This past month I have completed finals, completed midterms, caught a 3-week flu and moved back to America. Somehow despite all this I am still here, alive and kicking, at Wheaton. That’s right folks, I’m back in the good ol’ USA, home to Trump-Daitoryo as they would say back at my old university. Last semester was spent abroad in Japan, the land of hot springs, minimalism, and foreign dreams of anime babes.
Ever since I was a small child, I had always been fascinated by Mt. Fuji. My mother showed me a picture of the mountain in a book and for some reason I was hooked. I could not get dreams of that mountain and the country it called home out of my head. As I aged, Japan was always in the background of my mind. I found the bright colors and mismatching lip syncs of Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh to be oddly charming and soon I was a bonafide fanatic of anime. Years past and my interest shifted from Japanese media, to Japanese culture as a whole. It was then I decided that I wanted to learn the language. Luckily, I decided on Wheaton as my college of choice and I began my quest to learn Japanese. Two years and lots of caffeine and tears later and I was comfortable enough with my language skill in order to apply for the Waseda Program in Tokyo. To my surprise, I was accepted, and soon I was off to Japan, finally ready to accomplish my life goal of studying there. And boy howdy, it was a wild ride.
The first month was one of the scariest and most challenging experiences I have ever endured in my life. Gone were the classes where English was an option to explain why you were late, gone were the supermarkets where you recognized the food, everything was entirely alien to me. Now, I had tried to brace myself for the culture and language barrier, but nothing could have fully prepared me for life abroad. It was like I was four years old again. I had to watch others in order to learn the proper way to speak and conduct behavior. I was unable to read most signs and could not understand a single word that was spoken around me. It was utterly terrifying to be so helpless. Luckily, I had met a friend on the bus ride over who became my foundation for the first few weeks. We would share smiles about how we were achieving our life goals and cry over just how terrifying living in a non-English country really was. It was in that first month, that I found sense of bravery that I did not know existed. The reality of, “I’m stuck here.” both terrified and motivated me to stick out the program and complete my semester. Daily, I would have to tell myself, “It’s okay that you barely understand anything. Things will be okay. You made it past freshman year, you can make it in Japan.” After many days that felt like months, things finally started changing for the better.
I found a circle of friends, two of which were completely fluent in Japanese, which guided and motivated our little group to keep at it and fight against the daily struggle of language. Before I knew it, my nights spent alone turned into weekly excursions to Karaoke and various parks. Life started to feel like college again, especially when my worries went from daily life in Japan to classes and grades. And by the second month, life started to feel more normal, Japan started feeling like home. I had found a sense of peace with my lack of understanding.
The rest of the semester continued with a series of ups and downs, just like life back at Wheaton. I got the opportunity to travel to the Kansai region of Japan, which was a welcome break from the cosmopolitan life of Tokyo. Kansai was more like home; the locals donned jeans and t-shirts instead of business suits and blouses. While in Kansai, I met some locals, ate some great food, got dropped off in a parking lot a hour walk away from Kyoto with no directions at 5am, and climbed a mountain! It was quite possibly the best experience of my life. As my joyful days in Japan passed on however, so did the realization that I would be leaving it all behind.
My final day in Japan was a very melancholy one. On one hand, I was thrilled to be coming back home to my friends and an abundance of Mexican food, but one the other hand I would be leaving my new friends behind and saying goodbye to the Japanese convenience stores. (Seriously, I spent half my life in the convenience stores of Tokyo.The food was tasty, cheap and priced for college students. It was perfection, fluorescent-lit perfection.) After packing my bags and giving my friends one last embarrassing, blubbering goodbye, I was off. On the flight home, all I could think of was planning my next visit to Japan.
Reflecting back on my study abroad experience, all I can say is that it changed me fundamentally as a person. I’ve been struggling for months to write this article and accurately put into words how I felt about this whole experience. Studying abroad broke me in the best of ways: it broke down my ego, my pride, and my tolerance for noodles. (Seriously the amount of noodles I consumed there scares both me and my mother.) What the experience built in me though was a sense of confidence, bravery, and a deep understanding of the importance of being a global citizen. What I witnessed living in the international dorm gave me a harsh reality check on the state of American education. Every other non-American student in the dorm could speak at least three languages. In addition, conversations regarding politics always circled back around to America somehow. It was then that I realized, the world really does watch us. Even though harsh realities about being American were put on the forefront of socialization, I was still instilled with a sense of hope. Everyone, no matter what language we spoke, all laughed at the same silly puns and all smiled at the same cat videos on YouTube. There was a sense of mutual respect from all the students, even if their respective countries were previously at war with each other. Throughout the dorm, there was this real embodiment of, “hate the politics, not the citizen.” It was this international environment that gave me hope for the future and a powerful drive to educate myself in order to be a truly global citizen.
So thank you Mom and Dad for supporting my crazy dream of living on the opposite end of the world. Thank you Tierney-Sensei for helping me through that first tough year of Japanese. Thank you to all my friends who sat and listened to me cry about finalizing applications. And I want to give my biggest thank you to you, Wheaton!
I could not have achieved my dream without you.