One month left . . .

When I published my last post, I was about to join the first years for the week as my class was going to Vietnam. I was a bit nervous to met all of them because I didn’t know anyone, but like every other time I’ve been in this situation, I ended up making friends quickly, so I didn’t have to worry. One of my favorite things about that week was the music class they had, as I hadn’t taken one here. We played the guitar, and even though I was terrible, I enjoyed it. That weekend I went to Kobe with some of the friends I had made that week, we went to the Port tower and Be Kobe sign, and afterward, we went out for dinner. The best part about being here is getting to hang out with people and go to new places, so I always enjoy doing that. One thing that I haven’t done yet is go to Universal Studios. Since I got here, everyone had told me that I have to visit. During my winter holiday in a couple of weeks, I plan to go with all of my friends from the first year class, So I am looking forward to that.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Nara with my host family. Nara is famous for its historical sites and of course the deer. We visited the Great Buddha Temple and Nara park; it was nice to spend time with my host family as we don’t usually get to go on family outings because everyone is busy. However next week on Wednesday my host mother doesn’t have work so she got me the day off school so we can go to the Cup Ramen Museum. I am definitely overexcited about going, but I haven’t even had ramen since I got here, so I think my excitement is justified.

On the 2nd of December, I took the JLPT test. There are five levels of the JLPT ranging from the least difficult, Q5, to the most difficult, Q1. When I applied in September, I decided to do Q4 as that was the one that the Japanese exchange company said that most kids do and after looking at some practice questions online I decided that it was the best fit. The university that the test was held at was quite far away, so my host parents went with me because I had to change stations and whenever I’ve had to take the trains alone in the past I’ve messed up in some way. The actual test for Q4 has three sections Vocab, Grammar & Listening and lasts about 4 hours with 30-minute breaks in between each section. Listening was the easiest section for me, and Grammar was the hardest because there were long passages that you had to read to answer the questions which also means lots of Kanji.

It’s only a couple of weeks until Christmas, so lots of stores have put up their decorations and released their holiday-themed products. However, Christmas isn’t celebrated that much here, or at least not the way that it is in New Zealand. In Japan, Christmas is more of a thing celebrated by couples, and lots of people don’t even have the day off from work (like my host parents) or school as it’s not a public holiday. Luckily Christmas is during my school winter holidays because I think I would cry if I had to go to school on Christmas. Usually every year I go down to Tauranga where my grandparents and cousins live, or they come up to Auckland, and we all spend the holidays together. Christmas was probably my favorite time of year growing up, and I didn’t think I would miss as much as I have been. Usually, the weeks leading up to Christmas are spent shopping for gifts, baking mince pies and decorating the tree. My family had Facetimed me one weekend right after they had finished decorating the tree which I was especially sad that I didn’t get to do. So I went to Daiso, looked through all their cheap Christmas decorations and brought a mini glass tree that you can decorate yourself for 300yen to try and cope with the sadness. (It worked) I put on a Christmas playlist from Spotify and listened to two whole songs, (because the tree is tiny) while decorating the tree. It sits on my desk, and I get a little spark of happiness whenever I see it. Luckily I won’t be sitting at home alone wallowing in my own sadness on Christmas as I made plans to go to Karaoke with my friends. Not that I can sing, but the point isn’t to be good, so it doesn’t matter.

Anyway, it has still been a good month, a bit difficult at times but I got through it. As I’m writing this I have only one more month before I finish my exchange, I can’t believe how fast it has gone and all that cliche stuff that everyone always says. I’ll do my best to make the most of it though. I still have lots I want to do before I go.

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Character development

A few weeks ago our school had an open day for junior high schoolers to come and take a look around and learn about the school. My class is part of a global communications course, so they have an accelerated English program compared to everyone else. Some first, second and third years from the course gave presentations about their classes and experiences they had on different exchanges they had done so my homeroom teacher asked me if I could give a speech in Japanese to the students and their parents about my experience as an exchange student here. I don’t like public speaking and get quite nervous when I have to do it; however, I have given lots of speeches since arriving here and have gained confidence from that and feel more comfortable speaking in front of people. I wasn’t able to memorize everything I had written as I was only given a couple of days to prepare, so I was still a bit stressed out and had some nerves before speaking. Compared to the first time though, when I had to practice my self-introduction speech in front of everyone at the orientation in Tokyo, my hands wouldn’t stop shaking the entire time, I was significantly less nervous this time.

