September 15 Journal
Hmmmm....let's see where do I start.... On the plane ride here I met some other Rotary students and had a very fun flight. My arrival was greeted by my host father, mother, counselor and club president.
I was completely in awe when I first arrived as I looked out at the landscape as the train glided across the scenery. This led to the town of Urawa (a.k.a. “The Labyrinth of Death”) This town is filled with narrow streets that are the combined width of a car and a bicycle; thus they are very dangerous (abunai). While my host father traversed these roads, I learned how polite the Japanese people are, especially with cars; in fact, they were more than willing to go to the side so that the other person may go...totally different from the US. I got home to find out that my host father is an Abacus teacher and that they live right above their school. Lots of more things were a bit of a culture shock but the list is too long to create.
After spending a about 2 weeks in Japan, Rotary had exhausted me to the brink of despair as each meeting sounded like an endless flow of mixed consonant and vowel pairs and the occasional understood word. It gave me such headaches when I tried to break down the sentences in my mind.
My days at school were very enjoyable after I made a few friends....
October 30 Journal
This month has been very interesting indeed. After hitting culture shock a little late, I began to spiral into a depression that I felt that I could not find the end of. All of my efforts felt inefficient and insufficient. I felt like I was never going to find the light at the end of the tunnel; thus I studied hard with tears flowing down my face often and the thought of “I will not be humiliated again...I will prove that I can survive in the polar opposite of everything I once knew...”
With that ordeal completed I have begun to thrive in Japan and am adapting well. I am learning the language at a good pace and can carry on a decent conversation as long as it does not become too complicated. I am trying new foods that I have not even looked at more than once before. For example, I recently have tried nato, a product of tofu beans that smells awful and is very stringy. I horribly dislike it but my host father eats it a lot so I try it in order to fit in a little better.
On that note, I have gotten on very good terms with my host family and will regret leaving in a few weeks. I sometimes understand my friends at school because students speak a very confusing form of Japanese but the parts I do understand usually put a smile on my face. I am doing more and more sightseeing and learning many more Japanese customs. I plan to bring back the skills I learn here and apply them when I return.
March 28 Journal
It was the beginning of February and I found myself once again in the Rotary Moving Van this time travelling to my FIFTH Host Family. I feel so lucky with my Host Family assignments. I have had the chance to stay with more families than most Exchange Students. This has given me the chance to live not only with more Host Mothers and Fathers, but even better, so many varied sisters and brothers! I have been able to help tutor my younger sister in her English courses, and I have been able to join brothers that are closer to my age doing "guy" activities like exercise training in the park. So as the Rotary van rumbled through the narrow streets of Urawa once again, I leaned my head against the car door wondering what my new family would be like. Their house sat in a crowded cul-de-sac, and seemed typical of other homes in Urawa, the northern suburb of Tokyo in which I reside. I had to grapple with my gigantic duffle bags as approached my new family, but I'm used to it by now.
During the past month, I stayed with the Tsubaroka host family, consisting of an older sister and brother as well as mom and dad. Luckily, they lived about 10 minutes by bike from Urawa Jitsugo High School. Therefore, I could then sleep in just a little longer. The thought of resting my head on the comfortable pillow for just a little longer made me perk up with joy. When I moved to my new home, my new host father greeted and invited me along with the Rotary member who was assisting me with the move into his wide one story home. The balding, gray haired, middle aged man directs us to sit down on the wide brown leather couch and gives a benevolent smile. We are offered hot Japanese tea (green tea) which naturally, to respect his hospitality, we accepted. After the customary size conversation, I got to meet my new host sister and she showed me up to my new room on the second floor. After I laid down my massive pile of luggage on the hard wood floors gently shimmering from the eastern window's sunlight I turned to my average height short haired sister and said “Arigatou.” Two hours passed and steaming yakiniku was sitting on the table. What a warm welcome!
The next day my host mother went with me by bike to my school to show me the way. It was surprisingly straight forward, only about three turns total. “There is no way I can get lost”, I thought. Ironically, on my way back home, I took a wrong turn and my host mother just laughed at my false overconfidence and lack of directional abilities. After returning home, I finished unpacking and organizing my room. three hours passed and it was time for dinner. I ate quickly and thanked them for the meal with the customary “Gochiso sama deshita.” The next day was a school day so I made sure to get to bed as soon as I could.
