Growing up in an international school and then moving to a non-international community is a quick wake-up call. You learn you’ve grown up in a bubble that’s so easy to be enclosed within. Having gone to an international school in Japan, I can tell you first hand: it’s an easy place to be.

The hard part was when I started college, where, for the first time, I was treated as an outsider and lost my way home. Questions about Japan were eagerly asked, due to my status as a foreigner … I mean, I was from Japan, the mystical land of futuristic robots and busty anime characters, which meant I definitely wasn’t American. I was prepared for this feeling of displacement, but I didn’t expect to be questioning the foundation of my identity.

I couldn’t answer very many questions about Japanese culture. I had pride in growing up Japanese, but I found myself unable to articulate specifics about the place I called home. The truth hits me harder than I’d like to admit: I don’t actually know Japanese culture.

I soon discovered I didn’t know American culture either. I thought I was in on all the jokes, but my first few months abroad were jarring. I couldn’t pinpoint what was so off-kilter until I returned to Tokyo during winter break, and was asked whether I experienced culture shock; the answer was a surprising “yes.” It was one of those lightbulb moments, as I realized that this was because my cultural identity wasn’t specifically American or Japanese. The culture that defined me was one that resulted from living in an international school bubble.

There’s something distinct about international school culture. It might be the fact that everyone is used to moving around, and people are accustomed to losing one another. Kindergarten playmates aren’t the adults standing next to you at graduation. People are good at goodbyes, but people are also great at hellos.

Not surprisingly, international school culture wasn’t something I could repackage into my non-international school life. The language, the humor, the relationship dynamics—all hybrids of both Japanese and American culture—was difficult to navigate through with students of non-international schools.

On the other hand, international school culture is also capable of transcending borders. You can meet someone from an international school in another country and get along with them instantly, as if you’ve known them all your life. The first friends I made at college were students who attended international schools, and many of my high school classmates share the same experience.

So what’s not to love about the international school bubble? You’re surrounded by people who are share similar experiences, educational ideals, and the ambition to become a global citizen. (These words are always somewhere in an international school’s mission statement.)

But this in itself is the problem. You grow up unaware of the people and place around you—one you might even call home. I’m Japanese and grew up in Tokyo all my life … but in an international school, and this prevents me from truly connecting with Japanese people. In the bubble, you’re never forced to question the structure that surrounds you or your own actions. Being forced to step outside allows you to come back with a new perspective of the world. One that’s inclusive of different groups, and sheds light on the kind of privilege you’ve experienced.

Stepping out of the international school bubble was uncomfortable. I still struggle to navigate between the various cultures that shaped me, to find the balance of my own cultural identity. While I now recognize that international school culture exists, I could never cut away the Japanese and American cultures that influenced who I am today. Growing up in an international school has ensured that forging my own identity will be an ongoing process. A process that isn’t likely to be concluded anytime soon—and I’m OK with that. 

Meg Ito is a student at a university in the U.S., and working as a Metropolis intern over the summer.