Read the second part here.
We are currently quarantined for 14 days in a hotel in Narita as part of the government’s rules for foreigners entering Japan. Of course, the quarantine has not hindered us from delightfully experiencing Japanese culture and local sights at all. I started posting my student exchange journey on my Instagram and Facebook accounts. So far, it has engaged a lot of people. As of this writing, I’m happy to say that my two previous write-ups in my Revolt Magazine column have earned praise from my colleagues and program coordinators from AFS Philippines and Japan. Kids who want to try their luck with exchange programs are interested, too.
My school and esteemed journalists like Ma’am Eunice Barbara Novio have also given their congratulations and thumbs-ups. Consider this a short dance of joy from an aspiring writer like me. On to my story!
The Baby Foreign Correspondents
What has made an immense impact on me was meeting some fellow exchange students who also wanted to be journalists. Faiza, a participant from Indonesia, approached me after their photo-shoot in the country to discuss my article. I was surprised when she told me that she wanted to become a journalist, too, someday.
She also knows the struggle of press freedom around the world. These difficulties did not hinder her from reporting information to Indonesian households. I am glad that I met someone whom I might bump into and collaborate with in the future. It is a must to befriend anyone who is in this exchange program. You never know, maybe one of us will become a president one day and herald much-needed changes in our countries. That might be useful for a scoop or if I find myself in a bilateral meeting as an ambassador for the Philippines. The bigger your circle of international colleagues and friends, the more you learn about other countries’ customs, traditions, and culture.
I look forward to seeing Faiza publishing her articles and meeting her again at a future conference, or at an ASEAN Summit Press Center, APEC Summit, or the Olympics’ coverage. Writing about our exchange program journey is good practice for our future careers so that we might collaborate in the future.
In 10 or 15 years, I might see Faiza reporting for Indonesia at the IBCs of major events such as the ASEAN Summit, APEC Summit, or Olympics. I will cheer for her as I wait for my turn on Philippine TV.
When I entered Narita, I did not experience culture shock because I already predicted what Japan’s ambiance might be like. The place was clean, and there was fresh air. What struck us the most was how cold the air was. If I am not mistaken, we landed at Narita when the temperature was hovering at about 18° Celsius. We immediately got used to the cold. My fellow Filipino participants whined last time about how hot their rooms were getting because the cold air wasn’t blowing inside. They had to turn off their heaters.
I admit that some of the exchange students are already showing early signs of homesickness. Homesickness is inescapable because we are comprised mostly of teenagers who have just been plucked from their comfort zones. Gladly, we’re all here to help each other with our homesickness. We’re trying to focus on and enjoy the four-month-long exchange program that we dreamed of and waited for a year.
We say “Sumimasen” when asking a question and “Arigatou” when saying thanks. I practice these words frequently because I wanted to start fitting in with Japanese society quickly. We discovered a language bonus when we arrived, too. Both the Filipino and the Japanese use the word “ano” as a filler while still looking for the right words during a conversation. Using “ano” while struggling to speak like a two-year-old Japanese (because of my grammar) made me feel kawaii at one point.
What makes me respect the Japanese even more is their discipline.
As I begin my exchange program here in Japan, my country is just starting to feel the extent of the damage that Typhoon Ulysses wrought. Government negligence and the snail’s pace of government response pushed Filipinos to air their grievances online. Universities began promoting academic breaks as a form of protest.
President Rodrigo Duterte still flexes himself as a strongman during his late-night press conferences and rants about Vice President Leni Robredo’s fast response during the typhoon. Let’s not forget his misogynistic jokes. Also, NCRPO’s Debold Sinas was suddenly promoted by the President as the new PNP Chief even after his well-known blunder of breaking quarantine protocols to celebrate his birthday with his colleagues.
Filipinos defending these actions often say: “You critics always whine! Look at Japan; they don’t rant so much about their government, they always obey what their leaders say, shame on you!”
Well, guess what? The Japanese also protest!
They even put the protest in children’s films. A good example would be the renowned Ghibli Animation film, From Up on Poppy Hill, where one of the main themes is student activism. The film’s protagonists protest the demolition of the school’s old clubhouse, Quartier Latin, in preparation for Japan’s redevelopment during the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics.
Well, guess what? The Japanese also protest!
The main characters, Umi and Shun, first met each other during Shun’s protest at school. He wanted to tell fellow students that the Quartier Latin should be saved. Together, the students find ways of saving their school’s clubhouse.
In Japan, people protest whenever their government does not satisfy their expectations. Japan’s Twitterverse was bombarded with Shinzo Abe memes when the former Prime Minister decided to give only two facemasks per household. The Japanese people were disappointed with the initial COVID-19 plan as well.
What makes Japanese government officials different from their Filipino counterparts is once they are criticized, they work double-time to show that they still deserve their government posts. They also listen closely to public feedback, or backlash, in some cases. Whenever a public official is involved in a scandal or even if some public official makes an inappropriate statement or joke, the Japanese officials will not hesitate to apologize to the public and resign from their posts. Perhaps this is something that Filipino government officials should do.
We discussed in our online seminars here that Japan is a conformist society. Everyone must follow the rules. Following the just principles of law will stamp out these public officials with faces as thick as cowhides. Philippine officials are known for abusing their power, even the law, to get what they want. In the process, these undesirables in public and administrative positions eventually harm those below them.
Here are the things that I’ve realized in my first week in Japan.
Day 1: I will surely get fat during the exchange program because I keep falling for Japanese food. This has been happening since the first day I’ve arrived.
Day 2: Doing laundry with a commercial washing machine is not hard at all. But yes, Mr. Bean inflicted childhood trauma on me.
Day 3: It’s fun to see the Christmas tree, but I realize that I am no longer a kid. Celebrating Christmas is weird for me now that there’s COVID-19. Christmas this year is incomparable to how it was celebrated before.
Day 4: Nattou is not “yucky food.” Sure, the texture might be weird and disgusting in the mouth, but the taste is not bad at all. It reminds me of okra. I need to drink a lot of water after eating okra.
Day 5: Celebrating a relative’s birthday overseas is difficult, especially if the Wi-Fi back home is “God knows why they’re charging us so much, but why are we not getting good service?” I’m not so sad or stressed over the situation, but Philippine connectivity will make you regret calling folks back home.
Day 6: Vending machines are cool. I wish the vending machines back home were cool and fair to users, too.
Day 7: The Japanese made tea preparation so posh that I feel so expensive and classy while drinking tea, even if I’m a coffee person.
And that’s it! Exchange programs do change people a lot. It is not for the fainthearted, and your values and culture will always be questioned and compared day by day.
To the kids who want to try joining an exchange program, I hope you guys are mentally fit to face tremendous pressure. It will push you to your limit. However, it’s still up to you if you want to change while still under the program or stick to your comfort zones. However, if you fail to change, your mind will be closed to the more holistic side of intercultural learning.
And to the kids interested in entering the Asia KAKEHASHI Project, please remind yourself that once you enter the program, you should always do what the Japanese people expect you to be:
An Asian student that is willing to be immersed in their society. Be willing to teach the Japanese students your culture for better knowledge and understanding. Give back to your country what you learned from being in their community after finishing the exchange for the program.
The Japanese taxpayers will fund your leisure and studying here in Japan. Show them that their taxes have not been wasted.
I believe that achieving this goal would be the greatest “Arigatou gozaimasu!” that you can give Japan.