I have always wanted to study abroad. I am a first generation student, and when I entered college, I was determined to eventually study overseas, since that could very well be my only opportunity to leave the U.S to go anywhere else. I was convinced that I was going to Ireland, pamphlets and UK study abroad emails and all. I started learning Japanese on a whim because I had a foreign language requirement and had a passing interest in anime. When I wound up loving the language and dedicating more of my time to it, I turned my sights to Japan and do not regret that decision in the slightest. I still need to go to Ireland, though.
Why did you choose IES Abroad?
I chose to study abroad with IES Abroad because I have an irrational distaste for things that are popular and wanted to study abroad somewhere other than the two typical hot spots, Tokyo and Kyoto. IES Abroad offered an intensive language program in Nagoya that came with a good number of extra perks that other programs didn't offer (i.e. field trips, in-country support, etc.). I have not regretted that decision for a second.
Nagoya is a wonderful city, and IES Abroad was an incredibly helpful resource that made my stay in Japan much more immersive.
What was your favorite part about living in Japan?
Despite being extremely isolated in many ways, Japan and its citizens were incredibly kind and accommodating. It's easy to feel isolated as an American going over to Asia, but it is a country that rewards effort. I can imagine that it would be alienating if you refused to do as the Romans do. But, if you are a foreigner who tries, who tries to speak Japanese, who tries to be polite, who tries to abide by the customs and the culture (even if you aren't good at it), I've found people to be very welcoming and very receptive, sometimes to the point of going out of their way to help. I felt very comfortable while in Japan, which was a very welcome surprise. Also, mochi donuts exist and they are delicious.
What made your experience abroad unique?
I had the opportunity to work as an English tutor while abroad. Through the program that I tutored for, I was able to connect with many people who I otherwise would not have met, and it really rekindled my interest in language teaching.
How did the IES Abroad staff support you throughout your program?
The IES Abroad staff was available any time through e-mail for questions and concerns, and they also kept track of our safety very well when we traveled or during dangerous times (i.e. earthquakes, etc.). We had periodic meetings with the IES Abroad representatives throughout the school year to touch base and talk about our experience, and we also saw them often for field trips and other activities.
The CJS staff at Nanzan was also readily available to talk about homestay and academic issues. They were typically very accommodating, though don't expect to be able to use e-mail to contact them; you have to go to the office. Though I didn't have any major issues, I knew people who did, and CJS worked very closely with them to work things out discreetly.
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently during your time in Japan?
I wish that I would have spoken more. Finding yourself in the country that speaks the language that you are still learning really let's you know how much you don't know. It is intimidating, and that leads to you keeping quiet. If I could go back, I would be more confident to speak up and make mistakes. As I said above, Japanese speakers tended to appreciate when I made an effort to speak the language, even if I was having trouble, so, in hindsight, it was less intimidating than it initially seemed.
Describe a typical day in your life in Nagoya.
I quickly found out the exact time that I could wake up, get ready, eat breakfast, and take the subway to school just on time to beat the bell. When the maddeningly catchy Asadora (a morning soap opera that everyone and their mom watches) theme song started playing, it was time to leave. I'd tell myself that I was going to study for the perpetual Japanese quiz looming on the horizon while on the train, but I wound up just listening to music instead.
We had Japanese class every weekday morning at a time that would have been more agreeable if I didn't have a commute. After class, my small group of friends would desperately try to beat the lunch rush in the cafeteria and sometimes succeed. Other times, we'd subsist on easier to obtain conbini food (they're called convenience stores for a reason! And they are very convenient. You can pay your bills at a conbini. America, get on making that a thing!). Our schedules would usually deviate after that, with some enviable people going home or to hang out in Sakae after lunch and others staying on campus to study or go to another class. Classes were hit-or-miss, but I enjoyed most of them, particularly the art courses and Japanese foreign policy.
After the daily ritual of checking your mail at the CJS office, people dispersed with their own plans, talking about any number of things, and I would try to beat the hordes of grade schoolers who just got out of school to the subway so I could actually have a place to sit. Then I'd waste money on buying a delicious fish-shaped pastry filled with red bean paste (if it's a pastry in Japan you can automatically assume that it's filled with red bean paste) from a shop by the subway station, and I would walk around my neighborhood for exercise and adventure, and then eventually wind my way back home to my host family. You fall into a schedule and daily ritual surprisingly quickly.
What did you enjoy doing in your free time?
I spent a good deal of time in cafes slowly translating my way through the easiest manga I could find and doing homework. I went to Starbucks so often that the cashier knew what my order was. It's not my fault; they had wifi, which is more difficult to find than you'd expect.
I also enjoyed walking around different parts of the city to see what there was to see. My friends and I would spend hours in different shopping districts, Osu being my favorite, usually not buying anything on account of being poor college students. Weekend nights were typically dinner and karaoke times, and the days were typically spent taking trips to different sites and places around Nagoya.
What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?
I had a homestay, and it was a great time. I would definitely recommend it over the dorm options, even with the commute to school, because you don't have to make your own food and you get a much better feel for what typical life is like in Japan.
My host mother and father were very kind people, and my host siblings (ages nine and six) were adorable and I loved them.
Sometimes, I would take the kids to museums or parks on the weekends, when we were all free, and my host brother and I really enjoyed making food together. I also watched all the Star Wars films all the time, in every conceivable way on account of my host brother and host dad being obsessed with them, in Japanese, in Japanese with Japanese subtitles, in Japanese with English subtitles, or in English with Japanese subtitles. I know those films forwards and backwards now.
My one regret is that I didn't really bond with my host family until the latter part of my program, so by the time I truly felt like a part of the family, it was about time to go; it was sad. On a happier note, my favorite part of having a homestay was definitely the food. My host mother's cooking was amazing and I still miss it months after being back.
What is one thing every participant should know before studying abroad in Japan?
Bring comfortable walking shoes, and be a smart person who doesn't twist their ankle while walking on a flat, smooth surface. Japan doesn't care; you're still walking everywhere, rain or shine, no matter what, so be prepared for that.
Now that you're home, how has your time abroad impacted your life?
I bow to people now; that motion becomes ingrained in you after being in Japan for a week, let alone many months. I live in Tennessee, so, as you can imagine, this gets me questioning looks. More seriously, I loved my time abroad. There were parts of it where I wasn't necessarily happy, chalk it up to culture shock and homesickness, but, overall, it was amazing and informative. It was the first time in my life when I truly lived in another country, and simply falling into the daily rhythms of life in that context was a great feeling. I lived in Japan! That was my life. It was normal, and I did normal, mundane things.
If you rewound back to my high school days and told sixteen-year-old me that I would live in Japan, not as a tourist, but live there, and have errands to run and bills to pay and complaints about subway schedules and favorite places to sit at Starbucks, I probably wouldn't have believed it. It would have been outside my frame of reference entirely.
I hope to live in Japan again someday, probably not for my entire life, but I can see myself settling down there for a handful of years very easily. And the fact that my horizons have expanded to the point where I see moving to a completely different country to live and work as a legitimate option for my future is great. I have a feeling that that is what study abroad is supposed to do.
Would you recommend your program and IES Abroad to other students? Why?
Yes, I would highly recommend my program. Even if you don't go to Japan, IES Abroad is a very helpful and supportive group of people, and they have programs everywhere. Try them out!
Nicole is currently a senior at Swarthmore College, where she is studying cognitive science and Japanese. She is from a small town in southern Tennessee, and while she is happy she is out of it, she is also glad to make regular visits back home. Nicole traveled abroad before studying abroad in Japan, to teach English in Europe.