I finally finished my last final a week or so ago, which means that winter break has officially begun. Victory!

It also means that I’ve been here for a whole semester, which is a little more difficult to believe. Time has flown by like I never would have anticipated. But I’ve also had more amazing experiences than I can count, and I’ve been learning a ton, so although this year is already half over, I don’t feel in the slightest like it’s been wasted.

Being at the end of a semester, as well as just about the end of the calendar year, I thought it’d make sense to reflect a little on what I learned so far in Japan. When thinking about this post, I’ve been unable to decide if I want to style it as a letter to my past self–what I wish I knew–or a note to future AKP students, or who knows what. In the end, though, I think I’m just going to leave it as reflections.

Here, in no real order, are some reflections on this first semester in Japan.

I should have reviewed Japanese over the summer.

I did the foolish, foolish thing of not really thinking about Japanese last summer. Once spring finals were over, I packed up my Japanese knowledge and didn’t speak the language again until September. I did a little bit of work transcribing my notes, and used a little bit of Japanese when writing a letter to my host family, but aside from that, I did nothing.

This, in hindsight, was really a bad idea.

According to practically everyone who’s ever learned a foreign language, if you don’t use that knowledge regularly, you lose it. And while I didn’t revert to a complete beginner, spending three months not thinking about Japanese knocked me down quite a few pegs. I’m doing okay now, and certainly, I wasn’t alone among AKP students–not many people practiced during the summer. But it did me absolutely no good to have to remind myself of the basics of spoken Japanese in the first couple of weeks here. What’s more, the lack of conversation practice meant I also wasn’t doing too well with listening comprehension. All together, this added a layer of frustration and culture shock that didn’t need to be there.

It was also bothersome to me to have to re-teach myself to use polite form instead of casual form when talking to people (like, say, professors). I spent so much time in the Tek last year speaking plain, casual Japanese that I practically forgot how polite form works. I got a couple of kind but firm reminders on that one when I spoke to my Japanese sensei the same way I’d speak to my friends. Oops.

Like I said, this wasn’t the end of the world, but it was a frustrating setback that could have been avoided.

You have to get used to making mistakes.

This is the sort of thing that anyone who’s going to study abroad has heard a thousand times already, but there’s such a world of truth in it. Even as a student who’d visited Japan before and had studied Japanese through high school and college, I made mistakes all the freaking time. There were cultural mistakes, like wearing my slippers into the bathroom or being particularly noisy on the train, but more prevalent (perhaps expectedly) were the language mistakes.

Comic describing my horrendous attempt to do someone a favor

There are far too many mistakes of every size to list, but one in particular stands out in my mind. Within the first month of arriving, I went out and hiked up Mount Hiei with some friends, including a new friend who was a Doshisha student. At the top, we wandered around Enryaku-ji for a while, and as we walked, I spotted a Japanese guy with a really nice-looking DSLR camera, trying to snap a shot of himself with the temple in the background. Seeing an opportunity to be helpful, I went up to him and asked, in perfect Japanese, if he’d like me to take his picture for him.

Oh, no, it was the opposite of that.

In Japanese, you don’t really ask someone if they want you to do something for them, at least not in the way I was trying to say it. You can say “I want to do this” or “I want to have this done,” but you can’t use the same form as a question about someone else’s desires. It really doesn’t sound natural. This, of course, is exactly what I tried to do, and because of how that grammar works, it sounded like I was saying I wanted to take a picture. With his camera.

Picture it:

You’re standing at a temple, enjoying a beautiful late summer day, when out of nowhere, this foreign guy walks up, eyes your camera, and says, “I want to take a picture?”

“Sorry, what?”

“I want to take a picture?”

Maybe he wants you to take a picture of him. He’s got a little point-and-shoot dangling from his wrist, so you point to it. “Oh, should I take a picture of you with that?”

“No, no, with your camera. Is okay if I use?”

