So in 4 months I might be able to hug a koala bear. On the other hand, I could also be bitten by a deadly spider and die.

Back when I was in elementary school, I had big dreams.

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Today, I still have big dreams.

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Ok, well.

There’s more to it than that.

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Hmm.

I’m not helping my case.

Alright, fine. I’ve wanted to go on a long-term study abroad program for a while. When I went to Germany and Japan I felt as though it wasn’t long enough. It was like I had only started to get comfortable, know the culture, and make friends when I suddenly had to return to the USA.

On the classic exchange student graph

I had only really ever reached here:

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I never had culture shock, just culture surprises. I wasn’t around long enough to get homesick. And this might sound strange, but… I feel like I missed out on those. I want to learn how to adapt. I want to take the challenge of being in a new place and a new culture. I want to go through the shock, the depression, and the uncomfortable adjustment.

And, I want to beat it. And have a smashing good time.

But that’s just me.

I’m cheating a little. Australia’s an English-speaking country, which already makes the adjustment 10 times easier. I couldn’t help it, though– as I researched programs through Northeastern, Australia seemed to be one of the only nations actually offering biology courses to international students.

So, last October, I declared to my parents that I was going to apply to the University of Sydney. (I was actually hoping to go that fall, but I postponed it when my German host sister decided to visit America.) I went to my study abroad office. I called my academic advisor. I checked the USydney website. And I submitted my application.

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And I waited.

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Finally, a couple weeks ago, I opened up my e-mail at work…

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I was accepted! University of Sydney accepted me for their “winter” semester (our summer time) running from July to November! Whoa geez. I guess I’m going to Australia!

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I still have things to do before it can actually happen, though. I have to find my own housing in a city on the other side of the world. I need to apply for my absurdly priced $600 visa. I have to book that $1,000 one-way ticket to Sydney. Did I mention that Sydney’s one of the most expensive cities in the world?

But, yeah. I thought I’d just let you know.

Coming soon in Vy’s life: Platypi, potoroos, and poisonous things!

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If I ever tried eating mucus, I imagine it’d be something like this.

One of the cooler things I got to experience in Japan was 回転寿司 (kaiten-zushi, also known as conveyor belt sushi). There is conveyor belt sushi in America (and, recently, Boston!) but I never had the chance to try it before.

Conveyor belt sushi is exactly what it sounds like: sushi on, well, a conveyor belt. Basically, the restaurant has a giant circular conveyor belt that is constantly moving. On the inside of the circle, sushi chefs are constantly making new maki and sashimi and placing their completed plates on the belt. Patrons sit on the outside, watching the plates go by and nabbing the ones that they want. It’s a strange combo between a fast-food and a sit-down restaurant.

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You can get whatever and however many plates you’d like (each plate only had two pieces of sushi) but in the end, you will have to pay for them. At our restaurant, the plates were color-coded according to price like so:

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So I had to be careful not to eat too much. And given the number of strange and enticing sushi rolling by, this was hard to do.

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If you’re not careful, the cost can add up quickly! My group, comprised of only poor college kids, was cautious. We were pretty amazed by our fellow Japanese diners, though.

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At the end of your meal, you call over one of the servers to tally up your plates. I’m not sure how this worked, but our servers has some awesome scanning device that did this automatically!

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I admit that I’m not the bravest sushi eater. I’ll eat my raw salmon, my raw tuna, my eel and shrimp. But I’ve never found sea urchin or roe or squid to be particularly tasty. This time, however, I was feeling adventurous. I decided to grab this plate:

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In case you’re unfamiliar with it, that’s natto– a popular and traditional Japanese food. It’s really just fermented soybeans. Looks harmless, right?

Now look at this picture of natto.

And this one.

And– uh, I don’t know what Google Images is trying to tell me, but you can look at this one too.

Explanation: There is none.

So now you somewhat have a sense of the texture of natto: half slimy, half sticky, viscous enough to form strings when it is mixed. I can’t really demonstrate natto’s flavor, but I can give you a description from Wikipedia: “nutty, savory, and slightly salty,” with a smell “somewhat akin to a pungent cheese.”

Japanese natives enjoy asking foreigners if they’re able to eat natto or not, since it has a very strong scent and flavor. It’s like a test. A test of… Japanese-ness. Natto is an acquired taste, they say, obtained only by the Japanese natives who grew up with it. Well, I was determined to take this test. As an exchange student, I had to try ALL the foods!post 113 image 7

That’s one taste I was never meant to acquire.

6 ways to make your study abroad more awesome

When I went abroad to Germany, I was pretty nervous. I would be living with a family I had never met before. I didn’t know anything about German culture. I was determined to make my trip a success, but still had some reservations.

