Have Dictionary, Will Travel

2 October 2016

If you’re in need of an escape from the familiarity of Melbourne and your regular university routine, there are few greater undertakings than an international exchange program. Having recently returned from a year-long stint in Tokyo myself, I can confirm that across the sea you are treated differently, the food is often unappealing and your bed is alien. However, this is all to be expected. It is another thing entirely for your language to lose its meaning and your personality to require adjustment. For those of you intending to study abroad in the future, I’d like to illustrate and advise on a few of the less-discussed hurdles of living and speaking away from home, as well as the precious triumphs provided by such a leap into the unknown.

The inability to communicate will bring about a great deal of frustration. Your speech is your identity, after all. Displaying any emotion other than confusion is near-impossible when you’re scavenging your brain for a simple noun or verb. Conversations just don’t flow. They stop and start, stop and start; stutter here, stumble there. There are no textbook exercises; answer sheets and indexes won’t come to your aid. Even the most mundane interactions are tests of interpretation and endurance for both parties, but you’re additionally burdened by a faulty internal dictionary. There were so many times I wanted to argue but couldn’t! If you can’t properly express yourself, be it due to a lack of language ability, nerves or simply different cultural norms, your identity will take a beating. You’ve got to be open to criticism, to patronisation, to mocking and failure. On one day I proudly announced to a fellow dormitory resident that I was cooking a ‘pervert,’ mistaking it for the very similar word for ‘chicken.’ These mistakes are frequent and will leave you red in the face, but embarrassment is a good teacher. You won’t make the same mistake twice.

As an outsider, you will effectively have the communicative ability of a small child. However, there is an upside: you also have a child’s malleability and power of absorption. Talk to locals about the weather, about coffee, about sports or about television; it doesn’t matter. You can’t be afraid of seeming foolish or boring. Don’t fret about being uninteresting – fortune favours the bold. Actually using a language in real conversations is the best way to improve. Enrol in university classes that you personally find interesting, relevance to career path be damned! Punching slightly above your weight academically is a sure-fire way to improve language comprehension and enjoying the course content will ensure things stick. Following these recommendations will ensure improvement, but when all’s said and done – despite perhaps having recalled the vocabulary, conquered the syntax and perfected pronunciation – things do still go wrong.

Cultural differences will steer your ship of success off course. I once tried to start a conversation by jokingly calling a mutual associate “a little strange”. All in good fun of course, as Australians are to do. My conversation partner laughed awkwardly and was conspicuously uncomfortable, despite my considering the criticism harmless. Politeness was prudent and I’d broken an unspoken rule. You will live and learn in this fashion, adjusting your social parameters accordingly. With privacy being less of a priority where I stayed, conversations in the shared showers were commonplace. I was quizzed on my home country and university frequently in that odd collective meeting place – small talk indeed. It is both tactful and of your own academic benefit to accommodate these strange situations by keeping your head (and eyes) up and soldiering on. Practice is practice.

You won’t always be comfortable and won’t always feel in control. I regrettably elected for an accommodation overseen by a ‘dorm mother.’ The dormitory was installed with security cameras, and Big Mother was indeed watching. These frustrations, foreseen or otherwise, can be curbed by building a strong rapport with your neighbours. Nearby friends are indispensable aids for linguistic and moral support; they share in your humiliations and help dissipate your stress. Setting aside your own personal time and having an outlet, whatever that may be, is also a necessity.

Ultimately, an exchange program is about independence and growth. There isn’t any handholding. Dive into the deep end without a second thought but have a support network to prevent you from drowning. Maximise your experience by interacting with as many people as possible. You will create invaluable friendships with people from all corners of the Earth. This gives you perspective and modesty (not to mention the benefit of having contacts in other countries). Inevitably there will be unforeseen frustrations. The pitfalls are plentiful and the mistakes will be many. Oh, but the victories – the victories provide a sense of accomplishment unrivalled by any exam score. It isn’t all fun but the end is worth the labour.


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