I also recently finally decided to join a club, I knew before I came to Japan that I wanted to join one, but I did procrastinate on doing so because I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do. I eventually ended up joining the art club. I was initially planning to go to volleyball but, like most sports clubs at my school they’re intense and have long training times. The girl’s volleyball club especially has long hours as they have practice in the morning before school starts and from when school finishes until 9 pm every weekday except for Mondays as well as weekend training. I decided that I wanted to join a club where I wouldn’t be home too late so that I was still able to have dinner with my host family and spend time with them and my friends on the weekend. With the art club, I get home around 6:30 and I luckily have my weekends free so that I can spend more time with the people around me while still getting the experience of joining a club. Because I had put it off for a while I was a bit worried to join a club but, like with everyone else I’ve met at my school they are very friendly and I get along with them well. It’s good to have something fun to do at the end of the day instead of just going home even if it does make the day longer than what I am used to in New Zealand.
Next week from Monday to Friday, my class is going to Vietnam as part of their course. So, since I’m not going with them, I’m going to be joining class 1-1 which is the same global communications course as the class I’m in now, just with the first years instead. I’m not friends with anyone in that class and I don’t think that I’ve met them before so I am a little nervous and worried. But it’s similar to when I first came here and went to my class for the first time, and that went really well so knowing that I’m trying not to focus on feeling worried and instead think about getting to meet new people and make friends.

I think that since getting here, I have begun to change a bit, especially with how I approach challenges or difficult things. I feel more self-assured and can trust myself more, in the past when confronted by something that made me anxious I would try my best to avoid it entirely, and this led to me missing out on opportunities or just making myself miserable by overthinking about all the negative outcomes or how things could go wrong. So far, there have been multiple things that I’ve had no choice but to do, and through doing those things that I would usually avoid, I’ve realised that it was all just in my head and that I would make situations out to be worse than they were before they even happen. So I’ve learned to not think too much about things and to do things even if they scare me because they usually turn out to be fun anyway.


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Sports festival & moving

On the 28th of September, we had our school sports day. In Japan, sports days are very different from in New Zeland. Generally, athletics days in New Zealand are focused on track and field events whereas Japan has lots of team games and relays. There are 21 classes at my school and everyone versus each other and gains points throughout the day from doing well at events that go towards winning. The events that I competed in were the 1000m ten person relay, Mukade which is a race where you are tied in a line by your feet together in a group of 10 people, and you have to complete a certain distance as fast as possible by all moving in synchronization. I also competed in Kibasen which is a game that you are in teams of four and you create a human pyramid with one person at the top that wears a hat. That person’s job is to try and steal the hats off of other groups while the people on the bottom run around maneuvering and steering trying not to get cornered by multiple teams as that makes it harder to defend. I also took part in a dance that all the third year classes do even though I’m a second year. It was nice to be able to take part in it as I was able to meet and spend time with new people. Last year my class came first in the sports competition, so everyone wanted to win again this year, we ended coming second overall this year, but everyone was still proud. I had a lot of fun and found it a lot more enjoyable than New Zealand sports day because of all the different games & and the team spirit that everyone had supporting the kids in their class and cheering for everyone. After the sports festival, I went out for dinner with some of the third years that I had become friends with during dance practice for the sports festival. It seems to be a tradition to go out for dinner with your friends afterward because there were lots of kids there from our school and others all still wearing their sports uniforms.

