Sun, Sand and Fish and Chips
36 hours to pack, 15 hour flight home and 19 hours later sitting back in a lecture theatre; not the way I had planned my return home to Australia but that was the reality I faced.
As the plane started its descent into Sydney my heart was racing. I was more nervous coming ‘home’ than I was starting this whole adventure. What was I coming back to? Before I left I had run away from a few things using the excuse that I would be abroad for the next year so I could not commit to anything. In the last week before my departure I had three final exams, a farewell dinner and the enormous task of packing my bag (which I finalised the night before!). Things were a blur before I jumped into the unknown, but looking back that was so much easier than coming back. While overseas I logically knew that time continued second by second, at the same rate for my friends and family back home and for me in Japan. But while I was living my life over there it didn’t seem as though things were in Australia were progressing at all because I wasn’t there. I had sat through the workshop on culture shock at the pre-departure meeting and studied the theories in commerce, but I didn’t real feel as though I experienced the trough in the experience curve…until I encountered reverse culture shock. Coming back to what I thought I knew but knowing it would be different, was a daunting and overwhelming thought. For a while after I was home it felt like I was playing a life-size spot the difference. And every difference I saw reminded me not only of what I had missed in Australia while I was away, but how much I was missing my life in Japan. Using facebook as a window looking at all the things that I should have and could have been doing; it was hard and there were many moments where I found myself wishing that I was not back. The day before I returned, while I was packing the life I had created for myself back into my bag (which seemed to have become a lot smaller since my arrival) I was sitting, surrounded by the clothes I had taken out of my draws, with nothing in my suitcase, overwhelmed by what I had to do. It was such an emotional experience and battle of will to finally empty my room and zip up my bag for the final time, knowing that this was the end.
Coming back to Australia did make me reflect upon what I had missed while I was away; fish and chips at the beach, walking along the sand, rolling down a grassy hill, looking out onto the horizon. The things that remind you of the Aussie lifestyle 🙂 Before I had even reached my house I made my parents drive the coastal road around North Beach. We sat and had fish and chips, taking in the moment. Even embracing the flies and the seagulls 😉 To be honest though it felt like I had come back for a holiday. I had to keep reminding myself that I didn’t need to try the food or drink right then and there because I would be able to come back in a day, a week, a month, a year and the same thing would still be there. The permanence; the indefinite of the monotony that I had wanted to get away from was there once again. My days consisted of going to Uni, coming home, doing homework and then doing it all again the following day. A few times I caught myself looking around campus for the friends who I had studied with in Japan only to find myself being disappointed. Campus was so lonely without my Australian friends who had graduated the year before, without my Japanese swim team and without a communal lunch hour in which we used to sit and make friends with other students.
Living at home again I have also noticed how much chicken my family consumes! It seems as though I’m eating it at least once a day. In Japan frequently meal time would turn into Master Chef; my friends and I would bring the contents of our fridge to the communal cooking area and be faced with the challenge of creating something for dinner. Some of the dishes were rather inventive but nothing inedible was made and every day was a surprise. I now crave rice, particularly onigiri (which was only ¥100), so cheap yet so satisfying and am still adjusting to the Australian diet which is the only thing I’d ever known before going away. It seems so strange that nine months can change a lifetime. I’m still waiting for Dad to set up the BBQ so that I can be a true Aussie and “throw a few shrimps on the barbie” as my American friends often told me.
Before going on exchange, going on exchange was my goal. I was working four part-time jobs in order to self-finance my trip and was so committed to my Uni work for fear of failing and being ineligible to actually participate on the study abroad. Coming home I didn’t have that driving goal and I felt lost. It has taken me three months to build and work towards my next challenge but I am confident that I will get there. I am slowly beginning to settle back into ‘Aussie life’ but don’t think I’ll be back for very long before my next sojourn overseas, whether it be as a holiday or for work, after having this experience I will not be content until I can see and do all that is out there waiting to be discovered.
Living a double life
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?
When the earth moves…
“Is everyone alright? Pls get in contact asap!” That was the first moment I knew something was wrong. A message from one of my close friends in Tokyo at 15:23 on Friday 11th March. I was on a train bound for Osaka to meet up with two friends to see the fabulous Mr Jack Johnson in concert; a tour appropriately called ‘By The Sea’. Unbeknownst to us Japan’s most powerful earthquake measuring 9.0 magnitude had struck the north-east coast, which subsequently triggering a massive 10 metre tsunami that caused catastrophic damage. While we sat eating an early dinner before the show my New Zealand friend received a call from her family asking if she was ok. While she was on the phone I received a message from my family in Australia concerned for my safety asking me to reply if I could. Slowly over the next five minutes we collected a vague outline that an earthquake had struck Japan and had cause significant impact and there was a tsunami warning for all the east coast. Australian and New Zealand news broadcasters knew more about what was happening than we did. That was what concerned us the most; fear of the unknown. Every piece of subsequent information we collected was worse than the one before. I was living in Shibuya and went to Uni in Tokyo, which meant all my friends lived mainly in area surrounding Tokyo. I was highly concerned for their safety but only had limited phone service and could only email them, anxiously waiting for replies. We felt so helpless as there was nothing we could do. As we boarded the train to go to the concert we questioned if we were doing the right thing; I was going to enjoy a Jack Johnson concert while Tokyo, my home, was in chaos. I felt so guilty for being there, travelling during my Spring Break rather than being where I ‘should’ have been.
