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by Daniel Cluxton
Journal 1: Language Issues and How to Overcome Them
When weighing reasons for whether or not to go abroad, one of the many benefits (and often downsides) of that is language. This of course isn’t the case for everyone, but more often than not the country in which you are planning on going to speaks a language that, although you may have studied before, is one that you aren’t exactly comfortable communicating in. In my time here in Japan alone I have talked with a number of students who were worried before coming if they would be able to manage despite speaking (at least in their opinion) poor Japanese; often times frustrating themselves to no end when they run head first into the language barrier. In hyper focusing on the times in which they made mistakes to prove to themselves that they were right to worry, they often ended up perpetuating the very thing they wanted to avoid, and ended up having a far worse time for it. To that end, I’d like to discuss a very common statement I hear out of a lot of prospective and even current study abroad students, that being:
“I’m not good enough at the language yet, therefore it’s better for me not to go/I should not have come.”
This is something real common I feel; prospective/current study abroad students often lamenting that they’re “just not there yet” and need “maybe one or two more years of studying”. While I certainly agree that the better you speak the language the easier your day to day might be, it is in no way insurmountable for someone with basic speaking ability to get by. Often times, that “one or two more years” is a veiled way of saying achieving “near native” language ability, which is the trap of that ever moving goal post than an unconfident learner sets up for themselves.
The reality of the situation is this, you can study abroad at any language level (yes, even from zero). The thing is however, you’re only going to get out what you put into it. Take my experience for example: I came to Japan with little more than beginner Japanese, having zero speaking practice outside of class and having never held a conversation more complex than, “My name is Daniel and I like pizza”. I won’t lie, stepping off the plane and trying to find my way to my dorm was daunting, and for the first few months I tensed up at the mere thought of having to ask for something in Japanese. Yet, I threw myself out into the fray, often times against my will, but nevertheless I went full in. Things like asking for directions in Japanese without defaulting to English, actually ordering food by speaking instead of pointing at pictures and grunting, asking politely for someone to take your picture, etc. Though they may seem minor, and in the grand scheme of things they are, they’re an invaluable tool to start getting you into that Japanese (or whatever language you may be learning) mind set. By constantly thinking about what to say next, how to communicate this or that, before long you’ll begin to make what was once a heart-pounding, end of the world experience into a mundane exchange when you’re half-awake at 3am and want to buy a coffee.
As I said before however, you can only get to that point of immersion and adjustment through pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Language classes certainly help keep you in that frame of mind when you otherwise may not want to be, but it is extremely easy to just lay in your dorm or surround yourself with English-speaking friends and never speak a word of the language; don’t let yourself fall into that trap. Your goal should be to have fun and enjoy your experience abroad, not to constantly be stressed and locked up in your room for fear of making mistakes and not being able to communicate. Sure, you’re going to have a handful of experiences in which you’re pantomiming and putting on a puppet show just to explain you want to buy laundry detergent, but that’s part of the fun! Laugh it off and learn from it, at the very least you’ll have a fun story to tell when you come home.
As for me, writing this towards the end of my one year stay here in Japan, I can say for certain that I have evolved from that beginner-level ball of anxiety into a confident intermediate level speaker. While I still have a long way to go, throwing caution to the wind and diving headfirst into awkward situations I feel has not only improved my Japanese, but also my general confidence as well. It’s funny how something as simple as asking for extra rice can make you feel so much better about yourself. Thank you for reading, and good luck!
Journal 2: National Identity Abroad
Homesickness and culture shock, two things that are always hammered home by any pre-orientation or online guide to living abroad. Adjusting to an entirely new culture, re-learning sometimes even the most basic of interactions, dealing with being at such a large distance from your family, friends, and home, are just a few of the many trials one undergoes during a study abroad. My experience has been no exception, Japan especially so due to not only having to adjust to local Japanese culture but also culture of the whole of Asia itself; of which I was entirely clueless to beforehand. I’ve had to re-learn things I had largely taken for granted of back home, like the order in which you order your food or how to hand over money at a cash register. Not to mention the initial wave of homesickness in the first month or two, which even as someone as detached as me was not immune to. Yet, there was one other big thing I didn't expect to confront: your own national identity.
