September 5, 2012
It has been almost a month since I first arrived in Japan, and yet I wake up every morning knowing exactly what my routine is as though I'd lived here for much longer. However, I wasn't always as comfortable as I am now- I didn't always know how to get to Takashimaya from Hopetown, or how to get home from the Train Station on the random day when my bus driver says he won't go to my normal stop. I didn't always have friends, or know how to ride a bike as well, or know the difference between "Itsumo" and "Zenbun".
I won't lie to you and tell you that I've enjoyed every waking moment, that it was easy to make friends and that all of the studying I did before made it easy to understand Japanese now. I talk to the Rotex when I doubt these things because that's what they've all gone through and they understand, so I want to thank all of them from the bottom of my heart. I also want to thank Rotary for giving me this opportunity, my family for supporting me, and my friends for wishing me the best.
The only real place to start, I suppose, would be on the plane ride to Japan.
All alone, dressed in my Rotary blazer and khaki pants, I sat in my seat in the plane. Moments before, I'd had problems getting my carry on to fit in the overhead compartment because, even though it was well within the limits for Delta, it was just barely small enough for the plane to Japan. Being short didn't help my situation, so luckily the (rather tall) lady behind me got up from her seat and put it in the overhead bin for me. Thank goodness for Japanese hospitality!
The plane was about to leave when a young Japanese girl sat next to me, probably no more than ten years old. I think at that moment I was more afraid of her than she was of me. She knew absolutely no English, so when I had to ask her questions about what was written on the immigration form (such as time in Japan and whatnot) our conversation became a mixture of poor Japanese and Charades. We didn't talk after that for about six hours.
Arriving in Japan after the longest, most bladder-wrenching flight, I made my way through Haneda airport, greeted by Olympic banners written in Japanese and cute advertisements everywhere I looked. Luckily, I was also able to find the restroom (the sign is pretty universal, thank goodness!). Figuring out the toilet was, well, interesting to say the least. It was high tech and had more buttons than a television remote. All of the buttons were written in Japanese so, having no idea what they did, I left them alone. After a few minutes of inspecting all of the devices, I finally figured out that to flush you had to wave your hand in front of this thing on the wall, kind of like the motion sensor thing at the movie theater bathrooms in Brandon, Florida.
Next came immigration. What was supposed to be swift took a good hour or more (I lost track of time after the first hour). Apparently, none of the residency card printing machines were working when the immigration workers took me to them, so they took me into the back room where I waited while they messed around with the main computer. They're English was about as good as my Japanese, but we were able to communicate that I was an exchange student from America. Showing them my book of Emergency contacts full of everyone's name, number, and address that I could possibly need, they were able to take down my host family information and my counselor's number and let me through immigration with a simple "We will mail this card to you in a month". Thank you, Rotary, for stressing the importance of carrying an Emergency contact list.
Picking up my baggage, I made my way to the terminal after a short Monorail ride and sat for the next few hours doing nothing but people watching and typing (rapidly) an email home on the 100￥/10 minutes computer. The plane ride to Yonago was fine other than my sitting in the wrong seat at first, and then having my carry on bag be too big for the central overhead compartment due to the fact that I was able to watch a Pokemon movie. I had no idea what they were saying, but at least it was entertaining.
Arriving in Yonago was rather interesting. Everywhere were little figurines and statues from a famous local Mangaka's manga. They were little eyeball creatures with bodies, or strange looking people with crazy hair, and were apparently absolutely normal. Walking out toward where my host mother and sister were, I was given a big hug and rushed over to the Rotarians to take a picture. Unfortunately, I was so frazzled that I forgot to hand them MY camera to take a picture on, but I have the feeling I would have looked like a ghost in that picture.
Over the next month I visited Mount Daisen (an active volcano with the best tasting water and best tasting soft ice cream I've ever had) been all over the city, celebrated Bon Odori by going all the way to Matsue to clean gravestones, and seen myself on the news as they showed clips of the dancing part of the Bon Odori festival. I also started school (which I absolutely love) and gave a speech at my Rotary club.
My speech was quite possibly the worst Rotary speech in the history of exchange. What had started out as a fairly good length outstanding speech I'd had memorized ended up with me being told I had to shorten it to about a minute long right before I walked up to the podium to speak. Oh boy. I don't quite remember what it was I said, but I do remember apologizing profusely to the club President and my Counselor for the poor quality of my first speech. What a first impression. In my own defense, though, trying to come up with a speech on the spot in a foreign language you'd only been speaking for less than a month is a pretty difficult thing to do.
That speech was the same evening I'd started school, which, lucky for me, had gone 100x better. My speech for the teachers and for my class was flawless, and everyone was very kind. I met many people and the teachers were all very helpful. I also have a schedule with many art classes, so needless to say, I was excited about the week to come.
