Alex Rocha


Hometown: Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
School: Suncoast High School
Sponsor District : District 6930
Sponsor Club: Jupiter-Tequesta, Florida
Host District: 2770
Host Club: The Rotary Club of Kawaguchi North


My Bio

こんにちわ!私のなまえはアレクスです。Hello! My name is Alex, and I'm a 10th grade student at Suncoast Community High School in Riviera Beach, Florida and I live in a small city called Palm Beach Gardens with my mother and father. My favorite activities are reading, watching movies, going out with friends, and studying philosophy. Philosophy in particular is one my passions, and I belong to the Philosophy Club at my school. Hopefully, I'll be able to find a similar club at my host school in Japan. I'm an anime and manga fan, and I'll often spend time watching and reading those.

I've always wanted to be an exchange student, particularly to Japan, so one can imagine just how excited I was when I heard that not only was I accepted into the RYE program, but to my first choice country! Although I'm very passionate about understanding other cultures in general, I am especially looking very much forward to immersing myself in the Japanese culture for a year. I have lived in other countries in the past, but never have I lived in such a radically different country like Japan. As such, I hope to be a good ambassador of the American culture during my exchange and to break down cultural stereotypes with the people that I meet. Wish me luck!

The Rotary Four Way Test in Japanese!

The Rotary Four Way Test in Japanese!

This IS normal in Japanese high schools!

This IS normal in Japanese high schools!

Journals: Alex - Japan 2015-2016

  • Alex - Outbound to Japan


    Hello everyone, it's been a while, hasn't it?

    Although the New Year has come and passed, it's hard to believe that it's already Valentine's Day, 2016. It seemed like it was just a few months ago that I came to Japan, but my exchange is already about halfway over.

    Considering the time period from Christmas from to the end of the New Year Festivities is traditionally the most important and festive time of year in the US, I thought it would be a good opportunity to note how the holidays in the US and Japan (including today's very own Valentine's Day) differ.

    While in America, Christmas Day is considered to be quite likely the single most important family day of the year (and not just for Christians), in Japan, it's a day for couples as opposed to family. People often take their significant other out for dates at luxurious restaurants (with reservations weeks in advance), go together to a resort for the weekend, and the like. It's not uncommon for most family members to eat separately from the rest of the family with their partner. Moreover: turkey isn't really available in Japan. They eat KFC on Christmas Eve instead (apparently it was a trend started by foreigners living in Japan wanting to substitute for turkey).

    Instead of Christmas, which is a relatively new holiday in Japan, the more important day of the years-end time period is the New Year, or お正月. Japanese people clean out their houses (similar to spring cleaning, in a way), relatives all gather and have reunions, friends and family party, and many visit shrines and pray for good fortune for the next year. Many people also perform what is known as 餅つき (mochi-tsuki), or "making the rice cake", which is traditionally done around the year-end, and is a ritual which both ties the community together and lets one eat a deliciously-prepared rice cake. Essentially, a large amount of rice is put in a holder, and two men then hit the rice with a large hammer and knead the rice for consistency (about 100 times in total).

    After the start of the new year, people will often first greet people they have not seen since the last year with あけましておめでとうございます, or "Happy New Year!" Traditionally, Japanese people also have two weeks after the start of the new year to go to a shrine for good luck.

    After the New Year, people get back into the regular routine of things until the next major holiday. Valentine's Day, while a day associated with love, is not quite the same here in the Land of the Rising Sun as back home. To begin with, only women give chocolates (usually to men, yes, but often to their friends as well). The favor is returned a month later on White Day, when men give back (a noticeably larger quantity of) chocolate to those who gave them the sweets. Couples may often go on special dates, but it's not required nor necessarily expected, and the gift-giving of chocolate is the main part of the holiday.

    Aside from Japanese holidays, I've been enjoying myself quite greatly in my everyday life here. School life is easy-going and fun in general, but I particularly look forward to the after-school club activities.

    Every week, on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, I attend 書道部, or Japanese Calligraphy Club. Although clubs exist in the US, they rarely hold the cultural or social significance that they do here -- kids often feel school is worthwhile because they get to attend club. To illustrate this, let me make a comparison: In America, every student (and almost every teacher) had to leave the school grounds by four PM, virtually no exceptions. Here in Japan, that limit is often 7 or 8 PM, and most students do, in fact, stay until the latest possible time.

