Hey everyone! This is Kathleen coming at you from Seminole, FL. I’m a senior at St. Petersburg Collegiate High School and can not wait to begin my adventure in Japan. Becoming a Rotary Youth Exchange student has changed my life forever and I am growing daily because of it.
I live with my parents and one of my older brothers, David. We moved here from Illinois about twelve years ago. The greatest thing about moving to Florida was that we are not but five minutes from the beach. Within months I had fallen in love with the sun and sand.
On my free time outside of school I love playing soccer on a recreational soccer team. It’s an amazing sport that asks for a lot of teamwork and physical activity. The one passion that I will never grow out of is my love for music. I play the flute, piano and mellophone. Even when I’m not playing music though, because it’s so universal, listening and discussing it is always something I enjoy doing. I have a list of other artistic hobbies such as stained glass, pottery and scrap booking.
The joy in my life is my friends. We enjoy going out to eat, the movies and just chilling around a fire outside and having a good time laughing together. I absolutely do not know how hard it is going to be to leave my friends for so long, but hope I can share my experience with them while I’m gone and when I return also. I know for a fact that for the next couple years I will never have a dull conversation with anyone because of the amount of experiences the Rotary Exchange is adding to my life. Thank you so very much for accepting me into this experience of a lifetime.
September 14 Journal
I have left the “Sunshine State” and moved to the “Land of the Rising Sun.” I left my life on hold in America when I hugged my parents at Tampa International Airport on Friday August 22nd, 2008. I left my American culture and lifestyle in Chicago when I climbed aboard for the worst 13 hour flight ever. I tried sleeping away the time and the nausea, but by the 12th hour I was not just homesick, I was sick. When I landed in Narita airport on Saturday August 23rd, 2008, I was not prepared for the culture shock. Luckily thanks to the jet-lag I had become numb from exhaustion which turned the rest of the night into a blur. Omiya-East and Omiya-West Rotary Club members, dressed in suits and serious expressions, met me at the airport. If it wasn’t my host mom dressed in pink to match the pink highlights in her hair I would have been intimidated. Only a few hours later at dinner did I learn that Japanese Rotarians are a really fun group of people to be around. I can honestly say that I have found my new family in Japan and it is a group of about 20 Rotarian businessmen and my host mom (Okasan), a Rotarian herself, Junko san.
My first two weeks in Japan were a proven challenge for me. My first full day in Japan I slept all day because when it came to unpacking the tears to be home with my family come pouring down my face. My Okasan had hosted three students before me and knew how to cheer someone up. I hate fast food in America, but that hamburger and those French fries from McDonalds were the best comfort food I could ever have. For the first week in Japan I spent all my time with Okasan or Rotary Club members. Okasan had to work though, so I would sit at her work practicing my Japanese. It wasn’t very exciting and most of it didn’t stick to my memory unless I used it. Okasan’s business is with Real Estate. Her co-workers would walk me around town helping me purchase what school supplies I needed and practice taking the train to and from school with me. I spent most of the week learning the culture by observing. Like a child, you learn by observing first and the language comes second. During the first week I also attended both of my Rotary Clubs. Monday night was Omiya-West Rotary Club and Wednesday was Omiya-East Rotary Club. I gave a short introduction speech at each meeting without any problems, but then I didn’t think anything could be more boring than a school history lecture. I was wrong! Lectures in Japanese have proven to give you not just the usual headaches, but migraines. I look forward to the time before and after the meetings in which we share conversation and laughs over a delicious Japanese meal that is different and new to me every week.
With the mention of Japanese food I can honestly say everything tastes different half way around the world except maybe bananas. During my first two weeks in Japan I ate out just as often as I ate at home with my host family. I have experienced everything from the raw salmon egg during my first sushi meal to the fried fish known as tempura that I enjoyed more because it didn’t look like it was still swimming. My host mom encourages me to try everything so I have tried natto, a soy bean “goo” that seems to be loved by all Japanese people. I find that the Oodles&Noodles (Ramen noodles) that my mom makes at home are more delicious than the Ramen noodles here. But don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a warm bowl of udon here with a cup of Nihonocha. Together they warm the body and soul and I know I’ll be enjoying them the most during the winter. My favorite meal so far was the Japanese barbecue. For once the food wasn’t raw or fried, but what I’m use to, grilled. I eat what is put in front of me, but everything tastes so different, I don’t know how to explain it or whether or not to say if it’s delicious. It is incomparable to anything I’ve ever experienced, everything here is.
Describing the Japanese culture is difficult. You always take your shoes off before entering the home, but I did that at home all the time. It’s just a common courtesy. What’s different is if you choose to wear slippers in the house, you have to take them off before entering a bedroom or a room such as the den or study. You must also always wear the bathroom slippers in the bathroom and the bathroom only. Now at school, you’re dealing still with at least three pairs of shoes. I have a pair of shoes I wear to school, but right as you walk into the building there are lockers in which you switch your shoes to slippers or school shoes. Then you also have a pair of gym shoes and if you have any after school activities such as I do, I also carry around a pair of soccer cleats. That is four pairs of shoes I own just for school. Two of them I had to buy while here in Japan. In America I use to make fun of my mother for how many pairs of shoes she has, but now I can’t complain because I’m slowly catching up with her.
Also at school, there are two things that are extremely different that I miss. First, there aren’t janitors. Your fellow classmates and you clean the classrooms everyday after school. Second, you don’t switch classes, but the teachers do. This means you have the same classmates for each and every class, and also if you want to give your legs a stretch you have to get up and walk up and down the hall and then return to your class. Something that is new that I think is very respectful is at the beginning and end of class you stand up and bow to your teacher. Can you imagine a class of students in America doing that? No!
The one thing that is best about Japanese culture is the public transportation system. As much as I hate being cram packed like sardines in a can onto a train every morning, it is so much better then driving everywhere. I had difficulty learning the train system at first though, but Toujo san, my Japanese papa, who spoils me like I was his own daughter, walked me everyday to school for the first week and picked me up by car. Now don’t get confused he’s not my Otosan, just a member of the Rotary club who cares for me like my own father would back home.
My first day of school was more confusing then any other first day. I got to school with my escort, Toujo san and was handed off to the teachers. I then had to make my introduction speech to all the teachers. Next I made my introduction speech to my class and finally I had to go to the gym and in front of the entire student body I had to introduce myself. Luckily I was one of the last on the agenda to speak so most of the students were either sleeping or off in their own little world. Japanese students are either shy or outgoing. Everyone in the class introduced themselves to me in English during an English class. I know all of two maybe three people’s names. Japanese people are named after common Kanji such as Midori means green and one of my classmates is named after the word village. This makes learning Japanese a little easier because I can relate people to things, but to me my name is only just a name. I wish my name had a significant meaning that matched a Kanji symbol. Instead my name is written in Katakana, a set of characters used for foreign words. Most of the time they are shy, but when a conversation is started, it lasts, because they are trying to learn English and I’m trying to learn Japanese. It’s nice that we can help one another out.
My favorite class is math because the teacher is nice enough to give me notes in English and also because I have learned it before so it is easy to understand what he is explaining. I also enjoy Japanese Classics even though it’s the hardest class because the stories and history of art in Japan is amazing. My favorite class I think is going to be art though because you don’t need to know much language to spill your heart and soul into a piece of work. I sleep through most of my other classes, although it’s kind of hard to sleep through gym. I enjoy after school activities the most. The only bad part is I want to participate in orchestra, soccer, and also learn calligraphy. It’s hard because they are all at the same time on the same days, Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 4 pm. I’m hoping to be able to practice my flute at least on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school and take part in calligraphy on Wednesdays. All the other time will be spent with the girl’s soccer club.
