After being rejected from studying in Japan…twice, I didn’t give up. In actuality, it gave me the strength and perseverance to prove to myself that I could make this happen. And now, here I am. I was accepted into the year-long study abroad program at Keio University where I have been working on and improving my Japanese language skills along with taking business and cultural classes. But like any long-term relationship,Japan and I have had our ups and downs.
Upon my arrival, I was in a high. I was taken aback and enchanted by all the bright lights and non-stop sensory stimulation you encounter when walking through the famous Shibuya district of Tokyo—Go out partying one night in Tokyo, and you will see that it is a city that never sleeps, constantly alive and inviting. I was amazed by the orderliness, cleanliness and hyper-efficiency of this country that would put any other country to shame. The fact that every Japanese I encountered seemed to have a desire to help me (the foreigner) in any possible way no matter how petty, in order to make my adjustment a little less difficult. And not to mention the food. Lightly battered and deep-fried tempura in all sorts of variations; panko-breaded crispy pork cutlets; endless bowls of my favorite Musashi-ya ramen in a savory and delicious pork fat broth; and the freshest sushi you’ve ever had that just melts in your mouth, sliced so perfectly it should very well be presented in an art exhibition. Did I mention the food? Needless to say, with a selection of food so great, I gained a few unnecessary pounds.
But after every honeymoon the happy bride and groom move in together, and reality sinks in. The amazement at every turn wears off, and all you’re left with is the core interior, the bare characteristics that in this situation make up a country. A year is a long time; A long time to spend in a country so different from your own, and a very long time to be away from home, family and friends. I am ashamed to say that after about three months of getting acquainted with the nuances of Japanese— specifically Tokyo—life, I thought to myself What am I doing here? It’s true that I am half-Japanese, but I am an American before that, and as an American, I was raised in an individualistic nation. A place where individuality is cherished and encouraged from a young age. I don’t mean to suggest that this is the only right way, and its not, but this is what I have grown to know and when coming to Japan, this was the bias that I held.
The Japanese society functions quite differently. It is deeply rooted in a collectivist way of thinking where each individual interacts with others in a way that looks out for the better whole of the society rather than individual interest. One aspect that we see the collectivist approach seeping out is in Expression. Expressing oneself is not looked at to be a noble trait. For example, lets take a relationship: communication is not seen as key in keeping the relationship happy. If one partner is bothered by something, it is their job to deal with it on their own so as not to risk hurting the relationship by bringing it out into the open. I agree that this is one way in dealing with a problem, but in my perspective, being held back from expressing one’s true feelings can foster a lot of isolation.
Another thing I had trouble dealing with was the amount of people. Being from the suburbs of the U.S. I am accustomed to wide-open spaces. If you’ve seen Lost In Translation, you’ve seen the insanely crowded streets of the Shibuya crossing, and you can pretty much conclude that Tokyo is a densely populated city. Case and point. Everywhere I went, I was challenged by a hoard of people. Trains are so packed during rush hour that at the stations you will see designated “pushers” that literally push the remaining stragglers onto the train like human sardines. What I really struggled to wrap my head around was that in such a crowded city where I encounter millions of people a day, I still was unable to reach out to the person whose head is jamming into my chest and elbow into my side. Although I had made many friends from school and I was lucky to even have some distant relatives in Tokyo, life in the city that never sleeps, the city that felt so alive upon my arrival, persisted in making me feel more and more isolated, and reminded me of the fact that I was oceans away from home.
It was in being confronted with situations like these that really put my patience to the test, and eventually I snapped. I was frustrated with my struggle to cope in an environment so different from the one that I was used to, and even more frustrated with the fact that I could be so frustrated about something that I prayed and strived so hard for. But what I later came to understand was that all of these feelings were completely normal. Speaking to my fellow exchange students, I found out that a lot of them were encountering the same struggles and battling with the same ideas. I was able to recognize that these negative feelings that I had developed for a country that I loved so much were something that I just had to get through. Another step in the growing process, another bump in the relationship. But this is by no means a story on my negative experiences of my time abroad.
I realized that I had to throw away my old biases in order to appreciate the new. The beauty of travelling is that you get to experience new ways of life and different ways of thinking and my ability to do so was imprisoned by my inability to let go of my own prejudices and in turn, I was unable to look at Japan for its real beauty and true uniqueness. I had to accept the flaws if I wanted to develop any sort of long-lasting relationship with Japan.
I do not regret the whirlwind of emotions I went through, because through this experience I was able to learn so much about myself. When confronted with uncomfortable situations that are so different from our “reality”, it’s difficult to cope and adopt these new methods of behavior without a risk of losing a part of our self. It was so much easier to put up barriers in the face of differences and guard myself against anything that conflicted with my own ways of thinking. But where would that leave us? To become a better global citizen, I needed to empathize with my fellow human beings and adapt to the local culture, recognizing that there is more than one way to operate within society, which leaves no wrong way. And then, I was able to create an entirely new way of thinking. I mean, I am studying International Business, after all. And after a while, I grew to find the crowds quite comical. It’s great for people watching! Sometimes I find myself in cafes or while sitting on a train, just watching how people interact with others and even themselves. It’s a learning experience in and of itself.
In closing, I would like to share a short film with you all. During the first few months of my time spent here, a friend and I walked throughout Tokyo while he took shots of the city. This is the end product, and it does an amazing job conveying the emotion that I feel towards my new, beloved home. Enjoy!
Much thanks to Jeremy Sudibyo for allowing me to put this short film into my blog.