The Homecoming

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Hello, London

It’s been just over a month since I left Japan.

At the point when I got off the plane in Heathrow I must have been awake for about 22 hours. And yet, I couldn’t stop talking. I was greeted by mum and my partner Theo, and they patiently listened to my ramblings. I couldn’t stop commenting on everything around me, such as how different the clothes people wear in England are.

That night, going to sleep in my bed, being able to hug my partner, was surreal.

The next day I woke up early because of jetlag and discovered a strange abundance of energy, a desperate desire to get something done. I dragged Theo to Tesco to get cooking ingredients and kept loudly commenting on how cheap the apples are, and how the new thin Digestive cookies are a disgrace. I finally got to use the new £5 note. I took joy and interest in every little activity that was so mundane to me before Japan.

Many people experience a sense of alienation when they return home from a long time abroad. For example, their family and friends have changed, and they struggle to adapt to that.

Well, both myself and the people in England have changed too. But I’ve kept up with those closest to me, so it wasn’t a shock to see mum being swept up in her new hobby, or Theo having a fresh interest in fashion.

I’ve changed too. I didn’t notice it in Japan, but I can see it clearly now: I’m stronger, more confident in the knowledge that I can overcome challenges and find happiness in foreign places.

Since coming back I’ve been enjoying catching up with old friends and listening to their stories, admiring the ways they’ve changed. Some of them don’t need me to go into detail about Japan, because they have kept up with this blog, and the fact that someone enjoys reading these rambles humbles me so much. I’ve been dashing around seeing the dentist, the optician, trimming my hair, putting back together the lifestyle I had here in England. In under a week I’ll be going back to Oxford, my favourite place in the world, and taking on another busy year of learning. I’m ready.

I miss Japan. The memories are still vivid, but the idea that I spent an experience-packed year abroad already seems surreal. For now I look forward to learning more academically about the language, the literature, the history.

And one day I will book a plane ticket to Osaka again, and greet Japan like an old friend.

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Sleepy girl with all her possessions, ready to come home

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5 Days In Paradise

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As soon as I came to Japan, I heard about Okinawa: apparently a tropical, Hawaii-like island in southern Japan.

That’s certainly one way to describe it.

Okinawa is many things. For one, it’s not exactly Japan: the island was annexed by Japanese forces in 1879, disregarding its unique language and culture. Another important factor is that the US military has been stationed in Okinawa since World War II, and even now Okinawa contains 96% of the forces stationed in Japan.

The influence of both of these factors was easy to spot as soon as we got to Okinawa: the taxi driver’s dialect was hard to understand; as we were driven to our AirBnb, many military planes flew over us low in the sky. The taxi driver told us that there have been plane crashes every year since World War II.

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Our first sunset

Despite this slightly ominous beginning, Okinawa really felt like a tropical resort. We stayed in the most Americanised area, full of “American food” restaurants (mostly offering steak), and even prices in dollars here and there. There is also an “American Village”, which is basically an amusement park. The village was the closest spot to explore on the first day, so we window shopped, and finally dipped into the warm sea. The time during which we visited Okinawa is one of the busiest in the year, celebrating Obon, but the beach was hardly busy compared to European ones, or even the one near Kobe. I was surprised to find out that there is a strict time frame in which you are allowed to swim: around 8 am until 7 pm. There is also a clear, fairly small boundary within which you have to stay, because the net keeps away the jellyfish and all sorts of other sea creatures.

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We actually managed to go to a new beach every day of our five-day trip. On the second day we went to check out a beach a little further away, to get to which we had to take a taxi. Unfortunately, as we got there in the afternoon, the tide was very low, as it always is at that time of day. The boundaries and swimming times were the same. None of this prevented us from having lots of fun, of course! The sun in Okinawa is very hot, and most people prefer to swim in t-shirts or full-body swimsuits. As I found out from my own experience, that’s a very wise idea…

