Critical Language Scholarship Program | Mahli Knutson
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Language partners and U.S. students took a trip to Kyoto during the Gion Festival!

Mahli Knutson

Mahli Knut­son is an alum­na of the 2017 CLS Chi­nese pro­gram in Dalian, Chi­na and the 2018 CLS Japan­ese pro­gram in Hikone, Japan. She’s cur­rent­ly a junior at Mid­dle­bury Col­lege, where she stud­ies Inter­na­tion­al Pol­i­tics and Eco­nom­ics and pre­pares to lead the Japan­ese Club dur­ing her senior year. Her future plans include work­ing in immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy and serv­ing the Depart­ment of State as a con­sular offi­cer. She reads sci­ence fic­tion nov­els, col­lects spoons, and has been keep­ing a jour­nal since she was sev­en years old.

Inter­na­tion­al Per­spec­tives from Home

I was born in south­ern Chi­na and grew up near rur­al Mid­dle­bury, Ver­mont. Though I was excit­ed to go away for col­lege and did not expect to stay in-state, learn­ing and vol­un­teer­ing in my home state has kept me ground­ed in my com­mu­ni­ty. I am invest­ed in equal­iz­ing access to edu­ca­tion through lan­guage ser­vices. At Mid­dle­bury, I co-lead a Refugee Out­reach Club to assist in Eng­lish Lan­guage Learn­ing (ELL) class­rooms. While abroad in Japan and the U.K., I vol­un­teered teach­ing Eng­lish class­es to ele­men­tary stu­dents and over­seas workers.

Dis­cov­er­ing a Love for Japanese

Guid­ed by a desire to learn about many lan­guages and cul­tures, I start­ed study­ing Japan­ese in fresh­man year of col­lege after meet­ing a cou­ple of pro­fes­sors at an aca­d­e­m­ic intro­duc­tions fair. The Sen­sei were very friend­ly, and I soon found myself part of a wel­com­ing and ded­i­cat­ed cam­pus com­mu­ni­ty. I was amazed by my college’s exten­sive pro­gram­ming includ­ing lunchtime lan­guage tables and cook­ing, music and movie events at the J‑House” (where it is a rule to only speak Japanese).

One J‑House cul­tur­al event about sumo wrestling — pre­vi­ous­ly unfa­mil­iar to me — pleas­ant­ly sur­prised me. I learned about sumo’s nation­al pop­u­lar­i­ty, hon­or, and the reg­i­ment­ed prac­tices, eat­ing, and ded­i­ca­tion train­ing requires. Gen­uine­ly curi­ous, I asked who wash­es wrestlers’ mawashi, or loin­cloth. Low­er-ranked trainees with­in the same train­ing stu­dio do. The answer to my ques­tion revealed Japan’s social hier­ar­chies — also appar­ent, I found, in rela­tion­ships with­in stu­dent bod­ies, pro­fes­sion­al cir­cles, and lin­guis­tic lev­els of for­mal­i­ty. Since that time, I have been curi­ous to expe­ri­ence these social hier­ar­chies first-hand (minus the loincloths!).

Cities are excit­ing, but I enjoyed study­ing in a small­er city in Kan­sai. I loved feel­ing close to nature, from vis­its to Lake Biwa to the dai­ly com­mute past the rice fields near our school. Kan­sai dialect is also fun to learn and made me feel slight­ly root­ed to a con­crete place and local cul­ture in this glob­al­ized environment.

Get­ting Lost and Find­ing Her Way

I grew up in a small neigh­bor­hood and used to think I had a hor­ri­ble sense of direc­tion, stick­ing to Google Maps and street signs amid the daunt­ing road net­works of big cities. Hikone was my first trip to Japan, when I found out that there are many unmarked streets. The CLS pro­gram pro­vid­ed a flip phone which was quite use­ful, but not so much for nav­i­gat­ing. By land­marks and habit, then, I was slow­ly build­ing con­fi­dence get­ting around the city. It was rainy sea­son, and one stormy night I got lost on the way home from school. I spent almost an hour bik­ing up and down a riv­er I rec­og­nized, try­ing des­per­ate­ly to remem­ber the route in the dark. I final­ly found a white road sign that read 30,” with a red cir­cle around it. When I called my host fam­i­ly, I described my loca­tion, along the riv­er and on Road 30. In the end my host sis­ter direct­ed me home from the riv­er, but I found out lat­er that the street was indeed name­less — and the road sign turned out to be a speed lim­it mark­er! I final­ly learned the route the hard way, with my host family’s support.

A Nuanced View

When oth­ers ask how my first time to Japan was, the three aspects I most read­i­ly describe are the peo­ple I met, the deli­cious food, and ani­mé-like scenery — but study in Japan also grant­ed me expo­sure to music, archi­tec­ture, reli­gion, tech­nol­o­gy, col­lo­qui­alisms, and much more. Com­ing from an adopt­ed Chi­nese Amer­i­can back­ground, I knew I must approach Japan with fresh eyes. Putting aside uni­form notions of East Asia” and inter­act­ing with the cul­ture and peo­ple in their own con­text, I strive toward a truer” image of Japan, and hope to advo­cate this kind of exchange in my Ver­mont com­mu­ni­ty and beyond.


CLS Alum­ni Ambas­sadors are recent CLS par­tic­i­pants who take lead­er­ship roles as active and pos­i­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the CLS Pro­gram by engag­ing with CLS alum­ni and rep­re­sent­ing the pro­gram to var­i­ous audi­ences. If you would like to get in touch with a CLS Alum­ni Ambas­sador, please con­tact clsalumni@​americancouncils.​org


Alumni Profiles

Mahli Knutson
Mahli Knutson
Japanese 2018
Hikone, Japan

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Posted Date

May 06, 2019