At the end of the semester, after surviving the final exam, students go their separate ways. Some of them stay in Japan, meeting up with friends and traveling, but some go home for the holidays. Whether you’re going home now or in the spring, you’ll hear one questions over and over:
“How was Japan?”
How do you answer that? First, it depends on who’s asking. Is it your mom? Your best friend? A random hiring manager at a job fair? That’ll help you decide how honest to be. Because, although everyone is curious about your exciting trip abroad, they might not be interested in hearing about all the ups and downs.
You’re not being dishonest if you tell some people only what they want to hear—after all, if you only think about the weekly exams, biking in a typhoon, and getting on the wrong train, it was pretty bad. And if you think instead about the chance meetings with strangers, climbing Mt. Ibuki, and playing games with elementary schoolers, it was pretty great. You just have to choose what version of the story to tell and how present it in your best interest.
So, here’s how to talk to:
Your mother’s coworker you only see at the Christmas potluck
Don’t say: “Sometimes when I opened my exam I felt like jumping into Lake Biwa and joining a colony of swans.”
She’s either not going to get it, or she’ll be really concerned. Explaining that it’s only a joke, because swans have a highly organized social system and won’t accept just anyone, is only going to make things worse. And the truth is that a person you only see once a year isn’t really invested in your emotional well-being.
Instead, say: “The classes were really tough but I learned a lot, and I had a great time!”
If she presses for more, tell her about the time you went bird watching with a Japanese friend and taught each other the names of all the birds in your own languages. It’s true, and it was a great time. Nice job on the small talk!
Your straight-edge father
Don’t say: “They sell huge bottles of whiskey at 7-11, so every Friday I’d buy one with the allowance you gave me and throw a nomikai.”
He doesn’t want to hear that, and you don’t want to tell him. Drinking parties can actually be a great way to meet people and make friends, but you don’t want him thinking that you spent all your money that way (and you didn’t, right?). Stick to topics you can both agree on.
Instead, say: “I made so many friends in the dorm, and we were always having lunch and going on trips together.”
Hopefully, the friends you made at parties were good for other things, too. This’ll give you hundreds of other things to talk about, like your favorite restaurants, the cool stores in Kyoto, and trains in general. There’s a good chance that a dad will be happy to hear about trains.
Your best friend
Don’t say: “Uh, you know, I like, traveled around and stuff.”
This is the person you can count on the be the most interested in everything you got up to: the people you met, the food you ate, the places you visited… You name it, your best friend wants to know more! They want you to be proud of your accomplishment, so don’t be afraid to show off.
Instead, say: “I wish you could have been with me when I went to Osaka, I played the gacha machines and had so much good food! You would have loved it!”
Share the things you actually enjoyed the most, and make sure your friend knows you were thinking of them. Maybe it’ll encourage them to go on a study abroad of their own, and they’ll be the one telling you stories next year!
The interviewer at your dream internship
Don’t say: “I basically didn’t do anything but study and go to karaoke.”
Someone who wants to hire you for a job is probably looking for a more professional reflection. This partly depends on your attitude during the trip: were you just there for a vacation, or did you have other goals? Study abroad experience is impressive, but companies really want to know that you got something out of it.
Instead, say: “I got to experience things I wouldn’t have back home, which really made me step outside my comfort zone and grow as a communicator.”
Just don’t tell them that you mostly communicated the names of Jpop songs. There’s a way to spin every cultural activity to your credit, sometimes by thinking about the skills you learned that could be transferred to other areas. If you polled Japanese people on their favorite American TV shows, you practiced international exchange. If you ran the cultural festival, you gained leadership experience. And plain old Japanese language skills are worth a lot!
Even if it seems like you’re picking and choosing the stories you tell about your time in Japan, once you’ve been home a few weeks, you’ll be plenty sick of talking about it. Then it’ll be time for everyone back home to fill you in on what you’ve missed, and sooner or later, you’ll be pretty much caught up. But your study abroad will always be special, and there will always be more things to say about it. If you run out, well, you’ll just have to go back.