Homecoming

I left Fukuoka today three weeks ago, and it has taken me this entire time to feel that Sydney could be home again.

When I left for Japan almost exactly a year ago, I did not expect for Japan to twist itself so deeply within my psyche.  Not just the people I managed to meet and befriend in Japan, but the lifestyle, the weird mix of convenience and tradition, the food, everything became an integral part of who I am.  Maybe it was because it was the first time I had ever lived by myself without the support of family, but for the first time in my life, I was one hundred percent independent.  And maybe this independence is what made living in Fukuoka so much more than living in Sydney.

I still think exchange was a two part experience for me, but I think that only added to my life overseas, and gave me an opportunity to try and feel and think about more things than if it had been one cohesive unit.

At the same time, with all the travelling that I managed to do during my time in Japan came a realisation that I did not just love Japan for just its pop culture or its fashion or whatever I had picked up over the years watching anime.  I loved Japan for its people and its culture, for its traditions, its legends, its beliefs, and its contradictions.  The kindness that its people showed to strangers, and its rejection of foreigners for fear of damaging their culture.  Their respect for their own ancestry and their customs that help them pay their respects to their heritage.  Their pursuit for innovation and technology while their society still relies on paperwork and cash as a foundation.  The way that everything was built for maximum efficiency, but the people working it could be the slowest workers in the world.

And with all my observations of Japanese culture came also observations and realisations of my own culture and ancestry.  Observations about the current state of mind in China, within the Chinese people.  Strengthened beliefs about why Hong Kong will never really see itself as part of China.  Realisations that Australian national pride comes in the form of telling everyone about how terrible Australia is and being proud of how terrifying Australia seems to everyone else in the world.

But in the end, any sort of self discovery about my own heritage was eclipsed by the love I found for the Japanese way of life, and way of thinking, and way of doing.  I felt nothing walking through Fukuoka airport, until the plane started to move, and the workers bowed and waved the plane off, and I realised that this was the end of my year in Japan.

I would like to say that I didn’t cry, but at least I didn’t breakdown.

And for now, I’ll just keep dreaming in Japanese, until I’ve worked enough and saved enough money for me to go home.

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Six month reflections

At the time of writing, I’m well into six months living in Japan, and about to hit the seven month mark, which marks the start of my countdown to finishing up my year on exchange and leaving Japan instead of eagerly anticipating all the time that I have stretching in front of me as I begin to explore this little corner of the world.

And to compare, I was rereading all the posts that I had posted prior to, and at the start of my exchange.  There were so many feelings and details that I had forgotten about, thoughts that I deemed important enough to put down, but quickly erased by all the new experiences that I have gained in the time since then.

For one, I didn’t expect how intense the friendships I’ve made here would be in comparison to all the friendships that I’ve made so far in my life.  Maybe it’s the way my exchange program here at Kyudai is structured, with one semester in the JTW exchange program and the following as a normal Kyudai student, maybe I was blessed with the right people, but I have never felt as down and as upset as when all my friends finished up their year here and went home.  I didn’t cry leaving my friends and family in Sydney, but I was ugly-crying for at least one airport send-off, and I remember tearing up for many more, disregarding the times when I would start crying in the prior weeks at the prospect of everyone leaving me.

I want to cry now, thinking about all the times when everyone was together, and it’s been three months since everyone left.

I think it was the fact that they had become my family here, they who welcomed me so openly, they who took me places and included me in their jokes, they who introduced their non-JTW friends to me because they cared and wanted me to have friends after they left, and we all knew that it would nearly be impossible for all of us to be in the same place at the same time ever again.

And I think that so far, this has been the hardest part of my exchange experience.  I talk to some regularly, and I got to meet some of them again during summer break as I traveled around East Asia, but I miss them.

Another thing that I didn’t expect was just how seclusive Japanese society can be.  I knew beforehand that they didn’t really associate with foreigners unless you actively approach you, but it’s so hard to really get to know a Japanese person properly.  I don’t consider myself a shy person, and I certainly didn’t hold myself back talking to Japanese strangers at club activities or whatever, but even so, the fact that I couldn’t speak fluently to them already stopped them from trying to speak to me.  Our conversations mostly went like this:

“Hi, I’m blahblah, a 1st/2nd/3rd/4th year of blahblah faculty.”

“Hi, I’m Joyce, an exchange student from Australia.”

“Oh that’s cool! How is Japan?”

And I’ll give a slightly stilting answer about Japan, and they’ll laugh politely, and then as a friend passes them, turn towards their friend and strike up a conversation, leaving me to stand awkwardly behind them as I try to follow their very fast speech.  It’s gotten better, now that I’ve become better at speaking, but even for Japanese people, there’s this certain procedure to follow if you want to integrate into a pre-existing group, and I’ll elaborate on this in a later post.

On to something more uplifting, I have had the opportunity to travel a lot during the last six months, and I’m so thankful that I could, because I’ve seen so much more in the last half year than I have so far in my life prior to Japan.  And the more I travel, the more I believe that traveling will not just give you a broader perspective of the world, but give you a deeper understanding of yourself, and how you interact with the world around you.  I’ll be aiming to see more of Japan in the next few months before going back to Australia, so expect to see many many many travel posts happening as I slowly catch up on the last six months WHILST continuing all my adventure times.

And then… home time.

I wonder, will it feel like a return to Sydney?  Or will it feel like a departure from Fukuoka?

