Catalina, Outbound to Japan

I am now halfway through my exchange here in Japan. I know it sounds cheesy, but I can’t believe just how fast time has gone by. I still feel like I’ve barely started my exchange and yet I’ve already made so many friends and experienced so much.

I live in southeast Saitama prefecture, about an hour from many of the popular places inside Tokyo. I can literally take a day trip to Shibuya or Harajuku after school and be back in home in time for curfew. Living in America we are deprived of the wonders of public transportation. The train system, especially around Tokyo is literally the coolest, it’s so liberating to be able to travel everywhere with the tap of your public transport card.

I won’t bore you with every single little detail of my exchange, that’s not what these journals are about. I am here to share my experience and feelings with you so that you might be able to realize the joy and freedom this opportunity has provided me with.

Before going on this exchange I didn’t realize just how global this program really is. Yes, I knew I was going to meet locals, that was a given before I left, but I never even stopped to think about meeting people from across the globe like Switzerland and Brazil. These people have become some of my closest friends, I am not sure what I am going to do with myself without them after I leave. We are really lucky to speak English in America, my exchange student friends speak English really well, so I can easily have conversation with them. I love spending time with these people, and I know I will keep them in my life forever. The Rotex in my district all have gone to countries completely different from their own and are happy to have a little fun with us because they know how we feel, which I appreciate. I’ve noticed that a lot of exchange students, current and past, are much more confident than their prior selves. I didn’t even notice it until one of my exchange friends pointed it out to me but I myself have changed in the past five months. I used to live in Texas, and that is where my heart stayed long after I moved to Florida. I used to think Florida as only temporary, but I started describing the places and friends I have in Florida to one of the exchange students I’m closer to, and I realized I really have a home in Florida. My heart doesn’t belong just to Texas, it belongs in Florida just like it belongs in Japan too. I’ve learned to love places that I wasn’t originally from, and this is what my exchange has taught me.

I feel much more confident now, I have been forced to order food and ask questions to strangers in a language I am far from fluent in and I’ve had to start all over again in a completely new environment with strange people. I’ve noticed my language skills improving and I’ve made so many new friends! I am so excited to see how much I will change over these next six months of my exchange, I know it can only get better.

In my preparation to go exchange I knew that I was going to a place where I barely spoke the language and I didn’t know anyone and that was scary. Once I started taking off in my Japanese and becoming closer with the people that live here with me, I knew that Rotary had prepared me well for that aspect of exchange. For me, I hadn’t cried at all at the airport before I left or not even in the first two months. What I was not expecting was to become so close with my first host family. I only had two months with them but I had gotten into the rhythm of things and I felt really at home in their house. My siblings were amazing and my host mother was supportive in every way. The first time that I cried on this whole exchange was when I had to leave them. I cried twice that day. When I took my house key off of my keychain I realized that this was it. I’ll never get this back again. This part of my exchange was over and I had to move on to the next, but the transition was especially hard for me. Some time after that, I was at a Rotary function and my old host mom was there accompanying her son who is going on exchange next season. She was talking to another mom and called me her daughter. I was shocked. She said it again to me in Japanese and then in English “You are my daughter.” That was the third time I cried. I can’t believe just how profound this experience is and I’m barely halfway through.

When you think of American culture, what do you think of? Hamburgers? Ford 150s? A poorly edited bald eagle over a clip art American flag with explosions in the background? That isn’t true. American culture is truly a mix, a wonderful thing, and I should know. I am a biracial American, and I have experienced two radically different cultures within my own family, not to mention the teen culture as well. Getting to think about my culture has led me to think about this new one that I am living in right now. People think differently when they live in different places, not just across national divides. Living here in Japan, I didn’t realize just how their own unique culture is embedded into their lives. I never realized how culture is embedded into American lives too. We do things the way we do because of where we come from, and how we were raised. The Japanese put out decorations for the New Year’s instead of Christmas, and they visit a shrine to welcome the new year. Waiters and store clerks often apologize for keeping you waiting and thank you for walking in and out of stores even if you think buy anything. It’s one thing to research about a culture, but you don’t really know how it really is unless you live in it, and that is something I am so grateful for. We all say “Oh I want to expand my cultural horizons” before we leave to go on exchange, not really knowing what that phrase meant. But I know now that is something us exchange students can understand, it’s something beyond words.

I couldn’t be more happier here in Japan. The exchange student closest to me said “This exchange is a dream and I don’t want to wake up.” I couldn’t agree more.

Click HERE to read more Catalina and all her blogs