Saturday, December 1, 2012

Study Abroad Tips

As promised, awesome 友達 Naomi has written a guest post for us! It's full of a lot of GREAT advice that I personally plan to follow in the coming year! I hope it helps you prepare for study abroad no matter where you find yourself!

Studying abroad is an experience that everyone should try to take advantage of while in university. Even if it is just for a semester, the relationships and experiences you create while abroad will shape the rest of your life. It sounds corny and cheesy, I know; however in the few months I have been in Japan on my own study abroad experience, I don’t want to even consider a life without the friends or the memories I have made here. There is only so much the books and advisors can prepare you for before coming to the country you want to study abroad in. Everyone is different and has different needs, likes, dislikes, so it’s hard to create a “what to bring/not to bring,” “do/not do” list for everyone. But there are a few things you should definitely check into well before you start off on your journey.
Firstly, if you are taking any medication of any kind, check to find out if your medication is LEGAL in the country you are going to be going, and if not what paper work you need to file in order to import your medications. For example, in Japan the over the counter cold medicine, Nyquil is illegal because the active ingredient is considered a stimulant. You can’t claim ignorance if you are randomly selected to have your luggage searched, and they find what they consider to be an illegal substance in your possession. Also, if you are staying abroad for a year, some countries require you to file paperwork, they want to make sure you’re not going to bring it over and sell it on the street. This may require doctor notes and other such complicated things. Check with your program coordinator ASAP, sometimes even the coordinator may not know, and in that case you could be on your own to figure things out, or if you give them enough time, they could be super nice and do the research for you if they don’t already know. Also, I suggest bringing Ibuprofen, allergy pills, and whatever over the counter brand of pills you think you may need.
Is your size of clothing sold in the country you are going to be studying abroad in? I am a bit overweight, so when I packed my clothes I did so knowing these would be the clothes I wore for the next year, and if I needed something I would need to buy online or have my friends it ship to me. Also, shoes are another important thing to bring along. Especially if you are going to be staying a year, bring sturdy shoes, and bring more than one pair. Granted if you have averaged sized feet, you should be fine to buy shoes, however, if you are US lady size 11 wide, you should stock up on shoes before leaving.
Toiletries, not all deodorants are made equal. My friend warned me that Japanese deodorant is not the best, so I brought enough to last me the year. Also, purchasing US brands in foreign countries can get expensive. US brands in Japan are more expensive than Japanese brands. So if you have skin allergies it is better to either make sure the country you will be staying in has brands available that will not irritate your allergies. Don’t be afraid to try new brands when it comes to hair products and skin products if you don’t have allergies. You may even find that the ones available to you are better than the ones back in your home country.
Know your customs. I know this sounds kind of obvious, but the other day while observing my kendo circle’s practice an American man walked into the dojo without taking his shoes off or bowing to the dojo, he then proceeded to start asking my friend questions. Granted not everyone knows you should bow before stepping into a kendo dojo, however it is pretty obvious that when you enter a Japanese style room(or house), you should remove your shoes. It is one of the more basic things that you should know if you come to Japan. If you intend to join a club, especially a martial arts club, do your
research beforehand and know the basic proper conduct. Don’t try to impress them with knowledge on the subject, just do your best to be polite and show your interest.
Know appropriate behavior. In America, it is fine for a girl and a guy to hug and there is no implication. That is not true for all countries. If you are a hugger, you might want to hug your new guy friends to express your feelings; however this could be culturally inappropriate. And cause awkwardness for the person you are hugging and yourself, so be aware.
What side of the street should you walk on? When in doubt follow the crowd. Sometimes even if there is a sign posted indicating which side to walk on, the majority will ignore it and walk on the opposite side. Don’t be the person to follow the sign in that case, get behind someone going in the same direction, and do what they do. When you first come to your target country things will be a little confusing, you won’t have the luxury to fall back on your native language, so it can be a little overwhelming at first. Just do your best and mostly people will see that you are giving it your best shot and help you out a little, or at least be kind. Also, don’t feel the need to be talking all the time at first, observing is very helpful as well, especially if you don’t know how to act in a situation. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. So long as it is legal.
Don’t be afraid to say you don’t understand something. It’s embarrassing, but it’s better to be honest and tell people you don’t understand and ask them to repeat what they said. You won’t be in a classroom anymore, and believe me, what is taught in the classroom is different than what you will be hearing and speaking. Also, if you claim to understand something, then later make a mistake because you did not understand, that will bring up issues, especially if you join a club. People will really question whether or not you understood them. Be honest, especially in club situations. Mostly if a club does not want foreigners in the club, they will make an excuse or be honest about why they reject you. If they let you join, then they do so with the understanding that you since you are a foreigner you may not understand 100% of what they say.
Know how to ask for directions. In the beginning you will get lost, I still get lost all the time and I have been here for 3 months. Just accept the fact that you will get lost. Know how to ask for directions and know your direction vocabulary. If you have a cellphone, don’t be afraid to call or text a friend for help if you are just not understanding the people who you ask for directions. Pay attention and know how to get back to where you started. People are mostly friendly and will be willing to give you directions, and sometimes if they are super nice, they may guide you to where you need to go.
Don’t come with the expectation that your language and culture skills are bad ass, even if you are an A+ student in your target language. Or that you’ll be able to communicate with perfect ease at first. You are not in the classroom anymore. Yes, living in the country of the language you are studying will help you learn faster, however you are going to make mistakes. You are going to look like an idiot from time to time. And there will be times when you get frustrated with yourself for not understanding as much as you think you should. Learning is about making mistakes, believe me I have made some pretty big and small mistakes since coming to Japan. It is better to laugh it off in front of your friends, and if you’re really upset, cry later. Every chance is a chance to learn, or make connections with people.
