn't immensely enjoyed her studies as well. Despite some of the concepts in her master's program being repeats of what she'd already learned in the Congo, she was enthralled by the various perspectives that emerged from class discussions in said program, which often consisted of debates on world happenings and environmental pollution/regulation cases. Yllah also managed to complete a certificate program on nature conservation (whose workload was basically equivalent to doing another master's at the same time as her actual master's degree), which she loved because it included field studies and lectures from some of the very international organizations that she hopes to carve out her place in one day. After graduating from Tsukuba and eventually finding a full-time job—in prospective employers' minds, her accolades and ability to speak French, English, Swahili Kikongo, and Lingala were often overshadowed by her lack of fluency in Japanese—Yllah got accustomed to work life in Tokyo and later decided to go back to school. She's currently working reduced hours while pursuing her PhD in environmental sciences (remotely, from the University of Tsukuba again), in addition to her creative work.
More sentimental than rational
In official terms, Yllah's PhD program is two and a half years long, but she will likely extend it due to her work schedule and whatever research needs may arise. She's been in Japan for five years now, and admits having a more sentimental than rational relationship with the country because of how many firsts she's experienced (including dating) and how much she's learned about herself there. She feels like she became an adult there; she'd always though academia was the only path for her, "And that was until I came to Japan, then I was thinking, 'Oh, well, I have other options.'" With all that being said, Yllah actually doesn't see herself staying there for another five years. Remaining in a country where the language barrier severely limits her opportunities wouldn't be fair to her family, which invested so much effort and sacrifice into affording her the best education and professional prospects possible. Plus, she has relatives in Europe too, and she knows she could very likely get a better paying job there given her skills.
So in the future, Yllah sees herself doing many things: going back and forth between Europe and the Congo, teaching as a professor, researching, representing her country in a United Nations subsidiary or some other international environmental organization, sharing her knowledge with younger people in the Congo, being as creative as she wants to be, and starting a family. She might return to Japan for vacations. As for places in the world that she hasn't been to yet, Yllah hopes to one day visit Norway (for the viking history and the fjords), London (for the multicultural diversity), and Hawaii (for fun, and because it's Hawaii). For now, Yllah's enjoying her life in Tokyo, and welcomes folks to follow or reach out to her via @Crazyllah on Instagram and TikTok, and her YouTube channels (Crazyllah in English or Les rues du Japon in French).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "From Second Lung to Rising Sun (TSUKUBA/TOKYO)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
"Sousveillance" (Yllah featured in WDET's Tracked and Traced podast)
Yllah's collab with Le Japon en Noir et Blanc (video in French)
Global Wildlife Program (World Bank)
Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.