October 18 Journal
I can’t think of a more appropriate way to begin this journal, other than with that one word: Wow.
I’ve been in Japan for almost two months now, and at this point in my exchange, I would recommend it to anyone. So far, I haven’t even hit a down on the Rotary Coaster. And frankly, I find it hard to be unhappy when I find myself living, or even just surviving, in a country and culture that is opposite my own in nearly every way.
Because so much has happened since I arrived, I’m going to try to brief you on my life, without doing it too much injustice:
The language. To be honest, I really didn’t study too much before I left. I learned how to count to ten, how to say my name and age, “hello”, “goodbye”, and “thank you.” That’s about it. And now I find myself having conversations, if only simple ones, every single day. I can communicate how I’m feeling, what I want, what I like, and what I don’t. I can ask questions, but more importantly, understand the answers I’m given. I’ve learned two alphabets (each consisting of 46 characters) so not only can I write, I can read! Although I usually don’t understand what I’m reading, the satisfaction I get from being able to associate the characters with their sounds, and then forming the words aloud, is enough for me. It doesn’t bother me much that I didn’t learn more in the States, because learning a language solely through immersion is like going from 0 to 60 in only a few seconds. The gratification you’ll get, I think, is worth the frustration.
The food. I’m fairly certain that most of you reading this won’t ever try most of the following items, and for that you’re probably lucky. But I’m sorry to say that the flavors aren’t exactly describable, so I’ll just list them.
Whole fish, including bones, organs, and head.
Tempura fried pig ears.
Raw whale (sorry, Greenpeace).
Apple and pea soup.
Miso flavored soft serve.
Horumon, from both cow and squid. Horumon is the Japanese term for the animal’s stomach, intestines, liver, and heart.
The worst, by far, was cow stomach. I gagged. But I did enjoy the tongue, horse, and whale. Obviously, they eat much more (much better) food than what I just named, but I thought I’d tell you what stood out. For those heading to Japan, don’t panic. It’s not like they shove these things down your throat. Just be willing to try anything once, find out what you don’t like, and from then on, respectfully refuse.
The town. With about 25,000 residents, Niimi is even smaller than what I considered to be my small hometown, Ponte Vedra. So small, in fact, that when I was on a walk one day, a woman who was waving and shouting “Guranto!” (the Japanese pronunciation of my name) approached me, and gave me a newspaper she was carrying- it featured myself. Because of Niimi’s size, moments like this happen fairly often. Also, because the town is somewhat remote, it has only fifteen native speakers of English. The town itself is situated in a valley, and there are green mountains in every direction you look. I’ve noticed that the Japanese maximize their limited flat land very well: where there isn’t a home or a store, there’s a rice field or a road. Driving here scares me, though, since these space-saving roads are often only the size of one lane, but have two directions of traffic, and can be located on the side of a mountain that has no guardrails.
The travel. Because I live in rural Japan, there isn’t a whole lot to do. But the upside to that is I get to travel, a lot. To date, I’ve been to thirteen towns and cities outside of my own. These include Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Nagoya, and towns on the Inland Sea. At Tottori Sand Dunes, which are like a little desert on the ocean, I got to ride a camel! I’ve visited multiple temples and castles, and Universal Studios Japan. Just this weekend I went to the oldest free public school in the world! I may not get to sample several countries on EuroTour, but I am getting a really in-depth look at this country, and I’ve loved it. I have to mention that Japan has the bluest, prettiest skies I’ve ever seen. Oh, and one last thing: in early December, my grade and I are going to Guam!! I’ll be sure to keep you updated on that one.
The family. I feel as if I’m a part of my host family, although I don’t actually live with them. You see, they used to live next door to my host father’s grandmother, but she’s since died, and now I stay in her old house. Yes, I have a whole house to myself! I go next door for meals, or to just hang out. I have four host siblings, but the three oldest are all away at college. My seventeen-year-old host brother “lives” at home, but he’s only here on the weekends because his boarding school is an hour and a half away. My family has an apartment in that city, so my mom, who doesn’t work, stays there a couple nights every week. My dad is my school’s principal, and because of this, both of our houses are right next door to school. For me, this is very, very convenient.
The school. I got lucky with this one- I go to private school. First of all, Japanese private school students don’t all go on to university. Many go on to auto mechanic school, or pursue sports careers, so the atmosphere is very laid back. It’s far from the study-oriented school that I pictured, and I love it. Next, my classes. Japanese students have a different schedule each day, so at any given time I could be in Math or Kimono Sewing, Health or Japanese Pottery. I’m taking two kinds of Math, English, Japanese, Chemistry, and Health, as well as special culture courses, like Kimono Sewing, Japanese Cooking, Japanese Pottery, and Calligraphy. I also have a free period each day, during which I usually study Japanese, and a few periods each week to do a report, focused on an aspect of Japanese culture. Class sizes range from about 8 to 20 for regular classes, and as small as two in Pottery. Twice a week, after school, I also participate in the Interact Club. The last important thing to mention is that my school is an international boarding school- a very international boarding school. In my homeroom alone, there are two Koreans, four Chinese, three Taiwanese, a Japanese, and a Cambodian. Including myself, there are six different nations represented in just one class! My school has around 240 students in three grades, and about 90 of them are Chinese. It’s a mystery to me why so many students come to this school, when the public one down the street is better academically, but I love it nonetheless.
I just want to end by saying a big “arigatou gozaimasu” to everyone at Rotary, for because of you, I am lucky enough to call what I just described my daily life.
