Graduate Blog

‘Found in Translation’: A Study Abroad Manifesto


Tokyo. I dashed it into my Study Abroad application last minute, just because there was a blank fifth spot on the form. A city in a country I knew nothing about, didn’t speak the language, and in which knew nobody. Sure, why not? It never crossed my mind that I’d read a few months later:

We are delighted to offer you a place at Keio University in Tokyo, Japan.

I wanted a big city for my year abroad – I got the biggest and baddest of them all!

September 7, 2011. Arrival. 35 degrees Celsius, in a country where the language was gibberish to me (I’d managed to a stuttering ‘konnichiwa,’ probably pronounced wrong, and I couldn’t have written it in Japanese to save my life), with nothing but an address to go by. According to the school’s welcome letter, I was to take the train to this place called Musashi-something-something and then switch for another station, Hiyo-something, where my new home waited for me. With my two bulging excess-weight suitcases, one paining each arm, peroxide blonde hair, and sweat covering pretty much all of my body thanks to the 70%+ humidity, I found my way to the train, all the while wondering why everyone was eyeing me quietly (eventually I would get used to it, even enjoy it; being tall and super blonde in Japan is a little bit like being a celebrity!).

Somewhere online it said that Japan “isn’t as crazy as you think.” I must question the credibility of this mysterious place ‘somewhere online.’  Because rest assure, friends, that Japan (or Tokyo at least) is exactly as over-the-top, out-there, out-of-this-universe as the rumours say! Of course there’s the normality present, but it still retains a good old cup o’ the best kind of crazy to go all around.

If New York is where dreams are made, Tokyo is where they materialise. Everything you know about Tokyo is true (mostly) and it is an incredibly friendly and exciting city where anything is possible and where there’s always an adventure waiting around the next corner.

Not speaking a word of Japanese proved to be less problematic than one might think. Sure, not a soul on the street was able to utter any comprehensible English, but with a smile and some serious charades on a daily basis, I got by.

With some mishaps, admittedly.

My favourite one took place in the grocery shop. This happened in the first week and I’d not yet mastered even the alphabet (in my defence, there are FOUR). Two kinds of cereal stood before me. Mocking me. One light blue packet, clearly just normal corn flakes inside (ha-ha, don’t try and fool me, no sir!); the other brown with brown cereal. My Western wheels of mind spun with a whizzing sound and landed on – wholemeal! Excellent. I grabbed one packet with a smug grin and brought them home.

Only trouble was (as I’d learn in about a week) that it said in big Japanese letters: KO-KO-A. In English, COCOA – i.e. chocolate. About as far from wholemeal as you’ll get.

JoJo vs Japan 0-1.

Other (in hindsight) comical situations include riding back and forth – several times! – on the metro because the Express, Fast, and Regular train structure got the best of me. I think Japan scored a few points there, too.

But we became friends, soon enough. Once the basics of the language sunk in and I settled in to the practical aspects of life among 37 million other inhabitants, I could enjoy all the marvellous things such as all-night karaoke, cheap tofu sushi, excellent views from Tokyo tower, fashion spotting in Harajuku, and attentive elderly men who wish to flaunt their English skills in telling you their whole life story (this happened a lot!).

Going on a year abroad meant I graduated a year later than most of my friends and that I’ve added another few dimes onto the pile of debt, but it’s such a wonderful and valuable experience that no time or money in the world can act as measurement. My life is forever divided into pre-Japan and post-Japan, and I would be a very different self, had I never taken that one-way flight two years ago.

Most universities work with some kind of exchange agreement and offers excellent deals for students to go abroad. Although it’s a tired list of advantages, it will boost your CV, language skills, and, perhaps most importantly of all, life experience. Also, as an extra perk, I now have friends from all over the world: Hawaii, Toronto, Chicago, Frankfurt to mention a few. I’ll never have to pay for accommodation on holiday ever again!

Jokes aside, a year abroad is an excellent opportunity to broaden horizons and broaden knowledge. My new best friend is Tokyo and although we live far away from each other I am certain that I’ll once more gaze into those big bold eyes full of neon lights and adventure.

Take a leaf out of that sports brand’s book and JUST DO IT!

About the Author

Johanna Johanna

Since graduating from Royal Holloway College, BA English and Creative Writing, I've been searching the skies for the Dream Job, whipping up French vocabulary, devouring books of my own choice, and taking courses in PR to keep busy. Most importantly, I'm finally adding lots of words to a YA fantasy novel which will hopefully be completed before the end of the year!

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