Everyday life hardly changed. I still went to school the usual five to six days a week. I still got to talk to my friends every morning at school and everyday still had Tamada-kun's daily antics and monologues. I still had the irksome alarm clock that I had to hit the snooze button on about three to four times. I still rushed out the door in the morning, hopped on the bicycle, and pedaled like burning rubber to make it five minutes before the seemingly omnipresent bell sounded off. I still dusted up my shoes everyday during lunch-break while I played soccer with my friends. However, some new things spiced up everyday life. Because I then lived closer to the school, and in a new direction, those friends that I played soccer with live in the same direction. Luckily, I could then enjoy the experience of having someone to wait for and talk to on the road home until we parted our separate ways. I found a convenient store on the route that had a special treat waiting: Takoyaki! (Note: Takoyaki is a traditional snack type finger food that is comprised of octopus encased in dough that is fried into a ball shape) This was the only convenient store I had found that sells it for cheap or even at all. Lucky!
On the weekends I either called up my friends to meet, had some sort of event planned by Rotary or my host family, or just relaxed at home. A friend that I never had much a chance to spend time with because of exams and living too far away took his exam around the time of my move. Fortunately, he passed and was accepted into into the college that he wanted to go to. And even more fortunate, my new home was very close to where he lived. We often went to each other's house to play video games or sports. Two months ago, I played soccer (badly) with him and his friends, but unfortunately, they had to stop one day for reasons I still do not understand...
As for the planned events, various enjoyable activities took place. While I anxiously anticipated the eventful ski trip, my host mother took me along to give me a look at the enjoyable places within range. Like Rotary, a organization called “Hippo” focused on extending cultures across the globe. They also sponsored exchange students to travel abroad as cultural ambassadors. It was fantastic to discover that Rotary is not alone in its style of exchanging.
Additionally, my host mother allowed me to accompany her to the gym in which the family has membership. By pulling some strings, I was allowed participate for one day. My first experience in a Japanese gym was that of confusion from the complicated system and series of corridors in the building. However, after a little exercise around the place, my cloudy vision became much clearer to the point where I can explain how it worked in a basic terms. From the front desk on, the men and women split up into adjacent halls that lead into locker rooms. These locker rooms were extremely clean, had a wall of mirrors above sinks for hygienic purposes, and used a card to lock the door in place so that the actual lock can close. Near the next hall, a pair of vending machines that could provide sports drinks, water, and other random supplies that were needed in case someone forgot them. As expected of Japanese vendors, they are overpriced compared to American standards. From there, the hall takes a T shape where continuing leads to the onsen public baths and a left corner lead to the actual gym facility. I participated in both an aerobics class and an abs strengthening class. I completed both with relative ease and sometimes even went beyond the pace everyone was sweating at. From there I retorted to my host mother in a jokingly arrogant fashion that it was “baby training” and that I was only sweating from the hotness of the room. She just laughed at what she thought was simply bluffing with ridiculous statements. She had sharp eyes. From there, the “warm up” was over and I moved onto the machines doing treadmills, bench pressing, step machines, and other various workout machines. When we left the gym, I thanked her for her effort and for the opportunity with a “Arigatou Gozaimasu!”
My personal favorite excursion was a trip to the Edo (Old Tokyo) Museum. There I learned about old technologies, cultures and customs, historic events such as The Great Edo Fire, Architectural layouts and strategies and such a wealth of information. My only regret was that I wished my guide spoke better English so that I could have asked the harder questions because my Japanese was enough for the simple explanations he gave. Nonetheless, I thanked him for his efforts and his time.
From the earlier mentioned “Hippo” organization, we met up with two previous exchange students after the museum. Both around twenty, Hitomi, a cute short girl with long brown hair wore layers of a dress, pants underneath and a jacket (interesting Japanese current style) and the other, Akira, a boy around my height who had dyed his hair as well, but to an orange-like color, wore red pants and a simple black T-shirt with English transcribed, illegible to the owner. (Japanese styles are very heavy on English T-shirts even though no one knows what it means. A cultural equivalence in America would be someone having a tattoo or shirt that has Asian characters transcribed upon its face.) We stopped by a Sumo themed restaurant that actually had a Sumo ring at its core! I ordered traditional cold Soba noodles and sushi while everyone else got hot pots. My host mother takes a picture of me and Akira about to face off in the ring with our fists pounded into the hard sand. “Itai!” We exclaimed in pain and blew on our knuckles simultaneously. That sand left a mark! After the restaurant, we said to the “tenin” (person working at the establishment at the front) “Gochisosama Deshita” (thank you for the meal!). After heading back into the train station, my host mother gave us some money to go to the Tokyo game center and explained that she was home early. She told us to have a good time and we thank her for her kindness.
