Kayla Salant, on the Student Exchange Program at Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi (Milan, Italy), shares her two week break time travels with some advice and tips of traveling, as well as what she has learned from traveling abroad.
As I am beginning the second half of my semester abroad, there are many things I have learned about taking advantage of every second you have while abroad.
Recently I had a two-week spring break. This is unheard of in the states, but seemed normal to most students here in Italy. When my friends and I realized this at the beginning of the semester, we knew we had to take full advantage of this time off to cross many cities off our lists.
After hours of searching on Google Flights, Sky Scanner, and Go Euro we had the perfect two weeks planned to the minute. It was time to begin our break, everyone packed in just a carry on and a backpack, it was going to be the most adventurous two weeks of our lives.
From London to Amsterdam, Brussels to Paris, Prague to Budapest, we had a packed full two weeks. I will say, you learn a lot, not only about the cities but certainly about yourself when traveling for that long, hostel to hostel. You learn that alone time is necessary, that sleep is important, and time flies.
Some things I’ve learned
It is important to read about the history of cities before going. We have many different cultures in the U.S. alone, but imagine traveling from country to country, you’ll be in for a bit of a shock. It is easy to forget what languages they speak as you are traveling, so it is crucial to look up and remember basic greetings and phrases before you arrive.
Some things I wouldn’t change
Always travel with people you get along with. Take the time to meet locals. Go on free walking tours. Wake up early, and get lost in a city. Take tons of photos, but remember to be present.
Some things I won’t forget
The connections you’ll make. The breath-taking views. The unforgettable food. And certainly, the times you almost miss your bus, or getting stuck in the rain for hours in a line.
It is important to take time for yourself, and get rest. Two weeks of straight travel was not easy mentally or physically, but if I had the opportunity to do it all over again, I would!
Take a peek at Christine Dawson’ home stay experience in Oita, Japan! From trying on a traditional Japanese dress, to experiencing a traditional home and bath, and walking around the beautiful scenery of the town, she shares some of her culture shock moments, funny interactions, and heartwarming memories she made in Japan.
If I’m being honest, the home stay was the part I was both most, and least looking forward to. With a hearing issue that has always made even English difficult to understand at times and a shy personality, staying at a stranger’s house was going to be a challenge regardless of the situation. Add in a language barrier, a gulf of cultural divides and no data or wifi to do any research meant I felt like I was walking into a maelstrom of the unknown.
It started off rough, trying to mime out what it meant to keep kosher to a couple with very possibly no previous exposure to the Jewish religion, and Frank was quickly flagged down to translate while I felt horrible about the added imposition on these people who were already opening their home to me. Next, a misheard introduction led to calling my host mother -kun, which I knew was a Japanese honorific but had no idea what it meant, so it made no sense to me. The host mother, however, giggled and looked at her husband while shaking her head, letting me know that was, in fact, not what I was to call her. (A later google search has revealed she was most likely telling us to call her Ka, and that -kun is akin to a pet name for young boys.)
There would be three of us staying with the couple (Christine, Lily, and Amber), and the car ride home was filled with all of us flipping through the “useful expressions” booklet that they gave us, and apparently our host families, since our host mother was searching through hers as well. After realizing the phrases were not actually universally useful. Eventually we all gave up and accepted the silence, and I crocheted in the back seat to take my mind off of how awkward I felt and how worried I was for the next twelve hours.
When we got to their house, they showed us in and introduced us to the third resident of the house, the host father’s 93 year-old mother. She waved at us from her seat where she watched a show on the television with a blanket over her legs. Continuing on, they took us up to the room we’d be sleeping in, a space with a low table, a kotatsu, and sliding paper doors, but also outlets and lights. The combination shouldn’t have been, but was, surprising. I don’t know which of these things I thought the house would lack, but the combination of traditional and modern harkened back to the presentation given on the continuity of Japanese culture.
After setting down our things, we joined our host mother in a separate building to try on yukata (summer version kimono, the Japanese traditional dress). She gestured for us to take off our sweaters, and this is where I made yet another embarrassing mistake. Lily and Amber were both wearing two layers. I, however, had gotten used to the winter weather in Columbus so the mild temperature was comfortable to me and I’d only worn a top. So when we were told to take things off, I assumed she meant all of us were overly dressed for the occasion and when she turned around to ready the garments, I took my shirt off.
Her surprise when she turned around let me know that we would, in fact, be wearing our shirts under the yukata, and I quickly pulled my shirt back on while muttering my apologies.
Beyond being amused, it didn’t seem to phase her, and she quickly went to work wrapping us in the intricate ties and strands that exist to keep the yukata both closed and neatly decorated. Once we were all dressed, we asked if they’d be willing to take a picture for us, and our host dad walking in with his large camera strung around his neck and heading out to the deck to move things around to give us an area let us know that they’d already planned on it.
The view from their patio made for an amazing backdrop, with green hills and even a cherry tree poking in from beside their house. For a girl who grew up in a college neighborhood and whose view from her bedroom window was currently another building, the whole experience was astounding.
