People always tell me that I have a lot of valid insight about travel, being “out” and life in general. I think they’re right. Like many LGBTQs, I know not to walk down road "A" because the one time I did as a drunk college student I was catcalled – but not the names that would reaffirm you look good in your new skinny jeans. The calls were more like derogatory gay slurs that can make you feel like those great jeans were a waste because the only label people see on you is “gay.”
My strong insight about living abroad comes from experiencing some lows and highs, and living to tell… luckily, for your benefit. If you’re like me – gay, out and flamboyantly fabulous – not looking to compress yourself in order to fit in, then yes, my insight could be of some value to you before you embark on a long study excursion abroad to say, rural Japan. It will be helpful in encouraging you to reflect, set attainable goals and forget about trying to “fit in.”
First, consider some of the cultural challenges that will cause conflict and do your research on where you’re going. For example, in rural Japan even straight Americans have to somewhat “compress” in order to “fit in” with society; so don’t blame not fitting in completely on your sexuality.
Having studied abroad in both Sydney and Cape Town, and then working in Japan with the JET Program for two years, my advice for LGBTQs looking to embark on such a journey hails from a compilation of all these cultures. First order of advice: GO! Step outside of your comfort zone and take advantage of a chance to live far, far away from your circle of family and friends. Study abroad should be a graduation requirement because of all the learning you can do just from being alone in an unfamiliar place.
For the purpose of proving my point, I am going to pigeonhole us gays into two categories. You’re either type one: the lucky gay, i.e. people cannot easily tell you’re gay because you “act so straight” and, therefore, in foreign situations, it would be uncommon for them to be uncomfortable, awkwardly offensive or ask you to confirm all the stereotypes about “gays in America.” Or you’re a type two: the not-so-lucky gay, because it’s obvious you’re gay and, therefore, in some foreign situations, people judge you solely by your sexuality, show lack of respect or just choose not to interact with you altogether. Damn homophobes.
In Asia, I was a "type one," mainly because of the language barrier. In South Africa and West Virginia, the first place I studied abroad before transferring to Richmond, I was a "type two." For those type twos: Hey girl! Let's stick together, because unlike the "ones," we "twos" have to worry about our safety in some places!
You know how hard it can be to befriend people that don’t accept you, and you definitely know how homophobic jerks can be thinking that just because you’re gay, you’re into them. Well, guess what, studying abroad in Asia is totally for you because their culture is so emotionless that they just assume you’re “really American” i.e. as extroverted as a mega-church pastor – the black ones – before they ever consider you’re gay. Although most Japanese gays are hiding in the closet – a double-layered closet that makes it really hard to date outside of Tokyo and Osaka – it was a serious breath of fresh air that many people, whether they were just blind or Asian-polite, didn’t portray anger against me being gay. I was never called a derogatory gay slur in public during my whole stay in Japan.
Still, living abroad and facing the challenges head-on can also make you better appreciate the rare amazing experiences that oftentimes reconfirm why you made the trip to begin with. One of my close friends Noa-san and I bonded from the day we met. We had very similar senses of humor and he became my buddy in Japan very quickly at a time where I really wanted a strong male friend. When we had what I felt was our first “heart-to-heart,” I told him that I was gay, and he reacted in a way that shocked me: he told me, in broken English/Japanese, that I was his first foreigner gay friend that he felt he truly bonded with, and that I was special to him because meeting me had broken down all the stereotypes he had about foreigners. If you know anything about Japanese men, such a heartfelt discussion is a rare occurrence. And ironically enough, this scene took place during our weekly trip to the onsen (traditional public baths where you bathe together in your birthday suits), so it couldn't have been at a stranger location!
I took away two things from that warm talk. One, that the Japanese do not typically use the same indicators as Americans do to assume someone is gay; and two, deep connections with other Japanese men, especially those who know I’m gay, would be rare, so if I focused on securing the few that I had then my experience there would be worth much more.
In some cases, Japan was gay heaven for me. When it comes to making friends with men, you can shop together – and they actually know fashion, get your nails done and even enjoy a spa day at the local baths without being subjected to feeling or being labeled gay by association of what you do. The country has some serious issues with homosexuality but, what we would call metro-sexuality is obviously an accepted thing, whether they know it or not. My co-workers, however, never stopped asking me, “Do you have girlfriend?” at work events, so, even after two years, regardless of the language barrier, I never really knew if they picked up on the fact that I was, and still am, very gay.
