As my friends celebrated Round Three of Yale with triple-filtered posts on Instagram of residential colleges and selfies with friends they haven’t seen in months, I was tearfully packing up my life in Korea, not to return home to celebrate with them, but to study abroad in Japan for the second time. I wish I could’ve been excited, but more than anything I was overcome with nostalgia for Yale and sadness as I left Korea. Fittingly, I know the perfect word for this in Korean now: 섭섭하다. While that old saying “distance makes the heart grow fonder” is definitely the case for Yale and eventually will be for Korea, this is not the case for Japan. Well, I suppose the saying is ‘grow fonder’ so one would have to hold a certain fondness in the first place. Do you see where I’m going with this?
Surprise: I didn’t exactly enjoy Round 1 of Japan. Summer 2014. Carmen vs. Osaka, I was immediately KO’d. My bravery lasted for all of two weeks before the rose-colored glasses were smashed into pieces, breaking my nose and reducing me to a puddle of regret and tears. Yes, I cried. Yes, I wished to go home. And why shouldn’t I? When the culture you’ve spent most of your adolescent life learning to respect and understand does not offer you the same courtesy, who wouldn’t beat their chests savagely out of grief and loneliness and wish for all the time back that you felt you’ve lost? The language barrier was not the cause of my alienation, because I was proficient enough to hold a conversation and also discuss societal issues such as the treatment of women in the workplace and the aging population. But these conversations never happened because no one wanted to get to know me or what I thought or who I was. The people I encountered just wanted to take a selfie with me because I looked weird, or point and laugh like I was an exhibit at the zoo. Language is not the only necessary thing to bridge gaps between human beings, I learned. Putting aside languages, you also have to extend love, understanding, empathy, some degree of kindness. A smile would be nice. Every time I smiled at someone, they ignored me completely or turned away. That’s just the culture. Since I felt no one was even trying to meet me halfway, I shut down and let the whole bridge crumble.
I boarded the plane to Japan not expecting Round 2 to be anything spectacular. I’d already started a countdown calendar, trying to think it shorter: it’s only one semester. 107 days to be exact. I don’t have to stay here for the rest of my life. By Christmas, I’ll be at home stuffing my face with buttery, mouth-watering, artery-clogging, seasoned to perfection Southern food. I won’t have to pretend I don’t want or need, or pretend that the hole in my gut is hunger when it’s actually something darker and deeper. And best of all: I won’t have to separate the garbage after all the eating is done.
Recently, I’m taking comfort in the fact that time in Japan will pass regardless of how I feel. Whether days are crappy or awesome, they’re just hours, minutes, seconds. The two minutes I spend willing for my host family’s dog to catch fire could’ve been two minutes spent laughing at Engrish on a T-shirt. What a terrible waste of a semester it would be, to come halfway across the world only to wish to go home. Surely there are others who want to be in my position; though I can’t imagine it now, there will come a time when I’ll wish I’d taken full advantage of this opportunity. So here I am, a week into my study abroad semester trying to change my attitude towards it all.