You’re starting to suspect he might be slightly mentally challenged. He’s looking at your expensive camera and smiling. But even if he’s daft in the head, he at least seems nice, so you decide to hand your camera to him. Very carefully.

Then, before he gets the strap around his neck, he fumbles with it and almost drops it on the ground.

Immediately, you regret that decision. Standing where you are, you ask him if he wants to take the picture.

“No, no, over there,” he says, pointing to in front of the temple building. Entirely unsure of what’s going on, you give a lukewarm half-smile as he manhandles your camera and coaxes a picture or two out of it.

“There you go,” he says, grinning, as he hands your camera back.

“Uh, thanks,” you mutter. “Do you want me to take a picture of you?”

“No that’s okay!” the poor fool says obliviously, and wanders off into the crowd.

I realized very shortly thereafter how I could have said it better, but at the time, I was just a bumbling idiot.

The point is, that happens. It’s super embarrassing, but at the same time, you learn a ton. I will never again offer to do something for someone by using ~たい form. Mistakes happen and you learn from them, and after a while, you develop a thick skin that allows you to reflect on your mistakes without freaking out over them.

Being bold is key.

When I was on the plane, flying over here, I wrote that I wanted to try to be a little more daring with the things I tried. While I haven’t become a veritable thunderstorm of gumption, I have moved a little closer to that end of the spectrum, and in every way, it has paid off big time.

Every time I’ve decided to cut the second-guessing and take the plunge and do something, it’s been rewarding. I mentioned hiking Mount Hiei, which was one of those situations, but there are tons more. I joined a taiko group and have been practicing every week for months now, despite being worried that I’d be unable to do it for one reason or another. I’ve had conversations with Doshisha students while sitting around in the international students’ lounge. I’ve struck up a conversation with a guy who I had only briefly crossed paths with a month prior, and learned about a really cool instrument from him. Hell, I’ve acted as an interpreter between three Ghanaian drummers and a room of middle-aged Japanese ladies.

Even when my encounters haven’t gone as well as hoped, I’ve made so many stories in the last semester because I’ve been willing to take the plunge and try things. For that reason, I’d suggest to any student going to study abroad (either on AKP or elsewhere)–push yourself. You may, like me, tend to be more reclusive at home, but this isn’t home. You have the opportunity of a lifetime here, and the last thing you want to do is look back and wish you had more stories to tell. Poke your head out there and try everything–at least once, if not twice. No matter what happens, you’ll have at least one more story to tell than if you did nothing.

This applies to learning, too. I signed up to participate in the “日本語 challenge” (Japanese challenge) at the beginning of the semester. This challenge requires participants to speak only in Japanese in Japanese classrooms, in the AKP building, and on AKP field trips. Especially after a summer of no studying, I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I tried anyway. Certainly, many things have contributed to this, but I feel my spoken Japanese has greatly improved, and having to speak and think in Japanese every day for the 日本語 challenge definitely played a part.

The more you try, the more you’ll accomplish–and even if it doesn’t work out in your favor, you’ll get a great story out of it. The worst thing to do is to never take chances.

You don’t only learn from homework.

This is another of the ones that everyone has heard before, but I have to stress it because it’s so true. Even in terms of Japanese only, I learned veritable truckloads this semester, and only some of that was from the classroom.

I realized this on my first day living in my host family’s house. I spent the day lounging in front of the TV, watching cooking shows and travel shows and music shows. It was a deluge of words I couldn’t understand, but (no doubt aided by the Japanese subtitles), watching TV helped me practice listening to and parsing the language. It helped me pick up my reading because the subtitles displayed for such a short amount of time.

As long as it’s Japanese–Japanese signs, Japanese conversation, Japanese music, Japanese websites, heck, even setting your phone’s display language to Japanese–it will help you learn. Of course, it’s just as important to actually study the assignments given to you in class, so you can’t just sit and watch eight episodes of an anime and call it all the practice you’ll need. But you will invariably find, as I did, that the more you expose yourself to and practice the language, the faster you’ll learn.