First month reflections

I arrived in Japan exactly a month ago from today, but it simultaneously feels like I just got here AND that I have been here forever .  It’s weird… and I don’t know what to think about this, but whatever.  I am coping with living out of home for the first time, I am coping with living out of the country for the first time, and my room is still super presentable and not a total mess at all.

Major accomplishments, in my opinion.  I am coping, and I am surviving, and I am having one hell of a time doing it.

So… What have I learnt in this first month living in Japan?  What sort of life secrets have I discovered?

First of all, budgeting is nearly impossible.   Even though they sent me a form that listed all the expenses I would have to pay whilst I’m here, even though I had figured out previously weekly and monthly budgets and all, this DOES NOT help at all.  There are so many hidden expenses when you get here that I am crying at how fast my cash is going.  Examples: bedsheet costs, things that you need for your dorm like soap and bathmats and detergents, field trip costs, textbooks for Japanese class, student-organised welcome parties that will cost you ¥¥¥¥¥…

But all in all, it’s worth it.  All the money I have spent so far, I have not regretted at all.  A few tips that I’ve picked up from the older exchange students and other peoples are:

  • Write down all your expenses so you at least know where your money is going
  • Go to one big event a week. Unless the second event is something you promised to go to or else forfeit your first child, one big yen spending event a week will still get you heaps of funtimes and parties.  After all, everyone else you’re hanging out with are students living on budgets too.  So chances are you may be missing out on some massive party in town, but someone else is having a movie night in their room, and that’s fun and FREE.
  • Control your food money a week. In Fukuoka, food is cheaper to get than in the other big cities like Osaka and Tokyo, so it’s not hard to get a good feed for maybe 500 yen per main meal.  If you want to know what the standards for an expensive meal are…
    • Lunch: over ¥1000
    • Dinner: over ¥2000

This does not include snack money hehehehe

  • Alcohol is really cheap. Don’t go too crazy on building up your liquor cabinet.  EVEN IF THE ALCOHOL IS JUST STARING AT YOU AS YOU MAKE YOUR WAY FROM THE BREAD AISLE TO THE VEGETABLE SECTION, DON’T DO IT.
  • And if you like shopping, go on one trip a month. Everything is cheaper here, but that doesn’t mean you can afford to go out and impulse buy every time you walk past the store.  So dedicate one day where you know you have money to spend and then make it raaaaaaain.

Moving on away from money…

Japanese is hard.  Talking in Japanese is hard.  Unless you make time to go and speak to Japanese people on a day to day basis/have done exchange in Japan before and so you’re used to conversing in it, having Japanese thrown at you 24/7 is confronting.  Just watching anime or dramas all day is not enough, because being able to understand what they’re saying 100% does not equal to being able to respond to what they’re saying 100%.

I mean, I studied for three years before I came here (albeit not really studying as hard as I should have anyway…), and that was just enough for me to have enough vocab to be like ‘Where is ___?’ or ‘One ramen please’.  There are a lot of little phrases that you just don’t learn in class, and for you to pick up conversational every day Japanese, you’ll need to have lived here before.

What I think really helped me with my speaking confidence (which is still close to zero…) was that Kyudai has a tutor system where a local Japanese student is assigned as your tutor and is supposed to be your new best friend slash mother slash personal assistant slash Godsend, and for the first few days I was here my tutor was amazing and took me to all the places around the dorm and took me out to eat, and hearing what she was saying helped me kind of slide into conversing in Japanese.  Additionally, she went to high school in America, so it has been very easy for her to explain things to me so that I know what to do next time I need to deal with it.

Something else that also helped as well was that when I went on my #tokyolo trip, the friend that I was with most of the time did not speak Japanese at all.  Since I somewhat knew what I was doing, I ended up being the main speaker for the entire trip with no one to rely on to help me translate.  Especially because I had just gotten to Japan and was still like ‘What is Japanese can you eat it’, being forced to approach Japanese people to ask for directions, or to order food really made me think of how to communicate, and I think that made my brain transition into ‘YOU CAN JAPANESE’ faster than if I had not gone on the trip.

And in regards to keigo… no one cares.  They know you’re an exchange student the minute you open your mouth, and they don’t expect you to use it at all.  As long as you know enough keigo to understand what store people are saying to you when you buy things, it’s enough.  If you do use it, that’s just bonus brownie points for you, and you may or may not give off the impression that you’re fluent and so they stop speaking any English to you.  So unless your Japanese is actually somewhat fluent, don’t do it.

I mean, everyone is really friendly in Japan.  I apparently live in a sort of dangerous area in Fukuoka, but I am still perfectly safe if I go on a snack run by myself to the conbini down the road at 4am in the morning.  The other exchange students want to get to know you, local students may be shy because they can’t really English but they still want to get to know you… put yourself out there, and you’ll definitely make friends.

One friend once told me to ‘never say no’ when I’m on exchange.  If someone invites you to things, don’t say no.  This led me to a bar trivia the second night I was here, a comedy night followed by 飲み放題 (all you can drink) the third night I was here, movie nights with the older students, cooking parties with host mamas, drinks, dancing, karaoke…  You can say no, especially if you have an ICS assignment due soon, but it’s a lot easier to get to know people if you’re around and hanging out all the time.

And it’s fun.  If you think this violates my ‘one big event a week’ thing, it doesn’t, because errbody else be poor as well, especially because a lot of them are older exchange students who have been travelling it up and definitely have less money than you, the freshly arrived student, to spend, so I haven’t really missed out on any big events yet~

I’ve learnt this much in one month… let’s see if I still agree with anything I’ve said here in another month’s time.