Parker Hamilton

Japan

Hometown:Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
School: Allen D. Nease Senior High School
Sponsor District : District 6970
Sponsor Club:Deerwood Jacksonville, Florida
Host District: District 2770

Host Club: The Rotary Club of Ageo

 

My Bio


Hello all! Or should I say Konnichiwa? I'm Parker Hamilton, currently a senior at Nease High School in Ponte Vedra, Florida. And, I'm pleased to say, after a long application process and even longer period of waiting, the results are in! In just a few short months, I'll be heading to the Land of the Rising Sun:Japan. For a whole year. The concept is still a bit foreign to me, but nonetheless I'm incredibly excited about the opportunity! The thought of going to a faraway land has enticed me for several years now. My first choice has always been Japan, in fact, so you can imagine my exhilaration upon learning my destination. Now for a little more about me! I live at home by the beach with my parents, my brother, and my dog. I also have two more brothers both attending college. I've actually lived the same house my entire life, so changing countries should be quite the experience, I'm sure. After school, if I'm not doing homework, eating or sleeping, there's a good chance I'm at some sort of musical rehearsal. Since entering high school, the band program has been my greatest passion and outlet of time. I've marched the baritone for four years, and had the honor of leading the marching band as drum major this past fall. We received the highest score in our school's history, so needless to say the season made many fantastic memories. I love listening to all different types of music, and I'm eager to explore everything Japan's rich history has to offer. More than anything, I'm ready to meet the wonderful people of Japan! I'd like to thank everyone who has made my opportunity possible. I'm sure it will be a great one.

Being met at the airport!

Being met at the airport!

The original 'See no evil, Speak no evil, Hear no evil' monkeys.

The original 'See no evil, Speak no evil, Hear no evil' monkeys.

I love having a proper fall season.

I love having a proper fall season.

Does not even SCRATCH the selection of the ultimate sushi holy grail near my house.

Does not even SCRATCH the selection of the ultimate sushi holy grail near my house.

Classic peace sign at the Hachiko statue in Shibuya. Look up the story and movie!

Classic peace sign at the Hachiko statue in Shibuya. Look up the story and movie!

Sunset view of Mt. Fuji at Disney Sea

Sunset view of Mt. Fuji at Disney Sea

Holding the brownie cake on Thanksgiving... My family.

Holding the brownie cake on Thanksgiving... My family.

Judo regional! No, I didn't compete...

Judo regional! No, I didn't compete...

Harvesting potatoes, onions, and radishes.. Got to take some home!

Harvesting potatoes, onions, and radishes.. Got to take some home!

Speech at the District Conference

Speech at the District Conference

The high school uniform still hanging in my host dad's old closet. The style is almost identical to mine now.

The high school uniform still hanging in my host dad's old closet. The style is almost identical to mine now.

Cutouts with host mom at a festival museum

Cutouts with host mom at a festival museum

A vey small section of the お箸 (Chopstick) Store! I got a personalized pair.

A vey small section of the お箸 (Chopstick) Store! I got a personalized pair.

Homestay group on Iejima Island, Okinawa

Homestay group on Iejima Island, Okinawa

Shimamura Shenanigans on New Years Day. Good times.

Shimamura Shenanigans on New Years Day. Good times.

Seats at the Japanese "Super Bowl!" A bit different, but very welcome taste of football.

Seats at the Japanese "Super Bowl!" A bit different, but very welcome taste of football.

Okinawan Sunset

Okinawan Sunset

Repping Florida on my back as I ski down Japanese slopes. Only almost got strangled once!

Repping Florida on my back as I ski down Japanese slopes. Only almost got strangled once!

I meant it when I said Monica was the cutest dog ever... Look up "Setsubun" to find out more about the mask, and bean throwing.

I meant it when I said Monica was the cutest dog ever... Look up "Setsubun" to find out more about the mask, and bean throwing.

Showing my new Korean friends the wonders of Meronpan!

Showing my new Korean friends the wonders of Meronpan!

First of the Judo certificates!

First of the Judo certificates!

Japan: where people WILL wait over ten minutes to buy a 90 cent fried egg... and so will I.

Japan: where people WILL wait over ten minutes to buy a 90 cent fried egg... and so will I.

Giant tuna being auctioned off in the wee hours of the Tokyo morning.

Giant tuna being auctioned off in the wee hours of the Tokyo morning.

The City.

The City.

I won't forget you, Ando Sensei. Happy retirement!

I won't forget you, Ando Sensei. Happy retirement!

My favorite family atop one of my favorite mountains.

My favorite family atop one of my favorite mountains.

Tell me again about your "Spring," Florida...

Tell me again about your "Spring," Florida...

You think he'd look happier after the treat I just gave him...

You think he'd look happier after the treat I just gave him...

The older bros and I at the Great Buddha at Kamakutra. Search that and Kipling for an interesting poem.

The older bros and I at the Great Buddha at Kamakutra. Search that and Kipling for an interesting poem.

Journal: Parker, Japan

  • Parker, outbound to Japan

    Hello Florida!

    As I type to the sounds of the Japanese Disney Channel, with a three year old tucked under my right arm, it's starting to sink in that my time here is drawing to a close. I'm in my final home with my final (wonderful) family, spring is on its way out, and so am I with just 50 days or so left until returning to Florida. It's been a busy two months, so apologizing for the delay between posting I'll try to describe them with what brevity I can.

    March was filled with travel and a blessed break from the routine of school. My fellow inbounds and I visited Hiroshima via bullet train (a first for me!), as well as the “ground zero” for the atomic bombing. Simply put, it was quite sobering, perhaps magnified by my own heritage. I don't expect to forget those images, nor the ones I saw in Okinawa. That aside, it was also a time of great friend and fellowship with my global family, whose time together is rapidly dwindling. We fed biscuits to deranged deer, crawled through ancient temple tunnels, and stayed up late talking about any and everything. It's an amazing and empowering thing to know I'll always be welcome in 16 different homes around the world.

    March's biggest event, however, was the arrival of my entire American family to Japan for 10 days! With never a spare moment, we dashed all over the country and managed to see Tokyo, Kamakura, Odawara, Takaosan, Kyoto, Osaka and Nara... But in case you have no idea where any of those are, I'll just say it's a lot, hah. Aside from the obvious joy of seeing my family, perhaps the most fulfilling part of the trip was the opportunity to share all my discoveries and insights about the country, and through their eyes rediscovering things that had since grown routine. Sparing illustrious descriptions of the itinerary, I want to put down some of my perspectives here.

