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5 posts categorized "Kayla Foster"


Sophia University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts: A Truly Global Experience

At Sophia University, in addition to a Japanese language course, CIEE students take classes in the Faculty of Liberal Arts (FLA). This faculty offers its classes in English. The classes are a mix of degree seeking and non-degree seeking international students, Japanese students that were raised abroad, and Japanese students that have never lived abroad but have very high English ability. With such a mix of students, I have found my FLA classes to be incredibly diverse, more so than my university in America.

This semester in FLA I took an intermediate Japanese class, Comparative Politics of Post-Communist States, Anthropology of Japan, and East Asian Media Flows. In every single class I found myself interacting with people from all over the world with very different perspectives and experiences than I have. Being able to hear different opinions and worldviews has been the best part of my academic experience here this semester. It has been both challenging and rewarding, and I think it is one of the best parts of studying abroad here at Sophia University.

Ice skating with a German classmate


For example, my Comparative Politics of Post-Communist States class is a discussion-based class with a grand total of seven students. Three of us are Americans; there’s one Mongolian, one Japanese, one Mexican, and one Russian. In a class about Communist politics, talking with my Russian classmate – who has firsthand experience of Russia today and of the last few years of the Soviet Union – has been more interesting and more informative than any textbook. Mongolia was also a former Soviet country, and so having the Mongolian perspective also adds to a more personal connection between our class and the countries we’re studying. Moreover, the perspectives of how the world works and how international relations ought to be handled are completely different between my classmates at my university in America and my classmates here at Sophia. While my classmates in America always had their own opinions, their life experience was much more similar to mine; we were raised with similar educations, and so our worldview was more similar than different. Here in Japan, however, my classmates have vastly different educational and life experiences than what I have had. I have learned so much from my classmates in Japan. Although we sometimes disagree, we also have a lot in common, and we have all become good friends.


German, Japanese, and Filipino classmates

Being in FLA has challenged me to question the assumptions upon which I base my view of the world. It has also challenged me to reexamine what it means to be an American in a foreign country. Through the perspectives of my classmates, I have learned to view my identity as an American from less of a privileged perspective and more from a sense of responsibility. Yet, more than that, being in FLA has taught me to appreciate the views from people all around the world. With classmates from Japan, Hong Kong, Hungary, Mexico, Russia, Germany, France, Taiwan, Belgium, Britain, Mongolia, and many other places, the classes in the FLA have given me an opportunity to learn about countries all over the world. It has also given me the opportunity to grow and learn in a global context, getting to know individuals that are all unique and all united by the experience of being in Japan. While I came to Japan to learn Japanese and to see the Japanese way of thinking – and I have been able to do so – I am glad to have encountered many other perspectives as well at Sophia University. 


How to Make Japanese Friends while Studying Abroad

Before I came to Japan, my greatest concern was whether or not I could make Japanese friends. I realize that everyone makes friends differently, but now that I'm here in Japan I would like to share a few tips about making friends with Japanese.


Tip #1: Speak Japanese

Everyone who comes to CIEE comes in with varying levels of Japanese: some people are very proficient, while others are just beginning. But it's really not about how well you speak Japanese. It's about how willing you are to speak Japanese. For example, I have a friend who is conversationally fluent in Japanese but refuses to speak it because he's not comfortable. As a result, most of his friends here are Americans. On the other hand, one of my friends is still a beginner but makes an effort to practice Japanese whenever he can, even at restaurants or with strangers. Even though he makes a lot of mistakes, he has been able to make Japanese friends. I think once you get over the fact that you are going to make mistakes and sound silly sometimes, speaking becomes a lot easier and it's easier to make friends. Even if the Japanese people you're with speak some English, it says a lot when you're willing to work hard to speak their language and converse in a way that's comfortable for them. So whether it's with your classmates, your club mates, or the people in your dorm, ask them to speak Japanese with you!

