By Su Ching Lim
An education away from home
January is the peak period for the university admission process. Schools in the US would have released their early admission decisions while students would be adding the final touches to their remaining applications. Choices are to be made and one particularly important one would be whether to study locally or abroad. Apart from financial concerns, the new environment, culture shock, and separation from family Studying abroad comes with various challenges. There are people who grow homesick, while others might find themselves displaced or isolated from their surroundings. Despite this, a great amount of overseas students would agree that studying abroad was worth the effort. The destination need not be Japan, but there is something to be gained through simply the experience of studying in a foreign country. It changes how you think, challenges how you see others and how you view the world.
A lesson on culture
Our imagination tends to go wild when we think of foreign people and places. The most obvious benefit of going overseas is that is that it throws you right into the fire. Myths are incinerated, and ‘foreign’ people don’t seem so foreign anymore. You get to immerse yourself completely in a culture different from your own, people who are different from you in the most unexpected of ways, yet perhaps not so different after all. In the words of one of my juniors just a month into school, ‘Japan is so different from what I imagined, but at the end of the day, people are just people.’ There really is nothing more exciting than seeing a mental bubble burst in such an anticlimactic way.
But on a more serious note, it is not just a foreign culture that you learn about, but your own. You get the chance to be an insider, looking on from the outside. Culture shock highlights what is unique about the things you were previously taught to believe, and you took for granted among your friends at home. I have never identified myself with the typical Singaporean, yet my time here in Japan has hammered in to me that perhaps I was more ‘Singaporean’ than I thought. There really is nothing more useful than an external contrast to unite even the most deviant in the community.
There are two things people usually do when abroad. They either congregate among themselves, or integrate with the locals. Very often, the ‘integrated’ would chant to the proverb ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’, while scorning the ‘congregators’, who prefer to stick to their own communities. In some ways, the ‘integrators’ could be right. What is the point of going overseas if you are going to stay among people like you? However, it is rarely that clear cut. The challenge is in finding a position between the two extremes that you are comfortable with, to integrate without losing yourself. While it is wonderful if a person could integrate fully, and for a lucky few, they might find a place where they finally ‘belonged’, complete conformity to the norm is not the point of being abroad. Rather, I prefer to think that global mindset is about accepting and embracing the fact that differences exist, and negotiating around that. Adopting the likeness of the other party understates the diversity that exists among individuals.
Finding the Self
Abroad by yourself, with no family to run to, friction between you and your environment is just waiting to occur. Fortunately, as a student, mistakes can be made, you can do the unthinkable and have your family none the wiser. What happens there stays there, your tiny secret to be kept, and to be chuckled at when you are grey and wrinkly. Your beliefs are going to be challenged, your views questioned, you might even come to question yourself. However it is within this tension that you get the chance to reflect on yourself without the influence of family dogma and the environment you grew up in. Being abroad helps you see which principles are worth fighting for, and which hold little traction. You might find yourself accept ideas you would otherwise not even consider. The ideas you disagree and agree with become clearer than ever before, and at the end of this confusing tunnel of thoughts, there is light.
Of course the experiences and takeaways vary for each student overseas. Just how much they learn and benefit comes down to the individual. Being in Japan did not make me more Japanese, while some of my friends have changed greatly. I’d like to think that in this time and age, your own beliefs and decisions form your identity far more than your birth, race or culture you grew up in. Stepping beyond your shores forces you to transition from seeing the world through the framework of ‘us versus them’ to the notion ‘me, and you and you’, as it should be.
For those fortunate enough to have the chance to be abroad, even if it’s just for one year, are you up for the challenge? It is a wide world out there, not all of it is great, but there is space for you.
Su Ching is a 2nd-year PEAK student at the University of Tokyo.