Sarah Axelrad
2010-11 Outbound to Japan

Hometown: Tallahassee, Florida
School: Lincoln High School
Sponsor: Tallahassee Sunrise Rotary Club, District 6940, Florida
Host: Izumo South Rotary Club, District 2690, Japan

Sarah A's Bio

It’s hard to imagine that the one experience I’ve dreamed about, for most of the refined years of my life, is not so hazy anymore. Two months ago I was Sarah Axelrad, 16-year-old junior and aspiring revolutionist. Today, I am a student compelling nine classes, the owner of three Japanese handbooks, and a future exchange student – elatedly taking the responsibility to uncover the wonders of Japan.

I live in Tallahassee, Florida, as I have since birth. I have two rooms in two separate houses: in one house I live with my dad, and the other with my mom and stepdad. Both my parents are extremely environmentally focused with their careers and hobbies, so I naturally enjoy the outdoors as well. I love the arts – you could call them. Film, literature, sculpture, paint, music, photography and anything else, intellectually or artistically stimulating, captivates me. My most valued possession is my digital camera, and I am confident it will assist me in documenting the magic of Japan. I also love to travel. Even airplanes get me excited and I swear I’d be content for weeks in an airport.

Honestly, this opportunity terrifies me. Recently, I’ve felt the type of anxiety that makes me think deeper and work harder to ensure that I can’t let this reality fall back to just a dream. I can’t really express how much this means to me, and I promise myself, my friends and family, and the people of Rotary who made this all possible, that after a year as an exchange student, I’ll come home more mature, more cultured, and much better at video games.

Sarah A's Journals

September 22

Immediate Observations:

1) The Japanese are incredibly eager to take my bags/open the door/give me gifts and any other act of flattery.

2) Yes, the showerhead is too low for me.

3) My siblings, Aiko (6) and Isamu (9), are the best. They have more personality, tolerance, and obedience than the average, mature American.

4) Air conditioning is a privilege, not a norm. EMPHASIS ON THIS.

5) I am grateful for how much I didn’t pack.

6) 6ft tall translates to 180 centimeters tall. The Japanese translation is even worse.

7) I need to get used to the idea of not seeing my reflection daily, which is somewhat refreshing. For desperate measures, use photobooth as a mirror.

 August 23rd

 Many Japanese streets are one lane, but two-way. This frightens me.

I think I ate a snail today. Not really sure what it was actually, but Rotarians were incredibly amused by my careful examination of the food item prior to consumption. I have found it difficult to decline a Japanese delicacy when crowds of white-haired men in suits are staring with wide-eyed grins.

I’ve heard lots of people tell me I’m beautiful, and either I don’t believe them, or it doesn’t really mean anything. Somehow, when a Japanese person tells me this, it means a lot.

The Japanese word for ‘expensive’ and ‘tall’ are practically the same, only with accents on different syllables. Incidentally, both were used frequently at the fitting for my school uniform.

There is no such thing as dry sweat in a Japanese home. You shower before you cool off—end of story.

It took me 3 days to fall in love with Japanese tea (which kind of tastes like wheat). It also took 3 days for me to bow automatically upon introduction.

There is no law in Japan to wear a seatbelt in the backseat of a car. This quickly settling habit may be problematic come my return to Florida.

In Japan, if you don’t have a business card, you don’t exist.

Eco-bags are a must when grocery shopping. If you happen to forget your cloth bags at home, you pay about 5 cents for each plastic one.

August 25, 2010

My host family is the best. Granted, I went without a lunch on my first day of school, and someone forgot to pick me up at 3:25, resulting in the principal driving me home over an hour later. But all this is ok because I am starting to identify a few words in Japanese conversation (even when they speak 100 words a second), and because when I walk in the door I take a deep breath and smile because it smells like home, because Aiko and Isamu are watching an episode of The Suite Life of Zach and Cody (in Japanese) and I can laugh when they laugh because I’ve already seen the episode, and because Junko excessively apologized for not packing me a lunch and had a full meal ready for me in 20 minutes.