Shopping with Japanese friends in Odaiba

Tip #2: Say Yes

When you first start meeting Japanese people, whether through your classes or your school clubs, they're going to say things like, "Let's get lunch!" or "Let's go hang out!" At first, they may be the ones to initiate. I recommend saying yes as much as you can (obviously don't go out so much that your grades suffer). Even if it feels a little outside your comfort zone, or if you normally aren't the one to go out very often, spending time with people outside of class is really important. It's where most of the bonds are made here. If you're naturally shy, this may be where you have to stretch
yourself a bit. But I think it's worthwhile to spend time with the Japanese friends you make here, even if it's difficult at first or if you're not really sure how to approach it. You also may have to be the one to initiate and push yourself to invite people to eat together at lunch. But Japanese people really are friendly, and most of the time when people can't hang out it's because of their part time jobs. So try to make time for them during lunch periods or ask them when they're free. 

Visiting Chichibu Winter Festival

Tip #3: Be Present

At the beginning of the semester, you may be at every club meeting and sit at the same lunch table every day with your Japanese (or foreign) friends. But as the semester goes on, schoolwork gets busy and you have to start skipping lunch to finish your homework, or you don't go to the Friday lunch period meeting because you need to study for a test. While you are here to study and be a student, a lot of those last-minute homework assignments could have actually been done at home. Your time here is precious, especially if you're only here for a semester. So rather than spend your lunch period doing homework that you should have done last night instead of going on Facebook, I recommend getting your work done so you can go to the club meetings or eat lunch with your friends. As midterm season hits, your Japanese friends will get busy too; it might get harder to meet outside of school or on the weekends. So go to the club meetings. Even if nothing important happens at the club meetings, it will matter to them that you're there and you're willing to just hang out and talk with them. 

Halloween Event at the Park

Tip #4: Don't Worry, and Be Yourself!

This is the key to making friends in any culture, but I think it’s especially true when trying to navigate in a new cultural context. While you may find yourself stretching outside your comfort zone, at the end of the day you are still the same person you are in your own country. There may be days when you don’t feel the same, but trying to reinvent yourself completely when you come to Japan is going to be very difficult and exhausting. Also, being sincere about the things you like and dislike will help you find people with whom you get along. If you like anime, find people who will go to Akihabara with you; if you like sports, find someone to play basketball in the park with you. On the same token, don’t feel like you have to go out every weekend if that’s not the kind of person you are. Ultimately, be who you are and you’ll find Japanese people who appreciate that. You may be surprised how some of the people you will meet are so similar to you, too! 

Japanese Festivals: Celebrating Culture and Community

Japan has a lot of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines throughout almost every city. Besides famous temples and shrines in Kamakura, Harujuku, Nara, etc., you may inadvertently walk by one of the smaller local shrines or temples while you're out exploring. If you do, you can stop to draw your fortune or ring the bell. They are great places to spend a quiet afternoon reading or meditating, and they often have beautiful parks or gardens where people come to relax.  

Exploring a temple near campus in Asakusa with a fellow CIEE student

Also, since Japan has many holidays, you may run in to a festival at your local shrine or temple. Some of the festivals include ceremonies in which members of the community carry portable shrines (called mikoshi), or push or pull large festival cartsthroughout the surrounding area. You may see one of these ceremonies while out and about; I've seen it in Harujuku, Shibuya, and by my homestay. If you run into a full-blown festival, though, take the time to stop and look around. It some-what resembles a county fair in America with the various food stands, music performances, and massive crowds of people, but it definitely has a very unique feel that you should experience at least once. 

Festival Cart at the Chichibu Winter Festival

I have accidentally run into several festivals in the three months I've been here. One day I was walking home from the train station and heard loud rock music a few blocks away from my homestay apartment. Later that night my host dad invited me to go to the festival with him. "What festival?" I asked. It turned out the loud rock music I heard on my way home was actually a festival held annually by the local temple. There were stands with great food, games for the kids, and a stage where a famous retired rock guitarist was playing. They even had enormous heaters around the seating area to keep people warm. It was a really fun surprise just down the street.

