My name is Elly, a 19-year-old girl from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I am one of the the Asia Kakehashi Project 2020 participants. I went to Hakodate, Hokkaido. It is Hokkaido’s third largest city, located at the island’s southern tip. Hakodate is best known for the spectacular views to be enjoyed from Mount Hakodate and its delicious, fresh seafood. 

I think my biggest challenge was speaking and understanding Japanese. I remember during the first month in Japan, I totally could not understand the Japanese conversations around me as I could not speak even basic Japanese. Therefore, during that period, it was a bit tough to express what I wanted to say so I was using body language most of the time, specifically hand gestures, to replace words. With the help of host family, teachers and classmates, my Japanese slowly improved and I began to understand basic conversations. The school also arranged a Japanese language class specially for me. In addition, I was studying Japanese for at least 2 hours in my room every day after returning from school. Most importantly, I would say it was the environment in Japan which left me no choice but to speak Japanese.

My favourite moment of the exchange experience was definitely the skiing trip with my host family during new year’s holiday. I was pretty excited yet nervous as it was the first time in my life that I would be skiing. Hokkaido’s snow is reputedly the best quality of snow in the world. Thankfully, the weather was perfect with  clear blue skies and comfortable outdoor temperature. Much to my own surprise, I could master the skiing skills after a coaching session and guidance from my host family. Although the slopes were steep and scary but I enjoyed the experience a lot as I have always loved adventurous activities since young.  After skiing, we went for the onsen (public bath) in the ski resort. I can still clearly remember the first time I entered the onsen. I was shocked by the culture of Onsen, in that one must shed all items of clothing in order to enter the public bath. However, I discarded my prudishness along with my robe and fell in love with outdoor onsen immediately after that first experience. Imagine soaking yourself in 40°C warm water while the shoulders and head are exposed to the -10 °C cold air outside. It may sound crazy but the combination of cold and hot during winter season was refreshing and rejuvenating.

In AFS we say, ‘Send us your student and we will send you back a Changemaker!’. How has the AFS Program and experience impacted your future? I can honestly say that I was not an independent person before the exchange programme. As it was my first time going abroad for such a long period without my family for the first time, I had to learn how to handle everything from A-Z by myself. Furthermore, I had to learn how to adapt quickly to a new environment such as fitting into a new family, making new friends in high school and immersing myself into a totally Japanese speaking culture. Besides that, the exchange experience made me realize that I knew little about the things happening around the world. It aroused my curiosity to question and explore more about global issues which I am sure will benefit me in my future career.  I also discovered more about myself especially my strengths and  my weaknesses during this journey. I learned to appreciate my strengths and to work on my weaknesses, to not be judgemental and to be a better person all around.

The biggest challenge I was worrying about was that I might not be able to enjoy this exchange programme to the fullest due to the current pandemic. Although some of the previously planned activities were cancelled to avoid huge gatherings, I learned to have fun doing the smallest things in my daily life. For example, being able to go to school and meeting friends during the pandemic, shovelling snow in the house compound, tasting Japanese cuisine prepared by my host family and bonding together through home activities. All the students were provided with a liaison person (LP) who was constantly keeping track of our physical and mental health throughout this programme. The liaison person understood my feelings and situation as she was once an exchange student too. We did monthly updates of life with each other. AFS also provided useful tips from time to time on how to avoid getting infected by the Covid-19 virus. 

To future AFSers, I know that there will be a lot of challenges you will face during the course of the programme. However, always remember your original intention of applying for this programme and persevere through the difficult times. It will make you a better, stronger and more independent person. Do not give up on pursuing your dream. Always stay positive and appreciative of the opportunity you have been given.