    Well, first off, after greeting everyone upon their late-night arrival, one of my first thoughts walking around downtown was “whoaaa, Tokyo was not meant to seat 8 people to sit together at meals...” We were flatly rejected by a number of places before settling for unlikely Spanish food. Fortunately that wasn't a recurring experience, but it set the stage for the many differences of Japanese restaurants. Despite our size, we were unfailingly given just two menus (occasionally in English, hopefully with pictures). This wasn't troubling, because rather than ordering individual entrees we ordered many things to share in the center of the table, as is the norm here. I generally did the ordering, and asking for an extra pitcher of water, because Americans tend to drink more with their meals. When finished, the main party exited the building while the person paying did so at the front counter. This is consistent with the hands-off Japanese waiting style: they won't take your order without being summoned, nor interrupt your meal and conversation to bringing the check.

    Perhaps naturally, some of my most precious memories come from their visit to the town of Ageo, where I've lived the past eight months. Something felt wholly unreal about getting off at “my” station with the Hamilton clan at my heels, waiting to tour the school I spend so much time in each week. They met my (adorable) English teacher, sat in my sturdy wooden seat in the classroom corner, and watched a tiny portion of a typical judo practice. The feeling continued into that night, when my true family and my extended Japanese families met over a lengthy, wonderful dinner. True to form, the event was kicked off by the male heads saying a few words of greeting and appreciation. Acting as translator, I got to see both sides slowly come out of their respective shells to converge by the end into one big, laughing, international family. Just the mental picture of it makes me happy, even as I type these words. It was a special time for me.

    One of the most “different” aspects of the trip compared to past experiences was our means of transportation, namely, trains. The Tokyo metro system is a labyrinth of interconnecting subway lines stacked several floors deep and covering every corner of the city. Supplementing these are the numerous above-ground trains, which cover the heavily commuted lines both in the city and out into the “suburbs,” in essence mini-cities of their own that house the millions of Tokyoite workers. The trains themselves have differing degrees of rapidity, some stopping everywhere, some bypassing the “small” stations, and the bullet-trains heading clear across the country at breakneck speed. Scattered across the metropolis are large hubs connecting multiple lines, sometimes with over a dozen platforms and a distinctly airport-like atmosphere. These and every station in between also serve as commercial centers filled with restaurants, bakeries, and other retail stores.

    You might expect all of this chaos to amplify the same delays and backups that happen in US public transport systems. You'd be wrong. If a train leaves at 16:42, it leaves at 16:42. Scrolling on its interior will be screens detailing exactly how many minutes until arrival at each subsequent stop. You can confidently look up departure times the day in advance and plan accordingly, figuring in the time it will take to park your bike in the storage garages near stations... Given that all of this has been second-nature to me for months now, when plotting our routes around town I didn't give it much thought other than the rusty multiplication it took to calculate train fare for eight. Only upon the astounded reaction of my family did I take a step back to appreciate how truly impressive it is.

    That rediscovered sense of “newness” was a common theme, as I tried (in true Japanese style) to pack as much as possible into each day. We walked around plenty of Buddhist temples, cleansing our hands and mouths, burning incense, tossing coins into the offering box with a bow, and discovering our fortunes written on tiny strips of paper. They marveled at the convenience of vending machines and the drinkabilty of the perfectly heated coffees therein. We all laughed at the cry of “Chee-zu!” (cheese) that accompanies every Japanese photographer, and scratched our heads at the seemingly incongruous lack of both litter AND public trash cans.

    Their presence also provided a benchmark by which to observe the changes within myself, as they extend beyond the language acquisition. Besides apparently running like a penguin now, and accidentally bowing to family members out of habit, living abroad has truly impacted my person. Particularly as pertaining food, and my complete comfort with fish roe riceballs for breakfast. I didn't realize how accustomed I've grown to Japanese fare until noticing the slight sense of disappointment upon walking into an English or Italian restaurant. I think I've just REALLY grown to love rice... and fish... and veggies and sweet bean desserts and soy and half-boiled eggs and every types of noodle and... you get it. Luckily we did cover most of the Japanese delicacies, including a delicious fondue-like dish and a savory egg pancake.

    I discovered new things which bothered me and new things I appreciated. For instance, during a lengthy period of down time without benches, I felt a little uncomfortable at my family sitting on the ground by the train station entrance. On the trains, I had to restrain myself from shushing my brothers’ humming and tapping to the music in their headphones. I groaned a little at leaving a bakery with crumbs all over the floor... and other such OCD-esk quirks... At the same time, many things were refreshing and welcome.

    Departing some days at 10 AM was a glorious contrast to my school trip to Okinawa, which began each morning promptly at 6 AM. Seeing my parents kiss or even just hold hands in public made me smile, as I hadn’t seen anyone do the former in months. Receiving regular hugs was a plus, as well as the sweet, sweet, sarcasm that I crave in daily conversation. So much more comes to mind, but the interesting part was simply witnessing the "new" within me.

    Entering a ninth month abroad, it can be easy to slip into routine, jaded to the everyday around you. Somehow, pulling out chopsticks to eat octopus while talking to Japanese juniors about their girl troubles starts to seem like a normal thing to do. Your dreams fluctuate between languages, and bidets are a regular part of life. Watching figure skating in a 200 degree sauna with 20 naked strangers is just another night... Perhaps that's a testament to the effective cultural immersion that RYE offers, but regardless, my goal for the last month and a half in Japan is to shake myself off and appreciate more fully the experiences and people around me.

    Already, starting this new school year (April in Japan), I've succeeded in making a core group of friends with whom I'm going to karaoke and Disney soon. Judo is demanding and rewarding in itself, and my language is improving like the slowest, steadiest tortoise of all time. The nights of gritting my teeth on blustery bike rides home lie far behind me.. So what am I waiting for? Time for me to sleep now, to start a brand new day in the morning. Only so many left, after all...

    Take care, all! Till next time,
    パーカー


  • Parker, outbound to Japan

    Hello all! Somehow February is mostly over already and I'm just now posting this, apologies. Since last entry, I've switched families not once, but twice according to schedule, and experienced the plenty of “new” that accompanies such changes. It's been interesting to view objectively the differences in lifestyle, housing, parenting, etc that vary by family. There's too much to address in one blog, so I'll just list some interesting things instead, and try to fill in more at a later date.

    My mode of transport switched from soccer-mom van to Maserati(!) and then back to van. I spent considerable time chilling in big tubs with naked old guys. I tour guided a couple of Korean boys around Tokyo (and skipped school for it!). I've run a marathon (albeit broken up over many PE periods), passed two judo tests, and skied down Japanese mountains. I sleep each night on a mat on the floor, and I've experienced cold and snow riding my bike to school. I've gotten lost on trains, chatted about marriage (and rice) with strangers, and prepared guacamole for a traumatized Mexican living in a hotel. I've thrown beans at my host sister. I've learned baseball drills with old (fully clothed) Japanese men, and cross-dressed as a female bowling pin. I've also gained about five pounds!

