Being an International Student in Japan, Is It Really That Scary?

  • “So, she really is going to depart next week?” “Are you sure she’ll be okay?” “How come you let your youngest daughter to go that far alone?” “Can she even speak Japanese?”

    Months before my departure, I finally got my mother’s permission to continue my studies in Japan. Knowing that, my aunts started to scold my mother. And a week (and a few days) before my departure from Indonesia, my mother’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing. The dialogues I wrote above were what my aunts actually said to my mother. Thank you for worrying about me, my dear aunts and other relatives, but I’m sure I’ll be oka–

    Or not.

    As I hugged my parents goodbye in the airport, suddenly I became nervous. I had visited Hokkaido before on vacation with my family, but it’s different now. I am going to Tokyo. Alone. And not for vacation. And I don’t even know enough kanji. GASP. I was able to say that I’ll be okay to my family and friends with a smile before, but at that time, suddenly I started doubting too. Nevertheless, I still got on the airplane and started my journey.

    After spending one month living here as a language school student, I can prove that I was worried for nothing. But it is true that there are 3 major barriers (at least for me) in the first two weeks:

    1st Barrier: Language

    In English, before you can make a word, you must know your ABCs, right? It is the same with Japanese. Most people are scared to learn Japanese because the letters are so curly, like how can I remember these 46 curly characters before I depart? And another 46 symbols of katakana?! Luckily, I got the chance to go to a Japanese school for 3 months, I bet the teacher will help me– or rather, teachers will be very glad to help us to memorize them faster if they can. Just like the ABCs, the only one who can teach us is ourselves. Teachers can only teach us to learn how to read each character.

    But don’t worry, I will teach you how I memorized everything in one day:
    Grab your empty notebook
    Start making the hiragana and katakana charts on the first page
    On the next page, write one character repeatedly until one page is full
    Don’t get bored, don’t get lazy. Repeat until you finished everything.

    Now, you know your basic Japanese letters.
    At least you are now able to read some signs, or maybe learn some basic sentences.

    Next, you must be worrying about what will happen once you arrive. What if I don’t know where to go? What if people in the airport don’t understand what I’m asking? Calm down. Airport staff mostly can speak and understand English. Even if they don’t, they will do their best to help you. They will not leave you alone. They will not abandon you.

    I bet with these tips, you’ll be able to survive the first day, also known as the arrival day. For the next several days, you just need to pay attention to some Japanese words or particles you are using on daily basis, especially if you are female. There are also some things from your own language to be careful of when you say them. For me personally, I keep on accidentally saying ‘mangkok’ which means ‘bowl’ in Bahasa Indonesia, but in Japanese, it means a woman’s…I think you can guess. As you can see, I too, still have a lot to learn.

    Off we go to the next barrier!

    2nd Barrier: Food

    Student food

    Author’s photo

    Lazy or can’t cook? Don’t like how some Japanese food tastes bland? Finding tasty food is easy in Japan, trust me. In Tokyo, there are a lot of restaurants and cafes that provide food from different countries all over the world. Chinese food, Korean food, Italian, you name it. They are served in fairly big portions, enough to fill our stomach for a few hours (or more). Don’t want to break the bank? Fresh bento boxes or onigiri can be bought in almost every supermarket and convenience store. The only problem is, Japan use a lot of pork or pork products in their ingredients. It’s quite a problem for Muslims because it can be difficult to find food with halal labels!

    In that case:
    Websites like Halal Gourmet really help to ‘hunt’ for halal restaurants. It’s in English, too!
    Usually, Indian restaurants are completely safe. Even kebabs. They use chicken instead of lamb.
    If you really want to feel safe and save money, cooking is the best option.

    In supermarkets, while shopping, make sure to pay attention that there’s no ‘豚’ character written on the product you’re putting inside your basket. It’s read as ‘ぶた’ (boo-tah) which means pig.
    Some of supermarkets/fresh food stores have special days when you can buy some specific items for a discount (like fruits, vegetables, or meat).
    It may sound strange, but sometimes I buy fruit that have an expiry date for the following day, but even if I leave it for 3 days, it’s still fine. Fruit is much cheaper when it has reached a day before the expired date.

    And the safest of them all: desserts and pastries! It’s a bit pricey, but I personally suggest you to go once in a while, because it’s worth it! The portions are big, and there are a lot of cute, tasty and unique Japanese sweets. For instance, parfaits or crepes at Takeshita Street, Harajuku. Or unique cheese pastries in Shibuya, once again, you name it, they’ve got it.

    3rd Barrier: Homesickness

    Want it or not, in the first three weeks, you will feel homesick. Although you might not cry your eyes out, you will probably feel a bit lonely, because there’s no mother who scolds you around or father who is strict with your curfew. You feel free. Too free until there’s a gap in your heart. You will start to understand that your parents are being fussy because they love you, because they care about you, even more than the staff who helped you in the airport a few weeks ago.

    To feel homesick is normal, it’s not childish or unmanly. But sometimes, that feeling of homesickness can affect your daily life. And that’s when homesickness becomes a ‘lethal weapon’, holding you back from growing in the new environment. The best thing to do? Contact home. Use Skype, Oovoo, or simply call.
    Indulge yourself in new activities, or studying (not only school lessons but the new culture you’re in too). Hang out with your friends when you have time. Try to look for familiarity. For instance, if you miss your country’s food, look for it!

    See? Being a foreign student in Japan is not THAT scary. It’s the same as being a foreign student in any other country. Personally, I believe that if you are able to identify your barriers, you will be able to break them and grow to be a better person. We just need to encourage ourselves to face new challenges. I think Japan is one of the best countries to build experience by living alone as a foreign student.

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