Student Interview: Gina

Pictured: Gina at the New York Nintendo Store. "I can’t wait to see the other two stores in Japan this year!"

Posted: 2nd Mar 2023

Welcome to the second post in a new series in which I chat to some Ippo Ippo Japanese students to find out more about their experience of learning Japanese and travelling to Japan.

This week, I caught up with Gina Wilkolak, who has been taking part in my Prep for JLPT N5 course since the start of February.

Gina, who is aged 34 and lives in Cleveland, Ohio (United States), answered my questions in writing, and as I absolutely loved how she expressed everything, I've mostly left her answers exactly as is. I hope you enjoy hearing her story!

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You can also click here to view last week's interview with Hannah.

Hi Gina, thanks for agreeing to do an interview! My first question to you is: what sparked your interest in Japan?

Like many kids who grew up before the internet, I came across Japanese culture via anime and video games.

I would wake up at 5:30 a.m. on school days to make sure I could hit “record” on the VCR for the latest dubbed Sailor Moon episode. My older sister gave me a VHS tape of Princess Mononoke and I had never seen anything like it before. I can recall the title of the first Pokémon episode I had ever seen. Anime was so interesting and different from the cartoons we were used to in the States.

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"So many Sailor Moon dolls were opened at Christmas!"

Then video games changed the direction of my life (my husband and I later on had a video game themed wedding!). My other sister asked me to babysit her tamagotchi once as a kid while she went to her after school job. Keeping that little blob alive felt like my soul purpose in life. Well, for four hours that is! (It’s a lot harder to keep those things alive as an adult. I tried last year HAHA.)

When the first Pokémon games came to North America in 1998, I was hooked. The first two generations of Pokémon games are still some of my favorite games of all time. I had no idea anything in the games was based on real life Japan. (There was a bullet train in one of the games and I assumed, because the internet wasn’t at our fingertips, that bullet trains were just entirely made up for the fantasy of the game.)

At the time, I didn’t know any of this was really experiencing some form of Japanese culture. It wasn’t until a good friend of mine got a chance to study abroad in high school for a year that I began to really learn about Japan. Beth would email me once a week (again, no social media existed!) with a rundown of what went on at her school and with her host family. I learned so much about Japanese teenage life from her emails and wanted to see Japan in person one day.

When did you start learning Japanese?

I didn’t start learning any Japanese until just before my first trip to Japan in February 2018. I initially felt overwhelmed and didn’t know where to start, leading me to just not do anything. I made it through the trip fine by learning the “travel phrases” but felt like I was doing myself a disservice by not learning anything else. I couldn’t read anything and heavily relied on Google Translate and terribly-translated English menus.

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"Our first trip to Japan happened during the Tokyo Marathon. We got to stand on the sidelines and cheer on the athletes."

I ended up self-studying for a year in 2020 before joining an online school in 2021. I’m now in my third year of taking structured Japanese classes online.

Was there anything that surprised you about the language?

The Japanese language speaks like Yoda! Backwards the sentences are!

It took a little while to not translate every single word in my head when trying to form a basic sentence. I would get hung up on the backwardness of it all.

Do you have a favourite kanji?

I adore the kanji 毛虫 (kemushi). I like kanji that you can look at and easily piece together. A furry bug must be a caterpillar!

Note from Elly: 毛 (ke) = "fur" and 虫 (mushi) = bug/insect.

What do you find hardest about learning Japanese?

Learning Japanese is HARD! Additional languages are not pushed on us as kids in the States. I learned a little bit of Spanish in high school but hardly anything was required in the curriculum. On the other hand, my classmates in my first Japanese class were from Europe and were already onto learning their third language with us! It was intimidating.

As an adult learner, I have to constantly remind myself that I will always be learning. Years ago I couldn’t read a single hiragana character and now I’m at 164 kanji that I can recognize. It’s easy to get frustrated and want to give up, but it really is one step at a time. いっぽいっぽ (ippo ippo)

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"Even with a complete language barrier, I made friends with a shop owner who showed me how to make origami."

What do you enjoy most about learning Japanese?

I love when I notice something in a video game or on a show and realize, “I can read that!” It could be something very simple, like recognizing カラオケ (karaoke) on a building or マリオ (Mario) on a game display. But I still get so excited.

It’s easy to get discouraged with Japanese learning. Most times I finish my class lesson for the day and feel like I’m never going to remember what we talked about. But then I look back at my notes from a year ago and realize I’ve come so far.

Making mistakes is okay. Going slow is okay. And before you know it, you’re learning!

Would you recommend online lessons to other learners?

YES 100% YES. Where I live is heavily populated with families that use Spanish and Eastern European languages as their second language. I wanted to start taking a structured Japanese class and it was difficult to find anything around me. The only college courses were smack in the middle of the day five days a week, which didn’t work for my full-time day job.

One of my positive experiences from this pandemic has been the opportunity to come across Japanese language schools “across the pond.” Both of the Japanese language schools I’ve attended, Step Up Japanese and Ippo Ippo Japanese, were able to accommodate me because classes were through online learning. I’m grateful that my teachers kept offering that option even as things opened back up. My Japanese has grown by leaps and bounds thanks to taking these online courses.

What would a dream trip to Japan look like for you?

If somehow I’d be able to hit “pause” on my life and spend a month in Japan, that would be a dream! I’d love to not feel rushed on a trip. Unfortunately, the amount of traveling and jet lag that comes with going to the other side of the world takes a lot of time out of the vacation part of a vacation.

I would love to have the time to visit all areas of Japan - from the snow festival in Sapporo to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park to Okinawa. Since we can’t take a month off work, I hope we can chip away at these areas as we plan future trips.

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Gina with her husband at Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto: "This place was so busy that I never thought we’d get any photos alone. All you had to do was take the two hour hike up and it was deserted!"

And finally: do you have any long-term goals with your Japanese learning?

I want to get to the point where I’m not terrified to speak conversationally with an absolute stranger. I met a Japanese tourist last summer at the Grand Canyon. She was very kind when we spoke, but I was so nervous, I confused all of my “simple” question words!

I would also like to be able to play video games in Japanese. I’ve done a little bit with Animal Crossing because it’s hard to “break” that game but so far I’ve been too intimidated to try anything else.

ジーナさん、ありがとう!

Jiina-san, arigatō!

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