KUCHING: While furthering one’s studies abroad or locally each have their pros and cons, studying in another country certainly provides more opportunities to experience different cultures and lifestyles first-hand.
Dr Lidyana Roslan had such an opportunity to truly immerse herself in the Japanese way of life, having spent 10 years undertaking her three degrees at Kitami Institute of Technology in Hokkaido, Japan from 2007 to 2017.
She completed her Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree in mechanical engineering before obtaining her PhD in manufacturing engineering.
She is currently a lecturer in Universiti Malaysia Sarawak’s (Unimas) Faculty of Engineering (Mechanical Engineering).
In a recent interview with New Sarawak Tribune, Lidyana shared her remarkable experience of living in Japan for a decade, of assimilating into the Japanese environment, and a few values and principles which could be learned from the Japanese.
New Sarawak Tribune: Can you tell us about where you lived while in Japan?
Lidyana: I lived in Kitami, which is located at the northwest end of Hokkaido near the Abashiri region. What is special about this particular region is that it is near to the Okhotsk Sea, which is ice from October until April.
Hokkaido itself is quite different from Tokyo or Osaka, or the normal Honshu (Japan’s main island which comprises most of the country’s major cities) for that matter.
Winters start early; usually we would start to see snow falling by Oct 30 and the peak period for snow would be around November to February, though we would still experience snow and snowstorms around March and April sometimes. In winter, temperatures could dip down to -21°C. Actually, -1°C is considered rather warm to us and 4°C is quite hot.
Summers are quite short, and although we can experience high temperatures of around 38°C, that is usually only for three days or so. Normally, the temperature in summer is around 24°C to 28°C.
So it is a very different experience overall and not the usual Japan that most people know of.
The thing about Kitami is that not many people know about it. It is not that secluded – just five hours by train and bus from Sapporo – but people don’t usually visit because it is right at the end. It is an agricultural region and their main produce is onion.
How old were you when you were living there?
I basically grew up in Kitami because I was there from when I was 19 until I was 29 years old. I was from SMK Batu Lintang before that.
After I graduated from the Special Preparatory Programme to Japan at Universiti Malaya – my foundation for one and a half years – I went to Kitami in 2007 and I graduated in 2017 after I completed my Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD.
I did have a bit of a break between my Master’s degree and PhD, during which I worked here at Utas Kesturi Sdn Bhd as an assistant engineer for six months. Once everything was ready for my PhD, I flew back.
What was quite unique about living there is that I think at most, there were only six to nine Malaysians there at any one time, depending on the batch. So when you are in a very small community, you tend to blend with the local Japanese more.
Even so, their culture in Kitami was a bit different from the culture in Japan as a whole as it is very much influenced by the seasons. There were seasonal clothing and food, and all of that is a little different from the Honshu region.
What season did you enjoy the most?
My favourite season was winter – I picked up a new sport, which was snowboarding.
But I also liked summer because I could go mountaineering at Mount Kurodake in Daisetsuzan National Park. I am a novice at mountaineering so it was too dangerous for me to go in winter. In August, I would usually go mountaineering with my lab mates. At the mountain, there would still be ice even in July and August.
I think most people who go to four-season countries would usually pick up skating, snowboarding, and skiing. In Kitami, we also have curling, which looks easy but is actually very difficult.
What was your experience with learning the Japanese language?
I started learning Japanese early when I was 14. The main challenge was remembering the strokes and the grammar. Every character is different and has its own meaning, and every combination of characters has a different meaning as well.
I think it took me about four years after moving to Japan to master the language. It was through assimilation; I was forced to speak and write the language. Particularly because I lived in a small town and not a larger city like Tokyo, picking up the language was even faster because nobody understood English in the smaller towns. My perception of Kitami is that it is similar to Sri Aman.
I enjoy listening to Japanese music and I also read Japanese comics. Through comics, I learned informal language and slangs from different prefectures.
Besides that, I watched television shows. Their shows are very different from Malaysia’s. Every one of their television shows is not aimless – there are always values, information, or takeaway messages.
As a minority in Japan, what was the level of acceptance among the community there?
Most people have a certain perception of what Japanese culture is like, but actually we are quite the same. I felt like it was not difficult at all to assimilate into the culture there, as we do have things in common.
There are also usually other Asians there, such as Vietnamese, Singaporeans, and others, so we do blend with each other well.
Sometimes you do get curious looks, but they are not unfriendly stares. Although Japan was already quite global, I think they really started to open up more to other cultures from 2015 onwards as they were going to have the Olympics in Japan in 2020.
They are open and very curious. In my university, we had cultural communication hour, whereby we would usually share our stories about ourselves and Malaysia. They were very interested in our mixed marriages and mixed ethnicities, especially in Sarawak. In Sarawak alone, we speak so many languages and it is very interesting to them as they are monolingual.
As such, I was like a small window for the locals to learn about other cultures. Not only me, there were other Malaysians, Asians, Polish, and Russians there too who shared about their culture.
Moving towards 2020, the Japanese started progressively learning more about other cultures and accommodating them.
I would say it was easier for me, as a Muslim, to live there post-2015 as they started having prayer rooms, better accessibility to halal food, and so on. Previously if you wanted to purchase halal food, you would have to search for it, but now you can just go to the supermarket and there would be halal food there.
Given the chance, would you want to migrate there?
When I was younger, I wanted to stay there as I felt it was more fun and liberal. But then I returned here and relearned how to be a Kuchingite and a Sarawakian – I relearned my roots.
I got to know more about our biodiversity, our interesting indigenous things, and that is what I started to apply the tools that I learned in Japan to the indigenous products that we have here. I want to give back to Sarawak.
So instead of migrating there, I can just bring back the culture and people can learn from me, and if they are interested, they can go there.
What really impresses you about Japan?
They find knowledge in everything. For instance: paper. To us, paper is just paper, but to them, it can be origami or they can put seeds inside and throw it into the garden to grow a plant.
They find ways to innovate and create, and they look beyond.
It starts from a young age; when they are in kindergarten, they have an observation class and they are taught to ask questions and to ask why. Their minds are very inquisitive.
Another value that is unique is that they can agree to disagree. But even if they disagree, they will still accommodate you.
Could you elaborate on your research?
During my Bachelor’s degree, I studied biomechanic engineering. When I continued on to my Master’s and my PhD, I changed my field of study to crystallography metal. I studied metal and how the crystals work and tried to translate that into a 3D simulation.
My research right now is not focused on metal anymore; I am reverting back to my original biomechanics although more towards sports science, to do with lower limb rehabilitation. The original idea for this was by Dr Shahrol Mohamaddan (Unimas’ Faculty of Engineering/Shibaura Institute of Technology, Japan).
Aside from that, I am currently studying the potential of dabai nutshells as an activated carbon filter. The nutshells are often discarded as waste, but they can actually be used to make activated carbon to be used as a water filter.
I also studied seismic excitation earthquakes in Sarawak and Borneo as a whole. I think that this is a very interesting topic now since the seismic cycle is there and we are entering it now. Actually, there was an earthquake in Kapit 27 years ago which registered around 4.0 to 5.0 on the Richter scale.
The idea for this seismic study was originated by Dr Raudhah Ahmadi (Unimas’ Faculty of Engineering).
Most of my projects are to do with Sarawak; I am using what I learned in Japan, changing a bit of the materials, and in that way, I can give back to Sarawak.
During the interview, Lidyana also expressed her gratitude to Unimas vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Mohamad Kadim Suaidi.