Harmonizing with Japan’s social cues

Volunteering with Japanese students and seniors is about teamwork and acceptance.

Kristina Kaizer, USAC Nagasaki ’23, Gilman Scholarship recipient 

Studying abroad in Nagasaki, Japan, with the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) program at the Nagasaki University of Foreign Studies (NUFS), I became familiar with many Japanese cultural nuances that influenced everyday life. In the classroom, I learned the significance of non-verbal communication, like subtle gestures and social cues. I also discovered how unique the educational dynamic is in Japan given the value placed on collaborative learning and teamwork over individual achievements.  

Although I attended many cultural events and festivals during my time abroad, the most profound moments for me that amplified the impact of my study abroad experience happened while I was volunteering. During the year I spent in Nagasaki, I actively sought out volunteering projects ranging from working with kindergarteners to senior citizens.  

Most of the volunteer events I participated in were organized by my host university. I became a conversation partner, which is like an English tutor. When we visited the local Japanese schools and helped the students practice their language skills. I found it interesting that whenever I would ask one of the students a question, instead of pointing at their chest to indicate themselves, they would point at their nose. The kindergarteners were especially adorable and did this a lot, so I find the gesture incredibly endearing. I also noticed that many Japanese people consider eye contact confrontational. Avoiding eye contact is a sign of respect and politeness. I remember my very first-time volunteering, I tried to joke around with kids while unconsciously maintaining consistent eye contact. I think it made the kids shy away from me in the beginning because they weren’t used to it. Thankfully, I managed to fix the situation and everything went well.  

I would also volunteer on campus helping at different events. For example, I really enjoyed my time at an English camp for kindergartners and middle schoolers. There was a program that asked middle school-aged students to present a topic to volunteers like me — in English. I was there to review their language skills and offer feedback.  It was rewarding to know that these students would remember me as they were on their journey to learn English.  

Since my university was very small, I found out about most of these opportunities through my host university advisor. She would send me information on events, and later, I got acquainted with the woman who was responsible for all the volunteering events on campus and in the local community. Many universities in Japan have volunteer clubs that international students can join without paying any fees and no Japanese language requirements.  

One of my favorite memories volunteering was at an orange orchard, where I picked oranges and helped Japanese seniors practice their English. The event was hosted in the late fall by an organization that provided English classes to the elderly and was recommended by a USAC professor of mine who had volunteered with them previously. They collaborated with the owner of a local orange orchard, who allowed us access to several rows of his orange trees. He said that that year’s crop was a good one, and that he wanted to give back to the community by sharing the harvest.  

Two other USAC students and I had decided to participate, and we had the best time. They divided us up into groups so that everyone had someone to practice with. We were then able to speak in English in a very informal setting, which helped everyone feel comfortable around each other more quickly, and be able to speak freely.  

Everyone was talking and picking oranges into a bucket, and we were allowed to eat as much as we wanted.  I remember so many obaachans kept tapping me on my back and giving me peeled oranges. By the end of the day, I was shaped like an orange because of how much they fed me! They also kept tucking the biggest oranges they found into my backpack and would shush me if I tried to say anything. We collected so many oranges, that everyone took one large bag home and they decided to give the rest to the students living at my dorm. They filled a huge box filled with oranges and added a kind message from the elderly to all the students. Thinking about that day warms my heart with good emotions for the people who I met during that time. 

I would highly recommend students get themselves out there and get to know their university faculty staff. They are more than more than willing to help students out with anything they need. I believe that volunteering is not only an opportunity to give back to the community, but to also have experiences that not many people can have while abroad. I was able to explore small towns and communities in Japan while broadening my perspectives on the culture and the way of life that is completely different from what I was used to. If you go abroad, try to volunteer within the community that is hosting you. Giving back is an integral part of a well-rounded international experience.