It seems like only yesterday when I packed my bag, squeezed my whole life into two suitcases, and left the comfort and familiarity of my homeland to embark on the great adventure of a lifetime to fulfill a lifelong dream of living in a foreign country.
My acceptance in an exchange and teaching program brought me here to the land of the rising sun. After my arrival in Tokyo, the events and happenings that followed passed by like a blur―the paperwork, orientations, and workshops. Not so long, I settled in a city in the northern part of the country known as “the city of trees.” My apartment has a breathtaking view of the night sky and the street below. It is nestled in a very quiet and pleasant neighborhood, with lots of greenery and the magnificent sight of a mountain on the horizon. I was beyond thrilled for this fresh start like writing a new story on a blank sheet of paper.
But my euphoria didn’t last long, it quickly faded the moment I stepped outside the solitary confinement of my room. As I started my new work, reality began to creep in―I am not here for pleasure. The constant shift and changes overwhelmed me. I was perplexed, excited, and lost all at the same time. While I thought the studying and preparation I had done before coming here would suffice, it didn’t.
Every day I am surrounded by people who speak the same language that I don’t understand; and whose shared values, customs, and experiences are completely different from mine. Everything seems to move fluidly in sync and in perfect harmony yet I don’t seem to fit in. I came face to face with the challenges of cultural differences and language barriers. I felt stuck and lost in the linguistic and cultural complications where the tools for communications and comprehension were tucked away somewhere very hard to find.
It took time for me to get accustomed to all the adjustments and my limited Japanese skills became my biggest roadblock that even doing the simplest errands like paying my bills, ordering food in the restaurant, and grocery shopping would end with a headache and confusion. Soon, I found myself hardened into an unsophisticated mold of everyday life and the apparent remoteness of my existence. I start my day at work with “hello” and end it with “goodbye.” Days go by with my interaction revolving around the awkward exchange of how are you, forced conversations about the weather, shallow comments about the food, and nothing else. Being an Asian in Japan without traces deemed as foreign like having blonde hair, white skin, and blue eyes, didn’t give me much of a “gaijin pass”―a term we usually use when we refer to the privileges of being a foreigner without the need to conform to Japanese standards and societal expectations.
Days turned into weeks, which turned into months, which turned into years. I can’t believe I am now drawing closer to my third year living in Japan. My life pretty much continued the same way, although learning the Japanese language altered the whole trajectory of my story. The journey wasn’t easy, and I struggled a lot and still do. It took a lot of effort. Hard work demanded a lot of my time and resources and sometimes robbed me of a good night’s sleep. But in return, it enriched my life and gave me a new and broadened perspective.
Despite the unappealing façade, it turned out to be such a beautiful experience. From being just a spectator of the culture silently and critically observing from afar, I began to understand deeply the culture that makes up Japanese society. The sounds and voices I hear from people around me started to hold meanings, I began to see hints and signals and the words spring to life. They are no longer just empty noises, void of depth but a solid foundation that holds customs and traditions together. My genuine desire to know more about the country I live in led me to build a better connection and meaningful exchanges with the people around me. I took part in language exchange events, community groups, and made friends with the local people that helped me explore the culture and language at the grassroots level.
I still struggle and stutter a lot when I speak in Japanese, the complexity of mentally translating the words from my mother tongue to English then to Japanese is a real challenge on my part. I have to consistently remind myself that the goal of language learning is not to reach perfection but to build connections.

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