Rachel Perry
2011-12 Outbound to Japan

Hometown: Madeira Beach, Florida
School: St. Petersburg Collegiate High School
Sponsor: Gulf Beaches Rotary Club, District 6950, Florida
Host: Rotary Club of Sanuma, District 2520, Japan

Rachel's Bio

“The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.” -Paul Valery    

"Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved." -William Jennings Bryan

Konnichiwa (こんにちは)! My name is Rachel, and I’m so excited to be a part of the 2011-2012 Rotary Youth Exchange! I’m 18 years old. I go to St. Petersburg Collegiate High School. When I graduate this year (May 2011), I will receive both my high school diploma and my AA degree. But instead of preparing to go off to college like my classmates, I’m getting ready to spend a year in Japan!

 My interest in travel was sparked this past summer when I was a part of a study abroad trip to Italy. I fell in love with the idea of experiencing new cultures, learning new languages, and creating new relationships. There is a whole world out there I have yet to explore! But for now, I live with my dad in Madeira Beach, Florida. My parents are currently separated, but I have a good relationship with them both. My 16 year old sister, Hannah, is my best friend. I think I’ll miss her the most.

I am very outgoing. I’ve been told my smile is my best feature. I like school because I love to learn. I have an enormous collection of elephants. I play the piano; I’m still a beginner. My favorite band is The Temper Trap, but I’m not very picky when it comes to music. Running is my favorite exercise. I can’t describe how it makes me feel; it’s just good. I tend to get stressed out easily, but I love the feeling I get when I accomplish something.

So Japan, right? Everyone I tell gives me one of two reactions “WHAT?! JAPAN?! THAT’S AWESOME!” Or “Dude, learning Japanese is going to suck.” Fortunately, I have the peace of mind not to listen to those naysayers, and I just let their pessimism empower me. I definitely have some fears; I am going to live on the other side of the world! But I will not let anything hold me back from reaching my full potential and making the most of the upcoming year.

Even though I can’t seem to find the words, I’d like to express my extreme gratitude to everyone making this possible for me. It’s hard to imagine where I will be (or who I will be) 7 months from now, much less after a year in a new home, but I can’t wait to find out. Thank you so much to Rotary for allowing me this fantastic opportunity.

Ja mata (See you soon!)

Rachel's Journals

So I know I'm writing this when I should probably be packing or doing something else productive (considering I'm leaving in 3 days!), but I just can't seem to focus. It's strange to think that I will actually be in Japan soon. Lately I've been wrapping up my summer, saying goodbye to my friends and family, and getting ready to leave, but it just doesn't seem real. I realize how much I'm going to miss my parents, my sister, my friends, my dog, and even how much I'll miss going to college.

I know this year would've been different anyways, having graduated from high school and going on to university, but somehow I feel like it would've been the same. It wouldn't have been all that difficult. It maybe even would've been easy. But now here I am, packing for an entire year, and studying one of the most difficult languages in the world. I'm facing disbelief, discouragement, and "helpful" hints from others (don't get me wrong, some actually are helpful and I'm very grateful for all of the advice!). I've had to answer the same questions over and over, and I find that I've become safe and sheltered behind those questions, that my answers have become me, and I'm soon going to be shaken out of that safety either by turbulence on my 14 hour flight or just plain shock of stepping foot onto Japanese soil. Soon I'll be answering some of them in Japanese (provided I can understand them). It's exciting and nerve wracking, but through all of these thoughts, I've solidified even more in my mind that this is what I want to do. I want to face these trials, these difficulties; I want to be different than my other classmates who went on to college (and even the ones that are moving on to Taiwan, Italy, and Poland), and I want to grasp something more. I want my chance at the world and to become someone that I had only dreamed of being. So as I sit here writing this, procrastinating and putting off my last anxiety attack(s), I'm oddly at peace,  because I know that this is what I'm meant to do. I have to do this. And I know throughout this upcoming year I may cry, I may wish I were home, I may wonder why in the world I ever decided to do this, or I may never want to return to Florida. But it's all a part of this special experience that no one else in the world gets to have. Sure, there are other exchange students, even exchange students in Japan, maybe in my city, but ask them and they will tell you that no one has the same exchange. So this is my year. My own, unique year that I will be spending in Tome, Miyagi, Japan.

Hopefully I will remember that as I'm standing in the airport on Friday, buckling under the weight of all of my luggage,  wishing I had spent more time in the gym so I could carry it all.

It still hits me sometimes. I’ll be sitting in class and realize, “whoa, I’m in Japan”. I’ll be reading a book, or deep in my studies, and be shaken out by the sounds of everyone around me speaking a foreign language. It’s still unreal. There was never any shock at the airport, not even on the plane. When I got here, it still felt like I’d be seeing my family and friends the next day. Maybe it was pure exhaustion from the 13 hour time change and the 14 hour flight, but after some rest the first night, it still hadn’t completely sunk in. But here I am. I been living in Hasama, Tome, Miyagi, Japan for three weeks, and I’ve become so incredibly comfortable with my lifestyle here, I’ve shocked myself.