After pictures, we went into the next room for dinner. Still wearing the yukata made turning down the offered forks to attempt the chopsticks a challenge, but our host grandmother offered us some tips by showing us how she did it and so I made it through without dropping anything staining on myself. Lily had a mishap with a tomato resulted in our host mother cutting every tomato she served to us before putting it on the table for the rest of the stay, but otherwise we survived.
I did, however, marvel once again at how small of a part beverages seem to play in the Japanese meal. Throughout our entire trip, cups were tiny (4-6 oz) and water fountains were non-existent. At U.S. restaurants, normally drinks were offered in fountain form, and mostly soda. Our host mother pulled out a large jug of water for us, for which I was thankful and drank many glasses of, but they poured themselves a very small measure of a milky-white drink instead. Only the host grandmother got a second serving, also a very small amount. For someone who tends to carry around a 32 oz water bottle everywhere (and also requires far more than 6 oz of coffee in the morning), this may be one of the larger culture shocks that I endured through the trip, so I noted through the meal how they very rarely grabbed their glass to take a sip.
Finally, after we all had eaten our fill, we changed back into our clothes and our hosts flipped through the book to find the phrase that most closely matched what they were trying to say. “Take a bath, please.”
The hotel bathrooms had been fairly westernized, but the host family’s house much less so. There was a room for the toilet, with two side-by-side sinks outside in the hallway next to it. On the other side of the house, however, was the shower room. For someone who viewed showering as mainly a functional activity with the added benefit of being relaxing, the experience was a bit overwhelming. The accordion door led to an area with towels and shelves, where I left my glasses and clothes, and had yet another door leading to the shower itself. A giant bathtub took up one half of the room, with the rest being tile and a bench. It took me a long while to realize that the drain on the floor of the non-tub half essentially made the entire room the shower, where you hosed off before getting into the bath.
In hindsight I wish I had taken the time to enjoy the experience more, but the novelty got to me, so instead I washed quickly and returned to our bedroom.
After, we went back to the second building and sat at the dinner table to make dolls. From what we were able to gather from context, the dolls represented the Imperial couple, and we adorned them in swatches of beautiful, decorative fabric and ribbons as our host mother helped us with our lackluster sewing – and in my case, matching – skills. We laughed along with our host mother as she exclaimed over our messy stitches and disastrous attempts to glue neatly, but by the end all three of us had adorable doll sets and she presented us with flower pins that she had made for us, along with other crafted presents. We thanked her and I attempted to explain that I enjoyed crafts as well, but my skills lay more on the crocheting end over sewing.
Finally, after we finished, it was time for bed and they told us to meet for breakfast at 7:30 am. The futons were comfortable, though the rice-filled pillows were different enough that after trying it for a while, I ultimately ended up sleeping without it.
When we woke up, we quickly washed up and dressed for breakfast, which featured the most delicious Asian pears I’ve ever had. Once again, the spread was extensive and varied, with pancakes and fish and vegetables. Not the breakfast I was used to, but still very good.
After breakfast, our host dad drove us to a nearby building which turned out to be where he worked part-time. He showed us the display of dolls, and we looked around at the decorations, including some of his own framed photographs. His coworker seemed extremely excited to meet us, and despite the language barrier she expressed her happiness to meet us clearly.
After saying our goodbyes, we went on a walk to his fishing spot near a small temple, and we all took pictures of the beautiful locations he showed us. Lily had her camera, a similar model to his, so he took the time to instruct her on how to take a photograph of the cherry blossoms against the blue sky, and showed Amber some other lovely flowers as we went.
We went back to the car, still parked at his work, and the patients all gathered to get pictures of us, including one older lady with a walker who rushed her aide to make sure she got into the group shot as we all smiled for the camera and laughed along with their obvious happiness. It made me smile sadly, remembering how excited my mom would get when visitors came by her nursing home, and I was glad for the opportunity to give back even a little to my host father who had dedicated so much of his time and energy for us.
After our walk, he quickly raced back into the house to print the photos for us as his gift, and before we went back to the meeting spot to rejoin the group as a whole, we asked them to stand in front of their house, so that we could get pictures of them both. They seemed embarrassed but obliged, and we thanked them for everything they’d done for us as we all loaded up into the car to leave.
Austin and Chandler share their home stay experience closer to the seaside of Oita. They got to experience the Japanese hospitality and humbleness, a 5-start meal made by the host families, as well as a great ocean view on their walks around town.
On the island of Kyushu, visiting the relaxed, peaceful countryside of Saiki City, we were given the amazing opportunity to stay in the homes of the members of the Green Tourism volunteers. Our home stay group consisted on Austin, Chandler, Dennis, Ahmed, and Evan. An hour away from the urban centers of Oita, and a scenic drive through mountains and forests, Saiki felt like another world. The fields of crops were neatly aligned and houses adorned with beautiful roofs. It was the pure ideal of the Japanese countryside.
