Saturday, February 12, 2011

Half Way There...

I have reached an exciting yet slightly unsettling point in my journey. I am half way through my study abroad in Japan, and it’s hard to believe I have already made it this far. I have also completed my first semester at Keio University and am now in the midst of a very long, luxurious spring vacation. The strange thing is, though I always used “time constraint” as an excuse for why I didn’t update my blog more often, now that I have all the time I could need, it somehow became more difficult to just sit down and write. This mega update is to make up for all that procrastination. I needed to do some catching up and this is what I came up with to share. 

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, mostly because I have an overabundance of time to myself. Many of my good friends have returned home to their respective countries after the semester finished, others are traveling the world while spring break lasts, but I have stayed behind. And this is what leads to the abundance of quality ME time, and plenty of relaxation. Yes I miss home, and yes I even get homesick sometimes too. I decided not to visit home during the entirety of my study abroad though, because I didn’t want to get distracted. I knew if I went home at all during this year, I would inevitably fall back into my old rythms, remember how much I love my life in Seattle, and then would have had to deal with the pain of leaving home a second time. I am not sure I could handle it, so instead I stay here and stay focused. I’ve decided to tough it out. It gets lonely or boring occasionally, but I’ve grown to like my own company more and more. It’s also nice to spend my time indulging in whatever I want. Anyways, because of all this time to think I have been reflecting back on the last 6 months and wondering how have I changed? What have I learned? What habits have I developed? Am I really any different now than I was before leaving home?

I think I have changed. I also think most of it has been very positive. My Japanese has improved greatly since coming to Japan and beginning my first semester. Part of if it confidence, part the immersion process which has left me able to carry conversations and communicate better than I could before. Not only have my communication skills improved, thanks to Keio’s rigorous curriculum I can actually write in Japanese. My reading level has advanced a lot as well. The University of Washington focused more on an oral/aural/communicative method, which is a sound plan, because if you can’t communicate in your second language what is it really good for? But it wasn’t until I started here at Keio that I realized how inept I was at forming proper sentences, organizing those sentences into structurally sound paragraphs, and communicating via written Japanese. Like most languages there is a big difference between the way Japanese is used for verbal communication and the way it is written. I quickly figured out that I couldn’t write the way I spoke if I wanted any Japanese professor to take me seriously. So now I can write basic compositions, and this in turn has helped me read higher level writing.  Kanji is no longer my sworn enemy and has become a kind of begrudging companion.

The difference between my Japanese ability when I first arrived and now is not easily measured in objective terms. Mostly I just notice that I am able to do tasks I couldn’t before, hold conversations I couldn’t before, understand topics better, read more kanji, etc, etc, etc. The bubble that encapsulates all my Japanese knowledge has expanded, and I have become that much closer to fluent and functional because of it. I can’t wait to see how far I’ll make it in another six months after my second semester.

I’ve spent a good deal of my spring break studying (exciting I know, right?). My goal is to get a better score on the Keio Placement test for next semester, and as a result get into advanced Japanese. So I’ve been studying a little bit every day, and a lot on certain days with the help of a friend/study partner. I believe that I can achieve my goal and get into at least level 8 next semester – I am dedicated enough. And this time around I have the advantage of actually knowing what the format of the placement test is and thus how to study for it. I am just trying to stay focused and not get too cocky. Over confidence is probably the only thing that could mess up my chances with the placement test this time around.

I’ve also changed physically, in simple and complex ways. While I have lost about 15pounds (~ 7kilos) since coming to Japan, thanks to a Japanese diet, smaller portions, and lots of walking, that hasn’t been the only positive change. I feel healthier than I did a year ago, less insecure, and more comfortable in my own body. My energy has improved, and I am growing to like physical activity and exercise more and more. I just hope I can continue my healthful habits even after I return home.  I feel inspired to do things I didn’t feel I was capable of before. I want to learn how to run properly so I can make long distance running a part of my lifestyle. I miss yoga so much I can’t wait till the opportunity to practice is available to me again. I want to pierce my belly-button after I return home to Seattle to celebrate getting my body into shape – a body that I am finally comfortable with once again.  I want to cook even more than I did before, stick to my gluten free diet, and include influences I have picked up from whole food/vegetarian diets. I don’t plan on giving up meat altogether, but I don’t see the need to eat it every day. Recently I have stopped buying meat, and instead cook and eat lots of eggs, tofu, and beans for my protein. I enjoy meat when I happen to eat out. It’s easy for me to say that I don’t really miss the Western diet. I do miss my gluten free foods though.

I have also become more stable emotionally and mentally. Whereas I use to really struggle with being on my own, now I am a much stronger, more confident, more independent person. Living alone and taking care of myself has built up my character and helped me to shed a lot of my unhealthy habits. I don’t get as many down depressed moods anymore, they are not worth my time and energy the way optimism and positive efforts are. I guess I just realized at some point along the way that I couldn’t afford to sulk, whine, or be dramatic and angsty anymore, especially when the majority of my family/friends/support system is 4,000 miles away. I am not going to pretend that I don’t have bad days ever, or that I don’t still occasionally have low moods and very dramatic episodes, but they are rarer. I’m just trying to make a conscious effort to channel all that energy into something positive instead. In the end I decided that I would rather work towards a solution then listen to myself whine.

I have become more social and less shy. Shyness has been a big problem for me for as long as I can remember. While I can be very outgoing and extroverted with people I know, getting past the acquaintance stage has always been my trouble. Putting myself out there is challenging and frightening. Having patience, confidence, and the motivation to open up to people can be disappointing and make one very vulnerable. But I’ve been working on it and have seen improvements. I try to accept every invitation, seize every opportunity, take chances on people and hope they take a chance on me too. It hasn’t worked out for everyone, but I have made a few amazing friends so far by taking these chances.

Being able to attend a second semester at Keio feels like I’m receiving a second chance to make the most of my study abroad. I am finally comfortable and adjusted to my life here in Tokyo. I finally get what’s going on. When I was applying for study abroad programs I had the choice between requesting a half-year or a full year program. At the time I was nervous and unsure which to go with, because half-year felt too short, but a whole year seemed like it might be unbearably long. ‘How can I make it through one year if things go poorly?’ I wondered back then. I was worried I would become intolerably depressed and homesick. But I faced those fears and decided to go ahead and do the full year exchange. I decided get the most I could out of it. When else will I be able to travel to Japan for a year? And I am glad I made that choice and so far do not regret it. This will be my chance to take all the things I learned and habits I developed during first semester and put them towards making second semester an even better experience. It also means a chance to learn from my mistakes and do things differently this time around.

And in the end I feel I like the person I have become. Not only has my life in Japan been an exciting adventure, which has helped polish me as a person, but I believe strongly that I will be happier when I return home. I will take these lessons with me and continue my growth and development as a person. I plan to get the shit kicked out of me by life and come back stronger and more satisfied because of it. 

1 comment:

  1. I guess I need to recreate my comment.

    It’s completely OK that you don’t post incessantly because when you do it is truly substantive. This Japanese experience has definitely accelerated your development! And I admire the kick-ass attitude you are demonstrating; don’t ever lose that. Soon you will be home again and will face the twin challenges of old influences that will try to pull you back, to retard your progress, and the bigger challenge of “what next?” I’m betting this year in Japan will have a lasting effect as you claim your courage and continue to push through the barriers, mostly self-imposed, that separate you from fully experiencing your life as you choose to live it. Those barriers, which used to seem so large, with practice you will find are actually minor hurdles that you can jump with increasing ease.

    “What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it;
    Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
    –Goethe, or not?