When I was a young child, I befriended a girl with a Japanese grandmother and, through her, I was taken on a pretty wild journey. I grew up in a fairly small German-settled town, which meant that I had never really been confronted by a culture dissimilar to my own. My own great-grandparents had come from Germany, and while we certainly weren't in anyway German (or even European), the rest of the town pretty much sat in that grey area as well. Through my friends interested in Hayao Miyazaki, elaborately built bowls of ramen, and Japanese comic books (called manga), I was able to immerse myself in a culture that was literally out of my world. Ten years later, I was in college. Having taken all the Japanese culture and language classes available to me and with an early graduation looming, I took my savings and made a bet: going to Japan would be everything I had imagined since I was ten years old.
I was able to study abroad through International Student Exchange Programs, commonly known as ISEP, which is a program that allows you to essentially switch places with a student in another country. Though they may not be going to your university, you continue to pay for tuition and room and board at your home university, so that another student can pretty much just walk in and take your place while you do the same. Because I had been given a hefty scholarship package, this made it the most affordable program I could apply through. While in Japan, I studied at Nanzan University's Center for Japanese Studies in Nagoya, Japan. It's an intensive program that involves 9+ hours of Japanese language study a semester, along with various culture, translation, or craft classes taught primarily in Japanese. I was able to live in a homestay with a very sweet middle-aged couple, go on educational field trips with my classmates, interact weekly with native speakers in my language classes, and even go interview a shopkeeper for a class--entirely in Japanese!
While I did save up money from my part-time and summer jobs for two years to help fund my travels, I was also awarded a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. This was a lifesaver. Through this scholarship, I was able to fund my trip abroad completely on my own terms. I did not need to take out extraneous loans, like many of my classmates, and I was also able to support myself independently of my mother, who had already been so helpful and giving during my previous two years at university. It was an incredibly liberating feeling to know that doing something I had looked forward to for years--and ended up loving--wasn't something that negatively impacted my family or their financial situation.
I wish I had known that you are more in control of your situation than you think you are, especially in the context of other study abroad students. There were a lot of times when other students took charge and made our plans, but no one ended up enjoying them. If I had realized that things would have played out that way (many, many times...) I would have worked up the courage to say no, and to present an alternative plan for our day. This also applies to how to better deal with things that continue to happen at home. I was unfortunate enough to have several personal and family emergencies strike while I was out of the country, and coping with these was much harder than it could have potentially be, simply because I had not realized being halfway across the world would make such situations more difficult to process emotionally.
My situation was incredibly lucky, as I am short, dark-haired, and generally inconspicuous, which redirected a lot of attention towards my other American friends, who were usually much taller and blonde. Though this attention was never negative, it was nice to have the option to blend in when I wanted to. This did not, however, stop young children from running away when they saw my face, which was certainly a huge blow to the idea that I was a nice, kind-looking person. This was actually really beneficial to me, however disappointing at the time, as it helped me come to terms with the fact that my American persona was not something that translated well to other cultures. It also encouraged me to apply for the JET Program with the hope that I could interact with these children in the classroom and show them that, in fact, I--as a representative of the Western world--can be a fun, nice human and not something to fear.
Going abroad benefitted me most by giving me the tools to help overcome the social anxiety I previously felt when faced with a new situation and strangers. In a few words, I realized that being uncomfortable wouldn't kill me and that I needed to be more proactive in making the best of my situation. Since going abroad, it has become much easier to talk to people I don't know, and has--ironically enough, considering I went to Japan--given me the strength of character to speak out when I feel a wrong is being committed, or that an alternative idea would be most beneficial to the group.
My fondest memory is actually of one of my most embarrassing mistakes: While shopping with some friends, American and Japanese, at a mall, I found a calendar filled with pictures of Shiba Inu's. One of the Japanese girls asked me which of the dogs was my favorite and I, pointing at a particularly robust male Shiba, flexed the bicep of my free arm and said, "I like him because he is so "yowai". Everyone turned to me in confusion, and then someone said, very hesitantly, "Did you mean..." I had mixed up the words for weak and strong. Though everyone else started laughing with tears in their eyes, I was mortified, and had to separate myself from the group until my embarrassment subsided. Looking bad, it was a really great moment because it broke the ice between everyone and the day after that was even more fun.
Because I lived with a host family, and because I was never really a big fan of going out, I only went out with friends a handful of times. The one thing I really liked about Japanese nightlife, however, were the bars; Japanese style bars, called izakaya and have something called all-you-can-drink. You pay for a certain amount of time, and you can order as many drinks as you like, all covered by the fee. It's much more fun than a regular bar, at least in my opinion, because there's a lot less pressure on picking a drink that's good. You have the freedom to try anything you want and not be $8-$12 out on something you end up hating. Being able to just sit with your friends for one or two hours, talking away, is something I had never experienced in American nightlife, where you feel pressured to keep moving or to dance and interact with strangers. It felt much more focused on communication and getting to know your companions, versus getting drunk or having fun.
Well, as of typing this, I am less than a month away from moving to Japan to teach for the JET Program! The opportunity to go back to Japan, especially at a more stable time in my life, is something I have dreamed about since coming home from study abroad. Since returning, I feel like my emotional maturity has increased, as well as my language ability and dedication to studying. I am excited to see how different the country seems after the year and a half I spent finishing up college and working temp jobs in the US. I am also excited to see what changes occur during my "second time around", so to speak, as I gain practical experience in the Japanese workplace and try to make my way towards a more permanent career.
I would definitely recommend the program I went on, due to its intensity and the efforts that Nanzan University made towards creating a friendly, inclusive environment for all of its students. If you study hard, you will see concrete results, and Nanzan was definitely a place to do that.
Save, save, save up money! Apply for scholarships like the Gilman! Make plans for what you want to see in your host country! Don't be afraid to say no (or yes) to new things! If you think you'll regret not going when you're back home, no matter the cost, do it!
Please do not be afraid to seek help if you need it. People are there for you, and you are not the only one having a hard time adjusting. Don't let culture shock keep you from experiencing something amazing.