    … But despite the excess of stories within just those few lines, I promised myself I'd take this entry to detail something I find fascinating: the Japanese language itself. This is likely an excess of new information, but hopefully I've formatted it in such a way as not to bore. The language essentially defines my life here, so I thought it worthwhile to share some thoughts. Here goes!

    Looking at a Japanese text for the first time, before grammar or vocabulary even enter the picture, it's apparent something is different. Namely, you won't be able to voice a single sound to match what you see. The page will probably resemble a giant jigsaw puzzle of black and white... A fair assessment, really, in the sense that written Japanese IS a jigsaw puzzle of sorts. But under the seeming randomness of its markings lies a very organized set of rules governing their arrangement.

    The first thing to address is that Japanese has no one single alphabet, like these ABCs you're reading. It has three! Well, actually, it has two syllabaries and one logosyllabary, but we'll get there. Using three writing systems together means that any given chunk of Japanese text will lack the uniform appearance of the above. Instead, it might look something like this: こんにちはアメリカ人、元気ですか?... Can you distinguish between the three different scripts?

    Breaking it down, we'll start with kanji (漢字), the characters most likely to spring to mind at mention of “Asian” writing. Kanji are the thousands of pictographic characters which constitute the vast majority of Japanese words. A 2,136 “must-know” character list was issued by the Japanese government to be instructed through high school graduation, and thus reading the newspaper is the culmination of twelve years of effort. Among to the first learned are simple, stylized representations of common objects. For example, can you see the “mountain” in 山, or the “tree” in 木? Unfortunately, not all are so easy, and it can be daunting to confront pages of dense kanji like 柔道部。

    But just as many English words can be broken into their Greek and Latin roots, so too can kanji be broken down into smaller components to discern larger meaning. This occasionally occurs with extremely satisfying elegance, as with the characte rs 林and森。What better way to represent “grove” and “forest,” respectively, than by simply repeating the character for “tree” two and three times? Given a splash of imagination, the meaning is evident within the picture itself. Such combinations can occur within one kanji like so, or across multiple kanji, such as with 入れ歯, which combines meanings for “to enter/to put in” and “teeth” to make “dentures.”

    It makes sense to look at kanji first, because they came first. Like so many other cultural aspects of Japan (and greater Asia), written language traces its heritage back to ancient China. Beginning in the 5th century, Japanese started adopting the characters of visiting Chinese merchants and missionaries. Prior to this, they had no formalized writing system of their own, contrasting the ~2500 years of written Chinese. So great was China's influence that the “civilized” wealthy men of Japan studied for years to read and write in Chinese, leaving the other, evolving variants of Japanese to women and the less educated masses.

    The problem with this, however, was that the two languages don't share any sort of grammatical structure. As Chinese script flowed into the country, Japanese had an overwhelming body of conceptualized characters to choose from, none of which they could pronounce without years of training, nor which captured the basic framework that makes a Japanese sentence coherent. The solution? Simply to “steal” the meaning of characters for their own purposes and apply a new, Japanese pronunciation to each one. Almost every kanji in Japanese writing has origin in a Chinese “hanzi.” For example, writing 火represents fire in both languages, despite different pronunciations. This means that any literate Chinese person could function quite capably here, provided they needn't speak... Meanwhile, I'm largely illiterate and quite jealous, hah!

    Those meanings (and a large number of cognates associated with them) are where the similarities end, however. Because Japanese features concepts like tenses and conjugations which Chinese lacks, further modifications evolved over time. Namely, two identical-but-not-identical syllabaries known as 'hiragana' and 'katakana'. It’s probably important to clarify what a “syllabary” is before I go on. As English speakers, we’re accustomed to a an alphabet, in which each letter can stand perfectly fine on its own as an “a, h, m,” and so on. Japanese, on the other hand, in its most basic form is divided into syllables. The same vowels “a, e, i, o, u” exist (albeit in ‘aiueo’ order), but a solitary “m” simply makes no sense. Instead, select consonants are combined with the vowels (i.e.: ma, mi, mu, me, mo) to make the building blocks which form larger words.

    And this, in essence, is the role of both hiragana and katakana: to depict these phonetic blocks, which in turn perform a variety of grammatical functions. To continue in the above “m” theme, 「ま、み、む、め、も」and 「マ、ミ、ム、メ、モ」represent “ma, mi, mu, me, mo” in hiragana and katakana respectively. If certain characters, like ‘mo,’ look similar to you, they should. In fact, both scripts evolved as shorthands for reading and writing Chinese texts, particularly for Buddhist monks in their daily recitations (religion, yet another ancient export of China). Complex kanji were stripped down to their most basic skeletons and over time standardized and accepted as legitimate scripts. Often times these shorthands derived from the same “parent” kanji, explaining their similarity: it’s fairly easy to find the “mo” within 「毛」.

    That said, it's important to note that one pronunciation of 毛 IS “mo,” and it can just as easily be represented as 「も(う)」 Every kanji has corresponding pronunciations that fit into the “easier” system of the syllabaries. So why not do away with kanji altogether and make things simpler? Well, for one, Japanese text has no “space bar” function (and very limited punctuation, for that matter), so switching to a singular script would make things quite difficult indeed to tell whereonewordstopsandthenextbegins. More importantly, the lack of structural variety that comes with using syllables rather than individual letters results in fewer physically capable sounds in Japanese than in English. The language simply does not contain many unique combinations of letters. Among other things, this means that homophones and similar-sounding words are abundant. The word “jishin,” for example, means both self-confidence and earth quake. It's probably a good idea to clarify which one you're talking about, but written in hiragana or katakana the meanings would be indistinguishable...

    Enter kanji! In using the distinct characters 自身and 地震, the confusion is avoided. Well, that is, if you understand kanji, including the over TWENTY ways to write our good friend “mo.”.. Multiply that by all the other letters, and factor in that most kanji have at LEAST two different readings, and you can see how this might get difficult..

    Okay that got pretty dense, forgive me, but there's just a little bit more. Because even if Japanese must have both kanji and a phonetic script, why the heck does it need TWO of the latter? This is where it gets fascinating (for me). After morphing slowly over the years, each now plays a defined role, with hiragana in particular serving as grammatical “markers” that I won't get into here. What I will, however, is how the origin of a word affects the script in which it's written.
    As a general rule the majority of words are written in kanji, which you'll remember comes from Chinese. A large percentage of words themselves are Chinese in origin as well, after adapting the pronunciations to better fit the Japanese tongue. Next comes hiragana, used for many general phrases and prepositions, like “little by little,” “the other day,” and “thereabouts.” It's also used for distinctly Japanese things, like native foods, creatures and certain customs. Last and most dynamic, katakana is used almost exclusively to write "loan words" - those words borrowed (abundantly) from other languages and adopted into Japanese. It's also used to write foreign nouns, like パーカーハミルトン、paakaa hamiruton, my name.