I used to believe that Japan has proven to be totally different from home in almost every way, but when I think about things nothing is totally different. It’s just that everything is unfamiliar. My way of life has been turned around and upside down now that I am half way around the world. I get bored with the same schedule everyday, but when something new is introduced, it makes it all the more exciting. I haven’t traveled much yet, but I was given a tour of one bridge under construction because that is my dream job, and I will begin traveling soon with my Rotary club to various cities and parts of Japan. I have met all the other exchange students in my district and I know I will be able to share my thoughts with them because we are all experiencing the same culture shock. Also, because we have a lot of orientations and events together I know I have a dozen other friends no matter what.
I unfortunately seem to be experiencing homesickness the most though. I’m starting to feel at home, but after a day of only Japanese and being given dirty looks and stared at constantly, I lose hope in ever completely fitting in. What makes me feel the most at home, though, is when I’m with my host family and I help cook dinner and wash the dishes. I cooked spaghetti for them one night and every night I learn how to cook a new Japanese meal. I look forward to the months to come and can’t wait to grow more in personality and strength.
October 26 Journal
Traveling to Japan is like reading a new book. You pick the book up and you read the summary on the back to see if you like it. You may even read the first couple pages to see if it catches your attention. Before I came to Japan I did the same thing. I went online and researched what I could find to see if Japan would be a country I wanted to live in for a year. The summary of the story pulls you into the book and makes you want to read it. I learned what I wanted to about Japan; everything sounding interesting making me want to experience the foods and the unique culture that existed half way around the world. In the end I was accepted to move to Japan just like you would bring that book home and engulf yourself in it.
The beginning of the book is an introduction that has to be exciting to keep you interested and making you want to see how it ends. When first coming to Japan everything was new and interesting. It was like an introduction to the book; you’re first being introduced to all these new people or characters and trying to learn the way of life or plot. Once you think you have things figured out you all of a sudden encounter boring chapters or exciting twists and turns. You may feel for the characters and experience different emotions. The same thing is happening during my exchange. I thought I had everything figured out, but everyday I encounter a new turn in my life and learn something new. You may even encounter a part in the book where you just want to give up and put it down, but because a part of you wants to see the ending you can’t put it down. Every time I’m experiencing a down part in my exchange I can never give in because I always want to see who I will become at the end of my year abroad and see how much I’ve grown.
During the past month so much has happened. I don’t know where to begin. Between school and Rotary events I’m kept busy and spend all my spare time either sleeping or studying, but mostly studying. I finally began to go out sightseeing. I went to the Kitain Temple and the house of a General born in Saitama during the Edo period (September 14). It was nice to finally see a part of Japanese history, and it was beautiful because of the architecture and perfectly tended gardens. During a holiday (September 23) I went to Harajuku, a popular shopping district near Tokyo, with some friends from school. It was nice to get out and just window shop with some friends my age instead of being with Rotarians 24/7. The language barrier is a little bit of a problem, but they are willing to help me learn if I help them learn. It’s a good trade off in the end. I’ve learned you don’t even need to speak to have a good time though. My favorite thing to do so far is Purikura and is a lot of fun with a large group of friends; five of us climbing into a small photo booth and the whole time laughing at the poses and faces we make in front of the camera. People say Japanese love baseball and they do, but believe it or not, because of my love for soccer, I’ve become a Japanese soccer fan. I’ve attended two soccer games here in Japan. One game was the famous Japanese team the Urawa Reds and they won against Kuwait 2-0 (September 24). The second game was the Omiya-Adija soccer team and they unfortunately lost 0-4 against another Japanese team (October 4). You would think that there would be no fights because Japan seems to be such a nice country, but I have never seen so many yellow cards and fights break out during soccer games except here in Japan.
My time away from speaking Japanese is when once to twice a month all 15 exchange students in Saitama have to gather for orientations. They usually are really boring lectures and the last one included 4 hours of speeches from the exchange students who returned this summer. We always have fun together and there is never a moment's silence as we share each others experiences together. One Sunday (September 28) we spent a day at Omiya Park playing games the Rotex put together for us. I played dodge ball for the first time ever. Japanese dodge ball is so different from American dodge ball though. Instead of everyone being inside the court, you have players outside your opponent’s box that can hit them with balls from behind. The catch is, you only play with one to two balls depending on how many people there are. I’m absolutely horrible at it! HaHa!
The highlight of my trip thus far has to have been my trip to Matsuyama and Hiroshima with my first of two host clubs Omiya-Higashi Rotary Club (October 11-12). Friday night (October 10) we had a welcome party for a member of Rotary International from the Philippines, Fabby. He comes to visit Japan every 6-12 months and knows no Japanese (he doesn’t even say arigato), but communicates even better than I do with the Rotarians it seems. Staying out late after a long day at school, I spent most of the night packing and preparing for the trip the following day. Pick-up was at 6:10AM the next morning which meant I had to get up at 5:00AM to shower and finish packing. It was a two hour car ride through snail moving traffic into Tokyo. When we arrived at the airport there were about 30 Rotary members there dressed in their uniforms, my Okasan and I being the only females. This made for a very interesting weekend. It was a quick one hour flight to Matsuyama. Once there we dropped our bags off at the hotel, unable to check into our rooms yet. Grabbing a quick lunch we then headed to the Matsuyama International Rotary Club 30th year anniversary convention. There were so many people there and everyone seemed to know one another. I felt so out of place. Luckily a local high school student volunteered to take me sight-seeing for the day while the Rotarians took care of their business. We took a train ride to a lift and traveled up the mountain to Matsuyama Castle. It was a gigantic area and the castle being over 400 years old was gorgeous. We climbed the stairs up to the tower of the castle and were able to see the entire city of Matsuyama. Afterwards we treated ourselves to ice cream and wandered around a shopping district. We ended up partaking in Purikura and must have laughed for 30 minutes straight, but soon grew weary from such a long day of walking around. We even accidentally got on the wrong train and arrived late for the celebration dinner. I made a new friend in a day, but unfortunately I will probably never see her again. We exchanged emails though and still keep in touch occasionally.
There is always so much food at Rotary events and we spent the evening feasting. It is a custom in Japan to go around refilling your friend’s glasses with whatever they drink (in Rotary’s case it’s Asashi beer). I never partake in this because of my age and being unable to drink alcohol. Instead to show my appreciation I sat at the table serving food from the platters of trays that were being continuously carried out by waiters. I was hoping that we were heading back to the hotel after dinner, but instead I experienced a part of Japanese culture I hope I never have to encounter again. Omiya-Higashi Rotary Club consists of all male members and my Okasan. For entertainment that evening we were placed into a room with karaoke machines. I didn’t mind this and was hoping for a little entertainment from the Rotarians. What I didn’t like though was the fact that the servers/entertainers were young Japanese women wearing prom dresses. I even had a Rotarian from Matsuyama come up to me and state to me that this was a part of Japanese culture I’ve probably never experienced. He admitted to me it was an uncomfortable environment for someone like me. Fabby sang YMCA on the karaoke machine and I got movies of members of my Rotary Club dancing. Afterward a long day we headed back to the hotel where we checked in and I was able to shower and sleep finally.
