Japan is fourteen hours ahead of America in time. After an eleven hour flight from Narita Airport, Tokyo, Melissa and I arrived at Chicago O’Hare three hours before the time we left the ground in Japan on that same date.
Our brother, hauling one of our too-large suitcases (filled with omiyage) towards our ride home, laughed at our so-called time travel. He and our parents were at the airport to welcome us, and needless to say it was a happy reunion indeed. I had been in Japan since August; it was time to begin catching up with life in America.
Because we spent most of our winter break in Japan, our reunion with family and relatives was a bit too short. The few days flew by before we made the three-hour trek down to Bloomington. It has been one week since spring semester classes have started, and I can say it feels great to be back.
Looking back on my semester abroad, the experience was definitely an overall positive one. Nothing could have prepared me for Japan. Sure, I had studied kanji and grammar and learned about the culture through Japanese classes and independent studies beforehand, but I needed to experience the culture firsthand. If I had not lived there for five months, I would have still been wondering. Two years ago, when I visited Japan for a short two weeks, I had not picked up on much compared to what I was able to see this past semester. My views about America and Japan have changed since last semester, and surely family and friends here at home have changed too. After studying abroad I can say I have a better grasp on where I want to be, personally and academically, for the future.
Spending the last two weeks in the Tokyo area was an excellent way to end the semester abroad. Melissa and I were invited by friends to spend time in Kanagawa before heading home. As saddened as I was to leave the friends I had made at Nanzan Univeristy, I think the change of scenery was essential. I had been feeling a bit homesick during the last weeks in Nagoya. Knowing I would not be returning home in time for Christmas and New Years had not helped to lift my spirits. Classes were ending and winter vacation was starting, but at the time I was unsure of what my plans would be for the holidays. Japan, after all, does not hold large Christmas get-togethers or welcome the New Year with extravagant fireworks displays. Still, I was excited at the prospect of taking part in Japan’s end-of-the-year festivities, however modest (though no less meaningful) they might have seemed by American norms.
My research project for the Fieldwork Research Methods class had focused on Japanese festivals, so witnessing two final days of festive celebration was certainly fitting. Even though it was the first year spending the holidays away from the rest of our family, Melissa and I were grateful for the chance to visit the Kaminarimon and Asakusa Shrine on New Years.
As for returning home, I had questioned how merging with life back home would happen. What had changed in the time I was away? Had my family changed? Would our two cats remember me? How would the inevitable jetlag affect me during the first days of spring semester classes? What should I talk about with friends? How would I possibly be able to answer the question, “So, how was Japan?” without launching into a narrative lasting hours and hours?
There was no way to compile everything that had happened during the semester within any number of sentences. Would family and friends want to hear what stories I had to share, or would my thousands of pictures offer sufficient explanation? I wanted to share my insights, but I was almost completely unsure of how to go about doing just that. As friends and family continue asking questions that cross their minds, although I cannot paint the entire picture for them, I answer as best as I can.
What did I learn, exactly? As for the language, grammar, reading, and writing skills have improved and I have gained more confidence in my speaking ability. These language improvements were my original goals. However, as the semester abroad progressed, I realized my other goal – making friends – was perhaps more important. I met Japanese students, talked with everyone from the elderly to children during festivals, and went about daily life in complete Japanese. The language became the norm, and skills improved almost on their own as I participated in the Japanese lifestyle and interacted with the people I met.
As for returning to Indiana University, Bloomington feels new yet familiar at the same time. Finding that IU has not changed in big ways is comforting. Yet because campus and Bloomington itself are so different from what I saw everyday in Japan, I see everything with revived interest. I find myself noticing the smallest of details about IU and student life and reveling in them. A semester abroad in Japan provided what I needed for necessary, rejuvenated outlook on American ways.
This spring semester I am especially looking forward to again working in the art studios, but my anthropology courses and Japanese class are no less anticipated. Japan and the people I met there seem distant now, but email, Facebook and Skype will allow me to remain in touch. The semester abroad was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I will never forget, but I am happy to be back on track with “normal” life here.