The concert was absolutely amazing. Jack Johnson and his band are unbelievably talented and draw you into their music. I couldn’t fully enjoy every moment though as my phone was constantly vibrating as I received replies confirming my friends were at least alive and asking if I was alright. Once the concert had ended my friends and I were anxious to find out the full story as to what had happened. We returned to the business hotel we had booked for the night and turned on the television. For four hours we sat in front of the screen, mesmerised by the footage that we saw. Words could not describe what I was feeling; especially when I saw people stranded in the dark at the station that was only 50 metres from my house. The sheer power of nature fascinated me and the destruction that was left in its wake was immense. I felt so removed from the situation even though geographically it was occurring so close. My friends were stranded at train stations, on campus and even at Disneyland, separated from their families and not knowing what they would go home to the following day. It was also challenging because I could not understand all the content of the news bulletins as they were broadcast in Japanese; however, I could clearly understood the numbers of missing and dead that was being reported.
Two days later I arrived back in Tokyo after travelling eight hours on a night bus. Having no idea what to expect I was a little nervous. When I walked into my room my bookshelf was dishevelled but overall Tokyo seemed to be regrouping. Aftershocks continued to occur at regular intervals, differing in intensity and length. Rolling scheduled power outages affected businesses and shops and disrupted train lines, which made travel very difficult. All club activities, and graduation and orientation ceremonies were cancelled at University. Grocery stores were also affected not receiving new stock and dealing with an influx of people buying abnormal amounts of food in case of another emergency. The signs on shelving in the picture have limited customers’ purchases, for example there is a maximum of one instant noodle packet and one bread item per customer. The only grocery items that were in ample supply were alcohol and ice cream! It was good to know that Starbuck was also on hand for all your coffee needs 🙂
During the week following the earthquake friends on exchange from American Universities were being recalled to America due to the ongoing health concerns and the risk of radiation. Despite sending an email to UOW I waited everyday anxiously checking my email and wondering if I would be the next person to be requested home. I kept receiving emails from friends and family telling me to come home but I wanted to stay. I had created a life in Japan that I was not ready to leave. However, the morning of February 18th I received the email I had been dreading; UOW was withdrawing us from the exchange program and requesting our return to Australia. That same morning I also received an email from the Australian Embassy directing that all non-essential Australian nationals were to return home. 36 hours after receiving these emails I was booked on a flight and 15 hours later I arrived at Sydney airport. It felt so surreal that I was home. I had changed so much but everything else was so familiar yet so foreign at the same time. Less than 24 hours after landing in Australia I was back at Uni organising my late enrolment, beginning classes in Week 4.
I know that I can’t be over there but I don’t know how to be here yet. I know that over time I will adjust to my new reality in Australia and I thank all my family and friends for their support. My time abroad was a life changing experience that I will always keep close to my heart. 本当にありがとうございました。
Alone in the Middle
Kansai Gaidai, Osaka, Japan
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.
No qualifications required!
Before beginning my student exchange I participated in a working holiday in Okinawa, which was an absolutely unforgettable experience. I learnt so much not only about the Japanese and work culture but myself. Being in Tokyo I actually miss the breathtaking place and the amazing people who I met down there.
Despite having no prior experience working in a restaurant or a bar, I was placed working behind a bar, pouring beers and mixing cocktails for the Japanese customers. What surprised me is that anyone who wants to can work behind a bar. During my two months working at that restaurant we also had numerous high school work experience students who worked with us behind the bar, not only serving drinks but also making them. The legal age to consume alcohol in Japan is 20, so these students were definitely underage. This contrasts the strict RSA laws that exist in Australia.
Furthermore, marine staff and lifeguards are not required to hold any formal qualifications; they do not even need to know how to swim! Being a qualified pool lifeguard, holding numerous mandatory first aid certificates myself this shocked me, particularly to think what would happen if there was an emergency. Frequently the marine staff would be asleep at their post despite being the only lifeguard on duty and people being in the water.
Another thing that I found strange was that despite living on a beautiful island the Okinawan people do not swim and if they do they go in the water fully clothed (shoes included) and almost always wear a floaty. Very different to the Aussie beach lifestyle that I am used to!
Only in Japan….
I recently went to a traditional Japanese festival in Ikebukuro, Tokyo which was naturally outdoors, displaying lots of Japanese cultural and religious history and background. I’ve been to a Japanese festival before and wasn’t surprised to see the big parade, nor the tonnes of delicious Japanese food, nor the traditional Japanese dancing and drumming.
However, I really didn’t expect to see a full bar with servers dressed up in tuxedos, especially since the event was outdoors and so casual. But of course anything is possible in this country!!!