7 Unconventional lessons I learned from Study Abroad

Okawa Elementary school was destroyed by the March 11th Tsunami

Exploring the ruins of Okawa Elementary School, a school 5km down the river from Ishinomaki. where 70 of 108 students were killed in the March 11th tsunami

1. All colleges are basically the same. As I’ve said many times before, I was terrified when choosing colleges. I had no idea what I wanted. I thought there was only one “right” answer – and somehow the cues weren’t lining up.

When I got to college, I realized that wasn’t true. I could probably be happy at any number of colleges; all colleges are “generally” the same.

After my first semester of study abroad in Japan at ICU (International Christian University) I knew this was true. Why? Because the same things that bothered me about Ursinus college happened here too. Some things were better; some were worse. But the real proof came through the people I met.

I met people studying abroad in Japan who were exactly like people I knew at Ursinus. Like, scarily similar. The way they talked about their college in America (or other countries) was the exact same way I talked about MY college. We complained about the same things. More specifically, the same things that bothered me at ICU bothered all other American students as well. I’m talking about a group of us, all from different states, some from liberal arts colleges, some from technical schools, some from giant state schools, all with different majors, seemed to have the same “problems” at that Japanese university.

Fashion show from the 2012 Tour of Asia at Ursinus College

Which is great, because I loved the people at my home university

An easy explanation is that we all go to an American university, so of course we relate with each other. But that doesn’t quite cover everything. I think a more satisfactory answer is that we relate with each other so well precisely because of the overwhelming similarities between all American colleges and universities. Or the overwhelming similarities between universities, regardless of the country.

I think that the same issues my college in America, Ursinus College, struggles with are the same types of issues that most other American colleges struggles with. There are differences (of course) but there are also incredible similarities.

2. Regardless of what country you live in, you will still meet the same ‘type’ of people.

When I first got to college, I met a lot of people (I didn’t like) who reminded me of a couple specific people from high school (that I also didn’t like). When I got to Japan, my first couple weeks, I met people who reminded me of the students at Ursinus college.

I’ve noticed this trend. Regardless of what country I go to, what city I live in, or what hobbies I pursue, I meet the same “types” of people. I’m not going to waste your type by listing “types” – but if you’ve ever moved, I guarantee you’ve noticed this trend.

3. Freedom equals the freedom to make bad decisions.

This is a bit complicated. I’ve noticed there are mostly two “types” of reactions during study abroad. People either:

  1. A.      Embrace the culture, throw themselves into learning the language / working in this new environment.
  2. B.      Hate the host country, hang out with other foreigners (who hat the host culture), complain all the time, and not “change.”

Granted, these are very vague generalizations and people are most different shades of grey. It’s not a “one or the other” kind of system. Most people are a mix of the two, but learn more heavily on one.

Oyster farm off the coast of Ishinomaki

At a Oyster farm that was destroyed during the March 11th tsunami

If you’ve studied abroad, I’m sure you’ve noticed this. And I’m not here to judge anyone. You can do whatever you want, I don’t care. I’m just saying that not everyone gets the same thing out of study abroad.

I’ve met people that I want to slap across the face because all they do is drink and complain about how horrible the host country is and how much better their own country is (without doing anything); I’ve met people that I admire and want to be like because they’ve met tons of Japanese students, really dove into the language, and are having a great time in Japan.

Playing with Japanese children

4. There are worse things than failing a class

Last year, one of my friends who was studying abroad got deported. It’s complicated and I’m still not quite sure the reasons, but it was pretty sad.

This year, one of my friends got asked for her “Alien Registration Card” (they changed the card systems in September, but for the longest time, foreigners in Japan were called “aliens”). She had forgotten it at home, so she was arrested, detained, escorted to her house to get her passport and registration card, and had to appear in court later. That’s some serious stuff.

Another friend got his wallet stolen and some serious charges were put on his card.

Or, if you go to a developing country, you might end up seeing things that shock you. The world is a lot bigger than you think.

Study abroad taught me that there are a lot worse things than failing a class. Me, someone who has a 3.8 GPA and has severe panic attacks around finals weeks. I failed a class in Japan. Or, I didn’t fail – I got a D. But to me that’s the exact same thing as failing.

