Destiny prevails through pandemic

While COVID-19 disrupted most travel, this South Australian student was able to complete her Japanese exchange and develop her lifelong passion for the country’s culture. (Image source: Brittany Colmer)

by Sarah Herrmann | @sarahherrmann_

“Well, this is where I’m meant to be,” Brittany Colmer finally decided during December 2018, the summer before her senior high school year. Almost two years later, she sits – 18, confined and alone – in an Adelaide hotel room awaiting a COVID-19 test result. But she is not just another quarantine statistic. This is the story of a woman on her way.

When she was five years old, Brittany met Japan. The Japan which, over the next 13 years, would prove to be the love of her life; the place she was “meant to be”. Technically, she met the Japanese language.

“There was this thing called the Karate Club,” Brittany says. “You have to learn more Hiragana the higher level you go. And the incentive was, like halfway through, you got a Japanese prize … and that was like the best thing I could ever think of.” She reached black belt.

Her mother, Tennille Colmer, says that by Brittany’s fourth year in her Barossa Valley primary school, she loved Japan.

“You always think young kids say they want to be a hairdresser, flight attendant or teacher, and this will, of course, change – but for Brit, it didn’t,” Tennille says. Brittany chose her first high school, Faith Lutheran College, based on the opportunity to continue to learn Japanese. And so, Japan became a constant in her life.

Brittany has grown through every moment she has spent in the country she calls her second home. “Since year nine [2016], I’ve been in Japan every year … There’s something about it,” Brittany says.

The Barossa girl took the first of five trips to Japan with her mother Tennille, father Nathan, and younger sister Paige in June and July 2016, but there was panic beforehand. Brittany had signed up for a high school Japan tour to commence just months after returning from this first trip with her family.

“When they were asking for kids to go on the trip, that was before I had been to Japan,” Brittany says. “It had been paid; I was going. And I remember mum stressing [saying], ‘We go to Japan as a family – what if she doesn’t like it? What if she doesn’t like it and then she has to go back in October?’.”

Brittany says she looks back on her mother saying that now and realises “it’s the exact opposite”. She says she counts that first high school trip as the best time of her life.

“The first day, I clicked with a group of people … I was so tired the whole time, but it was so much fun.”

Brittany’s third visit was a three-month exchange from November 2017 until January 2018 during which she celebrated the festive period with a host family she says she has come to know and love. Brittany’s host sisters from that stay, Yuika and Itone, have both visited South Australia.

Brittany speaks as if she has known them all her life. “They’re both so out there and bubbly,” she says. “Their mum is like the sweetest person on this planet. I always get texts from her throughout the year, just like, ‘How’re you going?’”

“I’ve spent Christmas with them twice. I know the mum’s brother and his family. He’s got two kids that are seven and four, I believe, and they’re wonderful. I got a present from the seven-year-old for Christmas – it was a drawing of a cat.”

After her fourth trip to Japan in 2018 – a second high school tour during her year 11 – Brittany promised herself she would not go back after graduating high school.

“I thought, ‘I can’t go [to Japan] after high school because I’m not going to want to come back home [for university]’.”

But much changed in the 12 months that separated the 2018 high school trip and Brittany’s graduation in late 2019.

The biggest was a change of high school from Faith Lutheran College in the Barossa Valley to Immanuel College in Novar Gardens – to learn Stage 2 Japanese – which involved moving out of home and boarding in Adelaide.

Tennille admires her daughter’s courage: “That’s a big thing to uproot in year 12 – to go to a new school, new area, meet new kids, be taught by teachers you have no idea of their teaching style or personalities, and, on top of that, to be a boarder. But Brit took it all in her stride simply because the language is her absolute passion”.

At Immanuel, Brittany met the school’s Japanese exchange program coordinator, Rachel Francis, who directs one-to-three-month and 12-month student exchanges to Japan. The latter involves students completing a homestay and attending school in Japan after completing year 12 at Immanuel.

Motivated by the “travel bug,” Brittany applied for a 12-month post-high-school study exchange to Kyushu Lutheran High School in Kumamoto, Japan.

Suizenji-koen: a park and tourist attraction in Kumamoto, Japan. (Image source: Brittany Colmer)

And so, she did go back after graduation and for a whole year. Brittany decided to take her fifth trip and spend her gap year – the year 2020 – in Japan.

“There was something in me that just switched from going, ‘I can’t go back [to Japan], I’m not going to be able to leave [when it’s over]’ to going, ‘I need to go back … Let’s go’.”

Brittany’s application was successful and she flew to Saitama prefecture near Tokyo on December 18 2019. She stayed with her friend, Kotoko, who had previously stayed with Brittany’s family in Australia.

Brittany is also close to Kotoko’s family. “Before she had kids, [Kotoko’s] mum was a home ec[onomics] teacher, so like the food was the best food I think I’ve ever eaten in my whole life,” Brittany says.

She also spent a week and a half with Yuika and her family, visiting the Ghibli Museum, Disneyland and teamLab Borderless; snowboarding; and celebrating their second Christmas together. Brittany spent her last day in Saitama with her friend, Natsume, who studies social work in Western Australia, practises ballet, and finds host families on Gumtree.

