Studying Abroad in Japan 

Spending one year living in Japan was the hardest, most exciting, and most beneficial thing that I have ever done. I made the decision to apply to study abroad through American Fields Service (AFS) shortly after I returned home from my foreign exchange to Chiba, Japan. I fell in love with the language, people, and culture and there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to learn more.

After a lengthy application process filled with papers, biographies, interviews, and orientations, I arrived in Japan in March 2008. From there, I stayed with a host-family in a suburb of Osaka, Japan where I went to school at Baika Gakuen, an all-girls private school.

The entire year was a roller coaster ride of emotions and experiences. Sometimes, I felt trapped. I didn't know anybody, I couldn't speak Japanese very well, and I didn't understand the culture. At times, my culture shock was overwhelming and I wanted nothing more than to return home to what I considered normal. This is part of the experience of studying abroad though, and AFS had prepared me as best they could for it.

The moment my attitude became more positive was because of the simplest experience. I was riding my bike home from school and came across a massive beetle on the ground. Curious, I got off of my bike and observed the beetle. I hadn't seen one of its size before and felt inclined to take pictures to send to my friends back home. As I was taking pictures, an elderly woman approached me and asked me what I was doing. Our discussion consisted mostly of small talk, but it was the first time I was able to hold a conversation and understand every bit of it. I was ecstatic. Finally, the prospect of learning Japanese no longer seemed like an impossibility. I was making progress and I knew I would only make more. That was three months into my study abroad and from that moment on, I saw the amazing opportunity that I was given in a new light. That day, I bought a journal, outlined a list of 'rules' for my entries, and, to the best of my abilities, began logging my experiences from an objective, unbiased perspective.

Though I did experience low points, the majority of the year was full of exciting experiences such as the one above. There was so much new information to absorb. Traveling to Chiba for two-weeks was valuable and informative of Japanese customs, but all that I learned during that time was the tip of the cultural iceberg. It wasn't until I began living and going to school in Japan did I realize the more subtle norms. I learned how to be passive in my actions and my voice. I learned how to be more open in terms of health-related topics. I learned to rely on public transportation whether I was traveling downtown or to Hiroshima. I learned the busy lifestyle of the average Japanese person. These social norms took me months to pick up on, understand, and then apply to my own life, but once I had accomplished this, living in Japan became much easier.

I learned to accept all sorts of cultural differences and embrace them. Every day was an accomplishment, and every tomorrow held a new adventure. I welcomed each and every opportunity I had to better my Japanese language and lifestyle. At first I was afraid to make mistakes, but after my experience with the beetle, I knew that for my study abroad to really mean anything, I had to throw myself out there, make a fool of myself, and learn. I messed up a traditional Japanese solo dance in front of my entire school. I thought that the Japanese word 'binbo' was an adaptation of the English word 'bimbo,' when instead it means 'poor.' I tried to tell my friends that my cell phone battery had died, when what I had really said was that “true death” had come to the battery. I froze up on a Japanese speech in front of 1,000 of my classmates. I offended my host-mom when I told her I didn't like a particular food dish, when simply saying, "I'm full" or "It tastes okay," would have accomplished the same objective. The list is numerous. I embarrassed myself a lot, and ultimately, it paid off because those experiences were the ones that taught me the most. They were necessary for my study abroad to be meaningful.

On the other hand, I also had particularly memorable experiences. I folded 1,000 paper cranes and hung them up at the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima. I helped construct a haunted house for the culture festival at my school. I made pokemon pogs for my host-brother. I was surprised with an elaborate party on my birthday by my classmates. I saw the Daibutsu (a giant bronze statue of Buddha) in Nara. I spoke with geishas in Kyoto. I rode on the bullet train. I inspired a classmate’s English speech that ended up winning her a trip to California. I fed and played with Japanese snow monkeys. I even tried eating cow stomach, raw squid, jellyfish, pig tongue, horse, and cow intestines.

Spending an entire year in Japan was a huge challenge. At times, I felt so alone and I regretted signing myself up for such an emotionally draining experience; but through all the trials and tribulations shines an irreplaceable life experience. My perspective of the world changed. My attitude changed. My self-esteem changed. I saw things in my future I would have never even considered before. Looking back on that year, I realize that I went to Japan as a child and I returned home an adult. I learned how to adapt to my environment, embrace the unknown, laugh at my mistakes, accept things that are out of my control, be positive, and to always do my best.

2008 was a great year. I look back on all the good and the bad (and even the ugly!) of studying abroad in Japan and I can only smile. There are certainly things that I could have done better, but I would not change a single aspect of my experience, whether hardship or accomplishment. This really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't miss it; but above all, I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to study abroad. Without it, I would not be the person that I am today.
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