High school can be a difficult time, but attending a high school in a country that speaks another language and embraces unfamiliar cultures and traditions is an adventure few can boast to their friends and family. Jes Stayton, study abroad in Japan alumni offers some advice to a prospective exchange student on making the most of this amazing experience.
One of the things I regret most about my pre-exchange program preparation is that I brought too much stuff to Japan. Bring everything you need, of course, but don’t pack with the mindset of ‘I’m going to be there 10 months, 5 months etc.’ Also, try to leave space in your bag for the things you will buy in Japan. Remember that you can buy toothpaste, shampoo and other necessities in Japan. I would bring what you need for the first month, and then buy everything else after that.
I think it might be a good idea to bring some bath towels. In Japan, everyone has their own bath towel, slippers, chopsticks, plates, etc. I doubt that your host family will require you to buy your own plates, but they might want you to use your own towel(s). This differs from family to family. My first two host families lent me a towel, but my current host family asked me to buy my own.
As for clothes, it is important to remember that you will be living here, not just on a trip. Don’t pack only your most fashionable things. Bring the clothes you wear for hanging around the house; the sweaters you wear when you are cold. Most Japanese houses don’t have central heating, so this is important. If you own long underwear, you should bring it. Most Japanese people wear long underwear during the winter. In fact, I think it is a good idea to bring enough underwear and bras for a week. Some families wear different underwear and bras everyday.
Lastly, if you use a digital camera, it might be a good idea to bring an extra memory card. I was planning to delete pictures taken in America, but once I got to Japan, I found I didn’t want to.
The home stay is one of the most important parts of going on an exchange program. In my opinion, an exchange student’s relationship with his/her host family is most important. Before coming to Japan, I thought that most of my struggles would be at school, and didn’t think about the home stay much at all. However, after coming to Japan, I found that it was actually the opposite. The vast majority of my mistakes were made at home. Teachers and students at school also tend to be more understanding than the host family.
Remember that your host family is not your real family no matter how nice they are, so offer to help your host family with chores, and if you can, do chores that relate to you. This means that unless your host family says otherwise, wash your own laundry, clean your own room, etc.
Aisatsu (greetings) are very important in Japan. Always say, ‘Arigatou gozaimasu, ‘Ohayo gozaimasu’, ‘Oyasuminasai’, ‘Tadaima’, and other greetings. It took me a long time to realize that not saying ‘Ohayo gozaimasu’ to everyone, every morning, was rude. Also, if your host family bothers to correct your Japanese or teach you Japanese manners—study it. They are helping you out of kindness, so if you make the same mistake again and again, it looks like you don’t care.
Don’t worry too much about your mistakes, though. Always apologize, and remember the mistake so you don’t make it again, but try not to stress about it. I tend to make myself miserable that way. Your host family knows that as an exchange student you will make mistakes. They won’t hate you because of it. Try your hardest, and make sure your host family knows that you are trying, and you will be okay.
If you study Japanese at school, I would recommend asking your teacher what phrases, or words she/he thinks you should study. If your teacher, knowing that you will be going on an exchange program, goes out of his/her way to teach you something, I would make sure to study it. When I looked at my Japanese notes a month into the exchange program, I realized that many of the things I had trouble with in the first month were things I had already studied during my last few lessons before leaving. Also, don’t slack off during the summer.
Once you get to Japan, I recommend you try to write down the words you don’t understand, and study them later.
You likely won’t be able to write down all the words you hear, but anything you can write down is a step toward understanding Japanese. In class, you may not understand anything at first. I could understand my English classes, but not my history or religion class (I asked to take history, so don’t worry about that). Try to pay attention, even if you don’t understand. Listen for words you do understand, and watch the teacher.
Some teachers gesture while they speak, making the class easier to understand. If you take notes, try to notice the separate radicals (parts) of kanji. Knowing radicals will make it easier to write and remember kanji later. For example: the kanji used for “time” is made of the kanjis for “day” and for “temple.” I already know how to write these kanji, so remembering the kanji for “time” is easy.
One thing I think all exchange students should do is talk to people. No one will think you are stupid or laugh at you for not having perfect Japanese. At the very beginning of your exchange program, when you are still a novelty, the other students in your class and at your school will be fascinated by you. Complete strangers said ‘konnichiwa‘ to me in the hallway, and asked me questions about America. This period of time is a golden opportunity. Talk to your fellow students, and try to make friends. If someone invites you to go out together or eat lunch together at school, accept if you can. Later, it will be much harder to make friends, and meet people.
Try to focus on Japan while you are there. Don’t spend all your time thinking about your own family and your own country.
Concentrate on the good points of being in Japan. If you are homesick, distract yourself from it. This is difficult to do, but if you can do it, you will enjoy your time much more. Also, always try new things, because if you don’t you will regret it later. Join the bukatsu that you have always had an interest in, not just what sport you did at home. I joined the orchestra club because I play the violin, but I wish I had joined the kendo bukatsu instead. An exchange program is an opportunity to expand the bounds of who you are, so don’t worry about what you have always done, or what other people will think.