    Life in Japan is different, but I knew it would be. Eating is different (chopsticks), foods are different, houses are different, cars and roads are different, the toilets are different, school is drastically different, the language, of course, is different, names and books are backwards, every where you look there is something new, something unfamiliar to digest. My life has changed so much in such a short amount of time; I’ve felt so many emotions, met so many people, and heard the word “kawaii” (cute) probably a million times. I’ve become accustomed to saying “itadakimasu” before eating, seeing cars driving on the opposite side of the road, and taking off my shoes when I enter a building, though not gracefully as the Japanese do. There are still some things that I’m getting used to: bowing all the time and the sun going down at 6pm, and I just cannot manage to slurp my noodles when I eat.

    I went to my Rotary club the first week I arrived; however, I only was allowed to stay for about 15 minutes because it was held during my school lunch break, and apparently I'm not allowed to miss any classes at school (even if I'm only going to be sitting in the library). It was all a blur. I do remember that the Rotary club sings, but of course, it was in Japanese so the only word I could really make out was "Rotary". Then I gave my speech, received a yukata (traditional Japanese dress), and was given my monthly allowance by the club President, and then I was rushed back to school for 5th period.

    School is fantastic. I’ve been in school for three weeks. It’s crazy being the only non-Japanese student. Everyone knows my name. Everyone. And I find that I actually quite enjoy the attention! It’s definitely motivated me to study more, and listen harder to every conversation to pick out the things I can understand and figure out the words being said. The problem with Japanese is, you could speak it fluently and still not be able to read a single thing. Trying to take notes in kanji is... well I can only compare it to when you’re in math class... trying to draw whatever figure is important for the particular problem. You keep looking up at the board and down at your paper, and you think you’ve got it just about right, and then you realize your lines are crooked, you’ve drawn it too big or too small, and it basically looks like something that lives on Elm Street. And everyone around you seems to write so flawlessly. It’s an art. And a science. It’s impossible. But I’ve been studying diligently - speaking, reading, and writing: hiragana, katakana, and kanji.

    As far as schoolwork goes, I really haven’t done any. The Japanese students take 14 subjects! And I’m only in about 6 of those classes - one of which is PE. When I’m not in the classroom, I’m either in the library studying or in an English class with the ALT (Alternative Language Teacher). Lunch time is by far my favorite period. We eat in the classroom, not in a cafeteria, and it’s so much fun, even if I don’t understand 90% of the conversation. I’ve found that laughter is a common language, and it doesn’t matter whether you say something right, wrong, in English, or in Japanese, you can make people laugh.

    I know I have more to say. I could talk for hours about Japan and the things I’ve experienced in my short time here. I already feel a loyalty to this country; it doesn’t threaten the pride I have for being an American, but I feel that it just fits in harmony with the rest of who I am. I still have the entire year ahead of me, and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds. I am so grateful to everyone who’s made this possible for me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

It’s been three months since I arrived in Japan, and I can’t believe it’s gone so fast! I feel like I’ve come so far and learned so much, but there is so much more ahead. If my experience was a real roller coaster, it would make even those with a iron stomach puke. Language learning is constant, but there are plateaus. There are days you don’t feel like you’ve learned anything. Days you can’t understand a word. Days when you’ll go without talking just because you can’t. Some days will be good, but it doesn’t mean the next day will be better. There are so many topics of conversation, that you can’t possibly be prepared for all of them! Some days are horrible, some days are boring, other days I just want to sleep. But the good days are so worth every bad one. The days when I realize that I understand what’s going on in class. The days the teacher tells the whole class that my kanji is beautiful, the days when I have everyone surrounding my desk asking me questions that I can answer. The days I talk entirely in Japanese without even noticing. The days I get traditional Japanese clothes, the days we plan our school trip (which I just got back from), even just when I get my favorite Japanese food for dinner. The days when my host mom calls me her daughter, when she tucks me into bed and says “oyasumi” (good night) and tells me that if I don’t want to move to my next host family, I don’t have to go. The lows do suck, but the good days are worth it. Really worth it. 500x better than I ever could’ve imagined. For the first time, even after a bad day, I sit in my room and truly feel completely happy. For the first time, I can’t think of anything bothering me, I’ve nothing to complain about except my lack of language skills; I finally feel content, like this is where I’m meant to be. I feel like I have a purpose here, and even though it’s only been 3 months, I wish it had been shorter because I don’t want my exchange to end. I could live here in Japan forever. Sure, I stick out. People stare. I don’t fit into most Japanes

A few things:

-I just want to point out that it’s not only Americans who ask strange questions to foreign students. Japanese students are really smart, don’t get me wrong, but some of the questions... I’ve been asked if we have stairs in America; if Christmas is in the summer; if we eat hamburgers every single day, etc.

-We peel all fruits here, even grapes.

-I suppose my school is special, but we do change classrooms. Not for every class, but for certain classes.