Relationships like these, Rachel says, are often meaningful and lifelong connections.

“Living with another family in another country teaches us tolerance and understanding,” Rachel says.

But it does not always work out so well.

Brittany is a meticulous planner, but when her official exchange began in Kumamoto on January 10 2020, it was not what she had imagined. From then until April, Brittany was living with her first host family who “didn’t talk to me” and “didn’t really click”.

“As mum always says – and I hated it at first – ‘everything happens for a reason’. And that was just one of the things that had to happen.”

Another unfortunate circumstance occurred during a walk to the river. “My host sister was always out with her friends, and so I’d go on walks,” Brittany says. She put her citizen ID card into her pocket, but when she took out her phone during the walk, the card must have slipped out. “What am I supposed to do? I was stressing. I looked everywhere; I turned my room upside down – I could not find it.”

Brittany’s Japanese exchange coordinator suggested she file a lost report at a police station so she could receive a new card. “I went in, and none of them spoke English. It was a nightmare. I was able to put my [host] sister’s phone number down so she could tell them my address,” Brittany says.

She filed a report but did not receive a slip for the new card, so she went back. All the police officers were different, and again, did not speak English. Brittany did not have the vocabulary to explain her problem successfully in Japanese.

“They were like, ‘Actually, somebody’s found your card, but you have to go to the major police station in the area,” Brittany says. One of the officers drove her, spoke on her behalf, and she received her card back. “It was all good, but that was the most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Brittany says.

It taught her resilience, but she had no idea what was to come.

Following the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11 2020, the Australian Government urged Australians overseas to arrange their return as soon as possible, or to stay if “practicable … safe and comfortable”.

Brittany was only three months into her exchange, and for her, there was no question. “I had obviously heard there were exchange kids going back home … Some teachers at my sister school were like, ‘Your prime minister is cutting all flights by March 31 – we’re going to send you home,” Brittany says.

“I was a bit in shock because I hadn’t even really considered it. I was like ‘I’ve got to call mum, I’ve got to call mum’.”

They were on the same page. Tennille says she believed Brittany was safe in Japan, where she felt at home with her second host family of the year. “She doesn’t get homesick in Japan; she gets home sick back in Australia … I know she is where she is meant to be”.

Kumamoto being a rural area, and her host grandmother having sewn her a face mask, Brittany says she was happy baking, picnicking, and playing video games with her new host sisters.

Brittany with her host sisters, Mizuki (centre) and Sakura (right), taking purikura in May 2020. (Image source: Brittany Colmer)

Rachel says Brittany was “so fortunate” to complete her exchange amid the pandemic, as most exchange students returned home. Meanwhile, Immanuel College students who had planned their trips to Japan are “more than devastated” by the affect COVID-19 has on international travel. However, Rachel remains hopeful that circumstances will change, allowing exchanges to resume.

“I wish all students could have the opportunity to embark on an exchange and experience life in another country. Learning about culture is how one truly learns a language,” Rachel says.

The gap year Brittany initially planned was somewhat restricted. Her family was to join her for a holiday on Okinawa, one of the small islands at the south end of Japan. “I’ve wanted to go there since I’ve known about Japan,” Brittany says. Despite the holiday not going ahead, she still finds things to be grateful for.

Rachel says exchanges develop students’ international mindset, empathy, values and identities. This has proved true for Brittany. “I love my independence … You get a bit of freedom … You expand your worldview … There’s a lot of people in the world, but really, everybody’s just the same, just trying to get by,” she says.

“[With] everything that’s happened in Japan, I think – when I get back to Australia – if I’m not having to go to a police station and say I lost an ID card and I need help and I don’t have my host family’s address and none of [the officers] can speak English – how bad can anything really be now?”

Brittany will not let anything – even a pandemic – get in her way. Her COVID-19 test was negative. The day after she completed her quarantine in Adelaide, Brittany moved into a city apartment.

In 2021, she will commence Adelaide University’s Bachelor of Secondary Education and Bachelor of Arts with a major in Japanese and minor in English as an Additional Language. As a qualified teacher, she plans to complete the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme as an assistant language teacher. “If you want to teach overseas, you know about [the JET Programme],” Brittany says.

“There will be a Japanese English teacher and they’ll have a class … you’ll help teach with them. So basically, you become a bit of a walking dictionary of idioms, slang, and pronunciation.” Her plan is to spend three years in the JET program, and then become an English teacher in Japan.

According to Rachel, exchange experiences like Brittany’s can increase employment prospects due to the communication, language, and life skills students gain. A situation like Brittany losing her citizen ID card was one of many that improved and broadened her grasp on all these skills through life experience and everyday use.

“Japan’s one of those places where you go and … you just can’t stop going back,” Brittany says. “But I think that’s travel for me in general. I went to Indonesia. So desperately I want to go backpacking after uni. I want to go to Pakistan; I want to go to Laos – everywhere, you know what I mean?”

I think we all do, certainly now more than ever.

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