{Shaun in Japan}

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"How do you know that you're right? / If you're not nervous anymore..."

Posted by Shaun

"How do you know that you're right?
If you're not nervous anymore..."
"Bling (Confessions of a King)" by The Killers
You learn a lot of things about your personality when you study abroad. One of the things I've learned is that I have the sort of personality that, for whatever reason, wants me to be continually denying myself something. If something is too comfortable, then maybe it can't be trusted. I've learned to overcome this in a lot of parts of my life - my schoolwork and my eating habits, for example - but it always manages to seep into some other area of my existence. Like English. Not in an "I'm going to challenge myself by only speaking Japanese today" way, but in a "You spoke too much English today. You should feel bad about that" way. There's a fine line between immersion and self-denial that results in the coding of English-language experiences and friendships as inherently less valuable than the same things in a foreign language. I'm not sure that I agree with that value system, but I'm definitely trapped in it.

I've also realized that at the beginning of my study abroad experience, I chose to be a good study abroad student, specifically a good white American encroaching on a foreign country, by deciding to avoid bothering people as much as possible. I don't really recommend this approach. There are other, probably better, ways to be a "good" study abroad student. Ask intelligent questions and engage empathetically with the people around you as much as possible, for example.

Now, as my friends in the US start to prepare for summer vacation, I'm starting to think about my senior year, and my future after graduation. And I haven't the slightest clue what that will be.

But I don't think I want to go right back to Japan. It's not that I'm having a bad experience here, but my family and friends are all an ocean away. There's not much that ties me to Japan except for my desire to master Japanese, though if you asked me why I want to be able to speak and read it, I'm not really sure anymore. I feel very temporary in Japan, and very precarious. There are a lot of political things going on in the US right now that make me want to punch something, but at least there I know where I stand and I feel at home. 

But I only feel so comfortable in the US because I am a white, straight, cisgender, middle-class American. I know better than to think that my comfort extends to every American. I know that there are people who are hurt or killed every day in America because of the institutions that make me feel like I have a place there. So that self-denial comes out again. I imagine someone with all the privileges I lack telling me "Oh, poor baby, you don't feel comfortable in Japan? I don't feel comfortable anywhere." There are jobs in Japan that I know I could do, if the only concern I had for my future was financial. English teaching, for example. Knowing Japanese, being a woman, speaking American English, and having a college degree would be great advantages to me in the "teach-English-in-Japan" field. And I wouldn't lose my hard-earned Japanese. So how can I turn that down for an uncertain job future in the US, just because I feel a little uncomfortable with being a gaijin forever and I want to be close to my family?

There's the additional problem that no one can recommend me any career fields anywhere but in Japan. Obviously, being physically located in Japan, people in charge my study abroad program are bound to be most familiar with the opportunities there. But no one knows anything about Japan Study alumni who didn't come back to Japan*. There's this accepted mythology that good study abroad students want nothing more than to live in their host country forever, and the ones who aren't dying to come back are failures. I don't want to be a failure.

I don't want to give up the progress I've made in Japanese. I've finally gotten to the point where I can actually talk with people and begin to read things, and I want to keep improving. But I want to work in America. I don't want the limits I feel placed on myself in Japan, both as a woman and as a gaijin (although I realize that gaijin women are privileged above Japanese women in some fields). In any case, I'm not ready to commit to any sort of two-year teaching contract in Japan right away.

This makes me feel like a bad white American study abroad student for not being "international enough" and sufficiently "culturally flexible," for not loving my host country more than my family, my friends, and my personal comfort, for wanting to take a path I imagine to be both "easier" and less restrictive in the long-run. For not having the sort of study abroad experience programs want to brag about, and for having the gall to write about it on a blog linked from that program's website.

So I'm sorry about all of that.

To my family, I promise I'm not depressed right now. I've been having a lot of enjoyable experiences that you can look forward to in future posts once I find a convenient way to host the photos (Gundams, chocolate, and pandas, oh my!). I'm just trying to work my way through a lot of thoughts, and some of them are stupid and for some reason I want to work through them on the internet in public. Probably in the hopes of advice from people older and wiser than me. Comments and emails are welcome.

*This year's program assistant is in the process of a new reconnect-with-alumni for the sake of her graduate research and the 50th anniversary of the program, so I could have answers soon.

2 Responses so far.

  1. ~~ Chris says:

    I really like reading your blog because I feel that we're kind of in the same place. Most other people I know who are studying abroad are doing so for a semester, or more semesters in different places, but I truly feel like staying a year is a brand new experience. While reading this post, I thought to myself "yea, I know that feeling!" (except being Gaijin. Not to make aryan jokes, but I've never stood out based on appearance in Germany). I get asked all the time if I want to come back to Germany/Berlin after I graduate and the truth is I don't know.

    I just spent a week trying to deny myself English because I felt that as an abroad student I should be doing everything I can to try and speak German all the time. I mean, it's not like I can go a week without English at home or at Knox. In reality though, it just made me bitter. I couldn't escape my native language. People around me were still using English, especially all the people in my program, and I felt like I couldn't talk to them. This also comes in the idea that American/English-speaking friendships aren't as valuable (and I know a few people who take this idea seriously), but making German friends is a lot harder than it looks. It seems like if I'm not talking German all the time with native German speakers (and going out to German clubs every weekend) then my study abroad experience is a failure.

    I suppose this comment isn't as helpful as I wanted it to be. I just want to say that you are definitely not alone in your thoughts. I'm experiencing and thinking the same things. I suppose it comes down to: I want to go home. I have two and a half more months in Berlin (and everyone tells me I'm soooo lucky), but I just want to go home and eat American style pancakes and not feel like a fool for messing up grammatically or socially.

  2. Blair says:

    Hey Shaun,
    Okay, so as you know this is coming from someone who only left America once, and that was to go to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls so it doesn't count.

    I don't think you should feel bad about being honest in your blog, even if your feelings are sometimes negative and some of your readers may have been linked through the program website. Purely from those readers' perspectives, I hope they'd think it was more interesting to learn how a study abroad student was actually dealing with life in Japan, right down to the stuff that isn't necessarily gonna get quoted in a brochure. It makes you more of a real person, and I think people who are planning to study abroad should consider all the ways it will affect them, both positive and negative.

    And as far as feeling like you're falling short of the study abroad student you're expected to be... I mean, okay - I think you're fantastic. Studying in a different country for an entire year, without family or friends and thrown headfirst into a new culture, is something to be proud of. You filled out all the applications, made all these big plans before leaving, and then you went and DID it. Maybe you'll come back to Japan someday, and maybe you won't; but you don't owe anybody anything. My hope is that your study abroad experience is/was significant and gives you plenty of memories, and that it benefits you in some way. But I think you can decide for yourself what those benefits will be, and if they don't match up with what you think people want you to have, well womp womp to them.

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