-Also, in Japanese classes, no one answers a question by themselves. If you’re called on by the teacher, that means converse with your friends around you to get the right answer and then you say it. There are certain classes where this doesn’t apply, and it certainly doesn’t apply during tests, but usually, even if they know the right answer, they’ll ask the surrounding students.

-Students are really close to their teachers. Mostly because they spend so much time at school. School begins at 8:20am and then we’re done around 4, then, if you have a club activity, you do that until 6:30-7pm, 7 days a week.

-We don’t have substitute teachers. If a teacher doesn’t come to class, students just sit (quietly) and study on their own!

-Most homework is done at school. Students will stay after school to do homework just because it’s most important to be seen at school, even if you really have nothing to do. The same applies to teachers and business people. It’s most important to look busy-- and say you’re busy.

-No one is late is late to school.

-I honestly cannot remember which way we open books in America without looking at one of the books I brought. We use both here, and it’s really confusing.

-The same applies to driving. No idea which side of the road.

-You take off your shoes when entering a building, pretty much always. I have three pairs of shoes for school, one for walking there, one for class, one for the gym.

-There are millions of spiders here. HUGE spiders, but not in the house. I never see any other bugs (except this thing called a giri-giri), and my host mom has never once seen a cockroach in her life.

-Boys are a lot more touchy feely with each other. Not so much girls.

-Even Japanese people have problems with chopsticks.

-They really do touch my hair all the time, and tell me how good I am at Japanese even if all I’ve said is “I’m from Florida.”

January 20, 2012

I feel like no matter what I write, it won’t truly capture all of the feelings of what it’s like to be an exchange student. And I’ve just read back my first 2 journals, and I realized I’ve written absolutely nothing of substance, so I'm trying to make up for that with this one. There are ups and downs and certainly plenty of embarrassing moments, but I wouldn’t take back this decision for anything. It has been hard, especially when you realize you’ve been in a country for 5 months, and you still don’t understand everything, you still can’t read kanji, and you still can’t always make yourself understood. I suppose this may specifically apply to those countries with very difficult languages, but I’m sure that everyone has felt a little bit of frustration with the language. It hit me again in another way quite recently. I’ve been trying to keep a journal online in Japanese an d when trying to translate it back into English, my brain fails me. It’s not that my Japanese is that great, or that my English is bad; I think it’s just that Japanese and English are such different languages, it’s easier for me to understand if I keep them separate in my head or just use a mixture of Japanese and English. Maybe that’s more confusing than I mean for it to be? This also gets in the way when Japanese people (especially my teachers) ask me what a word is in English, and I say I understand the word, I just have no idea how to say it in English. And this is all completely true. I think I just have figured out a way to memorize word concepts or words from experience instead of just straight out of a dictionary. It’s honestly necessary when dealing with Japanese, as they may have the same expressions, but they’re not used the same way at all. Needless to say, the language is still one of the biggest things I’m dealing with. I can understand every single word in a sentence and still not grasp the meaning. But I have made friends; I can make small talk, and get rid of awkward silences if I need to. I also just recently made my first speech on the fly. It sounds weird, but in English, if someone asks me to introduce myself, it’s easy, I can make it up as I go along, but up until now, I’ve always had some time (even if it was only 10 minutes) to think of a speech or introduction before hand. But about 2 nights ago, I was told I’d be introduced, but not that I’d have to speak. The woman introduced me, proceeding to take up all of my usual talking points! Then when she handed me the microphone, I was shocked. But I proceeded to make one of my most confident speeches yet, and it made me feel really good!

Changing host families is definitely one of the hardest things you’ll do as an exchange student, at least when you’ve had such a positive experience as I have. My first host family was seriously like my own family, and I couldn’t imagine getting used to new people so quickly. But I am happy to say that I’ve become part of this family so much faster, and they are some of the best people I’ve ever known. It’s a little bit different, because I had 3 sisters at my first family, and here it’s just me and my parents, but it forces me to talk at all times, thus improving my Japanese 10 fold. I already feel so much more confident when talking, it’s amazing. And now when I do get to see my first family, it’s so much more fun because I can talk with them and play with them and just have a great time. Also, my first host family was a lot busier, and since moving, I’ve been able to go a lot more places and meet a lot of new people. This may be in part to my Japanese getting better (I’ve got the whole “meeting for the first time” conversation down pat), but it is also greatly in part to my host family being amazing. And now that it’s coming up where I have about a month left with this family, I’m getting that dreading feeling, and I absolutely don’t want to move.