At first the idea of staying with someone who knew no English was a little worrisome. Most people in the areas of Japan that we had been to up to this point had spoken a decent amount of English and could understand our broken attempts at Japanese. The area of Saiki was less used to this. We arrived to a greeting that was enough to put our hearts at ease. The town had put up a big banner to welcome us, and soon we met Hadaka-San.
Our home stay family only spoke Japanese, but fortunately, Dennis (who was in our group) speaks Japanese, so he was able to translate for us. Despite this language barrier, this experience taught us about key cultural differences. While our home stay family were a quiet couple, their hospitality for us was like none I have ever experienced before. They opened their home to us, fed us with delicious food and gave us a look into their lives. Sitting around the table with Hadaka-san late at night having coffee and enjoying each others’ company was a simple pleasure that reminded me how much of a treasure it is to share time with other people.
This home stay experience gave us a clearer understanding of the differences between urban and rural Japan. Luckily on this trip, we were fortunate enough to go sightseeing in the urban area of Tokyo and the more rural, scenic area of Oita. Tokyo was tremendous in size and appeared to be a financial hub similar to New York City, although much cleaner and less hectic. Conversely, Oita was very mountainous throughout, but Hadaka-san, being a fisherman, lived right on the coast. The view on the walk we took in the morning still feels too beautiful to have been real, but the scenery stays with us.
Further, many of the vegetables and fish which we ate were raised and caught by our host family personally; this is significantly different than the typical American experience of going to a grocery store for raw materials to cook. Our host family provided a 5-star restaurant-quality dinner and breakfast for all five of us, which we appreciated thoroughly.
This was a big part of what we found to be the humility of the Japanese people. As can be seen by certain items in the below image which I took of the interior of their home, our host father was a proud carpenter, fisherman, and musician. However, he was too humble to play his instruments or boast about his fascinating work to us, even when prompted.
Before long we had to say our goodbyes. Despite a language barrier and only staying one night, leaving was very hard. This trip to Japan has taught me to value the people I meet and keep the lessons I learn with them with me as I live my life. I hope to pay forward the warm welcome I was extended.
On the forth day on the Kakehashi Project, the group is confronted with some difficult goodbyes with their host families as they get ready to depart from Oita, Japan. They also finished and practiced their final preparation on the action plan presentation they will give to the Foreign Ministry of the Japan.
On day four, all of the students and home stay families regrouped at the Saiki City Hall. We went up to a large conference room inside and sat down for a talk from the mayor. Most of the host families sat in the back of the room, but Shouko (Joe’s home stay mother – read his blog post to hear more about it!) sat up towards the front next to Miho, the staff from Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE), who was translating; after the mayor was done speaking, they handed the microphone to Shouko who talked about how much she, Mitsuo, and Soto looked forward to us visiting, and how much they enjoyed hosting us. After Shouko was done speaking, we cleared the chairs from the room to do our group presentations; Cindy led the Ohio State group in singing Carmen Ohio, and the Kentucky group had a few people swing dance and a 4th-year PhD student play a guitar riff.
After the presentations, we left city hall for lunch. Each group sat with their host family, which was nice because they were able to guide us through what each food item was and how to eat it.
After we were done, we went outside to say our final goodbyes. Even though we were going to be back with Miho, we didn’t want to leave our host families. There are several accounts of what happened next, but Kevin would say that it was extremely dusty outside of the restaurant and he was thus ‘sweating profusely’ from his eyes. We got back on the bus and waved goodbye.
During our orientation sessions with Kozue, the program coordinator, we learned two phrases for departing: sayonara, essentially meaning ‘goodbye’ with the connotation that you will not be returning, and ittekimasu, which directly translates as ‘I will go and I will come back.’ This seemed too nuanced for us to try to remember a month before the trip, but it became extremely important as we started having to say our goodbyes. Leaving our homestay families was our first go-around with saying goodbye to some of the people we bonded with during the trip, and it was much harder than we had expected; these people had invited us into their homes and treated us like family. They showed us a true kindness that we couldn’t repay, and we really appreciated it, which really catalyzed the bonds developed during the homestays. In the back of our heads, we knew that we were getting into the back-half of the trip, and in a few short days, we would have to say goodbye to Miho and the country of Japan. Miho kept reminding us not to say ‘goodbye’ to anyone, but ‘see you later.’
We went back to the building where the Japanese External Trade Organization (JETRO) representative spoke to us to work on our dissemination plans; prior to the trip, we had been split into ‘social media team,’ ‘video team,’ ‘presentation team,’ and ‘blog team’. Each group had been working on different dissemination methods throughout the trip; social media team had been posting on the Fisher OGB Instagram account, video team had been taking short videos throughout the trip and is planning to edit them into a larger string of videos, blog team had been writing what happened on the trip to be posted in blog form after the trip, and presentation team had to give a presentation in the closing meeting with Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). This time gave us an opportunity to regroup and evaluate how we were doing. After quick discussions, the social media team, video team, and blog team took some time to go outside and enjoy the sunny day, as we had spent most of our time either inside buildings or on the bus. Meanwhile, Cindy whipped the presentation team into shape and got the ball rolling on a rough draft of the PowerPoint they would be showing the next day.
