THE WAY Returnees Edition introduces women who continue to shine and empower themselves even after returning to their home country by making use of their experiences abroad.
This time we meet high school teacher, Ami, who is originally from Sydney, Australia and has lived in Ito (Fukuoka Prefecture), Japan and Valladolid, Spain.
Ami is half-Korean, half-Chinese and was born and raised in Australia. She started studying Japanese in high school and is now a Japanese and English as a Second Language (ESL)/English as an Additional Language (EALD) teacher at a school in Sydney.
Ami shares her experiences of living in Japan and Spain and how she made the most of it all.
A lifelong interest in language and culture
When Ami was younger, she had family friends who were Japanese and was curious to know what they were saying. This made her want to study Japanese in high school because she not only wanted to understand what people were saying but also communicate with a new group of people and learn about their culture. She wanted to speak Japanese fluently so continued to study it throughout university. Ami’s always had an interest in language, people and the lessons we learn during social interactions which is what has motivated her to keep going.
Finding a second home
Ami’s first experience of living abroad was in Japan at Kyushu University. As she is Chinese-Korean, there were many similarities with Japan and she didn’t find her experience negative at all. She’d been to China and Korea long before she went to Japan so nothing was shocking and she adjusted well. Ami admires how Japan is organised and ordered even though there’s so many people. Japanese people are so polite and everything is clean. When she thinks about Japan, everything is positive.
Since Ami lived in a dormitory, making friends was quite easy and the organisation of her exchange program was set up very well. International students lived with Japanese students in the same dorm and there were plenty of social activities. On top of this, there were dorm leaders who would organise events and they were paired with a Japanese student buddy. There were lots of opportunities to mix with the local students who were all very keen to make friends with international students which was helpful.
It’s always easier to speak with people who speak your mother tongue fluently but because Ami’s university was in the middle of nowhere there were lots of social events organised for the students. Sometimes, living in the countryside can mean you have better opportunities to practice your language skills and meet locals.
In Japan, Ami felt no homesickness whatsoever. She didn’t want to go back to Australia and felt like she could live in Japan forever. It was like finding a second home and it will always be a time she’ll look back on as being a highlight in her life.
After coming back to Sydney and graduating from a five-year university degree, Ami knew she wanted to travel. She still wanted to do something teaching-related and applied for programs that let her teach English abroad.
She applied for anything she knew of, including the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program but didn’t get an offer. She then heard about Auxiliares de Conversacion or the Language and Culture Assistant Program in Spain through her university and was applying for other programs at the same time but an offer from the Spanish Program came through first. Even though she had never learned Spanish or had anything to do with Spain before she thought it’d be different and exciting to experience a new culture. Ami went into it blindly and thought when else would she do something like this?
Surviving on limited Spanish
Ami got assigned to work in a small town called Valladolid, two hours north of Madrid where English was not prevalent. She originally preferred to be assigned to a bigger city like Madrid, Barcelona or Valencia as she thought more people would speak English there. She did two months of Spanish lessons after work every week in Sydney in preparation for her move. Ami felt a bit naive for thinking that she’d be able to speak at least some English but nobody spoke any when she got to Valladolid. She experienced a lot of culture shock because she went into the whole experience with the attitude of just taking things as they come. In retrospect, having this mindset allowed her to fail forward and learn more quickly.
Her first week was very stressful because she lived in a hostel and was house hunting. No one did things via email or text in Spain, it was all via telephone so Ami had to write herself a script including phrases like: “Is this room still available?”, “Can I come and see the room?” “Would I be able to come on Wednesday?”
In the end, it helped that no one spoke English because she naturally picked up Spanish quickly and it improved at a faster rate because she had no other choice to speak anything else.
Learning about more than just a language
In Valladolid, Ami did intensive Spanish lessons after work three times a week where she got to meet other foreigners from around the world. As she likes learning languages, it was fun for her to be a student again and she learned so much from her classmates.
One aspect of language learning Ami became more aware of was adapting to a completely different writing system. It was a bit easier for her as English and Spanish both use a Latin script but her classmates who used other writing scripts really struggled with adding a full stop or using capital letters. Every week, Ami could feel her progress and the expansion of her knowledge where she could have conversations with others, order at a restaurant or go shopping.
She also made local friends by going to language meetups at the local pub twice a week where they would have different tables for people to practice different languages. Ami had lots of opportunities to practice Spanish and befriend Spanish people. It exists nearly everywhere so if you have the chance, definitely join one.
Ami worked as a Language Teaching Assistant at a public school in Valladolid. She was surprised by how different schools were compared to Australia, for example, they didn’t have assembly or carnivals or a school song and students just attended class. The behaviour management strategies were different like constant yelling, making the students stand and face the wall or making them stand up and shaming them in front of the whole class if they were misbehaving. These techniques were really different to what she would do herself.
Another experience she discovered was that it was okay for teachers to smoke in front of the school before classes started. They would even say good morning to the students on their way in. Even though these situations were not wrong, Ami learned to accept the subtle differences in her new environment.
Ami feels her experiences of living in foreign countries overall have informed her as a person. People would be surprised when she could speak fluent English as she looks Asian and they’d make remarks like “But where are you really from?” Racism occurred especially when coronavirus hit where she received racist remarks whenever she went out which made her appreciate multiculturalism in Australia. Even though Spain was great and Spanish people were really nice, she appreciates the diversity in Sydney.
Before going to Spain, she had never been to a country where she didn’t speak the language. Before that, she had only ever travelled to China, Korea, Japan and New Zealand where she could communicate independently.
In Spain though, she was completely foreign and alone and it was scary to be outside of her comfort zone. She got really homesick, a stark contrast to her experience in Japan where she wasn’t homesick at all but it made her understand what it was like to be in a new place where she didn’t know the language. She missed the food she normally had in Australia and there weren’t many vegan options near where she lived. She missed being able to drive around everywhere. As everything was so new and foreign, she missed the familiarity and ease of home. It made her appreciate more of what it’s like when people come to Australia and don’t know the language. Ami feels more empathetic thanks to the hardships she faced abroad.
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