On Japanese Schools:

Starting at the door. Slippers. You wear them. They are not attractive, but attractiveness is mostly based on what everybody else looks like, and when everybody else is wearing plastic sandals with a rubber, 1 inch heel that squeak when you walk, they become no longer unattractive. You change from your outside shoes to your slippers immediately upon entrance in a porch-like room called a genkan, which every Japanese building has. Outside shoes go in assigned ‘cubbies’ and you really don’t see them again until school is over. I’ve considered just arriving barefoot, as it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. On the hallway wall directly outside the bathrooms is a large mirror above 3 sinks, which both boys and girls often use to brush their teeth in the mornings and to wash their hands hourly. I have no explanation; this is simply an observation. Also, 3 soaps are tied to the 3 sink faucets in mesh bags. This allows the bar soaps to be utilized to their full ability without being lost and without creating scum on the counter. I think it’s pretty neat. However, I have noticed that there isn’t a towel to dry your hands off with. This bothers me. I haven’t yet discovered if it is that the Japanese do not have a problem with indiscretion, or that the boys are so confident in themselves to change from their study uniforms to their gym uniforms patently in the co-ed classroom. I’m not close enough with any of the students to ask about such behavior, but evidently I am close enough to see them in their underwear.

 One significant difference between my Japanese school and most schools in America is that the teachers move to the students, rather than the other way around. You stay with the same classmates throughout the entire day—like we did in elementary school. When we arrive at school at 8:40am, the day begins with a 15 minute ‘morning meeting’ with the homeroom teacher. Believe me, the moment I understand what is said at these meetings, the world will know. When a teacher enters the classroom, all the students rise. The teacher bows slightly, and the students respond with a deeper bow. (Longer and lower bows signify a higher level of respect. For example, a younger person should always bow lower to their elders.) Then, the students are seated and take a moment of silence. (This is my favorite part. If I am ever a teacher, I will make it a rule for my students to follow this Japanese ritual.) We lower our heads and close our eyes and everyone is quiet for about 30 seconds, when the teacher breaks the silence and class begins. On the second day of school, Robby, the English teacher, told me that this was a practice meant to clear the minds of the students, to leave behind everything else and prepare for the coming lesson. The best part about this moment of silence is that everyone actually participates. I imagined this custom at Lincoln: students would inevitably be texting, listening to music, shuffling through papers, finishing due homework…etc., but I think it means a lot to Japanese students, I hope it does. It means a lot to me because I really do think it works. I feel lighter after I clear my mind. Not in the weight sense—the other kind of lighter where you don’t fear you’ll scream at any given second. I hope you know what I’m talking about.

Another thing I really enjoy about my school in Japan is the independence the students are given. So far, while in preparation for the festival, we have four 50-minute periods with a 10-minute break in between each class. These 10-minute breaks are basically free time because our lockers are in the classroom, so we don’t have to go anywhere. Sometimes students just walk around the school to say hi to other friends. I usually read LOTR and let people take pictures of me. (I am getting used to this. I have learned that being an exchange student and being shy are contradictory. It just can’t happen.) After 4th period is cleaning time. There are no janitors in Japanese schools. The students spend 15 minutes a day, before lunch, cleaning. It’s really quite a good idea because with 20 students per classroom, it’s not like any 1 person has to do much. I usually erase the chalk on the blackboards. (Blackboards are another thing I like about my school; I always found chalk more fun than dry erase markers. They remind me of those old movies where when the kid gets in trouble, his nun-teacher makes him stay after class and clap the erasers. And the kid overly-exaggerates his hatred for this punishment, as if clapping erasers together is really so unbearable.) Cleaning period is followed by lunch, which, after the first day, I will never forget to pack again, as there is no cafeteria. After lunch, the rest of the day is preparation for the festival, and back to what I said about independence: we pretty much get 2, unsupervised hours to do this. We can use the gym, go outside, use art materials, costumes, even box-knives… just about anything we can accomplish on our own, we have access to. I don’t think this would go over well in an American high school, but in Japan, somehow productivity and fun can exist in harmony.

 August 28, 2010

 - The Japanese do not eat the peels of grapes. Ever. They suck the inside out and put the peel on their plates.

- When I attend Rotary events, somehow the Rotarians make me feel like I’m in a room with twenty E.O. Wilsons. I don’t know how else to describe it.

- I read somewhere that when you exchange business cards with a Japanese person, you should accept it with two hands, study it for a few seconds, and then put it somewhere safe to show that you truly care. I haven’t noticed much of the two-hand thing, but I have noticed that they will seriously break apart every letter of your card, sometimes reading aloud what is written and turning it into a question. For example, “Lincoln High School?” As if they expect it to be a misprint, or as if they have a great-niece twice removed who went to Lincoln and they are leading to a story of how she scored the winning goal at the girls’ soccer championships. The point is, the Japanese definitely take their time in familiarizing themselves with business cards.