Half of the Rotarians were staying in Matsuyama to golf while a small group of us were traveling to Hiroshima. Breakfast was at 7:00AM the next morning and we were leaving at 8:00AM to catch a boat to Hiroshima. I get sick on large cruise ships and when I saw this small boat on the choppy water that was lapping over the edges of the dock and getting me wet I took my motion sickness pills and slept for the two hour trip. We next took a train to Hiroshima station, left our bags in lockers, met up with the couple from Bangladesh and headed to Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park by taxi. When I saw the A-dome, the last standing building after the first atomic bomb in history was dropped, my mood turned solemn and I didn’t know what to think or do. We took pictures of all the peace memorials, but I didn’t think it was right to smile at such depressing monuments. I was happy to learn the story from Japan’s point of view though. They didn’t speak of how horrible America was for dropping the bomb, but only the reaction and sorrow the people faced during the recovery process. Hiroshima is now the most peaceful city in the world and hopes to rid the world of such disastrous weapons. There were a lot of tourists and for such a peaceful place, they acted like tourists. They didn’t have the looks of sadness on there faces like the Japanese did which soured my mood even more. Okasan bought me two books as gifts from the museum. One was an overview of the museum explaining Hiroshima from before the dropping of the bomb to today. The second book is a book you can’t eat and read at the same time. It contains pictures people drew after the initial dropping of the bomb and vivid descriptions of the wounded. It will without a doubt make you lose your appetite after only reading the first page.
After leaving the museum our moods lifted and we grabbed a quick lunch before boarding the Bullet train for the four hour trip home. During this time I was unable to sleep because of all the resting I had done from traveling earlier on that day. I closed my eyes and tried studying, but neither occupied my time for very long. The four hours thankfully went by quickly and soon enough we had arrived in Tokyo and were only 30 minutes from home. Before I knew it I was walking up the stairs at Higashi-Omiya Eki and saying goodbye to the Rotarians I had been traveling with. When I stepped through the front door of my house at 9:30 Sunday night I could only think of a hot shower, my warm PJ’s and me snuggled under the blankets on my bed upstairs. Even better was the idea that Monday (October 13) was a holiday which meant I was able to sleep in and relax all day after such a long weekend.
I look forward to traveling again to Hiroshima with the other exchange students in Saitama in December. I know it will be a totally different experience to be able to talk to someone my age and from my country about such a tragic part of not only Japan’s history, but a part of my own country's history.
School has been a bit boring lately. The students spent the week after my trip to Matsuyama and Hiroshima preparing for their upcoming examinations (October 14-17). I will admit I spent most of my time sleeping. Most students weren’t attending club activities this week either because they were busy studying for their tests. When I went to calligraphy club on Wednesday I was the only one there and sensei was kind enough to help me paint Hiragana characters on ceramic tiles to give to my host family and my family back home as gifts. Friday night I learned I would be spending the weekend at my host family’s mountain home. Okasan warned me it was going to be cold, but I froze all weekend (October 18-19). Being a Florida beach bum I was really miserable. The weekend had a lot of surprising twists and turns, but they created a downward slide which ended in me becoming sick, weary and worst of all extremely homesick. My host mom spent most of the weekend on the phone which even delayed us for over an hour during the trip up the mountain. A 3-4 hour trip ended up being 6-7 hours after stopping to buy food twice and eating lunch one of those two times. Warning: Driving up a mountain when the road is all curves while in the backseat of a car is not healthy and is very painful for the stomach and ears. My spirits were lifted after we arrived with a warm meal, which included a soul-warming cup of Nihon-Ocha, and my choice of watching the “Devil Wears Prada” followed by my host sister’s choice of watching “Candyman.” The homesickness settled in when Okasan and my host sister were putting facial masks on and talking to one another and all I did was sit there studying Japanese.
The next morning was the beginning of a new day and the previous day was far from my mind after a good night sleep. Mushroom hunting proved to be a lot of fun. I don’t think you would walk through a forest in Florida eating berries from a bush, but here in Japan there was no fear in doing so. We even found blueberries! I was more consumed by the wonderful autumn colors that engulfed my entire vision rather then the mushrooms, but I did learn the difference between a good and bad mushroom. After a long morning of walking through the Japanese wilderness, Okasan again was on her phone for hours and my host sister had gone off on a bike ride, leaving me alone and bored. My host sister wouldn’t allow me to help cook lunch and once the food was ready we ended up eating without Okasan. I helped clean up the house and did some chores for Okasan while she continued her phone conversation. Sleep engulfed me when I sat huddled in a ball on the living room floor and when I woke up, everything was done and we were ready to leave. I felt bad for not helping pack up and Okasan seemed to be disappointed in me which made me sad. We left right as it was getting dark. Warning: Driving down a mountain with a lot of curves is twice as worse as driving up! I thought we would head straight home because I had school the next day, but instead we stopped at two shopping districts. With no money except maybe 1,000 yen, I followed my Okasan around and engaged myself in window shopping. We stopped for dinner and within the following hour we were almost home. I felt horrible at this point. It seems when you try to force yourself to sleep time away it takes more energy then it would to just stay awake. Motion sick and overtired, the silence from Okasan made me feel like the biggest disappointment as an exchange student. Before I could even take my shoes off I was in tears and headed to bed after a hot shower.
I had school the next morning, but at breakfast with my nose running like a fountain and with a slight cough I had no desire to go to school. When Okasan began talking to me about the week's schedule because the students would be testing and I wouldn’t be I became frustrated from being so weary and within moments was balling my eyes out again. Okasan said I could take a holiday for one day (October 20). I slept the entire day, waking up only once to eat lunch with Okasan and Toujo san. By dinner I was in a good mood once more and felt 10 times better with my energy level back to normal and drugs in my system. I went to school the next morning to find myself in the library studying for four hours (October 21). Wednesday I had two Rotary meetings and therefore didn’t have to go to school (October 22). Thursday and Friday I once again found myself studying until I fell asleep in the library (October 23-24). When the tests were finished I was just as happy as the students because I now had friends available to go out with. Saturday morning (October 25) at 10AM I was on my way to meet my group of friends at Yono Eki to spend the day at Namjatown in Sunshine City. Going out in Japan costs a lot, I’ve learned. Paying for the train ride costs about 1,000 yen, lunch costs about 1,000, and then actually doing something costs about another 1,000 yen. It’s all worth it though in the end.
My schedule continues to be filled with Rotary events and traveling plans. I move November 29th to my new host family. I look forward to a new way of living and continue to learn more everyday.
November 23 Journal
I can’t believe another month has gone by already. I don’t know if I’m happy that the exchange is going by so quickly or sad that in about 7 months I’ll be back home with a fear that I will forget this experience.
At the end of October, October 31st to be exact, our school had a 10k marathon. We spent our days in gym class running continuously building our endurance. Everyday we ran I just wanted to sleep afterwards and ended up doing so during a history or geography class. The last week of running I was so determined to run four laps in 30 minutes. Monday it took me 30:20, Tuesday 30:30 and finally Wednesday I ran four laps in 29:40. I was so happy the rest of the day and week at school. When the “Big” day finally arrived, it was cold and overcast which made perfect weather for running. The down part was it took at least an hour by train to get to the 3k trail we had to walk before we got to the park. Shortly after everything was organized the marathon began with all the guys starting 15 minutes before all the girls. My friend Hiro san is slightly slower than me, but I decided there was no way I wanted to run for so long alone so we stayed together the entire time pushing each other to the end. It took us 90 minutes to complete, but I think we could have completed it quicker if I didn’t have to pee in the middle of the marathon. Luckily there was a toilet along the trail and unable to run at that point we decided to use it. It turned out 10k really isn’t that long, but the 45 minute walk home probably took twice as long because we were so tired and sore. I spent the entire next day laying around and resting which was well earned. Also, with the previous day being Halloween I treated myself to a handful of chocolate and a couple horror flicks.