October 21 Journal
The other week I was lucky enough to meet a girl named Jarlene. She’s a former Rotary student from Pennsylvania who, just four years ago, was living the life I presently am: learning Japanese, attending Kyousei High School, even staying with my same host family. Now (only) 21, she fluently speaks both Japanese and Chinese and is completing an internship at the American Embassy in China, with hopes of becoming a Foreign Service Officer in the future.
Her life serves as an example of exactly what this exchange is meant to foster - a life that is multilingual and multicultural, open-minded and curious, one with a taste for adventure and an acquired desire to change. To see how such a life has unfolded, for me, has been both fascinating and encouraging. It’s people like Jarlene who take away all of your doubts. I no longer question, “Is this worth it? Did I make the right choice?” because she has proven to me that it is. It most certainly is.
Today, she sent me an email. MLIA. (But in all seriousness,) the advice she gave me really is applicable to every exchange student, and even to those who are interested. I thought I would share it (minus the parts specific to my town).
How've you been doing since I last saw you? I meant to write you earlier once I arrived back in China, and I seem to have gotten caught up with stuff. Sorry! :P
I just wanted to encourage you to use this year to discover more about yourself as a person and you're probably already doing this without realizing it! I think it just comes naturally when exchange students are open-minded to trying and learning new things in a different culture, because it'll help you grow as a person. And you're already doing that with all the culture classes you're taking at Kyousei! I know that my year in Niimi is still one of the most memorable and valuable life experiences I've had so far. I'm just so glad that you have the chance to experience all that Japan has to offer for yourself this year! :)
For me, I tried to constantly try new activities out of my comfort zone (things I would've never been brave enough to try back in high school and in the US). I can also be a bit of a perfectionist sometimes (and I don't know if you struggle with this too), but I tried to remind myself to just relax, be myself, have fun and that it's ok if I make some silly mistakes sometimes. (I think embarrassing or frustrating moments often teach me the most!)
During your exchange year, there will definitely be very happy as well as difficult times. I don't know if you've experienced some hard times yet, but just know that when they occur, you have host parents, Kyousei teachers, and Rotarians who care about you and are looking out for you.
I wish you the very best in your exchange year, Jarlene”
December 23 Journal
What makes this exchange so much fun is that it’s never a one-way street.
I constantly try to embrace these people and their culture, to share in their customs and practices, to speak their language, to hear their opinions and their beliefs. And for the most part I do. But I haven’t forgotten my own culture, my own language, and my own views on the world that often differ so greatly from those of the Japanese. And that, I believe, is a gift, because I’ve also been able to introduce my culture to them.
Yesterday (my four month anniversary!!) I made a gingerbread house with my little brother, Kazu. It’s something that I usually do with my family during the holidays so I thought it would be nice to share the tradition. Very few Japanese celebrate Christmas, and even fewer actually know what a gingerbread house is, but he was more than eager to learn about “an American Christmas” and all that it entails. We took turns icing and decorating and when all was said and done, it didn’t look too bad!
Oh, and it snows here! That makes me smile. I had seen snow before, but never as it was falling. Maybe it’s just because I’m from Florida but I think snow is just awesome. Not to mention cool! HAHAHA. So being the Floridian that I am, of course I had to make a snowman! Most of the snow from that day had already melted though, so it was more of a snow toddler, but after twenty minutes out in the cold my hands were numb and I was satisfied.
And because I didn’t write you a Thanksgiving journal… I am thankful for heated toilet seats. Definitely.
January 3 Journal
If you’re a future Outbound, please click here:
What I mean by that is, GET EXCITED!
I know you have your first orientation coming up- that’s the beginning! That will be the start to a very fun, very long, and very busy year full of “hellos”, “goodbyes”, and anticipation. If the draws of living in a foreign country and culture and learning a foreign language aren’t enough for you, I’ll let you know that I met many of my now closest friends through Rotary, specifically at last year’s Orientation. I’m sure you’ll do all of these things, is that not worth getting excited about?
What you’re about to commit to will truly be a wonderful pre-departure Rotary year. To get you started, I want to give you all a quick guide, an intro of sorts, to your first Orientation.
Some Orientation Dos and Don’ts:
Do befriend Daph(ne). When in doubt, make small talk about Canada.
Do listen to Al. Despite his size, he is in charge.
Do bring a camera. You’ll want pictures for memories. And Facebook, duh.
Do bring a pillow, A JACKET, a blanket (maybe two), and a towel. Trust me.
• Do stop by Old Crow Bar-B-Que outside of the camp. Take the pig butt.
Don’t choose ten phrases that give people a bad impression because they might remember...
Don't be antisocial. You’ll get a reputation.
Don't take jumping pictures in a crowded room.
Don’t get on the seesaw with someone you don’t trust. You will get hurt.
As much as you’ll want to, don’t spend a lot of time in the bedrooms.
At times during your Orientation, you may ask yourself “what is there to do here?” Well I’ll tell you!
Stop by the One Way Café and the attached Christian bookstore.
Daydream about your international adventures-to-be.
Take Myspace pictures. What an easy way to bond!
Go to the playground! Don’t act like you’re too old for it.
Play Twister because everybody loves that.
A Few Things to Remember:
• Rotex are cool. So talk to them.
Turn in assignments on time or you’ll get more.
Your friends who aren’t involved in Rotary probably won’t want to hear about your Rotary activities, which is why you should befriend other Outbounds, especially the ones who live near you.
The definition of the 4 D’s varies from person to person.
After Orientation ends, organize hang out events on Facebook, lots of people come!
Don't let tha haters stop you from doin your thang!