    The part that fascinates me is that altogether this means that a page of Japanese text (or indeed, a conversation) is not simply a randomized jumble of scripts. Rather, it is a living, breathing history of all the influences to enter the country. Going all the way back, what was Japanese like before Chinese influence? We have very little idea, since it was a strictly spoken language before foreign tools arrived to put it into writing. Now close to 40% of vocabulary has direct Chinese origin.

    Going forward, who were the first Europeans to touch soil on the islands? Portuguese, in the 16th century. As a result, to this day people visit the supermarket to buy パン、which spells 'pan,' meaning bread. Until that introduction, bread simply didn't exist in Japan, and thus its name hails from Portuguese. Later, after the borders reopened in the mid 1800s, a wave of Westerners broke upon Japan, bringing with their languages new concepts of economic and social roles developed during the Industrial Revolution. That's the reason you'll see so many signs nowadays advertising openings for アルバイト, arubaito, or part time jobs: it comes directly from “arbeit,” the German word 'to work.'Interestingly, it was also during this period that horizontal, left-to-right writing was introduced on a large scale. Now half of my textbooks open the same way they do in Florida, and the other half open from the “back” cover, and read vertically, right-to-left, in the traditional fashion.

    And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the language du jour since the end of WWII has overwhelmingly been English. The coincidence of American occupation with an increasingly global economy increasingly dominated by Americans cemented English's place in Japanese society, to massive effect. An example: native Japanese words rarely start with 'P,' and so a dictionary from 100 years ago would be unlikely to have many 'P' words. In my modern pocket dictionary, however, on a 'P” page of sixy-seven entries, SIXTY were imported directly from English. For the most part, the English pronunciation is merely adapted to fit the appropriate syllables, with words like 'pasuwaado' for password, and 'petto' for pet. Others get more creative, like 'pasokon,' a shortening of “personal computer,” or my personal favorite: “piiaaru.”.. Which is a literal import of the acronym PR, and the way to refer to “public relations” here.

    English is borrowed so profusely that sometimes I feel like I'm living in some sort of bizarre alternate universe, in which I sit at the 'teburu' (table) in front of the 'terebi' (television) eating my 'hanbaaga' (hamburger) while I watch 'baraitii shouzu' (variety shows). The part that gets me is that Japanese are gradually losing the ability to distinguish when a word comes from English. I've been asked how to say “supin-offu” (spin-off) and “shoto-stupu” (short stop) in English, among many other more conspicuous words. Sometimes it's snuck into hybrid words, like “ha-burashi,” which despite first glances does not mean hairbrush, but instead slaps the Japanese word for 'tooth' in front of English 'brush' to make a new word for toothbrush. Occasionally this willy-nilly language nabbing makes me indignant, like some kind of Ancient Roman waking up in modern day Italy and wondering what sort of nonsense everybody seems to be babbling in “his” language... Okay, it's really different from that.. But the image does highlight my own hypocrisy: namely, that English, too, borrows exhaustively from other languages, despite general ignorance of where many words originate.

    I could keep musing, but the length of this entry is getting just silly and I need to sleep. No doubt you'll appreciate the respite as well. I'll finish on one last bit of food for thought, though, for those who've read this far: that you should be very, very, very grateful. Not because you've been graced with my ramblings, rather because you've had the capacity to read them and understand their tone and quirk and meaning. Living abroad has given me a new country to call home, but it's also illuminated many things to appreciate about my first home, perhaps most critically my native ability to speak English. Every single inbound student in my district has a working knowledge of English, but only the four Americans spoke it from birth. The others had it crammed into them through years of effort and schooling. I have (at least) one English lesson a day here, spent listening to my classmates struggle. They have to, because English is THE international language, and thereby imperative in a shrinking world. I'm very blessed to have learned it in the easiest way possible.

    And for many other things as well, for which I'll quickly give thanks here and try to post again sooner. Thanks to all!
    またね~


  • Parker, outbound to Japan

    As 2014 draws to a close, I find it especially fitting that New Year's is the biggest holiday here in Japan. Various ceremonies and traditions cast off the shackles of the year past, and celebrate the untarnished year in waiting. Temple bells toll 108 times leading up to the stroke of midnight, releasing the year's transgressions of the 108 sins of Buddhism. Friends, neighbors, and business partners exchange postcards in the hopes of continued pleasant relationship. Most everyone spends the first three days of the year with family, enjoying time off from work or school. These things and more apply to me, because after the festivities wrap up I'll switch host families and leave the home I've lived in for over four months...

    But before getting into all that, I want to list a bunch of cultural observations I find interesting! With a bit of research it's easy to discover customs like the taking off of shoes indoors, but in my experience many interesting differences are largely inaccessible until witnessed firsthand. With that in mind, here we go:

    - Pretend there is a person down the street, and use your hand to motion for that person to “come here.” Now motion for a nearby person to “go, shoo!”... Yeah, these are different in Japan. The motion you may have used for “shoo” -a flicking of the hand turn downwards- that means“come here.” Needless to say I had a lot of confused moments for a while, wondering what I'd done to make teachers and adults so angry. Turns out I'm just in the wrong place a lot.

    - I mentioned that 2015 is upon us, but just as easily might have said the year 27. Documents here will be dated with one or the other. Why? Because the current Emperor Akihito ascended to his title 27 years ago, after Emperor Hirohito died. From that point onwards, the country entered a new “age,” and accordingly reset the year to one. Interestingly, Hirohito will never be referred to as such here, because after death emperors are posthumously renamed to their corresponding era. He is thus referred to as Emperor Showa, to match the 64 years of the Showa Era he reigned. “Reigned,” however, somewhat overstates his level of political authority, as the revised Japanese Constitution drafted under United States occupation after WWII diminished the position to less than that of UK's figurehead monarch. Despite this, the emperor remains a revered “face” of Japan.

    - Japanese people LOVE vending machines. It seems that way, at least, from the sheer abundance of them. On the five minute bike ride home from school, I pass no fewer than eleven. From my experience, if in a place people exist, so too do vending machines. Riding around at midnight through the crop fields of a sparsely populated Okinawan island, I saw a solitary light glowing distantly. Lo and behold, upon closer inspection it was a vending machine. With no buildings or other signs of population in sight, I bought hot cocoa (yes, hot), and enjoyed it like some sort of creepy, oddly delicious scene out of a Steven King novel. Vending machines have everything from Red Bull to corn soup to chocolate milk and everything in between, always priced reasonably, and never out of stock.

