Indiana University Overseas Study

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Immediate Anxieties and Long-Term Goals

Christy Margeson - Nagoya, Japan

As the rollercoaster of a year that was 2016 neared its end, sweeping without pause into the next, just as swiftly did my living environment evolve. During the second week of January, I moved out of the dorm and in with my first-ever host family. Commuting to class is inevitably more cumbersome—an hour-long commute via train, compared to my previous two-minute walk to campus—but I would wager that those who have lived with a host family would almost unanimously agree that lengthy commutes are a small price to pay for such a unique, intimate cultural immersion.

I’ll be the first to admit that it was quite intimidating moving into a Japanese-only (very little to no falling back on English) household with a family I had never met before—I still sometimes find myself clamming up at the dinner table when they speak a little too quickly, constantly doubting my listening abilities. However, even after my short time here, I’m already finding myself more deeply immersed in Japanese culture than I could have imagined while living in the dorm.

I sometimes watch Japanese variety shows, for instance, with my host family after dinner; these programs are simultaneously ridiculous, and so quintessentially Japanese—as well as a convenient way to stay up-to-date on Japan’s pop culture—that I’m not sure how I got by without watching them before. Some other perks that I’ve come to appreciate are my host family’s comfy 炬燵(kotatsu) during this cold winter—which is basically a low wooden table covered by a futon and table top with an electric heater underneath—as well as being able to enjoy two delicious meals prepared daily by my generous host mother. These are only a few examples of the benefits of homestay. Moreover, and possibly most importantly, I’m experiencing cultural exchange and language practice in a warm, friendly environment every day. From what little I’ve tasted of the homestay lifestyle so far, I’m finding that it truly is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for which I’m extremely grateful.

炬燵 (kotatsu)

Of course, there are aspects of my freedom that I had in the dorm that I don’t have with my host family—I am living in someone’s home, after all, and have to abide by certain rules. However, despite my anxiety about speaking only Japanese at home, I feel as though I’m beginning to leave shallow waters, wading out into the deep end and embracing immersion more fully. I hope that if I’m able to grab my trepidation by the horns, I’ll be better able to achieve my long-term goals with the language.

Beyond the immediate benefits and anxieties involved with my switch to a homestay, I’m also interested in exploring the idea of long-term goals for foreign language learning. I can only speak from personal experience, holding onto the glimmer of hope that others might be able to relate, at least a little.

To me, language acquisition might just be one of the most mysterious, fascinating concepts I’ve ever encountered. Each small triumph when communicating in your foreign language of choice can make you feel ready to conquer the world; contrarily, a single mishap or confused interaction can leave you despairing, wondering if all of this mental labor is really worth it. I realize that this probably seems pretty melodramatic, but when you’ve been studying a foreign language for as long as I have, it becomes easy to question whether you’ll ever actually, finally reach your long-term goals.

If you were to ask any scholar about foreign language learning, they would undoubtedly reassure you that the benefits stemming from studying language are plentiful. According to an article by Anne Merritt of The Telegraph, foreign language learning provides a plethora of unexpected mental benefits, such as improved memory, decision-making skills, perception, etc.

However, when it comes to the actual study of language as an adult—especially when this is added to the attempt to simultaneously acquisition not only with the language, but also with its culture and people—these long-term benefits can often be overshadowed by the overwhelming mental strain of it all.

While I’ll admit that there’s always a small part of me wondering whether I’ll actually feel satisfied with my language skills, there’s also an equally strong part of me that’s excited to watch myself grow with Japanese. I’m coming to realize that when it comes to language learning, there will always be good and bad days; days where everything you want to say actually makes its way out of your brain and into spoken, grammatically-coherent sentences, when communicating in that language feels like one of the most natural things in the world, and days where you feel extremely frustrated with yourself and your surroundings, wanting to crawl away and hide when you botch a conversation with someone, or hear yourself mispronouncing something or saying something completely wrong, but somehow feel unable to correct yourself in real-time.

