(Gavin from North Carolina studying in Japan)
We have so many truly amazing and talented young students at Aspect Foundation, but certain students really stand out from the pack. Today, we are putting the spotlight on an American student studying abroad, Gavin from North Carolina! Gavin has been studying in Yokkaichi, Japan with the Nishii family. We asked Gavin several questions about his exchange year; see what he had to say below!
Tell us about your first few days in Japan!
I arrived on August 24th with the other American exchange student in Japan this year. From the airport we went into downtown Tokyo to the National Junior Olympic Center, for an orientation with the exchange organization in Japan. Once we arrived, we put our bags in our rooms with the other exchange student who was sharing the room with us (I was paired with a guy from France,) and were sorted into groups. We did some workshops, skits, calligraphy, and then went to a famous shrine called 明治神宮 (Meiji Shrine) and watched some of the festivals that were going on at the time. That night everyone went to the 温泉 (Onsen/Public Bath) which was on campus and got ready to go to their individual host families. The next morning we got on the 新幹線 (Shinkansen/Bullet Train) and went to meet our host families.
What was it like to be totally immersed in another culture and lifestyle for the first time?
I think the best word to describe it would be “surreal.” Everyone has preconceived notions about what a country and its people will be like, and once you experience them first hand they are blown out of the water. It’s amazing to watch as what was once foreign and strange, slowly becomes normal.
Was it difficult to adjust to your new environment?
For me it wasn’t difficult at all. Of course there are differences in culture between Japan and America but if you come into the exchange with an open mind, adjusting isn’t a problem.
Was there anything or anyone that made that adjustment easier? How so?
One of the exchange students from last year, a Finnish guy, showed me the ropes so to speak, and guided me through how to do certain things and make studying in Japanese easier (it’s still really hard!)
How did your host family make you feel welcomed?
When I first arrived they used what english they knew in order to make it somewhat familiar and we went out for Ramen and talked and ate as a family.
Tell us a little bit about your host family and new home!
My host family consists of my host father, who owns a cram school (really popular in Japan but difficult to explain to people who haven’t lived here), my host mother is a piano teacher, my host grandmother (who lives with us, yet again a strange thing in America,) and my host brother who recently graduated and is off to college in Okinawa (Imagine the Hawaii of Japan,) as well as a dog and cat. We live about 15 mins outside of the city and about 35 mins or so from Nagoya which is the nearest large city.
(Gavin and his host family in Japan)
Why did you choose to study abroad in Japan?
Growing up, my parents and uncle (who all did an exchange to Japan when they were in high school) would tell me about their time over here and my mother would teach me very very basic Japanese when I was younger. All of this over time made me want to discover more about this country and language and figure out for myself what life is like over here.
What were your expectations of the lifestyle and culture of Japan before you arrived?
I expected Japan to be very advanced technology-wise and a country that adapts to other cultures.
Would you say that your expectations matched the experience? Why or why not?
Yes and no. Japan is very advanced but in regards to culture I feel like Japan suffers, as it’s been called before, a “Cultural Galapagos Syndrome” in that Japan is not a country that adjusts to others. People adjust to it. And I think that that is just fine.
Tell us about your host city Yokkaichi!
Yokkaichi is the largest city in my prefecture but is absolutely tiny compared to Tokyo, Osaka, or even Nagoya. There is not much to do so when friends and I hang out we typically go to Nagoya.
What are some of your favorite aspects of Yokkaichi?
It has a lot of shops and restaurants that are tucked away in alleys or in untraveled areas and these restaurants are always amazing.
Can you compare Yokkaichi to any other cities you have visited before?
I think it’s impossible to compare any Japanese city to an American or European city but if I had to however, I think it is like the city of Charlotte, NC in that it is the largest in the area but not the capital.
(Gavin and his classmates)
Your High School experience in Japan must have been very different from any High School in the states! Tell us about some of the biggest differences you have noticed!
- Japanese students are SOOO much more respectful than American students.
- Clubs are a major part of school life here. You finish school and then do club until anywhere from 6-8 at night. Plus you do clubs on Saturdays early in the morning, and most holidays. So most breaks from school aren’t actually breaks because you still have to go to school for club. That being said clubs are extremely fun.
- Students have their own classroom and teachers move around from classroom to classroom.
- Almost everybody brings their own lunch.
- Students clean the school.
What aspect of your high school experience abroad do you wish you could bring home with you to America?
The teachers and students have an amazing, almost friend-like relationship which is such a great thing. Our teachers joke with us, tell funny stories in class, and do things that American teachers would never be able to do. For example, I went to Okinawa with my school and our teacher came into our hotel room and played card games and watched TV with us. Also, I wish I could bring something called 文化祭, which means cultural festival. Students get together and completely change their classrooms and the school into different themes and games and things like that.