    - Almost without fail, Japanese people BACK into their parking spaces. It matters not where or when or how crowded the place in question might be, when it's time to park, it's time to put on the hazard lights and back into that puppy... Erm.. Poor choice of words, blame it on English disuse... In any event, it's not uncommon to see entire parking lots of cars facing uniformly outwards. Imagine a typical setup, with opposite-facing parking spaces sharing a common “backbone” of a white line. Even if the lot was completely empty, I'd bet most cars would back into a space per usual, forgoing the opportunity to pull through the center line to achieve the same ends. I've witnessed it.

    - Do you know your own blood type, exactly? If the answer is no, you're like me and rather un-Japanese in that regard. Everyone knows their blood type here. On more than one occasion the question has been posed to me as a conversation starter (didn't get far). It's as integral a part of self identity as eye color... Which, now that I think about it, is a bit of a nonfactor for the homogeneously brown eyed population of Japan. Huh.. A cultural substitute of sorts?.. Either way, everyone knows whether they're A or B, positive or negative, etc. As for anyone who answered yes to my original question, can you go further and name the blood types of all your family members? If yes, congratulations! If no... it's okay, don't cry, just join me in ignorance.

    - Japanese cars drive on the left side of the road... Wait, but I thought that only applied to places with a history of British rule? Wrong, but semi-related. The first reason for leftiness dates back to the Edo period (1600-1867) I described in my last post; a time when samurai and sword-bearing folk frequented the roads. Because most of said folk were right handed, their scabbards hung on their left hips. The better to defend against approaching attacks, samurai thereby took to walking on the left side of roads. This also avoided the incidental bumping of scabbards between opposing traffic, a problem with a pesky tendency to escalate into dueling and death... Britain enters the picture in the late 1800s, when newly opened Japan strove to rapidly modernize and westernize. The UK won the contracting rights to build Japanese railways, and continued their custom of left-sided transportation.

    This both solidified the existing tendencies and ensured a thoroughly left-minded society that continues today. The “up” direction on escalators and stairs consistently occupies the left half, which resulted in a lot of awkward moments until I finally assimilated... The significance of this for those living in Florida? Not much, except that you really ought to watch out for me when I'm back behind a wheel again.

    - At the risk of exhausting the subject, one more directionally related tidbit: Japanese timelines run from right to left! This forced some questioning of things I'd never given a second thought. Why am I so mentally conditioned to visualize the passage of time as a left-to-right movement, and who decided that was the “correct” way represent it? Different cultures write in different fashions and from different directions, so it shouldn't be so large a leap to extend that difference elsewhere. Time isn't a human invention, only the way we perceive and represent it is. Regardless, I'd never considered the concept, and it's interesting to imagine where other cultural, mental distinctions like that might lead...

    But even more regardless, time has indeed passed and I'll be with a new family in few days. It's difficult to describe without sounding melodramatic... Rotary gave ample and appropriate warning about homesickness, but they failed to mention that it might extend beyond your biological family. Although I've lived in Japan for less than five months, the relationships I've formed here are very real and very strong.

    Japan is not an easy place to make friends with peers to go out with after school or on the weekends. Everyone goes to school, then to their respective clubs which often end quite late and practice 6-7 days a week. Combined with the heavy emphasis on studying, this means that Japanese teens don't often “hang out” in the way I'm accustomed to in the United States. Rather, social circles are largely dominated by the club of choice, with other get-togethers occasionally happening on weekends. This isn't a complaint as much as an explanation; it's simply the way it's been in the very small bubble of my experience, and those of several other exchange students, past and present.

    I only mention it to show how the potential problem is largely negated through the presence of my host family. In fact, upon typing that I had to go back and insert the word “host,” as I'd forgotten it as I so often do. That's telling of the way we act on a daily basis: they are my family and my constant source of conversation and laughter. As my ability to understand daily conversation has increased, especially since December, I feel assimilated in a way that I never expected.

    As the month progressed, I often found that the highlight of my day was simply to come home, and share a long conversation with my host mom as we prepped, ate, and cleaned up dinner. It became a ritual of sorts. And while my kitchen skills improved slightly (Japanese knives are out of this world), my communication skills improved greatly, to exciting results. We've shared shared stories about family trips gone wrong, discussed philosophy (albeit in pretty broad terms), traded our dream locations to live. She's motivated me to get back on the Judo horse after several injuries.

    As a family we poke fun at one anothers' tendencies, like the sleepyhead 19 year old, and the exasperation it causes the constantly nagging mom. That same mom nags and laughs at me, and my unprecedented ability to lose and forget my belongings, everywhere. I've cracked up at family banter, like when my host dad told his oldest daughter to tell the sleepyhead to get out of the bath, and she replied, “tell her yourself.”

    But all the above and more took place in the home, often sitting in the same chair around the same table. It doesn't include the countless excursions and day trips both large and small that have peppered my stay. We've been to museums and aquariums, theaters, sky towers, rotary functions and dinners, grocery stores aplenty. We've shared just about every type of cuisine. We've visited an “onsen,” or hot spring bathhouse (the sexes are separated), and accordingly gotten quite naked together... Thrice. That tends to throw away some barriers.
    I could keep listing, but it wouldn't capture the little moments, like high-fiving and giggling through panted breaths after running from the parking lot all the way into the train cabin right as the doors shut. Or napping contently on the way back home from grandma's house in the car, then settling down to watch Finding Nemo in Japanese together.

    Those aren't moments that happen while living in a hotel, or among strangers. Those are moments of a family, and I'm so lucky and grateful to have joined the Shimamura family this past year. They've shaped my my stay completely, so hopefully I managed to touch their hearts a bit in return along the way. My host mom has teared up once already at the prospect of my leaving, so I think it's safe to say I did...

    It's not goodbye, though, not yet! I'll drop in every now and again, the time has come to start the process over and do better. It's just another extension of the New Year: a new family, new conversation, new routine. This month marks the halfway point of my exchange... That's motivation enough to squeeze every-thing out of every-day! I'm excited for 2015, and the challenges ahead.

    Thanks again to Rotary and the Deerwood Club for making this stay possible.

    - But that's it for now, so bye, and あけましておめでとうございます!(Happy New Year)


  • Parker, outbound to Japan

    Hello all!
    Another month has gone by, and I suspect each of these entries will open with disbelief in that fact. My mantra for this exchange has been 'One day at a time,' which when translated for my host mom became something like 'Every day is a new day. Don't worry about tomorrow or next week, only today.' That's well and good, but tomorrow and next week have a habit of coming regardless, and as I write this it's hard to believe that Thanksgiving has come and gone, and with it, my one hundredth day in Japan... Time flies! But they say time flies when you're having fun, and it's impossible to deny the truth in that. This has been one of the busiest Novembers in memory, so I'll try to go over a few of the highlights.