We left for our hotel to get changed, and then went out to dinner at Stamina Taro, which could best be described as the Japanese equivalent of Golden Corral. Another ‘cook your own meal’ restaurant, raw meat and uncooked vegetables were set up in a buffet, and you cooked your food at a grill at your table. It was extremely tough to correctly time out how long each item should cook for, so most of the meat ended up very overcooked. There was also sushi and desserts available, so after we tried and failed to enjoy the meat and vegetables, we deferred to the shrimp sushi and ice cream (separately but interestingly, we have been suspecting that Miho only likes dessert. It has become a habit for us to ask Miho if she will eat when we go into a restaurant, to which she normally responds “ehhhh, I’m not really hungry, but maybe there’ll be ice cream”). Most of us thought this was most ‘average’ meal of the trip, but Kelly said it was the most enjoyable.
We returned to the hotel so that the presentation team could continue working, while the rest of the group started to decompress in their rooms. About an hour later, we all met in the lobby of the hotel so that the presentation team could go through a trial run. Casey wasn’t feeling well, but she was very determined to give a great presentation. Afterwards, a few people gave some very fiery feedback comments to the presenters, effectively ending the meeting and the night.
Want to learn some of Singapore English – Singlish? Megan Reardon gives you a quick lesson on how to speak Singlish, which she learned while studying at Singapore Management University on the Student Exchange Program!
Singapore has four national languages – English, Malay, Tamil, and Mandarin. While “English” is the most widely spoken language, it is initially a very difficult transition for most foreigners. Singaporeans call their dialect of English “Singlish” or colloquial Singaporean English, as it is a mixture of all four national languages and other dialects around. By the end of my exchange program, I was speaking Singlish like it was a foreign language. At first, my friends and I would speak in Singlish terms to show how well we knew Singapore, but it quickly morphed into us unknowingly adding the phrases into our sentences.
There is a lack of officially printed Singlish dictionaries or pamphlets. Since Singlish is commonly regarded as having low prestige, the government and some Singaporeans highly discourage using Singlish. The government has created the “Speak Good English Movement” to emphasize the importance of speaking traditional English. Still, as it becomes more accepted as a cornerstone of Singapore’s culture, Singaporeans use Singlish in casual conversations with friends and family.
Singlish is colorful, expressive, and demonstrates the history and multiculturalism of Singapore. Singapore was established as a British colony in 1824, and remained so until 1942 when it was occupied by the Japanese Empire during World War II. When the war ended, Singapore reverted to British control, but quickly merged with Malaysia from 1963-1965. Singapore became an independent republic in 1965. Given Singapore’s rich history of cultural blends, Singlish is a language that brings diverse ethnicities together.
My favorite Singlish phrases are below:
This is easily my favorite Singlish phrase. It’s added to the end of sentences as an exclamation, or to add emphasis to a sentence. It can be used in questions, exclamations, or statement sentences. Examples of sentences lah can be used in are, “The weather is so nice today lah!”, “Will you pass the pepper lah?”, and my personal favorite, “Ok, lah!” By the end of my time in Singapore, I would answer almost every question with an, “Ok, lah!”
Singapore’s education system has a reputation for being highly competitive and overly focused on grades. Bred out of this competition is a highly individualistic culture. This individualism continues to manifest in many of the company cultures around Singapore. Kiasu is a word that is essentially the fear of losing out to other people. It is getting a child ahead so they won’t be behind their peers, overly prepping for group presentations, or being competitive to the point of doing anything to win. One example of a sentence using kiasu would be, “She is so kiasu that she bought her school books early so she could study over summer.”
Typically, people in the U.S. use affirmative words like “sure” or “sounds good”, but Singaporeans largely use one word as an affirmation more than any other word – can. It can also be asked as a question, as in “Can I?” Asking for favors usually ends in a, “Can can!” Working on a group project, people would answer questions with a simple, “can.”
The Kakehashi Project group moves on to their second day in Japan! This time in Oita, south west of Japan. There they were impressed by an automotive company, immersed in the culture through a tea ceremony and performance, and devoured the wonderful food the country offeres. At the end of the day, they learned the Japanese spirit of “ichi-go, ichi-e”, cherishing every encounter in our lives.
Day two after arriving in Tokyo, Japan, we were already in a new city on a new island. We flew to the southern island of Kyushu. Known for its hot springs and mountains, it was a whole new world compared to busy Tokyo. We got the chance to tour the facilities of a domestic car manufacturer, Daihatsu, and see what their processes were like.
Daihatsu takes great pride in making small, comfortable cars for Japan, a country where space and the ability to drive come at a premium. Additionally, they have some of the most eco-friendly automobile production plants in the country, which is a major point of pride for them. It offered a lot of perspective in regards to how to responsibly manufacturer goods.
