What lies beyond the horizon

It feels like yesterday when I packed my bag, put my whole life in two suitcases and left the comfort and familiarity of my homeland to embark on the great adventure of a lifetime to fulfill the dream of live in a foreign country.

My acceptance into an exchange and teaching program brought me here to the land of the rising sun. After I arrived in Tokyo, the events and happenings that followed passed like a blur – paperwork, orientations and workshops. Shortly after, I moved to a city in the north of the country known as “the city of trees”. My apartment has an amazing view of the night sky and the street below. It is nestled in a very quiet and pleasant area, with lots of greenery and the magnificent view of a mountain on the horizon. I was beyond thrilled with this fresh start, like writing a new story on a blank sheet of paper.

But my euphoria didn’t last long, it quickly faded the moment I emerged from the seclusion of my room. When I started my new job, reality started to creep in. I’m not here for fun. The constant change and changes overwhelmed me. I was puzzled, excited and lost all at once. While I thought the studies and preparation I had done before coming here would be enough, they weren’t.

Every day I am surrounded by people who speak the same language that I don’t understand; and whose common values, customs and experiences are completely different from mine. Everything seems to be flowing smoothly, in sync and in perfect harmony, but I don’t seem to fit in. I had to face the challenges of cultural differences and language barriers. I felt stuck and lost in the linguistic and cultural complications where the tools for communication and understanding were hidden in a very hard to find place.

It took me some time to get used to all the adjustments and my limited Japanese skills became my biggest obstacle. Even doing the simplest errands like paying my bills, ordering food from restaurants, and running errands would end in a headache and confusion. Soon I found myself hardened into an unsophisticated mold of everyday life and the seeming remoteness of my existence. I started my day at work with “hello” and ended it with “goodbye”. Days went by with my interaction revolving around the awkward exchange of how are you, forced conversations about the weather, superficial comments about food and little else. Being an Asian in Japan with no traces considered foreign like having blond hair, white skin and blue eyes, didn’t give me much of a “gaijin pass” – a term we usually use when referring to privileges. to be a foreigner without the need to conform to Japanese norms and societal expectations.

Days turned into weeks, which turned into months, which turned into years. I can’t believe I’m getting closer to my third year living in Japan now. My life continued much the same, although learning the Japanese language changed the entire trajectory of my story. The journey was not easy, I struggled a lot and I still have. It took a lot of effort. The hard work demanded a lot of my time and resources and sometimes robbed me of a good night’s sleep. But in turn, it has enriched my life and given me a new and expanded perspective.

Despite the unappealing facade, it turned out to be such a great experience. From a mere spectator of the culture silently and critically observing from afar, I began to deeply understand the culture that makes up Japanese society. The sounds and voices I hear from people around me started to have meaning, I started to see clues and signals and the words came to life. They are no longer just empty noises, without depth, but a solid foundation that holds customs and traditions together. My genuine desire to know more about the country I live in has led me to establish a better connection and meaningful exchanges with the people around me. I participated in language exchange events, community groups, and made friends with local people who helped me explore local culture and language.

I still have a lot of trouble and I stutter when I speak in Japanese, the complexity of mentally translating the words from my mother tongue to English and then to Japanese is a real challenge for me. I have to constantly remind myself that the goal of language learning is not to achieve perfection but to create connections.


Gracelyn Feliciano, 29, currently lives in Sendai City, Japan. She has just passed the N3 level of the Japanese proficiency test.

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