    The month began with a bang, going to a festival with four other inbound friends and sharing every available food, including roast squid on a stick. This was followed by a 15 kilometer charity walk and a barbeque where I taught everyone the game Ninja, learning to my ironic unsurprise that despite its name the game is unknown here. Over the following weeks I watched a Blue Angels-esk airshow and a traditional Japanese play, went to the Disney Sea theme park and an aquarium, and harvested fresh vegetables on a farm. One high point included delivering the introductory speech for the inbound students at my district convention, in Japanese, then celebrating together with an evening of karaoke… And these things are just the tiniest snippet of what goes on in one month of exchange!

    I could go on describing all the experiences, but I’d never do them justice. Instead, I’d like to take a small look at culture. Doing that will take a little explanation, though, so settle in folks for a history lesson! This goes back to the year 1600, when the Battle of Sekigahara in central Japan effectively determined the fate of the country for the next 250 years. In the absence of a unified ruler, opposing warlords rallied under the two flags of Tokugawa and Hideyoshi, representing eastern and western power, respectively. Long story short, the east won and power was centralized in the infant town of Edo. That town would one day grow to become Tokyo, the world's most populous metropolitan area boasting upwards of 38 million people... including me!

    It's an absolutely fascinating chunk of history, but the part I want to focus on is the extreme isolationist policy implemented by the shogunate from 1633 until 1853. Upon penalty of death, no foreigner was to enter the country, nor was any Japanese to leave. The flows of foreign literature and news were extinguished, and commoners and elite alike were kept largely ignorant of the world beyond the shores. In an era of global emergence and industrialization, Japan was wholly incubated in a feudalistic bubble, set aside. The result of this, aside from complete control, was the fostering of many of the accessibly “Japanese” practices we know today. Sushi, sumo, haiku, geisha culture, kabuki theatre: these things and many more found their popular birth during the isolationist period. Free from foreign influences, an exceptionally unique society flourished.

    Further than this, though, and where it applies to me, is the demographical impact of the time. While much of the world entered the first stages of globalization and experienced the shifting of populations that accompanied it, Japan's demographics remained unchanged. Although the borders have since been open for over 150 years (I've yet to be detained), the precedent was nonetheless set: the current population is 98.5% native Japanese... That is a wild statistic, to me. Perhaps the effect is magnified because of my own heritage as an American, and beyond that as a mixture of varied European lineage. Japan has no Ellis Island, no storied legacy of worldwide immigration; rather, quite the opposite. Its borders were sealed for a time span roughly equal to the age of the United States itself. Think about that, for a moment.

    The effects of this fundamental difference are far reaching. Because foreign faces are so scarce here, the sight of one often induces double-takes. For instance, attending a high school judo regional for my area (a story in itself), I nearly froze the warm-up dojo as I entered. The students were flabbergasted that a white person was wearing the appropriate gear and practicing some of the very same techniques they were. This staring was not meant in an offensive way, but was merely the result of intense curiosity: I'm quite confident I was the first white student to use the facility for judo since its inception. I'm also certain I am the first white person that most of my classmates have interacted with, ever.

    Perhaps the best example comes from my very first day in the country. On the other side of customs, I was greeted by my new family and rotary district... as well as a horde of television cameras and microphones! They were part of a program that airs weekly on the biggest network in Tokyo, called “Why did YOU come to Japan?” The crew waits outside of international terminals and approaches interesting looking people (thanks, Rotary blazer) to inquire their reasons for coming. A few stuttery Englapanese (my version of Spanglish) sentences were choked out as I tried to process what in the world was going on. Aside from being an overwhelming and hilarious first adventure, it also illustrates the point I'm trying to make: foreigners are altogether rare, fascinating, and... well, foreign.

    And in case I'm painting a negative picture about all this, let me dispel that now. Although it can be admittedly tiresome at times, being an anomaly is a good thing. Thus far, I've categorized people who meet me into two basic groups: those who light up with WOW!, and those who stare for a moment and then avert eye contact. The first is accordingly easy to navigate, as the same questions are repeated and answered as they have been for months now. Eyes inevitably grow wide as I respond in Japanese quite capably.. But don't be fooled, I'm not fluent, not nearly. I've just gotten REALLY good at saying where I come from and what I'm doing, because I've had the same dialogue a hundred times! My very existence amazes, and incites requests for photos together (don't worry, said photographs show that my head has not, in fact, gotten bigger). Once, riding my bike home from school and passing a huddled group of college-age kids, a cautious "Hello?” called out behind me as they anxiously tested their English. My wave in response triggered an avalanche of amazement that they had successfully communicated with a gaijin, or foreigner.

    And while these instances remain a consistent source of both entertainment and easy conversation, I've found that I often appreciate the second group, the shy one, even more. Because in 99 cases out of 100, the Japanese person acting a bit shy and closed off is in actuality quite interested as to what you're all about. The trouble is that with little to no gaijin experience to fall back upon, they simply have no idea how to approach you. This, coupled with a distorted “us and them” mentality propagated by general news outlets (hmm, that part perhaps not so different from the United States) as well as television shows like my interview, mean that many are unsure as to what you truly represent.

    The solution is again twofold, with the first and most obvious step being to LEARN their language. You cannot expect to make meaningful relationships if within your conversations the native person is the participant reaching to express themselves in a foreign tongue. As you were the one who chose to come into their country, it's your responsibility to learn how to express yourself in kind, not the other way around. The process is frustrating, tedious, belittling, humorous, empowering, and altogether incomparably rewarding. With each step, a new door opens to make and expand relationships with those around you. Through conversation, beyond the introductory level, one uncovers a more relatably 'human' side to faces that once seemed distinctly different. The side that holds personality, individual quirks, laughter, sadness, pain; the side that is eager to share stories or gorge on a favorite food or help a friend in need.

    Because for all the many cultural differences, sometimes the things that astound me the most about living here are the human qualities and experiences that seem to transcend culture. Like sitting in a private room of an upscale restaurant with about fifteen people, honoring the anniversary of my host-grandfather’s death, and having half the table play the “Can youuuu touch your nose with your tongue??' game. Or watching my host father wrestle with the family dog in the exact same way that my dad does at home, or listening to people talk to her in the same sing-song voice that the world has decided applies to cute babies and animals alike. Or conspicuously glancing around to discover that the combination of intermission feast, dark room, and theatre appears to be a global recipe for droopy eyes... and contentedly succumbing to its power.

    These things and more all point to the second way to make connections: exploring the personal similarities and differences as a means of facilitating conversation. It's a bit like looking at a “Culture Venn Diagram.” Some things occupy totally separate circles, and some things fall in the common section between. Discovering and discussing what lies where is a game that will never grow old for me.