The tour consisted of a presentation on the history of the company and their different business lines. Daihatsu is a 100% subsidiary of Toyota, and competes in three main automobile markets: small passenger cars, compact pickup trucks, and special purpose vehicles. We saw very few Toyotas on the road during our time in Japan, but we saw a considerable amount of Dsihatsu cars, so we concluded that Diahatsu was Toyota’s method of capturing the Japanese car market, which would be considered niche given the tastes and preferences towards compact vehicles.
After the presentation, we walked through one of their plants and observed work being done at various points on the assembly line. What we found to be very unique is that they produced several types of vehicles on the same assembly line; we watched as a seemingly random order of vehicles came through, with cars, trucks, and other vehicles mixed in with each other. Another thing that stood out to us was the positive energy or ‘vibe’ in the factory. The workers all seemed to be enthusiastic as they performed their jobs, and the factory was very well lit on the inside, which we thought to be completely different from typical US factories. Dr. Prud’homme was thoroughly impressed with the process efficiency (very candidly, it was the most excited any of us have ever seen her).
At the conclusion of the tour, we boarded our bus, and our contact from Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE) told us that it is common practice in Japanese culture to wave at your guests as they depart until they can no longer see you. Sure enough, we watched our tour guides wave at our bus until we were well down the road and out of view.
In the afternoon, we visited a Japanese hot spring. Kozue, our program coordinator, had talked extensively in her orientation sessions about sentos (public baths) and onsens (hot springs); the general concept is to bathe publicly with other members of the same sex. Being college students, the vast majority of us are extremely body conscious, so the thought of public bathing prompted us to work furiously in the RPAC before the trip to shed some unwanted weight. Luckily, the hot spring we visited was just for dipping your feet in. Before taking the dip into the steaming water, we walked around the grounds at the facility, which was absolutely stunning. This was our first real chance to take in the scenery in Oita, so we were blown away by the beauty within the landscape.
The spring did have a strong smell of sulfur, which Judson found tough but bearable. We then all took a seat and put our feet in the water. It was very refreshing, and very hot. The onsen had a very calming effect, which provided us a nice break after a few days of hectic travel. Kozue had told us ahead of time that within the Japanese culture, bathing is used as a time of tranquility and reflection. Whether using a bath in a home, a sento, or an onsen, a large part of the experience involved sitting in water and being still. From our experience in the onsen, we were definitely able to get a glimpse into the soothing effects of this practice.
We headed back into the city for a tea ceremony and cultural presentation. The tea ceremony consisted of drinking tea in a traditional tatami room in a ceremony conducted by a tea master and her assistants. Miho translated for the tea master as she talked about the spiritual aspect of tea in Japanese culture. She taught us the phrase Ichi-go Ichi-e, which means “once-in-a-lifetime” (literally, “one time, one meeting”) The meaning of this phrase is to enjoy your time spent with others and to really embrace the moment you share, and that in life, we must cherish every encounter, and that even one meeting with someone is priceless.
After we finished drinking the tea, we were allowed to ask the tea master questions about the ceremony and her profession. Someone asked her what made her become a tea master and how long she had been a tea master for. As she responded in Japanese, Dennis and Kevin (both Japanese language learners) gasped and tried to hide wide smiles, so the rest of the group knew something good was coming; she had started training to become a tea master in her twenties, and she was now 84 years old. She didn’t look older than 60, so we were all shocked. Lewis, who is speculated to be over 6’3”, was determined to get a picture with the tea master, who was well under 4’0”.
We moved down the hall of the building we were to a small presentation room, where we enjoyed a traditional Japanese music and dance presentation. Before each song or dance, Miho would explain the cultural significance. We had a ‘laugh out loud’ moment when Miho explained what one of the dances was about and followed it up by saying “the dance doesn’t make much sense.”
From there, we split into two groups, with one group going to a seafood and vegetable buffet, and the other going to shabu shabu. Shabu shabu is a style of eating where pots of oil and soy sauce boil in the middle of the table and beef, pork, chicken, tofu, and vegetables are dropped in, cooked, and eaten. All of the Ohio State members sat together except for Ahmed, who squeezed in with some Kentucky PhD students and learned about their journeys through life. The buffet group reported it as being enjoyable, but the shabu shabu group had a great time being able to cook together and try new foods.
We returned back to the hotel at around 6:45 pm, so we had a good amount of time to ourselves that night. The majority of the group walked down the street to go shopping in a store called Trial, which is roughly comparable to a Walmart. While shopping, we found Miho, who had the same idea as us; she showed the group what the best items were to buy. From there, one group led by Erica went out looking for something to do, but returned unsuccessful. Another group gathered in one of the hotel rooms to talk and watch TV; a program about Canada was on, and even though we had only been in Japan for a couple days, it seemed extremely odd when the screen showed cars driving on the right side of the road.
