In rural Alaska, winters are monochrome and seemingly unending, and the short-lived summer greens quickly fade to a dark brown. My hometown is a perfect illustration of “Alaska”. It is the kind of place where moose are our closest neighbors, ATV’s and snowmobiles frequent gas pumps more than cars and it is not uncommon to go to the same school with the same group of kids for all of our lives. During my junior year of high school I was stuck in a rut of monotony. Sameness surrounded my day-to-day life, until my curious heart got the better of me, and I became a short-term foreign exchange student.
SEMI-FINALIST 2015 FTF TEEN TRAVEL WRITING SCHOLARSHIP
Through foreign exchange, my perspective of the world changed — I threw myself headfirst into the unfamiliar culture and lifestyle that was Japan. I found new definitions of happiness. Happiness was not the same as it was back in my small Alaskan town (football games in twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit, the precious days when I got home from school before the sun set at 3 pm, or the first warm day of spring). My new definition of happiness was the feeling I got eating melon ice cream from a street vendor, walking to the park on a sunny day, or successfully using my chopsticks to eat rice and managing to get more than two or three grains at a time. My time in Japan was truly soul-searching, and I discovered a side of me I never knew existed.
After day one in Japan, I was hooked. I fell head-over-heels in love with the culture, the food, and the people. Japanese people, in the itty-bitty, barely-on-the-map, town of Saroma are the kindest, friendliest and most selfless people I have ever met, and they all welcomed me with open arms and plates of food. The change from Alaska was drastic, yet exactly what I needed. As terrifying, nerve-wracking and just plain awkward as it was leaving behind everything I had ever known; I have never been happier than I was in Japan.
My philosophy, when it came to my foreign exchange, actually came from my father, “absorb all that is around you.” His words rang soundly in my head throughout my adventures in Japan. I stepped completely out of my emotional comfort zone, “absorbed” my surroundings and took chances that were uncommon for me. Nobody in Saroma could have ever guessed I was “shy” by American standards. I experienced more than I thought possible. I said yes to eating the sea urchin, horse meat and octopus, stayed up much later than I should have watching Back to the Future in Japanese with my host mom, and I even tried my hand at karaoke. The moments I remember most are those moments in which I came out of my shell, and surprised myself with the boldness of my actions.
Nothing can compare to the impact of spending time immersed in another culture. My transition back to my own familiar surroundings, albeit difficult and full of jet-lag induced insomnia, opened my eyes to a new reality surrounding my American and Alaskan culture. Alaska wasn’t so dull anymore. I came to the realization that no place is black and white; I can choose to see it in color. Traveling to Japan altered my perspective, but most importantly set me on a course to see all the vibrant colors the world has to offer.
Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.