On the third day we found a beach that was very different from the first two. It didn’t have much sand, and was mostly composed of stones and pieces of dead coral – a bit morbid, yes.  Hannah, Thomas, and I were determined to trek over these stones through the water, even though it was very painful without flip-flops. We just kept getting distracted by the beautiful fish, and this strange sea cucumber called “namako”, which it turns out the Japanese sometimes eat raw. Thomas took it out of the water and let us touch it. It was indescribably gross! Certainly not a thing you find on your average European beach though. As we went further, the water got deeper, and finally we swam to a formation of rocks. Here lots of people with transparent pots were wondering around, exploring the numerous sea creatures, such as crabs and sea urchins. On the way back Hannah spotted a very poisonous sea snake, which luckily doesn’t tend to attack humans. As the boys headed off in search of food, Hannah and I exhaustedly collapsed on the rocks, and managed to fall asleep. Aaand that’s how I got the painful sunburn on my back. Lesson learned: don’t sleep in the Okinawan sun! On top of the sunburn, when the boys woke me up, it turned out that the pretty conical shell I picked up and put near my shoes walked off as I dozed. Oops. Sorry for disturbing you, shy little crab.

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The panorama is wonky from excitement

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The beach on the fourth day was hands down the best beach any of us have ever been to. To get to it we had to wake up really early, and take a ferry from Okinawa’s capital city Naha. It was quite expensive and took 2 hours one way to get to Zamami island. Absolutely worth it, of course. As Hannah put it later: it felt like swimming in a travel brochure! The water was crystal clear, and as soon as you step in you can spot cute fish swimming right by your feet. We all came prepared with goggles and spent hours doing improvised snorkelling: the sea gets really deep really fast, and you can swim over big coral formations, and watch dozens of types of fish and other sea creatures go about their lives. It felt like flying. That evening, exhausted from the mind-blowing experience, we stumbled into an Okinawan restaurant in Naha, and completed the awesomeness of the day by trying unusual food.

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Okinawan food. The green stuff is sea grapes!

On the last day we were all rather tired and a bit down about having to leave soon. It was Frank who found the enthusiasm to get us to go further north in search of another nice beach. It seems he found wrong directions on the internet and we ended up crashing a fancy hotel’s private beach instead, which was surprisingly small and dirty (clearly, we got spoiled by Zamami’s water). But with a great group of friends any place can turn into endless fun, and that’s what happened that day. We befriended a crab, drank wine on the beach, and stargazed. A sweet end to an amazing holiday.

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Now, two days after getting back, I’m sitting practically on top of my suitcases, writing my last blog post from Japan. Over 16 hours of travel time loom ahead; my alarm is set for 5:30 am. In the last 48 hours I’ve said goodbye to many dear people, ate a farewell ramen, and stuffed all of my remaining possessions into two suitcases. I’ve been looking forward to coming home, but suddenly it feels like I’m losing something important – this life and routine I’ve built up in one year in Japan. Browsing through some of my pictures, I realised how intense and magical it’s all been. There are many questions on my mind: have I changed during this year? Will I feel at home when I step back into England, or will I feel lost? Is hummus gonna be as good as I’ve been nostalgically fantasising all year?

So, here it is – my last post from Japan. But not the last one on this blog!

Last Few Weeks In Japan

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At the Noh workshop

As I’m sure it’s been said many times before about the year abroad… time sure flies fast. I still remember getting ready to move to Japan, worrying about the details, reading up on life here. Now I’ve got barely two weeks left until I fly home to England, and the process is just as chaotic. Many documents to sign, fees to pay, offices to visit. On top of that, I’ve just had 6 exams and the year is about to culminate in a huge academic presentation we spent months preparing. And in between all these scary adult activities I’m trying to see all the friends I’ve made here and say goodbye. It sure is an intense process.

I did get the chance to experience a couple of interesting things recently. On a rare free afternoon one of my friends took me to the beach! The weather certainly isn’t good for anything other than spending day and night in the water: the humidity is so intense that it constantly feels like I’m slowly boiling at 40 C. I even managed to catch a tan despite spending most of my days hiding in air-conditioned rooms.