I think the one thing I’ve been asked the most (“you didn’t speak any Japanese when you got here?!” and “why are your eyes blue?”) is what I don’t like about Japan. This is, of course, once you get past all the courtesy small talk and really get to know someone, so really from friends and family. The only thing I can really say that I dislike is called “男尊女卑” which means the suppression of women. It’s not really evident most of the time, except for when we have assemblies the boys are always in the front, boys are numbered first in the class, and boys are basically of higher favor. It didn’t really become evident to me in the home until I switched to my second host family. Disclaimer: in NO way am I badmouthing my host family AT ALL, it’s just completely different. My host mom does all the house work; my host father is very busy at work, I’ll give him that. But anything he needs at dinner, my host mom stops eating and gets up and gets it for him, even if he’s the one closest to it. Also, at my first host family we all waited until everyone was at the dinner table to begin eating. Here, my host father will begin eating before all the food is on the table, and my mom is always the last one to sit down. I would be lying if I said it didn’t shock me or make me uncomfortable at first. But I realize it’s just a difference in culture, and my mom doesn’t think anything of it. However, boys I’ve talked to at school seem to be on par with the “ladies first” side of things, and even though it’s not a principle taught in schools or in culture, it has become quite a natural thing for younger Japanese men. よかった、ね。

Seeing snow for the first time has definitely been a highlight of these last few weeks. I can’t believe I made it to 3 weeks short of my 19th birthday without seeing snow. It’s so cool. Getting hit with a snowball is not as cool, but actually hurts quite a bit. It actually isn’t that cold here, and now that I have a proper jacket and gloves it’s quite bearable. I found that I quite enjoy the cold weather, so who knows, maybe in the future...? One downside to the weather is that you seem to get sick easily. I’m pretty sure I’ve made the joke before in my journal and plenty of times in real life about Japanese people going to the hospital for everything. You sneeze once and they ask you if you need to go to the doctor. But I guess what I didn’t realize before is that it’s actually a very good practice. See, Japanese people have amazing health insurance, which takes care of most of their bills anyways, so why not use it? (My host mom said this to me.) It’s also improved their life expectancy and makes it that much easier to go without getting sick, especially because they’re probably the hardest workers in the world. So needless to say, I’ve spent plenty of time in hospitals and doctors’ offices. Not the most fun time of my exchange, but it’s definitely a different! I remember thinking during the Rotary orientation last year, I never get sick, so I won’t have to worry about that while on exchange. Boy, was I wrong. I’ve been here almost 5 months, and I’ve already sprained my ankle, and been sick with fever twice. I don’t know how it happens. Maybe it’s a weakened emotional state, maybe it’s the cold, but I now realize that I do not know more than the people in charge of me, and I’ve been incredibly humbled by these experiences.

I suppose I should devote a chapter to Japanese television. It seems to be all the rage on the internet with Japanese crazy game shows and quirky segments, and let me just tell you... it’s all true. I absolutely love Japanese variety shows. It’s so fantastically entertaining. The costumes, the games, the celebrities, and just the atmosphere of Japanese shows are so fun. I will never tire of it. I think part of it is thanks to the language of Japanese. There are just so many ways to say things and in so many tones. It’s one of the reasons I’ve absolutely fallen in love with the sound, the words, the script. Of course, there are normal television dramas, and Korean dramas are really really popular here. They’re either dubbed or with subtitles, and it really made me wonder why we don’t have that many foreign dramas available on television in America. It would definitely be interesting. I’ve even taking to watching Japanese dramas (with English subtitles) and improved my Japanese quite a bit. The interesting thing about Japanese news though, is that it’s not really “Japanese”. Let me explain: all of the segments and news stories seem to come from the countries news channel in which the stories are happening. For example, the morning news is filled with translated news segments from Russia, China, France, America, England, anywhere there is world news happening. It’s quite different because it doesn’t really seem to focus on the local and country news as much as it does the entire world. I’m sure I’d be much more knowledgeable about current world events/politics if I understood all of what they were saying! Anyways, I didn’t really watch a lot of tv (or any at all) when I first got here, but now it’s a normal thing, and I find it’s one of my favorite ways to study!

Speaking of studying, school definitely takes up the bulk of my time. It hasn’t changed too much from the beginning, except now when teachers direct questions at me, I can understand and answer them. It’s an awesome feeling when you can understand the classroom conversation topics, but sometimes it’s really hard to stay focused! The Japanese school year ends in March (March 1st is the “seniors” graduation ceremony), and the next year begins in April. I think we only have about a week or two of break in between, but no one seems to complain. It’s really different, seeing as I’ve done the whole “getting ready for college” thing before I came to Japan (and am still continuing now), I can accurately compare the difference between Japan and America. Most people still have yet to take the tests to get into their college. I think it’s really weird that they wait so long. It’s not procrastination either; it’s a normal thing to do the college applications and tests after you graduate. A lot of kids that don’t get into normal college go to a specialty school to get a license to practice a certain profession; I guess that’s kind of the same as America. The rest of school is basically the same. I’ve picked up more classes, so I’m in almost all of them, and when I’m not in class I get to go to the library and study on my own. I’ve also made a lot of friends, and I’m talking so much more with people now. It’s really come a long way. Sure, now and then I get really discouraged; Japanese is such a difficult language, but I’m just going at it day by day, and the improvement is astonishing. I’m sure I complained about kanji at one point or another, right? Well now I’m absolutely in love with it. Not that it isn’t completely time consuming and annoying and really difficult, but it’s also really useful! Without knowing the meaning of a word, you can figure it out by using the kanji. Plus, kanji is so much easier to read than the other alphabets. I mean, I’ve gotten way better to where I’m reading quite well, but it’s still a much welcomed break when I get to kanji. I get a lot of kanji practice in classes like biology and world history (where all we do is write kanji), and it’s made it so much easier to pick apart, recognize, and memorize kanji. Honestly, I don’t take too much time to study kanji because I’d rather focus on vocabulary and communicating. But when I email my friends with my cell phone and see a certain kanji a lot, I end up memorizing it, and it’s a great feeling. Of course it happens the other way around too, when you see a kanji you know you’ve seen a million times and you always seem to forget how to read it!

