As an outsider looking in, Emily Stith’s upbringing would come off as an exotic undertaking to most, but home (i.e. Japan) is where Emily’s heart has always been. Born, raised and schooled in Japan as the daughter of a United States naval officer, Emily easily shrugs off all cultural differences that come her way. More importantly, she has a great sense of humor, and pride, about her upbringing as an American living almost all of her life abroad. And thanks in part to UCLA’s ROTC program, Emily’s commitment to an already blossoming career in the United States Air Force has given her a serious sense of direction on what she hopes to accomplish now, and in the future. Having just graduated, with honors, from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in Chinese and Japanese, Emily looks back on what life was like before she ever made it to American shores. You’ll also find out what she’s been up to since
Trust us, this is an amazing story of one person’s journey to UCLA, and why the Humanities, and language, can be a guiding light in making important life decisions.
“I was born and raised in Japan. My dad was an officer in the United States Navy, and after I was born in Okinawa we moved to mainland Japan, to Yokosuka, where there is an American naval base. From kindergarten to eighth grade I went to a public elementary Japanese school. Everything was taught in Japanese except when they taught English language lessons, which we still spoke at home. I remember my mom telling me that I’d come home from kindergarten crying because I didn’t know how to ask for basic things at school like, ‘where is the trash can?’ Kids adapt though. My younger sister and I were the only Anglos at the Japanese school, and at parent-teacher conferences I was the translator for my mother, which definitely helped in my favor at times!
My parents really wanted me to go to an American college so they enrolled me in an international high school on the military base in Yokosuka. The students were kids of military personnel and civilian base workers. This was my American education, starting in the Ninth grade. Before I came to UCLA I had never technically lived in the United States. I applied to a bunch of schools and in the end it came down to Berkeley and UCLA. Los Angeles had better weather so I chose that. Back on the military base in Japan it was like a little America with lots of diversity, so it wasn’t a huge culture shock coming to UCLA. I was a fluent speaker of both Japanese and English when I arrived as a freshman at UCLA. While I consider English my native language, Japanese is still very close.
At first I only became friends with whomever was living on my dorm floor. But that quickly changed when I joined the Air Force ROTC program, which is the Reserve Officer Training Corps. I received an ROTC scholarship while in high school, which helped to pay for my college education in exchange for four years of military service. ROTC allowed me to meet a lot of self-motivated leaders, as the Army and Navy ROTC have around 250 kids at UCLA, and the Air Force has around 60-70 total. When I graduated from UCLA in the spring of 2016 I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force. Even before I started college I knew I was going to have a job in the United State Air Force, which was my “Plan A” all along.
I started taking Chinese language courses in high school, and the summer after my freshman year at UCLA I did a study-abroad in Taipei, Taiwan. Arriving in Taipei, my Chinese was still weak. Taiwan uses a traditional character set, which I took to right away. I ended up using the traditional set for the remainder of my time at UCLA. Within the Chinese language system there are many subsets of languages. I speak Mandarin Chinese. Writing essays in Chinese was a steep learning curve. Thankfully my professors in the Asian Language department here at UCLA were more than helpful. I also made some really good friends in my classes because we took the same courses together for three years. We all had identical struggles.
My Chinese will never be as good as my Japanese, but I’ve learned to accept that. And, at some point, I decided to throw Korean in there. I did a study-abroad in Korea last year through UCLA’s Center for Korean Studies. It lasted six weeks, and I had no previous background in Korean. Now I can read the alphabet. Korean is very different than Chinese and Japanese, as they use more of an alphabet structure. Yet each language is distinct. And I also found out right away that the food is much more spicy in Korea!
During the regular academic year at UCLA I was a Resident Advisor (RA) at the Hitch Suites dorms, which have a large international population. I helped a lot of first year students during their transition year, and also came up with activities and programming for the residents, such as Chinese New Year dumpling making. Programming is a big part of being an RA in the dorms.
I had a great time going to school at UCLA. I made good friends, and great connections that I’ll keep alive for years to come. Don’t laugh, but as a student I never had a driver’s license in the U.S., but I do have one in Japan. Luckily, as a student living in the dormitories, and Hitch Suites, there were always lots of places nearby. I enjoyed going to Sawtelle, which is a like a little Osaka. It’s only a ten-minute bus ride away from UCLA. Sawtelle has amazing ramen, and a Japanese market that I almost cried the first time I went there. Everything that I liked at home they sell there. UCLA is a great location within Los Angeles. I was easily able to go to Santa Monica and Venice. I was always nice to the bus drivers.
After graduation and commissioning in the Air Force, my initial duty station is Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska. My Air Force speciality is Personnel. My parents are retired now, and still live in Japan, where I spent this past summer working as a lead lifeguard before relocating to Omaha. I’ll be in Omaha for two to four years. I’d love to one day go back to Taiwan, as I really like the vibe there. It’s more of an island vibe, which is my style. Eventually I’d like to move back to Japan.
People ask me if I’m happy to have graduated from college and I always say ‘I’m happy I completed what I had set out to do.’”