You hear a lot about culture shock when preparing to go abroad. Ranging from a short trip to a permanent move, culture shock is something that all travelers will experience at some point. Studying abroad is probably one of the most direct ways to encounter culture shock in my opinion, and I’ve definitely had my fair share of it since going abroad for the first time five years ago while I was in high school.
I find myself comparing my bouts with culture shock here in Japan to my high school experience in Thailand, and while there are quite a few similarities there are also quite a few differences. For one, I feel that when I lived with a host family in Thailand I had to confront my language inability and misunderstandings of the culture much more quickly than I’ve had to do here, living in an apartment. Also, having studied abroad before gave me a lot more tools to prepare for the first initial lows of culture shock and how to get myself through that phase with more ease. However even with my previous knowledge and preparations that I tried to make for this experience in Japan, I still found myself getting hit extremely hard with homesickness, something I still struggle with with only approximately ninety days left of my exchange.
However at this point I’m getting into the more exciting phase of my study abroad experience by starting to accept the cultural differences that I’ve learned here and starting to see Japan as not just my home, but a place where I understand the culture and am starting to be able to say that I’m a part of – even if it’s not in the traditional way. Just a couple days ago, I was showing some of my roommate’s friends from Canada around Tokyo and I realized that I’m much more integrated into the culture than I see myself sometimes. To further elaborate, this week in Japan is a celebration called “Golden Week” which is basically a term that encompasses several holidays that all happen within a very short time span. So I suggested to my roommate’s friends that we go to Meiji Jingu to see if there were any activities going on at the shrine. Sure enough, there were a ton of things to see — several wedding processions, traditional performances, and markets. I found that I was able to answer all the questions asked of me. I could explain why something was happening a certain way or translate what was being said. It felt, in a way, that I was explaining things that happen in the culture that I’m in and apart of, even though I’m not Japanese and it’s not my nation’s history, but just because I’ve gotten so used to being here and have started to get a deeper connection to the people around me.
With only ninety days left of my time in Tokyo, I feel quite conflicted about the idea of going back to the United States. On one hand, I’m excited to be returning to see my friends and family and to start back with my traditional studies. But I still feel like I haven’t had enough time here to fully grasp my surroundings and the language and cultural understanding that I was desiring before setting out on this experience. I think I’m starting to realize that maybe that’s one of the saddest things about studying abroad. It’s such a rare occurrence to be able to live in a different country in the way that you do when you’re studying abroad, and in the end it feels like the time goes too fast. Yet in the end, even if you do feel sad, you would never change the experience for anything else in the world. In my opinion, the ultimate bittersweet moment.