High School - Japan, High School Abroad

Learning about Japan and Myself in Unexpected Ways

by Brenna O’Brien, CCI Greenheart Travel High School Exchange Student in Japan

I made it! It had been exactly one month since I came to Japan and honestly I was exhausted. With all the excitement of a new place, language, and people also comes a lot of stress, confusion, and homesickness. My brain is always working on overtime surrounded by a new and foreign language, trying to make sense of everything going on around me. Getting used to a new environment takes a lot of energy, but after a month I felt I had successfully transitioned. That may have been so, but my body was worn out. I went to bed with a little headache and soar throat.

No big deal, I thought I would just go to bed early and be fine in the morning. I woke up with a fever and bad cough. I didn’t go to school that day, but it was no big deal, I was sure it was just a 24 hour cold. When I missed another day of school and my fever had still not gone down, my host mother began to worry. She suggested we go to the hospital. I was surprised at such a serious proposal and politely refused. I knew I was sick, but the hospital seemed a little drastic. Plus, no one likes hospitals, especially in a foreign country. But when my fever went up to approx. 104 degrees Fahrenheit, I had to suck it up and go. What I didn’t realize at the time is that the Japanese word for hospital is synonymous with any medical place. So when we drove up to the local doctors office I was surprised and slightly confused.

I had nothing to worry about. Japanese doctors offices are lovely places. All the nurses are kind, cheerful ladies dressed in white uniforms and pink aprons that match the patient slippers offered at the door. The actual office is clean and organized. Divided only by curtains, the room feels open and light. Everything is neatly organized and uncluttered. Unlike the sterile, grayness of American doctor’s offices, there is a warm, clean feeling about the place. There is one doctor and he is young and dressed in a trim white uniform. The nurses all stand round, their curiosity sparked by the foreigner with a high fever. They are all sympathetic of my situation. The doctor says it is only a standard cold and fever, he prescribes some medicine and the nurses all wish me a quick recovery as I leave. The Japanese health care system is very proficient and complete, so the fees are exceptionally cheap. The pharmacy is conveniently located right across the street and I have my medicine in hand in five minutes.

Over the next week, I will go back there three more times. When my fever still doesn’t go down, I am given antibiotics and when those don’t help I go back a third time. The third time round the office is filled with seven or eight elderly people all above seventy. More keep coming as I sit in the waiting room with a thermometer under my arm. I have to wonder if it just happens to be a convenient morning for all the old folks or if it looks like this every morning. They are all tiny and wrinkled but full of life. They sit chatting merrily with each other, half of them still able enough to have ridden bicycles to the office. When its finally my turn to see the doctor, he jokes that it is easier to communicate with me (the ignorant foreigner), than with the deaf older people. It is true, most of them are extremely deaf, and the doctors raised voice can be heard in the waiting room when he speaks with them.

The doctor is concerned with my persistent cough and fever and speculates its something more serious than just a cold. He decides to my surprise that a x-ray needs to be taken. I am taken into another room by a nurse and told to stand against a large plastic rectangle on the wall and wrap my arms around it. No heavy lead vest or other form of protection. I have to trust the tech-savvy Japanese that they are years ahead and their x-rays don’t need radiation protection. Its done and printed in ten minutes. I go back into the office and the doctor is standing, seriously considering the picture on the screen. Even i can tell that there is something in my lungs. He turns to me and says its pneumonia. Then my stool is wheeled over to a little table in the corner and the nurse takes a blood sample. While she is working, my host mother and doctor are cheerfully chatting about the weather and my stay in Japan. After that is finished we go back to the pharmacy to get more medicine.

I finally felt well enough to go back to school on Friday, and that morning we drop by the doctors office to make sure I’m good to go. He gives me the okay and its off to the train station. I was sick a whole week and was extremely nervous to go back, but everyone was excited to see me and all worried about how I was doing. Their enthusiasm always surprises me. During the week away, I was home alone a huge majority of the time and the days passed slowly. I would spend the day in bed, sleeping, reading and listening to music. A lot of time spent alone gives you great opportunity for homesickness, and I was not an exception. Being sick is not fun, but when you are away from home without your parents or the comfort of your own bed, it is twenty times harder. You don’t want to be a burden to your host family but still want to be taken care of. It is a scary and lonely experience. i found myself thinking of home and all the things that I left behind constantly. All I wanted was my moms cooking and care. Even though my host mom was so wonderful and took amazing care of me during that time, nothing compares to your own mom.

Even though it was a challenging time, I learned so many unexpected and important things about myself, Japan, the language, and the people. It turned out to be an invaluable experience. And the way I see it is, if I can get pneumonia  while I’m in Japan and get through it, who knows what else can happen!

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