Recently I was asked how I made the decision to study in Japan, how I could bear to leave my family, friends and loved ones behind and embark on the four year journey alone.
I didn’t exactly plan to go to Japan, it was always just a dream, an idea I toyed with but knew could never happen because of finances. There’s always the debate about if you should study overseas or stay in a local Singapore university and when the various universities came to my JC to promote themselves the idea of studying in another country was intriguing. My mom had considered sending me to Australia directly after my O levels but in the end we couldn’t afford it (the university scholarships would only cover 50% of tuition maximum).
So I always thought I would stay in Singapore. But dreams are still dreams and there was no harm going to listen to the talks that Waseda or Todai made in school, and after visiting the Waseda campus on a club trip to Japan in 2010, I was sold. The campus was beautiful, Japan was beautiful, and putting myself out of my comfort zone and having to be independent appealed to me.
Of course, I love Japan and her culture (hey, I was the Japanese Cultural Club president for a reason), and if I were to stay in a country for 4 years, I have to love it, or homesickness would plague me. To be honest, I was never quite interested in the other regions of the world asides from Southeast and East Asia. While still a step out of my comfort zone, it wasn’t so radically different that I didn’t know how to deal with everything.
I found out about scholarships to Japan for Singaporeans via JUGAS, who sent an email to my school who then forwarded it to our cohort, and took the plunge and applied. After passing the interviews and settling paperwork with the school as well as my Visa (and taking the A levels), I was bound for Japan!
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). It thrilled me to be in a 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 always was in Singapore.
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 I usually just let my Mom handle like 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. 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 Skype-d my mom. While she cried, worried sick about me, I reassured her, and somehow I knew things would be ok. 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.
Dressed up for Halloween for the first time!
Took part in intercultural discussions, made new friends from all over the world
Attended concerts, found new music, met wonderful people
Went on roadtrips, marveling at just how beautiful nature is
Personally, another thing I’m also thankful about is how I learnt how life isn’t all about grades. Growing up the elitism and the “good grades define your life” mentality was rather suffocating at times. In Japan I feel free, I could enjoy life to the fullest in all aspects. I love every moment I’m there, all the experiences I have which can’t be summed up (those are just a few of the many, many, photos I have of my fond memories) and as much as I love Singapore I cannot say I would be where I am now, that I would be this happy, had it not been for my stint in Japan.
It’s not just Japan. I strongly recommend studying overseas if you can, even if only for a short exchange. The world is so big and we are so small. There is so much more out there! I have learned so much, experienced so much, lived so much.
Would I do it all over again? Yes.