Japan and I: (almost) a love story out of the comfort zone

This post is a bit different. This is the story of how, a few years ago, I leapt out of my comfort zone, all the way across the world.

I’ve never been a particularly adventurous person.
I was a painfully shy child who loved to read tons and write fairy tales about animals going on adventures.

As a teenager, I didn’t find a lot of companions who shared my passion for learning. I was never the “cool kid” and I felt alone most of the time.

In my early twenties, I was happy to embrace university life. Not the party-hard-every-week kind of university life, but the reading-all-the-time-is-legit one.

Without a clear idea of what I wanted for my future, I enrolled in a BA in Asian Studies.

japan story

For a while, the idea of learning Japanese had been buzzing in my head. I didn’t know anyone who could speak Japanese, it was something totally alien to me.
In my mind, Japanese was the epitome of a challenge.

I still remember well the first time I consciously heard the language: it was in Kill Bill Vol. 1 when the Bride goes to have a chat with Hattori Hanzo. I don’t know how that short dialogue had such a big impact on me.

In university, I didn’t learn a lot of Japanese, though. The pace was slow and, to my shame, I didn’t expand on what I studied outside of the class. There were exams to pass, one after the other, movies to watch, new music to discover and gigs to go to.

Bit by bit, though, Japanese culture was growing on me. I got obsessed with Genji monogatari – by many considered the first novel ever written – and I wrote my dissertation on it. Finally, I got my degree.

What next?

The big jump

None of the people who knew me at the time would have imagined what came next.

I thrive deeply in my routines. Oh well, I actually suffer when they are disrupted.
I’m a creature of habit to keep under control the anxiety I’ve been struggling with for years.
I had never travelled by myself. I’m afraid both of being alone and of being with most people.

What were the odds of me deciding to move to Japan for a year?
Apparently, they were just enough.

In October 2012, I boarded the plane with a huge bag and a basic knowledge of Japanese.
I was leaving many important things behind.
I was also going to find many new important things, but I didn’t know that yet.

Naturally, I was excited about this new adventure. Most of all, though, I was terrified. I can’t count how many times I told myself “It’s too much, I’m not going to do it, I’ve changed my mind”.
But then I did it.

This was not a small step out of my comfort zone, this was a huge leap to the other side of the world. A country I had only known through pictures and books, a language so different from the ones I had learnt before, a culture that sits at the antipodes from my own.
I didn’t know anyone, I was out there in the world alone for the first time in my life.

When, after a whole day of travelling, I stepped in the 12 square metres room in Kyoto that was to be my home for a long, long time, I sat on the bed and cried.

Trying something new: life in Japan

Life had a whole different pace in Japan.
People bonded quickly, connected by the same experience of being far from home and in a country they didn’t understand well.

The seasons, in Japan so clearly defined by the changes of nature, passed fast.

In this new life of mine, I tried new things every day. I said “yes” more, I went out exploring new places by myself whenever I could.
Part of me thought that, far from the life I had before, I could be whoever I wanted.

In the meantime, my Japanese grew better, my understanding of the culture grew deeper. My local friends would mock me, saying that I was more Japanese than the Japanese. For a long time, I wrote a blog in Italian about my Japanese life.

I knew the names of the flowers blooming in each season, I knew all of the temples and shrines in Kyoto by heart.

I loved the traditional culture, I loved to bike everywhere through the Thousand-Year Capital, I loved learning new kanji and quelling my anxiety by writing them by hand, one after the other.

But I didn’t love hearing people whispering “外人” /gaijin/, a foreigner, every time I strolled out of the touristic paths. Neither did I love being asked, “Why don’t you just marry a Japanese man to get a visa?”. And I didn’t love being called spoiled when I said I didn’t want to work 7 days a week.

The more I understood Japan, the more I felt close to its secret core, the more I glimpsed a side of it I didn’t want to put up with.