In the next week, I made many friends and helped my class prepare for the school Bunka-sai (Culture Festival). We ended up doing a Purikua class thing, which is basically giant pictures of whatever that people stand in front of and take photos of themselves. Our Purikua was anime themed, so I helped paint the giant 'One Piece' set. When all was said and done, everyone was very happy with what we'd accomplished and we were able to have a great weekend.
The Bunka-sai was the most fun I've had at school so far- there were food stands, bands, plays, haunted houses, and indoor pool, tea ceremonies, martial arts demonstrations, and much more. I even had my drawing of my art teacher displayed in the stairwell for everyone to see.
After the culture festival, we had a day of cleaning followed by a long home-room. It was fun to clean with everyone because everyone helped out in some way. I climbed on top of the bookshelves and took the black curtains off of the walls, and other people prepared the cardboard displays for recycle, took the paper chains off of the ceiling, scrubbed the floors, or changed the curtains on the windows. It wasn't too difficult because of how many people there were working, so for most of the day we were able to simply sit in the class and decide where to go for dinner tomorrow and who would do what events at the upcoming Taikusai (sports festival). We decided on ShabuShabu (beef dipped in boiling water) and I volunteered for the tug of war, relay race, and Dekapan (two people wearing one pair of huge pants and race other couples in huge pants) competitions.
The next night, everyone went to Jasco (a huge shopping center) and played in the Arcade and ate dinner. It was loads of fun, and surprised me at how close this class is compared to homeroom classes back in America. I don't even know the names of half of the people in my old homeroom in Florida, but here was my Japanese homeroom class, all spending some of their free time together to simply have fun and congratulate each other on our successes at the Culture Festival.
October 19, 2012
My last journal couldn't even come close to describing what my everyday life is, but I think part of that may have to do with the fact that every day is different. I rarely have the words to describe to someone what it's like when they ask me how I feel about being here in Yonago, Japan, or when they ask what my favorite food is or where I want to go this year. Being here is amazing- some days are the best days I've ever had in my life, other days can leave me feeling like I still have such a long way to go to make the kinds of friends or speak as fluently as past exchange students recall. People have a hard time understanding the fact that my favorite food can change everyday simply because it's all so different and new. While I may not know the name of a dish, I can love it all the same, and while one dish may be more delicious than another at a certain time, I simply answer the question of my favorite food with "I love everything!" because this is the most honest I can be. Being asked where I want to go is probably one of the hardest questions. I'm already here in Japan, so anything else is a bonus. Of course there's always the usual, touristy answers- "I want to go to Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo, and Sapporo" or "I want to see Shibuya station" and "I want to get a picture in front of Mt. Fuji"- which would be fine. I would love to visit any of those places! However, I would enjoy going pretty much anywhere here. The kids my age are the ones who find this hardest to understand because of the fact that this city I'm living in is in the countryside and thus, not very exciting. Yeah, I wouldn't mind being closer to places I can just go hang out with friends at or being able to have a wider variety of stores to browse through and things like that, but this place is still so eccentric and has so many secrets that I can't wait to discover t hat even the most boring days can end with excitement. Just today I discovered a small park near one of my bus stations that I can go to if I want to swing or climb the climbing tree. There are so many vending machines here in Japan that I've thought of spending an entire day just walking around and trying the most random things I find in them- hot carmel milkshakes, ice cream, hot cocoa, milk tea, Japanese sodas- there's so much that I honestly think I could spend my entire allowance at vending machines! Luckily, I have enough self-control to make sure that doesn't happen.
The majority of my time is spent at school, and I'd be lying if I said I don't love school. The students there are so nice to me and my schedule has so many art classes that I enjoy most everything. The ladies in the 食堂（"shokudo"- cafeteria) are also very sweet and make the most delicious food I've ever eaten (except for my Grandmother's cooking- I know my mom will read this and show her, so just remember that your cooking is still the best, Grammy!). It's still so weird that I've gotten used to the fact that instead of mystery meat, fries, and pasta being served in the cafeteria I'm able to order curry, udon, soba, ramen, and a bunch of other stuff that I can't yet read.
It still hits me that I'm in Japan or that I had a conversation in Japanese without thinking too hard about it or having to pull out my dictionary every time. I still feel as though I'm speaking too much English because of how much I already understand, even though I know that's not true. I've given up simply translating in my head because that wasn't working before and instead have realized that I don't need to understand every word to understand the meaning. Listening like this, I've learned so much more and amaze myself when I can start to use the things I learn correctly. The grammar is still, by far, the most difficult part of the [spoken] language, but I know things are slowly working themselves into place every day.
When people teach me a word in Japanese I'm always so surprised at the various words they can also translate to English (on the occasions they do decide to translate for me instead of explaining in Japanese). For instance, one of the boys in my Kyuudo club taught me the word for grasshopper- "batta"- and I couldn't help but wonder when and why he learned that "batta" meant "grasshopper" in English. Thinking back on my ten years of Spanish in school, I don't recall ever learning what "grasshopper" is.
