Studying in Japan as a full time foreign student isn’t the most popular option, especially not for Singaporeans who prefer to head to the US, the UK or Australia. I often get confused as an exchange student or asked why I would choose to pursue my undergraduate degree in Japan. How could you bear to leave your family behind? Does the language barrier affect you? I heard Japan is very stressful, how do you cope?
Initially, having to uproot my life and move to Japan all alone was daunting, but in my final year, as I look back to that decision I made, I would do it all over again without hesitation.
At 18 (going 19), I came to Japan, just a month or two after my A level results. My school aimed to cultivate global minded citizens and by joining their School of International Studies I could learn a wide variety of subjects (which I have, from Financial Accounting, Marketing, International Relations Theory and International Politics to Traditional Japanese Culture and Documentary Films Studies).
In Japan, I felt more freedom to be me, to let my hair down and enjoy each day, each moment as it came.
It thrilled me to be in a new country and following the news that was taking place in that country itself. There was a lot to take in, and I felt like I wasn’t so sheltered like I felt I was in Singapore. Contrary to what some may believe, you don’t need to know Japanese to study in a Japanese university. My university, and many others, offer undergraduate and graduate programs in English, an option that is increasingly popular due to the Global30 project.
Japanese language classes are included as mandatory language credit requirements which allow students to gain the mastery of the language and survive everyday life. You may not need Japanese to take university classes but you definitely need it to live in Japan. I was enrolled in Japanese Level 1 when I first arrived, completely clueless about grammar, but after two years of formal lessons, passed the JLPT N2.
Studying is different, too. I was afraid of falling behind, hearing horror stories of cram schools and all the studying students did just to do well. Relatives asked how I was coping, was it stressful? With a smile, I could reply, “No. I learnt that life isn’t all about grades, that the letter on a slip of paper did not define my worth.”
I was enjoying studying, taking part in friendly discussions with my peers. No one asked me what my GPA was, no one wanted to compare grades and I didn’t feel like I was suffocating under the immense pressure to do well. Growing up I was indoctrinated to believe in elitism, that the best was never good enough, that nothing but A’s were acceptable. In Japan, I felt more freedom to be me, to let my hair down and enjoy each day, each moment as it came.
While chatting to my friends, I learnt of their heavy work loads, how busy they were and stressed with school work. Through the computer screen, I felt guilty, then wondered how I would have coped had I stayed. I shudder at the thought. Now, academically and leisurely, I am living life to the fullest.
For day to day life, I never really experienced any big culture shock moments you frequently read about online when coming to Japan for the first time. Taking shoes off when entering the house? We do that back home. Japanese style toilets? Huh, you just squat, what do you mean you don’t know how to? Getting stared at or being pointed out as a foreigner? Nope, doesn’t happen to me. They don’t speak English? It’s okay, I’m learning Japanese.
Having to fend for myself helped me become a lot more independent. I had to do things that I usually just let my Mom handle like paying bills, insurance, cleaning, planning meals, schedules etc. Sure the forms may be confusing and Japan strangely backward but I took it as training for adulthood.
It was difficult being away from my loved ones, though. The first night in Japan I didn’t have the internet connected in my dorm room yet so I couldn’t do anything, and I cried myself to sleep realising the four walls around me were hollow, bare, and I was alone. The next day my dorm manager helped me connect to the net, I took a walk and found spring all around me, and talked to my mom on Skype.
While she cried, worried sick about me, I reassured her I was ok, and somehow I knew thing would get better. Technology now allows us to stay connected, and with Japan a mere one hour time difference from Singapore, it wasn’t too difficult to stay in touch with everyone. Sure, there were some days I still felt lonely. I missed my best friends, I missed my Mom, and sometimes I missed Singapore; Singlish, the food, all the Singaporean-isms that people just don’t quite seem to understand or appreciate. But what I’ve gained from this opportunity is so much more than I could have hoped for.
Three years ago, had you asked me what life would have been like in Japan I would have said “I have no idea, but I think it’ll be great.” and now, three years later, if you asked me the same question I would say the same thing. The experience is different for everyone, and there will definitely be ups and downs along the way, but there is no denying it will be a great eye opener.