Appreciating the Differences and Bringing it Home - My Family Travels

Before departing for my six weeks home-stay through the Youth For Understanding exchange program in Japan, I felt as though I was a good listener – but I had much to learn. My first days in Japan were hectic. Arriving at Narita Airport near Tokyo, then riding the Shinkansen bullet train to Nagoya city in the Aichi prefecture of central Japan, I felt excited but overwhelmed. Once settling with my family in Higashiura, I was always on the move. Waking up early in the morning to ride my bike past rice fields, gas stations and a Buddhist shrine, I arrived at Kariya Kita Senior High School. Even wearing a school uniform for the first time, I still stood out and was treated like a superstar.

“Oh kawaii!” all the girls in my class said on my first day (which means “cute!” in Japanese), it was their way of being friendly. Then the questions began: “What is America like? Do you have a boyfriend?” they all asked (that was a question that I found alarming coming from a stranger!). They gathered, marveling at my blue eyes and blond hair and my straight teeth. They looked at my nose, admiring that it had such a high arch, and they said I looked like the girls in Disney’s High School Musical. This contradicted my self-image formed in America, where my nose is too big, blond hair is average, and straight teeth seem typical. My classmates admired my height as they stared up at me. I admired the way that they desperately tried to communicate with me using my language not theirs.

This is when I began to realize that I was experiencing part of the culture shock that was described to me in my pre-departure orientation. That shock is the realization of the many differences there are between cultures, a feeling that exemplifies the saying that “the grass is always greener on the other side,” but I found that the differences not only made me appreciate the Japanese culture more, but also made me see the brighter aspects of my own culture.

When traveling from America to Japan, I found that more things changed than just my surroundings. For example, I dreaded math at my high school in Oregon. And yet, math was my favorite subject in Japan because math is a universal language that knows no geographic boundaries. It was not necessary for me to know how to speak Japanese or write in Japanese characters when in math class. I think that has a lot to do with hidden languages. Going on a six week home-stay program to a foreign country where I did not speak the language was a big step for me, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that I could still communicate. With practice I soon found that by listening to voice tone and volume, and by observing body language and expression, I could get the gist of most conversations that were spoken in a language I could not comprehend, I even had some laughs sharing tongue-twisters with my family.

My travel experience made me realize the importance of really listening when people were speaking. Sometimes at the end of the day I would be physically exhausted, just from listening to people speak in a foreign language and trying to understand them. If there is one thing that I learned from traveling in a foreign country and living with a Japanese family, it is to listen always in a way that I never knew how to listen before.

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