Year Abroad in Japan: A Long Overdue Update!

It’s been not far off two months since I last posted here, so I thought it might finally be time to write an update on how things are going!

Thinking back on the last couple of months, it’s honestly impossible to give a full picture of all that’s happened, but needless to say it’s been both a challenge and a lot of fun during the times when I’ve not been completely despairing at either the workload here or my Japanese!

Focusing first on the challenge, back in early October my confidence in my Japanese was so low that when trying to fill in forms at the post office, I got so flustered that I forgot how to write my name in Japanese. That was more than a little embarrassing. However – possibly thanks to said embarrassing incident – I have since managed to pull myself together a bit and stop freaking out in situations which really shouldn’t be too difficult. Of course, there are plenty of situations I still can’t navigate without the person I’m talking to massively dumbing down their Japanese, but in general it turns out there’s nothing better than a sink-or-swim situation to give you the motivation to learn a language. In the time I’ve been here, this has progressed from realising that I need to master the language necessary for daily tasks like going to the konbini (convenience store) to the far greater realisation that if I don’t improve my Japanese, I won’t be able to have anything resembling meaningful (or fun) conversations with my friends and teachers.

Learning a language is a lot of work, but I can already tell I’m going to miss being immersed in Japanese when I return to the UK. When I call family or friends back home, it’s easy to forget that the Japanese words and phrases which almost all foreigners here drop into English conversation are not familiar to them, and when I think about how much my Japanese deteriorates even after just a day of not using it much, I dread to think how much it will go downhill once I’m back in Scotland.

Anyway, although I could write a whole book about how my Japanese studies are going, I realise it’s not massively interesting for most people, so here comes an announcement which might be of more interest:

Come December, I’m moving out of my homestay.

Although my host family are really nice, I feel like I’m not able to make full use of being in a homestay. Not only am I busy studying most of the time when I’m home, but I also have tennis practice with the circle (university society) I’ve joined twice a week and the rest of the time am invariably either out with friends, away travelling or (when I’m lucky) sleeping – all of which conspires to give me very little time to spend with the family. In any case, since I was also asked by a Japanese friend if I’d like to move in with him (yes, him – my mother is having kittens), I’ve decided to say goodbye and move on to another kind of homestay which should hopefully give me more of an opportunity to do things like cook my own meals. Since arriving in Japan in early September, I have not made a single meal (apart from maybe a couple of packed lunches) for myself, and to live in a country like Japan without learning to make the local food seems like a terrible waste.

Socially, I suppose the that I’ve made at least one friend I’m happy to move in with means things are going pretty well! The eternal struggle, however, is to make Japanese friends. While I love my international friends and definitely appreciate that having a community of people in the same boat as you is useful as support, it can be all too easy to fall into the trap of hanging out with people who speak English and to therefore fail to make any Japanese friends. In my university here (KGU), there’s a room called the Global Lounge which is essentially a common room for international students. Some Japanese students spend time there too, but in general, the nickname – The Gaijin (Foreigner) Cage – given to the Global Lounge by some of the international students gives a hint as to what kind of place it really is if you stop and think about it. Don’t get me wrong – it’s fantastically convenient to have somewhere where you can be almost guaranteed to find at least one friend or acquaintance at any point in the day, and I’ve definitely made friends (both foreign and Japanese) through the Global Lounge – but if I imagine a similar place existing, say, at Edinburgh, I can’t help but feel it’s just another barrier to foreigners integrating into normal Japanese university life.

As a foreigner (particularly a foreigner of unmistakably non-Japanese appearance) in Japan, you will always stand out. For me, this hasn’t been too much of a bother apart from on the few occasions when people have approached me completely out of the blue to ask me in English if I’m lost. Whenever this happens, I explain immediately in Japanese that I’m fine and don’t need help, at which point the person leaves me alone, but having seen the reactions of some Japanese friends (who have been mistaken for foreigners just for standing by my side!) who have witnessed this happen, I know it’s something that would definitely not be socially acceptable for someone to do if I were Japanese. Of course, if I were genuinely lost, I would be glad of help, but this has never been the case, and while I’m sure in the vast majority of cases the person is just trying to help, it’s just one small thing that makes you feel ‘other’. That aside, compared with the experiences of other foreigners which I’ve heard about, my experiences of feeling othered in Japan dwindle into insignificance. Perhaps I’m lucky; perhaps I’ve not been here long enough; or perhaps the experience I have of living in China makes Japan seems like foreigners’ heaven! (One side effect of living here is that the word ‘foreign’ becomes a normal part of your vocabulary, whereas it’s a word I think a lot of people actively avoid using in the UK.)

Although I meant to mention this in an earlier post by means of an introduction to my year abroad, I actually lived in China for a year before I started studying at Edinburgh, working as a volunteer English teacher with the gap year organisation Project Trust. That year, more than anything, is what set me up for being able to study abroad in Japan without being too fazed by culture shock (although to say I experienced none would be a lie). Compared with where I lived in China, Japan is overflowing with foreigners, and although I do occasionally get stared at (usually by either elderly people or toddlers), in general I feel like I blend in a hundred times better than in rural Gansu, where there were maybe 5 foreigners per 5 million Chinese and it was impossible to go out without having ‘waiguoren’ (foreigner) shouted at you.

My time in China seems like an age ago now, but there is no doubt that without that experience, the prospect of living in Japan for a year would have been far more daunting. Since coming here, it’s become increasingly clear to me how lucky I am. Many of my classmates have felt horribly homesick, and this, coupled with the constant feeling that you need to be Making The Most Of Your Time creates a lot of pressure which I’ve managed to dodge at least some of.

Speaking of making the most of your time, however, it’s fast approaching midnight here and I need to get ready to go to Shiga Prefecture tomorrow to meet up with friends from Edinburgh – both classmates studying Japanese and a Japanese friend who studied abroad at Edinburgh two years ago. I will try and write some more posts soon (with pictures – woo!), but for now, it’s time to sleep.

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