The beach in Japan is a funny experience. Firstly, Japan has a pretty strict swimming season that coincides with middle school summer holidays, and is a 6-week period. It starts on the so-called “Day of the Sea”, the significance of which I’m not sure about, and ends just before the jellyfish emerge at the end of august and make swimming quite dangerous. However, the weather has been great for swimming much earlier than that, and if I had the time I would’ve gone to the beach much sooner. For Japanese people going to the beach is not a very popular activity – the women especially do everything to avoid getting a tan, including always carrying a parasol, wearing long-sleeved tops, and even going to the beach in a full-body swimsuit! The point of going to the beach is to have a picnic with the family.

Or so I’d heard, until I actually managed to go to a beach. It took us just over half an hour to get there from our university, and as soon as I got off the train, I was surprised with loud music and dozens of young adults in bikinis. It’s a sight I haven’t seen since being in Europe. The beach was stuffed with tents selling alcohol and snacks, and walking down the street we were approached at least four times by various promoters. There were more stalls than at any of the beaches in Spain! My friend explained to me that the young adult attitude to going to the beach in Japan is indeed different from what we expect in Europe. Rather than a relaxing activity, it’s more about a sort of clubbing, social atmosphere, a chance to hang out with friends and show off your body. It took us a while to get away from the noisy area and find a semi-secluded spot, but even there we were approached by a man who wanted to chat.

I did manage to relax a bit. The ocean was lovely and surprisingly warm, and I was amazed to see all the flying fish swimming and jumping near us. There are supposed to be quieter beaches in the Kansai area that are a bit harder to get to, but sadly I don’t have the time to explore them.

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An interlude: living in Japan is occasionally scary…

It was quite a shock to be so openly stared at and approached at the beach. I got used to men keeping a respectful distance from women in Japan. There have been a few incidents over the year, but nothing as bad as the kind of harassment that England is full of. I got a few cat-calls, one of which was in broad daylight. I heard stories of friends being touched in clubs, but a good curse is enough to scare the men away around here. I also heard a disturbing story about a girl’s drink being spiked at an international club just the other week, but considering I never hear about such stuff happening at Japanese clubs, it may well have been a fellow international student who spiked the drink. On the whole, the sexism in Japan is much subtler than in Europe, and experienced mostly in the workplace. I’ve studied the topic quite a lot since last year, and I suspect I know what my dissertation will be about!

On a lighter note, another interesting thing I did recently was going to a Noh workshop. Noh is a famous form of classical Japanese theatre. It’s also well-known for being very hard to understand and enjoy for people unaware of its intricacies. 3 actors came to our university to help us get into Noh, and it worked pretty well. The session took place in a lovely Japanese-style room, and after a brief introduction, we were encouraged to get up and try a few of the movements. The actor’s face is hidden by a mask in Noh, so instead of facial expressions, one acts with one’s body, therefore all movements convey some sort of meaning. We learned how to act out sadness, tears, and surprise using precise body language. Then we got to sit back and enjoy the actors showing us a few scenes from famous plays. Another interesting thing about Noh is the exaggerated, chant-like narration, which even natives cannot understand without knowing what will be said in advance. Listening to it felt a bit like going into a meditative trance. I do have to admit, though, that after the novelty of watching Noh wore off, it got a bit… repetitive. I can imagine getting a bit bored of it during a 4-hour performance. Still, if I had the chance, I would love to see a play live.

And that’s about it for recent stuff. I’m about to rush off for a practice of the Big and Scary presentation. Day X is the coming Monday 7th, and then we fly off for a week in Okinawa, and after that… home sweet home!

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My goofy class from England, staying smiley even through this stressful time!

Kabuki

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At the theatre entrance

When I was offered the chance to see a kabuki play, I was initially reluctant. I don’t know that much about kabuki, the ticket was 6000 yen (around £50), and the play lasts 4 hours (though it has breaks). But I thought: hey, this might be a cool experience, so I should try it out.

And thank god I did!