After having an interesting conversation with Akira about what animated shows we like, the train screeched to a halt one last time and the doors slung into the sides following the loud ding. (Cartoons are very serious in Japan. There are some for children; however, many are for mature audiences as they contain themes of corruption, violence, and malicious intent. They are very enjoyable!) Upon exiting the the station, a large colorful building came into view. The Tokyo Game Center! After walking into the bright yellow elevator, we took our time on an assortment of floors with the various activities including: bowling, batting cages, soccer goal scoring contests, ping pong, boxing arcade games, darts, and tennis. What a full day!
Finally the long awaited day arrived, the Rotary planned Ski Trip! After I got up earlier than usual, I finished my breakfast quickly, made sure my bags were packed, headed over to the location where we were to meet and get on the bus. All my friends were waiting on the bus and after a quick head count, we were off to Nagano ken and on towards snow. After a four hour bus ride, the sky began to become gray and the ground white. While grinding up the winding ice covered road, the bus made its way up the hill and to our lodge. My roommate named Djordy, the only other guy currently an inbound, and I high-fived before exiting the bus. I slung my single messenger bag over my shoulder while he grappled onto his huge suitcase and we headed over the lodge. Meanwhile, I could not calm down or stop exclaiming that there is actually this much snow. Everyone was surprised at first but then remembered the fact that I am from Florida, which I explained is ensnared in an eternal summer. The man at the front desk handed us clear plastic bags that contained our ski jacket, pants, gloves and other necessary items that we requested. We headed up to our room and got ready to start skiing and after setting down our belongings. After we rushed downstairs to where our equipment was waiting, the instructor showed the beginners how to put on the gear while the advanced people raced each other to be the first one out. One of the Rotarians took a snapshot of our group on the mountain and off we went!
After I slid down the white mountain with the Canadian exchange students and a couple of Rotarians and Rot-ex, I felt the wind blowing in my face, its howl calmed me as the white landscape rushed by until suddenly, SLAM! I realized that I forgot how to stop and crashed into the snow. Djordy shouted, “Mike, go to school!” However, my pride forced me to refuse that suggestion and we jumped on the ski lift. After we jumped off the floating bench and crossed the bold black line, I struggled to keep control over my movements. That is when a Rotex beckoned me over to the starter hill to get some “warm up” practice. This being just the break I was looking for and a chance to remember the movements while still being able to bluff about my skills, I eagerly agreed and headed down the mountain with him. Carefully watching his movements on his snowboard, I begin to recall the skills required to maneuver around the mountain. At the bottom, he said he was going ahead to the bigger mountain. Reluctantly, I followed him and try to force myself to get back to the skills I once had about a year and a half ago from a Park City, Utah vacation. We met up with the two Canadian exchange students: Gabrielle, a girl with long red-orange hair and the aforementioned Djordy whom has blond hair and blue eyes like mine. After we proceeded to the back of the mountain, we all leaned to the edge of the medium level mountain, pushed off the brink of the mountain and start to fly down. However, I could not handle the steepness at first and inched my way down as flashes of various colors from skilled skiers rushed in and out of my peripheral vision. After a shameful decent, I surprisingly find some of the members still waiting for me. After once again being told to attend school and refusing, I promised to stay on the simple mountain. From there, I trained myself all day to be able to handle the steepness little by little. At the end of the day, my feet hurt and I was tired, but made great progress. The Rotex that I made the promise to says that I can head over to the next mountain.
The next day I bumped my practice up to another level by heading to other sides of the mountain to the more advanced hills. I finally got weaving down and was mastering the medium level hills. In the middle of the day I met some interesting people on the peculiar slopes that intertwined with each other while growing greater in steepness and speed. By random chance, I was seated on the lift next to these two Japanese girls with an approximate age gap of four years. After practicing my Japanese conversational skills a little bit, I almost fell off the lift when I heard one girl say in English, “Are you OK?” In contrast to most Japanese people who learn English in school and forget it after their test, this girl spoke without a terribly thick accent or bad pronunciation. Talking a little more, I found out that she was an exchange student to Australia. (Wow, yet another exchange program is sponsoring students to travel around the world in search of geographical knowledge and cultural understanding. As my memory is being fuzzy, I believe that the name was “tiger” or some other predatory cat.) We skied the same slope a couple more times until I meet her parents. To my even stronger surprise, her parents spoke even better English. They revealed that they have traveled to America many times and asked me where I am from. Using a hybrid of Japanese and English, I told them everything about Florida such as being able to see the rocket launch from my house, beautiful beaches, my three hour proximity to Disney World, what other theme parks exist besides the former, and general American/Floridian life. They were very impressed; in fact, they decided to go to Florida for their next vacation, and not just for Disney World! When we I got back to the lodge, I met up with some other outbounds, ran into a random guy who asks us about Rotary, and I took the lead and told him what a priceless experience this is and how much we have gained (all in Japanese!). Cultural Ambassador Mission: Success!