November had to have been the most normal month so far, and that’s not saying much. Everyday I would wake up at the same time, go to breakfast at the same time, and ride the 7:33AM train at Higashi-Omiya to Omiya. Then I grab another train at 7:42AM to Yono, arriving at 7:51AM. Then I would begin my 20 minute walk to school. What keeps me questioning my days is school. I still don’t understand the school's schedule because for some reason at least one day a week the classes are cut short and there is a meeting after school or we’re making up a day after a holiday and even have to go to school on a Saturday. We’re currently preparing for our trip to Okinawa the second weekend of December and spend time creating groups for excursions and such. I can’t wait to go to Okinawa! It’s supposedly the Hawaii of Japan, or the Key West of Florida which means warmer weather. The weather is getting so cold here now compared to what I’m used to in Florida, and I don’t understand how the girls at my school can still wear short skirts when my school doesn’t have a uniform. Beyond school most of the exciting things happen on the weekends when I go out with friends.
The first weekend of November I spent getting to know my second host family. I was scheduled to move November 29th, but they seem so excited and determined to help make my time in Japan amazing. I spent the day window shopping in Tokyo with my host parents and a family friend and then spent the night at their place. I can’t wait to move in with them! They are nice, funny, laid back and told me that they are willing to help me with anything I need or want. The best part is that because I’ll be living in the house with them, I’ll finally feel part of a family and learn more Nihongo. While in Tokyo we also went to Tokyo Tower, but because it was during a holiday, there was a 90 minute wait and instead we went to a trick art gallery.
The second weekend I went to Ueno Zoo with my current host father. It was really cold, and the Giant Panda died in April sadly, but it was still nice to get out. I was hoping the zoo would have more exotic animals, but you had your basic animals that you would find at almost any zoo plus some of Japan’s native birds and some native animals such as the ever so popular Japanese bear from Hokkaido.
Having two host clubs, when I switch host families I will also be switching host clubs. This month I started attending meetings with Omiya-Nishi Rotary Club. They are just as excited to get to know me as I am to be here in Japan. I know so many people between two Rotary Clubs, the Rotaract Club, the other exchange students, and my friends from school. I love it! I was walking home from school one day and a guy on his bike saw me and pulled over just to see if we went to the same high school as him. Being the only person of different ethnicity, except our schools ALT who is also from Florida, it’s kind of difficult not to stand out.
The third weekend of November had to have been one of the best. Friday I spent the day at Omiya Eki with some of the girl exchange students. We made Purikura and then sat in a café eating cake and talking for a few hours. I had to leave a little early to go to a party my class was having, but that was just as fun with a change of language. We cooked Okonomiyaki and laughed at what seemed like nothing for hours. A native food of Japan is Natto and I can’t stand the taste or smell of it. One of the Okonomiyaki’s that was cooked contained Natto and my school friends thought it would be funny to trick me into eating it. I couldn’t get the taste out of my mouth for the rest of the night. The following day, Saturday, was the most relaxing day for me. My entire host family was at a Rotary conference all day which meant on I was on my own the entire day. I stayed in my pajamas until 2:30 and then finally went window shopping for a bit. At 6:30 I went out to dinner with a Rotary member, and the son of another Rotary member and his girlfriend. We ate tempura which is really expensive, but really delicious and talked about schools in America because the couple that was there was looking to study abroad. It was a good night. Sunday was the International Rotary conference and I spent all day with the exchange students. It was a long day of speeches and random performances by various parts of Rotary. We even met some American soldiers from the local base. It seems that because foreigners are so rare in Japan, when you see a group of them you have no choice but to introduce yourself. When all the exchange students gather we never have a moment of silence because we always want to share our experiences with each other. Since all of us speak English pretty well we can finally crack jokes and use the sarcasm we all have to contain in a bottle when with our host families, host clubs, and Japanese friends.
After such a long weekend of non-stop activities and late nights I was so tired for school the next week. Monday and Tuesday I couldn’t study or concentrate in school and I ended up taking Wednesday off to catch up on sleep. I learned from some classmates that if one of them was to tell Akoi Sensei that they stayed home from school to just sleep they would get in big trouble. I was really lucky, but I probably couldn’t have gotten in trouble with things at home being so crazy. For the past couple weeks my Okasan has been really sick and has been constantly in and out of the hospital. She soon was going to go in for more tests and going to stay there so instead of waiting until the end of the month to switch families the date was pushed up to November 24th.
The third week of November went by quickly which was good news for me because it meant the fourth weekend of November had arrived. Saturday I went to another bridge construction site with a Rotarian, his friend and his friend’s family. It was so awesome! It’s sad to say that I’m obsessed with bridges, but it’s so cool that my Rotary club respects that and plans dates for me to go learn about the construction process. The family I was with brought their grandson, an 18 month ball of energy. He was so adorable and was even willing to sit on my lap to look out the car window. He attempted to talk to me, but I can’t even understand Japanese let alone baby Japanese. Afterwards we had a delicious lunch of spaghetti and pizza and the best part was the cake for dessert. The rest of the day I spent packing my clothes. It was so difficult because I have more clothes now than when I first came to Japan! It was a miracle when I got all my clothes into my two suitcases except minus my shoes and a couple jackets. Sunday I went to Omiya Eki again with 6 other exchange students and a Rotex member. It was so much fun. All eight of us were able to make Purikura together in one small booth. When all the exchange students get together it is hilarious because we’re the only group of foreigners around. We then grabbed lunch and found a café with gigantic ice cream sundaes. The poor waiter was really nervous when he was serving us because his hands were shaking. We spent most of the day joking around and talking about stuff in English that is very difficult to talk about in Japanese. It was a lot of fun and we’re all becoming very close friends who rely on each other when we have problems or drama happening within our new Japanese lifestyles. Later on that night I had dinner with Toujo san, my Papa Japan. It was nice to speak in Japanese, or at least attempt to. He was determined to help me understand the gender and age differences of the language and to help me correct my sentence structures. I didn’t get upset at all, but was extremely grateful that someone was finally correcting me and smiling while doing it because they were enjoying themselves just as much as I was.
Completely packed, well almost completely packed, I move tomorrow, November 24th, and I’m excited for the next chapter in Japan.
January 12 Journal
I absolutely love my host family with all my heart! I never knew there was a place in my heart for another family. At first I was afraid because I had been living alone for the first three months and didn’t know what to expect of a Japanese household, especially since I would now share the one thing that is always heated in the house, the toilet. Now, I love always having someone around to talk to and study my Japanese with, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My Okasan, older host sister and I talk about handsome guys we see and always go shopping together sharing an almost similar taste in clothing that I never had with my mother back home.
The switching of host families came at the same time the seasons decided to switch. Even though it may never snow here, I haven’t experienced a real winter since I was five and now I understand why I live in Florida. The schools have only small heaters, but I can’t complain because I can wear pants to school while my fellow female exchange students all have to wear short skirts as their school uniform. As nice as it is to experience a season Florida never has, I can’t wait until spring arrives and I hope it comes quickly. One day at school a girl asked me what I had eaten because my lips were blue. If you don’t understand let me inform you that I hadn’t eaten anything, let alone something blue.
The biggest challenge for exchange students, well me at least, is spending the holidays away from your family during the holidays. Japan of course doesn’t celebrate my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, and don’t even know what it is. Not knowing how to explain it in Japanese I used the most simple explanation I knew: Indians + Europeans = Friends.
December has been the biggest holiday for me and at times it felt like I was just on vacation. At the beginning of December my school had tests that I couldn’t take because I contain no skill in being able to read Kanji, and therefore I spent my time either studying Japanese with the occasional reading of a book or nap. That has to be one of the greatest features of a Japanese high school; if you sleep for a little bit, that’s okay, everyone does it. I spent most of the time with my host mom because all my friends had exams. When I was at school I would have the privilege of sitting in the library right next to the stove.
