By April Blanco
Part One: Fall Term
According to the UCI Study Abroad Center, approximately 900 students study abroad each year. Last August, I became one of them.
My story begins 5,474 miles across the Pacific in the bustling and curious city of Tokyo, Japan. Arriving in Tokyo in late August, I was immediately assaulted by the suffocating humidity and the inescapable clicking song of the cicadas. Sustained by my almost daily diet of green tea ice cream, I traveled around Japan first as a tourist. With eyes glued wide open, I visited temple after shrine after castle, savoring every new experience.
A week later, my break was over and I traveled to my new school, the International Christian University (ICU) in Mitaka. With only the belongings on my back, I entered my new life for the next year.
My first introduction to Japanese culture came when I was guided toward my new home at an on-campus female dorm (Sanjo) that housed a majority of Japanese students. Walking towards Sanjo, I was filled with a combination of excitement and nerves. Upon seeing the building, though, I couldn’t help but be shocked by how old and run-down the dorm appeared. But the tired appearance of Sanjo was in direct contrast to the vibrant life within. The girls of Sanjo welcomed me with genuine happiness.
Entering my room, I met my Japanese roommate, who I was stunned to see began crying with happiness upon seeing me. Unbeknownst to me, Shion, my first dear friend in Japan, had been filled with the same complex combination of emotions as I had walking up to Sanjo.
Over this fall, I would discover just how lucky I had been to be given a companion such as Shion. But first would come the trials of my first quarter studying abroad.
Within my first weeks at ICU, duties one after another compounded upon each other, smothering me. First and foremost, I had come to Japan to study Japanese, but every day that I walked into my Japanese class, I was torn apart with anxiety. Perhaps I had been placed in a level too advanced for my true level. Perhaps learning a language in its native country is more intense than elsewhere. Perhaps my sensei (“teacher”) was more intimidating and indifferent than I was used to — perhaps it was all these factors.
But what I do know is that it didn’t take long until I began to feel ashamed of myself for how poorly I was handling my first attempt at learning Japanese in Japan. And unlike how easy it was in the States, there was no escaping Japanese when I stepped outside the classroom. I was forced to acknowledge my inadequacies as a Japanese-speaker within my dorm, my club, my internship, and my community.
Even though I had traveled all this way to immerse myself in the Japanese language, I felt myself desperately clinging to any English I could to simply survive in my daily life.
Immersive education can sound amazing on paper, but, in practice, it can also be extremely intimidating and daring to commit to. This struggle is what I experienced my first quarter in Japan. There appeared a conflict of desires within me; one, to seek out and practice Japanese to become better and two, to escape to hidden pockets of English within Japan where I could relax and speak my native language.
I fought the urge to escape everyday as I trained in my taiko drumming club, as I took part in dorm activities, as I explored Japan and participated in a Japanese television show. With a firm resolve, I put myself out there again and again despite my growing shame at how inadequate I felt. And, with each misstep in taiko practice, each low quiz score in Japanese class, each sumimasen or “sorry” I spoke, it became harder to deny that I was letting down my club senpai (“higher classmates”), my sensei and my family back home.
This shame was the hardest trial I faced over the whole year, and one day in November it all became too much to bear. I suddenly found myself crying during club practice after another misstep. Regrettably, as I hid my tears this one day, I also hid my struggles from the various sources of support that surrounded me.
Though, I now know I was wrong to never ask for help, I came to realize that I am only ever capable of my best efforts and as long as I am genuine in those efforts, then I should be proud of what I achieve. Though pride took longer to feel, I accepted the level of success I was able to achieve my first quarter.
Soon, fall came to an end; the vibrant red leaves having all fallen and the cold wind and rain having chased the heat away. In the invigorating breath of fresh air before winter, I found a second family with my friend Shion in her hometown of Osaka. There, among the warmth of Miki-san, Ken-san, Ryuu-kun and Tetsu the Shiba Inu, my love for Japan and its language was reignited. I would walk into winter quarter with a new determination.
