By Vyshnavi Bharidasan (Asia Kakehashi Project 2020/21)

Ever since I was young, my grandfather would tell me amazing stories about his experience in Japan. Those stories always had me dreaming of Japan with the hopes that one day I could go there and see the places that my grandfather had described so vividly. Then came the Asia Kakehashi program where AFS sends exchange students to study abroad in Japan. This got me all excited as there was finally an opportunity for me to make my dream a reality. I was really lucky to be a participant in the Asia Kakehashi Project 2020. 

Then came the Coronavirus that took the whole world by storm. The program kept being delayed and was almost cancelled. This made me really sad and frustrated as I was in a dilemma between rejecting this scholarship to continue my education or holding on and wait. After endless mental debates and great anxiety, I decided to wait as I was not going to give up on the chance of a lifetime that easily. Eventually, the program was back on track and the dates were set for us to embark on our exchange journey.  I was placed in Kyoto which is the old capital of Japan.

I believe my exchange experience is very different compared to the batches before as I was on an exchange during a global pandemic. Travelling to another country as an exchange student was something that I only saw in movies but always dreamed of doing. And travelling during a pandemic can be very daunting yet calming at the same time. The daunting part was the virus and all its attendant fears and the calming part is that the quarantine gave me some breathing space to think and reflect. This made everything less overwhelming. 

Being in a different country was quite a challenge let alone a non-English speaking country. Thus, the biggest obstacle for me was the language barrier. I wished that I had put more effort into learning Japanese before my exchange as it would have helped me make friends sooner given the shortened time of my exchange. I also felt that I could have deeper and more meaningful conversations with people if it weren’t for the language barrier. I felt like I had partially overcome the challenge when I began having daily conversations in Japanese with students around me and learning the Japanese “Kanji characters”. I also made an agreement with my roommate where she would teach me Japanese and in return, I would teach her English. Within four months, I was able to have basic daily conversations with my new Japanese friends. 

Despite all the challenges, there is always a rainbow after the rain. I have many memories made in Japan that I will remember forever. The most memorable was the game nights and random outings we used to have with our friends and other exchange students in my dormitory. We went to many places around Kyoto together, including visiting all the famous temples, shrines and tourist attractions. We also had fun on game nights in the dormitory where we played games like Werewolf and Among Us. I felt like my dorm-mates were my second family. 

Another thing that I will cherish will be the friendship I had with the other exchange students who hailed from India, Indonesia and Turkey. Having other exchange students made me less nervous as I had someone to confide in and relate to. In a way, I was also able to build a bridge not only between Malaysia and Japan but also with other countries that participated in this program. 

As for being on an exchange program during a pandemic,  it really gave a very different edge to the whole intercultural experience. One of the challenges I faced was that we could not do any physical events. It was less effective and impactful to have the events online. However, I could not really overcome this problem but I tried my best to keep my expectations to a minimum and enjoy every moment possible. 

AFS played a key role in ensuring that we had a meaningful exchange experience despite the pandemic. They held online Japanese classes and regular Zoom meetings to check up on our progress throughout the exchange. In addition, AFS also sent us food boxes filled with snacks from our home country to share with our Japanese friends.  AFS equipped us with facilities and assigned Liaison Persons to help us adjust to our hosting community. They also made sure we had a smooth journey and kept us productive throughout the quarantine period. 

I believe that this program has opened my eyes to a new culture and different ways of life. It gave me first-hand experience on how to survive and adapt quickly to new environments. Other than being independent and responsible I feel that being abroad gives you a different sense of freedom. It gives you a chance to open a new chapter in your life and start with a fresh blank page. You are given the chance to find the new improved you!

I hope that future AFSers do not expect anything but just keep a positive mindset and be accepting of the new culture and environment. The reason to not expect anything is that when you start having expectations there might be a possibility that things may not go the way you want, and that can lead to feelings of sadness or disappointment which will take away valuable time from your intercultural learning experience. I believe that you should take every challenge as a life lesson, reflect upon it and learn and grow from it. Lastly, you should refrain from worrying about what-ifs, especially to compare your exchange experience with those of your friends or the batches before yours. It is not productive nor beneficial, as everyone has their own unique moments. These are a few things I wish I knew before I went for my exchange and I hope it will help you improve your own exchange experience. So always keep an open mind, have fun and most importantly, learn a lot while you are there!