I remember writing my paper and reading how Japanese is basically the same and there aren’t horrible dialect changes or accents... and I was completely and totally wrong. I’ve heard about the Tohoku, my part of Japan, accent, called “zu zu ben”, ever since I got here, and only when I went to Kyoto on my school trip did I actually realize the difference. I mean, I’ve not been anywhere else in Japan, so I just thought the people around me were speaking normal Japanese. Once again, very wrong. My current host father has one of the heaviest Tohoku accents possible. So that’s definitely a challenge... and it’s a challenge I never even fathomed when thinking about being on exchange. Of course, it makes people who aren’t horribly accented that much easier to understand, but it also means I have to listen extra hard, and I only understand half the things (if that much) of what my father says. And he loves to talk; it’s only quiet when he’s asleep! -- This is an ongoing joke between me and my host mom! Saying my first phrase with a Tohoku accent-- had to be one of the funniest parts of my exchange. For the most part, I speak quite normal, Tokyo area Japanese, but being around this host family, and talking so much more has apparently had an effect on my pronunciation. We were all sitting at the dinner table (my dad, mom, older host brother and his wife) when my mom asked me a question, and I just replied normally, and everyone at the table stopped and was like “NO, RACHEL!” I had no idea what they were talking about, and they corrected my pronunciation because what I had just said was really accented. I hadn’t even noticed.

So now that the holidays are over, I can talk in full about the experience as an exchange student here. It’s weird because in Japan, they get all decorated and ready for Christmas, and then it doesn’t really happen. It’s just a normal day, not a holiday. New Years, however, is a huge thing here. In Japan, Christmas is a time to spend with your boyfriend and girlfriend, whereas New Years is a huge family affair. First of all, you write a postcard to every one you know. Not just some people. You literally write one to everyone you know. My host family literally received hundreds of postcards on January first. Of course, it’s very time consuming to write and get them all out before New Years, but I still think it’s an awesome tradition. December 30th is cleaning day. There’s a tradition where they throw rice into the house to rid it of demons; however, it’s an old tradition, so we didn’t actually do any rice throwing, just cleaned every corner of the house. Unfortunately, after like two weeks, and my room went back to looking like a hurricane came through. Next, relatives visiting, mochi cutting, tv watching, and soba eating at midnight. Literally at 12 am we sat down and had traditional Japanese soba noodles. The next morning, January 1st, we got up early and headed to a shrine called Chusonji. Everyone goes to the shrine on January first to give money, pray, and buy mamoris (good luck charms for the New Year), and also get your year’s fortune. Mine was really good, by the way. So I’ve now got mamori’s galore, and my own sarudoshi (year of the Monkey, the year I was born, Chinese zodiac) bracelet given to me by my older brother. The rest of the holidays were spent with family, visiting family, eating, and sleeping because we were all tired from getting up so early in the morning. The best part about visiting family? Toshidama. It’s basically a New Years allowance that all the students receive from all of their relatives. I honestly wasn’t expecting to get any money at all, but let’s just say, I ended up rich.

Also, since the year just started, every time you see someone you know for the first time, you have to go through the ritual 「明けましておめでとうございます。今年もよろしくお願いします。」yeah, it’s ridiculously long, and there is a lot of bowing and such. At school and with friends we shorten it to 「あけおめ、ことよろ」or sometimes just 「あけおめ」which is must easier to say.

Anyways, I also just finished celebrating my 19th birthday here in Japan. Birthdays really aren’t a huge thing, but I did get presents; we did have a cake; I got texts from my friends wishing me a happy birthday, and it was really quite pleasant. My host mother’s birthday was the 3rd (mine’s the 5th-January), so we got to celebrate it together, and so that was really special. Luckily, my birthday was over the winter break, as always, so I didn’t have to go to school.

And the holidays aren’t over there! The 14th of January was this years “dontosai”. In my city, they do it, well in Japanese they call it “naked”, but it’s really only like half. Guys are shirtless, women are not. Anyways, they marched with torches, flags, and bells from one shrine about 500 feet to the next shrine. Then, at the second shrine, everyone has made a big pile of all their New Years decorations and such, and it’s lit on fire! Of course, since it was freezing outside (it even began snowing halfway through the parade), the fire was welcomed by everyone, until it got so big and so hot that everyone just ran away from it. It was seriously one of the coolest things I’ve seen. The pile was huge! Definitely a memorable night.

