Last week, I sat with folded hands before my father and sister, surrounded by the warm aroma of an udon shop. My father’s noodles lie in a dish before him, smooth and garnished with Japanese plum.
He looked at me and said, “You’ve changed.”
A comment like that was to be expected after half a year of studying abroad in Japan. Though the singularity of the country and the homogeneity of its citizens can be overemphasized, it’s true that the societal norms here were enough to change me. Now, I bow reflexively and hold the elevator door open for my elders. I am shy calling someone by their first name and uncomfortable using an over-familiar form of speech. I try to soften my loud, deep voice and straightforward words.
The Japanese culture is one of respect and restraint. To that end, there are two basic forms of grammar patterns — polite and casual — both of which can be divided into yet more variations, each connoting a different level of respect and intimacy. It’s unheard of to use a casual form of speech to one’s superiors at work. Juniors at school are expected to speak politely to their seniors.
Just two days ago, I was taking a night stroll around the temple district of Asakusa as part of a club event. The night was warm and quiet. The still water of the fountains and the petals of the cherry blossoms were lit up by street lamps. I was walking alongside a freshman who, assuming I was the same age, spoke casually with me.
Half an hour later, an acquaintance smiled and said, “Jasmine’s a third-year, you know.”
In a heartbeat, the freshman changed his speech style and apologized. He insisted on attaching “sempai” to my name, an honorific reserved for one’s seniors at school and in the workplace. Despite my protests that I care little for such things, I was moved that he treated me as he would treat another Japanese person.
That isn’t to say, though, that I’m used to the custom. Using different forms of speech is a constant reminder of the distance between me and whomever I’m speaking with. Sometimes, I feel like I’m on an escalator watching people pass me by, headed to some remote platform either below or above me. Many of my friends here tell me, “You’re basically Japanese now,” but I am far from completely assimilated, and the path I took to get to where I am now was not a smooth one.
Over winter vacation, I went on a ski trip with an international exchange circle. As night came and the snow glowed blue, the members sat themselves on the inn’s fragrant straw matting and made preparations for a party. After the opening toast, everyone was busy pouring drinks for everyone else.
I and another study-abroad friend sat alone at a corner table. Unsure of how to act and afraid of being intrusive, neither of us moved. I took a gulp of beer and coughed. The bitterness brushed at my lips and slid heavily down my throat.
A while later, a third-year noticed us and came over. Slapping me on the back, she asked, “You o.k.?”
I nodded, but she continued, “No, you must be under a lot of stress. You’re in a new environment, surrounded by people you don’t know. You’re trying to fit in and get depressed when you don’t. But don’t ever blame yourself if you feel lonely. It isn’t your fault at all. You shouldn’t have to be the only one trying.”
Thanks to the combined influence of alcohol and the unexpected timing and accuracy of her insight, I burst out into tears. I think any long-term study abroad student will agree, but in the shadow of all the fun experiences lurk stressful ones. For me, trying to embrace the Japanese culture has at times made me feel not only lonely among the people here, but among my own family as well.
Taking my father and sister around Tokyo, I realized I have come to live in a different world from them. I now speak a language they don’t understand and have internalized customs they find unfamiliar. They will most likely never come to fully realize what I felt the first time I was called “sempai,” or why I cried at that party. When my father said, “You’ve changed,” there was pride, but also sadness in his voice. Studying abroad has broadened my world view, but at the same time has pushed me into a sphere far away from the small, warm place where I was raised.
I think it’s safe to say studying abroad helps you grow up, whether you like it or not.
Jasmine Li is a junior majoring in English (creative writing) and East Asian languages and cultures. The column, “Troy Meets World,” runs every other Tuesday.