Well, it has been about a month since I returned from Japan, and I think I have thought about my feelings at the time enough to sort them out. Oh yes, the handkerchief that my kind neighbor Mrs. Yamada gave me - "it's very absorbent," she told me, before she started crying - really came in handy on the plane out of Nagoya. But honestly I started missing Japan, and all the people I'd met there, long before it was time for me to leave. If you want to stop reading here, let me say that my general advice, whether you want to study abroad in Japan or elsewhere, is "Jump in, no regrets". Simply taking the plunge and going to a new country is part of that, whether you achieve all you set out to do or not.
Perhaps my problem is that the 5 months I spent there were too short. I feel I left with a lot of unfinished goals, and not so many achievements. As we entered May, I suddenly realized what little time I had left - counting in terms of Judou practice, rugby practice, karaoke weekends, and home-cooked meals at my homestay - and perhaps I worried more about leaving than about getting all the fun I could out of those last few weeks.
Maybe I am too slow a person for a one semester study abroad. As the days ticked by I couldn't help but think, "I was just starting to get comfortable," or "We were just starting to understand each other," or "I was just getting the hang of it." The days started warming up and I walked the six miles to school, and there was so much that I had been missing, and that I wouldn't get to seeing before I had to step onto the plane home. I suppose a lot of people say that study abroad is "for the experience," and maybe that implies a bit of a laid-back, "go with the flow" kind of attitude, but I wish I had more actively participated.
When I mention this aloud, people say, "but you did so much!'" So I went on all the trips; I said good morning to the neighboring Yamada family and they welcomed me home every day, and once I even made mochi with them; I joined the rugby club and they were so kind, funny, and receptive I want to cry thinking about it; I joined the judou club and they lent me a gi, and patiently practiced the same moves with me three times a week (still haven't gotten the hang of kosotogari); I ate with my host family and played hand games with my little sister, and watched my host brother play games on my lap top; I chatted and partied and over-ate with my fellow exchange students; and I learned so much Japanese, and enjoyed it, (maybe) even when classes seemed so long and never-ending I thought my head would explode.
But I don't feel like it was enough. As May wound closer and closer to its end, I wanted a do-over so badly it was all I could think of. This time, I thought, I'll say more to the girls in the Rugby club - because they won't mind if I make mistakes. This time, I'll ask them if we can hang out outside of practice, and not worry that I will put them on the spot. This time, I'll ask my host mom if there's anything I can do to help with dinner or the dishes, even if she declined the last time. I'll thank her again for the meal and not worry that she'll think I'm insincere if I say it too much. I'll join my host dad in a drink after work. I'll go to the club with my friends, even if I've never been to one before. I'll ask the black belts to randori with me, because maybe they don't think I'd be a bothersome beginner. This time I'll buy a bike and ride to school, and learn more about this city than I had.
As a person who is fairly quiet and slow to start, I set goals for myself in my endeavour to study in Japan. I thought that in the new environment I could finally manage to address all of the flaws I have, and in the process learn a load of Japanese, form a strong tie with my family, and make a ton of close friends. I think part of the reason I cried so hard as the plane left Nagoya was not only because I was leaving so many kind friends, and so many fun memories, but because I felt I had failed to change myself as much as I had, and therefore failed a lot of people.
Looking back on it, I don't think I would call my experience a failure. Maybe I tried to jump a little higher than should be expected of myself. More important than how much I did or didn't do is the fact that I've been touched by every person I met there. Japanese or not, close friend or not, whether I said so or not, I was honestly touched. Before I left Nagoya I sat and talked in the airport with my host father. I wanted to tell him that I was grateful for his kindness and his understanding, but I was worried that I had been too removed during my stay, and that it would sound insincere. I know I shouldn't have thought that. My host family was amazing - they were considerate and engaging and bright, like so many of the people I met. I wanted to leave an impression on Japan, but I think it's enough that Japan has left an impression on me; and it's a deep impression, despite my (unfortunately still present) reticence.
When I left my host family that morning, I said "I'll be back" -- 「行って来ます」. I didn't mean to. The moment I said it I felt like crying, because I knew I wouldn't be coming back, not for a long while, if ever. I laughed slightly and weakly said, 「あぁ、「行って来ます」じゃなく・・！」 "Oh, that's not right..." But thinking of that moment I know that despite the fact that I didn't grow as much as I had hoped, some part of something that was not me became part of me while I lived, laughed, cried, ate, and breathed in Japan, and no amount of "what if's" can make that any less important or wonderful.