This past semester has proven to be one of the most difficult of my life. Of course, it goes without saying that the classes were challenging—my Japanese classes in particular were very demanding of my time, energy, and mental stamina. However, I don’t believe that one is ever done learning a subject, and my study of Japanese is no exception. Wading deeper still into cultural immersion, I find myself finally in waters so high that my feet no longer touch the floor—which leaves me no other option but to keep swimming.

Christy Margeson

Acclimating

Christy Margeson - Nagoya, Japan

“Imagine every possible emotion you might have when starting school in a foreign country, and I’ve felt it. Joy, excitement, dread, homesickness…” These are the words I found when flipping through my study abroad journal, penned in my own hand, marked one week into the beginning of my classes. The apprehension about starting anew in a foreign country is one thing to deal with, but words fail to describe the rollercoaster of emotions I’ve actually experienced since my plane touched down in Nagoya, Japan.

Let’s talk about culture shock. Google defines culture shock as the following: “The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.” An intense experience—in theory. But a simple Google definition can’t seem to pack quite the same punch as the real deal. Personally, I am definitely still in the midst of becoming accustomed to my new life in Japan. I’m in this strange interstitial place of cultural acclimation where some things are beginning to become second-nature (for example, hearing and seeing Japanese everywhere I go; I was in the post office the other day and heard one of the employees suddenly speak in English, and had a moment of total disorientation!), while others remain shrouded in total mystery to my American mind.

Despite having studied the language for about four years, I sometimes blank on Japanese in the grocery store, or at a restaurant—much to my regular embarrassment. No matter how well someone tries to sum it up, or how succinct the Google definition, words simply can’t describe the rollercoaster of emotions involved in a single day trying to adjust to a new culture—joy at successfully communicating with a native, embarrassment when you panic and your language skills suddenly turn into gibberish, the sheer excitement of being somewhere new and meeting different and interesting people everywhere you turn.

All of these opposing emotions are wrapped up into each new experience abroad, complete with an obnoxious, fluorescent bow. I’ve been in the country for about a month now, and it’s insane how time has been passing; every day seems so long and full of excitement, but then I look back and feel like it’s all passing so quickly. I simultaneously feel as though I’ve been here forever, and also like I’m a total fresh-faced newcomer. I suppose in a way I encompass both of these things.

Nagoya Castle exterior

The first building you encounter when you enter the site. The mossy pit used to be a moat around the castle.

It amazes me daily how my life here is feeling more natural bit by bit, when the culture is so very different from what I’m used to. One of the most quintessentially Nagoya experiences I’ve had so far was visiting Nagoya Castle(名古屋城), the center of one of the most important castle towns during Japan’s Edo Period(江戸時代). For those of you unfamiliar with Japanese history—or if you’re simply curious—the Edo Period was when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate(徳川幕府), the final feudal samurai government. The excursion to the castle was put on as a field trip for the international students at my school, Nanzan University; the kind Japanese student volunteers led us about the site in groups, explaining the different buildings and rooms. There seemed to be a million different things to absorb, as everything was so delicately ornate and detailed. It was a truly dazzling experience that left me in awe, remembering—through all my rollercoaster culture shock emotions—that I really am in Japan, and what an incredible opportunity I’ve been presented.

Castle Interior

The interior walls were covered in breath-taking traditional Japanese art. Each room was used for a different purpose, which the different artwork reflect.

