My STEP signature project was a public health education abroad program in Japan. The two-and a-half week program focused on basic global public health through a Japanese perspective while comparing it to the American approach. We toured through all of Japan and visited historical cities like Hiroshima to develop a better understanding of the preparations and preventative measures Japan has taken to resolve their public health issues.
The STEP signature project was a transformational experience. Traveling to a different country for the first time and seeing life through a different cultural perspective changed my outlook on life. Learning about Japan’s approach to many public health related issues also opened my eyes to the potential possibilities for America.
One huge transformation or realization I experienced was how important diversity is for a country—especially one that inhabits as many different ethnic groups as America. Japan’s culture is much more focused on conformity. From the food they eat, to the eating utensils, to the clothes they wear, a day in Japan was unlike any I’ve ever had in America. I would attribute this juxtaposition to the prevalence of tradition in Japanese culture. They actively maintain traditions to preserve old perspectives, while American culture stresses efficiency and innovation. These differences gave me a newfound appreciation for not only the places I visited, but for countries and cities all over the world. The culture I was fortunate to experience in less than three weeks is just one of thousands all over the world, that most of us know almost nothing about. I now have a better understanding of our world as one unit, a world where each country can learn from the others and adopt some of these differences to create a unique culture of their own.
One thing in Japan that really stood out to me as different than America was the lack of diversity among the population. America is a melting pot of all cultures and ethnicities. Entering a country where immigration is not as welcomed by natives was shocking, but I saw some parallels in their concerns and those that are being raised in the U.S. It was crazy to go from being surrounded by people of all nationalities in America, to then be surrounded by only Japanese people in Japan. The diversity I’ve taken for granted my whole life was no longer there. It opened my eyes to the privilege citizens have in America to be accepted into a mashup of cultures and to express their own variation on the norms. Japan’s lack of diversity is interesting, it reflects the way many countries in Europe and Asia operate, but it feels strange to walk around and be the only person set apart from a crowd. In New York City, people of every race, religion, culture, and belief walk around everyday, and coming home I realized how much I missed that.
Conformity is valued above all in Japan. Everyone dresses the same, has the same haircut, carries the same designer bags, and wears the same designer clothing. This was apparent to me, coming from what I thought was a material-focused world (America). As I looked around, it was as if there was an unspoken uniform. The matching freaked me out, and I saw this as an oppressive force on their society, instead of a positive. I was wrong, the conformity and lack of deviation from the social norms works for Japan. They have lower crime rates and less violence than that of America, but I don’t know how they would react if any radical activists began protesting, or if groups began to deviate from the status quo. America does better in this regard; we are equipped to handle social problems between different groups. We focus on inclusion rather than exclusion. I think each country has something to take away from the other.
Experiencing a society so set in their ways gave me a new appreciation for America and the diversity it embraces. Prior to this trip I thought the grass would be greener on the other side. I thought that maybe other countries do a better job making citizens feel included and valued. What I learned was that there is no country as free, as open, and appreciative for differences than America.
As you can see, there was not a specific event that occurred where a light bulb flashed in my mind to pinpoint a transformation upon completion of this project. It had not occurred to me until I took the time to sit down and reflect. The journey was my transformation. From flying alone for the first time to a different country, to dressing in a kimono and walking the streets of Kyoto, to the 12-hour plane ride back; transformations were made along the way. I came back feeling like a new person. I came back with a better understanding of the world and of people and of myself.
I plan on using this rejuvenated “me” to apply what I learned to my future aspiration to become a neonatal nurse practitioner. In the healthcare field you see a lot of diversity. Every patient is different, with a complex medical or cultural background. Each patient should be treated with respect to their culture, values, and ideals. The patient population is very diverse, and instead of seeing these differences as annoyances or inconveniences, I will see them as a gift. This STEP signature project taught me to see diversity as an advantage, and one that I will cherish forever.