RIYADH: Saffanah Almajnouni is a 24-year-old architecture student, currently enrolled at Tokai University in Japan, where she has lived for over five years.
During her first year in the country, she entered a speech competition, pitting Japanese contestants delivering a speech in Arabic against Saudi Arabian contestants delivering a speech in Japanese.
It was a landmark event for Almajnouni, who came second in the competition, organized by the Saudi Cultural Mission in Japan in cooperation with the University of Osaka and hosted by the Osaka International Center for Cultural Exchange. Almajnouni had entered a similar competition at the Japanese Embassy in Riyadh in 2012.
“My speech was about how much I love Japan, the culture, heritage and language,” she explained to Arab News. “At that time, I was confident that I would win the contest, so I was waiting to hear my name when they announced the winners but, unfortunately, I lost. I was really disappointed, because I really wanted to prove to my parents how much I wanted to go to Japan and study there.”
It was a bitter loss. But, she added, “If I didn’t lose in 2012, I wouldn’t have stood up again to win in 2014.”
Almajnouni’s winning speech that year was about how she lost in the 2012 competition and how she felt back then. “The 2012 failure made me a winner in 2014,” she reiterated. Almajnouni’s accomplishment is even more impressive when you learn that she taught herself to speak Japanese, which she now considers her second language.
“I started to learn Japanese in 2009. My sister and I used to practice the language together,” she said. “It was difficult for me to acquire the language, but because I was passionate about it I studied every morning.”
Almajnouni first visited Japan in 2011 on a 10-day vacation. “I immediately felt that I belonged there and I felt that I had to come back to Japan not as a tourist but as a resident. I had to live there and study there,” she said.
She said her father was supportive of that dream: “He was investing in our education, so he was one of the first to support me to study in Japan. In fact, he encouraged me to apply for the speech competition.”
She clarified why she chose to study architecture in Japan: “Japan’s population is high, (so people) live in small houses and apartments. But even though their houses are small, they are creative when it comes to using space. I want to introduce the concept of smart homes to Saudi Arabia when using small spaces.”
As much as she has enjoyed her time in Japan, Almajnouni explained that it hasn’t always been easy, and that during her first year or so she suffered from “culture shock.”
“It was strange, because I love Japanese culture, the cuisine, the lifestyle, even the TV shows. In fact, all of my friends in Saudi Arabia were Japanese or foreigners, so to feel homesick was hard for me,” she said. “I had to think these things through, because there is no turning back — I fought for this and life is not easy. So I had to get more involved with the culture.”
She has certainly kept herself busy. “I decided to learn new things every once in a while, like production and montage and taking extra courses in translation,” she explained. “My goal is to come back to Saudi Arabia with several degrees.
“I consider Saudi students in Japan survivors, because we managed to adapt to the culture and lifestyle regardless of the huge difference between the two countries,” she continued. “It is a big challenge — especially with the language barrier. But we hope our parents are proud of us and that we are the best ambassadors for our home country.”