My first night in Japan was physically and mentally exhausting, but my communication struggles started at a FamilyMart with the food item pictured below.
I still don’t know what it was, but ordering it was extremely challenging. My interaction with the cashier went a little like this:
Me: *pointing to a kebab* “hi, what is that? Chicken?”
Cashier: *looks very confused* “This one?”
Cashier: *still questioning which item I was pointing to* “It is chicken.”
Something I should probably mention is that I am very indecisive, so after learning that it was chicken, I pointed to the flat eggroll (that’s what I’m calling it at least), and asked, “okay, what is that?”
The cashier informed me that it was pork.
It didn’t look unappetizing, so I pointed again and said, “I want one.”
It took two more minutes of nonverbal communication–pointing and excited nods–to finally get him to give it to me.
I was extremely frustrated with myself for not being able to handle that interaction better and I was angry that there’s even a language barrier at all (which is selfish of me). I should’ve studied common phrases, but I figured I would be fine.
After eating my food with my classmates and going back up to my room, I started to cry. I cried because I missed home, and since my international plan was not working and there was no wifi back at the hotel, I was unable to express my frustrations with the people I trust most.
Lessons Learned in Communication
Since then, I’ve learned a lesson or four.
- “Winging it” doesn’t always work. After all, research is the first step in the PR paradigm and I should’ve known better than to come to a foreign country with zero knowledge of the language.
- Nonverbal communication is vital for survival in Japan. It can be as simple as a head nod or as complex as putting your hand out in front of you to weave through crowded train cars. However, an “excuse me/Sumimasen” should go along with the latter.
- Not being constantly attached to your phone can actually be a good thing. Sure, not having data or wifi for the first week made it super difficult for me to communicate, but it made me more observant, Not only was I able to get the hang of navigating subway stations, but I was also able to pick up on more nonverbals.
- Homesickness is an unfortunate side effect of studying abroad, but there are a few cures: McDonald’s (for the comfort food and the free wifi that enables you to talk with loved ones back home), chocolate (always a good idea), and communication with classmates (because on study abroad trips, you’re never alone.)