“Imagine every possible emotion you might have when starting school in a foreign country, and I’ve felt it. Joy, excitement, dread, homesickness…” These are the words I found when flipping through my study abroad journal, penned in my own hand, marked one week into the beginning of my classes. The apprehension about starting anew in a foreign country is one thing to deal with, but words fail to describe the rollercoaster of emotions I’ve actually experienced since my plane touched down in Nagoya, Japan.
Let’s talk about culture shock. Google defines culture shock as the following: “The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.” An intense experience—in theory. But a simple Google definition can’t seem to pack quite the same punch as the real deal. Personally, I am definitely still in the midst of becoming accustomed to my new life in Japan. I’m in this strange interstitial place of cultural acclimation where some things are beginning to become second-nature (for example, hearing and seeing Japanese everywhere I go; I was in the post office the other day and heard one of the employees suddenly speak in English, and had a moment of total disorientation!), while others remain shrouded in total mystery to my American mind.
Despite having studied the language for about four years, I sometimes blank on Japanese in the grocery store, or at a restaurant—much to my regular embarrassment. No matter how well someone tries to sum it up, or how succinct the Google definition, words simply can’t describe the rollercoaster of emotions involved in a single day trying to adjust to a new culture—joy at successfully communicating with a native, embarrassment when you panic and your language skills suddenly turn into gibberish, the sheer excitement of being somewhere new and meeting different and interesting people everywhere you turn.
All of these opposing emotions are wrapped up into each new experience abroad, complete with an obnoxious, fluorescent bow. I’ve been in the country for about a month now, and it’s insane how time has been passing; every day seems so long and full of excitement, but then I look back and feel like it’s all passing so quickly. I simultaneously feel as though I’ve been here forever, and also like I’m a total fresh-faced newcomer. I suppose in a way I encompass both of these things.
It amazes me daily how my life here is feeling more natural bit by bit, when the culture is so very different from what I’m used to. One of the most quintessentially Nagoya experiences I’ve had so far was visiting Nagoya Castle（名古屋城）, the center of one of the most important castle towns during Japan’s Edo Period（江戸時代）. For those of you unfamiliar with Japanese history—or if you’re simply curious—the Edo Period was when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate（徳川幕府）, the final feudal samurai government. The excursion to the castle was put on as a field trip for the international students at my school, Nanzan University; the kind Japanese student volunteers led us about the site in groups, explaining the different buildings and rooms. There seemed to be a million different things to absorb, as everything was so delicately ornate and detailed. It was a truly dazzling experience that left me in awe, remembering—through all my rollercoaster culture shock emotions—that I really am in Japan, and what an incredible opportunity I’ve been presented.
Throughout this whirlwind of new experiences, I also celebrated my birthday this weekend. At first, I was a little bit worried about having it so soon after coming abroad, concerned that I wouldn’t know enough people, and would just end up moping around in my room. But, I sucked it up, and asked a few friends that I’ve made since coming here if they wanted to go out to dinner this past Friday night. To my delight, they all accepted, and we went out to an izakaya（居酒屋）, a very popular and a uniquely Japanese cross between a bar and a restaurant. To my simultaneous frustration and amusement, we didn’t realize until after sitting down that we could barely read anything on the menu. Making the best of the situation, we ended up ordering different dishes—with only a vague understanding of what we would actually receive—and passing them around in order to try a bit of each. I ended up having a wonderful time, and my advice to anyone worried about celebrating their birthday abroad is to try your best to take control of your own experience. Invite out the people you have befriended, or would like to become better friends with, and don’t let yourself mope around and feel self-pity. Having to celebrate birthdays and holidays abroad is the reality of many study abroad students, and a big part of the experience is accepting that it’s going to be different from your past celebrations, and that that’s okay.
Imagining every possible emotion you might experience while starting a new school in a foreign country is a tall order; experiencing those feelings is an entirely separate ordeal in itself. You can understand culture shock as a concept, look up as many different definitions as you want, and it will still never fully represent the way that everyone individually experiences the phenomenon. All that I can do is write about my personal experiences adjusting to a foreign country, and hope that other students studying abroad can relate at least a little. Although I’m still in that awkward in-between stage of acclimating to a foreign culture—where certain things are sneakily becoming second-nature, and others are still bafflingly unfamiliar—I feel hopeful that by the time I’m preparing to return home, I’ll be able to flip back through my study abroad journal and think, “I remember going through that transition—and what a stronger person I am for it.”