Learning to Live In Japan: For Those Who Want to Study Abroad

On the plane ride out of San Francisco, one of my worst travel related fears was realized. My flight had been delayed for almost three hours due to poor weather conditions, meaning that we would touchdown in Narita International Airport about thirty minutes before my connecting flight to Chubu Centrair. There were no more flights to Nagoya that evening, and there was no way I could make it through customs and security in time to board. 


6:30 p.m. Stranded in Tokyo—the most populated city in the world—with a dying cell phone, broken Japanese, and no cash yet. If that wasn’t enough, I needed to be hundreds of miles away by morning for orientation at Nanzan University. Customs personnel took me and a few other exchange students aside to expedite our process, but that alone took forty minutes. By the time I made it to my baggage I was at a loss for what to do next.


Then, a stroke of luck hit me. A kind airport employee who knew decent English helped me contact my host family in Kasugaishi to explain the situation. He helped me organize a new meeting place for my host mother, take out some yen from a nearby ATM and buy a bullet train ticket at a student discount price. 


When I had finally made it to Nagoya station, my host mother and I quickly recognized each other from the photos we had emailed one another. She helped me carry my bags to their compact family sedan where my host father greeted me with few but kind words, and we went home.

By mid-January I had been there for almost a week. I was all moved in to my small but cozy room in sleepy Kachigawacho, where every morning my host mother (who insisted on being called “mama”) and grandmother (who preferred the more honorific “obaasan”) greeted me for breakfast: “Ohayo—u!” (“Good morning!”). Despite their hospitality, something began to creep up and cast a shadow on me my first week there. I felt that my Japanese was barely passable for the amount of time I had spent studying it, and although I had grown comfortable stumbling over myself to convey basic things to my host family, I was pulling away from the rest of the world. It was a struggle just to walk down to a Seven Eleven, where I’d have an irrational fear that the cashier might ask me a question I would not understand about the green tea and melon bread I was buying.


This, I thought, must be the nebulous “culture shock” that I was warned about in preparatory emails from my university. Before I left California, it seemed to me like something only people with a very narrow view of the world would experience. A shock reserved for the type of American tourist who would expect every corner store and bakery in Paris to have English-speaking employees. One who would feel totally despondent when he realized that not only is this not true, but they don’t even put ice in their soda(?!?!). But there I was, intensely embarrassed because I was scared to go outside on a beautiful sunny day despite my host mother’s suggestions. I felt suffocated by the thought that I was the only English speaker for miles and nobody could fully understand me. My host family must have worried I was a recluse in my first few days there because I stayed mostly in my room playing video games and calling my parents and girlfriend.


In hindsight, this was an overreaction. A couple weeks of class time later, I had made several friends in my exchange program—people from Pennsylvania and Colombia and Hong Kong and Sri Lanka and more. Everyone was excited to learn the language and absorb the culture firsthand together. A good language class is a uniquely collaborative environment because everyone is given the same verbal tools to communicate and connect to one another, however elementary the difficulty of the class is. This pulled me out of my feelings of isolation very quickly as I made friends who I would go on to explore Japan with, from Osaka to Tokyo and all kinds of places in-between.

Soon after I had made friends in my program, a broader shift in me came suddenly—in transit.


It was on a bitterly cold February day while walking to Yagoto Nisseki station on my way home after classes. I put on my earbuds, cracked open a warm can of vending machine coffee and played an album called Sister Cities by The Wonder Years. My commute was about an hour of train and subway rides, and a good deal of walking too, so music was imperative to me for the daily journey to and from campus. Boarding the subway always came with the chance of being crammed up against a wall or between two people if it was busy, and it would be abnormal if the Meijo line wasn’t busy. So while I stood wedged between Dragons fans in a car packed unbelievably full of the baseball team’s faithful (they had all just come from a game in the nearby Nagoya Dome), I watched everyone do the same thing: they lowered their gaze, wriggled around to get their phones out of their pockets and either went silent or spoke in a murmur to their friend next to them (still without eye contact, some checking Twitter as they spoke). Every once in a while someone might accidentally catch the eyes of a stranger and look away, or adjust their stance and bump into the person next to them. All of these things I had been doing too, unconsciously copying them, and I hadn’t given it much thought until then. Meanwhile, Dan Campell is still singing through my earbuds:


“ … And what strikes me most is the symmetry.”


Then, it didn’t really matter to me whether I could speak to any of them very well. I didn’t have to understand them perfectly and they didn’t have to completely get me—they were already just like me in one way or another. They had the same fears of social isolation, or the same concerns about their future, or the same mind occupied with the static of this personal problem or that mistake they made at their job. If just about every one of them could relate to me somehow and I could do the same, then fumbling with my verb conjugations and sentence particles in front of them didn’t seem so embarrassing. They all seemed to understand the basic desire to connect with other people.


As I got used to living in Japan, I realized the airport employee in Narita who helped me get to my host family wasn’t really a “stroke of luck.” I met many people just like him; kind and helpful strangers. Some waitresses in curry shops and old women in convenience stores were simply thrilled by the idea of Americans who wanted to learn their language. Through my friends from Colombia, who knew that I’m studying to be a teacher, I met a Japanese family whose four year-old daughter I taught classic rock songs like Golden Slumbers (her favorite) and We Will Rock You. In Tokyo, my friends and I asked for directions to a local ramen shop from a man cleaning an apparently live shellfish outside a restaurant. He walked us to the shop, slimy fish in hand, and asked us about where we were from. These sorts of people were everywhere. They were a constant reminder that, more often than we think, people trust that a good connection could come from anyone, however brief or lasting it may be.

I don’t mean to paint an overly idyllic portrait of Japan. Japanese history, based on the courses that I took and reading that I did on the subject, has its share of atrocities and wars of tenuous reasoning, like many other countries. I heard stories from others about native Japanese speakers much less receptive to slow and stuttery beginner learners. During most of my time abroad, the University of Redlands’ own alumni Julian Adame was imprisoned in Tokyo for a length of time which many in the university community, myself included, believe did not fit the crime (he has since been freed after nine months). Criticisms of the country should paint a nuanced portrait alongside the positive experiences I’ve described, and create a distinction between Japan’s bureaucratic government and its people. One of the most useful byproducts of travel is its tendency to force one to perceive other cultures as complex systems of mindsets, norms, and history.


I’ve been back home for about three months now, but the connections I’ve made have held up despite the five thousand mile distance. Two weeks after I returned, my sister got married, and I sent photos and a letter to my host mother who had asked how the wedding went. The recent protests in Hong Kong garnering international media attention prompted me to contact a friend I made at Nanzan who is from Hong Kong, and we’ve kept in contact as tensions heightened between the police and protestors. Another friend told me about her desire to return to Japan to work there, a goal we both share, and decided that once we do we’ll eat at the local Indian place where our class spent its final night together. However long these connections last, I value their ability to defy space because of our shared experience on an island country out there in the Pacific.


My time in Japan didn’t just “broaden my perspective” like my mom and my aunt and my sister and my coworkers and my friends all said it would; it tore down walls I didn’t know I had built in my mind to keep out the similarities we all share and naively preserve my own sense of embarrassment in unfamiliar interactions. I am much better at Japanese than I was upon arrival, although I’ll admit that I still suck. Regardless, I feel much more willing to embarrass myself in front of the UoR’s Japanese exchange students for the chance to sharpen my skills. So I encourage everyone, especially the ones scared or nervous about living abroad, to take the opportunity should it be available to you. You will thank yourself later.