Friday, August 7, 2015

Study Abroad Norway: Tsuru-Chan's Journey

This time last year, a now graduate of Serenity High School was preparing to go abroad for the first time. Where was she going? To Norway. With Tsuru-chan’s, as we’ll call her, parent’s permission I was able to interview her about her experience  so that I can share her story with all of you.

As a second year student, Tsuru-chan was ready for a change. She had been interested in going abroad since she had entered Serenity High and had often inquired study abroad programs. During the middle of her second year, she attended an informational meeting on studying abroad offered through the board of education and was quickly able to get her parent’s permission to go abroad. As for why she chose Norway as her study abroad destination, Tsuru-chan said “I didn’t want to go to a country that everybody knows,” she also loves nature, so she thought Norway would be a good fit.

Image from E Maps World
“What did you know about Norway before study abroad?” was one of the first questions she answered and, surprisingly, other than knowing it’s general location on the map, her answer was “I didn’t know almost anything.” Nothing about the food, the culture or so on because she had never studied it in Japan. Nevertheless, after passing the English test for the program, she had packed her bags and headed off for the start of a 10 month study abroad program in Norway.

Her third year of high school came and she found herself boarding a 12 hour plane ride befor she was off to finally able to meet her host family. As you know, host families come in many different shapes and sizes, but living in Norway, she had a very unique host family situation. First, there was her host family of 4, her host mother, father and two brothers, one of whom lived separately. Interestingly, both her host brother and father are current university students. Also in her home was 4 Ethiopian people, 5 Swedish people and a Chinese university exchange student. All under one roof that, despite what one might think, Tsuru-chan described as “not so so big.” Talk about an interesting homestay experience. However, She spent most of the time with her immediate host family and other than meals.

“I don’t like to live with so many people, so (at) first I was like noooooo, but finally (I got used to it),” she said. During the course of her stay, however, she became the closest to her host mother. She recounted that, despite being close with her host father, it was embarrassing for her to try to speak the Norwegian language and, in particular, he would speak English very quickly, making communication difficult. On the other hand, “my host mother would often talk to me and teach me many things,” she said, also mentioning that her host mother would speak at an easier to understand pace.
Ignoring the 4 Ethiopians, 5 Swedish people and the Chinese exchange student, I inquired about what  was different about living with her host family. “I spent a lot of time in my room,” she started, “There was nobody around my age, in their teens, so there wasn’t much to talk about with anyone.”  As to things that surprised her, “(We ate) dinner around 4 pm. It’s normal (there).” When asked why, she guessed it was because “Everyone goes home early there.” Their bedtimes, however, don’t differ much from the rest of the world despite that.  

Image from
There was a lot she enjoyed in Norway, however. Her favorite foods were brown cheese, especially on bread and Norwegian salmon. However, there wasn’t any food she disliked. “I liked everything because they used more spices than (in) Japan.” Her favorite thing about living in Norway was the amount of nature there. “There were mountains you could actually hike,” she said, “Japanese mountains have so many trees, but (in Norway) you could go for walks and climb them on a path or even without a path.” Her other favorite things to do were making bread and jams at home. At breakfast, “we put jam on the brown cheese. It’s very normal,” she explained.

The biggest shock that came with living in Norway? “I don’t think it’s just Norway, but foreign countries. (In Norway,) we used the same towel for a week at a time. I was like, ‘What? Nooo! I don’t want to use the same towel.’” Other things that surprised her were all of the shops being closed on Sundays or the fact that, on weekdays, many people didn’t go shopping or go out, but instead went for walks or other things like that.

The official Japanese opinion on reusing towels.
Even at school she found herself running into unforeseen cultural differences. Unlike Japan, where the two genders tend to stay very separate and rarely interact, she found that gender wasn’t as important abroad. People had friends of both genders and boys and girls would hold hands without a fuss being raised. Beyond that, her school, and many in her area, lacked clubs; unthinkable in Japan. Another unthinkable event was, among first year students, there was a lottery every year to see which 7 students would take the final exam at the end of the year. How everyone was graded though, still remained a mystery to her.

While class periods in Norway were twice the length of Japanese classes at an 1 hour, 30 minutes, she talked about how relaxed the atmosphere was at school. Every student had a laptop and many of them would use Facebook or play games during class. While some teachers frowned upon this, she said many didn’t try to prevent students from accessing such sites. Students, she said, would often put their feet on the desks. If they wanted their teacher’s attention, they’d snap their fingers as if to say “Hey, hey! Teacher! I have a question!” she remarked. Students even ate snacks and drank in class or would suddenly leave to take phone calls.

Living in another country, comes with the eventual feelings of homesickness and the longing for things back home. Almost before the question of what she missed the most about Japan was out of my mouth, she answered that thing  she missed most about Japan was “the food.” She said that she made Japanese food from time to time, but that it wasn’t “real” Japanese food because she couldn’t always find the right ingredients. “We can buy sushi in Norway,” she recalled, “but it’s not good.” She also missed her friends and family. She also lamented the lack of entertainment venues such as Disney land, theme parks, and karaoke. Instead, “…people enjoyed nature,” she stated.

Her closest friends in Norway were her fellow exchange students. These students ranged from being Spanish to Serbian, Hungarian and even Filipino. They were more energetic than her Japanese friends, she said. Their English pronunciation was different than what she was used to, so she spent a lot of time listening, she said. But overall, she loved her time with them. She also mentioned how they made her stronger. In her speech at Serenity High School, that even when she felt homesick, and wanted to go home, she would look at them and renew her resolve to continue her study abroad program. When asked if she wants to make more English speaking friends in the future, she said, “Maybe I’ll study more English first. Then I’ll try to make more friends.”

Tsuru-chan returned to Japan in early July, finishing off her 10 month program and graduating in a special ceremony nearly 3 months after her Japanese classmates. But her experience is not at an end. While happy to be home, found she picked up the habit of sighing and clicking her tongue from her Spanish friend. “My mother often tells me to knock it off.” She said. “This is Japan. That’s not okay here.” Is a comment she hears a lot lately and her friends are often surprised or irritated when she habitually sighs or clicks her tongue on the phone. 

Image from Travelling Vanilla Bean
 She has also found herself encountering reverse culture shock. “There’s no cool people here.” She said. She also mentioned the trouble readjusting to the fashion sense. In Norway, much like America or other western countries, you can wear what you want and showing skin is not an issue. But in a modest country, things like showing your shoulders or too much skin are huge no-no’s for people of any age. She described Japan’s currently popular fashion as, mendokusai, due to its strict limitations and  most everyone adhering to the same fashion sense.

Image from This Blog
Finally, she has found that people are simply busier than in Norway. For example, “My mother leaves home for work at 6 a.m. every day.” Another example, “In Norway I wrote a diary. But now, I don’t have time.” She said. Being home isn’t all bad though. She can eat the food she missed and see her friends and family. Also, “I can do the things I want to do by myself,” she said; something she had missed feeling like she was capable of in Norway.

As for what she would tell other students who are thinking about studying abroad, she said, “I wasn’t very energetic when it came to school, I wasn’t a serious student. I didn’t want to present in front of my classmates. However, I decided to try to study abroad. And I’m glad I did.”

“Don’t be afraid! Even if you’re wrong, it’s ok. You’re going to be embarrassed at first. Exchange students will make mistakes and even if you do make mistakes, it’s ok. Don’t think ‘it’s embarrassing’ and not say anything. Don’t be embarrassed.  Try.”

Image by ME!!! On Being An Extra


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