    One memory that stands out involves a boy in my class who I've affectionately dubbed Quiet-But-Nice-Baseball-Kun (in the same way that “-san” is used in place of Mr., “-kun” is a blanket term given to boys. Call me Paka-kun, if it please you). Quiet-But-Nice-Baseball-Kun does have a name of course, but Japanese names largely remain a mystery to me. Anyway, one day eating lunch I noticed him sitting engrossed in a book filled with pictures of the Beatles. Upon inspection it turned out to be a complete songbook with every Beatles song ever composed, written in English on one page and Japanese on the next. Amazing! He shared an earphone with me, and together we followed along with the lyrics to various songs, something he told me he does for English practice. The next day in music class, during a section of free time I sat down with him and taught the chords for Hey Jude, then wrote out the lyrics and how they corresponded to the strumming pattern. By the end of the class we were slowly playing and singing together. He told me his love for the Beatles came from his dad, and that he couldn't wait to tell him all about that day... That was a pretty magical moment. An interaction so little as that, fifteen minutes spent teaching one of the simplest songs around, formed a bond I know I can call upon for conversation. He has since recommended to me some Japanese artists, thus confirming to me both that the boy-band era is alive and well here, and that I'm soo okay with that fact.
    But really, therein lies what's special about this whole program called the Rotary Youth Exchange. Because while that name refers to the physical trading of students all across the world, its meaning can and should be taken further. This is an exchange, in all senses of the word. Just as everyone I meet impacts my stay and understanding of Japan, so too do I inevitably form impressions on the people around me. That’s both an honor and a responsibility, because in contrast to the multitudes of Japanese people available to interact with, on a regular-day basis I am the only American available to interact with. How I compose myself therefore does not speak only for me but also for those who sent me. And that’s why I love the concept of exchange, because how cool is it that I get to represent the United States?
    Naturally, as I strive to present the best that America has to offer, I’ve taken to wearing Jaguars apparel as much as possible… Truly, though, I love sharing stories and cultural tidbits from home. I’ve found that one of the best ways to do this with the host family is through food: no matter where you live, everybody eats, right? With this in mind, while also combatting the painful dearth of Tex-Mex fare, I held a seminar on burrito folding earlier this month. More recently, as a thank you to my host mother for her birthday and a means of sharing tradition, I cooked a full spread on Thanksgiving. With mac & cheese, green beans, stuffing, roast chicken, and brownies with ice cream, it was the result of a lot of planning. I was thrilled with how it went, and not only because the food turned out well. Rather, because during a time that Rotary warns is prone to home-sickness, I found myself fully integrated into a new home, sharing a table and talking and laughing without any forced or stilted feelings.
    Before the meal began, I asked my family if since I honor Buddhist traditions at various temples and the grandfather’s altar, they would join me in a small Christian one on Thanksgiving. Everyone holding hands with eyes closed, I said a little prayer. Afterwards, I explained that while the thanks were indeed to kami-san (literally ‘Mr. God’), they were undoubtedly directed to them as well. I still can’t wrap my head around how kind and generous these people are, much less adequately express those things here. I’ll simply say that I’m very thankful.
    I’ll then extend that to the many people who made the above possible: thank you so much for all of your support. It won’t go wasted, I promise.
    With that, I’ll wrap up this novel. Thanks again, and I’ll try to post here again in a month or so. – bye bye!

  • Parker, outbound to Japan

    As I write this, I mark TWO months of living in Ageo, Japan. What!? It seems like just yesterday I was getting on a plane to come here... for the second time (refer to Blaine Kinne's page for an excellent account of this)! I've been to so many new places, met so many new people, and there's altogether too much to ever fit into words.

    For starters, I've climbed a mountain, navigated a subway labyrinth, been interviewed on Tokyo's largest TV network, ridden rollercoasters in the shadow of Mt. Fuji and eaten octopus stew for breakfast. I've visited ancient Buddhist temples, run a 200m dash, baked a carrot cake, fractured a thumb and napped in a hammock. I've had my leg hair petted on numerous occasions, made friends from every inhabited continent, and discovered the joys of both Japanese toilets and convenience store foods (note: the two are not related). Oh, and started learning how to speak a different language! That's perhaps the most exciting part of all.

    ​At a loss to choose any particular event, I've decided to instead to describe my daily life here. This only scratches the surface, but hopefully it gives a little picture of what it's all like!

    My average day here goes a little something like this:

    ​Wake up at 7:30, and throw on my school uniform from where I left it the day before. Groggy, head to a breakfast of many little assorted plates. These might include sauteed veggies like cabbage and bean sprouts, some scrambled eggs, a few little mini hot dogs, a left-over from the previous night, a main dish (today's was a fish filet), some fruit, and of course the obligatory bowls of white rice and miso soup. Sometimes I look up with a “huh? Why are there so many plates right now?” But really that reflects the Japanese attitude towards food: rather than massive portions of two or three dishes, a variety of small portions is the norm.

    ​Next, get ready and head out on my bike to school. If I'm late and rushing(typically the case), I can make it in about 5 minutes. The gate closes everyday at exactly 8:25am,which has led to some interesting scenarios in the event of showing up at 8:26! I park it in my class's designated section of the enormous bike bay, one of several around campus. The first bell rings at 8:30, at which point I've climbed the stairs to the fourth and top floor, taking my seat in classroom 2-3, seat 41. I sit in the very back left corner by the window, and on the clearest days can see Mt. Fuji!

    ​Unlike the United States, each classroom is specific to the students inside it, not the teacher. Every period, a new teacher cycles through the classroom for 50 minutes. Also, each day of the week has a unique schedule of classes, as opposed to the uniform schedule of Florida. My classes include Japanese , Japanese History, Ethics, Health, Math, two English classes, and several others. I do have a homeroom teacher (who conveniently teaches English), but I only see him at the very beginning and end of each school day, or when he teaches our class. It should also be noted that at the beginning and end of each period, everyone rises for a collective bow of respect. This bewildered me at first, but I now find it completely normal.

    ​My participation varies by class: some teachers make efforts to struggle out a few words in English, but much of the time I'm left to my own devices. Classes like world history are convenient, because often times the material is review for me. Written in Katakana, one of the three Japanese alphabets, foreign names are spelled entirely phonetically. Trying to read this usually results in the following: “Ko...Konsuta.. sutanti.. nopuru... Konsutantinopuru... OHH, Constantinople!!” Rinse/repeat for anything of Western origin. Most of the time, I self study Japanese during class, and occasionally go to the library during lessons over-my-head like Japanese Classics (ya know, casual stuff from around the year 1000).

    ​Lunch is eaten in the classroom, in peculiarly gender segregated clusters. None of this is enforced, but Japanese students and boys in particular tend to be a little bit shy towards the opposite sex. On days I buy lunch, I eat in the lunchroom, and randomly choose a lucky(?) group to plop down next to. These conversations, especially with the senior students, are always the most fun! Outside of the classroom setting, they tend to open up a bit more and ask fun, semi-extremely-inappropriate questions. Nice!

