Growing up, I knew from a young age that I would study abroad for a year in college. Both my parents did their junior year abroad, and it was basically expected of my siblings and I that we would go abroad. I also knew going into this experience what people usually learn from living in a new country during college; you learn more about yourself, you learn how to communicate in a different culture, you learn more about the language of the country, that sort of stuff, so I was expecting these kinds of personal changes from my year abroad. However, besides those aspects there are also a lot of other unexpected ways in which I think I’ve grown during this year because of the opportunity to come to Tokyo.
Compared to my parents’ study abroad experiences, my coming to Japan was a bit different in that I’ve grown up in Japan and I’ve been connected to the culture before coming here. This has colored my experience in a few ways that I hadn’t anticipated. For example, while some of my other exchange student friends have been exploring Tokyo for the first time in their lives, I’ve been re-exploring the city of my childhood, and re-familiarizing myself with things that used to come as second nature to my six-year-old self. One vivid memory I have from this year was on a very mundane stroll around the Yoyogi area of Tokyo with a Japanese friend, when suddenly we turned down a path to walk past a shrine, and the road stretching out of the shrine lined with summer food stalls overlooking a lily-covered pond jolted me violently back into a memory from my childhood when I was around five or six years old, and that memory was so incredibly powerful it felt like a jump cut transition from a movie transporting me back to the past. I inexplicably started crying, to my poor friend’s utter confusion.
In addition to re-connecting with my past through living in Tokyo, my language study has also been an important area of personal growth. I knew coming into this year that my Japanese would get better through studying, making friends and interacting with my environment, but I hadn’t realized how far that would take me. Over one of my school breaks, I had the chance to visit family friends from when we lived in Tokyo. Two years ago my sister and I had visited this family in Sapporo, Hokkaido when my Japanese was very minimal, and we had to translate through their daughter to communicate with the rest of the family. However this time when I visited, I could speak with all of the family members, including their grandparents who spoke with a rural Hokkaido accent. It meant so much to me that I’m now able to express all of my gratitude to them properly for taking care of me while I visited.
While there are many things that are familiar and comfortable about Japan for me, coming to the country again as an adult has made me realize things that I had no consciousness of as a child growing up in Japan, specifically how I stand out as a foreigner. In California, at least where I grew up, it’s hard to stand out as a foreigner from your surface appearance. But in Japan the “gaikokujin” (foreigner) effect is very obvious when I ride the public transportation or walk into a store, or especially when I go to my local public bath to enjoy a nice soak with my neighbors. Sometimes when I’ve gone out to eat with a Japanese friend, the store staff will address my friend instead of me when I order because they assume I don’t speak Japanese. I think for most people this wouldn’t bother them, but for me it’s been a bit frustrating, especially when I feel like I understand Japan well and I can communicate with ease. Occasionally however I’ve learned to revel in the “outsiderness” of being a foreigner in a so-called homogenous country by talking loudly with foreign friends in the streets (receiving long looks from Japanese passerby), and that is definitely something I would have never had the chance to experience in the U.S., where I rarely feel like I’m in the minority.
Beyond my cultural experiences in Japan however, I’ve also had the chance to grow more professionally and learn more about the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. I came into this year expecting to pursue my interest in East Asian historical issues more thoroughly through academic research, but I’ve had so many other opportunities to learn about other fields and future career options that I’ve ended up pursuing a different field altogether. Through my academic program at Waseda University, I was able to secure an internship with the Japanese think tank the Japan Forum on International Relations this semester. Not only have I been able to observe and experience Japanese office culture from my weekly internship, but I’ve also learned a lot more about Asian international relations in areas I had little knowledge of, such as economics through my projects with JFIR.
Additionally, throughout this year I’ve been a part of several academic extracurricular programs that have opened my eyes to what I’m capable of doing, and one of the most influential has been the Korea-America Student Conference (KASC). Last summer I participated in the conference as a delegate in South Korea before I left for Japan, and then after the conference I was elected to become one of the student Executive Committee members to lead this year’s conference in the US. Since September I’ve been working with a team of four American and four Korean college students to plan this summer’s three-week long conference. I’ve learned so much about professional networking, leadership, and some of the inner workings of the International Relations scene in Washington DC through my participation in KASC. In December we held a Trilateral Symposium with our sister program, the Japan-America Student Conference (JASC) where we students had the opportunity to speak with policy analysts and government officials on public panels relating to Japan-Korea-US issues. This was a dream come true for me, combining my interests in South Korea and Japan, and the chance to see my Korean friends meet and bond with my new Japanese friends was really inspiring.
Along with my year-long work for KASC this school year, during my spring vacation I also got the chance to take part in another student exchange type of academic program, but this time to Southeast Asia. With a program called Learning Across Borders, I traveled to Thailand and Malaysia with a group of Japanese and Burmese university students. While learning about the region’s culture and people, we also visited and spoke to many NGO’s and UN organizations to learn more about what they do. We spoke to UNHCR in Malaysia, Human Rights Watch in Thailand, and a variety of smaller, local non-profits as well. This program was incredibly eye-opening to me, as I had known nothing of the region prior to this program. I also learned a lot about non-profit work and international development work, and that has greatly influenced my thoughts on my career after graduation. I’m now planning to pursue a career in international NGO work, specifically in Asia and development.
The many deep friendships and connections I’ve made while in Japan with people from all over the world has both made my world smaller, and also so much larger. There is so much more that I want to learn about and experience, but I would have never known of all of the things out there if I hadn’t had the opportunity to go abroad. At this point I can barely remember what my hopes and goals for this year at the beginning of it were, but I can tell that I’ve greatly surpassed those in ways I never could have imagined. Thank you so much for making this opportunity a reality for myself and for all of the other UCSD students out there looking to get a taste of the world beyond San Diego.