Just a couple weeks ago, I graduated college. I've been going through a whirlwind of emotions, good-byes and transitions into the "real world." At the same time, I've been reflecting on my past 4 years as an undergrad.
There are a lot of things that college grads easily remember. The friends we made, the countless all-nighters, silly (and perhaps stupid) shenanigans. But for some, study abroad tends to be the most memorable and most life-changing experience. I'm included in this. I studied abroad in Tokyo, Japan. Or as my friends call it, I "studied at home."
I am Japanese. I was born in Japan and raised there for part of my life. I speak the language fluently and visited my home country countless times. So why did I decide to study "abroad" there?
Why Study Abroad in Japan?
I originally planned to study abroad in China. I wanted to continue working on my Chinese and take classes related to international affairs. A visit to Tokyo during my spring break in 2013 changed this.
My family often visits Japan during the summer or winter. So it was the first time in 12 years that I was going to see Japan in its springtime glory.
And boy, was it amazing.
It was probably the weather– scratch that, it was the weather. There was something so memorable about the sunny days with cherry blossoms in full bloom. The locals hosted ohanami (cherry blossom viewing parties) everywhere. Everyone looked happy, basking in the sun, drinking and enjoying themselves under the pink-petaled flowers so iconic to my country. Everything looked and felt so different. This wasn't the "hot, humid and sticky summer" Japan or the "cold, icy winter storm" Japan that I was familiar with.
Springtime Japan gave me the idea, "why not study here?" My writing and reading skills definitely needed intensive work. I rarely wrote Japanese, aside from the text messages I exchanged with my parents. Aside from occasional glances at the Japanese news, I rarely read Japanese in college. I had also received approval to pursue my thesis research on immigration in Japan. Why not conduct field studies during my time abroad?
Last and most importantly, I had the strong desire to explore and see Japan beyond the concrete, busy metropolis of Tokyo.
Enamored with spring and filled academic goals, I decided to change my study abroad destination to Tokyo. My parents were pleased to have their daughter back in her birthplace and studying her own language and culture. As the day of departure approached, my head was filled with all sorts of dreams about exploring Tokyo, and going beyond the city to other regions of Japan.
But things didn't go as planned.
Homesick During Study Abroad in Japan
Most study abroad programs (if they're anything like my university's) are full of orientations. Each session consists of discussion on everything and anything we might need to know before we leave. Once we get to our destination, they orient us even more. Much of it is very necessary, like understanding the school system, knowing what to do if you get sick, etc. Our Tokyo study abroad group had an extensive session on the psychological aspects of study abroad. Specifically, the struggles of adapting to a new environment and the homesickness that often comes along with it.
I'll be completely honest here: I was naive when it came to these homesickness orientations. I am Japanese. I speak the language fluently, and had visited Japan many times. Homesickness was the last thing on my mind. "Why would I feel homesick in my own country?" I thought to myself. "There's no way I could feel confused."
Looking back, I want to slap that clueless girl in the face and tell her to straighten up. In reality, I felt like a total foreigner in my own country, for at least the first month of my study abroad.
Lifestyle changes hit me hard, both physically and mentally. As I commuted an hour and a half to get to school, shifting through the crowded streets of Tokyo, I began to question the mass media harping on about Japan's population decline. I was physically and mentally exhausted by the hustle and bustle. How did locals manage to live with this every day? After a few weeks of post-arrival euphoria, I was sick of being in the concrete jungle.
I never imagined communication would be an issue. I understood what everyone was saying, and I was able to ask for help whenever I needed it. But for the first couple weeks, I couldn't communicate "smoothly," for a lack of better term.
Conversations felt strained and misunderstandings were common, especially with other Japanese students my age. Perhaps this was because I was unaware of how Japanese young adults talked with each another. For much of my life, my parents were the only Japanese people I spoke the language to.
There was a particular time when I was speaking with another Japanese girl in a club I had joined. I was speaking formally with everyone, ending all my sentences with "~desu" and "~masu." Finally, the girl looked a bit offended and asked, "Why are you talking like that?"
I didn't know that speaking formally is weird when the other person isn't your sempai. She and I were in the same grade, and I created a weird "wall" between us. All because I didn't know how to converse with people my age.
Because I was raised in the American education system, the concept of sempai-kouhai was hard for me to grasp. How do you determine if someone's a sempai? Is it physical age, or is it grade? Is it the amount of experience they have on a particular activity? Or is it the position within a specific organization (i.e. clubs)?
Can't I just talk formally to everyone? Oh wait, that builds an "invisible wall" around you. So why can't we just talk informally to everyone, then? Right, because it's disrespectful.
Identity issue was a little more complex for me to dissect and understand. It bothered me for weeks. Whenever I interacted with other Japanese students my age, they were confused.
"So you're American?" "No, I'm Japanese. I was born here, but raised there." "So you're jun-japa 純ジャパ?! Why are you studying here then?!"
At various school functions where local and international students interacted, many of them regarded me as an "American student." But once we began to converse in Japanese (as any study abroad student should), they began to question my real identity. To them I was what they call a Jun-Japa – pure Japanese. But this Jun-Japa was NOT speaking and acting Japanese.