Just a few weeks ago a Japanese friend invited another CIEE student and I to go see fireworks somewhere down the Seibu subway line. We weren't really sure about the details, but we decided to go. It turned out to be the Chichibu Winter Festival, which is a famous festival that people from all over Japan will travel to see each year. It happens on December 3, and for 3 hours there is on-and-off fireworks, great street food, lots of people, and 6 massive festival carts that different groups of local men pull throughout the city. It's like an American county fair mixed with a parade mixed with the 4th of July. It was a great surprise to be there, and both my CIEE friend and I really enjoyed it. It was really cold out that night, but the warm street food like local style udon and fried beef on a stick helped a lot. It was also really fun to spend the night practicing Japanese with our friend and feeling like a local as we blended with the crowd.

Fireworks at the Chichibu Winter Festival

Festivals are a great way to mix with locals and to enjoy local food and culture. While you're here in Japan, I recommend visiting many of the different shrines and temples you find in Tokyo and elsewhere, and try to attend a festival at least once! They happen often, and you might just run into one, so join in and have fun! 


Why I Wake Up

As most college students know, the ability to wake up early is a superpower granted only to a chosen few. In Japan this is no exception, especially after the initial 2 to 3 weeks of excitement and jetlag wear off. Between doing homework until midnight and going out to explore Tokyo any (and every) day of the week, waking up in the morning is not appealing; most days, it is an all-out struggle. Yet it is a struggle I undergo gladly for the sake of two smiling faces and that wonderful “Ohayo.”

In the apartment where I live with my host family of Mama, Papa, L, and R (names abbreviated for privacy), mornings start around 6am when R, age 4, wakes up and decides to play with his train set with volume on high. This chorus of beeps soon harmonizes with the giggles of L, age 6, who joins her younger brother in morning playtime. By 7:30am Mama is ushering them in to the bathroom across the hall from me for bath time. Around 8am Papa leaves for work, and everyone sees him off at the door on the other side of my wall with cheerful hugs and more giggles. Once 8:30am rolls around, the children are out the door with backpacks and umbrellas and sweaters in hand as Mama takes them to the bus and then goes on to her own workplace.

This daily routine is imprinted in my brain; on the days I cannot get up early, I lie in bed and listen to the routine play out like listening to a movie on in the other room. The familiarity of their voices as I lay half-awake is comforting, rather than irritating. On the rare mornings when the children sleep in, I actually wake myself up because the house is too quiet. I love hearing the sounds of family life and the simple joy of L and R when they wake up to greet the new day. As often as I sleep past the morning bustle, however, I also push myself to get up in the morning at least 3 or 4 times a week, despite not having class until 11am, so that I can spend time with them. The few hours of playtime in the morning are some of the most joyful moments of my day, and it is now far more valuable than sleep to me. Fighting epic battles to save the universe or watching the ever-intriguing Japanese children’s television is much more worthwhile than the lame adult dreams my mind comes up with.

Elsa Costume
Elsa costume for Halloween

Back at my university in the States, sleep took priority over everything for me; I think I would have slept through my homestay experience very easily had I not received some valuable advice from the CIEE Student Services Coordinator. She explained that, for Japanese people, spending time together doesn’t mean going somewhere to do something. Often, she explained, Japanese people spend time together merely by sharing the same space. In a homestay, that means everyone may be in the living room on separate electronic devices, “doing their own thing” in a Western sense, but to Japanese, this is “being together.” This advice really helped me during the first week when we would all be home in the evenings not talking to each other, just watching TV. But it also helped me appreciate how important it is to my host family that I wake up to just be with them in the morning. As much as I love playing with the kids, I think my host parents also appreciate the effort I am putting in to be with the family in the moments of everyday routine, not just the exciting moments or the fun trips on the weekend.

My host family experience is turning out to be the most rewarding part of my time here in Japan. They are the reason homesickness has not hit me yet, even after 2 months; they are also the reason I feel so at home in this country. My host parents explain the difficult or unfamiliar aspects of Japanese life to me; the children help me learn alongside them as they read books or watch children’s TV; the whole family has made me feel welcome in a country not my own. I think this experience has also been so positive because of the extensive coaching and advice I received from CIEE prior to moving in with the family. I was better prepared for how to fit in with the family, and the transition went much smoother than I expected. I think my homestay is the best part of my CIEE experience so far, and I encourage every applicant in the future to seriously consider homestay as an integral part of their time in Japan. I laugh with my family, learn from my family, and love every single moment of it, even when I wake up early in the morning. 