EVERYTHING in Japan is decided by jan ken pon (rock, paper, scissors). It is the reigning decision maker and it is never debated. I’ve only seen one time where a boy was like “no, wait, one more time!” We seriously go with whatever the game decides. Whether that be who has to give the group’s answer in class or who has to dissect the pig eye in biology lab. You can play with like 10 people too, just when you lose you back out. There’s actually a more complex version that’s more like a game you play when you’re bored, but I’m not sure I can explain it without confusing everyone, so when I get back, we’ll play, okay? I have an ongoing war with a friend in my class. He’s lost like 4 or 5 times, and even our teacher asked about it the other day. Best benefit? The first time I got pudding as a prize, and now he owes me even more snacks. It’s absolutely hilarious.

One thing I don’t really want to talk about, but know I should is the tsunami that hit Japan almost a year ago. I live in Tohoku, extremely close to where thousands of peoples lives were literally washed away by the tide. Because of this, it’s an easy drive to the tsunami location, and I’ve been more than once. It’s not a happy feeling. First, I visited a place by Sendai, and was completely shocked at how clean it’d become. And when I say clean I mean just space. You can see the foundations of where houses used to be, but that’s it. Just space. I guess you really have to understand what Japan looks like to get what “space” means. Japan is so crowded. It’s a tiny island country with 128 million+ population. 75% of the country is mountains, and so there really isn’t a lot of free room. Houses, buildings, everything is pushed up together with really narrow roads and barely room to breathe. So seeing that much room with just nothing was astonishing. At that time, I was riding with my older brother and his new wife. She had grown up in the area, and he went to school there, so they’re both very familiar with it. As we were driving they weren’t completely lost, but a little bit confused trying to figure out where to turn, where to go because it looks so completely different from the place they used to know. And there are no landmarks or anything. I think that’s when it really hit me. What would it be like to return to my hometown, and have it just be gone? Obviously, I know that isn’t a reality for me, but it just made me think.

The second place I went was on the border of the Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, called Kessennuma. It was not clean. It wasn’t touched. There are just buildings with nothing inside but debris. Boats in the middle of fields. Tremendous piles of broken things. I really don’t want to spend too much time on this sad time, but I don’t think I have the words to explain. Not in Japanese. Not in English. There just aren’t words to convey the type of feeling that hits you like a semi. It’s almost been a year, and naturally, it’s still a big deal, with commercials often showing reminding everyone not to forget. And every time there is an earthquake at school, the girls scream and cry because they’re reminded of the time they were at school and everyone thought they were going to die. I honestly can’t even imagine.

And now that I’ve fully depressed everyone reading this journal, and even brought horribly sad feelings to myself, I’ll try and sum everything up. Japan: it’s not all flashing lights, anime maniacs, and unspeakables in vending machines. I guess it’s just like any country and it depends on where you live. I mean, I’m not from Vegas, so my city in Florida gets plenty of sleep, which is totally different from the Japanese students who seem to always be studying. I’ve found that my same curiosity that brought me to trek to the other side of the world, is found in almost everyone here. People are basically the same. We have the same habits, expressions, etc. We’re just separated by culture, by language, by unknowns. I think the thing I’ve been most amazed about here is just how fully and completely the culture envelops the country. Being from America, everyone has always been different. Not in a bad way, and I’m not sure how t o really explain it, but something you do may not be what your neighbor does. For the most part, Americans are taught to be individuals, to think for themselves, and we have a culture that really pushes that. For example, at the orientation last summer, we each paired up and were told to explain “our culture”. Not our host country’s culture, but our own culture, each individual culture, in our homes. They couldn’t do that in Japan. Everyone basically is the same. It’s so different from what I’m used to, and it makes it really hard when I try to answer questions from people about “Americans”. Just like it was difficult for me to transition into a culture completely backwards from my own, it’s difficult for them to imagine what it’s like to live somewhere where it’s not all the same culture. I suppose that puts a little bit more pressure on me, because I know just as I’m getting my impression of Japan from them, they all are solidifying their “American” images from associating with me. I hope that’s a good thing.

May 24

My life is not exciting enough to write journals. Sure, it seems exciting and mysterious to everyone back in Florida or where ever you may be, but I feel like I’m giving away the best part of exchange by writing everything. I have no real good way to introduce this journal except to just say that my exchange year is something I’ll never forget and it’s something I’m not willing to let go of yet. I’m lucky in that I get to be here in Japan for almost a full year, and I have had so many experiences and made my own life here. I feel like writing a journal for posterity really is like giving away all the secrets about life and myself that I’ve learned. So instead of writing in excruciating detail stories and experiences that I know would bore most of you anyways, I’ll just break down a few (actually quite a lot) of my experiences or how I’d sum up the last 9 months of living here in Tome, Miyagi, Japan.

I’ve thrown beans at the demon to get out of our house and bring the good luck in (a holiday called setsubun which is in February, and I did mistakenly reference this in a previous journal).