    At first, being at school for such a comparatively extremely long period of time was very off-putting for me, and thus I rarely attended any club. However, I slowly began to realize that this wasn't just necessarily an example of Japanese 頑張り過ぎ(trying too hard, to the detriment of the actor), but that, unlike in the US, people in Japan made their real school friends and felt most themselves within the context of these activities. These activities, to them, weren't really just an extension of school, but a great use of the little free time they had. I realized that if I was ever to really integrate myself into Japanese school culture, I also had to more regularly attend club and for a few days a week, be at school for over 11 hours.

    For American students (and European ones too, apparently), it sounds quite difficult, but for calligraphy at least (I can't speak for the sports clubs, which are particularly intense and practice every day), club is quite relaxing and a good way to de-stress and disconnect from the rest of the day. Japanese calligraphy is intricately connected with the Buddhist tradition of Zen in Japan, and often emphasizes "emptying one's mind to let the words write themselves". Although I'm still quite the beginner at the millennia-long practice, I'd like to continue practicing and learning even after my return to the US.

    For the time being, I'll continue improving my skills and friendships at school here in Japan, and enjoying every day with the knowledge that I truly am lucky to be able to have this incredible experience -- and with the slightly melancholy realization that I only have a few months left in the best year of my life so far.

    To see my home page click HERE

  • Alex, outbound to Japan


    I'm currently in D2770, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, right outside of Tokyo, and arrived the 23rd of August, 2015. It's been a little over two months since I've gone on exchange and quite a lot has happened.

    Experiences had: Having lived in Saitama for over two months now, I can feel that I have immersed myself ever deeper into the culture and lifestyle of Japan. I've gone to all the major cities in Tokyo, such as Akihabara, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Shibuya, Odaiba, and the like, travelled to other prefectures and seen the Japanese countryside, and familiarized myself with my city.

    It's definitely a humbling experience to go and see sights where one thousand years ago, people prayed to local gods and spirits. Similarly, it's breathtaking to see castles that have stood for centuries, or to visit the Imperial Palace, where the royal family (a line unbroken for two millennia) resides.

    Japan is an ancient culture that has long been isolated and free to develop by itself, and thus still has feats of architecture and engineering that are much older than either of my home countries (Colombia and the US). Seeing, touching and feeling these works of art (and of war) puts my existence in perspective. In front of me, there is a piece of culture, a fragment of a nation's emotions, aspirations, and desires, that is much older and ancient than all of the places that I can trace my own heritage back to. That feeling allows me to really appreciate the vastness of the world.

    Feelings: There are definitely ups and downs to exchange. No one has an exchange that's all roses and rainbows, but very few people have exchanges that are truly bad.

    It's all a matter of how one views it. It's easy to believe that after a bad week (or two), that the rest of exchange will be equally unpleasant, or even worse. However, one will often find that, given enough effort and luck, the next day will be much more enjoyable and rewarding. For every boring, bad, stressful, or sad day, there will usually be many more that are good or fun.

    But more than that, the entire experience of exchange makes one grow as a person – seeing new things and meeting new people, allows one's view of the world to expand. Both times, the sad or frustrating and the happy and joyous one, give one a chance to learn and understand.

    Overall, I personally have felt quite comfortable and content (that's Japanese hospitality for you), but I do remember some days where I've felt bored or frustrated. The key is to not let it get to you too much – every day only happens once, after all. Savor the good things and let the bad ones pass.

    Language: Every day I'm here in Japan, I fall slightly more in love with the Japanese language.

    Japanese is what is known as an agglutinative language, which means that (similar to languages such as German or Korean), in Japanese, words are constantly put together to form longer and more complex words. This is usually done by way of adding together kanji (漢字), or a set of about 2000 logographic characters borrowed centuries ago from Chinese. For instance, the kanji 今 (now) and日 (day) can join together to make今日 (today). Similarly, the kanji for Japan (日本) can join with the kanji for person (人) to form “Japanese person/people” (日本人).

    While on that topic, it's a common misconception that the Japanese writing system is impossible for foreigners to figure out. It's true that it's more complex than English, where a simple alphabet is used, but the complexity of the Japanese writing system adds to the character and beauty of the language (while still being reasonable).

