I have to admit that I am too lazy to check up if someone already wrote about this. I would assume that some of the other exchange students would at least be aware of this phenomena, if they didn’t write it down here.
Sometimes I feel weird when I go out. I suddenly realize that I am in Japan. I have been here for about three months now, but still from time to time it comes as a shock. This is because, in a sense, I live a double life. Or maybe even triple life since I am from Finland, but I study in Australia, so I have deep connections to both of these countries. I follow the Finnish and Australian news and social media. Therefore, when I sit in front of my computer, I kind of enter my own world that is mixed with Finnish and English language and people from all over the world. I followed the Finnish parliament elections from the internet and felt a bit weird to go outside into the reality after that. In my mind I was in Finland, but physically I was in Japan.
I had the same feeling when I was backpacking in Southeast Asia few years ago. I used internet cafes in many countries and I always visited the same internet pages and send messages to the same people as I would do in any other location. So I sometimes forgot where I am physically and I realize it only when I leave the internet cafe and enter the real hot and humid world of Southeast Asia again.
So when I sit here in my dorm writing this and listening to my Finnish music I feel like am at home…But what is home? A mental state?
I have been in Japan for about three weeks now. It’s not my first time here (in fact my 5th time), but it is my first time as a student. I’m originally from Finland, so I was already a ‘foreigner’ in Australia, but being a foreigner in Japan is different.
First of all, here I look like a foreigner, a ‘gaijin’. As a European, I fit pretty well in Australia and the locals do not know that I’m from a far away country before I open my mouth. But here they spot me from far, because of the same reasons why I fit in Australia. I’ve heard from my fellow exchange students how the Japanese shop clerks run away to avoid the embarrassment of trying to communicate in English. Furthermore, some hairdressers around the campus refuse to take foreign clients. Paradoxically, there are situations where the locals come and talk to me only because I am, indeed, a gaijin.
I did not really have any kind of ‘culture shock’ when I first came to Australia. It was pretty similar with any Western country I had visited. Of course there are differences, such as the climate, but culturally Australia felt very familiar. It goes without saying that Japan is different. Japan is truly Asia (sorry Malaysia for stealing your slogan) with some Western influence.
Every day activities, such as shopping or asking directions, are so much easier for me in Australia, because I speak the language. However, I have only studied Japanese for less than half a year and most of it by using self-teaching guide books. I have self-studied hiraganas and katakanas, but I can’t read many Chinese characters. I could write a long post about the complexity of Japanese writing system, but I will just state that it is a bit more difficult than the English alphabets, that are pretty much the same as we use in Finland. Thus, buying groceries and ordering in a restaurant becomes a bit of an effort.
Luckily, my host institution Kansai Gaidai has done great work organizing the exchange program. All the teachers and staff speak English, and all classes are concentrated in one building, the Center for International Education. We have Japanese every day, and we can interact with local Japanese students via ‘speaking partner’ program and in normal classes. Therefore, I can recommend this exchange program to everybody, even those without Japanese language skills. However, you can get more out of it if you speak the language.