Worn traditional Japanese clothing (yukata, hakama, and kimono) and danced not exactly traditional dances in front of loads of people (though not while wearing the traditional clothing).

Seen the best night view in the entire world (Hakodate, Hokkaido).

Am planning on being in the huge summer festival here in Tome, and going to see the biggest Tanabata festival in Sendai, and maybe some of the other famous ones in Tohoku.

I’ve been to Hokkaido, Tokyo 3 times, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Sendai, both Disneyland and Universal Studios, seen the Pacific Ocean and the Japanese Sea.

I’ve visited ridiculously rich neighborhoods, and seen the places where the tsunami absolutely tore people’s lives apart.

Met people who lived next to the nuclear plant that was destroyed March 11, 2011.

Been to Matsushima, one of the 3 must see sights in Japan which is not even an hour away from me.

Went to a private sumo wrestlers’ practice, and then later to the actual sumo games.

Learned that sumo wrestlers work out ridiculously hard, and they only eat twice a day.

I’ve seen Kabuki and No, traditional Japanese plays.

Been to temples all over Japan in Kyoto, Kamakura, Hiraizumi, Hakodate.

Hung out in the hot springs with all kinds of naked women.

Sang karaoke in front of my entire class.

Saw snow for the first time and loved it; decided I hated it and never care to see it again after it constantly was there for over 5 months.

Broken my ankle and gone up 4 flights of stairs every day on crutches with a cast all the way up my leg.

I’ve gotten really sick and been taken care of by someone whom I now considered to be a second mother.

Taught my dance class a dance I made up from scratch because apparently I dance “American” and “there’s just something different about it”.

Completely embarrassed myself in front of loads of people.

I’ve been treated like an idiot, and I’ve acted like an idiot.

I’ve completely messed up the language and also have times when I make absolutely no mistakes and I astound the people listening to me.

I’ve been made fun of, told I’ve gotten fat and that I look cute in purikura pictures, because it looks nothing like me.

I’ve also been told I have the best Japanese of any exchange student in the past 10 years, I’ve been complimented in ways people who aren’t exchange students can never ever imagine. There’s just no feeling like it and no way to put this feeling into words. It’s something beyond all else, in a different realm of senses.

Japanese people don’t expect foreigners to speak Japanese, and so they’re always surprised when I can talk and understand them. It’s very different from America because we expect everyone to speak English.

Find myself talking to myself in Japanese.

Started to read manga in order to have a fun way to study.

Realized people who do really LOVE manga are about as few as they are in the States.

Writing up and down is way way harder than you’d think.

I’ve walked through a blizzard with nothing but a light coat, sundress, and tights while my French friend screamed bloody murder the entire way. Thought I was going to die.

Met some of the coolest past, present, and future exchange students ever.

Saw Funky Monkey Babys live in Sendai!

Became an Arashi fan girl, Ohno-kun<3

Sat in seiza (traditional Japanese sitting position) until my legs were so numb I thought I’d never be able to walk again.

Watched some of the most interesting television shows in the world. Hands down.

Gotten used to toilets that are just holes in the ground.

Also, become very fond of toilets with warmed seats, cars with televisions in them, and your bathtub talking to you.

Gave Mothers’ Day presents to 5 moms.

Cleaned the school after every school day.

Taken off my shoes after walking into a building, and put them back on when leaving (still continuing to do this).

Joined the choir, then quit to join kendo, and then was told I couldn’t join kendo. Then finally was told I could but the seniors are done with clubs in about 3 weeks, so...

Made soba (noodles), gyoza (Chinese dumpling), and mochi (sticky rice cake).

Cooked macaroni and cheese for my host families. It’s always a hit.

Learned to slurp my soup.

Eaten beef tongue, shark fin, raw whale, and blowfish, all of which are delicious.

Come to absolutely love octopus, squid, and seaweed.

Korean seaweed is the absolute best snack on the planet. I would eat it every day if I could. It tastes just like potato chips, dad, I swear.

Eaten grilled cartilage, intestines, hearts, brains, livers, and skin. Not as bad as you might think, but certainly not a recommendation.

Learned to never ask what it is you’re eating.

Now proclaim my favorite breakfast to be raw egg (or half boiled egg) on rice.

I now am super skilled with chopsticks. Can pick up, cut, and pretty much do anything with them.

I’ve gained weight. I’ve lost weight. I’m pretty sure I’m back right around where I started.

The luggage you acquire on exchange is astounding.

Given a speech in front of 2-3000 Rotarians in Japanese as the exchange student representative for the district.

I find it a lot easier to read kanji then the alphabets or God-forbid, using roman letters.

Become a part of 3 different families and am about to move on to a 4th.

Started to wonder why we don’t wear uniforms and no makeup to school in America.

Found out how Japanese graduation ceremonies are ridiculously long and not so much fun.

And the whole school attends because it’s on a school day in the morning.

Lived with a family of 9 people... with one bathroom.