Being here I think my Japanese has improved slowly but steadily. It is hard to tell just how much I have improved since I got here because of the gradual increase. However, during sports day, I didn’t have any classes, and I went out for dinner afterward so I talked a lot to people the entire day and I could feel just how much I had improved.
Last Sunday evening I moved to my second host family that I will be staying with until I leave in January. During the day I went to Himeji with my host mother & sister as it was my last day with them. It was nice to be able to spend time with them doing something before I left. I was sad to leave them as I had grown close to them and felt comfortable with them. I’m in the same class as my host sister, so I’m able to see her but not the rest of my host family but they do live quite close by, and I am still in contact with my host family so I can visit them. That evening I moved my suitcase to my next host family’s house, and we went out for dinner. I had already met my host parents, and my host brother is in my class, but I was still nervous to live with them. I was a bit on edge that evening and Monday because I was nervous and when I start worrying about something I also get a little homesick. But I went out for most of Monday with my host brother and one of his friends for most of the day, and it was nice to get out of the house and be distracted by doing something. The next day after school I helped my host mother make dinner and because both of my host brothers had cram school and my host father was still at it work it was just the two of us for dinner. We talked while we ate, so like at my last house I felt more comfortable because I was able to spend time one on one with my host mother before spending time with all of my host family together. It is also more comfortable to hold a conversation with one person because it’s not as fast paced and I can talk to them at a better pace.

Overall these past few weeks have been easier other than moving on the weekend. I’ve had fewer mood swings and not felt as homesick, and I feel that I have adjusted better to daily life here in general and school although classes are can still be difficult.

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First month in Osaka

On the 25th of August, I arrived at Osaka station after a 3-hour bullet train ride from Tokyo. There, I met my current host mother and sister as well as the next family I’m staying with. I didn’t know in advance that I would be meeting anyone other than my current host mother, so to begin with I was quite overwhelmed, especially when everyone started to talk to each other to discuss plans about going to a fireworks festival that night, and I could barely understand any of what they were saying. After we arrived home, we went out to the festival only a short time later. (Which I had no idea was happening as I hadn’t understood anything at the station earlier.) Even though it had only been a few hours since I had arrived, as the evening went on, I became more and more discouraged to speak Japanese. I was excited and eager, to begin with, and tried my best, but by the end of the evening, I realised how little I could speak with everyone and follow the conversations they were having. My host mother and host brother from my next family that I was with could speak better English than I could speak Japanese and they were having to try and explain things in English lots of the time for me to have some idea of what was being said. I felt terrible because I thought that I should be better at Japanese than I was, these people were so kind to take care of me and let me live with them, and I could barely communicate with them.

The next day I was helping my host mother around the house with some chores, and I told her how I felt. She to me that it was okay, that I was likely to be overwhelmed, to begin with, and that the reason I am here is to learn, I felt better after having that conversation with her. I also (attempted to) talked to her about other things, school, New Zeland, family, even what my dream is (not that I really have one), and I felt closer to her and more comfortable after that. She is a very understanding and kind person. When she was a teenager, she went on student exchange for a month to America, so I think she can empathize with what its like to live in a foreign country that speaks a different language away from your friends and family for a significant period. Now that I have been living with this family for almost a month I feel a lot more at ease around everyone. I have settled into daily life and feel more comfortable than I did when I first came here.

Since it is summer in Japan right now the first week I was in Osaka it was still summer holidays, so I had no school, that gave me a reasonable period to settle in at home before everything started again. I was very nervous to start school especially meeting my classmates and having to give my Jikoshokai (Self-introduction speech) in Japanese in front of the whole school which was about 850 people. On Friday before school started my class had a test in the morning while I had an orientation of the school so after they had finished taking their tests I was able to meet them for the first time. There are 40 students in my homeroom. As I did my self-introduction, it was evident that I was very nervous, but I don’t think I made any mistakes. Afterward, I was able to talk to my class, it was a bit awkward, to begin with, because the conversation was stilted but everyone is very kind, and I am good friends with them now.