I lived in Kyoto for 2 years, extending my initial student visa, and then decided that my future wasn’t there.

I left heartbroken, leaving a big piece of me behind. The person that sat by Kamogawa river, quietly crying on the day before going back to Italy, was a whole different person from the one that had arrived there.

Be scared and do it anyway

Since I broke out of my life in Bologna and moved to Kyoto, Be scared and do it anyway has been my way of living.

In Japan, I experienced all kind of feelings, all with the utmost intensity.
I was in love head over feet, I was the happiest, fullest I have ever been. I experienced true loneliness, I went through a black time of depression. My resilience grew strong and for the first time in my life, I did something completely by myself.

It would take a novel to write all of the things I learnt while living in Japan.
The one, big important takeaway that shaped my future life is that I learnt to do things I was terrified of.

I still am a creature of habit. I still need my routines to feel safe and to keep anxiety under control.
Still, since then I moved to two other countries, started my life from scratch, again and again, always being scared, always moving forward.

Introducing @nihonalmostalovestory

For a long time, Japan and I haven’t been on good terms.

I studied hard for JLPT – the language proficiency test – and passed N1, the hardest level. After that, I lost my way and my motivation, I had a burnout and left my big language love behind.

Then I started to teach Japanese to beginner learners and that rekindled the spark.
I’ve been thinking about new projects for a while.

Today, 3 years ago, I left Kyoto for good. Today I want to introduce @nihonalmostalovestory on Instagram: a new place where we can meet and talk about Japan and the Japanese language.

 

It’s all about learning Japanese one baby step at a time. I believe that slow, mindful, disciplined learning wins the race against fast-fluency hacks.

You’ve got to learn your hiragana and katakana, you’ve got to learn your kanji and how to write them. You’ll need time and effort to learn Japanese and I can promise you it’s going to be one rewarding challenge.

 

I have tons of ideas of things to share with you. There will be traditional and modern culture, quite a few pictures of my Japanese days, untranslatable words and interesting expressions, your weekly dose of grammar – because I’m a grammar-geek, after all!

It’s a newborn project and it’s going to evolve while I get to know you and what lights your curiosity, while we exchange ideas about Japan and we explore what you find difficult about the language.

Is there something you’d like to find on the @nihonalmostalovestory Instagram account? Leave a comment and let me know! I hope to see you there. 🙂

japan story

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Elena

I’m Elena Gabrielli, introvert, grammar geek & proud Ravenclaw :)
I’m on my way to start a slow learning revolution to help introverts keep anxiety out of language learning.

3 Comments

  1. Louise D
    18th April 2018 / 10:45 pm

    Hello Elena
    I have been reading your blog for a few months now. I have been studying Japanese since my first year in high school in….1969! I love it so much but have not always had time to keep it up but now….welll now…somehow I find I am a teacher of Japanese in a school and I teach all the grades from 5years old to 27 years old. My Japanese is still not strong and I study every day. I adore kanji and study it especially. In 8short weeks I will travel to Kyoto to do a months immersion course at Doshisha University. I am scared and excited. I had to wait until I was 50before. Got to go to Japan and have now been many times but Kyoto is my favourite so your stories are especially heartwarming for me. I am hurrying over to your Instagram site now. Thankyou for such delightful language opportunities on your sites.

    • Louise D
      18th April 2018 / 10:47 pm

      I pressed the Send button too soon. I only teach 5 to 17 year olds.

      • Elena
        Author
        19th April 2018 / 9:36 am

        Hi Louise, thank you for your lovely comment!
        I loved reading the story of how you made your passion for Japanese into your job.
        The journey with Japanese is an infinite one, I think – as it is with most languages. I still feel the need to improve myself every day, especially now that I’m teaching it, and that’s one of the things I love the most.
        Virtually meeting many people who share this passion and support my projects is definitely a big help and it encourages me to move forward.
        Best of luck for your immersion course in Kyoto, hope you enjoy your time there!