A promising adventure as an international student

I arrived in Tokyo on a sunny spring day, April 1. Just as the famed sakura (cherry blossoms) had begun to bloom during my first few weeks here, an exciting and promising adventure as an international student have also sprung in the right season.

This is by far the longest time I have been away from home. And while graduate studies-slash-research is my primary goal in moving into this city (though I must admit I fell in love with this fun labyrinth the first time I saw it two years ago), the experience of living independently in a foreign country for the very first time has also brought me loads of surprises, both challenging and rewarding. In this essay, I wish to share my personal experience as an international student – the joy, fun, excitement, and plethora of opportunities for growth, as well as the struggles that go with independence.

First, I’d like to emphasize that learning is a beautiful and enriching experience, though not necessarily always fun and easy. The challenges that push you to and even beyond the classroom’s borders are what makes you a genuinely learnt person. These are the struggles that test one’s vigor and courage to walk over unfamiliar roads, or even do the role of a trailblazer. There is a promising adventure that awaits a student who genuinely thirsts for what I call “an unbound learning”.

Learning the chores is an often overlooked and unappreciated advantage. While learning house chores may not be relevant to a few, it can be true to a some, perhaps, to majority of students living independently in a foreign country for the first time. I don’t come from a well-off family but I must say I had a relatively comfortable and sheltered life back home. I didn’t have to do the usual house chores except the voluntary weekly own room clean-up. Until all of a sudden, I have to learn all these chores in order to “genuinely live comfortably”:cooking, laundry, paying the bills, budgeting, and buying groceries.

In the course of a little over two months, I have learned how to cook my favorite native dish adobo; to do the laundry the correct way; to budget my monthly stipend in a way that values practicality, prioritization, prudence in managing resources; to buy groceries, especially the exciting and challenging quest for the best-quality and most reasonably priced commodities; and to pay monthly rent and utility bills.

Necessity is the mother of invention, so it goes. Let me add to that: it’s the grandmother of independent living, and kin of growth and desire. For instance, it’s both the necessity to learn how to cook and the craving to eat my comfort food that have motivated me to bring out the chef in me. Thanks to youtube cooking videos, I can now satisfy my appetite, definitely with a good mix of oozing gusto, new-found cooking skills. I could have spent roughly $5-7 dollars per meal (considering the cost of living in Tokyo), but I have chosen to challenge myself and stretch that same range of amount for complete and healthy three meals for two days or so. This same set of principles that integrate prudence, practicality, and prioritization, plus the enthusiasm to learn and challenge oneself can also be beneficial when applied to other ‘life chores’ in a real world setting. Certainly, these values are better learnt when you actually experience them than when you read those guidelines in self-help books. Indeed, experience is priceless.

Cultural Exposure and Cross-cultural understanding expose you to new horizons. An international experience provides a student the opportunity to explore the host country’s culture and the people’s way of life. For one, I have discovered more of Japan now than when I first visited it in 2012. The relative length of my stay, or better yet immersion in the Japanese society, makes so much difference in the way I see a foreign society. One might say it would be a totally different experience for an Asian to study in Europe or in the States, and vice versa. I cannot attest to that yet chiefly because in the first place, I haven’t experienced living and studying in Europe yet.

However, I am sure that adaptability level must be a significant factor in one’s decision-making process. From the perspective of a first-time independent foreign student, I believe one really needs to have not just the desire to live abroad, but also a genuine willingness to delve into a different ‘world’ out there.

During my first days in Tokyo, I was both touristy and homey. This global city has lots to offer, from culinary diversity (if you have the bucks) to technology and arts to everyday interaction with both the locals and the gaijin (foreigners, literally outsiders who are ‘inside’ Japan, eh?). However, in less than two months, homesickness struck and I wanted to return to Manila immediately. If I were in Europe, where I first set foot a month after I first lived in Tokyo, I might have wanted to return home after two weeks. I love Europe for its elegance and relative cultural mix-up (sort of melting pot), but the beautiful chaos and oriental dynamism that thrive in Asian cities are something I cannot enjoy student life without. In time, and with the help of cool pals, I have somehow overcome homesickness, I guess. But that’s just me, buddy, and that’s only based on my level of adaptability. You might want to also know the experience of those who have chosen to live in an entirely different socio-cultural environment. My European pals by the way, have found living in this Asian city enjoyable and interesting albeit the initial cultural shocks of course. Simply put, one’s restlessness for adventure and challenge is out of the question; it’s a given factor. It is the adaptability level that one has to weigh deliberately and with utmost consideration. Perhaps, one has to try it for him to find out.

I am also grateful to have been provided a room in an international lodge (you got it right, foreign non-Japanese students are housed here) for at least one year. I guess the most interesting aspect of living with a multi-ethnic environment (particularly, on staying with a bunch of very diverse people of almost 20 nationalities on the same floor) is the cross cultural experience. Probably because of my affinity to culinary arts, I find the usual cooking experience very interesting and enriching as I and my dorm-mates share our respective native dishes during meal time. The casual chat while cooking and enjoying meals also provide a good venue for cross-cultural understanding. Besides these perks, our university’s international students’ office and our neighborhood community occasionally sends invitations to cultural events and friendship activities. Lastly, the diversity of students in some classes adds flavor to the intellectual community as students share their non-sense thoughts and even interesting take on some issues, reflecting their cultural upbringing and ideas.

Change can be beautiful, provided it’s a good one. As I have stated above, learning is not always fun and easy. But it is certainly rewarding, primarily due to the apparent change that goes it with. In a little over two months of living in Tokyo, I have been learning much, and I must say there has been some significant positive change in me: in my way of thinking, in the way I interact with people, and even in the way I see life now.

An overseas student experience can be compared to a fisherman who rows his boat away from the familiar shores into the greater seas with the aim of harvesting more fish. In the same way, a student who longs to learn more must also have the courage to let go of the familiar and row his way to greater heights (more reasonable and achievable goals, not necessarily high achievements, which by the way is very traditional), to broader horizons for research and intellectual growth, and based on a personal experience, to get into a deeper understanding of WHO you live for, and eventually shredding off the thought of merely existing for trivial matters.

During one’s period of struggle, he learns more and becomes more mature.

Challenges are what makes learning beautiful. There is promise in it too.

Aaron G. Laylo is a research student at the University of Tokyo, focusing on international affairs and youth involvement in socio-economic development.


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