Twenty years ago almost to the day, I returned home from a year in Japan where I lived as a Rotary Exchange Student. Living in Japan with host families for twelve months was an amazing experience. I learned to speak fluent Japanese, to be independent and adaptable, and to sing several early 90s Japanese karaoke songs (which Hubby finds strangely alluring).
I returned home proud and jubilant. I had just gone to Japan on my own at age seventeen with nothing but my very mediocre high school Japanese, my wits, and the kindness of a group of middle age Rotarians in my favour. And I had thrived. If I could do this, then surely I could do anything…
When I arrived at my first host parents’ house after a nine hour plane trip and three hour car ride, a table full of traditional Japanese sweets awaited – just what one feels like at 1am after a long, stomach churning journey into the unknown. And then, my new host parents phoned my Mum in Brisbane and I spoke (cried) to her on a delayed, echoey line for about two minutes before it was time to hang up. I clearly remember standing in the hallway crying (sobbing, if truth be told) as my new host Mum looked at me with kindly, awkward sympathy. I expected a hug – was longing for one – but none came. Then before I knew it I was lying awake on a futon in a cold bedroom, with the smell of a kerosene heater and a nervous, hollow feeling in my stomach.
But a seventeen year old on an adventure will adapt quickly. I dug deep, and became part of my new host family. And while my time was not without its (numerous) lonely moments, thankfully I somehow had the foresight to realise this experience was only going to happen once and I should make the most of it. (Unexpected wisdom from a young girl who thought getting pissed on sake and attempting to cheat the Japanese train system might be a good idea…)
The twentieth anniversary of my homecoming would have ordinarily passed unnoticed, but I recently stumbled upon a box of letters written to me by my friends back home throughout that year, and I have therefore been indulging in a delightful trip down memory lane.
I have been transported back to a world where my friends got lost at Uni, where the details of Saturday nights spent at Mary Street nightclub were deemed worthy of at least an entire foolscap page of prose, where a friend hooking up with one’s boyfriend was utterly forgivable, and where sexual experiences were spoken of with excruciating honesty and unconcealed pride…
Kids these days won’t be putting pen to paper like this. It doesn’t take their thoughts a week to reach their target audience, and then another week for the response to come back. Everything is instant.
Exchange students today must seldom experience that feeling of longing as they hear their postman’s motorbike approach, or of exhilaration upon seeing a letter for them on the doorstep. They would not know the frustration of spending an entire $10 on a phone card for a mere two minutes of English conversation. And I seriously doubt they would spend 90 minutes listening rapturously to their friends talking in monologue to them on cassette tape, and then immediately record a 90 minute monologue of their own.
Nope – the digital age is upon us, and my guess is that exchange students today feel much less far away from home.
I am happy for them.
But twenty years from now, they won’t get to sit up in bed with a cup of tea, listen to the rain falling outside their window, and be transported back in time as they read and remember the intimate memories of their friends, captured forever on twenty year old university lecture book paper.
I know I might be old fashioned, but I’ll take that over Facebook any day…