A love for culture

Stepping out of her comfort zone and pursuing diverse interests helped this graduate find her path
Tokyo-born McGill grad Mai Kutsuna (BASc’23) was drawn to Montreal’s language and culture, and completed an immersive French-language program in Saguenay, Quebec

When Mai Kutsuna (BASc’23) started studying French more than a decade ago, she never realized that decision would have a lasting influence – leading her to leave her home in Japan and start a new life in Quebec.

Kutsuna was drawn to Montreal in part because she wanted to practice her French, but also because McGill’s Bachelor of Arts and Science allowed her to combine her unique interests: chemistry and theatre.

Exploring your passions

For Kutsuna, studying in the diverse, multilingual city of Montreal presented a new challenge.

She had received offers from the University of Toronto and University of British Columbia, but she was worried those universities would feel too close to home because of the schools’ large Japanese student populations.

“I could stay in my comfort zone there, and that’s not what I wanted,” says Kutsuna. “Plus, I’ve been studying French for so long. I want to use it, and there’s not a lot of French in the other provinces.”

The flexibility of her double major was also a big draw. Other programs Kutsuna was looking at were rigid. She wanted the chance to explore her interests and take time to figure out her path in life. “I am so happy I got to study both [subjects],” she says. “During the school year, if I would get stressed about my chemistry work, I could escape into my theatre assignments, and vice-versa.”

Kutsuna also found the city’s events were inspiring diversions. After class, she spent her time exploring Montreal’s rich arts and culture scene.

“I’m really glad I chose to live here, there are always arts and culture events. Montreal is also really diverse, which was important to me.”

Discovering Québécois culture

Mai Kutsuna with fellow Explore McGill-UQAC program participants in Chicoutimi, Quebec

In her third year, Kutsuna found the perfect opportunity to immerse herself in Quebec’s majority language and culture – six hours from Montreal, in Saguenay.

During the five-week French immersion program, Explore McGill-UQAC, Kutsuna and other participants took French classes that centred on Quebec culture at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, named for a borough in the city of Saguenay.

Outside of class she spent time with a host family, exploring Chicoutimi and living entirely in French. She quickly saw a link between her new home and her native country.

“I think that with French, like with Japanese, there’s a strong connection between the language and the culture,” Kutsuna explained. “For example, both languages have formal forms.”

Taking chances, making mistakes

One challenge Kutsuna always faced was a lack of confidence in her ability to speak in French. Having studied the language since high school, her writing was strong, but she was nervous about entering a fully francophone environment.

“I had this idea that my French needed to be perfect, so I was afraid to speak it because I wouldn’t have time to think about the grammar. Plus, I usually speak really quickly!”

Over the course of five weeks, Kutsuna practiced speaking with her host family and fellow students, quickly gaining confidence and improving her skills, all while learning more about Quebec and its culture.

“We had classes where we would listen to music by Quebec artists. I still listen to the radio in French, which helps me maintain my French – and even improve it.”

Even more impactful in helping Kutsuna get a feel for life in Quebec was simply getting around in Chicoutimi.

“One of my personal objectives was to better understand the Québécois accent and living in Chicoutimi helped me do that. I think even my own accent changed, and that’s helped me better integrate into Quebec society, which was important to me.”

MCing a Japanese festival in French

Looking ahead, Kutsuna says she plans on staying in Quebec – for the next three years at the very least.

“I have a work permit now, and the goal is to become a permanent resident,” she explains.

“I already passed my intermediate-level DELF (French proficiency) exam and now I’m trying to gain more work experience. Ideally, I’d work in arts and culture and I would be able to use the three languages I know: Japanese, English, and French.”

Since her Explore experience, Kutsuna has found ways to do just that.

Shortly after graduating in 2023, Kutsuna became involved in the Yatai MTL Festival, which celebrates Japanese and other Asian cultures in the city. Kutsuna picked up some event-planning skills by managing various activities, reaching out to artists and vendors (who mostly spoke French), and she even worked as a bilingual MC during the festival.

“I’m very grateful for this opportunity because the environment was basically all in French, so it gave me a taste of what it would be like to work in the events industry in Montreal,” she says.

It was a great experience, and she was invited to come back next summer.

In the meantime, Kutsuna is taking a gap year, working as a sales rep for a Japanese soy sauce brand, and part-time at a matcha shop.

“I enjoy my work because I have the opportunity to practice French, all while explaining really technical things that are common in Japan. It helps me share some of my culture with people from here.”

Applications for the McGill-UQAC Explore Program will open on March 1.

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Paul Frazer
5 months ago

I would be interested in an article relating the thoughts/impressions of families hosting McGill students in Chicoutimi. It could demonstrate the positive impact of the McGill students on impressions local families might have about far-off McGill and dispel some myths about the university and its students’ interest in Quebec culture.