Exchange isn’t just about studying, but growing together
It’s been a while, but it’s great to be back home.
As I finish writing this piece, I’m safe and sound, but exhausted. This dose of the flu has increased my distaste for this sub-zero weather, and now I’m craving sugar-infused caffeine.
The habits I’ve become so accustomed to are coming back. Gone are the days where I can buy a pair of delicious rice balls (onigiri) and a canned coffee between class periods, or hear that eerily Westminster-themed eight-tone Japanese bell that heralds the start and end of a long school session.
But with all of this nostalgia slipping away from my memory, I digress.
It’s been weeks since I returned to Montreal and the chaotic rush of the winter term is underway. It’s surreal to be riding on these retro blue-hued subway cars and hearing unsolicited random conversations of mixed English and French on the side. While I’m happy to be here, I still yearn for the little details that I’ve gotten so used to in my daily commute living in Japan: those catchy melodic jingles played in-between stations, those futuristic touch-screen ticket machines, the variety of people I see—from the kinds of the suit-and-tie businessmen to the flawlessly fashionable youth—all scrambling to get to their destination (not to mention those friendly and super-accurate train announcements).
Talk about reverse culture shock.
Last fall, I lived as an exchange student in this small, cozy, town of Hirakata, a corridor town between Osaka and Kyoto in Western Japan. The school was Kansai Gaidai—a global university with a local Japanese flavor, housing a student population of 15,000 or so. It was a surprise for me to be chosen alongside fellow Concordia students to fly over and study there. Words cannot suffice how different everything was, from the architecture, to the lifestyle, and—perhaps what stood out for me the most—the hospitality and attitude of the student community.
Within the confines of the classroom, for someone who had minimal experience of learning Japanese, the language classes were intensive, challenging, and stimulating. The lecture courses helped us reflect on the social issues happening in Japan and in Asia within a global context. With extra-curricular activities, meetups, and other related social events on top of that, it is not surprising that student life can be hectic and sometimes stressful in Japan.
I’m thankful that everyone has been extremely supportive, in good times and bad times. The student community is what makes Japan unique—because despite how challenging things can be, it’s reassuring that everyone’s got each other’s back.
From the students—Japanese and foreign—to the teachers, and to the people I meet everyday: there is a genuine desire from all to learn from each other in a strangely euphoric way that I’ve never seen before and is hard to put in words.
Everytime I walked onto campus and into the glass-walled student lounge of Building 7, I always witnessed the space evolve into a makeshift meeting spot for students from around the world to chat about virtually anything under the sun. For instance, a five-minute conversation about cats with a friend can turn into a two-hour discussion about how youth from other countries aspire to survive in difficult times. There’s tension, there’s seriousness, and there’s a willingness to listen and understand; but there’s also laughter, spontaneity and fun that I’ll admit I truly miss seeing, witnessing and participating in. They sort of resemble those 18th century coffeehouses in Europe—except that instead of newspapers, they have smartphones: exchanging contacts, swapping photos and arranging times to hang out outside school.
It’s these random conversations, no matter how mundane, no matter what language, that becomes the catalyst in forming and fostering deep friendships. We may be students by occupation, but we’re also the youth who are on the crossroads of carving our own paths, our own futures—and hopefully, something better than the status quo, together. It’s this forward looking point-of-view that really got me, and it’s something that I’m currently trying to integrate in what I do everyday back home. I can only do so much, but I can try.
Living in Japan is a wild, challenging, and fulfilling journey into the unknown and unpredictable. You never know what’s in store, but there’s never a dull moment. There’s an outburst of energy, life, and enthusiasm that’s injected into everything. It breaks away from the norm of what we’ve been so used to. It doesn’t matter if your Japanese is bad or your English is good or vice-versa: it’s that collective desire and strong interest for everyone to connect that’s important. It is this sense of community that makes this journey all worthwhile, and even now that most of us exchange students have already returned to our own home countries, I remain optimistic that this will not be the end of our journey and our friendship.
There’s a reassurance that wherever you are in the world, you’re not alone. There are people who have a great heart and desire to support each other for a better future. I guess it’s that sense of hope that we may so often forget, and it gives me much more faith in humanity than I ever had.
While I am still experiencing a distorted sense of homesickness, I still look forward to sitting down to take a bite of a sweet icy maple-flavored taffy in the spring. Except this time, I hope that I will not be alone, but together with the newfound friends I made in Japan and around the world. We all continue to grow and move forward beyond the four walls of the classroom, and into the ever unpredictable future in store for all of us.