That night, while Djordy and I watched the winter Olympics and laughed about how much hype shuffle-boarding on ice was getting, Go, a Rotex, knocked on our door and told us that there was going to be a party within two hours downstairs. Waiting for us, was a colorful array of treats and snacks and every Rotarian wrapped in a blanket with legs under a table across the room. After I lost at a silly guessing game, I was first to guzzle a soda down in one gulp (“iki”). Ouch, that burned! Everyone claps, laughs and we play more random Japanese party games. Go then tells us there is a special festival to welcome the new season. Two Rotex girls dressed up in pure red and pure green jumpsuits with tiger skin underwear on the outside. We were handed sheets with a song wrote in Hiragana to commemorate the occasion. It went something like this:
Onii no pantsu wa ii pantsu, tsuyoii zo, Onii no pantsu wa ii pantsu, tsuyoii zo
Go nen.... (translated from characters for legible purposes)
Onii-san mo, Obaa-san mo, Anata mo, Watashi mo, Mina ga hako wo hako wo Onii no pantsu
(Basically, it was a silly children's song rooted in old culture about Demons being very strong and that their strength came from Tiger skin underwear. However, it was very amusing to all of us and we even sang variations to pass the time later.) We did not realize that they left as we were having fun chatting and singing. Suddenly the lights went out and the girls came running in with old demon masks and same color batons and start chasing us. Earlier we were given beans to throw in defense the same amount as our age. Launching the beans and getting chased around provided a very good source of cultural education and amusement.
The last day I was able to keep up with everyone else. Ironically, then Gabrielle and Djordy wanted to try snowboarding. “Fantastic, my determination goes to waste as my goal vanishes into thin air,” I thought. “However, they are my friends and I will support them,” I decided. Blowing past my expectations, the duo gained the ability to snowboard medium level mountains in less than an hour. While they practiced, a Rotarian dragged me and a Rotex girl to a rather challenging mountain for some fun. I was filled with great pride as I wasn't eating their dust completely, but more having a nice breeze from the weaving motion in front of me. The wind roared in my ears, the skis hissed as they sailed through the white tundra, my heart raced with excitement as I gained more and more speed, weaving shorter and shorter patterns until the mountain levels out and a harmony of kicked snow bursts into the sky and forms a small crystalline rainbow in front of the white shining sun. This is what I practiced so hard for!
After tearing through the slopes one last time, we head back into the lodge to pack up our belongings, bring down our rental gear back to the front desk and assemble together for one large and loud, “Arigatou Gozaimasu!” We spend the next four hours on the bus singing songs from karaoke, the previous night's “Onii no pantsu”, and just enjoying a jolly good time.
These thirty sunrises and sunsets gave me great memories to share in the future as well as great opportunities to talk about my culture and widen my view of the world. I am very grateful to Rotary and my host family who gave me these chances. After saying good bye to the Tsubaroka household, a man from the Minami Urawa Rotary Club takes me to my his home for my next home-stay. The future will hold even more opportunities and experiences. I cannot wait!
May 18 Journal
After my stay with the non-Rotary family of Tsubaroka-san, a familiar man drove into the driveway and helped me load in my bags. I remember him from the Minami Urawa Rotary Club, yet we never talked very much before. After a brief drive we arrive at the home of my next host family: Kobayashi-san. After helping me with my bags and giving me a brief conversation, I find out, and a little late I might add, that he is my new host father. I tell him “yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (the standard greeting for the start of something) and he goes downstairs to his work in the office. I talk to my new host family for a short while and from there proceed to help my new host sister with her English homework. From there I settled down in my new home and unpacked my belongings until my host mother called me down for dinner. If I recall, it was homemade curry rice, which is one of my favorite foods. After dinner, I hopped into the “ofuro,” which is the term to refer to both the shower and the heated bath. An interesting cultural fact about the actual bath is that everyone in the house uses the same water, because usually special powder is mixed in to aid relaxation and general health. Therefore, it is imperative that you thoroughly clean yourself by means of showering before entering the “ofuro.”