What do I mean by national identity? To put it simply, your nationality; the country from which you came from and how you identify yourself with it (if at all). In my case, that would be my identity as an American, and all of the stereotypes and images that come with it. What I found most interesting about this, or perhaps better a bit shocking, is that I really never sat down and thought about what it meant to be an American. In hindsight it makes sense, having grown up for the most part around Americans and American culture, that aspect of my identity was seen as, for lack of a better term, “normal”, as in I never really paid it much mind. That’s just how the world worked and I took it for granted. Yet being here in Japan, not only have I had to adjust to a Japanese lifestyle, but even my fellow international students have given me quite the wake up call as to just how different things can be.
As with anything, there are positives and negatives, but being surrounded by non-Americans has led me to a number of different instances in which I have been put on the spot because of my nationality. “How do you feel as an American about this?”, “Why does America do this, why does America do that?”, “As an American how do you feel about Asia? How do you feel about Japan?”, are just a few of the many questions I have received while in Japan. Given the political climate in the US I had expected somewhat to receive the odd question her and there, but in no way did I imagine my individual perspective would be unique enough to be worthy of question. To be honest though, the questions themselves weren’t really the most surprising part, it was more the fact that I really didn’t know how to answer. I’ve never been really put in a position to be a pseudo-ambassador to my whole country, and to have what I would have previously thought as obvious or mundane thoughts/opinions to be so valuable. It forced me to sit down and think about my nationality, to truly probe my mind as to how I feel as a citizen of my country, and how to best convey that.
Being put on the spot can be troubling, but because of it I feel as though I have learned to define what it means to be American to me. By for the first time in my life standing out because of my nationality, it’s given me a deeper understanding of not only my own personal identity, but also in understanding what it might feel like back home for people who might be in a similar situation. Putting myself in the shoes of a foreigner back home was admittedly difficult, but for once I feel as though I have a slight degree of understanding for some of the things they might be scrutinized for. It’s made me rethink how I may act towards such people back home and revaluate past experiences. In the end though, to boil it down to the simplest of terms, living in Japan for a year has made me truly feel like an American and proud of it, ironic as that may be.
Journal 3: Public Transportation
Living in the midwestern United States back home, public transportation has something of a bad reputation. It’s underfunded, poorly managed, not as extensive as it should be, and generally seen as something only those of lower income should or would be using. I understand America has a big car culture, what with our legal driving age being at sixteen and the myriad of pop culture tie ins to owning a car as a teen, but it is a bit of a shame. I’ll be upfront and say I never really had these kinds of opinions before coming to Tokyo though, and that’s no doubt in part due to the in contrast impeccable rail and bus network here in Japan.
I know it’s a bit of an overstated opinion but having had the chance now to fully experience a daily commute on the Japanese railway system it is a surprisingly well-oiled machine. Punctual, efficient, well-maintained, and expansive are just a few words I’d choose to describe it. Within Tokyo proper, both the railway, subway, and bus systems can get you pretty near everywhere you might want to go as quick (and cheap) as possible that even as a college student with no car I can get anywhere with ease. Even leaving Tokyo is simple, which although obviously more expensive than traveling within the city, lets me take day trips to all surrounding prefectures with ease, despite once again having no car.
Even in more rural regions of Japan, where the rail network may be limited to a few stops here and there, the busing system there is superb. Even having never ridden it before I managed to use it with little difficulty, which is surprising being as I am a foreigner with little experience with busing in general. I feel as though this, along with the previously praised railway system, contributes greatly to the lives of everyone throughout Japan, young and old. By providing a modern and well-funded public transport system, Japan has given accessibility to a number of different people who may otherwise never have had it, whether they be too old to drive a car or simply cannot afford one. It makes me think a great deal about my own hometown, which in terms of demographics is not all that different from some smaller towns in Japan. By lacking a safe and reliable public transportation system, many in my town who cannot drive have to depend upon family members or friends to even go five minutes just get downtown. It is a real shame America puts such little value on public transportation, as the lives it could potentially have a great impact on are innumerable.
Although I recognize the environments are different and there are a number of undiscussed factors at play in America’s public transportation system, I feel that my country could learn a great deal from Japan. Even the networks we do have in the states in cities such as New York are outdated and in desperate need of updating, ironic in that they are arguably the heart and soul of business in those cities. Tokyo both culturally and economically thrives on a punctual and up to date rail and bus network; there’s nothing that says the US can’t do so as well.