Throughout this whirlwind of new experiences, I also celebrated my birthday this weekend. At first, I was a little bit worried about having it so soon after coming abroad, concerned that I wouldn’t know enough people, and would just end up moping around in my room. But, I sucked it up, and asked a few friends that I’ve made since coming here if they wanted to go out to dinner this past Friday night. To my delight, they all accepted, and we went out to an izakaya(居酒屋), a very popular and a uniquely Japanese cross between a bar and a restaurant. To my simultaneous frustration and amusement, we didn’t realize until after sitting down that we could barely read anything on the menu. Making the best of the situation, we ended up ordering different dishes—with only a vague understanding of what we would actually receive—and passing them around in order to try a bit of each. I ended up having a wonderful time, and my advice to anyone worried about celebrating their birthday abroad is to try your best to take control of your own experience. Invite out the people you have befriended, or would like to become better friends with, and don’t let yourself mope around and feel self-pity. Having to celebrate birthdays and holidays abroad is the reality of many study abroad students, and a big part of the experience is accepting that it’s going to be different from your past celebrations, and that that’s okay.

Imagining every possible emotion you might experience while starting a new school in a foreign country is a tall order; experiencing those feelings is an entirely separate ordeal in itself. You can understand culture shock as a concept, look up as many different definitions as you want, and it will still never fully represent the way that everyone individually experiences the phenomenon. All that I can do is write about my personal experiences adjusting to a foreign country, and hope that other students studying abroad can relate at least a little. Although I’m still in that awkward in-between stage of acclimating to a foreign culture—where certain things are sneakily becoming second-nature, and others are still bafflingly unfamiliar—I feel hopeful that by the time I’m preparing to return home, I’ll be able to flip back through my study abroad journal and think, “I remember going through that transition—and what a stronger person I am for it.”

Christy Margeson

Goals and Apprehensions

Christy Margeson - Nagoya, Japan

I’ve been studying Japanese since I was fifteen years old, and I knew from that very first class that I would do whatever it took to visit the country of its origin someday. Utterly fascinated with the language and culture from a young age, studying abroad has been something I decided I wanted to do long before I started college. In fact, IU’s remarkable study abroad program is one of the plentiful reasons I chose to go there in the first place.

When I received the email from the Office of Overseas Study informing me of my acceptance into the Nagoya program, I was ecstatic—to say the least. It was a goal towards which I had been working towards for what felt like such a large part of my academic career; however, as my time began winding down, and the actual trip loomed ever closer, I was suddenly struck with several different fears I had not originally considered. What if my knowledge of the language fails me in social situations? What if I have a hard time making friends? What if my classes are exceedingly difficult? I sometimes felt as though I was swimming in doubt about my personal capabilities.

But when it comes down to it, those apprehensions are all part of what I believe will make up my study abroad experience. To quote cultural American icon, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter: “I get nervous when I don’t get nervous. If I’m nervous I know I’m going to have a good show.” Although I’m not about to step out onto a stage and give an amazing performance worthy of breaking the internet like Beyoncé, this piece of advice is one I’ve found myself thinking about quite often lately. This nervousness pervading my senses, to me, serves as a sign that I’m doing something right—a sign that I’m pushing myself socially, mentally, and emotionally. For me, one of the biggest aspects of studying abroad is pushing myself to grow, not only with my understanding of Japanese, but also as a person.

That’s not to say that it’s not going to be hard. Before I left Indiana, I made it a point to visit my two older sisters in Colorado, my friends in Bloomington and Indianapolis, as well as my extended family in Connersville. Saying goodbye was difficult, and in a few cases there were mutual tears shed; my mother stayed with me at the airport until I boarded the plane, and we parted teary-eyed, missing each other already. Not to mention my beloved cat whom I loathe to leave behind for an entire academic year.

But I believe that all of the difficult parts of this experience help to make it all the more meaningful. They are the parts that truly flesh out the overall big picture, the parts that are inevitable and terrifying and fantastic about any human experience. I want this study abroad experience to push me to the very limits of my capabilities, so that I can grow in all the spectacular ways one unavoidably grows when outside of one’s comfort zone. I couldn’t be more excited to immerse myself in Japanese culture and improve my skills in the language from first-hand experience; I hope to accomplish all the goals I set for myself with this experience since I was fifteen years old, and then some.

Christy Margeson

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