    ​After lunch follows a few more classes and then the school day wraps up and continues onto “Bukatsu,” which essentially translates to “activity club.” With a wide variety of sports, music, and arts clubs available, I naturally decided to spite my nonathletic nature and choose Judo! Developed in Japan, Judo combines traditional martial arts techniques with wrestling. The sport is centered around throwing your opponent to the straw mat floor and pinning him/her for twenty seconds. Because of this, we practice various means of grappling, twisting, and forcing a partner to the ground. Beginning each practice with a deathly array of flippy-somersaulty-handstandy warmups, I was pretty pathetic the first few weeks. I'm still the worst by far, but can now (sort of) walk on my hands for a few steps! So that's exciting! Judo is tough, but rewarding, and the small atmosphere of the seven member club ensures that I receive one on one attention, and that I have plenty of opportunities for talking with kids my own age.

    ​From there, it's a five minute ride home and I'm greeted at the door by one of my best friends here. No, it's not a human, it's a little toy poodle. As one avowed against small dogs back home, I must admit that I've been somewhat swayed.. As it turns out, little dogs and even poodles can be amazing. Monica is probably the most human-like animal I've ever met, with incredibly expressive eyes and a passion for bananas.

    ​The house is usually empty except for my host mom and I. Honestly, I'm fine with this! She has undoubtedly been the largest influence on my exchange thus far. Kind, patient, thoughtful, she never begrudges a question or hesitates to help. My host mom absolutely provides my most consistent amount of language practice. While both daughters are semi-proficient in English, she is largely not. This is a good thing! Sometimes she can't hold back a chuckle when explaining something to me and receiving naught but a blank stare in return. This occurs in in the opposite direction too, so I know what she's experiencing! Rather than get frustrated over the language barrier, we talk and laugh all day long. Smartphones are a godsend for accessible communication: exchange students before the modern era, I don't know how y'all did it..

    ​Despite being shooed off a few times, I try to help out around the house as much as I can. This usually means setting and cleaning the table around meals, but when I get the opportunity I try to cook as much as possible. Everything is so delicious! I want to retain as much as I can for cooking back home in the States.

    ​After dinner, often just us two, the others start to trickle in after long days at school/part-time jobs/full-time jobs. The family room is just that: the room in which the entire family convenes every night, whether it be to watch TV, talk, do things independently, or some of everything. Used to spending a lot of time in my room back home, I actually enjoy the change. Even if everybody is engrossed and working in their own world, we're all together.
    ​Inevitably, the train of bathing starts, and I'm generally given the first slot. Normally this wouldn't be much of anything, but in a Japanese home I've come to realize the politeness of the gesture. The Japanese don't shower and exit, like I was accustomed to. Rather, they shower and clean completely, then take a bath in what's known as an “ofuro.” The catch? The piping hot water is only filled once a day: with a clean body from the shower, there's no need to cycle new water in. In a family of five, this means that the last person is entering water soaked in by the four before them. Now, that concept may seem gross, but after going last several times it ceases to phase you. In fact, the ofuro may be my favorite part of every day. Traditionally, this was practiced to raise internal body temperature before sleep during the winter. The ineffective insulation of the time meant that if you went to sleep cold, you might wake up hypothermic, sick, or maybe not at all. In modern times that's not much of an issue, but it does mean that a peaceful, nightly soak in hot tub temperature waters: no complaints!

    ​From there follows a bit more studying and lounging, and then back down my corridor, through my sliding doors, and into my room. Pitch black at night, the lamp in the center of the ceiling has a hanging cord to turn on. I may or may not compete with myself to grab the cord on my first try... You gotta do what you gotta do to stay amused, sometimes. Getting in my slightly short bed, it's time to sleep, and then back up again at 7:30.

    ​The above is essentially my daily life here. And if it seems prone to monotony after a while, don't be fooled. Every day, amid the rhythm and routine of daily life, special little moments hide and bear reflection. Sometimes they're funny, sometimes sad, or ironic or painfully awkward or just plain fascinating. Not a day goes by without moments that leave me in awe that I am actually here, 7100 miles away from the house I've lived in for 17 years. And what's more, moments that stand testament to just how flexible and malleable the human mind is. Far more quickly than I ever expected, little quirks and habits form, old ones fall off, and my head is upside down with language.

    Rather than simply talking about them, I'll share some of the highlights from an ongoing list on my phone:
    ​Meeting my “grandmother” for the first time and having an instant connection despite the vast language barrier. The 75+ year old woman decides I look like a Cowboy movie star, dubs me “John Wayne,” complete with firing finger-gun signs... I love her!

    ​That one time on the first day of school where 1000 students were standing completely silent in ranks about to sing the school song and my phone went off... Yeahh..

    ​Spending the best dollar of my life to have a homeless man buy me the correct train ticket and send me on my way home.

    ​Trading tongue twisters in respective languages with family over dinner, then teaching everyone how to play blackjack and poker. They'd never played before! We bet with little hard candies (I won!).

    ​Semi-intentionally getting lost on a solo bike-ride through the countryside in the rain, then using a map and compass to find my way to my destination. Savoring the feeling of competency from approaching strangers for directions, understanding and following said directions, and eventually turning back onto my street.

    ​Shaking myself out of a doze to realize that I had just absentmindedly folded a paper crane, while listening to a lecture about Chinese Buddhism, in Japanese. Sometimes it just hits you.

    ​Pouring sacred water on my deceased Grandfather's grave on the Autumnal equinox, and burning incense and praying before his picture and shrine. Learning that his brother was KIA in the Pacific Theater of WWII... Then having a conversation this week with my host mom about the conflict, and how its memory remains to this day.

    Discussed the merits of peace and understanding, and how part of the reason I'm here this year is to change foreign perception of Americans. We are loving, too. She said as much for Japanese people as well: every country has plenty to atone for, but the only thing to do is move forward and try to understand each other.

    ​Oh yeah, and that one time I thought the ashtray was a teapot.

    ​That's just the smallest handful of all the moments that connect each day. Every moment I get here is one to observe, reflect, and internalize. Not to mention have a ton of fun in the process! There's been no shortage of that.

    Being the first, this journal has been mostly descriptive, but there's too much to talk about. Going forward I'll aim for once a month, and talk about some of the (innumerous) differences of life in Japan. Want to send a warm thank you to everyone back home who have supported me thus far and made everything possible!

    Truly, I won't ever forget this year.

    Till next time, take care,

    Jya ne!

    See my bio and photos : http://www.ryeflorida.org/2014-15-parker-japan

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