Kabuki was an absolutely sublime experience. It is theatre, but in a different way from stuff you see in the West. It is normally based on medieval plays, and lines are spoken in exaggerated voices, making the language hard to understand at times. There was live music, including instruments such as the shamisen (a stringed, plucked instrument) and the shinobue (a wooden flute). The costumes were incredibly detailed, and the dance at the end included some impressive kimono changes right on stage.

What really amazed me, though, were the movements. The entirety of the play looked like a dance, where every movement of every character was precise and filled with meaning. I was mesmerised by the scene where samurai Danshichi from the play “Natsumatsuri Naniwa Kagami” was forced by circumstance to kill his father-in-law, which was a terrible crime in Edo Japan. I only read a short explanation before seeing the play, but even with limited knowledge of the significance of the scene, the costume, the movements and facial expressions, I was very touched by the acting.

Another interesting thing about kabuki is that it is still only performed by men. But it’s not the same concept as the men who performed female roles in medieval England, and a Western viewer would be wrong to judge the male-only casting in kabuki as outdated. The men of kabuki have made acting as a woman, or being onnagata, a real form of art: the only thing that gave them away on stage was their voice, but other than that, the costume, the movements – they were extremely convincing. I think onnagata can actually be used as commentary on society-imposed gender roles: gender is more than one’s genitals, it is also the way you move, the way you speak, and so on. I only actually knew about kabuki because I’m a big fan of David Bowie, who used kabuki as inspiration for his famous androgynous style and stage performances. I’m fascinated by the fact that such a liminal take on gender has been born in an otherwise ever-conservative Japan.

So, yeah, I’m thrilled I took the time to see a kabuki play. Even Hannah’s friend who is visiting at the moment and doesn’t speak Japanese enjoyed the play for its aesthetics. Definitely a recommended experience for people interested in Japanese culture.

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Inside the hall

The Clock is Ticking

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In front of Osaka Castle

June and July are a difficult time to be in Japan. In part that’s because both for students and for working people there are few national holidays in sight, and the weeks kind of drag on. But mostly it’s because of the weather: we’re mid-rainy season, which means that it’s either pouring and storming, or, if the sun peeks out, it’s unbearably hot. Even though it’s yet to be hotter than +30 C, humidity has been as high as 90%, and that’s much more uncomfortable than the heat. It’s unbearable to be anywhere without air conditioning, and yet sitting under one for hours is a surefire way to get a cold. The worst time of the day is when you’re trying to sleep, when the air is heavy and you get unbearably sweaty. Today I heard that in the past some young children and elderly people have died from trying to deal with the heat, especially as the temperature in Japan has been rising in the past few years.

Not to say I’m not having fun from time to time, of course. I’m hyper-aware that the clock is ticking and that I have 5 weeks left of classes.

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The dog mobile!!

The other weekend we met up with a friend of mine who just finished his year abroad in China. We went to look around Osaka castle, and had a funny run-in with a man driving around 10 puppies in one pram, or as Hannah dubbed it, the dog mobile. The highlight of the day, though, was talking to my Sinologist friend, and realising how much has happened during this year abroad, and how much we’ve all learned. Living in China seems to be quite different from living in Japan, with its own good and bad sides. But the core experience of moving to the other side of the world, adapting to a new culture you don’t always understand, building lasting friendships – that’s something we all now get, and it’s easier to appreciate how much we’ve learned from another person’s point of view.

The year is finishing whether we like it or not, making me both frantically try to enjoy what’s left of it, but also intensely look forward to coming home. Last week we said goodbye to Elena: a wonderful friend I’ve made this year, who had to leave a bit earlier than the rest of us. A large group of foreign students came together to send her off; though most of us are also leaving soon. Some are going to be graduating, others will continue university life, like me. It’s strange to build up a life and a bit of a family in a foreign country, only to leave it all behind as soon as you get used to it. Still, it’s a useful exercise, and I’m sure I will meet many of these friends again.

It’s not all melancholic around here. Yesterday we had dinner with some representatives of the Mitsubishi company to answer our questions about what it’s like to work at a Japanese company. It seems Mitsubishi has links with Oxford and some of our senpai, so they contacted John to set up a dinner date, and treated us to lots of corporate wisdom and tasty food. Life is full of new experiences even right at the end of my time in Japan!

