A couple weekends ago we had our orientation at the College of DuPage for the Japan Program with Director Prof. Shingo Satsutani. Aside from me, the student for a summer, there are 11 undergrad students. And they are young. During discussions most barely had working memories of 9-11 and had not yet been born by the time the Persian Gulf War was over. Naturally this is not their fault, but I am wondering how different of a world view someone born in the 90’s might have from a child of the 80’s – and how this will impact their views of Japan? Does it matter that they grew up on Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh rather than Voltron and Godzilla? Maybe I should make a survey.

For many of the students this is their first trip out of the country, and for some it will be their first time away from home for an extended period of time. I’m interested in seeing how the trip affects them. Traveling doesn’t just reshape how you think of the world but also your perspective on home.

When I studied abroad in Thailand in 2002, at first, everyday was culture shock. Bangkok was nothing like the European cities that I had already visited. Rome, London, and Paris – sure they were foreign, but I could get by on my English or limited French and these places, as wellsprings of Western culture, didn’t feel too far from home. Yet Bangkok was full of the exotic: elephants roamed the night streets begging for bananas (that their touts conveniently sold), monks in bright orange robes punctuated crowds like spiritual exclamation marks, and street vendors selling foods I had never seen or smelled.

This was my first experience in South Asia, and even though I had done a lot of prepping and research, no books could fully prepare me for living in Thailand. As I first settle into my neighborhood in BKK’s Pinkao District, I noticed flower planters lining the streets that hosted these small, beautiful lotuses, blues and purples, nested in black water. When I stopped to look closer, I realized that beneath the surface swam tiny goldfish. They glittered in the sunlight, disappearing in and out of the murky water.

Seeing and diving beneath the surface became an important analogy for my experience of Thailand, and a way for me to not be overwhelmed by culture shock but rather to find wonder in simple things.

One of the problems when we call anywhere in Asia the “Orient” is that the out-dated term invariably puts an impossible distance between the Western and Eastern worlds and sets up China, Japan, or Iraq as an exotic otherland that we can’t possibly understand. There’s an imbedded complacency with the divide between “Us” and “Them.”  The East and West, however, are only true opposites on a compass-not culturally. Living in Asia as a foreigner requires that we let down the guards that defend our notions of what reality is and how it should be and learn to adapt to the terms of the new culture in which we find ourselves- or, at least, do our best to understand it.

Some of the best moments abroad are when you have forgotten that you’re not home because suddenly everything seems so familiar.  In those moments you are not disoriented, but anchored. Fixating on differences can make for good, exotic stories when you return to the comfort on your homeland, but finding similarities just beneath the surface can make it easier to forget you’re so far from home and become oriented in some place new.

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