“What decision in your life had the greatest impact on who you are today?”
If you were posed this question, how would you respond? This question and all its varieties are commonplace in college applications, university study abroad applications, job interviews, and other such settings. For me, this question only had one answer and that was my decision to study abroad in Japan as a high school student. This one decision, made entirely of my own accord, would later prove to have been the most influential part of my life in terms of my hobbies, my passions, my education, my career, and even my relationships. Before I get into the whole study abroad experience, I feel it’s worthwhile giving a bit of background information on why I initially became interested in the Japanese language and culture and ultimately why I decided to study abroad at such a young age. My experience abroad will be a whole other post!
As surprising as it may be to some, given my passion for language and study abroad, my family is no different than your average middle-class white family. We are monolingual English speakers, we have mostly lived in predominately white neighborhoods, and not a single member of my family has ever traveled to Asia on holiday. We have veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars in our family, but that was a different kind of “tour.”
I was not sent to a private liberal arts school, nor was I given private lessons in any foreign language growing up. I also did not have the luxury of traveling internationally. There’s nothing wrong with these things, but it was not those kinds of experiences that inspired me like it did for others, perhaps. I was raised by a single mother for the majority of my childhood, until the age of twelve, when my step-father adopted me. It was only around the age of ten that I began to develop an interest in the Japanese language and culture.
What was the initial inspiration?
Ah, childhood memories. If you haven’t hear of Inuyasha, then you must not have lived. This classic anime, which aired from 2000 to 2010, was my introduction to Japanese culture. Who hasn’t been inspired to learn Japanese from anime? I’m no exception, but it wasn’t the culture of anime that inspired me, it was the traditional dress, Japanese monsters, and history presented in the anime Inuyasha that piqued my interest. I watched this with my sister growing up together in rural Oklahoma. Yee-haw.
I was in the fifth grade at McKinley Elementary School in Enid, Oklahoma when I began to self-study Japanese. I was ten years old and it was after watching a few episodes of Inuyasha. My first textbook was a 1970 edition of Oreste Vaccari’s Encyclopedia on Japanese Grammar. This great red book was essentially my Japanese Bible, but good heavens was it difficult to understand as a child. It’s the reason why I knew the kanji for the word “you” in Japanese long before I could even read it in hiragana.
It was after about a year of studying that I remember thinking about studying abroad for the first time. I haven’t the faintest idea from where came the inspiration to study abroad in high school, but I remember the day I declared my dream to my 6th grade teacher. The memory is as clear if it were yesterday. My dream was to learn more about the traditional Japanese clothing, kimono. In Inuyasha, the characters mostly wore this when scenes were shot in the past, or as history calls it, the Warring States Era (戦国時代 せんごくじだい). My favorites were the wealthy ladies wearing the 12-layered kimono, known as “juuni hitoe” (十二単 じゅうにひとえ).
Turns out, my dream came true! I had the amazing opportunity to intern at an authentic Japanese kimono store in Kyoto, thanks to a friend named Yuko. If it weren’t for her, I would have very little first-hand knowledge of kimono. I spend most weekends at the store where I learned the different types of kimono, silks, how to fold and clean everything, and how to dress myself and others in kimono.
In addition to learning about kimono, I wanted to have a study abroad experience under my belt before I went to college. After self-studying Japanese, I discovered my passion for foreign language, so I already knew what I wanted to study at university. It was no question of whether or not I would study abroad again at university – I knew I had to! I believed that having proficiency in another language at a young age would help me get a job and learn other languages in the future. Today, I can confidently say that is true! It really did help me.
Do you want to study abroad in high school?
If you are considering studying abroad as a high school student, here are five pieces of advice from someone who did just that.
- Research the country you are interested in. This includes the general culture, customs, regional dialects, and also the HISTORY. Do not forget to study up the history. Get in contact with someone who has actually lived there, not someone who just traveled there for two weeks.
- Know that being an exchange student is not the same thing as being a tourist. You will be held to the same standard as locals in some situations, especially when living with a host family. Do not habitually resort to the “foreigner card” to rid yourself of responsibility when you have made a mistake. People want an apology, not an explanation or worse, an excuse.
- Are you American? Then you should know the differences amongst the following terms: UK, England, Great Britain, and the European Union. If you mix these up, your fellow European exchange students will probably judge you as “one of those Americans.” Just a fair warning.
- Understand that not everyone thinks the United States is the greatest country in the world. Many people have a negative view of Americans from the media, history, or personal encounters. Always be conscious of this and behave accordingly.
- Unless it’s required for an official group discussion or both parties are okay with it, avoid discussing controversial topics with other exchange students. Would you be okay with someone telling you 9/11 was a hoax because that’s what they heard in their country? If not, then don’t start an argument over something you think you know about someone else’s native land. Difficult discussions are great for personal growth, but baseless arguments only meant to pick a fight are extremely harmful. Be respectful.
If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email or comment on this post! You can also reach out to me via Instagram, @sarangsa_study.
Thank you for reading!