Part Two: Winter Term
After returning to Tokyo from my stay with Shion’s family in Osaka, I was reinvigorated with an energy that stood in direct contrast to my immediate environment, which was now colorless. The trees of my school campus, once full and burning red like the Japanese Maple back in fall, now resembled barren skeletons in the chilly air as winter came.
Yet, for the first time, Sanjo (my all girls’ dorm) and the International Christian University (ICU) felt like home.
After some time, I came to notice the individual care the girls of Sanjo took upon themselves to manage the dorm’s physical state and community. With that, I knew I had to put that same level of commitment into my study of the Japanese language.
Therefore, for winter quarter, I participated in an intensive Japanese class taught by three teachers, which was equivalent to two regular Japanese courses at ICU.
Though I quickly discovered that the intensity of the class would severely test my commitment, I wasn’t terribly worried because each of my sensei were amazing. I also knew my language skills would be pushed to a much higher level by the end.
Truthfully, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the steadily approaching visit my boyfriend would be making for winter break in-between my studies.
This meeting was unique because it was our first in-person as a couple. Until now, our relationship had been long-distance through the not-so-trusty but indispensable Skype. His window showed Sweden, and mine showed Japan; both of us were studying abroad at the same time.
With nerves in a tight jumble, I welcomed him at the remote Narita Airport, and as my nerves settled, I entered the next stage of my experience abroad. It’s not until you guide someone through the previously unknown culture you’ve unwittingly become accustomed to that you gain a particular kind of confidence in your capabilities.
Together, we celebrated Christmas with the unending light decorations and welcomed New Year’s with the empty shops and streets.
Then, it was time for both of us to get back to commitments — me at ICU and him back at UCI.
As he returned to the States and our other friends abroad returned home, the magical contentment of the holidays began to dissipate. In its place, I found I was finally experiencing what everyone had been asking me about during fall: the dreaded homesickness.
Everyone usually hears of homesickness hitting you early on, similar to culture shock. In reality, homesickness acts without prejudice; the heartsick yearning can bring you down at any time.
Suddenly, I had less and less motivation to venture out of my room. More and more, my eyes favored my window back home through Skype than my dorm window to the wide expanse of trees that encompassed my school’s campus in Japan.
Unfortunately, these feelings only worsened when upsetting drama among my friends back home began unfolding, picking at an old wound of mine. Not only did I feel that I needed them, but that they needed me in a way that I just couldn’t provide from the other side of the world.
For the first time in Japan, I truly felt every one of those 5,474 miles.
After sending all the Facebook and GroupMe messages I could send, after all the Skype talks I could have had ended, after I’d said all I could say, I knew I couldn’t hide in my room any longer.
With grudgingly heavy feet, I began going out, and every little bit of the crisp, cold air helped awaken me again to the stark beauty of winter in Japan.
I was lucky, too. Shion, who herself was not unfamiliar with emotional struggles, was certainly not blind to mine. Occasionally, I would hear a cautious but patient “Daijoubu (Are you okay)…?”
We looked after each other. I had helped her work through her struggles, so I knew it was my turn to lean on her for once. Through talking with Shion, I found myself no longer alone. There was people mere steps away who cared about me. Moreover, there was my mokuteki (purpose) for being here in Japan, that I had yet to fulfill.
I reminded myself once again of my mokuteki: to experience Japan and learn the language. Resolved once again, I swore to not let this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity slip away because of feelings that I knew would pass.
Winter comes with excitement for the holidays, but after weeks of the solemn quiet, you can’t help but be eager to spot any signs of spring. Sadly, just as the lushy green began to paint my campus, I was forced to say another bittersweet goodbye.
Shion, my brave friend, was beginning her own study abroad journey in Australia, and beneath my sadness to see her go, I was incredibly happy for her.
After wishing Shion all the best, I welcomed, with an open heart, my last quarter in Japan — spring.