The first weekend of December (5th-7th) I went on my first trip with the other 13 exchange students in Saitama to Hiroshima, Nara and Kyoto. The trip started with a unremembered wake up at 4:30 in the morning to make the first bus from my home to the train station, and then a short 10 minute train ride to the meeting area. Together we traveled by train to Tokyo airport and took an airplane to Hiroshima. I absolutely hate airplanes ever since the 13 hour flight from Chicago to Japan and now it seemed I was boarding yet another one. When we arrived in Hiroshima we donated 1000 cranes to the Children’s Monument. Now writing about it, it was a moment of great sadness. I couldn’t imagine my home town being bombed and all the children suffering if not then from burns, later from radiation. I wouldn’t be able to have stood seeing so many people suffering. After donating the birds I feel closer to the Japanese culture and better understand what they had to endure because of one decision America made. I was relieved to leave the grief of Hiroshima behind and smile again when we boarded the shinkansen.
We took our journeys next to Himeji castle. Going photo crazy we stopped every minute it seemed to take another photo. We laughed the whole time while climbing the seven or more staircases to reach the highest tower of the castle. Japanese people being known for the shortness built the stairwells so that tall foreigners would hit their heads on the low banisters; a great war method if I may say so myself (the castle was never attacked). We stood at the top of the tower gazing upon the gorgeous scenery of the city as the last rays of the sun blended with the autumn colors. That night we had dinner at the hotel and then we all went out and sang karaoke together. It was a great bonding moment between all the exchange students as we learned who could and couldn’t sing.
The next morning was an early start and after a buffet breakfast we boarded a bus and headed to Nara. On the way over we stopped at a convenience store for lunch. We acted just like a family on a road trip having fast food for lunch, hotel breakfasts and dinner being the best meal. We are like a family though; scratch that; we are a family. Continuing on the trip we stopped in Nara at the temple with the largest Buddha and surrounding the temple were thousands of live deer that you would even bow to you if you asked politely. It is believed that if you can fit through the nostril of the giant Buddha you would go to heaven; I was too self conscience of my size to try though because the Japanese are so small. After viewing the temple we continued on our journey to our final stop, Kyoto. I have never soon something so beautiful in my life. Imagine a humongous, dark brown wooden temple built in the mountainside surrounded by thousands of maple trees bearing the autumn colors of yellow, orange and red. Water flowed through and around the temple and being set in a mountain you could go up and see the thousands of people swarming the hundreds of shops below or go down and when looking up see a sight that you can only dream about. We were unfortunately rushed through the temple because it was so crowded, but spent a couple hours shopping as we walked back to the bus. With the sun almost completely hidden below the horizon we set out for the hotel. During the bus ride we learned that the hotel had 74 floors. Just a tad bit larger than a hotel in Florida, right? We ate yet another buffet dinner and ended the night with playing cards.
Our final day in Kyoto was the most interesting. We split up into two groups, and while my group traveled to view the Golden Pavilion, an all gold building built in a lake so its reflection was just as vivid as the real sight. The next activity was the most exciting. We were to become Samurai and Geisha. I suppose the picture can be the only way to explain it. What I can say though is that you couldn’t breathe because it fit just like a corset, the hair weighed a ton and the make-up could be scraped off we had so much on. I look better as an America than Japanese.
After this we headed to the train station and took the shinkansen the rest of the way home. We arrived home around 7pm which was the end of our trip.
Luckily, Monday and Tuesday of the next week my school had more exams. I therefore spent Monday in the library studying until my Okasan picked me up and together we went to an Omiya-Nishi Rotary meeting. The lunches are always so delicious! I had to give a speech though which I still get really nervous about. Tuesday I was in the library also. It has become my favorite place because it always the warmest place in school. The rest of the week we didn’t have lessons because the teachers were grading and going over the answers to the tests. I was lucky when another exchange student wanted to see my school and we spent the day together so I wasn’t so bored with nothing to do.
The end of the week, Thursday and Friday, my school was preparing for their school trip to Okinawa and we had meetings after school each day, but that journey will have to be written in my next journal.
January 14 Journal
The next chapter in my Japanese adventure was my trip to Okinawa. I was so looking forward to the warm weather that was supposed to resemble that of Florida. Waking up so early that the first buses weren’t even running yet, my host mom drove me to the train station where I met my classmates on the train. We were heading towards the airport which meant yet another airplane. (I have become a frequent flyer apparently.)
After a 3 hour flight we landed, and by bus visited a series of museums. Usually historical areas are packed with foreigners, but I was the only one it seemed in this part of the country. I couldn’t understand the tour guide except for a couple words here and there and therefore had to use my senses to observe what had happened so many years before. There were rows and rows of granite engraved with the names of the dead and the museum explained to me that Okinawa had a totally different history from the mainland of Japan. The Okinawa Peace Memorial Park explained the deaths of the civilians during the Battle of Okinawa which outnumbered that of militia. We visited next the museum in which a school of girls were killed within the Himeyuri Cave. When the Japanese militia came they would either kill the civilians, push them out of the caves into the war where they would be killed or use them to take care of the wounded soldiers under harsh and disturbing conditions. The last thing we did that day was actually climb down into one of the caves. The way down was wet and slippery and without a flashlight it was pitch black. You would think a cave would be a remarkable experience, but the atmosphere still held the trauma from decades before. When we left the cave it was dusk and so we headed to the most amazing hotel. It was right on the beach and inside there was ivy hanging down the railings and ended in a fish pond. I spent time running around the hotel with my friends and I learned that they call the card game that we know as B.S., “doubt.” I was the first to pass out after a long day of traveling and speaking Japanese.
The next day we left the hotel early after a delicious breakfast. I had no idea where we were going or what we were doing the entire trip. I learned after a rough boat trip that we were going to our home-stay in Okinawa. I was an exchange student on another exchange. Confusing, right? My four closest friends and I met our host father, Oji, and headed to his house where we met Oba Chan and ate lunch together. The Japanese was very difficult because of the dialect difference and the whole day everyone tried speaking English to me, making it seem like they had no patience during their vacation to take the time to help me continue my learning.
After lunch we went to the beach and it was so much prettier than Florida’s ocean. We went “shell shopping” on the shoreline. I suppose it was more of a hunt since we weren’t paying for them. We next went to the cliffs to see the Pacific Ocean which was a deep rich blue and because it was windy it looked like a scene out of a movie in which a storm had just begun brewing. After the cliffs we all decided we wanted to climb the mountain on the island and we began the journey up the hundreds of steps to the top. I felt like “Queen of the Mountain” when I finally made it to the top. Afterwards we learned how to cut and eat sugar cane by cutting it ourselves and well for me it was attempting to eat it because it was so hard. Okay maybe it was more of sucking on it since you weren’t suppose to eat it. All in all it was oishii (delicious)!
Afterwards we attempted to play volleyball when none of us knew how and during a wind storm to say the least. I was happy when we went inside out of the cold wind and sat down for yet another delicious meal. For dessert we ate the delicious mango jelly, fresh papaya and the doughnuts we helped bake; all are famous in Okinawa and impossible to find in Tokyo. We decided the order we would shower in by a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. If you didn’t know the Japanese use Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide everything. Once again exhausted from a long day I was the first to pass out. My friends loved Oji and seemed to fight for his fatherly affection. I didn’t have the energy or know enough Japanese to try to become so close to another person in Japan in less than 24 hours. It sounds bad, but it’s just so difficult for me to become close to someone in such a short amount of time.
