My year abroad experience in Japan was almost five years ago, and is sadly becoming a distant memory.
I still remember how excited I was to finally be going to Japan. My year abroad was something I had been looking forward to for a long time, as I had never visited Japan beforehand. At the same time, I was so nervous to jump on a plane and fly across the world – what if Japan wasn’t what I expected it to be?
Fortunately, my year abroad was a positive experience for me and I am glad that I gave myself the opportunity to do it. A lot of things in my life have changed since then, but it is only now that I look back that I realise that it changed me in more ways than one. There are so many things that I learned on my year abroad experience that I am thankful for.
Travelling Light = less stress!
This might seem like an odd thing to include, but this is a practical thing which still serves me well today. It is worth saying that I was (and still am) a hoarder!
Before going to Japan, the prospect of packing my most important belongings into a 23kg suitcase felt impossible. Some items I did need for Japan included makeup, painkillers, deodorant, comfortable shoes. Of course, I did want to prioritise some sentimental items, such as pictures of family and friends.
However I realised a few months in that after all of the time I spent trying to decide what I needed to take, there was a lot of stuff that I needn’t have brought with me.
Every time I have been travelling since then, I think carefully about what items I really need to take and pack solely on that basis. Thanks to the year abroad, I am a much lighter traveller than I used to be.
It’s important to let go and embrace imperfections
I have always held myself to high standards, especially when it comes to learning. Learning a language requires you to let go of that need for perfectionism, because us learners do make mistakes. There’s no point in getting hung up on that time you used the wrong word, or couldn’t understand that conversation.
As long as you can make yourself understood (in the politest way possible), you are making progress. Whenever I struggled with obsessing over my failures, I tried to think of the time when people were clearly happy I could speak some Japanese, or was able to translate something for my friends.
Open yourself to new things
Of course, you are in your target country to learn about that country’s language and traditions. There are bound to be certain things that you encounter that are completely new to you, both good and bad.
Your year abroad experience inevitably gives you the opportunity to mix with people you would not have crossed path with overwise. Learning about other languages and cultures aside from Japan was a real highlight of my time abroad.
Embrace the opportunity to have new cultural experiences whenever you can!
A greater sense of self
People I met who had already gone on their year abroad told me that I would end up learning a great deal about myself as well as Japan. I never truly understood what was meant by this until I was a couple of months into my exchange programme. It’s funny how much you think you know about your home country is easily tested when you get people asking things that you’d previously never given much thought, such as “Why is the UK flag known as the Union Jack?”.
I spent a lot of time worrying about how I would be treated in Japan. I am British born and bred, but my grandparents are from the Caribbean. So naturally, I stood out like a sore thumb in semi-rural Hokkaido! Fortunately, I never had any discrimination issues whilst in Japan, but having dark skin and afro hair did mean a lot of pointing and staring. It did ultimately make myself feel much more comfortable in my own skin, as I learnt to embrace what made me different (as well as the many things I had in common with the people I met).
People come and go
The year abroad can only last so long. My fellow students were from a wide variety of countries and it was inevitable that most of these people I would never see again after the year had ended. Whilst this is kind of sad, it reminds to you treasure things as they happen in the moment, because you will always have those memories of the experiences you have from your time abroad.
Overall, I feel that the year abroad gave me the chance to appreciate the wider world, as well as the life I was fortunate to have back home. Whilst I do not live in Japan now, I would certainly go back on a longer-term basis should the right opportunity came along.
If you have the chance to work or study abroad (especially as a student), I fully recommend it!