Living a Post-Study Abroad Life

Isabella Madruga headshot
Isabella Madruga
January 5, 2024

I have been back in America for two weeks, and I believe I've found my bearings to write a reflection on my study abroad in Japan experience. 

My departure from Japan was definitely a tearful one. I went to one last party with my friends and broke down crying with every one of them after the party was over, riding the Tsurumai line back with red-rimmed eyes and tear-stained cheeks. Saying goodbye to my host family was the worst part, however. My host sister, Yume, made me all sorts of little trinkets for me to take home, and the whole family wrote me messages in a beautiful letter, with Yume's beautiful drawings of all five of us. It took everything I had in me not to sob my eyes out, but I definitely still cried. I cried with my host mother, and we hugged as we cried. The next day, they saw me off as I walked to the train station to go to the airport, and they said 'bye-bye' the entire time I was walking down the street. When I got to the airport, I cried and didn't even care that I was in public. 

The entire time I was on my flight on the way to San Francisco, I was wondering how I was going to react when I touched down in America. Would the all-English signs make me immediately break down crying? Would the lack of fancy Japanese toilets make me gasp? Would I accidentally speak Japanese to the immigration people? Turns out, none of those things happened. When I touched down, I didn't feel any sort of dramatic shift. I honestly felt a little bit of a relief that I could speak the language fluently, as whenever I had to interact with anybody in Japan, I had to think of what I wanted to say and then translate it in my head, muster up the courage to speak, and then finally speak in bad Japanese to the service worker. So, when I spoke to the immigration officer at SFO, the first time I spoke English after touching down in America, I felt like the puzzle pieces fell back into place.

But honestly, the biggest feeling I had was numbness. As my dad drove me back home, I looked out the window and saw the usual Californian landscape I've seen my entire life. When I got home and hugged my mom, I cried. And that was the last time I cried about my study abroad, because the second I came home, it felt like everything I had experienced was just a daydream. 

When I was in Japan, I nearly cried every time a TikTok popped up of a big burrito or a big bowl of steaming pasta. I missed my mother's food every day, and yet when I sat down to eat my first home meal in four months, I was silent. I barely reacted, just ate. I was so numb. When I woke up the next day, Japan really did feel like a daydream. 

That was one thing I didn't expect from studying abroad. Everybody said that it would go fast, which was true. It didn't help that my program started a month later than most other programs, but one thing I didn't hear was that studying abroad wouldn't feel real at all once you returned to your home country. I thought my worldview, my daily life, everything would be fundamentally changed after studying abroad. I thought I'd gasp at every little thing back at home in reverse culture shock, accidentally drive on the wrong side of the road, accidentally speak Japanese, but no. I reverted immediately back to who I was before, except for being able to say, "In Japan, they do this/they have this" to anybody around me. 

That's not to say that I haven't changed as a person, or I still don't accidentally do the little things I did in Japan out of habit. For example, I accidentally brought my towel with me to the bathroom before taking a shower—which is what I would do in my host family's house every day—forgetting I already had a towel in there. Or when I almost say something in Japanese to my friends or family, like tanoshimi (I'm excited) whenever somebody makes plans, or itadakimasu before a meal. The other day, I went to San Francisco to hang out with friends, and the restaurant we were going to was a 20-minute walk away from the train station. Before I went to Japan, I'd be calling a Lyft the second I left the station. Now, a 20-minute walk is nothing, which is one way I've changed as a person.

In general, I've become way more independent than before. That's one big thing that I feel most people learn after studying abroad. Learning a new language, new culture, new surroundings, new everything without somebody holding your hand 24 hours a day makes you have to learn to be independent. Apple Maps was my savior most of the time I was in Japan, but I still needed to ask random people for directions and clarification in Japanese, which was so stressful but highly rewarding. I felt proud of myself after every interaction and felt my bravery and independence grow stronger each time. 

Japan was a daydream, but it was honestly the best experience of my life. I learned so much about myself, my culture, my country, and my future through learning about another country and culture. Japan is a beautiful country, and honestly my favorite country other than the United States. The people there were some of the best people I've ever met, and each and every single person I encountered was kind, helpful, and curious. I never encountered a rude person in Japan, in my entire four months of being fully immersed in the culture and being part of a homestay. I learned good and bad things about Japanese society, but the fact that I had the privilege of being in a new country and learning about their society firsthand made me feel so lucky. 

However, I wouldn't have gotten as much out of Japan as I did without IES Abroad. IES Abroad took us so many fabulous field trip to places I never would have thought about going, such as Shirakawa-go and Takayama, which was my favorite field trip out of everything, along with taking us to cultural performances such as seeing the Kodo group play taiko drums, which was awesome. I truly felt as if my money was being used towards us, such as placing us in beautiful and expensive hotels, giving us fancy multiple-course meals every time, and booking us unique and fun activities such as riding a rickshaw through the streets of Kyoto. Satoshi-San and Reisa, our program directors, put so much care into planning our field trips and activities and made sure we had fun the entire time while teaching us so many interesting things about Japanese history and culture. I am so glad I went through with IES Abroad, and after talking with all my IES Abroad friends, they all agree. 

Japan is an experience I will never forget, even though it doesn't feel real to me yet. It truly was a privilege and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that not many can do or afford, but thanks to my family, my school, and IES Abroad, I was able to have this experience and carry it with me for the rest of my life. 

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Isabella Madruga headshot

Isabella Madruga

I am a senior at Johns Hopkins University studying Writing Seminars (a fancy way of saying creative writing) and Sociology. My main goal in life is to be an author, so when I'm not scrolling on TikTok, I'm writing stories, reading, and daydreaming.

2023 Fall
Home University:
Johns Hopkins University
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