Isabella Zelichenko is a junior, majoring in Computer Science, who spent a semester in Tokyo, Japan.
Last semester, I studied abroad at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. One of the most important parts of my study abroad experience was living with a host family. It was one of the key elements of cultural exchange, as well as the best opportunity to improve my Japanese language skills. My family lived in a quiet neighborhood in the Suginami ward of Tokyo, in a very modern home designed and built by my host mother’s late husband. Simply being around my host mother and two host sisters greatly improved my listening skills, and watching television together in the living room or talking at the dinner table definitely helped me increase vocabulary and make my speech more natural. My host mother was up every day at 5am to make breakfast for four people, as well as lunch for three. Then, she went off to work at 7:30am, coming home at 7:00pm to once again cook dinner for the entire family. All of our busy schedules lessened our opportunities to communicate, so it was at the dinner table that I could get the most practice. We talked about everything from personal interests to differences in education, cultural outlook, and politics between Japan and the United States. Dinnertime was a great way to learn both about each other and about the country the other came from.
Other than my host family, I also applied my language skills heavily in class. I took four high-level Japanese language classes that, instead of learning by the book, gave students the chance to actually engage in conversation and write academic papers. Also, being interested in music I often went out to concerts in the nightlife-heavy areas of Shibuya and Shimokitazawa. Simply being in venues or out on the street was also a great way to study both social culture as well as language. I loved observing differences in behavior at concerts in Japan versus those in the United States, and I was also able to strike up conversations with other concertgoers and practice speaking in that way. At one concert, I started talking to the girl standing next to me about the performance we just saw. We talked about music for a while until it came out that she was in a rock band. She gave me a CD as well as a flyer for their next gig, which I ended up going to with a friend. It was those kinds of occurrences that really allowed me to feel like part of the society and created unconventional opportunities for me to use both my language and cultural navigation skills. All around, I was able to significantly expand my knowledge of Japan and its native language, both at school and outside of it. Sometimes it was difficult to put myself out there, but at the end of the day, just living in the country gave me access to an immersive atmosphere that was impossible not to be affected by.