Our fall semester students will be departing for Japan in less than a week. They’re ready to spend the next few months living and learning together in Hikone, nestled on the shore of Lake Biwa. But what do you do if the idea of living with a roommate makes you feel tired already? Or if it’s already hard enough to express yourself in English? Here are some tips for the shy or introverted, from someone who can be both.
First of all, your introversion isn’t something that needs to be overcome, as long as it isn’t making your life too difficult. It’s a part of who you are, and there’s room for all of us in the world. However, it can be easier for the quieter among us to feel disconnected from our communities, and that should be avoided.
Living in a different country won’t make you into an entirely different person, especially not if you expect it to. What it will do is call upon different aspects of your personality than you’re used to. Studying abroad forces you to advocate much harder for what you want, to ask more questions, and to be more willing to make mistakes. You’ll have to interact with strangers just to find your way around. However, some research on Google Maps and an arsenal of travel brochures will smooth your way a little. The good thing is that clerks and attendants are much more interested in doing their jobs correctly than in striking up a personal relationship, and they will answer you as efficiently as possible.
In Japan, you may attract a lot of attention simply for not being a native Japanese. It will likely be obvious by the way you look, dress, act, and speak, and there’s no getting around it. People will tell you that it’s all friendly attention, and that everyone just wants to help you. That’s pretty much true, but it’s not very helpful! Sometimes you just want to have a public breakdown in a train station without some nice old man trying to make conversation with you.
I recommend finding some private spots where you can have some time and space to yourself. The weird thing about study abroad is that it can make you feel intensely lonely and like the center of attention at the same time, and you need to find ways to deal with that. In Hikone, there’s a seating area on the second floor of the Beisia department store that’s usually pretty quiet, and the shore of Lake Biwa (especially where there’s lots of trash washed up) is often quite empty. Riding your bike is also a good way to get some alone time.
Next, how do you go about making friends? You may have heard stories about people who visit a foreign country and come back with several best pals for life. Now, if you’re anything like me, you need at least five months and dozens of meals together with someone before you consider yourself close. Luckily, there’s a bit of an acceleration during a program like JCMU. You’re all strangers in a new place taking intensive language classes together five days a week. It’s like you’re castaways on a deserted island being attacked by wild animals called “verb conjugations.” You will bond out of desperation first, and then find yourselves going sightseeing or making mashed potatoes or enjoying a Halloween party together. And if you don’t make any best friends? That’s okay. Just make sure there’s someone, family or friends back home, or a counselor, whom you can really confide in.
Still, you should challenge yourself to say “yes” more often to invitations. Whether that’s JCMU-sponsored events or a trip to the convenience store, it might lead to something positive. Everything will be new and exciting, especially at first, and even running errands can feel like an adventure. It will be awkward at times, but not in an insurmountable way.
On the other hand, your comfort with being alone can give you some unique opportunities. Solo travel is safe and affordable in Japan, and it lets you set your own schedule, without fear of inconveniencing anyone else. It also forces you to communicate on your own, if that’s something you normally leave to others. What some see as shyness is really an ability to be independent, and there’s no better time to explore that ability than while abroad.
There’s an idea that you need to be constantly traveling and shopping and talking to native speakers in order to make your study abroad “worth it.” In reality, there are many ways to get something out of it, and many of us have constraints like money, energy, or homework that we also need to balance. It’s okay if you can’t go out every day. If being alone for a while is what makes you able to embrace the next opportunity that comes along, you aren’t wasting your time.
In the end, your time at JCMU will be unique to you, as it will be unique to every one of your classmates. You will benefit from it whether you make dozens of friends, or just a couple. You will be anonymously attention-grabbing, and learn to live with it. Study abroad is for introverts, extroverts, and everyone in between, and JCMU is no exception!