The next morning was another early start and after breakfast we quickly said goodbye to Oba Chan, and Oji took us back to the boat. My friends couldn’t say goodbye and other students were crying as they said their goodbyes. We boarded the boat and left the small island to head back to the main island of Okinawa. Splitting up into three groups I was on my way to Okinawa’s Aquarium. It was so crowded with the amount of students there that I could barely walk. It was a lot of the students' first time seeing aquamarine life so they were all going goo-goo eyed over everything and I was lucky to have grown up near the beach which included marine life. Being rushed yet again I was sad to leave the beautiful weather, but happy to go home and share everything with my host family. We went to the airport and boarded the plane. As hard as I tried not to sleep on the plane it seemed to be the only thing I could do. When we reached the airport I found the same group I came with and we headed back home again. By now my mind had apparently abandoned me and left me with not a single word to say on the way home, thankfully everyone seemed to be tired and didn’t mind. This trip showed me how much further I have to go on my exchange before my Japanese is considered good.
We had two days of vacation followed by a half day on returning from Okinawa. My friends and I went and sang Karaoke for four hours! It was so much fun. They knew some American songs so we would sing them together and the Japanese songs that had English we would sing together with me singing the English and my friends singing the Japanese. The second holiday I spent with my host mom. The movie theater has 1,000 yen movies on Wednesday’s so we went and watched Wall-E in Japanese. Thankfully there wasn’t a lot of talking and I understood some of the words that were said because it was a kid’s movie. The half day of school was spent filling out paperwork on Okinawa and couldn’t be compared to the two previous fun-filled days. With vacation approaching there were few classes, but a lot of school activities and meetings.
Following the half day was our school's first of two sports days. I played both two games of dodge ball and soccer. When we don’t have classes I love having the opportunity to joke around with my friends. You know who your best friends are when you can laugh without saying a single word and can finally have someone from a different culture understand your sarcasm. The weekend was even more amazing. On Saturday Omiya-Nishi Rotary club was having their Christmas dinner followed by a Cirque Du Soleil performance. We had fourth row seats and it was an amazing show! I absolutely love Cirque Du Soleil and had seen shows in America, but during this show, the performers were flying above me and I could see the sweat drip off their bodies I was so close. To end the weekend my entire host family went to Yokohama Bay where my host father’s yacht resides. We didn’t go out on it except for a quick nap before watching the “illumination” boat parade. For some reason a Japanese Santa Claus just doesn’t fit the Christmas scene in my mind; it did make me giggle on the inside though and this was my first “Welcome to a Japanese Christmas” moment.
In my mind I knew the holiday vacation in America had begun and here I was with two more days of school left. Monday was a second sports day in which I had no games because we didn’t make the cut the previous Friday. I therefore wandered around school wondering where everyone was and feeling absolutely miserable and the weather seemed to mimic my mood. My friends seemed to have wandered off somewhere and I ended up falling asleep in the classroom. I was happy for the day to end and to go home where I could look to my host mom for comfort. Tuesday was yet another holiday in which I was sick and slept most of the day; I think part of it had to do with being homesick. The worse day of my holiday vacation was Wednesday when for the first time in the 18 years I have been alive I went to school. No, we didn’t have classes, but we instead cleaned the school and sat in the freezing gym for a meeting. I almost started crying at school that day, but held back the tears unwilling to let my fellow classmates know how I felt. I gave my closest friends a small gift and their smiles cheered me up.
Christmas isn’t a Japanese holiday, but since the country is slightly westernized, they celebrate it the way they think it would be done elsewhere, which apparently includes eating KFC. My host family and I don’t like fried food, but we did eat chicken. I felt bad for being unable to buy gifts for everyone so I cooked eggplant parmesan for my family and they ate it all and loved it. Dessert we also ate, which was about 1/10 the portion of American desserts during Christmas, yet it was a delicious piece of chocolate cake. Now, in Japan, Christmas morning consists of the parents leaving a small gift next to the child’s head so when they wake up in the morning it is right there. I knew I was going to receive a new pair of shoes because we had bought them together, but what I hadn’t expected was a bundle of small gifts. I hadn’t gotten anything for my family because of a lack of money, but cooked blueberry pancakes for breakfast which they also enjoyed. I knew Christmas wasn’t big in Japan and as much as I wanted it to be like it was at home I knew it wouldn’t be. The idea that my host family tried to make me feel as much at home as possible meant more to me than any gift they could have given me.
For the next 3-4 days I had no plans and everyone seemed to be busy with family events. I therefore spent the days studying and talking to my mom. She took me to different libraries in search of some books to read and we would go shopping occasionally. I was happy to get out of the house and go to Tokyo one day when my host father had some extra work to do at work. We visited a famous shrine there and ate different kinds of food that lined the entranceway. I tried hot milk sake which is an indescribable flavor that I didn’t like. Tokyo is always an interesting place. Along the road they have two person carriages pulled by a single man, and the men are so good looking because they have to be all muscle. My host mom was mentioning how good-looking they were and all I could do was nod in agreement with a grin across my face.
For New Years I was honored to be able to go with my host father and host mother to Kagoshima. My host father's mom at the age of 81+ lives there by herself. We left early in the morning on December 30th. You know how I have become a frequent flyer, well for the third time this month I boarded a plane. I slept through the plane flight along with my host parents, and once we got there I was excited that we weren’t just going to the house, but we first went to lunch and then visited my host father’s father’s grave. Japanese respect the deceased very much and he cleaned the grave with water, added new flowers, and lit incense. Then we all experienced a first by driving the car onto a ferry that would take us to a volcano. As we drove around the volcano I noticed that there were shelters lining the road, just in case of the casual incident where the volcano decided to explode. It wasn’t anything too scary or out of the ordinary, right?
After a day of sight-seeing I was finally introduced to my host Oba Chan. Remember how I said the Japanese respect their deceased, well Oji Chan’s shrine was in her bedroom and she cooked every meal for him and talked to him still; therefore I was introduced to him also. We had dinner together and then turned in early.
New Years Eve is when everyone goes nuts over cleaning and cooking and that’s exactly what all us females did. Then, you are able to relax and enjoy the New Year with the food already prepared. I helped cook mochi which is rice melted together into a goo. You can eat it many ways and we would be eating it in a soup like a dumpling. To get out of the house we went to visit a shrine and enjoy the scenery of Kagoshima which is all mountains and streams with few houses; the total opposite of Tokyo. When we returned home we cleaned the bathroom and finished preparing dinner and even breakfast for tomorrow. The night went quickly. We all ate our soba for good luck and sat around the table talking. I taught my Otosan how to play Black Jack and Poker upon his request and then he passed out after drinking too much. My host mom stayed awake with me as we counted away the last seconds of 2008. Only a few minutes into the New Year I passed out.
New Year’s morning in Japan is like Christmas morning in America. The family gives money as gifts and I was lucky to have been given a small gift. Then after another feast for breakfast we visited the shrine for the first time in the New Year which is known as Hatsumode. It’s a big tradition and there was a line into the shrine. My host mom and I spent some time shopping together before returning home for the remainder of our vacation. We are so close; I still can’t get over the idea that I have become so close to her that I can tell her anything that is on my mind. We spent the rest of the night talking and enjoying each other’s company before turning in knowing we had an early start the next morning. We headed home on my last plane trip hopefully until I go back to America in June.
The rest of winter vacation went by really quickly. With all the sales at the department stores starting, my host mom, sister and I went shopping one day and another day I met up with some exchange students and we caught up on each others' lives while shopping. Then on the 5th of January all the exchange students in Saitama, including the Rotex and next year's outbound students, went to Hatsumode together. There was so much food followed by some more karaoke bonding time. With two days left of vacation, my friend from Brazil had never eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before and willing to share the sweet flavor of peanut butter with anyone we made plans quickly and had lunch and sang karaoke together (she liked it by the way, but couldn’t eat the whole sandwich.)
Vacation was finally becoming fun, because I was hanging out with friends again. Then before I knew it, on January 8th I was waking up again at 6am to get to school by 8:40am.