Part Three: Spring Term
The warmth of spring slowly seeped in, and there was an undeniable shift in the air. Wherever I went in Japan, there was an eagerness for the arrival of cherry blossoms, or sakura.
Once again, as in fall, I was experiencing Japan as if for the first time. Painfully aware that these were my last months, I took extra notice of every detail in my effort to commit it to memory.
But spring isn’t only known for the sakura; it also signals the start of school. So, as with all the other schools throughout Japan, we at the International Christian University (ICU) and Sanjo welcomed new freshmen. Their arrival meant not only new additions to our family, but that those of us who had come in August were now senpai (upperclassmen).
Becoming a senpai deepened all of my relationships with the girls in Sanjo. But among all these budding friendships was one especially important to me: my lovable new roommate, Mako.
With the arrival of Mako, I was suddenly driven by an urge to be as supportive and as welcoming as Shion had been for me. In turn, I couldn’t help but see myself in Mako. All her first steps in Sanjo, through our dorm initiation, all her slightly nervous introductions — I had made them as well.
As roommates, we were perfectly matched and we evenly adapted to one another. Her level of English was near my level of Japanese, so our conversations became a wonderful coupling of both.
Finally, after eight months in Japan, I was capable of having common conversations with native Japanese and connect with them on a deeper level than I had before. I was finally ready for more.
At first, my free moments were spent exploring places in Tokyo on my bucket list of things to do before I left. Then, with eyes more open, I began to find a common desire for native English speakers in my local Japanese community. Now, any free time I had, I put into cultivating new little families — whether in an English cafe, in a middle school, in a calligraphy class, or in a children’s art class.
By helping connect my community to English through various volunteer and internship work, I was satisfied and complete in a whole new way in Japan. But I only had so much time left, and I wanted to leave my mark — I wanted to leave behind something special to remember.
When people ask what I miss most about Japan, I sometimes answer, the amazing transportation system or the food. The honest answer is that I miss the people and the connections I had made with them. I miss hearing the endearing kawaii (cute), the respectful sumimasen (excuse me) and the warmth in okaeri (welcome home). And there’s no denying that Japan had become my home.
Therefore, for two months, I devoted myself to creating an event where internationals could make those precious connections with natives. As the bridge between these two groups, I took great joy in coordinating our efforts.
These efforts came to a beautiful culmination when, in early June, I found myself standing before a group of 105 ninth graders with a microphone. After so much time, I almost couldn’t believe I had found myself there. I never enjoyed public speaking, but somehow I had worked so hard to actually do just that.
As I felt my nerves bubbling within me, I looked out at the Japanese students. Our many differences in culture and language had initially intimidated me when I first arrived in Japan and when I first came to stand there. But that day I saw as clear as ever how similar they were to ninth graders anywhere in the world. Suddenly, I was no longer afraid, and with renewed confidence, I led a successful event on bridging the gap from the West to East.
This event became the first achievement in Japan that I wasn’t shy to feel proud of. With this accomplishment, I could’ve happily ended my journey and felt satisfied in my study abroad.
But as my last day frighteningly crept upon me, I knew there was one last thing I had to do before I left — climb Mt. Fuji.
After saying goodbye here and goodbye there with eyes that were broken from all the tears; after all this, I once again took my first steps completely alone with only the belongings I had on my back. However, this time my feet were snug in my sturdy hiking boots and firmly led me toward Mt. Fuji.
Fuji-san, as it is respectfully called, represents Japan and my study abroad journey in a way nothing else can. Fuji-san is the faraway image of the beauty that Japan is to me. Though it asks for a heavy price of resolve, commitment and individual strength, if you simply dedicate the time, you ascend to above the heavens and emerge a changed person.
As my words here have recounted, I experienced many times of emotional and academic hardship throughout my study abroad program. But, without a doubt, if I didn’t go, I would’ve regretted never having taken the chance and putting myself out there. Now, the tears are only of happiness and I am filled with gratitude for all the people I met. This is for all the people I couldn’t mention, all the people I came to cherish, and all those who wonder if study abroad is right for them.