(October 1, 2010)
Christin was the Press Office 2010 summer intern at U.S. Embassy Tokyo. Having just graduated in May with a M.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University Elliott School in Washington, DC and as a Thomas R. Pickering Graduate Foreign Affairs Fellow, she will be joining the Foreign Service. Christin did her undergraduate degree at Wellesley College during which she spent a year studying abroad at the Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.
Studying abroad in Japan has been a wonderful, sometimes difficult, but certainly life changing experience. The first time I studied in Japan, it was on an academic study abroad program. In choosing a program, I did research by attending study abroad fairs, looking online, talking to my teachers, and asking students who had just returned home. In the end, I decided that with my interests, the best program that met both my academic and personal requirements was the Associated Kyoto Program (AKP). On this program I studied for a year at Doshisha University in Kyoto, lived with a home stay family, and took classes on a variety of subjects in both English and Japanese.
It helped financially and academically for me that AKP was affiliated with the college I was currently attending because it meant that I would be paying no more than the regular tuition and would not need to have my AKP classes approved for credit. I also applied for all the scholarships and grants introduced to me by the Study Abroad Office at my school, and those I found by searching online. Thus, when I went to Kyoto to study for the 2006-2007 academic year, I received both a Freeman Grant for Study in Asia ($2000) and a Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship for International Study ($5000).
In preparation to go to Japan, I applied for a visa and bought a round trip plane ticket. I made sure that my plane was scheduled to arrive at least three hours before the appointed pick up time for my program in case of delays. AKP sent me a letter of sponsorship provided by my soon-to-be host school, which I then took with me along with my travel itinerary and passport to the closest Japanese Consulate. At the consulate, I took a number for the visa line and filled out the English visa application forms while I was waiting. When it was my turn at the counter, I handed the woman behind the counter my forms, the letter of sponsorship, my itinerary, and passport. The woman looked over my documents, asked me some simple questions in English about my plans, checked to make sure my passport would not expire near the time I would be in Japan, gave me back my itinerary and sponsorship letter, and told me to return in three days to pick up my passport and visa. It was easy. Packing for Japan, on the other hand, was hard because I had never lived anywhere outside of Massachusetts. I researched Kyoto’s weather online, and AKP also sent me a list of “recommended items to bring,” which I found very helpful, and accurate, too.
On September 6, 2006 I arrived at the Kansai International Airport. I didn’t have any trouble with customs or immigration, but I did have to show my sponsorship letter along with my visa. My program organized tours with Doshisha University’s English Speaking and Debate Club, whose members spent a whole day showing us how to commute between our host families’ houses and school, and helped us apply for postal bank accounts, national insurance, and our alien registration cards. My tour guides were my first Japanese friends and they helped connect me to more people throughout the year. Joining an interest circle also helped me meet new people and adjust to Japanese student life.
As for culture shock, I think the biggest issue for me was when I first realized that while I had studied Japanese for two years and had expected to use Japanese every day, the Japanese spoken in daily life was faster and more colloquial than I was used to. I was completely lost for my first month abroad. However, being in Kyoto and living with a host family meant that I had no choice but to improve my Japanese language abilities. Kyoto is not like Tokyo or Yokohama where you can get by speaking only English. In addition, my host family, a seventy-year-old couple, only spoke Japanese. So, it was Japanese all day, every day. While it was a struggle at first, I was happy when I realized how much I had improved. There was a car that would often drive by my host family’s house while the driver wailed something on a loudspeaker. Since I couldn’t understand at first, it sounded like a Muslim call to prayer to me. One night in mid-December, however, I heard the wail as the car passed by and I realized that I finally understood what the driver was saying. The man was wailing, “Baked Sweet Potatoes!” While I felt ridiculous for thinking that it was a call to prayer, I also felt amazed that I could understand. Then I noticed that I could understand the news, my classmates, the bus and train announcements, etc. It was a wonderful feeling.