And the funny thing? I don’t care. My grades dropped because I picked up a second internship and spent more time working than studying.

And I’m ok with that, because study abroad also taught me that I am ready to be out of college.

I got bored while my sister was in Japan, so I started sending her pictures of her dog

I got bored while my sister was in Japan, so I started sending her pictures of her dog

5. I am ready to be out of college.

I love Ursinus College. Freshman and sophomore year, I learned so much. Around the end of sophomore year, things started to repeat themselves a little bit – but I wasn’t worried because I was about to do a year abroad in Japan and classes in Japan were going to be totally different than class in America.

Except they weren’t.

Actually, classes in Japan are a bit easier, since there isn’t usually any required homework, busy work, quizzes, or outside reading. All I really have to is show up to classes, study a bit for the final, maybe write a short paper, and I’m set. It is easy.

One night on the train back home, a girl I had just met started telling me about her awesome, fun internship. Without even letting her finish, I asked if they needed any other interns. All the free time was killing me.

It turns out they did.

And I’ve been working there since September. They even gave me business cards and have shown me real life applications for what I’ve learned in class. Around December, I also applied to a writing job for craigslist and got it. Now I’m working part-time at a blog about Tokyo (not my personal blog, a different one).

When I’m not at work, I’m in class, listening to professors talk about the exact same things I learned freshman and sophomore year. Study abroad has taught me that I would rather be outside, traveling, working, writing, meeting people, rather than inside, in class.

I think that’s the point of study abroad. I used to be scared to graduate. I didn’t want to face the “real world.” Now I’m graduating a semester early; I can’t wait to enter the work-force.

Nikkei interview

And be in the newspaper again. That was fun.

6. Study abroad will only “change your life” if you want it to and what you get out of study abroad depends on your attitude.

In every country, school, job, environment, or relationship there is good and bad. What you get out of it depends on your attitude. Lots of people love study abroad, lots of people hate it.

I’ve lived in 3 different countries; change is hard. But it is also incredibly rewarding. When you do study abroad, don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.

7. No pain no gain

It is easy to hang out with other foreigners. It is really easy. I had a small group of friends my first semester that I would “retreat” to when I didn’t feel like making an effort.

Speaking Japanese, being polite, and dealing with the stares gets a little hard to manage. Going to bars, clubs, and shopping with other foreign friends was like a breath of fresh air. They got me. They understood my awful, sarcastic (American) views on life.

But then I realized the more time I spent with them, complaining about the same old things (men are dumb, Japanese girls always look too presentable, I have no money) the less time I spent out enjoying Japan. I can’t remember what the final straw was – but it was a bit toxic.

I’m sure you’ve met people like this. They go to England, but spend every weekend in the same American bar, tossing back shots with other Americans. It is possible to go to Japan and never have a “Japanese” moment. Tokyo is a huge city. The night-life is fantastic and the ex-pat community is incredibly receptive.

But that is not me.

Even if I feel a bit uncomfortable sometimes, even if they don’t get my humor or think that I’m too strong-willed, I love my Japanese friends. I love going to temples, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, chic (but totally out of my price range) shops, and onsen with my Japanese friends. I’ve learned to appreciate more, complain less, and sometimes make small sacrifices for the good of the “system.”

I was the only foreigner at Seijinshiki, and didn't wear a kimono

Quick, spot the foreigner!

It’s been interesting.

I wonder how much is going to last when I go back to America.

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About Grace Buchele Mineta

I got into the writing business by accident. Now I live in the countryside near Tokyo with my husband, Ryosuke, where I draw comics, blog, and make videos about our daily life. Contact: Website | More Posts

2 Comments on 7 Unconventional lessons I learned from Study Abroad

  1. hey i have just read this and it calmed me down a lot when you said about how doing your best in all the classes is not the most important thing. I am currently studying abroad in Maine, I am from England, and reading this gave me the strength to realise that I am here for the experience and not just to get good grades.

    • It really is all about the experience and less about the grades you make. It is frustrating to be stuck in a class where you just can’t seem to “win” though…

      All in all, I think I learned more about how to study, how I should prioritize my time, and what is kind of MORE important than studying while abroad. It’s tough, but I think most people don’t fully realize the true merit of study abroad until they return to their home country.

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