- The Japanese really do care how a foreigner feels about their food.

- I have recently caught myself smiling and nodding when someone is giving a speech to an audience. I eventually remember that I have to idea what is being said, and I feel silly. But I keep smiling and nodding.

 September 9, 2010

 There are 3 English classes at my school: English Reading (M, W, and F), English Grammar (T, R), and Conversational English (R). I am the teacher’s assistant in all three. In the short time I have been attending Hokuryo High School, I still can’t pronounce its name. But I also have completely lost any southern accent that might have existed prior to exchange, have attained patience that had not existed prior to exchange, and acquired abs as a result of laughing uncontrollably, near every day, that definitely did not exist a month ago.

September 7, 2010

Reasons Japan is superior to America:

1) Pyramid shaped tea bags

2) The metric system

3) School uniforms

4) Biker friendly streets

5) Mary Poppins baskets on every bike

6) Chopsticks

7) The rice cooker: add rice, add water, press start. Genius.

8) Ubiquitous refreshing shower sheets

9) Overall better hair and hair styles

10) Student-school cleaning system

11) Sliding doors

12) Ping-pong (table tennis) as a national school sport

13) Vending machines with better beverage varieties

November 25

Aiko wore a sky-blue satin dress; a small lock of her hair was braided and tied back to the side with the rest of it. She added a pearl necklace at the last minute. Isamu wore a button-up shirt, dress shorts, and a tie—a real one—with hiking boots and striped socks. They looked very nice. I spent an hour getting ready this night. This was mostly because I seem to have forgotten how to put on makeup and had to start over numerous times, wet-naps at disposal. I practiced my speech all day. ALL DAY. Biking to school, I spoke it out loud. During P.E., I muttered it repetitively in between setting and spiking and bumping and serving. Friends edited it over and over. I said it in the mirror as I put on mascara…I HAD IT DOWN. I SWEAR TO YOU, I HAD IT DOWN. It is vital I get this point across. So I wrote it on a small piece of paper so I could continue practicing up until the very second of my execution. I walked out of my room with two different shoes on. Fortunately, my family noticed, and then proceeded to argue which one better suited my outfit. I went with the girls’ choice; Isamu has a lot to learn.

When we arrived at the hotel, a very informal tea ceremony was held in the lobby. Japanese cake and Japanese green tea (which is nothing like the American sorts) was served by pretty women dressed in kimonos. After tea, my attendance was requested to an exclusive men’s meeting in a separate room. I don’t know why they invite me to these things. It’s not like I can offer much in a room of elderly Japanese men. So I sat with my legs crossed at the ankles, never the knee, and I practiced my speech, and I wondered if Aiko’s nose had stopped bleeding while she and the rest of the family waited in the lobby. (Apparently the excitement of an event to dress up for was intense enough to initiate a nosebleed.) They sang the Rotary song, just like the Tallahassee Sunrise Rotary Club, with the significant exception of shockingly impressive voices. I’m pretty sure you have to pass some sort of singing test to obtain Japanese citizenship. I’ll have to look into it. But the whole room fills with deep voices that bounce off the walls in all the right directions. And the floor vibrates and you look down at your feet and can almost see the pulse crawl up your legs to your spine, launching goose bumps and residing in your eardrums long after the song is ended. I really don’t think anything in the world sounds like a singing group of elderly Japanese men, except for a singing group of elderly Japanese men. Aiko’s nosebleed hadn’t given up. Half of a tissue was crammed in her tiny nostril for another 20 minutes.

The speech was rolled up in my sweating palm, dampness fading my lead handwriting. I was so afraid to lose it. Even though I knew the lines by heart, holding onto something real is much more comforting. I think that is why people write. Eventually I shoved it beneath the strap of my watch, held between that and my wrist, though continued to check its safety every minute. I was hoping for a podium to lean on and maybe steady myself from falling. Also so I could flatten the crinkled paper and peer down at it for reference when I froze. That did not happen. In fact, quite the opposite. Upon entrance to the dining hall, I noticed I would be put on stage with a microphone and a spotlight. That way, if such distress was too overwhelming, my vomit would be illuminate and radiating for the audience’s viewing pleasure.

