I attended EIL’s Japan: Language and Cultural Traditions program this past summer and I could not dream, of a better experience. The people, the culture, the food, the experience was one that seemed out of a book, but what I found most amazing was how my view of myself changed over those four, hot summer weeks and even more once I returned.
Throughout the program, there were always new challenges being presented every time we changed location, ate at a new restaurant, or met a new person. As a study abroad student in Japan that does not know a significant amount of Japanese, this was extremely challenging, but also incredibly rewarding. It became an essential survival skill to have to put yourself out there and face the difficulties. Never before in my life have I had to do that and eventually it became comfortable to be uncomfortable. I learned new ways of communication not just through language, but with hand gestures, body language, and facial expressions. Other challenges, like behavior, also changed the way I saw myself. The people there had different customs and social norms for behavior that I was not used to. Sales associates bowing, only being able to use the left side of the elevator, showing politeness by keeping your hands on the front of your body, and the manner in which you gave and received money was all brand new to me, and it taught me a lot about cultural sensitivity and customs. I had to fight against by basic social instincts because I did not want to be rude to anyone. It opened my eyes to the way others receive culture and how people adapt to the change. I saw tourists and other students either be completely fine with the shift or have this great internal war with themselves like many others were probably feeling at the time too. I began to understand the importance of culture in its most natural form. I had to experiment with my Experiment.
The way I view myself now was not the way I viewed myself before those four weeks. There were a few moments in particular where I saw this shift. The first was during my homestay in Nanae, Japan. I was having a delicious dinner with my family when my host father began to tell me how “Japanese” I was in character. He praised the way I addressed people, showed respect by bowing, got along with others, and in general how I acted. Never in my life have I received such praise, and at first I didn’t know what to do with this information. It was like looking at a mirror, recognizing the way you always looked, except your reflection began to tell you things you never knew about yourself. It was a confidence boost that will survive for the rest of my life. The other time was at the end of my program during the closing ceremonies/activities. As a group, each person would tie a string around another person’s wrist and tell them something you would remember them by, or what you appreciated about them. When it came time to exchange ties with one of my group leaders, she explained how she was grateful for my quiet leadership. As a socially shy person, the idea that I could be a leader in any shape, way, or form was insane, but the sincerity of my leader’s words caught me off guard, and I realized she truly meant it. Coming home I was expected to be bombarded by questions about my experience abroad, which turned out to be an understatement, but I was still questioning myself as to how I was going to receive it. I found it very easy to answer peoples’ questions, not just because I had the time of my life, but because I had more confidence in myself to talk to people and explain what happened and what I learned.
After my experience abroad I want to do so much more. I want to explore more, talk more, explore more, and learn more. My perspective on myself and the world has changed, and I couldn’t have had a better way to spend my summer than doing my program with the Experiment.