What comes to your mind when you hear the phrase “study abroad”? For a third culture kid like me, the idea of living in a foreign country isn’t intimidating or scary, but rather, exciting — after all, putting yourself into an unfamiliar situation is what helps you learn and grow. Back when I was at my previous university in New York, I had no problem adjusting to the local environment because I had been exposed to American culture from a very young age; on the other hand, Japan was a completely different story. I arrived in Tokyo with the naive misunderstanding that blog posts and travel guides were enough to prepare me for my four years here, unaware that visiting a country as a tourist is very, very different from actually living there.
To make a long story short, it took me a while to get used to living in Tokyo. I didn’t feel culture shock or anything like that — what troubled me was how unprepared I was for the study abroad experience itself. In America, I had family members and high school classmates to reach out to if I needed help, but when I first moved to Japan, I had no one to talk to or meet up with when I felt lonely. Now that I’m a senior, I’ve come to realize that studying abroad has taught me much more than a new language. Here are some of the things that I learned over the past four years.
- Phone calls are necessary. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like talking on the phone with people I’m unfamiliar with; I’m fine with calling my mom or best friend, but the thought of 1) having to converse with someone in a language I’m not fluent in, and 2) speaking to someone I don’t know is absolutely nerve-wracking. It took me about two months to muster up the courage to answer calls from numbers I didn’t know, and I eventually realized that I couldn’t avoid them forever because not everything can be completed through an email or text message.
- It’s important to ask questions. Yet another thing I don’t like is asking questions. I’ve always been a quiet student because I like to listen and observe, rather than participate in classroom discussions. When I came to Japan, however, I learned that I had to ask questions even if I didn’t want to. I only knew basic Japanese when I got to Tokyo, so getting lost and confused was a regular occurrence. This, in addition to my being the only foreigner in my volleyball circle, meant that I couldn’t listen and observe forever — I had to ask when I wasn’t sure about something, ask when I needed directions, ask when I couldn’t understand a particular word. I always got embarrassed whenever I had to approach a senpai for clarification, but asking questions is what helped me improve my Japanese.
- You’re gonna be lonely. Not all the time, hopefully — but yes, you’re going to feel lonely from time to time. It’s strange to feel so alone in a large, vibrant city like Tokyo, but sometimes, I feel an overwhelming sense of loneliness that makes me wonder what I’m doing alone in a foreign country. Things like this made me understand the importance of a reliable support system, no matter who it consists of. I usually ended up ranting to one of my close friends whenever I felt that way (shoutout to ****** and ***!) but it always helped me feel better and refreshed. Don’t keep your worries to yourself!
- Lingering on your regrets is pointless. What-ifs will only increase your stress, and no one needs that. I have a lot of regrets — not attending more summer festivals, not joining a new circle and making new friends, not traveling around Japan more, not studying more kanji, and so on — but I try not to think about them too much because I know that mulling over them won’t change the fact that they’re all in the past. Forget about your regrets and instead, focus on things that you want to remember about your study abroad experience.
- Ditch the translator app, study the language. If you’re studying in a country where the official language is one that you don’t speak fluently, make sure to actually study it! I know it’s difficult to become 100% fluent, but mastering the basics is doable when you put in the time and effort. Try joining a local circle if you’re able to, because listening to native speakers talking is just as effective as learning in a classroom. Google Translate can’t help you with everything.
- Visit places that aren’t tourist traps. So many of my relatives and friends ask me to suggest places to visit in Tokyo, and I always end up recommending the same pancake cafes because I literally don’t know anywhere worth mentioning. Why? It’s because I somehow managed to spend four years in Tokyo without venturing outside the neighborhoods I’m familiar with. Studying abroad is exciting because it gives you the chance to discover new things that might not be in a travel guide, so take advantage of your extended stay and try to travel around as much as you can.