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Being an exchange student is not a competition, but some kids definitely do better than others. Every trip is different. Some students aren’t ready to go abroad. Some familes aren’t ready to host. The organization I went through, Youth for Understanding (YFU) tried to teach us how to make our travels successful. We went through a pre-departure orientation, an arrival orientation, and even an orientation at the end of our trip— let me just say I’ve had enough icebreakers to last a lifetime.

They offered some advice, which I offer to you now. Not all exchange students have the luxury of being over-orientated like I was, so they have nothing to dispel their worries.

So, I present…

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…a list of 6 quick, messy tips!

1. Eat ALL the things!

Food is important! When you’re abroad, your host parents may cook for you, or buy food for you, or take you out to eat. If you don’t like a food, fine– but try it at least once. Your family wants to share their culture with you, and food is a huge part of that culture.

I met an Indian-American girl who became an extreme example of this when I went to Germany:

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Not that I’m saying that anyone should give up vegetarianism, especially if it’s important to you. However, be ready to try new things! Go to your country with an open mind. Remember, you’re the odd man out here. You’re going to have to adapt to your new country, just as they have to adapt to you.

2. Expect nothing.

After I announced I was going to Germany, everyone had expectations for me.

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Although I applied to go to Japan, I was sent to Germany instead. Though I was a little disappointed at the time, in retrospect it was a good thing. I’m obsessed with manga (surprise!) and I therefore had a very unrealistic view of what my Japan trip would be like.

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This might sound pessimistic, but if you go in with overly high expectations, you may be disappointed. Not all students have the best experience. Before I went to Japan, my Japanese tutor who went on the same trip frequently told me,

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And this isn’t a bad attitude, either. When you have no expectations– none at all– you can go in and appreciate every experience for what it is, instead of thinking about how much better it could be. I went to some amazing places in Germany, but I also spent a lot of time just hanging around my host family. Both ends of the spectrum, to me, were equally valuable.

3. Hang with the natives.

Exchange students tend to stick together, which makes sense. In a strange, new land, there’s a group of people who speak your language, know your background, and understand the way you think. Who are you going to gravitate towards?

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Running around and looking at famous sites is fun and all, but it doesn’t immerse you in the culture. The best way to learn about your host country is to talk to people who know it the best– the people who have lived there their entire life. At the very least, try not to be a “guest” to your host family. Help around the house, hang out, and talk to them!

Talking to natives can be a bit difficult, though, which brings me to the next two points:

4. At least attempt to learn the language

and

5. Don’t be afraid to sound like an idiot.

My German host family speaks English, so I was able to speak with them fairly well. I tried hard to learn a bit of German, though. I even purchased a phrasebook before departure. One of the phrases I still remember:

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I did became frustrated when I met people beyond my host family. Not many of my host family’s friends or relatives spoke much English.

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I did a little better when I went to Japan, since I had a slight knowledge of the language. Still, that didn’t stop me from speaking terrible Nihonglish. Some of the stuff that came out of my mouth was preeeettttyyy dumb.

Like during my homestay in Japan. I spent my homestay with another American girl, who’ll I’ll call “K” for anonymity.

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So go! You don’t have to sound as dumb as me, but don’t be afraid to speak the language. Even if you get it wrong, people will appreciate the effort. It’s better to communicate a little rather than not at all!

But as you’re off adventuring, and learning new things, and seeing new places, a feeling– one of the most unexpected, gut-wrenching feelings– one that can and has sent kids home and ruined exchanges– is going to hit you.

6. You’re going to get homesick.

I’ve never been abroad for a extended period of time, so I don’t have much experience with this. But I can attest to the stress that comes with going abroad. The climate is different. The food is different. The language is different, forcing you to concentrate all day, every day. A lot of students experience exhaustion their first few days abroad.

When it really gets bad, I hear, is about three or four months into your exchange. By then, the “honeymoon” period of your exchange has worn off. The novelty is gone. Yet three months is a very short time within which to make friends (at least for me, but I am friend-making-ly challenged) so many students find themselves suddenly craving the familiarity of home.

My best friend from high school hosted a girl from France for a year. Sure enough, a couple months into her exchange, my best friend confessed:

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While you’re wrapped up calling home, though, you’re missing out on what’s going on around you. Time spent talking with your real family is time missed talking with your host family. YFU told us, many, many, times:

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Because, more often than not, kids encounter this problem on their exchange. (They even told kids on short-term exchanges to leave their laptops behind, to avoid hiding behind a computer screen all day.)

When I went to Germany, I actually wasn’t expecting to get homesick. I was only there for six weeks. But sure, enough, when I Skyped my parents…

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And then my friends…

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Of course, I never got to the OMG-I’m-miserable-here-send-me-home-right-now point, but I did feel those pangs of homesickness. After you hit that low, though, your exchange slowly gets better and better until, by the end, you don’t want to go home anymore! And then you go home and get reverse culture shock, which is a whole other story.