Even if it feels like you are not learning fast enough or not at all, just be calm, you are learning faster than you think, and you are indeed learning. My best suggestion if you want to get a better grasp on your language skills is to try and join a club. Depending on the club you join, it may be that no one speaks your language. Also, depending on the country you will be staying abroad in, there times when someone wants you to teach them English(or your native language), if you feel that by teaching your native language is taking away from your precious time abroad, suggest doing language exchange with them. You speak for a certain amount of time in English(or your native language), and then switch to the country’s language. Everyone wins, and you won’t get the reputation of being rude and unfriendly. Also, if you live with a host family, watch tv with them. My host mom will turn on anime if her favorite drama is not on. Listening, even if you don’t understand is really helpful. Even if I don’t understand everything said, I will recognize grammar structures and from the context of what is happening, guess the meaning of the conversation.
Never give out your information to people you don’t know. Just don’t talk to strangers. Don’t do it. Depending on which country you will be living in the possibility of being approached by cults is high. In Japan you will be approached by men or women and they will hand you a golden Buddha card thing. Then ask for your name, email, and phone number. Politely return the card and walk away. I was in Harajuku once and one of the cultist’s came beside me and pressed the card into my hand. I was shocked, I am used to people handing out tissues and flyers, but having someone walk and force something into my hand was a shock. I didn’t know what was happening at first, so I thanked her and looked away, but she pulled out a book and asked me to write my name. I had been warned at orientation about cults and I immediately returned the card as politely as I could and walked away. Just be wary of people who hand you books or shiny gold Buddha cards. However, if you are coming to Japan, businesses will hand out free tissues for advertising. Take the tissues. You can always use free tissues. Back to the main point; don’t give your information out to people if you don’t know them. If they are not a student at your university, be careful, even if they are be careful. Religious organizations will sometimes walk around the campus and offer flyers or invite you to come to their events. Just be careful, if you give them your information they will spam your phone with messages and never leave you alone. Be careful of overly friendly seeming people. Just because you are not in your home country does not mean everyone is super nice, super safe, and it’s ok to give out information. Humans are humans. Don’t abandon common sense.
If you go drinking, make sure you can get home safely after. Don’t go out and drink yourself into oblivion and expect someone to take you home. Be responsible. Know phrases to politely let people know you don’t want to drink too much. In Japanese culture drinking is pretty big, especially if you join a club, going to drinking party could be after every practice, or once a week, depending on the club. However, if you are a lightweight, 「二日酔い」 =ふつかよい= two day drunkenness. Basically, if you say this it will let them know you don’t want to drink too much. If it is against your religion, then don’t be afraid to say so. They will invite you along, but you don’t have to drink alcohol. If you are living with a host family, let them know when you are going out drinking and when you intend to go home, especially if you are going to be late. Just be careful and responsible and know your limit. Know how to ask for help if you don’t think you can make it home by yourself. Also, what happens at the drinking
party stays there. Don’t upload drunken photos to facebook. If someone confesses their undying love to you, even if you like them, do not respond, think of a way to change the subject or pretend that you didn’t understand, whatever. Keep it real. People say things when they drink that they don’t mean. However, it could be true what they are saying, but if it isn’t, and you really like them and confess your feelings, it could get a little awkward later on, especially if they have a girlfriend or boyfriend. If they don’t have a girlfriend or boyfriend, then just try and get to know them when they haven’t been drinking and if something happens, good for you!
Can you work while studying abroad? If you want a part time job for some extra cash, check to see if it is legal, and if you can get a student work permit. This process is actually very simple in Japan, so long as you have the paperwork filled out, you can submit it when coming through the first check point after landing in Japan. Ask your program coordinator for the information.
Also, know the politest way to say “no” in your target language. In Japanese, you don’t outright say you don’t want to do something. It’s a little abrupt and can been seen as rude. So you kind of beat around the bush and hint at what you want to do. The other person will then take the hint and move along. However, if they don’t simply walk away, go find a place with a lot of people, call a friend, or walk to the nearest police station. Also, at least in Japanese culture, if I invited a friend out for say a movie on Saturday, and he said he had to study, so I suggested going on a different day and he still said no, then I would understand he is not interested in going to the movie with me, unless he makes a suggestion himself. If you ask twice and the answer is no, then move along. If they really want to go, they will work with you in figuring out a time that works. Also, be careful when people are asking you to go do something and keep the same thing in mind. Again this is for Japanese culture, I am unsure of other cultures. It is best to learn these social dances before going to the country in order to avoid misunderstandings or hurt feelings.
As for the academic…don’t think that your year abroad is just for pleasure and play. Failing a class in Japan is failing a class in any country, and will transfer as such. Balance your time so that you have the time to study and to play with your friends. Don’t be afraid to tell your friends you have to study and can’t go out, just make sure that you don’t make it a habit to where they stop asking you out. Also, don’t count on a two day weekend, at Waseda University some classes are on Saturday and attendance is mandatory. Having class on Saturday has forced me to re-work how I study and prepare for my classes, and honestly, since classes have started it feels as it has been one long week. I have Friday and Sunday off, but there is something about having two consecutive days of rest that signals my brain that there is a new week. For me this has been both physical and psychological change that I am still trying to get a handle on.
Don’t go on a crazy shopping spree the moment you get settled. Figure out your budget, especially if you plan on joining a club, there could a yearly fee, or they could hold retreats during breaks. So make sure you save your money for important things. Also chances are you will be able to find cheaper stores later, after you have gotten used to your surroundings.
I think I have rambled on a little bit too much at this point. I hope some of what I have mentioned will be able to help you on your own journey abroad. I tried to think of things that they didn’t tell us in the manual or in orientation. I hope this has been a little bit helpful to those reading it!


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