Originally, moving to the United States was not something I planned. I was 10 when my father told my family that we were going to have to move to the U.S., which I wasn’t very happy about. It was a big move, especially because I only had a minimal knowledge in English. But considering that I now have stayed in the U.S. for 10 years, I think it’s safe to say that I was able to face the challenges that came with living abroad.
First impressions—and culture shock
As expected, I went through a culture shock. At first, I started noticing how different things were, one of the examples being grocery stores. Everything—from shopping carts to the size of eggplants—was way bigger than in Japan, which I found amusing.
“In Japan, there is a saying that translates to “The customer is God,” and workers and receptionists treat customers with extensive (and sometimes excess) care and politeness. However, in the U.S., customers and workers seem to have equal status.”
However, I started becoming frustrated about how different things were in the U.S. compared to Japan. One example is the difference in customer service. In Japan, there is a saying that translates to “The customer is God,” and workers and receptionists treat customers with extensive (and sometimes excess) care and politeness. However, in the U.S., customers and workers seem to have equal status, more or less.
I was particularly shocked by this difference, but over the years, I’ve learned to observe both the positives and negatives of different cultural aspects, which can be quite interesting. This is one of the reasons I enjoy exploring about other countries!
I immediately felt the language barrier, as I had limited vocabulary in English. Keeping myself on track with schoolwork required great effort. At home, my parents helped me with homework, sometimes spending an hour on a single worksheet.
“I started picking up phrases and body gestures—which made me realize that people in the U.S. tend to use gestures more so than in Japan—and these helped me communicate with people around my age.”
Socially, the language barrier posed a great difficulty in fitting in with others in my age group. I just didn’t know what to talk about with them. People around me at school seemed to be talking about TV shows, but how could one talk about TV shows if one didn’t understand the language in the first place?
Nevertheless, I joined my siblings in watching the Disney Channel, which turned out to be a great help. I still had trouble processing what the characters were saying, but I started picking up phrases and body gestures—which made me realize that people in the U.S. tend to use gestures more so than in Japan—and these helped me communicate with people around my age. Yes, it did still take a while to get past the stage where I felt overwhelmed, but the comical atmosphere of the shows made the transition easier.
What I learned about language learning
I now feel comfortable using English, and even though I have a slight accent, many of my friends say that I speak English like a native. I’ve also been engaged in language learning, starting French in high school and picking up Swedish in university.
I’m sure that everyone has a different learning style, but I seem to have found what works for me. Learning about different language and culture requires a different mindset than, say, studying algebra or biology. I like putting myself in a “baby/little child” mindset.
“I would take in what others around me are doing, and I would imitate and try to do things their way. When in doubt, I try my best to ask questions.”
Having a mindset of a baby or a little child is helpful for two reasons: they are curious, and they aren’t afraid of making mistakes. When learning a first language, what we did was take in all that we could of the language that was spoken around us, and practice, practice, practice. We may have pointed at a grown dog and said “puppy,” but that error didn’t discourage us from learning. When we didn’t know what a certain thing was called, we might point to it and cue someone to chime in with a word so that we could repeat it and practice.
That’s the mindset that helps me learn new languages. The same goes for learning about a new culture. I would take in what others around me are doing, and I would imitate and try to do things their way. When in doubt, I try my best to ask questions—I need to continue working on that, though.
Moving has shaped who I am now
I do get homesick from time to time. Even though I’ve been visiting Japan every other year, there are times when I miss my friends and relatives and how the air there feels like.
However, living in the U.S. in a completely different environment from home has been eye-opening, as cliché as it may sound. It piqued my interest in foreign language and culture, which led me to participate in a summer program in France offered through my university, and now, I am even considering spending a semester in Sweden. Spending a good chunk of time abroad comes with its challenges, but I feel ready to take on it.
“One of the greatest thing about moving abroad is the people you meet. I’ve discovered so many great friends and gems that you can only discover after living in a foreign country.”
Also, one of the greatest thing about moving abroad is the people you meet. I’ve discovered so many great friends and gems that you can only discover after living in a foreign country for a while. I’m not sure if I consider the U.S. a “foreign” country anymore; it’s no longer a huge landmass that spreads itself on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a place where my friends—and even myself sometimes—call home.
If I could tell anything to my little 10-year old self—afraid to move to a completely different environment—I would tell him that moving has been the most influential thing I have experienced. I am grateful that my parents provided me with this opportunity. Sure, it can be daunting, but looking at my current self and how I’ve managed to get by, I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.
And if I could do it, anyone can!
Yuto Iwaizumi is an undergraduate studying Linguistics and French at the University of Pittsburgh in the U.S. He is interested in studying languages, and speaks Japanese, English, French, and some Swedish. He wishes to work in an educational or international setting after graduation.
When he is not studying languages, Yuto enjoys cooking, reading, and when money permits, traveling.
For those who speak or are learning Japanese: to keep up with his Japanese, he started a blog where you can learn more about his experience of going to a university in the U.S.
Interested in contributing to our “When I moved to…” series? Get in touch here!