At times, I think this dual identity strained conversations and relationship-building. There I was, a Japanese national, who spoke and understood Japanese. But I didn't look or act the part.
I spoke English better than Japanese, and donned the typical American college kid attire of T-shirt and jeans. I looked so different from the local Japanese girls and their impeccable appearance.
Maybe the "American side" of me was coming out a little strong in Japan, confusing both me and everyone else.
I also had trouble communicating with Japanese people outside school. Should I act American or Japanese? How do Japanese people my age act anyway? What does it even mean to be American?
Figuring It Out
I didn't think it was be possible. But there I was, completely lost like a stranger in my own country. As exaggerated as it sounds, I began questioning my identity. Was I too Americanized to be considered as a "Japanese girl?"
Looking back, I realize that I was comparing Japan to the country that I visited when I was younger. Visiting Japan for just a month is far different from actually living and studying there for 4 months.
Perhaps it was because I didn't take the thought of homesickness seriously. Maybe it was because I was reading Murakami's Norwegian Wood (the most depressing sh*t ever). Nothing made sense and I became sad at the most random moments. Within weeks of starting my study abroad, I was missing the comforts of California, my university, and my friends and family. I quickly became frustrated, sad, and angry.
Shaking It All Off
For me, the first step to overcoming this sense of frustration was admitting I was naive. Yes, Japan was my birthplace. But for a girl who's lived over half of her life abroad with little contact to a large Japanese community, Japan was a brand-new country. I had to take it in little by little, and stop comparing it to the country I had visited so often in the past.
I had to think about why I was struggling to live in Tokyo. I had to consider different approaches. I was tired of the concrete jungle, yes. But I hadn't considered Tokyo to be more than it's famous locations. Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ikebukuro can be fun, but I hadn't given other neighborhoods a chance. I ended up exploring the less-crowded spots, like quiet residential neighborhoods and the homely shitamachi 下町 areas. I often found solace just walking around these areas and finding little new things here and there.
I found great relief in talking about my issues with other study abroad students. It turns out most of us had felt pretty "out of place" at certain times during our time in Tokyo. We shared about times we felt bad, times when we felt good, and how we adjusted to the society. Just talking with others and learning that I wasn't the only one feeling like total crap was reassuring.
I decided to go beyond my school's campus and meet Japanese people doing interesting things. I took an internship at a journal publisher. I learned a lot from the editor-in-chief and other Japanese interns. I got a sense of what it was like to work along other Japanese people.
I even managed to catch up with some old friends– including ones I haven't seen in 14 years! I also got to meet with students from other universities doing some really interesting projects.
Besides these, time and a whole lot of napping helped. There would be days I felt super energetic and ready to go explore. And then there were days when I felt too frustrated and just wanted to go home and nap.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what made it go away. But little by little the feeling of being "lost" dissipated. It took time to come to terms with all the different people, sites, and ideas that I was seeing every day. But eventually I felt pretty situated in the country I once called "home."
Rewards from the Journey
Everything got better after the initial "slump." And looking back, there's a whole lot I have to thank Japan for.
My writing and reading definitely improved. I was surrounded by the language wherever I went. Not only was I speaking Japanese on a daily basis, but I was writing and reading a lot in class. I read Japanese newspapers daily. I was surrounded by Japanese ads on the trains and came home to a share house where Japanese was the common language. The effects of daily language engagement are still with me. It's overstated, but being completely immersed in the language kicks up your skills.
I think the people I met and befriended, whether they were Japanese or from other countries, my time abroad special. I encountered people of all ages, employment, and personal backgrounds. It was always interesting to see how they viewed Japan, how they viewed America, and exchange thoughts on all kinds of topics, silly and serious.
I got to travel and explore Tokyo and beyond. I think I had somehow always tied "Tokyo=busy" and "Japan=Tokyo" to my psyche. But Japan can't be defined by its capital alone. In a sense, I got a better view of the country in its entirety, not limiting myself to certain ideas or images that I grew up with.
But most importantly, I learned how the "familiar" can feel "foreign." I realized my identity was not something that could be clearly defined. I was Japanese by citizenship and ethnicity. But because of my upbringing, I can't completely associate myself with Japanese culture. All in all, I got comfortable living in this "gray" zone, mixing languages and cultures of the two countries that are a part of my identity.
In a sense, my time abroad gave me an idea of what it really means to be "open-minded." We all claim to be welcoming of new ideas, people and values. But it's not until we're placed in a foreign situation that we realize how capable we are of embracing "foreignness." For me personally, it turned out I was a little more stubborn than I thought. It took a little more time and thought for me to accept the ways my own country.
This summer, I'll return to Tokyo, this time for an indefinite period and to work as a shakai-jin 社会人 ("Member of society"). Hopefully I'll be a little wiser this time around. Though I'll expect to feel like a "stranger" sometimes, perhaps I'll learn to move better with the pushes and pulls and find my place in this crazy but amazing country.