Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 20, 2024
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COURTESY OF ISABELLA MADRUGA

Madruga reflects on the beginning of her semester abroad.

Whenever I told people I was studying abroad, I felt like I was lying. I felt as if I hadn’t done anything to deserve such a rare once-in-a-lifetime experience — the kind most people don’t get. 

Ever since I met with my academic advisor and realized I could study abroad and still graduate on time, I had been set on going somewhere. I wanted something completely different from everything I knew. South America was out of the question — I am part of the culture. Europe felt more like a two-week vacation destination than somewhere to spend a semester. When I considered Japan, everything clicked into place. Everything there seemed to be the exact opposite of what I knew. 

And it is. Having been here one month, I can safely say that I was not just naïvely assuming that everything would be different. Just like Japan is on the other side of the world from the U.S., their cultures are also dramatically different. From being fiercely community-oriented to everybody being punctual and following every rule, it’s the complete opposite of the U.S. in many ways. It’s perfect. As a sociology major, it’s exactly what I was looking for when I first set out on the study abroad hunt. 

My biggest fear before going to Japan was making friends, but I quickly befriended most of the people in my study abroad program, and we hang out almost every day. I have been gradually making Japanese friends, but there are only so many times I can ask “What do you like to do?” in Japanese before the conversation falls flat. I knew that the language would be a barrier, but it definitely helps that every Japanese person I’ve met has been so nice, accommodating and encouraging. The rumors are true: If you say one word in Japanese in a semi-good accent, you get a chorus of waa–! (wow!) and jyouzu! (so good!) in return. 

My first week was spent in Inuyama for my program’s orientation, a sleepy town with mostly locals. There began my first culture shocks: sometimes there are no sidewalks, and you have to walk shoulder-to-shoulder in streets so narrow that cars have to back up into a driveway to let another car through; taking shoes off everywhere, in dressing rooms and in restaurants if you want to sit on the tatami mat; (almost) everything being clean and on-time. I actually use the restrooms in train stations, whereas in San Francisco the stations don’t even have bathrooms; everything (and everyone) is so small. 

One thing about my study abroad experience: It was littered with orientations, from my program orientation to Nanzan University (the university where I am studying) orientation. After my program orientation in Inuyama, we went back to Nagoya, and I got to meet my wonderful host family, made up of my amazing host mom, hilarious host dad, rambunctious six-year-old host brother and adorable four-year-old host sister. I had my first real Japanese tonkatsu ramen and went to my first Japanese festival with them, where we watched Japanese dances and hanabi (fireworks). 

We had to go through another orientation at Nanzan University, and I had to take a Japanese placement test. After enrolling in Manga Drawing, Japanese Society and Language and Culture, I was ready to devote three and a half hours every day to immersing myself in Japanese. Confession: It is not easy. 

I have been thoroughly enjoying the cultural differences and keep reminding myself that this is real, that I am in Nagoya and that I came here exactly for that: to experience a new culture. I have already seen my fair share of castles, beautiful gardens, traditional floats and dolls and participated in a tea ceremony. However, homesickness certainly has had its moments. 

The constant stares, the fact that I cannot physically buy shoes or clothes here, the food and the constant feeling of being a representative of my country and not being able to step out of place in fear of committing a monumental cultural faux pas — it gets tiring. In my one month here, I have already made a list of all the American-type food restaurants around me and eat at them at least twice a week. I relish every second of speaking English and being able to make jokes with my friends. I have started to crave country music. Do you know how bad homesickness has to be to crave country music? 

Regardless, I have managed to stave off homesickness by acknowledging it — in fact, I lean into it and feed it what it needs. Do I need a good burger after three days of trying something new every single meal? I buy it. Do I need to go to an American-themed thrift store just to feel at home for 30 minutes? I go there. I believe the best remedy for homesickness is indulging it in small doses and making sure you always know that you have that option.

Studying abroad has been a million lifetimes in one month so far; I feel like I am constantly in a movie, and I am seeing everything through a child’s eyes. Everything is bright, and I want to participate in everything around me. I have the usual insecurities that come with a new environment, but after three years in college, I’ve grown as both a student and a person. And I’m ready to grow more in the coming months in Nagoya, Japan. 

Isabella Madruga is a senior from the Bay Area, California studying Sociology and Writing Seminars. 


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