Whether you’re going to study in Japan or anywhere else abroad, set goals and start small. Don’t try to make a large number of local friends. Rather, focus on gaining a few really strong relationships. And do not fall in love abroad, unless it’s someone who isn’t afraid to talk, hypothetically, about a future with you, i.e. you can extend your stay or he/she can follow you home at least for a holiday. If only it were that easy – girl, I know – but trust me, if you meet a guy abroad who doesn't even have a passport yet, you’re in for a real slog.
I say all this because once you come home, shit hits you harder than any pamphlet prepares you for – culture-shock is a real thing – so maintaining long-distance friendships and relationship is hard work on top of everything else you will have going on. However, most of my insight comes from living in Asia for two years, so take what applies to you.
Since we LGBTQs have an additional worry when we embark on such blind journeys, I’ve complied a list of tips that I think is helpful for you. Although I think everyone has to deal with some form of struggle, it’s different for us because we’re often made to feel like we don’t fit in inside our own country, so experiencing homophobia or hesitation from others like this when you’re outside your comfort zone can be an extra layer of stress. These key points are food for thought for compiling your own “going abroad list”. Take it or leave it; I'm no expert, this is just what worked for me , honey.
1. People only make a big deal about your “differences” when you give them the opportunity to. Always put yourself on equal ground so it’s easy to see that it’s them who have the problem.
2. Don’t demand acceptance from everyone. Not everywhere is America, and sometimes just being American, in Asia especially, associates you with bizarre stereotypes about who we are. Break this by just being you and showing people the true power of individuality. Don’t take it as a condemnation of your character if they just have no interest in you being gay; you’re much more than your sexuality.
3. Don’t debate things with people because they don't see things your way. Save yourself the energy and pick your battles. You’re only abroad for so long, and you have a lot to enjoy!
4. Expect to be offended…more then once. Build a thick skin for it so you don’t take everything to heart, and instead realize the difference in cultures. In Asia, people said all type of messed up shit to me, and eventually, it just rolled off of my back. Even when it does strike a nerve, think about the culture of that place and why they may think the way they do before you respond.
5. If you get into a relationship, that is the lucky part. Remember, you met that person when you’re more than likely homesick, battling culture-shock or dealing with the side-effects of the two. Be smart, realize your vulnerabilities and think about how different things will be when you return to your home country with that person, before getting serious.
6. Also, be sure to be aware of how long you’re actually going away for. During a conference in Tokyo, one of the keynote speakers, a JET alumna who married a Japanese and continued her career/life in Japan, told us her way of realistically thinking about living abroad was to double count for the time you’re gone with the time you missed at home, since both worlds don’t stop. So, if you study abroad for one year you’re actually gone for two years; the year you’re abroad, and all you experienced, plus the year you’ve missed at home and all the experiences that took place among friends/family without you. This is good for reflection, helpful in dealing with reverse culture shock and avoiding feeling overwhelmed when you get back and all your friends have new lives that you’re not necessarily a part of anymore.
In reading these now, all I can think of is, “If I’d known then what I know now.” I wouldn't have made some of the mistakes I did while abroad. However, those life errors have molded me to be sharp, insightful and confident today. Don’t be afraid to be naïve, vulnerable and take risks as long as you learn from the errors. Lessons and growth come from it all.
I went to Australia thinking I’d be “in the closet,” but I effectively “came out” within my first week of being in the country. We didn’t even have paper towels for our apartment yet, and I had already told everyone, myself included, that I was officially gay. It was liberating because no one cared . It’s here that it’s truly all about perspective. I think growing up in United States, I was so concerned about what people thought about me and how differently they’d view me upon being confirmed that I was gay. However, being so far away from all of that, I never felt more like myself; when you’re literally thousands of miles away from all you know, all you have is your true self. That’s a surprise about being abroad that you don't learn from the pamphlets: getting to know yourself through testing your independence.
Studying abroad should be a requirement for all college students. I believe the potential for personal growth, independence and self-exploration/reflection to occur is just something you cannot get from living in your home country. I tell people all the time that the growth I experienced living in Hitachi-city, Ibaraki-prefecture, Japan could not have happened anywhere else, even when I felt like throwing in the towel after having a mini meltdown over not being able to find two-percent milk in the local grocer. If you can make it abroad, especially in Asia, you can make it anywhere! Remember to take everything with an open mind, heart and, of course, a damn good sense of humor.
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