Baseball in Osaka

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A Japan-shaped cloud!

What a busy time June has turned out to be. In between big presentations, mid-term exams, and other commitments, it’s been hard to find the chance to do something more exciting than tiredly collapsing onto my bed. Luckily, I carved out a few days to go to Sapporo towards the end of this week. While I’m preparing for my mini-trip, I’m going to share another awesome recent memory: a baseball game!

I’ve never been a fan of sports. I tried watching it and found it unappealing; I tried playing it at school and discovered I prefer exercising on my own. And I’ve also got opinions on over-paid sports stars.

So I was surprised to have had so much fun at a baseball game!

Baseball is a huge thing in Japan. Many people play it at school and stay fans of the sport for life. It was very clear how popular baseball is the day we went to see the game, which incidentally was between the Nippon Ham-Fighters, and a local team, the Hanshin Tigers. The local team’s colours are yellow and black, and as we joined a river of yellow t-shirts, scarves, and caps, we couldn’t resist buying some merchandise of our own.

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Posing with our merch

The game started at 6 pm and lasted 3 hours, so I was glad we packed some food. Surprisingly, it gripped my attention for the entire time. Between making jokes with my friends, yelling when the crowd yelled, and secretly hoping to be shown on the big screen, the evening flew by.

 

It took me almost the whole game to figure out how baseball scoring works, upon which I realised that our team was, in fact, losing. It was in the lead for most of the game though, and there was a truly touching moment when during the 7th inning what felt like the whole stadium stood up with pre-bought yellow balloons and released them into the air in support of the team. I guess I get the appeal of going to these games now – a feeling of belonging, of unity with the crowd.

I doubt I’ll make watching sports a regular way to spend my time, but it was lots of fun. A bit like going to a concert, really. And, considering it’s a quintessential part of Japanese popular culture, it’s definitely a thing to experience while you’re here.

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Preparing to release the balloons

Guilt and Mental Illness on my Year Abroad

A month or so into my time in Japan, I felt lost. I was depressed and exhausted, wondering if there was something wrong with me for not enjoying life in the country of my dreams. Everyone around me seemed to be doing just fine.

Turns out, this is a common feeling that few people talk about.

Let’s start by clarifying some things. I suffer from major depression and generalised anxiety. This is a scary thing to admit online, where anyone could see it, but it’s better than letting my illness remain invisible. I’ve struggled with these disorders since I was 15, and 4 years later I’m doing better, but there are frequent downward spirals. I have some coping methods, a support network, and medication to help me. But it’s never enough, and I suspect depression will always remain the monster under my bed. That’s ok. But it does mean that dealing with everyday life is often harder for me than for others.

On top of being mentally ill, there is this thing people only recently started talking about: the Year Abroad Blues. Society insists going abroad is the best, happiest year of your life, despite the fact that there are as many different experiences as there are people moving abroad. Friends back home expect me to have endless stories about my adventures; it feels like a shame to talk about the sad stuff instead. There are so many ways a year abroad could go wrong, and it’s disorienting to be struggling when society tells you you’re supposed to be happy, you ungrateful fool.

In the first couple of months since arriving in Japan I struggled with some serious guilt, because back then I was especially unhappy. The truth is: moving abroad is difficult and exhausting, and it takes 1-3 months on average to adjust and start feeling stable again.

An interesting thing everyone notices when they move abroad is that they constantly feel tired and sleepy. I’m curious about this so I’ve asked dozens of international students at Kobe University, and pretty much all of them confirmed that they experience this. My foreign friend who is doing her doctorate in psychology here explained that one of the reasons this happens is that our brains have to put extra effort into processing information in a foreign language. 

This means that I have less energy to do everyday tasks than I did back home. Depression lurking in the background also steals some of my energy. So, for the first few months of being in Japan, I could barely stay awake through my classes. I still got dragged to awesome trips on the weekends, but I could barely enjoy them. I started avoiding time around people, and my grades slipped because I had no energy to study.