When you try to function like that in Japanese, you may be surprised by how much you can understand or convey, which is another reason why it’s crucial. I just got back recently from a winter break trip to Tokyo, where, among other things, I met with my good friend Noriko, who was Whitman’s Japanese native speaker during my freshman year. When hanging out with Noriko, naturally, we chatted in Japanese. And boy, did we chat. We talked about political corruption. We talked about the semantic differences between Japanese words. In one particularly memorable example, we were standing on the top of a mountain watching the sun set over the sea, and as that ruby fireball dipped behind the mountains on the far side of the bay, Noriko mentioned that it was crazy that by watching the sun set like that, you could tell how fast the earth was turning.

If you had asked me before this trip to talk about any of those things, I would have laughed in your face. But exposure and practice showed me that, even if I can’t speak like a native, and even if I have to get creative with my explanations sometimes, I’m not as limited as I thought. And while I recognize that others might honestly find those things out of reach, I’m sure the premise holds true–you will learn so much outside of the classroom.

Trying to understand Japanese in terms of English is a trap.

I’m not sure I have a charming story to go this one, it’s just a realization I’ve come to over the last four months: if you build your understanding of Japanese on a framework of English “equivalents,” you will end up hurting your comprehension of the language in the long run.

Because Japanese and English are so vastly different linguistically, one-to-one translations of vocabulary and grammar are not nearly as common as they might be between, say, English and Spanish. But when learning, naturally, we start by putting the Japanese we learn in terms of English equivalencies. 食べる means “to eat,” we learn. 思う is “to think”. While you more or less have to start this way, it’s a really dangerous habit as you continue to learn, because Japanese is not English. Japanese has incredibly different grammar, sentence structure, and vocabulary, so the more you try to think of it in terms of English, the more limited you’ll be. I’ve seen too many of my friends get caught up trying to form Japanese sentences by taking how they would say it in English and directly translating it.

This is why immersion is so crucial to language learning–it’s, in my opinion, the best way to break this habit if you actually pay attention. If you want to understand Japanese as its own language, you have to get a feel for how words are used, how sentences are made, how sounds are pronounced, by native speakers. For instance, you may learn that the word 思う means “think” in English, but if you pay attention to what your Japanese friends are saying, you’ll notice they never just say 「思っている」 to mean “I’m thinking.” That’s entirely correct, because 思う only refers to belief, emotion, or feeling, and there’s an entirely other word, 考える, that expresses the “to ponder” meaning of “to think”.

If you’re planning on studying abroad, or even just planning on continuing your study of a foreign language, it’s crucial that you start paying attention to the words and ideas that you only understand in terms of an English equivalent, and then practice them and listen for them until you have an English-independent understanding.

My host family is impossibly wonderful.

My host parents making takoyaki
My host parents making takoyaki (octopus dumplings) at the kitchen table.

According to my friends, this varies from house to house. Some people have had largely disinterested or incredibly busy host family experiences. Some people are still getting used to talking to their host parents. But the Aya family has been unbelievably spectacular to me, and I’m finding it’s impossible to thank them enough.

They make me delicious food every day. A few weeks ago, just ‘cause, we all made takoyaki together. Takoyaki, if you don’t know, is a food consisting of fried dough containing veggies and octopus (tako means octopus, whereas yaki essentially means cooked or fried). You can buy takoyaki at food stalls all over the city, but despite that fact, I hadn’t yet tried it. My host mom brought out the hot plate, prepared the ingredients, and called me down, and the three of us began the messy-yet-delicious process of cooking our own takoyaki. And that was just one meal. Every day, it’s great food lovingly prepared by my host mom.

What’s more, they treat me to delightful experiences. My host dad woke me up one day over fall break and took me out exploring. We wandered around farms where Japanese persimmons were being dried, each of us taking pictures like crazy. He took me to Shigaraki, a little town in the mountains known for its fine pottery and its sculptures of tanuki, where we visited a local potter and each threw a clay cup. We went up to a sculpture garden on top of a hill and took pictures as the sun set. Again, that’s just one example.

