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Senior Patricia Truong takes first place in statewide Japanese speech contest

April 9, 2014

For the first time, a Wayne State University student has taken first place in the Michigan Japanese Language Speech Contest, an annual competition for high school and college Japanese language learners.

Senior Patricia Truong (third from left), a pre-pharmacy student majoring in Japanese, recently beat her competitors in the university category with a touching reflection on Shinshoezu, an inter-generational storytelling exercise she observed while visiting the Shiga Prefecture’s Kusatsu City during a study abroad experience in Japan. Truong took first placed based on her command of the Japanese language, the content of her speech and her delivery.

For almost 20 years, the Michigan Language Speech Contest has been staged annually by the Consulate General of Japan in Detroit, Japan Business Society of Detroit, the Japan America Society of Michigan and Southwest Ontario and the Japanese Teachers Association of Michigan to encourage and support Japanese language instruction in Michigan. The competition receives support from Japan Foundation and Delta Air Lines, which provides first-place winners in the high school and university categories with air fare vouchers for $300 and $500, respectively.

Raised in Michigan by Vietnamese parents, Truong was exposed to her family’s native Chinese growing up but could never satisfactorily converse with her grandparents. While spending her winter 2013 semester at the Japan Center for Michigan Universities in Ekone, she was invited by a friend to observe a public demonstration of Shinshoezu and immediately saw its potential for helping her connect and communicate with them.

Developed by a Japanese academic, Shinshoezu is a growing regional practice that brings many generations of a community together to produce paintings describing its history. As elders share tales about “the old days,” youth draw what is being described, eventually consolidating these pictures into a tableau that tells the community’s story. In her speech, Truong described her desire to know the stories of her grandparents, who came to America after losing everything in the Vietnam War. Without photographs of their life in Vietnam and a connection to the people they knew, they stopped talking about their native land even among the family.

 “When you tell stories, you often use simple vocabulary which makes communication easier,” Truong said. “It occurred to me that Shinshoezu could help me overcome the language barrier with my grandparents and finally understand where they came from.”

Truong, who began studying Japanese in high school and has taken Japanese language and culture courses at Wayne State for four years, said she didn’t feel confident after delivering her speech during last month’s competition, which was held at Livonia’s Hinoki International School.

“Everybody else’s Japanese was extremely fast and seemed perfect,” Truong said. “But I heard from professors who were attending that it was the content of my speech that set me apart. One professor told me she would like to make a painting with her children, because they were raised in America and she felt they didn’t understand her stories about growing up in Japan.”

By coincidence, Truong had already planned a spring break trip to Japan before the competition and left shortly after winning. Friends spread the word of her win, and while in Japan she was invited to meet the professor who conceived Shinshoezu and the governor of the Shiga Prefecture.

Now back in the states, Truong is planning her next trip. She plans to use her $500 Delta Air Lines voucher to visit her grandparents in California and – what else? – introduce them to Shinshoezu.