Play Time
Play Time

Onigiri Life: Conbini in Japan

Convenience stores in Japan are very different from those in the U.S., and are a very crucial part of daily life for every study abroad student here in Tokyo. Japanese convenience stores – or “conbini” – offer a surprising variety of food. If you can master the fine art of conbini food, I believe you can aptly call yourself a Tokyo Pro. Let’s begin with the basics:

Q: What is a conbini, and where do you find one?

A: A conbini is a convenience store. When “convenience store” entered the Japanese language, they turned it in to コンビニ, which then re-Romanized looks like “Conbini.” The most common convenience stores are Family Mart, Lawson, SunsRUs, and (drumroll please) Seven Eleven! As an American, the idea of Seven Eleven as a place for human beings to buy decent food was quite foreign before coming to Japan. The Seven Elevens here, as well as all the other conbini, are actually very clean, respectable places to buy all the necessities, and the food is pretty good. As to where you can find one, the better question is where you cannot find one. Conbini are everywhere, often multiple competing chains in the same block. Or, you may find the same conbini within two blocks of each other. 

7 eleven yotsuya
This is down the street from Sophia University- there are 4 Seven Elevens, not counting the one on Sophia’s campus.

Q: Is Conbini food good?

A: YES. It’s not five star gourmet, but it tastes good, fills you up, and doesn’t give you heart disease in the process. The only food at gas stations and convenience stores in America is junk food like candy, chips, donuts, and those fake pizzas that look like plastic dipped in grease. In Japan, you can find Onigiri (rice balls stuffed with meat, vegetables, shrimp, etc.), sandwiches, noodles, breads, jello, salads, and even fruit and cheese, although they are more expensive since they’re imported. The variety is wonderful, and I often find myself spending a solid 10 minutes staring at all the options. If you’re in a hurry, the go-to conbini food is always Onigiri. Especially when you have to go to that lunch period club meeting or rush to finish homework before the anthropology class, Onigiri is a filling snack that is still nutritious for your body. Whenever you’re out and about and need some food but don’t want to find a restaurant, or if you need a late night snack, conbini are always there and always open.

Photo © Khoi Dao “Adventures in Tokyo – Episode 1 “Japan Ho!”

Q: What’s so exciting about Conbini food?

A: While Tokyo has SO MUCH GOOD FOOD, eating out all the time can be expensive. An average bowl of noodles in Shibuya or Shinjuku is anywhere from ¥800 to ¥1200 (about $8 to $12). While this is on the same level as cities like Los Angeles or D.C., the typical broke college student prefers not to spend their entire monthly budget on food, especially when there’s karaoke after dinner and a 3 dollar train fare to get home. I personally eat out with friends at least 3 nights a week, and on the weekend sometimes I’ll be out for both dinner and lunch. For all the lunches in between, I prefer to spend ¥300 to ¥500 on tasty onigiri, which I can eat quickly. This is better than trying to find a restaurant that won’t break the bank. On Sophia’s campus, the cafeterias are also a cheap alternative, but they can be crowded during lunch period. When I have homework to do, I much prefer a run to the conbini and a seat at the outside tables to the noisy cafeterias. 

Family mart
Family Mart in Shibuya

While you should try to cook as much as you can to be healthy, sometimes it’s hard to do so. Also, I think people underestimate how challenging finding food can be in a foreign country. Trying to navigate a grocery store and not being able to read the writing on the labels can be stressful and disorienting at first. Conbini food, on the other hand, is easy to navigate, and once you feel comfortable with conbini food, you start to feel a little less like a bumbling foreigner and a little more like a pro-level resident of Japan. I find comfort in knowing that no matter where I am in Tokyo (and probably in any city in Japan, for that matter), I can walk into a clean conbini with friendly workers and find something to eat. It takes away the stress of finding food on a budget, and I think all of the CIEE students truly appreciate the ease of using conbini in Japan. In addition to buying good food, you can do a lot of other useful things at the conbini, like ship packages and buy concert tickets. Conbinis here are truly “convenient.”