When many people think about Japan, what is usually the first thing to cross your mind?
Robots, school girls in sailor outfits, sushi, et cetera. For the longest time, those images crossed my mind as well. I would think about the metropolis known as Tokyo and all of their technology.
I studied abroad in the summer of 2007, to the country of Japan. Like many people who came along on the trip, were were excited to see the mixture of their ancient culture melted into the sleek, metallic cities of tomorrow. The other who were to study abroad with me were brought to Tokyo after a three-day orientation of what to do and not do.
While we all saw the tall skyscrapers of Tokyo, we were all eventually scattered throughout the country, each to fend for ourselves and to spend the remainder of the trip with our assigned host families. I was sent to the Ehime prefecture of Japan, to a city called Saijo. I was to stay with the Ito family.
Nothing could have prepared me for the challenges ahead. The three-day orientation hardly covered the surface of Japanese culture and etiquette, the rest I was to figure out on my own. Sure, I could ask my host family for help, if the language barrier wasn’t an issue. I studied Russian for three years at my high school. The only Japanese language training I got some from self-study, which didn’t turn out to be helpful at all.
To say I was a nervous wreck was putting it lightly. I believe this was what the orientation called “culture shock”. Tokyo wasn’t a big deal, I am quite used to the city-environment. Saijo, however, was a completely different story. The humidity was maddening, the sun shine set your skin ablaze. Certainly not like the cold, foggy wheather in San Francisco.
Although Saijo was considered a city, there were nothing but rice paddies, as far as the eyes could see. You could hear the singing of the cicadas in the afternoon and the croaking of the frogs at night. While the heat was unbearable, it really was a beautiful place.
My Ito family were the ones kind enough to allow me to share their home with them. I spent most of my time with my host sister, Rie. She was a young, 20-something who wanted to learn English so that she could someday go back to visit the United States. There was my host brother, Yoshihiro. He was a bit of an enigma since all he did was lock himself in his room and either study, or play video games. Then were was Keiko, my host mother and my host father who was gone for most of my stay on business. As well as the family friend, whom they called “Tama-chan” who I got close to.
For most of my stay, instead of attending a Japanese high school like most foreign exchange students would, I ended up visiting various elementary schools. Which was fine with me, since I’d rather be socially-awkward around children than around people my own age.
I remember this one occasion, when a few other exchange students and I were asked questions from the kids. Since it was during their English lesson, they were to ask us questions in English. This one little girl stood up and asked, “Do you have a girlfriend or boyfriend?”
To which all of us responded the negative.
There was a brief silence in the class room before the little girl said something in Japanese. To which one of the exchange students translated the phase to, “You’re weird.”
All of that aside, I have mixed feelings about my visit to Saijo. While the food was delicious, the sights were something to behold and the culture rich, there is a dark side. Something that Japanese tend to do is that they will not tell a foreigner when they are doing something impolite. I do feel like it is partially my fault for thinking that the orientation would set me up for my trip. I should’ve further investigated their culture further. I feel like most of what I learned about Japanese customs was learned the hard way.
While I regret not doing more research beforehand, I feel like I wouldn’t have learned as much as I did if I have. I wouldn’t say that my trip abroad was the best thing I’ve ever done, that would be a lie. Every experience has its ups and downs and that is what I am glad about. The fact that I got to discover a culture to different from my laid-back lifestyle, to see people’s words and actions from another perspective.
I’ve learned much more than Japanese in my six-week journey to Japan. I’ve learned that every town, city and village has its own culture. Each town differs from the next and that I was wrong in assuming the whole country would be like Tokyo. My experience was an educational one and I would go back again to take in the full beauty of Saijo City. While not every memory has been a positive one, I will still treasure them. From my embarrassment to bathing publicly for the first time, to my sadness when “Tama-chan” cried at my departure. No journey can be without the good and the bad, it is from your positive and negative experiences that you learn about yourself and further adapt to your surroundings. It is those lessons you learn, that stick with you for a lifetime.
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