But that’s not all, either. They put up with my lousy Japanese. They encourage me when the workload is particularly tough. They make me laugh and give me a safe place to practice and learn Japanese, and every day they show me a little more of a Japanese way of life.

For me, one of the most important things in life is to have a stable, supportive home, whether that’s blood relatives, the friends you’re living with, or a host family in Japan. Being part of a “family” is huge. And because of that, my experience in Japan so far with the indescribably wonderful Aya family has been undoubtedly more significant, meaningful, and lasting than staying with any other host family could have been.

Plus, all the other AKPers I talk to who’ve stayed with the Ayas agree: we clearly have the best host family.

Time management is important here.

There are far more demands on my time here than back in Walla Walla.

For starters, there’s transportation time. At Whitman, I literally lived two minutes away from class, and that’s if I was dragging my feet. This meant that I could go home and swap out my backpack’s contents after every class, and that when my last class finished, I could immediately get a start on my homework. (Could. Not saying I did.)

Here in Japan? My commute takes about 45 minutes each way, counting both time spent on the train and time spent walking to and from stations. That’s an hour and a half of entirely non-productive time each day. That may not seem like so much, but believe me, it adds up.

Then there’s workload. I take a lot of time to do Japanese homework. I’m no good at reading kanji, so sometimes, simply understanding the questions on homework is as difficult as actually answering them. I’m not very well able to breeze through Japanese homework, especially when it requires as much thinking and demonstration of comprehension as mine did last semester. (It’s the difference between “put the following verbs in the appropriate forms”, and answering open-ended questions regarding the content of a Japanese reading.) Plus, alongside Japanese homework, I have two other elective courses that I have to prepare for. The professors of those courses tended to be fairly understanding, and didn’t assign too much work, but it was still more items on the to-do list.

And don’t forget clubs and circles. I’m part of Uzu, the Uji taiko group, as well as EWS, a language exchange club at Doshisha, and each of those take up about one evening per week.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. All of these things are coming together to help me learn about Japan and Japanese in ways I could never do at home, and I’m having the time of my life. But it also means that I simply have very little time to spare here, and wisely spending the time I do have is essential. It’s why I haven’t been able to blog as much as I would have liked. I’ve been going out and doing really cool things, and I have tons of stories to share, but the act of typing them up simply would have taken time that I didn’t have.

People’s experiences vary, of course, but according to what I’ve encountered, if you’re going to be studying over here, you had better be ready to use your time efficiently. If you don’t know how, don’t worry–you’ll learn pretty quickly.

It’s easy to take it all for granted.

Golden sun in the hills outside Kyoto
The sun sets in the hills outside Uji, Japan.

I’m living in Japan.

No, not just that. I’m living in Japan and coping. I’m functional in Japan. I know how to order food. I know how to ask if a train is going to the stop I want. I’m learning the streets of Kyoto. I’ve visited temples and shrines twice as old as the United States. I’ve struck up a conversation with a Japanese guy I had only crossed paths with once before. I’ve seen the sun set on the autumn trees in the mountains outside of Kyoto.

It’s easy–perilously so–to forget that what I’m doing isn’t normal. This isn’t a typical course of events. Most American college students don’t even visit Japan, let alone live here for a year. And here I am, surviving as a moderately-functional student.

I think it’s important to remember that every once in a while. Because I’ve been here for months, the novelty and sheer unbelievability of what I’m doing has more or less faded. Yeah, this is my life. This is what I do every day, so it’s normal, right? Taking a moment every so often to try to see it from an outsider’s perspective gives me a real appreciation for the depth–and sometimes absurdity–of my experience.

Is there more? Undoubtedly, but let’s leave it there for now. The new year has begun–I’m looking forward to seeing what my second semester in Japan will bring.