Adapting to New Culture and Environment: My Experiences of Studying in Japan and Australia

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Spring in Tokyo with blooming Sakura

When we study abroad, we would not only enrich academic knowledge, but we would also learn about the little things about the country’s culture. Such as how punctual the people are, or how they address their elderly. In this article, Indonesia Mengglobal’s Contributor Shabrina Atrasina shares her experiences and reflections from adapting to Japanese and Australian cultures.

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Acquiring new knowledge and skills may not be the only reason of pursuing education overseas as it offers much more than that. Studying abroad also means a chance to encounter, feel and examine local culture and how we can adapt to it. The opportunity to immerse myself in new environment is by far the most interesting experience which has shaped who I am right now. Alain de Botton in his book, The Art of Travel, wrote about the importance of getting out of home or comfort zone to know more about ourselves.

It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, who may not be who we essentially are

By stepping my feet out of the house, I could learn how to adapt to new environment with all of the differences in educational systems, working environment and communication styles. I have been more than blessed to get the opportunities to pursue bachelor’s degree in Japan and master’s degree in Australia.

Now that my study has almost come to an end, I reflect upon the experiences of studying in Japan for four years and currently in Australia since the beginning of 2018. My experience of studying in Japan has shaped my personality to be discipline, paying attention to details, and more considerate of other people’s feelings. This article outlines my experience of transitioning from a homogenous culture with high level of punctuality and orderliness in Japan to a more diverse and laidback environment in Australia.

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Japan

Japan has been notoriously known for its high level of discipline and punctuality. It can be seen in the punctuality of the public transport in Japan, which generally arrives according to the schedule. People also line up orderly while waiting for the bus or train. I was reminded of how important it is to be punctual when I was working part-time at a restaurant. In my first shift, I came to the restaurant at 5 PM, since my boss told me that the working time started from 5 PM. To my surprise, he said I should have arrived 15-20 minutes earlier to change my clothes and prepare myself so that I could start working at 5 PM sharp. This experience has not only encouraged me to be more disciplined, but it also taught me to plan my study schedule accordingly as I needed to balance between study and part-time job.

Saying otsukaresamadeshita

Saying this word is one of the things that I miss the most from living in Japan. This word cannot really be translated to other languages. If we put this word up on Google Translate, it will be translated as “you are tired”, which does not reflect the actual meaning. People in Japan say this word every day after they finish working to their colleagues to respect their hard work. However, I also said it to my friends in the university when we finished our meeting for class assignment or event preparation. When I came back to Jakarta, it felt weird to not say this word again every day.

The significance of changing seasons

Changing seasons in Japan can be noticed not only from the change in temperatures as the new season is often followed with special festivals and events. Starting from spring where many people gather in the park for picnic (hanami) to summer festivals with spectacular fireworks where we can also find wide range of yatai (Japanese street food) and many people wearing yukata (traditional Japanese cloth).

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Australia

My experience of studying in Japan was enriched by its beautiful culture and traditions as well as its orderliness and punctuality. It has also equipped me with the skill of adapting to new culture quickly. However, it is different from what I have discovered from studying in Australia so far, where the environment is generally more relaxed and laid back. It is safe to say that my experience in Australia has become a reminder for me on the importance of work-life balance.

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Old Arts clock tower – The landmark of the University of Melbourne

Casual and relaxed environment

From my internship experience at a research agency in Melbourne I have been aware that many offices in Australia have a relaxed working environment with less hierarchy between senior and junior. Many companies have also adopted flexible working hour to enable employees to work from home if needed. This experience was a stark difference compared to when I was in Japan where the employees had to be punctual and arrive in the office before 9 AM and it was not uncommon for them to stay in the office until late night.

In this research agency, the working hour starts from 9:30 AM and the employees usually leave the office at 5 or 5:30 PM. They also have weekly yoga session in the office. These steps are considered as important to maintain work and life balance and avoid stress since the employees could have the chance to do some exercises after work or gather with their loved ones. Relaxed working environment can also be found in most of the stores in Australia which usually close at 5 or 7 PM, compared to the stores in Japan or Indonesia which are open until 10 PM.

Straightforward and active

Based on my experience at the university, Australian students are very active in the class to express their opinions and even argue with the teachers. This environment is different from when I was in Japan where most of Japanese students were less outspoken in giving their opinions. Therefore, it has motivated me to participate in the class discussion by reading the materials before the class (usually in the form of 10 to 20 pages of journal articles and lecturers’ slides) so I could prepare myself to join the discussion.

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The transition from living in one country to a new one might not be easy, so here are few things that I did to adapt to a new environment.

  1. Traveling

Upon arriving at a new place, I always try to explore new places and travel around as I believe we can discover new things from traveling. For example, when the first time I set my feet in Tokyo, I was surprised of how crowded it was. All people seemed to rush in the train stations to get to their offices on time. Meanwhile, the city where I stayed for four years was unbelievably quiet and peaceful. This difference, among others, can only be discovered after I stepped my feet out of the house.

  1. Try something new

During my study in Japan and Australia, I always try to spend my time to join activities outside of campus which I have never done before, from teaching English to Japanese students, performing Indonesian traditional dance in cultural exchange events and becoming tour guide. The reason why I keep doing this is because I feel this is the chance where I can truly interact with local citizens and immerse myself to get to know their cultures more deeply.

Performing Ratoh Duek dance and introducing Indonesian culture to primary school students in Melbourne
Performing Ratoh Duek dance and introducing Indonesian culture to primary school students in Melbourne
  1. Be open-minded

Becoming a foreigner in a new country with different cultures and traditions is surely not easy with many new things which can leave us puzzled and surprised. For example, I found that there is a different style in interaction between students and lecturers. When I was studying in Japan, I needed to write e-mails in a very polite Japanese language to my lecturers. I also called them with ‘sensei’ or ‘Mr/Ms’. In contrast, I found the interaction in Australian university is more relaxed as I could call my lecturers by their first names. This example may seem small, but it makes me aware of the need to be open-minded to any difference and how I need to put myself in a new environment.

Meanwhile, many of my friends and my colleagues were not familiar with the routines that I have been doing since years ago, such as fasting during Ramadan. I received many questions from them about what fasting is and why I need to fast. Fasting may not seem extraordinary in Indonesia, given the large number of Muslim populations in the country. However, it may be a new experience for my friends here, thus it is important to be open up to discuss fasting with them. All of my friends truly respect when I perform fasting and do not consider it as weird and they even reminded me when it was time to break the fast and offered some foods.

Lastly, I would like to highlight the need of respecting other people, including their traditions, cultures and routines as a key in adapting to a new environment. Although it may seem obvious, I believe it serves as a constant reminder to ourselves wherever we are.

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Photos provided by the author