The next Monday I had to give my speech in front of the whole school at the introduction assembly in the morning. However, I was told on the spot that I was also going to go to the staff room and say it in front of the teacher. I don’t like public speaking and had been dreading giving my speech since arriving in Tokyo, however having it sprung on me gave me no time to worry about it, and I was able to present it confidently. Since I felt good about having just done it well, I wasn’t as nervous to do it in front of the whole school. When I got up on stage, I was a distance away from everyone and because there were so many people I wasn’t able to focus on anyone’s face and it was less nerve-racking than when I had to do it in front of my class. I did make a little mistake where I forgot the end of a word, but I didn’t realize until after I had finished, so It didn’t make me mess up the rest of the speech by focusing on it.

The rest of that week we were meant to start regular classes, however, the Typhoon hit Osaka the next day, and school was canceled for three days. Luckily no one I know was hurt, and there was no significant damage to our neighborhood or school we did lose power for the duration of that three days. And having four teenagers in the house with no power let alone wifi meant we were subject to the full extents of our boredom clearly shown by the fact that we were even forced to read books to stay sane. Summer in Japan is scorching compared to summer in New Zealand, and the average temperature was in the early to mid 30’s so lots of indoor spaces have airconditioning. When the power went out, we were subject to the full wrath of Japan’s summer. We did get to eat all the popsicles in the freezer because they were going to melt. So it wasn’t all bad.

On Friday I had my first day of classes. I had no idea what was happening. The way classes are structures the teachers will write on a chalkboard at the front of the room while the kids take notes, except most of what they write is in Kanji, so I can’t read or copy down what the teacher writes. I already struggle with science in English so in Japanese I am utterly lost. There is only one subject that I understand fully and excel in and that subject, unsurprisingly, is English. But in other classes, I’ve been taking note of words I don’t know the meaning of and then search them when I get home so I can improve.

I have settled in more and made friends in my class who are very friendly and help me if I don’t know where my class is or listen to me patiently while I slowly ask them something in broken Japanese. Also, hand gestures are a language in there own for me and are sometimes the only reason why people have been able to understand what I’m saying as I brokenly speak Japanese and flap my arms around trying to get the point across. I still have a long way to go with my Japanese, but I have improved a lot since I got here (despite just talking about how bad I am) and I have more confidence to try speaking even if I’m not sure what I’m saying is entirely correct.

– Katarina

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The Journey Begins

It is exactly two weeks before I embark on my journey as an exchange student in Japan, and I’m only slightly losing my mind as the date approaches. Counting down the months and days from December 2017 until now, the smaller the number gets, the more nervous and excited I become.

It was a spontaneous decision to apply for an exchange; one made back in December of 2017 after questioning my decision to go on a school trip to Japan for two weeks during the 2018 spring holidays. I knew my motivations behind wanting to go to Japan weren’t in line with what I was going to get out of that school trip and I was at a loss to do. Until I had the impulsive thought to apply for an exchange after being inspired by people making youtube videos about there exchange trips in Japan. One Monday night I had the initial idea to go on exchange, and by Friday I was sending in the first application.

The past seven months have been hectic from filling out the 20-page full application form, having a very helpful but slightly nerve-racking interview with Mari (the exchange coordinator) and buying all the necessary items needed for an exchange to also trying to finish all of my NCEA work before I go.

A few months ago I received an email saying that I would be staying in Osaka and attending Itami high school. I beyond happy as Osaka was one of the cities I hoped I would be placed. One aspect of school life I am looking forward to is joining a club as seems like an integral and unique part of being a student in Japan and it interests me just how invested hard-working students are towards their club activities.

I have been studying Japanese since I started high school but from what I’ve heard from other exchange students I should be prepared to be completely and utterly confused when I arrive. Not just from the language change but also the drastic difference in culture. Going from a rainy NZ winter to a 30°C plus summer in Japan will probably contribute as well.

To end the first post on my blog, I would like to say that I am incredibly grateful towards NZIIU for allowing me this fantastic opportunity and to my family and teachers for supporting me and making this possible.

During the next two weeks, I will finish my last minute preparations, pack my bags and say my final goodbyes as I get ready for the trip of a lifetime.

– Katarina