The theme for Tuesday afternoon was definitely “Ichi-go, ichi-e”, as this opportunity has already been once in a lifetime and this phrase captures that. It is true that in life we never know what truly lies in the next day. That’s certainly true on this trip, but in living out ichi-go, ichi-e,the importance of cherishing every encounter in our lives is something that we carry with us from now on (certainly for the rest of our time in Japan).
As we close out another day in Japan, we wish you a good night, oyasuminasai.
Cayhil Grubbs explains the process of adjusting to a new culture while he is abroad in Tokyo, Japan on the Student Exchange Program to Rikkyo University. “I knew how to deal with this feeling – laugh”
When I first landed in Japan, I didn’t truly feel like I had left the U.S. There was English under each kanji character on every airport sign, every staff member greeted me in English, and there were foreigners everywhere. I didn’t truly process where I was until I went to the supermarket a few hours later to look for things like hand soap and paper towels. At first everything felt normal. The supermarket’s layout was similar, I could here American pop music playing through the loud-speakers, and I even heard the Migos’ song “T-Shirt” playing a few minutes later.
The soap section changed everything. Everything was in Japanese. I couldn’t tell the difference between hand soap, body soap, and shampoo. Trying to pick which soap brand I wanted was humbling. It marked the first time I felt helpless in Japan, but I didn’t mind because I knew how to deal with this feeling – laugh, pull out Google Translate, and learn more Japanese. These are the basic survival tools of living in any foreign country for the non-fluent nomad/exchange student.
One thing I’ve quickly adjusted to is the dorm and surrounding area I live in. Like Ohio State, Rikkyo University has more than one campus. The main campus is in Ikebukuro, Tokyo and the second campus is in Niiza, Saitama. Unlike Ohio State, Rikkyo’s dorms aren’t on campus. I live in the dorm right outside of Asakadai Station, called RUID Asakadai. The many restaurants and stores in and surrounding the station can be very lively during the day, but the area gets nice and quiet at night. There’s a certain sense of serenity in the air, a calmness, peace. I think this aspect of Japan is overlooked. The calmness is unmatched in the world.
Since I have Japanese class at 9 o’clock every day, I have to take the train during rush hour. Any train I get on before 8:30am is packed. The train ride to school is extremely uncomfortable, not because of how you get body slammed with the collective force of nine sumo wrestlers every time the train car rocks back and forth, or that at each stop five people try to squeeze their way in for every person that gets off, or even the fact that it’s a 23-minute ride. What makes it uncomfortable is the strange pose I inevitably end up in. It’s like playing twister, but all of your color’s spots that are close to you are gone, you only get one spin the entire game, and there’s no room to fall.
Having lived in Japan for nearly a month, I’ve noticed a few cultural things that are different. The one thing here that has stood out the most to me is using a public bathroom. Not all public bathrooms have soap and there’s nothing to dry your hands with. Paper towels only exist in grocery stores and the rarer than unicorn hand dryers are weaker than Derrick Rose’s knees. Lastly, anime, video games, media, and sushi are not representative of real life. Americans don’t eat hamburgers for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s better to not come to Japan with expectations, especially not ridiculous ones. Allow yourself to learn through experience. Let yourself be surprised.
Will Towers shared some of his mistakes and surprise points while starting his life in Copenhagen, Denmark on the Student Exchange Program attending Copenhagen Business School.
The land of vikings and legos is probably not as difficult to acclimate to as one may think. Although there’s very few signs in English, the population speaks it with fair ease. I’ve picked up on a few common phrases, the most used being what sounds like “tak fa day-a”, meaning “thank you for the day”, a way to say goodbye to someone you just spent quality time with. Other than that, speaking Danish would only benefit me in such specific circumstances like grocery shopping and reading my mails. The former is less daunting, as I’ve come to realize the groceries we buy often describe themselves in many ways on top of their names. The packaging, coloring and buzz words are similar to those in America. Also, it’s pretty easy to tell that “organisk” means “organic”, although some are less easy, like an “orange” being “appelsiner”. In this case, common sense goes a long way. Mail is slightly less obvious – I got a letter from the post office that I originally thought was a slip telling me I was in trouble for walking in a crosswalk illegally. Classic mix-up.
The crosswalk hasn’t been the only mistake I’ve made since being in Denmark. The metro system is a highly efficient one and its made my time here much easier to navigate. At first, however, I assumed it to be free as there were no tollbooths, no collect points at the entrances for money: simply a waist-high large blue circle that people seemed to press when entering the stations. In my mind this was a tracking system, so that those who ran the operation had a general idea of the traffic being accounted for. It took a not-so-friendly metro ticket patrol officer to inform me that these blue dots were where people scanned their metro cards, a small credit card solely used for boarding the metro. She let me off with a warning entirely based on the American charm I let off on her.