(Gavin’s school, on the right decorated for文化祭 in a casino theme)
Did you have the chance to travel to any sites of cultural significance?
I got the chance to go to Okinawa, Mt. Fuji, Tokyo a couple of times, Kyoto a couple of times, Osaka, I go to Nagoya constantly, and have been to a place called 伊勢神宮 (Ise Shrine).
When I went to Okinawa, I went with my school for 4 days and got to stay with a host family in Okinawa for 3 of those days on a small island called 伊江島 (Ie Island). Our host family was great and showed us Okinawan culture as well as informed us on some history from first hand experience.
In Japan, after New Year’s if you have the money and time to, you go to 伊勢神宮(Ise Shrine) and pray for a good year and to thank god(s) for the last one. My family went with a group of teachers that work with my host father and we were able to perform ceremonies usually reserved for very important people (politicians, Buddhist monks, very famous people, company executives, etc.)
We saw that you were able to hike to the top of Mt. Fuji. What a cool experience! Tell us about that day!
The week before climbing my host brother and I made something called テルテルボズ (a doll made in order to have good weather) and hung them up. You make these dolls in the hopes that the weather will be good on the day you want. You draw half a face on it and if the weather is good then you finish the face and the spirit in the doll is happy. We were lucky and the weather was gorgeous. My host brother and I got on a bus from Nagoya at around 10 in the morning on the first day and rode about 6 hours to Fuji. We got off the bus, took some pictures, changed into hiking clothes and started the climb. We trekked up the mountain on paths that are along the mountainside (the slope of some of them was around 55 degrees) and on the path we took, we had to climb on and over a few rock faces in order to keep going. Around 8 pm we arrived at station 8, which is pretty close to the top, bought some curry, and went to our beds to sleep. We woke up at around 2 in the morning to start climbing to the top in order to see the sunrise. We barely made it and we summited just as soon as the sun started to come out. We stayed at the top for a few hours and then started to descend. This was by far the most difficult part. Turns out walking on a steep down hill and jarring your knees for 6 miles (10km if you’re not from America) hurts really bad. It was however, so worth it to see the sunrise.
(Gavin and his host brother on top of Mt. Fuji at sunrise)
What are some of your favorite memories from this past year?
Climbing Fuji is definitely one of them. The school cultural festival was great, 忘年会(an end of the year party) was extremely fun, doing karaoke for the first time (if you’ve never done it, it is amazingly fun), exploring Tokyo with some friends, going snowboarding for the first time, going to a Japanese prom, and my favorite is probably the day I realized I was speaking Japanese without thinking about it.
If you had to choose just one, what was the single best experience you had while studying in Japan?
Going to Okinawa and staying with an Okinawan family was probably the best experience. I got exposure to some unique culture and learned things about Okinawa that you can only learn by hearing it first-hand as it’s not online or in museums.
Would you say that this exchange year has positively affected you? If yes, how so?
Absolutely yes. I now have friends not only in Japan, but also across Europe, Australia, Korea, and Taiwan. I can speak a second language fluently which is such a great thing to be able to do as it changes how you look at the world and how you think. I’ve been able to do things I would have never been able to do and meet people I never would’ve been able to meet had I not done an exchange. The only downside is that I’m starting to forget some English and spelling.
Do you feel more confident as a person now that you have accomplished so much in just one year?
Yes, I feel that I now have the ability to overcome any obstacle that’s put in my way, given enough time of course.
How do you think this experience will help you in the future?
I think knowing a second language, especially one as difficult as Japanese, will help me when I apply to universities, help me in my career field, and help me to meet new people and make new friends when I return to Japan because I am definitely coming back at some point!
With your exchange year is nearly complete, we want to know if you have any advice for future exchange students! What would you say was the hardest part of your exchange year and how did you overcome these challenges?
Biggest problem is also the most obvious: Language Barrier.
How to overcome: Study, study, study until you think you’re good at the language, then study some more. As well as talking to the people around you and learning how people normally say things.
What advice would you give a student when faced with cultural differences that might be hard to understand or simply unexpected?
Come into the exchange with an open mind and do your best to embrace the cultural differences. What may be normal to you may be completely foreign and weird to somebody else and vice versa and you need to keep that in mind.
Now we would like to give you the chance to share any experiences, thoughts, or memories from your exchange year with our community!
I want to say thank you to everyone who has made this exchange possible and to the friends I have made while here, for making my experience unforgettable.
Lastly, is there anything else you would like to add today?
I’d like to thank my host family for giving me the opportunity to come to Japan and stay in a home as welcoming and understanding as they did. They have given me a life changing experience and I really appreciate all that they have done for me. As I said earlier we may have ups and downs but at the end of the day we are now family and that’s what matters.
Do you know a standout student that you would like to see featured? Send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.