The weather is also something very new to me. It's starting to really feel like Autumn here in Yonago. Even wearing long sleeves inside in the attic (my bedroom, 4th floor, and the hottest part of the house) I can still find myself feeling cold. I wear high socks every day and still wish I had an extra pair of socks to put over my feet because of how little protection the school slippers we have to wear at school give. I dread to think of what it might feel like at kyuudo practice (after school until 6 o'clock- outside) when Winter finally comes around.
I would write more about everything I've done and all of that stuff, but I intended for this journal to be more on the introspective side. Next week is the Sports festival at school as well as my next district orientation, so I will save all of the "what I've done" jazz for my next journal next month. I will also submit my photos with the next journal :D
As always, none of this would have been possible without the enormous combined efforts of Rotary, my Family, and my Friends. Thank you! :D
February 23, 2013
Before I went on exchange, I made a promise to a Rotarian that I would be the student who wouldn't fall behind on their journals. Obviously, I haven't kept that promise, and I won't try and make an excuse for that. Rather, I will say that I have learned a few things from it. I've learned that my schedule on exchange is much less my own than it ever was before- just as there are so many things I want to experience in this country, there are twice as many things others want to share with me, teach me, and allow me to see.
I am at school almost all day long (until 6 at night) and even go to school on the weekends due to club activities. I study every day in order to improve my Japanese as much as I can before the end of this year. My current host family and I spend almost every minute that we are not busy working (or studying/ shooting stuff at club practice in my case) together watching TV, trying out old restaurants in the a rea, or going to see amazing things that my part of Japan has to offer. We've climbed into an almost-invisible room on the underside of an old bridge high in the mountains so as to view the duck-like birds (called O-Shidori) that my prefecture, Tottori, is famous for.
We've gone to public bathhouses (called Onsen) where I experienced for the first time exactly why the Japanese are so in love with hot springs, even if it means standing outside, butt-naked in the coldest part of winter while snow is falling as you wait to climb into the pool. I've discovered that I'm actually very good at skiing simply because my family decided that my sister and I should go since neither of us were working/studying. I've done so many things in these past few months I never would have dreamed of, so many things I wish I could write down. It's not that I won't write these things down, however- I would love for everyone reading this to be able to experience eve ry moment of pain, joy, sadness, and happiness I remember as I look back on these past months because of how wonderful the outcome has turned out to be. The truth is, I simply can't write these memories down.
Nothing could capture the magic that I've found in simply living, in being able to walk home through farm fields under the widest, most beautiful starlit night sky as I return home from school every evening, or in being able to know that there are people you've made friends with who have watched you grow and learn, and who have no choice but to know you by actions rather than words. Writing down the countless days I've spent here on exchange may, for some, seem like a thing that needs no questioning, something that to not do would be a serious mistake. For me, however, writing down my memories would be to belittle them so as to force them to fit into the restraints of language, taking with it their fragility and ephemerality that I have so come to appreciate. I have confidence that I will remember these things long after this year, so while having no permanent record may seem intimidating at times, I am no longer afraid.
My year is almost over, and as I look back on how I've spent it, it seems both unextraordinary and amazing at the same time. I keep hearing that these months, when added together, are simply life in a year. All of the emotions, the struggles, and even boredom are all parts that make this so. So it is that when I see pictures or watch videos of other exchange students doing amazing things, I realize that, while I've not hung out with friends as much as I'd have liked, nor done as many exciting things as I could have hoped for, I, too, have had a wonderful experience. As normally as I have spent this year, this, too, is life.
I have changed families three times in the past year and come to know four completely different lifestyles. I have improved in the language in great degrees, to the point where I feel as at home in Japanese as I do in English at times. I have struggled with the different definitions of friendship in America and Japan, finding out that being good friends doesn't mean always being together or knowing everything.
I have discovered that "goodbye"'s that I have no right to share tears in can be even more painful than the "farewell"'s that I have had to say myself. It was surprising to see just how much realizing that there are memories and bonds I can never share in can hurt, and this taught me that there are times when anyone can be an outsider.
I've been stared at every time I step outside of my door. I've had people assume I can't understand, watched their expressions change when they realize I can, and watched them struggle to find the words to communicate this.
I've had the most precious words a person could wish to hear spoken to me. I've realized that there are some things said best without words. I've learned that communication does not guarantee closeness, and that's okay, because I've come to realize coming out of this year with one person I can say I know now, I've accomplished more than many do in a lifetime.
I've learned some of the most amazing things this year, and that is what has made my exchange a success. I hope that, by the time I leave here, I can have impacted someone as much as this year has impacted me.