I’ve been in just Japan two weeks, and the number of differences that I’ve faced have been astounding. Sure, there are tons of good differences: people are unusually quiet, clean, and polite; convenience stores here are a godsend and even put my beloved Kwik Trip to shame; and Japanese toilets are so nice that they have ruined American bathrooms for me. However, there are nearly as many differences that become challenges to overcome. That’s why I thought it’d be a good idea to share one thing I’ve learned since I came here, which I believe is the most important resource/skill to have at your disposal when you go to another country.
Sure, I came to Japan only speaking beginner-level Japanese, so I expected quite a few difficulties. For example, it’s not easy getting around the maze that is the Tokyo train system with that level of language skill (most maps on the subway aren’t English-friendly). (It’s nearly impossible if you don’t have a working phone to guide you, as I found out thanks to Verizon.) Of course, a short term vacationer can just sign up for a pocket WiFi or rent a short-term SIM card, and that’s not doable for longer-term stays. Ordering food or drinks in a place with no English descriptions or menu (as most non-touristy places typically don’t have much, if any) is a commonplace thing and is incredibly overwhelming if you have no idea what you’re doing.
Trying to deal with all of the various details of living in-country is one heck of a task. From a language barrier standpoint, Japan has no shortage of difficulties. Setting up your National Health Insurance or getting a waiver for the payments towards the national pension system can cause you one heck of a migraine, even if you get a particularly diligent staff like the one at the Kita Ward office here in Kyoto. Even dealing with the guy behind the counter at the 7-11 is one heck of a task when your language skills are insufficient to realize he’s just asking you whether you’d like your pasta warmed up for you. (Pro tip: The guy behind the counter at 7-11 will assume you speak Japanese if you greet him in Japanese. Don’t do that. You will never get your curry bread heated up.) Don’t even get me started on cultural barriers- even Americans have simple, hidden rules that make up our culture yet we don’t even think about, and trying to figure out how to follow them in another country is a gargantuan task. (Especially in Japan, which is definitely known for them.)
For every one of those difficulties, there was one thing that got me through. Money only gets someone so far, and so does planning ahead. Instead, it was another resource that saved me in all of the tough times: people. I was able to get through all of the tough moments because I took the time to meet and ask for help from people who had the toolset to solve the challenges before me.
Building friendships is the first way to do this. My first night in Tokyo- navigating the maze of Tokyo trains, finding a place to sleep, getting my luggage sent ahead to Kyoto, and drying off after a torrential downpour soaked me and everything I had- was only survivable because of the assistance provided by my friend Yuichi (an exchange student at Ole Miss from last semester). Another example is Yeng, a guy in my dorm from Minnesota, who helped me get my bank account set up when there were errors with the forms and documents where the language barrier was otherwise insurmountable.
However, sometimes you’re by yourself and unable to figure out what to do. You may have none of your friends near you to help you, and you find yourself with a language barrier or difficulty that is facing you. In those cases, total strangers are at your disposal. Remember, the most important skill is to reach out and ask someone for help. Believe it or not, even complete random strangers- if you go up to them and ask them a question- will often pull out surprising skills and a willingness to help. Even in Japan, a place reputed for having people like to keep to themselves, has shown itself to be filled with decent and helpful people. I’ve personally been surprised by the number of Japanese people who speak at least simple English, or know how to dumb down their conversation for foreigners who can’t understand fully complex Japanese. This has helped me navigate some seriously difficult situations.
There is one last group of people that need to be noted here, and that is your fellow exchange students. Almost all of them are in virtually the same situation that you are. None of them are skating by with no difficulties. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask them for help, too; you might just build a friendship with them over these shared difficulties. Even if those difficulties have nothing to do with where you’re living and more with just dealing with some hard times, just finding one of your fellow exchange students can help cheer you up and make you feel a little more at home. (Again, shout out to Yeng. Actually being able to talk about home a bit made me feel more at ease than I can say.)
There have been- and will continue to be- so many times where it is a struggle just to deal with the day-to-day differences. That’s why I wanted to point out something important, because as a college student on a study abroad, the combination of limited funds and reasonably complex legalities with longer-term stays in countries make things difficult where they would normally be simple for a short-term tourist. You HAVE to be prepared for these irregularities, odd moments, and complications, because they will happen regardless of whether or not you’re ready for them.
For all of those moments, remember that people are the most important resource at your disposal. Rely on your friends, your fellow exchange students, and even complete strangers. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results, and will be able to tackle even the toughest challenges.
More Japan life updates/blogs to come!