March 22 Journal
This has to be my shortest journal ever over such a long period of time. Things have become so natural that there isn’t a really a lot of culture shock or surprises anymore. I feel like I’m at home even if I am away from my family and know that I’m not ready to go back to Florida and may never be ready to. I have established the same daily habits except when there is a Rotary event I go to or a Rotary trip I go on. With Rotary this month we learned the traditional way of making mochi. Mochi is steam rice that is “beaten” into dough using steamed water and wooden hammers. We got to help make it, but spent more time eating the mochi than making it. Mochi can be eaten with sweet beans, or powder for dessert. It can also be boiled in a soup or baked and eaten with soy sauce. With the coming of the New Year I ate so much mochi and it has to be my favorite Japanese dessert!
School started up again and with the holidays over, time has been flying by. My host mom persuaded me to start going to my school club, calligraphy, and I have been going almost everyday unless I have other plans. During school I spend most of my time either studying Japanese or I’ll admit, sleeping. My favorite class has become art and my second favorite class is gym class. It’s always fun to get out of a studying environment and see my friends smile for once and not look so gloomy or tired from always studying.
On January 24th I finally went to Disney Land with some exchange students. Japanese love Disney! I seem to always be asked if I know the Jonas Brothers, Hannah Montana and if I’ve ever been to Florida’s Disney “Land.” Everyone is so shocked when I tell them it’s Disney “World” and is about three times the size of Tokyo’s Disney Land and Disney Sea. The newest torture device is the “It’s a Small World After All” theme song. After going on that ride we all had killer headaches, but if we wanted to get back at one another for some reason all we had to do was start singing that song and we would have it stuck in their head for the next 30 minutes at least.
On January 29th, 2009, I received the most heartbreaking news any exchange student could receive. My first host mom passed away from cancer two days before her 57th birthday. I took the next day off of school to visit the home and family. I didn’t believe I would cry because I had only lived with her for three months and only visited her once since I moved, but it was the first time I had cried that hard since my first homesick day in Japan. My current host mom was so supportive. She didn’t know the family and yet she still comforted me through all the ceremonies and was able to make me laugh. I attended two ceremonies which was a cultural experience, but something you always hoped to never experience. It is just as bad as a family member or close friend passing away, and that’s exactly how it felt. My friends at school simply ignored the idea when I shared the news, but I was happy to have the other exchange students to cheer me up and talk to me. They understood what I was going through and to get my mind off of it, Rotary took a group of us to watch Sumo. That was a part of Japan’s culture that I absolutely loved! We were there for 6 hours, and 3 hours were spent cutting two retiring wrestlers hair. We absolutely enjoyed watching the wrestlers and by the end of the day we could pretty much tell you before the match started who would win, not by size, but by the amount of muscle in their legs. It was a onetime experience.
January was cold, but February was even colder! The schools don’t have central heating and I spent most of my time freezing. It even started to snow. It was more like a flurry or wet snow that didn’t stay on the ground, but it made going outside miserable. This month the exchange students went on a skiing/snowboarding trip. It was the first time one of the exchange students, Barbara, saw snow and it was so fun to watch her experience it for the first time. Unfortunately by the end of the trip she was glad she lived in Brazil, away from the snow and the dangerous skiing adventures. It was my first time snowboarding and proved not only to be a lot of fun, but very tiring. My butt felt the pain for the next month when I couldn’t sit for long periods of time. We celebrated a couple students’ birthdays during the trip which ended in a cake fight, and we also celebrated Valentines Day together. We are so close to each other we are like our own little family. After returning home from the ski trip I had to take Monday off of school because I couldn’t walk or sit without there being pain in my back. Monday was the day I finally accepted my host mom as my mother. She came in the room and put a heat pack on my back and took care of me the entire day. She really is like my mother and I have no problem telling her anything that is on my mind. Having a problem with my host father, I even admitted to her I don’t like his lifestyle. The weird thing is that she agreed with me and said she didn’t like how the men came home from work and just sat at the table unwilling to move to even put food on their plate. The Japanese lifestyle still puts me at a loss. I don’t think I will ever understand it completely.
When I finally returned back to school everyone was preparing for their upcoming exams which left me with not much to do. Everyone at school is so busy that the exchange students and I end up hanging out together during the weekends in most instances. We spent a day at karaoke together and another day drinking tapioca and enjoying each others conversations. We have a tradition though that every time we go out we have to make Purikura together. So no matter how many of us there are, we all cram into a photo-booth and pose. The 26th and 27th of February public schools had a holiday and so 3 of us exchange student girls spent the night together at Carina and Cynthia’s host families house (they share the same Rotary Club and at that time lived together). The next day was spent at their private school. The atmosphere was totally different then my school and it was so much fun. Japanese always seem to be shocked when they see a new foreigner and all eyes were on us that day. We ended the month with a Rotary Event in Kawaguchi. Each and every Rotary event includes a short introduction speech and a lot of conversations with Rotarians. As a treat though, this one included also a lot of free food and an allowance for our travel fees. We then spent the evening together in Tokyo doing our two favorite things, karaoke and Purikura.
March started off with a week of vacation for the exchange students, but a week of class finals for all Japanese students. For me this meant sitting in a cold abandoned classroom studying Japanese and writing speeches in, you guessed it, Japanese. I succeeded in only having to go to school one of the tests days by going to another exchange students, Alex’s, high school. After attending his school I was attempted to switch and even told that it would be okay by a teacher at the school, but she first wanted to go to my school and talk to my home room. Things turned out to be totally different at my school after her visit. Students weren’t afraid to talk to me anymore, although the teachers still were. I went to the school one more time to attend a homecoming English party. I love meeting new people and the thought that I was able to hold a conversation in Japanese was shocking to me. Also, during the week of tests, I switched host families and moved to my third and final home. I also had my 20 minute speech at one of my two Rotary clubs. I was stressing about my speech and packing, but once both were finished I was relieved. After my speech the exams were also finished and to end the school year we had two more sports days. I love when we have sports days at school because my friends and I finally get a chance to talk and play without having to think about school work. I played dodge ball. On the first day we lost one game and one the second game. On the second day we lost in overtime by one person.
I loved my second host mom so much, that when I finally switched families, I just couldn’t adjust. It’s been two weeks and I still don’t feel comfortable. I have two younger siblings, an 8 year old host sister and a 15 year old host brother. It is my first time having younger siblings because my first two host families had older daughters. Unfortunately, things aren’t like I expected. My host sister is spoiled and receives all the attention and my host brother has refused to eat or talk since I’ve moved in. His mom is even starting to worry because he never leaves his room. I hope it’s not my fault, but if it is what can I do. I don’t feel at home, because for the first time since I was 8 I’m being treated like I’m the same age as my host sister. In an attempt to escape the stress of adapting to a new host family, I started to spend every day away from home. That proved not to work because I quickly ran out of money. With this being my last host family, I have been trying harder to adjust and I hope that things will become more like home over time. When I visited Alex’s school, one of his teachers, who is really involved with exchange students, started setting up a lot of events not just with exchange students, but with Japanese high school and middle school students also. I absolutely love attending these events because it’s always a chance to discuss different cultures and problems in from around the world while learning Japanese.
Tuesday, March 24th the school year ends and with it comes a two week spring vacation. When school starts again I will become a third year student and a senior at my school. During spring vacation my parents are coming to visit me and I’m excited not because I get to see them, but because I get to show them how much I’ve learned and prove that this was a worthwhile, once in a lifetime opportunity. I look forward to the beginning of a new school year and an eventful spring vacation with my friends and family.
April 30 Journal
In a flash another month has zoomed by leaving me only with more memories and lifelong friendships that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. The end of March started with a two week spring vacation for every student in Japan. A break before a new beginning is what I thought of it as.