Got to have my sister, Hannah, from Florida come visit me here for a little over a week!

Found out I’m the first year long exchange student to come to Tome in 20 years. And I’m staying with the same family as the guy who came here then.

Fell in love with the countryside versus living in the city.

Though it is really weird living in a city where everyone knows everyone.

It’s weird being out of American culture for this long. I know nothing about anything.

Thought that people that have more exchange students in their districts probably have more fun and was honestly quite a bit jealous at first.

Come to realize that living in a city with absolutely no exchange students and a prefecture with only 2 (well technically it’s the whole North East side of Japan with only 2, including myself), is the best thing ever. All my friends are Japanese, and it has helped my Japanese tremendously.

And finally, I’ve become fluent in Japanese. Though I’m not to the point where I’m satisfied completely, I know it’s pointless to doubt it now. But I’ve found something else. I realize that while I came on exchange explicitly to learn another language, (I did have some other motives but that was my biggest one), it has become less and less of a priority now. I don’t mean that in a bad way like Japanese is too hard and I don’t care to learn it, because I do and I want it more than anything and I study every single day even if I just end up remembering one new word. I mean that I value myself and my experiences so much more than when I arrived 9 months ago. I find that even though I do want to be fluent 100% more than anything, the little experiences, the way I approach things and my attitude about them has changed too. There’s so much more to exchange than learning a language, which I suppose I knew but I didn’t actually know. It’s also made me come to appreciate English being my first language. I think I think more in depth now about things we say, and it’s weird when I find that I don’t understand something even though it’s written in English (I think that might be the most frustrating), but English really is a beautiful language.

I’ve done all of this in just 9 months. 9 months that have absolutely changed my perspective of myself, the world, and especially of the Japanese. I still have 3 months left. 3 months during which I plan to explore more of this new world I live in and make my mark, becoming a lasting part of the lives of the people whom I know I will never- can never ever forget. Hopefully, I can make it so I won’t forget Japanese either.

July 18, 2012

All my friends are going home. It’s weird to watch people say their goodbyes or write their last speeches (though I should be doing mine too), when I just can’t get the feeling of leaving into my head long enough to get all the feelings I’m sure I’ll be feeling out on paper. I’ve tried, but I just can’t tap into the idea that I’m actually going back. In the same way it didn’t really click that I was in Japan when I got here, I haven’t yet processed the reality that I’m going back to Florida.

I still have a month here in Japan, a month that I plan on taking advantage of as much as possible. I’ll get to meet some of the new exchange students for 12-13, and I’ll get to travel and experience the Japanese summer festivals. I’m not at all looking forward to leaving, but I am a little looking forward to going back. Maybe it’s because everyone else is going back. Maybe it’s because my family is telling me how much they miss me and how much they can’t wait to see me when I return. Maybe it’s just because I’ve come to terms with the fact that this is a limited time thing. Either way, the signs of the end of exchange are all around me.

Of course I have regrets. If I had been perfect when I got here, there would’ve been no reason to go on exchange. If I had spoken flawless Japanese when I got here, or any at all, it wouldn’t be so impressive that I speak, read, and write so well now. But I do not and never will regret going on exchange or coming to Japan. I fit in here a lot better than you’d believe. I do love the culture, regardless of how completely and utterly complicated it is, and how closed it is to foreigners.

I think it was when my new host mom told me about my host brother. “He never used to talk before you got here. He’d just say ‘may I be excused?’ after he was done eating and go in the other room alone and watch tv. But since you came, Rachel, he’s become so much more fun and cheerful.”

I started to think. As exchange students, we all think about the changes that we experience within ourselves during exchange. We wonder how people will perceive us when we get back. If they’ll see all the experiences and the depth and the parts of us that exchange and brought out, sculpted, reformed. If they’ll see all the things we have to offer and the amazing, bilingual, independent person that we’ve become over the course of these 10-12 months. But this is the first time I’ve thought of the effect I have on the people around me. The people that I live with, the people I go to school with, the teachers whose class I’m in. But the truth is, that we have an amazing effect on everyone we come into contact with. Even those who just listen to us talk with our host families or friends in passing. The old ladies sitting on the train next to us who never believed a foreigner could speak her language. The truth is that this year isn’t just our own. It effects us, the exchange students, the most steeply and the most unforgettably, but what about the people whose families we become a part of? The host dad who has my kimono picture as his cell phone background? What about the host siblings who can’t imagine when you leave? Or decide they want to be exchange students too?

If anything, I want that to be a part of the memory of my exchange too. Not just the fact that I got another home, a year in a foreign country and a second language. I want to remember the things that I struggled with and the things that from here on out I’ll do better. The things I learned about myself that were not so warm and fuzzy, but are a part of who I am. The people whose lives I became a part of, and who will be an everlasting part of mine. Of course it’s not so easy for me to forget, considering I’m the one who has to change everything about their lifestyle one more time, but I think it’ll be a little bit easier going back knowing that I’ve made a difference here. It brings a sort of peace. I think that’s the sign of a good exchange.