Every person's growth, challenges and experiences during Study Abroad are ultimately unique adventures for each of us to discover on our own. Reflecting on my study abroad in Sapporo, Japan; it was a more than worthwhile experience. Like nearly all study abroaders, I found a new circle of friends to laugh with. However, now, a month after my study abroad has ended, I find myself "homesick" for Sapporo.
In my particular program, as we home-stayed with a Japanese family in Sapporo, we studied at a medium-sized private school called Hokusei Gakuen University. Similar to SUA, Hokusei also places an emphasis on language learning, intercultural-communication, and the social and behavioral sciences. In that regard, I was lucky to find many other students who shared similar ideals with me. As there were only a few other international (non-Japanese) students at the school, it was easy to immerse myself into Japanese friends and language.
As classes began, I found myself meeting an incredible amount of new people all the time. I was constantly being invited out to places with local students who wanted to "hang out" with the "Americans." However, having the time to socialize with everyone soon proved to be a problem as I was placed into a very high level class at my program that was a large jump from where I had been previously studying at SUA. Moreover, I was the only American in my class of five Koreans, so other than talking to my teachers; I would sometimes feel like the odd one out in my class. Nonetheless, I had come to Japan with the determination to fully improve my Japanese as much as I could.
My teachers, noticing that I was perhaps the weakest member of my class in terms of grammar and vocabulary, asked me if I wanted to switch down a level, but I felt that in order to get the most out of study abroad, I had to take the hardest level Japanese course I could handle. During the first month or so, as I adjusted to a new level of Japanese study, I would have to spend several hours a night preparing for the next day's class and finishing assignments. I would sometimes feel defeated in my studies, especially the day we had to write short essays for our weekly five minute speech presentations. However, as my friendships with my new Japanese friends grew stronger, I felt my Japanese speaking ability blossom, and in turn, I found class to be less of an academic burden for me. I eventually did catch up with my fellow classmates, and class became a fun environment, rather than a stressful situation. This was due not only to my own efforts, but also the support I received from my new made friends, the teachers and directors at the program, and most importantly, my amazing host family which I stayed with for a little over 3 ½ months.
My host family was an active newlywed couple in their late 30's with a two year old son, Kenta. Just like me, Kenta was learning Japanese and this made learning Japanese an even more fun experience. For example as Kenta was taught proper eating manners, or traditional household greetings, I could learn along side him. I didn't feel embarrassed as much if I made mistakes in my Japanese, as Kenta would make mistakes too like saying "Itadimachu" instead of "Itadakimasu." My friends from University found my knowledge and ability to use Japanese baby talk quite hilarious.
Like all two year olds, Kenta was very active, and I would run throughout the apartment with him like an older brother or try to calm him down with yoga. We would also play with his train set and I learned some of Kenta's favorite words: dassen (train wreck), and donshiteii? (Can I destroy this?). We would also do things like read children's books and watch television. Kenta really enjoyed Okaasan to Issho and Anpanman (two children shows) and I would enjoy them too because the Japanese was easy to understand. Through living with Kenta I have a better understanding of how difficult and rewarding it is to take care of young children along with what kind of world Japanese children live in.
My host mom was a very inspiring person. As a college student herself, she had studied English and transferred to an American college and graduated. She kindly took care of me, and would always cook meals for us and even sometimes remind me of things, just like a real mom would do. Having done the same experience as me, she understood the kind of struggles I was going through with language and understanding culture. I felt she did everything she could to help me learn Japanese. We bonded by watching all kinds of television together. Quiz shows, cooking shows, both Japanese and American drama, as well as Japanese baseball were often what we watched. From the windows of our 7th story apartment, the mountains surrounding Sapporo stood attentively. As the seasons changed on my study abroad, the true beauty of Sapporo was unveiled.
Soon after my stay began, the verdant mountains began to shift into the fall hues. In October, about a month after my arrival, I went with my host family to visit the Mount Moiwa Ropeway. The ride up the gondola car was stunning as I we flew across a sea of trees ablaze with fall colors. As we reached the summit of the mountain and onto the observatory deck, the view across all of Sapporo and far into mountains was surreal as I felt transported into another world. That was perhaps then when grasped how fortunate I was to be on study abroad. The crispness of autumn however, turned out to be shorter than I expected.
Snow, the crystalline white blanket which perhaps Sapporo is most famous for, came all too soon. With leaves still covering trees, the first snowfall covered the city with ice and left ghost-white mountains off to the distance. On the night of the first snowfall, I called my fellow study-abroader and Soka sister, Hiromi, and told her to look outside the window. Growing up only in tropical regions her entire life, experiencing a true snow fall was a first for her. Not surprisingly, as we watched the layer of white accumulate over cars and bushes, we laughed and rejoiced in celebration of the coming of winter. Humorously, with the heart of winter approaching, the word of the month seemed to be chikyuuondanka (global warming) as the Sapporo natives were taken back by how little and how late the snow came... I learned to love walking in the snow, and found myself caught up in Japanese winter style fashions.
Two weeks before my stay in Sapporo would come to an end, I was fortunate enough that my family could come visit me in Sapporo for a few days. As I showed my family around to my university, my host family's neighborhood and other places I frequented, I felt a sense of accomplishment. Just a mere 3 months ago I had been a complete stranger to the city, but then directing my family around and giving explanations seemed almost second nature in my new home. For the first time in my life, I tried to use Japanese to have a full conversation with my father. I was incredibly happy as we didn't need to use English. I realized that the past 3 months of practicing my Japanese with my friends had finally paid off. As we spoke in a new language, my perspective of what kind of a man my father is changed, and now I feel we share a stronger bond with each other. I now understand much clearer how it must have felt for my own father coming to America as an immigrant from Japan some 25 years ago.
Sapporo may be one of the coldest cities in Japan, but the hearts of its people may be the warmest. The innumerable friends I made while on study abroad will always be my friends; no matter how much distant separates us. Through study abroad, I have learned more than a new way of expressing myself in Japanese. I learned more concretely where my core values lie, and have gained a greater appreciation for all of the people back home and in Japan who have been supporting me my entire life.