I guess, in the end, all of these tips really boil down to one thing:

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You can’t truly enjoy the country if you aren’t in the country. Not just physically there, but mentally there as well. Immerse yourself!

So, to all you prospective exchange students? Don’t be scared: go abroad! No two exchanges are alike– and some kids do have bad luck– but most kids have a blast abroad. (I did!) In the end, your experience is what you make of it. And the things you can learn from your experience… well, that’s a whole other post in itself.

Now go board a plane and spread your awesomeness elsewhere.

High schoolers! Don’t know where to start? I super-believe in studying abroad, so I’mma link to two organizations I know are legit:

Youth for Understanding (I used this one! If money’s an issue, there’s a ton of scholarships available, like the full-ride I got to Deutschland!)

AFS Intercultural Programs (A girl I knew used this one to go to Japan– they offer partial scholarships.)

Post-abroad blues for the softcore traveler

For more photos from my Japan trip, check out my tumblr!

I’ve blogged quite a bit about being in Japan—but I’ve neglected to mention what happens when you come home.

Granted, I’ve never been abroad for very long. Six weeks in Germany. Five in Japan. It’s not enough time to get over the “honeymoon” phase of being abroad, to really get integrated into the culture, to be a part of it. I can’t say, then, that I experienced true reverse culture shock—where you feel disoriented in your home country, where you have trouble reconnecting with your old friends, where suddenly it’s harder to live at home than abroad. Regardless, I had a bit of a jolt when I got back from Japan:

It felt a bit weird being back at home, where I wasn’t surrounded by my fellow exchange students 24/7 and we weren’t adventuring across Japan. Instead, I was back in the suburbs. Alone again. Parents out working, sister on co-op, all my friends with summer jobs. I dealt with the sudden change as any healthy college student would:

 This wouldn’t do. My mom informed me that it was sales season, so I decided to drive out to the mall.

Also a bad idea.

Perhaps a trip to the convenience store would help.

I actually got over the post-Japan blues pretty quickly, though. I was back with my family. I could see my friends. I missed the group of kids I had traveled with—but I knew that, once I got back to school, I would see them again.

I found it to be a little rougher when I returned from Germany. There, I had lived with the best host family. I had felt welcome there. By the end of six short weeks, I already felt, well, at home. I spent the first week back in the US doing this:

And, at this point, I was going through one of those great transitions in life: going to college. But instead of packing, getting ready, being on top of things, I was just kind of…

I had to attend my college orientation, where I spent the whole weekend going

My sister even called me out on it.

How did I get over it? Well, I suddenly found myself away from home and entrenched in my first year of college, in Boston. It was kind of like being shocked out of culture shock with another culture shock. And classes. And a great deal of homework.

So my journeys into “reverse culture shock” were minor, at best. I still want to return to Germany—and Japan—but I experienced no great surprises, no great upheavals. I still enjoy living in America; if anything, I can appreciate it more. Still, I was surprised at just how down I became after returning from such short trips overseas.

The best way to deal with the post-abroad blues? You just gotta look on the bright side, really! Which is something I’ve always had trouble with—but with all this blogging about Japan, it’s something I’ve got to do.

I have an Asian nightmare

I had a horrible nightmare the other night:

Oh wait. It doesn’t stop there. It gets better.

My sleepy subconscious was in legitimate agony. Yeesh. Dreams are weird.

Speaking of dreams, I forgot to mention here what is old news to my friends: one of my dreams is, indeed, coming true!

At the beginning of this semester, I applied for one of Northeastern’s Dialogue of Civilizations programs. These programs, exclusive to NU, are kind of like a summer study abroad, except with a much greater focus on cultural immersion and experience rather than just taking courses in a different country. For example, there are Dialogues where kids learn about healthcare in Australia, micro-financing in Cuba, or photography in Italy.

I applied for the Language Immersion Dialogue to Japan.

It was a bit of a long shot, actually. I’m just a freshman. My Japanese, when I applied, was… rusty. So when I went to interview for the program, I kind of freaked out:

But… I guess I did okay! Because, last month, I got an e-mail…

I was accepted! Oh my goodness gracious, I was accepted. I couldn’t believe it!

Especially because I’m the only freshman going on the trip. Everybody else is an upperclassman. I just… can’t… I don’t…

So this summer, from May 11th to June 19th, one of my longtime dreams is finally coming true. I’m going to Japan! 日本に行く!I’m still in shock, really. The best part is that my scholarship pays the tuition costs– so I’ll only have to pay about $700 instead of $10,000. Not a bad deal, for sure.

And this time, I’ll remember my camera!