Last Spring break I was lucky enough to get the amazing opportunity to go on a week long trip to Japan. Through the Kakehashi Project, Asian Americans can go to Japan and experience Japanese culture, history, and traditions and promote US-Japan relations. This was done through sightseeing, lectures, and homestays.
We first arrived in Tokyo where we jumped right in and started learning about Japan and its foreign relations. We had to sit through some lectures, but after we were taken to the Overseas Migration Museum where we learned about the meaning of the term “nikkei”. I was surprised to find that the term was so inclusive, defining a state of mind and not a label defining ancestry. We were encouraged to all recognize our common roots and appreciate where we’re from. Then in the evenings we got to explore the city with the other participants in the group. We got closer and bonded over our common Asian ancestry and our feeling of dissonance with being American in Japan. We felt so foreign, barely any of us in the group spoke Japanese, and yet we looked the part. Exploring the city, we figured out how to use the subway and observed the similarities and differences between Japanese and Americans.
I look around at the international students in my classes and around campus and I am overwhelmed by the feeling that they are on a great journey. I know this feeling well and am excited for all the adventures and new knowledge my international peers will experience in their studying here from abroad. And for my soon to be peers, perhaps getting ready to jump on a plane and arrive at USC for the first time, let me share some of my fears and triumphs when I was the person from another land.
As some well-versed travelers will tell you, one of the best feelings in the world is that moment of victory when you realize you have reached your target destination. Though there are merits to getting lost and enjoying an off-the-beaten-path adventure, there is pride to be found in navigating your way through winding roads, complicated subway line systems, and inevitable misunderstandings with the local population with little to no effort. Unfortunately, I am not this kind of traveler. Last summer marked my second backpacking trip abroad, but the first of which I traveled solo. As a young female traveler, I had many fears and doubts before my first flight to East Asia. I hopped on the plane with extremely limited linguistic knowledge of Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. To say this was a daring, whirlwind venture for me is an understatement. However, I felt I needed to push the boundaries of my comfort zone, so I refused to let myself back down from the challenge that awaited me. Looking back now, I am incredibly grateful for the transformative experience I received. I learned more about the people and cultures of China, Japan, and South Korea than I ever could have by reading a book. From trying xiaolongbao in Shanghai to spending too many hours stuck in the labyrinth of Tokyo Stations, I became more culturally competent and self-aware than ever before.
Since returning home, I have had plenty of other interested backpackers ask me about going solo. While there are undeniable risks to traveling alone as a young female, I believe the benefits far outweigh any of those fears. More often than not, people will bend over backwards to help you, going the extra mile to show you where your hostel is or to purchase the correct train ticket for you. In Japan, a man bought me a special type of tea, telling me that I need to understand “how important tea is to the Japanese people.” In South Korea, a hostel worker taught me key phrases to employ in my adventures around Seoul. These are just two of the innumerable moments that I had the good fortune of experiencing this summer.
If you are venturing out to a new country for the first time, do not let any fear, anxiety, or self-doubt stop you from pursuing this fulfilling goal. Travel will always be a bit intimidating at the start, as it is a fear of the unknown that plagues us all. Nonetheless, immersing yourself in an unfamiliar and foreign environment is the best way to conquer your jitters.
Featured image is author’s own
Stephanie is an USC graduate who studied Political Science. She is from Orlando, Florida and loves to spend time outside, whether hiking or exploring a new city, as well as practicing her photography, writing in her travel blog, or planning her next backpacking trip abroad. She discovered an interest in working with foreign exchange students through her study abroad experience in Turkey the summer after her junior year of high school. She is interested in learning foreign languages, as well as better understanding cultures different from her own.
At a young age, I was introduced to and fascinated by Japanese culture through the channel of Japanese animations such as Studio Ghibli films and Doraemon. Eager to learn more about the Japanese language and customs, I enrolled in Japanese as my foreign language class and took the initiative to study Japanese culture on my own. My Japanese teacher recognized my passion and introduced me to an exchange program, which allowed students to live with host families and experience life as a Japanese High School student. I quickly seized the opportunity, and in the summer of 2016, I embarked on an unforgettable journey to Kanazawa, Japan.
Prior to flying to Japan, I diligently memorized Japanese phrases applicable for specific situations, read countless articles regarding Japanese etiquette, and even watched host-exchange “horror-stories” online from other students to prepare myself for any undesirable scenarios.
My heart was leaping out of my chest with anxiety and excitement when I saw my host-family waving the sign “ようこそ, アンセア!” (Welcome, Anthea!) at airport gate. During the initial stage of my stay, my host-exchange experience was exceeded beyond my imagination and expectations. I tasted a diverse array of authentic Japanese cuisines (a superb bowl of ramen was only $5 USD!), I quickly bonded with classmates through organizations such as the student acapella and traditional tea ceremony club, and I was able to improve my language ability through practicing colloquial Japanese outside of a classroom setting.
However, despite enjoying my host situation, I found it difficult to feel completely at ease with my host-family. I had read in textbooks that it is impolite to address Japanese people in an intimate or casual manner upon initial greetings. Therefore, although my host-parents asked me to address them as “mother” and “father” just like my host-sister did, I insisted on calling them Mr. and Mrs. Yoshida in fear of breaching their existing family structure.
The phrase “迷惑” (meiwaku) means to burden or to cause inconvenience for others. In Japan, a collective and harmony-focused society, causing meiwaku is a taboo and could signal a person as self-centered and uncouth. To avoid being seen as a meiwaku to my host-family, I refrained from seeking for help when I had trouble finding the way home from school or did not understand how to operate machine devices at home.