    Japanese uses two syllabaries, which are similar to an alphabet, but where each letter/character represents an entire syllable as opposed to a mora, or just a part of a complete syllable. Each of these has 46 characters, with some diacritics added when the sound needs to be slightly changed: さ(sa) → ざ (za). In total, slightly over 100 sounds exist in Japanese, so this system of having one character for every possible sound works quite well (in English, we would need thousands of such characters to adequately express phonetics). However, Japanese also uses a set of logographic characters borrowed from Chinese (common usage include just over 2000 characters).

    This may be daunting for people used to alphabets, but the meaning of these kanji are rationally built. For instance, combining the kanji for “day/sun”日 and “birth” 生 gives “star” 星. The birth of a day is caused by a star, right? As such, learning kanji isn't simply memorizing 2000 (far more in Chinese, by the way) isolated characters, it's building upon less than two hundred radicals (building blocks). Here's another fun example: writing the kanji for “tree” 木 three times gives “forest” 森.

    For those of you thinking about going on exchange to Japan (or Taiwan, where many more kanji are used), or anywhere at all, but are worried about the language: don't worry. Languages can be very different, at times even seemingly bizarre, but they always seem logical to the people who speak them. Problems often arise when trying to think “in English in Japanese [or any other language]”, but this is not because the language is intrinsically difficult, but because we are accustomed to thinking about grammar, vocabulary, and indeed, language in the way that our own native tongues view them. The most significant obstacle is thinking like a native speaker (for instance, in Japanese, thinking more about grammatical particles than about word order, since word order is important in English, but not in Japanese). After that, it's (mostly) smooth sailing. So if worries about the language are making you hesitate to go on exchange, don't worry: you can figure them out.

    Everyday Life: I go to school five times a week, participate in the school's calligraphy club, and spend most of my time either at school, with my host family, or hanging out with friends. And, of course, studying Japanese.

    I go once a week to Rotary meetings (which have provided, I think, a good way to keep track of my progress on Japanese, since I need to give a weekly speech), and about once a week to other, miscellaneous Rotary events.

    Observations about cultural differences: Japan has often been described as a very traditional, rigid, culture. Drawing from its “samurai roots” and its “Confucian culture”, Japan, even in the modern world, is sometimes seen as a rather moralistic, old-style society.

    In some ways, this can be seen as true: respect for authority and one's elders is paramount here, following instructions unquestioningly is the norm, interpersonal respect and distance is highly valued. But in other ways, it's not really true at all: there is often more cultural innovation in Japan, with works of art containing values and actions that are quite contrary to the rigid moralism of traditional societies (or even today's modern world), there are entire cities (literally) dedicated to sex, alcohol, love, and niche artwork that one can go to without being stigmatized by mainstream society, also entire cities dedicated to wild fashion and acute levels of self-expression that would simply be badly seen in other countries (would you really resist the urge to stare at a vampire maid girl walking down the street in the US? In Japan, it can be normal).

    As such, I find that the traditional spectrum of “traditional to liberal” to be inadequate for expressing the character of the Japanese culture – or any culture, for that matter. It's easy to want to divide societies, nations, peoples, and individuals into neat little boxes, “conservative” or “liberal”, but the reality of the world is more complex. People don't think on spectrums, and if they do, they think on so many varieties and quantities of them that any particular one likely has little meaning with regard to the entirety of a culture.

    People are people wherever you go, and the same complexity and richness of personality that one finds in some people in one's native land can easily be found elsewhere as well. Some people are rebellious both in the US and in Japan, some are conservative and genteel, most tend to be in the middle and act accordingly, sometimes preferring one or the other depending on the situation and context.

    In general, it's true that Japan has a tendency to be more conservative and quiet than in the US, but yet this is also a misconception because it implies that the Japanese are always like this, when they can, in fact, show a richness, subtlety, and powerfulness of expression in private (or when drunk) that Americans often simply wouldn't be able to express.

    Final Thoughts: Overall, I'm really quite joyous with regard to my life here in Japan, and truly excited to experience the rest of my exchange!

    Thanks so much to the Rotarians and volunteers who have enabled me to go on this amazing journey and to grow (as I feel I have) as a person -- your efforts have been received with much gratitude. Once again, thank you.

    To see my home page and some photos click HERE

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