Updates from a Bridging Scholar

September 3, 2014 

Visiting the first Friendship Blossoms planting site in Yoyogi Park with some friends

Visiting the first Friendship Blossoms planting site in Yoyogi Park with some friends

Hi! Just as a quick introduction, my name is Isabel, and I’m a current Bridging Scholar studying at the Keio University Japanese Language Program. Back in the US, I attend the College of William & Mary, where I’m majoring in Asian & Middle Eastern Studies, with a concentration in East Asian Studies. While I’m in Japan, I’m taking courses on Japanese language and culture at Keio, and I’m also conducting research for my graduation thesis when I return home. This past winter, I interned at the US-Japan Bridging Foundation, where I helped raise social media awareness for the Bridging Scholarship, and contributed to the Friendship Blossoms initiative’s Planting Site Map.

One of the biggest reasons I really enjoyed getting to intern for the USJBF was that the work I got to do often felt like I was helping students just like myself, who are passionate about studying Japan and strengthening US-Japanese relations, but who need more financial support in order to access some really valuable opportunities, like studying abroad in Japan. Additionally, between the experience and expertise of everyone in the organization, and the research I did for much of the work, my internship often felt like a sort of high-level orientation in Japanese culture, citizen diplomacy, and the nuts and bolts of conducting US foreign policy.

I was also able to get a lot of advice before I arrived in Japan. Some of it seemed tiny and detail-oriented (bring at least one more pair of comfy shoes than you think you need), and some of it was broader (try not to stay within the foreign students’ community exclusively). If I had to distill the advice I was given, and the advice I would give, I think it would ultimately boil down to this:

  1. Keep yourself open-minded. You’ve come to a foreign country, so there’s a necessary period of adjusting to what life can be like. At the same time, don’t immediately demonize the institutions and ways of life that are new to you. It’s alright to know your own preferences, but you risk losing wonderful experiences if that’s all you allow yourself to do.
  2. As a Bridging Scholarship alumni said: “Don’t sit at the gaijin table.” This advice feels easy until you get to the cafeteria and every table is full except for the other new exchange students. If you sit with your fellow foreigners at lunch, try to join a circle or a club, and get out of the bubble!
  3. Try not to let yourself get bored! A friend of mine came to Japan with a multi-page list of things to see and do, divided by prefecture and ward, and she has continuously updated it throughout the past few months. I have been using websites like Time Out Tokyo and Broke Tourist to find affordable options for things to do, even if it’s just finding a nice park to sit in or a tiny, delicious ramen joint near my school. Whatever method works for you is the best way to keep your own momentum.
  4. I was not kidding about the shoes. Many foreigners struggle to find or replace shoes in Japan, and there’s a lot more walking, even within subway stations, than most Americans are used to.
  5. Try to be aware of your personal needs (for socializing, for living spaces, etc.) before and during your time there. You want to break out of your shell, but listen to yourself and accommodate for your own needs.

Some of this advice is culled from friends and acquaintances who managed to do things I wish I could. Just keep in mind that you need to know your own needs, but you came to Japan to be in Japan. Your mileage may vary, and in the mean time, 頑張って!