Each 18 round tables in the dining hall sat 6. As usual, the women and family of the Rotarians were seated at separate tables, making the entire room segregated by sex—except for me. My foreign name card was placed among men. The man to my right was the principal of my school. Being already rather familiar with him, I introduced myself to the man to my left, whom I’d never seen. I was relieved to hear he spoke some English. He told me he practiced kendo, which is cool, since that’s the only traditional Japanese sport I know anything about, and that he had two kids: an 18 year old boy who is in his last year of high school, and a daughter who is in college and moved out. He then added, to my discomfort, “So my house has one empty bedroom.” This addition was confusing to me at first, but directly after such an awkward implication, a familiar Rotarian came up to my table and unknowingly clarified. Standing in-between the man and I, he elatedly told me that the man I was talking to would most likely be my next host father.

I don’t really know what to say, because I can’t describe how this made me feel. At the least I was unprepared. Since I have been here, changing host families has not once crossed my mind. I understand it is part of the process and what every exchange student experiences, I just hadn’t thought about it. So as these two men attentively waited to catch a hint of recognition upon my face, I just kind of stared blankly across the room for what seemed like minutes, imperceptibly panicking and trying not to wince at the needles jabbing my insides. This long moment of adaption passed and I gave them a big smile—a real one—because, once settled, this news was really quite alright.

However, being the over-analyzer that I have recently accepted I am, I can’t say I wouldn’t have appreciated such an alarming report to have waited maybe 10 minutes to be broken—when my speech was said and done. Obviously this was not the case, and my head swarmed with completely unnecessary doubts about the quantity of nightlights in my next family’s house as I stepped on stage. It was not particularly what I wanted to be consuming such a large apartment in my brain at such a critical time.

As predicted, I was defeated by the crowd and forgot most everything under the spotlight. I had to read most of my speech from that crinkled scrap of paper, yet kept my composure and somehow got compliments from half the room on my pronunciation and flawless grammar. I wouldn’t dare question how these things fall into place, though I am grateful.

After dinner there was a skit preformed by some Rotarians. You definitely did not need to understand Japanese to laugh at this. The president was a fully costumed Gandhi and the Secretary was dressed in a speedo, flippers, and a shark hat. There was also someone in an army suit holding a Japanese fan, and a man dressed as a geisha, make-up and all. There really isn’t anything more to say about that. Unfortunately, I was too amused to pick up my camera and capture such a ridiculous affair. Sorry.

Oh, there were also dancers. They did a silly dance, but they did it very well. And I wondered how so without laughing, recognizing that I wouldn’t have been able to. Then I noticed one dancer who was exceptionally precise, and he seemed so sure of himself and his silly dance. He looked at the audience dead on, conquering every doubt, and so I realized that you can pull of anything if you think you can.

I later found out that it was a group of mentally disabled dancers. I had suspected nothing.

I had coffee for dessert and couldn’t sleep for hours.

Examples of why my life is hilarious:

 - English teacher: Sarah, have you heard of the movie Oceans?

Sarah: No, but I know the movie Oceans 11.

English teacher: Oceans…?

Sarah: E-le-ven. Oceans 11.

English teacher: Oceans a-lovin?

Sarah: No. Eleven. The number. Eleven. Ju-ichi (Japanese). Eleven.

English teacher: Ah, I see. Ok. Oceans A-lovin.

- English teacher: Sarah, please give the class example sentences using these words. (Points to words written on the board.) They will repeat each word after you, to practice pronunciation, and then the whole sentence.

Sarah: (Nervous, can’t think of sentences quick enough—starts playing with tunnel in ear. Accidentally pushes tunnel out of loose lobe and it soars across the room.)


Class: Oops.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Some days I sit down and write and others I sit down and can’t. Today feels like the latter, but these are words, so what you see is a contradiction. I wonder what the news looks like in America. What kind of coverage you are getting and what kind of coverage you think this deserves.

My high school was what, 2,000 students? Okay, 2,000 students. So let’s take the graduating classes of Lincoln High School from the last 20 years and drown them. Crush them under a building, a car—save the mess of thrashing limbs, debris, sea foam leaking from agape mouths and go ahead and mechanically funnel the ocean directly into their lungs—whatever. They’re gone. And mark them as tallies that'll headline. Pixilated on a TV screen, bolded in the morning paper. Somehow society makes the death of one man more personal than the death of 10,000. One man has a name, an obituary. 10,000 men have a one followed by four zeros. Things like this happen and we don’t take it personally because, well, because it isn’t. Because this is 9,800 miles, a skin color and a language away. We’ve never met these people and we never would have if they were still around. Nothing in your life changes.

This morning I stood at the kitchen doorway and watched my host mother hang up the phone with a friend in Ofunato, then punch a wall.