“Mom, please, I want to come home,” I could hear my voice tremble as I spoke into my tiny, rented phone. I had never felt so low. It was the end of my time during my program, but I—in a phase of manic ambition—had scheduled nine days alone to travel across the country to visit, Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto before returning to Tokyo and catching a flight home.
“Honey,” she replied, her voice dripping with worry, “I can’t get another plane ticket. At the very least you have to stay in Tokyo for a few days.”
“I can’t, Momma, I can’t,” I blubbered, tears running in rivulets down my cheeks. This experience, with all its beauty, all the days in the sweltering sun, all the trips to Harajuku, Shibuya, Disney, and Nikko, and I couldn’t fathom staying one more night. The country closed around me, enveloping and suffocating me. Between the friendships and the delicious food and eye-opening experiences, there were the stares, loneliness, and isolation. It can become very difficult to live in a country and feel at home when you struggle with the language as ferociously as I have always struggled with learning any language, but especially Japanese. I found that when reading I could do just fine, but once asked to speak, a bubble would well up in my throat, blocking off any hopes of uttering a single coherent sentence.
At the beginning of my program I had failed the placement test—I still attribute it to the program using the textbook that most universities in America use while mine used an entirely different, much older book—and had to argue to be placed in the level in which I thought I belonged. It involved an interview, which I had tried to complete in Japanese, and become utterly horrified at my lack of capabilities. I was eventually put in the class as a result of outperforming in the level in which I was originally placed, however I couldn’t shake the feeling of overwhelming incompetency. Every time I would try to speak in Japanese, I recalled how I had run from the interview room at the end. Face reddening and tears coming quickly, I found a restroom, jolted into one of the stalls, sat on the floor, and bawled.
The world felt like it was coming down around me at that time. Bathing was terrifying, food was difficult to get (I still don’t know why I had trouble at first, I love most foods and am by no means picky), I couldn’t even speak to a professor without crying, and I was homesick. Being on the island while my family and friends awaited my victorious return at the end of the summer felt like suffocation.
Returning to the phone call with my mother, we sat in silence. I could feel her sadness and her wishes to make things easier for me when she knew she couldn’t. I gazed out of my bedroom window, cracked open in the dusk. The smell of vibrant summer grass wafted in and the birds chirped in the trees. I reflected on the beauty of it all, the way that at least this room felt like home, at the end of things, and I began to wonder. I began to remember the promise I made to myself on my birthday.
Was I afraid of this time alone in Japan? Yes.
Then I had to do it.
“Okay, mom,” I sniffled, “I’m okay. I’m going to figure this out.”