During my stay, I didn’t really experience homesickness. I think it helped that my parents and I called each other every week or two and I was generally busy with classes and cultural activities outside of school. I took traditional Japanese dance and music classes after school, which I found out about by asking at my program office and through other students. Although I did have cravings for certain foods, namely steak, I could usually satisfy them by traveling to more metropolitan parts of Japan or outside of the country. During my year studying abroad, I went to Kobe, Osaka, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Aso-san, Beppu, Sapporo, Tokyo, Yokohama, Nikko, Hakone, and Taipei, Taiwan. In the more international cities I was able to find the Chinese and American foods I missed. Traveling was a wonderful way to explore Japan and neighboring countries, and by staying in hostels and finding discounts or special deals offered by the train and travel companies online, I managed to keep within my rather small budget. The 100 Yen stores found all over Japan were also a lifesaver for a poor college student. Still, I spent about JPY 10,000 a day when traveling, an amount that would normally last me for a week.
Living with a host family was the best part of my experience studying abroad. By the end of my stay, they had truly become a family to me. I learned as the year went by that it was very important to spend time, communicate issues, and discuss plans with them. They were a reliable source of information, and we avoided a lot of the problems encountered by other students because we talked a lot and made a concerted effort to compromise while respecting each other’s customs and opinions. Sometimes all it took was common sense. One AKP student had problems with his host family because he would do things such as eat all the potato chips his host mother offered as an after dinner snack even though she had asked him to save some for his host father. Another student had trouble because she refused to eat anything her host mother served. Then, when the host mother took the student to the supermarket in an attempt to accommodate the student’s eating habits, the student only chose foods that were very expensive in Japan. Since the host families generally spent a lot more on us than the stipend given them by AKP each month to provide housing and meals, my friends and I would always try to remember to say “thank you” for things they did for us and bring home souvenirs for them when we traveled. My host family also thought it was wonderful when I brought home pastries, traditional Japanese sweets, or flowers for them periodically. During Thanksgiving, AKP also recommended that we give our host families cards to thank them for their care.
It was interesting and often amusing when I encountered stereotypes of Americans in Japan. The host father of my friend, for example, asked her what it’s like to eat hamburgers every day. It was fun to explain that we don’t really all eat at McDonalds for every meal and that there are actually food and cultures from all over the world in the U.S. One stereotype that did seem to be true, though, was that study abroad students are the worst dressed on campus. It’s hard to argue with that one. For instance, you can generally recognize a foreign student at Doshisha because they wear sweat shirts and jeans to class and carry a backpack. This is much more casual and plain compared to the Japanese students, who wear the latest fashions and carry anything but a backpack. I also met people who couldn’t believe that I, as a Taiwanese-American, am really American because I am not blonde and blue eyed. On the other hand, I also probably faced less discrimination since I passed for Japanese. Policemen often stopped some of my classmates to ask for identification because they fit certain profiles, and others had people avoid them or treat them rudely. Most of us found it effective to keep a polite and friendly attitude in these situations because it helped change the way people saw us over time.
Now I’m back in Japan again, but this time I took an alternative study abroad route by applying for an internship at the U.S. Embassy Tokyo. It’s quite different because it’s a professional rather than an academic experience. I am responsible for projects, help organize events, attend meetings of high level officials, and generally experience a version of the “salary man” life in Japan. While there are times when living this “salary man” life feels as though all I do is work, eat, and sleep, I do like the teamwork and camaraderie in Japan. While professional life in the U.S. probably is not all that different, it does tend to emphasize individuality more. I would say that interning at the U.S. Embassy Tokyo gives me a mix of both countries’ professional cultures. It can also be very interesting and exciting at times. Ambassador Roos even invited all the interns to lunch one day. On the weekends, I travel. About half of State Department internships provide a stipend and housing, the other half require that you pay for everything yourself. I’ve done both types and think that they are equally rewarding and worth the effort. I’ve kept down costs for an unpaid internship, although not here in Japan, by living in a share house or acquaintance’s apartment, making a list before going out shopping, buying at wholesalers or farmers’ stands, and keeping to a tight budget of the equivalent of JPY 20,000 a week, including rent.
I highly recommend studying abroad. It is a rewarding experience and a great opportunity for personal growth. And, above all, it’s fun!