The study abroad program representative with the big grin and flashy powerpoint will tell you to befriend the locals to make the most of your study abroad. I’ve seen many an extroverted classmate get buddy-buddy with the natives (sometimes snagging a romantic partner!) and reap the benefits of more natural Japanese, knowledge of the latest trends and the hip young lingo. I feel like this is solid, common sense advice, but is easier said than done depending on one’s personality and social life preferences.
Let’s discuss my personality and social life, since I happen to know mine the best. I’m an introvert. I don’t hate people, but being around of a lot of people is draining; I periodically need space and me-time to recharge my emotional batteries. I feel the most disconnected and overwhelmed with a group people, regardless of my relationship with each individual person. This isn’t necessarily related to being an introvert, but it takes me an incredibly long time to make friends. Freshman year of college was absolutely miserable because it seemed like everyone else was forming meaningful relationships so quickly while I struggled with loneliness. I was also, during this time, thought to be a recluse because I wasn’t surrounded by a caravan of people during all hours of the day. Yes, I know: boo-hoo poor me. Freshman sob story. Okay, the point is, I don’t force friendships. I believe they develop naturally from common outlook or interests, compatible personalities, etc., and forming these kinds of bonds can take quite a bit of time.
It was naive of me to think that simply because I changed my location in the world, my entire personality and tendencies in human relationships would also change. Still, because I did not want to “waste my time abroad” I did my darndest. During my first study abroad in summer 2014 to Osaka, I completely embraced this advice and tried everything I could to make Japanese friends: agreeing to go out with large groups, initiate conversation with Japanese roommates in the program, I smiled so hard and so large my teeth started to hurt; I laughed at things that were no where near funny. Everyone else who did it was popular, so maybe it would work for me too. And for a while, it did. I was continually invited to events and made plans with groups of Japanese students. The lack of me-time made me agitated, tense, and emotionally drained. I should be happy, but honestly half the time, I was on the verge of tears. This is what study abroad is all about though, right? Getting out of your comfort zone? Growing up? I was finally making friends like the pamphlets said I would and it looked like I was the life of the party on social media. I learned slang terms so I could finally talk like a cool kid, and isn’t that what I wanted all along? To be a cool kid? (If sarcasm isn’t your thing, the answer to this is: No, it’s not what I wanted at all.)
The conversations among group members about celebrities, food, music, shopping, romantic interests, sports, etc were nice and pleasant but they run out of steam relatively quickly and I don’t feel any closer to the people I’m talking to by the end of it. Any trek into deeper topics such as the differences in Japanese and American culture, for instance, usually ended after a few minutes with the Japanese student(s) saying “Oh, America is so different.” or “I want to go to New York!” Nice. Great. But this doesn’t tell me anything, really. Why don’t we really get to know each other instead of saying what the other person wants to hear?
Which brings me to another roadblock in making friends with Japanese people: the idea of wa (和), meaning ‘peace’. Conversations are kept on light, pleasant topics or things everyone in the group can agree on for the sake of ‘keeping the peace’. Having a respectful difference of opinion, though considered constructive in American culture, can make the air rather tense in Japan. Heavier topics seem to be avoided most of the time, but I suspect that these heavier conversations might happen between close Japanese friends. It’s difficult to say whether Japanese people that I’ve met don’t want to get close (what I call close) with me because I’m a foreigner or more because they’re trying to keep the atmosphere peaceful. It could be both–not excluding a myriad of other reasons–but for me to get close to someone we have to be mutually vulnerable, willing to share and empathize with each other’s problems and concerns. Mostly, we need to discuss our honne (本音), true feelings. Not only does this entire process seem to generally take a long time in Japan (among Japanese people) it can be even harder for a foreigner (the outsiders of the outsiders) to achieve the same level of closeness.
Simply put, a summer abroad was not enough for me to make real, sustainable Japanese friends. Even this semester, I haven’t made a Japanese friend (as in, born and raised in Japan, who didn’t attend an international school). While this is a little disappointing, it’s not the end-all for my study abroad experience.
I found other people in my language programs who I connected with because of either shared interests or similar dispositions. The intense study abroad experience brought us closer together in a short amount of time, and it is these friendships that I rely on for emotional and moral support in Japan. I made one or two friends like this last summer in Osaka and we kept in contact occasionally after we returned to our respective institutions in the States. Turns out, they’re both studying abroad in Japan this semester again and I had the opportunity to meet up with them. (FRIENDSHIP!) This time around, I’ve also made two close friends whom I cherish dearly and I sincerely hope we keep in contact after the program is over. For me, having fulfilling friendships is more important than the number–whether those friends are American or Japanese (or from any other country) also doesn’t matter.
To those who can’t seem to become close with the locals no matter how hard you try, my advice would be to not stress about it. You’re not alone. You’re not weird or socially inept (well, you may be but that’s not my business). Just do you. If you want a Japanese friend/acquaintance for the sake of improving your Japanese language ability, or someone to show you around, then my suggestion would be to find a language partner. If you actually become friends with your language partner, good for you! If not, well, at least you’re getting exposure to native Japanese and also helping the other person with their language skills. Win-win, I would say.