Not being ticketed by that metro officer was a blessing. The average cost of a metro ride is about $1.50 and the cost of the ticket for not paying is $125. When you put it like that I have no problem paying the blue circle. That extra $120 I saved will go a long way! But not too long – alas, Copenhagen has what is best described as a flat-tax. Everything, yes everything, is subject to what has been told to me is a 25% tax. Coffee and beer are the two commodities this strikes me the most in. An average beer will be upwards of 8$ and a cappuccino could run you the same. When it comes to this, I’ve learned I must adjust (obviously) my expectations. These things are meant to be enjoyed, not just consumed. The act of going out for a beer with friends actually becomes more revered in a strange way when you know a beverage this much. It’s not ideal, but it’s good in it’s own way.
One week into my courses and the differences are greatly welcomed. The classes here are much differently structured than those at Ohio State. My shortest class is 100 minutes long – however, each class will break for 10-15 minutes every 45 minutes or so which makes learning more digestible. I actually enjoy this structure more than jumping from brief class to brief class, as it allows me to focus-in on one subject at a time. The grading is also different. All of my courses have a final paper at the end, which is much more welcomed than the mass-scantron paranoia that I’ve grown accustomed to in Columbus. I’ve even gotten to have 1-on-1 time with professors during class! Quite a few firsts; if it weren’t illegal and impractical I’d be tempted to extend my stay.
Some things I’m looking forward to:
The weather has been constantly bleak and hovering around 30 degrees (F). According to every local I’ve gotten to know, Denmark’s springtime transformation more than makes up for the dreadful weather of the winter
Come April 1st, half of my classes will be finished. That means a lot less time spent reading and in-class and a lot more time spent exploring Scandinavia
I’ve gotten close with a yoga studio owner I’ve even been working with. I have the feeling our relationship will evolve and he can be a mentor for myself in my journey to becoming an instructor.
Finally, I look forward to what I can’t envision now! The most rewarding aspects of my trip have been getting lost, meeting strangers by coincidence and finding the hidden beauty in not having a plan!
Jumping in to academics at Rikkyo University and Tokyo, Japan, Cayhil Grubbs shares the unique differences in taking classes in Japan on the Student Exchange Program.
Studying at Rikkyo University is very different than at Ohio State, especially as a business student. One of the big differences you’ll immediately notice is that unless it’s a Japanese language class, you’ll only have class once a week. Stacking your schedule with a ton of classes on one or two days so you can be free the rest of the week sounds nice, but each class is 90 minutes instead of 55. Multiple classes back to back can really take a toll on you, and the back of the class is too crowded.
An important difference between the actual business courses at Rikkyo and at Ohio State is the type of assignments your professors will assign. At Ohio State, we typically have quizzes, two or three midterms, a final, and maybe a case study or two. Midterms and finals tend to be tests, and if you have a group project, there are right and wrong answers to whatever questions you are tasked with answering. At Rikkyo, tests are few and far between as papers and group projects dominate midterms and finals. Papers rarely come with rubrics, and often times there’s no absolute final answer to the group project you are working on. It’s up to you to embrace the ambiguity as you can’t run away from it. If you struggle with things like this, talk frequently with your advisor and professors. Professors help you save money since they don’t require you to buy textbooks.
The last major difference in classes is that the semester starts and ends much later at Rikkyo University. This year classes started September 20th, and the semester won’t end until mid-February. The timing of the semester affects which classes you can take as some don’t allow students to leave early. Classes taught in English are offered at specific times, and if there are two classes you want to take but they’re at the same time, you’ll have to pick one. Even if you can leave early, you’ll probably still have assignments due long after you’re gone.
I recommend taking Japanese language courses because you’ll be living in Japan for the next four months and English and pointing will only get you so far. You should at least learn how to order food, ask where the bathroom is, ask for help, and ask someone if they speak English, plus learning a foreign language is fun! I had six semesters worth of Japanese under my belt before I came, and that was just enough to communicate the basics and really important things. Unless you place into an advanced class, you’ll have Japanese every day. There’s typically homework and quizzes every day, which is helpful for studying if you like to procrastinate. The Japanese program is excellent and truly builds your ability to speak and listen to Japanese from the ground up.
Read the observation Danny Rodgers shares as he spends his semester at Universidad Pontificia Comillas on the Student Exchange Program! He touches on the difference in the classroom, sports, to the daily life in Spain.
One of the coolest parts about living abroad is seeing how daily life works in another country. Some differences are minimal, whereas others are quite drastic. Over the past couple of months here in Madrid, I have diligently taken note of key differences and put together this blog featuring some of the more interesting differences between life back home and here in Madrid. With that, let’s dive in!
Although three days of my school week beginning at 8:00 am, the typical Spanish day starts later than in the US. This became apparent to me rather quickly as I was the only one in the neighborhood awake, walking in darkness to class at 7:30 in the morning; traffic doesn’t really pick up until about 9:00 in the morning when Madrid is commuting to work. Another major difference in regards to the mornings is what is served for breakfast. Here, breakfast consists of strong coffee and maybe a small pastry, usually served and eaten quickly at one of Madrid’s plentiful coffee bars. Given the later start to the day, the rest of the day’s meals also occur at different times. The lunch hour starts around 2:00pm and is the heaviest meal of the day. Many shops and businesses shut down during lunch and people head home to eat with family. The result is a sort of 2-part work day that ends later than the typical US workday. For example, the relocation service I used when searching for accommodation followed office hours of 10:00am-2:00pm and 3:00pm to 7:00pm. Wrapping up the day around 9:00 pm is dinner, a lighter meal in comparison to lunch. At a full 3-4 hours later than the typical US dinner hour, this late meal is arguably one of the biggest adjustments to make when living in Spain.