I stayed with the Kobayashi family for about a month and a half. I had various experiences as well as many lessons learned. From the strict table behavior during “gohan,” (meal time) I have gained a rather refined Japanese etiquette to use at will. However, luckily I have not just been transformed into a manner robot out of fear, for I have acquired a personal balance that I have sought out in the past. This is one way that living in Japan has allowed me to mature towards the well rounded adult I dreamed of as a child. In terms of other growth, my Japanese has become very fluent, as I can just speak what is on my mind at the time, a feat I could never have dreamed of as the confused foreigner seven months ago. When I just carry on a conversation in Japanese with my Japanese friends or family, I feel great pride in myself and have a generally great time doing so. In addition to both of these milestones, my friends who usually have no time because of studying were able to break the bindings of their overworking schedule and show me interesting places all over Saitama district. Thus, I learned even more about the culture, local logic, and feelings of Japanese people.
In terms of what I have done to encourage exchange students of the future to choose the land of the rising sun as their destination for cultural fusion, let me name a few... Along with my host sister and a few of her friends, I made my way through the interconnected train system and into Tokyo Disney Sea. As everyone is familiar back home with Disney style parks, the same lifelike detail infused with the soul of what it represents brings warm, almost magical feeling when roaming the grounds. However, as I found out, the experience depends on who you spend it with as well as if you buy a fast pass or not. Without even a days rest, I spent the following day with my counselor's family at Disney Land. We roared through the tunnels of thunder mountain, echoed through the void of space mountain while screaming excitedly, and crashed into the waters of splash mountain. A couple of days later a Rotary member name Hashimoto-san calls me over to watch a baseball game in Tokyo. The players scrambled around for the dead center balls while the crowd roared with half fury and half excitement. Peering into the strategies of each player as well as the coaches, the game burst with life as everyone tried to read the pitcher's next move. However, in contrast to American “big baseball”, which encourages players to just blow the ball into the stands at supersonic speeds, Japanese style is “little baseball,” which relies on the small, less risky plays to keep the team moving as a whole instead of just a inner rivalry of who can hit the homer first. Rather refreshing, I might say.
The middle age man sitting next to me, a fan of the home team Giants, started up a conversation on a misplay that cost them the game. From there we proceeded into more personal conversations and I once again found a chance to spread my culture and experiences, thus fulfilling my duty as an exchange student. We exchange business cards (a very big thing in Japan) and go our separate ways feeling as if we learned just a little bit more today, another refreshing experience.
The first time was so enjoyable, I found myself pulled into the stadium again the next week, however, this time with the exchange student from Brazil: Jessica. There isn't much baseball in Brazil as soccer thoroughly dominates the minds of the South Americans. Therefore this was a new view for as the one explaining all the rules and why it is interesting. Hashimoto-san used her endless connections to get us perfect seats to catch fly balls as well as getting us into the pre-game practice at ground level. Even though I was unable to convince Jessica of the wonders of baseball, everyone had a good time with getting autographs signed in ways that don't even resemble letters of any known alphabet or pictographs known to top rated archeologists, watching batters and pitchers in a “shoubu” (duel), or the anticipation of what we would win in the raffle.
To continue this sports rampage, I get invited yet again to a sports game, however this time I find myself in a elongated stadium with fake grass and goalposts. The local Omiya team, whose mascot was something in between a badger, ferret, chipmunk, and a squirrel, was dressed in under-armor style orange and black uniforms that resembled a tiger, even though they were represented by the ambiguous rodent. The home team did an extraordinary job in the beginning of the game, but fell short as they expended all of their energy during that time. Even though they lost I had a fun time watching the match when the cheers roared from end to end of the stadium. The opposite team's fans even cheered for their opponents in good sport. This is really unique to Japanese culture.
During the time the Sakura petals were falling I returned back to school to make new friends in a new class and finally get my classes switched to normal. After making some new friends, we headed out to Kita Urawa, where a nice cheap Karaoke place was. For 3 hours we sang along with our favorite songs and I even was able to sing in Japanese a few times. However, a few times I had some trouble with the Kanji. In fact, karaoke has become a very large part of my social life, and is also a very useful tool in social establishment, language practice, as well as spreading culture. For example, when I watched the Sakura trees in the park, I met a group of college students, numbering around 20, and chatted with them as well as played some silly party/picnic games that were originally designed for children. A few of these games are the Japanese version of: red rover, red light green light, and tag. One of the game's Japanese name was “Daruma san ga koronda” (the daruma has fallen), a game where the person who is it, “onii,” calls out at any speed they choose “Da-ru-ma-san-ga-ko-ron-da” and everyone else runs toward that person. If you are still moving when the onii finishes the phrase, you are out. It may be rather childish, but it was a rather good learning experience culture-wise. The little things like this make me satisfied that I was chosen to go to the land of busy cities and lustrous pink petaled trees.