Another source of guilt this year is that I’m an introvert. I’m good at making close friends, and I’ve made some lovely international and Japanese ones here in Kobe. That’s all I need socially – people I already know, and who I can be sure I’ll have fun with. Some people around me recently made me feel guilty for not going to a bar every other night like they do, chatting with strangers. There’s nothing wrong with spending your year like that, but to me it sounds very unappealing – I get anxious when I’m surrounded by people I don’t know; I have to psyche myself up even just to go into town on my own. There is an assumption that going abroad is a constant hunt for new friends, and I wish people realised that this is not everybody’s idea of a good time.

Also, people don’t like admitting this either, but the thing is: Japan, or whatever other country you’ve always put onto a pedestal, is just not that great. For example, I was told that Tokyo is a crazy urban jungle wonderland. The reality is that it has some funny shops and cafes, but otherwise it’s hardly different from another megalopolis such as London.

Don’t get me wrong – I still like Japan. It’s a unique society with a mindset that’s very different from that of the West. I love Japanese art and history and I’m thrilled about being able to speak the language. Japanese people are sweet, and I enjoy the clean streets and great customer service. There are many voices out there sharing how fun and useful a year abroad can be. I just wanted to point out the other side of the coin: it’s not paradise. 

My everyday life here is actually more boring than back in Oxford. I have daily language classes that take up all morning, and most days also a lecture in the afternoon. Language classes are hardly exciting, and the lectures are not as interesting as back home. Waking up early means that I’m exhausted by the afternoon, and all I want is to get home, finish homework, eat, and sleep. The weekends are my only chance to catch up on sleep, so if I choose to travel instead, I might not enjoy it because I’m so tired. The only holidays I have this year already passed – one for New Year, and a long one for spring. I’ve done my share of awesome travel, and now I have 3 months of hard work ahead of me. About 70% of my year abroad has been work and everyday routine. It’s not a year in paradise, and we should stop assuming that it should be non-stop fun, because that’s harmful. Once we get abroad and realise it’s not perfect, we feel guilty for not being constantly happy.

Some of my friends here are healthier and more outgoing than me. They tend to look down on my inability to do more than just attend classes, go out with friends, and occasionally travel. They have part-time jobs, they climb mountains for fun, they often go out at night. But I physically can’t do that! I know my body extremely well, I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone countless times. The fact is: I struggle with doing a lot of things at once. I need a full night’s sleep or I will not comprehend what’s going on. I know this, but I still feel guilty for not being as active as other people. We should all remember that different bodies have different limits, and respect that.

Finally, I’m just ready to go home. As I said before, I have 3 months of hard work ahead of me. Yes, it only matters that I pass this year, but even passing will take a lot of effort. After having my partner visit me I got a new wave of homesickness, and I crave being home, with my mum and my cat, where everything is just a bit simpler. I miss being able to read what’s written on the products in supermarkets. I miss being able to communicate with people without having to think hard of how to express myself. I miss not standing out in a crowd, and not being stared at. England has its problems, and as an immigrant child it took around 4 years for me to consider it home, but it’s my safe space now. Being in Japan feels too liminal and uncertain, a constant race to do and see new things, when sometimes all I want is to rest.

Of course, I’m not just gonna wallow in my misery for the last 3 months in Japan. I realise what a unique privilege I’m living, and that I will probably never get the chance to live in Japan again. I’m still certain that my year abroad in Japan was a great decision. I’ve had so much fun and I know there’s more to come. It has given me a lot of self-confidence and self-awareness. But I also went through hard times, and I feel like I would have struggled less if others around me were more open about their experiences.

I’ve read numerous articles about the infamous Year Abroad Blues, and I now know that plenty of others go through the same stuff I’m experiencing. It’s a shame that people are often scared to admit that they’re not having the time of their lives, because this reinforces the society’s assumption that the year abroad is one big merry-go-round. I think that should change, and that we should be more honest about feeling vulnerable and down. That way we can support each other in times of need, and help each other make the most of our time abroad!