In regards to studying in Madrid, Ohio State and my university here could not be more different. Here at Comillas, all my classes are under the same roof. The classes are about 20 – 40 students in size and I have multiple classes with the same classmates. Compare this to Ohio State where a brisk 20 minute walk across campus in between classes is not uncommon and a first year economics lecture brings out a crowd that can rival a small concert venue. Here at Comillas, the structure of the classes differs significantly as well. For example, a typical final exam at Ohio State usually accounts for about 20 percent of the final grade whereas here, my final exams currently looming on the horizon are worth a humble 50 percent of my final grade. As is with most aspects of studying abroad, adjusting to a different way of doing things is the norm. Add on a positive outlook and even the most daunting of tasks seem doable.
The Big Game
I am a huge sports fan, so a goal of mine going into the semester was to attend a match at Santiago Bernabéu, home of one of Spain’s top football clubs, Real Madrid. After a stressful morning of ticket shopping, I managed to snag a single ticket to a Champion’s League match between Real Madrid and Tottenham, an English football club. Champions league matches feature two high level international clubs, so I knew I was in for a good game. It felt great to be back in a packed stadium for a prime time game as I didn’t have the usual Buckeye game days throughout the semester.
The differences between Madrid’s marquee sporting event and a comparable event in the US were very interesting. For instance, the entire match was played in under 2 hours. The trade off to a shorter event, however, is that those 2 hours were filled with constant action. Compare this to a typical Sunday NFL game with all its commercial breaks and stoppage of play and you can see why some non-Americans find American football rather boring. Another interesting aspect of the Real Madrid match was how the moment halftime hit, everyone pulled out their pre-packed sandwiches from home to enjoy during the break. Quite the nice alternative to the typical $13.00 hotdog and soda found in US stadiums. Finally, and probably the most impressive difference, would have to be how the fans engaged in the game. From pregame to the final whistle, fans on both sides chanted and sang the entirety of the match. Their dedication to cheering was incredibly impressive and created a high energy atmosphere the whole game. Coming into the match knowing next to nothing about European football (very American of me, I know), the skill of the players, passion of the fans and the overall experience gave me a new appreciation for the sport.
When considering where I would spend a semester abroad, I only had two requirements. I had studied Spanish for 8 years and am currently working towards a Spanish minor, so studying in a Spanish speaking country was a must. Secondly, I grew up in Naperville, Illinois, so Chicago was always a quick train ride away. Heading to Chicago year after year, I developed a love for exploring cities. With these two desires, Madrid, Spain seemed like the perfect choice. Now several months into the semester, I can say Madrid is exactly where I am supposed to be. Trading towering skyscrapers and our beloved cars for royal palaces and public transportation, the experience of living in a European metropolis has been an incredible experience.
As a capital city with over 3 million people, Madrid is an exciting place to live. Here, one can find everything from maze-like neighborhoods hailing from the 17th century to streets like Gran Vía, bustling with activity 24 hours a day. Madrid is also a city of neighborhoods, each with its own distinct character and impressive lineup of restaurants, night life, and shops. Outside of main thoroughfares, chain restaurants and businesses are not very common. This allows local businesses to take center stage, each providing a completely unique experience to the next. I’ve often wondered how so many of these little shops can stay in business, and I think it speaks volumes to the benefits of high density, walkable neighborhoods. This is a far cry from the car-centric towns we have in the US—outside of a select few urban areas. Only having to walk 5 minutes or less for fresh baked bread, a grocery store or coffee shop will be something I miss dearly.
Madrid has also provided the perfect setting for practicing Spanish. In these aforementioned coffee bars and little restaurants, English is hardly common. It is with this real world practice that I now feel more confident than ever in my language abilities. I can only image how proud my high school Spanish teachers would be, knowing I can successfully fight my way to the counter of a packed tapas bar and order without issues; this is why I studied Spanish. But in all seriousness, I have thoroughly enjoyed living in a city where I must speak Spanish daily. I strongly suggest to anyone studying a language to pursue an exchange in a country that speaks the language you are studying. It is far and away the best way to develop confidence in using the language, which is something that cannot be easily gained in a class that only meets twice a week. While it was certainly a challenge learning the ins and outs of new city, Madrid has become a place I’ve grown to love.
Although my semester abroad is coming to a close, there are still more stories to tell! Check back next time to hear about a global business experience I had here in Madrid. Later on, look out for my advice for outgoing study abroad students as the next semester rolls around.