To start the vacation off, a group of us went over to a teacher’s house to eat authentic Filipino food. It was a nice change of taste after eating Japanese food for 8 months. The day I was anticipating for the next couple days was Saturday March 28th. I spent the next few days going to the nearby park looking forward to my first cherry blossom experience. Spring in Japan is one of the best seasons in Japan because of the thousands of cherry blossoms you can see, and my favorite part, because the weather begins to become warmer day after day. But getting back to the 28th of March, I would spend the day eating a lot of food at Omiya Park enjoying Ohanami (cherry blossom viewing) and later that night I would see my parents for the first time in 8 months. I would be able to hug them for the first time in 8 months.
After eating two chocolate covered bananas, laughing at the people around us trying to ride a bike after drinking beer and sake all day, and enjoying the laughter and company of my friends, we left the park. Soon after I received the phone call from my parents saying they had arrived. My friends proved to be my best friends that day when they said they would walk with me to meet my parents. I was all smiles when I was able to hug my parents and talk to them face to face. The first thing my mom said was, “You’re so white!” That wasn’t expected, but it’s true. My parents couldn’t wait to tell me about their first taxi ride in Japan though. They really didn’t believe me when I said barely no one in Japan speaks English and they drove around in a circle for 20 minutes being yelled at by the taxi driver before being taken back to the train station. They were fortunate when they went to the police box to find an English speaking police woman who personally walked them the 10 minutes to the hotel. My friends and I just laughed. It will be something my parents will never forget.
What shocked me and made the night even more fun was when we decided to take my parents to make Purikura together. My parents were so jet-lagged and culture shocked as was, that they didn’t understand what was going on the entire night. They were happy to see me though, and for the next 10 days I spent all my time with my parents. The only downer was that everyday my host mother forgot my parents were in Japan and was always upset that I wasn’t home, though she’s always with my younger host sister and never asks to hang out with me, so I didn’t feel bad at all when I left the house to spend some time with my parents.
We toured Japan together, me showing them everything that Japan had to offer. We visited the famous Sensoji Temple in Tokyo during the first day. It was their first time riding a train in Japan and I wanted to show them that it was impossible for me to get lost on a train in Japan. Therefore I “purposely” got on the wrong train heading in the opposite direction. We rode it for about 45 minutes and then I “told” them we were on the wrong train. That wasn’t the first “wrong” train we got on either that day. One more time I put them on the wrong train, but in my defense, it was my first time riding the metro/subway so they understood. Plus we were only riding the wrong train for 2 minutes this time. That night both of my Rotary Clubs had a welcome party for my parents. We had shabu-shabu; a meal where you have pots of water where you boil vegetables and to cook your meat you go “shabu-shabu” in the water also. My parents were shocked at the amount of food that Japanese eat, and were even more dumbfounded at how they stay so skinny. They now realized why I had gained some weight while living overseas for the past 8 months. Dinner was delicious and I was able to translate everything pretty well. I was proud of myself and my parents were impressed. That night for the first time, I had a dream in Japanese! It took 8 months, but I was so happy! It wasn’t scary, but just abnormal.
The next morning we ate breakfast together and were able to just talk before I took my dad (a Rotarian himself) to his first Rotary meeting. I translated his quick speech and we sat through the meeting while eating lunch. After the meeting I took my parents to Harajuku to Tokyo’s busiest street. My parents were wide-eyed shocked at the amount of people on that single street. I had to be home by 10 o’clock and the evening seemed to be cut short, just like every night always seems to be.
Tuesday we spent the day in Kawagoe at another temple/shrine, but that night was the best. We went to my second host family’s house where for the first time I met my host sister who was on exchange in Florida (Shinobu). My parents hadn’t realized that it was our first time meeting until we told them. It was as if we had known each other forever. My parents loved my second host family just as much as I did. I loved the idea of having my Japanese family and my American family together at the dinner table. Wednesday was another Rotary meeting and afterwards one of the Rotarians drove my parents and me around Omiya to see bonsai, Sakura and the shrine located in Omiya. He taught them how to pay their respects at the shrine and afterwards took us back home. My parents and I spent the remainder of the night enjoying each other’s company. It’s amazing; in America I rarely spent so much time with my parents.
Thursday through Saturday I took my parents on a trip starting in Tokyo heading first to Kyoto, followed by Hiroshima and then ending once again in Tokyo. I took them to Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, my favorite and in my opinion, the most beautiful temple in Kyoto. Then my parents took me to Kyoto Tower, which was a first for me. It was my third time to Hiroshima, so I was happy to see something new, Hiroshima Castle. It was pretty on the outside with the pink Sakura trees everywhere. Our time at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park ended quickly though when it decided to rain all day. We were only able to visit the Museum.
Before I knew it, my parents were boarding a bus and heading home. I wasn’t too broken up about it and to get my mind off of it, my friends and I ate dinner together and dyed each other’s hair. I was happy that my parents were going home though. It gets tiring with all the questions that are too difficult to explain. Also, my parents have never had any kind of Japanese food before and they were craving Italian food and French bread the entire trip. I wanted them to try different exotic foods, but it was like forcing a child to eat their green vegetables. The funniest part was every time my mom walked out of the bathroom, she had another story to tell. It was always about how she had to use the hole in the ground or the amount of buttons the newer toilets had.
Before we all knew it, two weeks had flown by and school was starting again. We would all be 3rd year students at our schools which was the Japanese Senior Year. I L-O-V-E my new class! Besides the awkwardness of being in the corner with all the guys and having to change there for gym class, Shinobu and I are in the same year and class and I have so many new friends! I even had my first sleepover at a classmate’s house. Usually students don’t have the time to hang out because they have to study or have club activities, but it was so much fun! There were five of us in all and before going home, we went to an “all you can eat ice cream” karaoke and had dinner at my second host family's home. My friends put make up on me like Japanese high school students and put me in Japanese clothes. They all loved it on me and I now have a new style, though I’m still working on learning how to put the make up on.
This month the Japanese Rotex took next years Outbounds and this years Inbounds on a camping trip. It was in an actual tent on wooden risers that we put up ourselves. I’m proud to say that the Inbound girls were pros at putting up the tents and in the end put up 3 or 4 themselves in the time it took others to put 1 or 2 up. I realized I had really become part of this culture on this camping trip. All the girls had 30 minutes to shower, all together. I had never gone to an Onsen (hot spring) and had never gone to Ofuro (Japanese bath/shower) either. I was freaking out at first, but once you realize that everyone is doing it and no one really cares if you're naked or not, it turned out to be something I was glad to have done. Not because I need a shower or because I enjoyed being naked with other girls, but because I can say I did it and have gotten over the fear of caring what other people think. In the end they are all thinking the same thing as you: “I’m naked with a bunch of other girls. Oh well. This hot water is nice.” The honest truth though was that I was the first one in and the first one out. I just showered, but wasn’t up to sitting in a hot bath with people I barely knew. At the camp no one slept that night and we were able to put a talent show around a bonfire. Casey (an American) and I taught the dances to “Jump On It” and the “Cha Cha Slide.” Everyone I think enjoyed it and it was a lot of fun.
These last two months I have left will be the most difficult I think. With the anticipation of going home, having to say goodbye to all my friends and the fear of reverse culture shock on my mind, I don’t know if I want to go home anymore. At the same time I’m currently living with the worst host family so far. I therefore spend a lot of time at school working on a 76 Kanji calligraphy project or spending the night at friends’ houses. I’m split into two about what to do. In the end I know that this will be another learning experience and with two months left, I hope I can make it and grow stronger along the way. Coming up this week is Golden Week in Japan which is 5 days of vacation for Japanese students. I’m excited to have plans with my Japanese friends and to be able to finally talk and hold not just any conversation, but to joke and laugh too.