Purple leaf

Overcoming cultural differences to build confidence and compassion

Stephanie Tse studied at Akita International University in Akita, Japan for the Fall 2017 term. She is a Political Science student on the Waterloo campus.

As cliché as it sounds, I decided to study abroad because I want to become a much worldlier person. Perhaps one of the best ways to fully experience a culture is to live it, which is exactly what I would be doing as an exchange student. The benefits of studying abroad are almost endless. More and more companies are realizing that they need people with international experiences, who can speak different languages, who can transition easily into other cultures and who bring to their jobs a sensibility and a sensitivity for other people. Aside from gaining an understanding for cultures other than my own, I would also gain intangible life skills. Independence, time management, organization, communication skills and self-confidence, just to name a few, were all skills I realized I had refined during my time studying abroad.  

However, I faced many challenges during the time I spent in Japan. Japan is known as a unique country with a very distinct culture. I was under the impression that Japanese social conduct rules were very strict and my habits and mannerisms could easily offend Japanese people. There are a lot of informal and unsaid social rules in interactions with others. In my first weeks in Japan, I was too intimidated to interact with Japanese people. As a foreigner who could not read or speak Japanese, I was afraid that I would be judged and condemned for my “rude” behaviour, but I never encountered either of those things. Every Japanese person I met was extremely polite and understanding. Despite all the unsaid social rules, Japanese people are very tolerant of foreigners’ lack of knowledge on these rules and perceived impolite behaviour.

It was quite challenging to learn all these informal social rules. Even after having lived in Japan for almost five months, I still did not fully understand the different levels of politeness when talking to others. I often found myself not showing the correct amount of respect to strangers or using certain phrases in the wrong situations. Regardless, even when I make a mistake, Japanese people tended not to be offended by my impolite behaviour. Anywhere I went I was treated with the same high-quality service that native Japanese people receive, despite the language barrier.

One of the most challenging aspects of studying in Japan was breaking the initial language barrier. Japanese students are particularly shy and are very soft spoken about their opinions, even in small-sized classrooms. They are very self-conscious about their English-speaking levels. The best advice I received was to take the first step. No matter how shy Japanese students can be, they are also very friendly and opened up to me once I introduced myself.

Studying in another country and travelling around the world helped me to develop compassion. Interacting with people of different national and cultural backgrounds and listening to their opinions and beliefs helped me to expand my views and become more understanding. We could always use more compassionate, young leaders out there in the world, people who are willing to step outside their comfort zones and be open to wiping away misconceptions. Living in the global north, it's very hard to push yourself to step out of your comfort zone. When you're struggling with a language, new foods, and learning directions, being forced to make friends and do things that you wouldn't normally do is going to set you up for a lifetime of value. It's going to make you a better student and human being. It goes without saying that my study abroad experience was a positive one.