2018 marks JCMU’s 30th anniversary since our founding in 1988. To celebrate, we will be posting 30 JCMU stories of 30 different JCMU alumni from 1989 to 2018 every Thursday from mid-February through September!
How did you work through the highs and lows of study abroad? For the twenty-fifth installment in our “30 Years, 30 Stories” series, read the story of JCMU 2017 alum Rachel Stacey, and discover why she wouldn’t trade her time in Hikone for anything – despite the ups and downs.
The decision to study in Japan was incredibly exciting for me. Everything after was an exercise in anxiety. Don’t get me wrong, studying in Japan was one of the best things I have ever done in my academic career, but I would be wrong to try and idealize the experience.
Studying in Japan is a lot like studying in any other school. It’s hard work, and it isn’t magically better just because I am in a place I have fantasized about visiting for years. There are normal school issues. There’s homework, there’s issues with roommates, there’s stresses about tests, and worries about unfair grades. Beyond the normal schooling challenges, there are also problems that are exclusive to study abroad. I was there for around a week and I already began feeling homesick. There was culture shock. The teaching dynamic in a Japanese classroom is completely different than what I was used to in my classes in America.
Life in Japan wasn’t just one trial after another, however. There were also benefits to the program. First and foremost, during the intensive language program, my language skills improved. It was the most dramatic improvement I noticed in my study of the language. I also was able to connect with Japanese students my age. One of them, following a summer at JCMU, spent a year in America, and she quickly became one of my closest friends. Beyond that language improvement and the friends, there was the travel. I traveled a lot. I went to Kyoto, Osaka, Universal Studios, Tokyo – I even visited Tokyo Disney twice! I went everywhere I could. Not even the fear of a test the next day could keep me in on a weekend.
So, I’ve already talked about all the general experiences that most of my classmates probably also experienced: the tests were hard, the travel was amazing, and my language skills improved significantly. But now, I want to talk about what made my time in Japan unique.
Every semester, a handful of students would decide to stay with a host family rather than in the dorms, I was one of them. Just like how there were ups and downs in the program, there were ups and downs in my host family. I was placed with a fairly young family, a young couple in their 30s and their six-year-old son. I loved my time with them, and they took excellent care of me. Every once in a while, though, there were miscommunications.
I consider myself to be fairly shy, and sometimes need direct prompting to admit if I want to do something. My host family tried to be very considerate of my space. This often led to awkward silences that at least on my part, I wished were filled.
I think the most noticeable conflict caused by these unfortunate traits was the time my host family went to visit Mt. Fuji. The whole scene started with a conversation with my host mother after I had come back from the JCMU campus. She asked me if I had any plans for the next weekend. Up until that point, I spent most of my weekend traveling, so it was a reasonable question. It just so happened that this time, I didn’t. She went on to say that she and her husband were planning on taking their son to go see Mt. Fuji over the weekend. I wasn’t sure where the conversation was going at this point, so I just said that sounded fun. That was the end of that conversation. Next thing I know, they were all gone over the weekend, taking their dog – but leaving me behind. I was left feeling pretty dejected that weekend, completely alone in the house. To be fair to them, I think they were expecting that if I wanted to go with them, I should have said so outright. Meanwhile, I didn’t want to put them in an awkward position by asking for something they would rather refuse. These breakdowns in communication, while hard to deal with, are unavoidable growing pains of learning about how both sides learned how to best interact with each other.
This missed adventure aside though, I absolutely loved spending time with my host family. I got to spend my entire last day in Japan with them. After 10 weeks of getting to know each other, they had a good idea about what I might enjoy doing, and they made that day really special. I watched a movie with my host brother, which is a little habit we made together. We went to a rock climbing gym together, and spent the afternoon there. But my favorite part was what we did for dinner.
When you stay with a host family from JCMU, they are expected to provide breakfast and dinner for you every day. My host mom is an excellent cook, and one day she cooked me a classic: okonomiyaki (savory Japanese pancake dish). Until then, I hadn’t even heard of it. Afterwards, though, it became my favorite Japanese dish. I told my host mother that, and she laughed, and that was the end of that. Until, on my last day in Japan, they took me to a very nice restaurant that basically only served okonomiyaki. We got to cook it ourselves on the table, and even recounting the story makes me smile (even if I wasn’t the most capable okonomiyaki chef, as you can see below).
To sum everything up, you’ll still experience highs and lows while going to school in Japan. It isn’t a completely fantastical experience immune from day-to-day life issues; problems don’t stop being problems because you are in another country, after all. But it was the process of working through the unique ups and downs of being in a foreign country that will stay with me forever. I wouldn’t trade my experiences there for anything, not even an unlimited supply of okonomiyaki.