I know I'm writing this when I should probably be packing or doing something
else productive (considering I'm leaving in 3 days!), but I just can't seem
to focus. It's strange to think that I will actually be in Japan soon.
Lately I've been wrapping up my summer, saying goodbye to my friends and
family, and getting ready to leave, but it just doesn't seem real. I realize
how much I'm going to miss my parents, my sister, my friends, my dog, and
even how much I'll miss going to college.
I know this year would've been different anyways, having graduated from high
school and going on to university, but somehow I feel like it would've been
the same. It wouldn't have been all that difficult. It maybe even would've
been easy. But now here I am, packing for an entire year, and studying one
of the most difficult languages in the world. I'm facing disbelief,
discouragement, and "helpful" hints from others (don't get me wrong, some
actually are helpful and I'm very grateful for all of the advice!). I've had
to answer the same questions over and over, and I find that I've become safe
and sheltered behind those questions, that my answers have become me, and
I'm soon going to be shaken out of that safety either by turbulence on my 14
hour flight or just plain shock of stepping foot onto Japanese soil. Soon
I'll be answering some of them in Japanese (provided I can understand them).
It's exciting and nerve wracking, but through all of these thoughts, I've
solidified even more in my mind that this is what I want to do. I want to
face these trials, these difficulties; I want to be different than my other
classmates who went on to college (and even the ones that are moving on to
Taiwan, Italy, and Poland), and I want to grasp something more. I want my
chance at the world and to become someone that I had only dreamed of being.
So as I sit here writing this, procrastinating and putting off my last
anxiety attack(s), I'm oddly at peace, because I know that this is what I'm
meant to do. I have to do this. And I know throughout this upcoming year I
may cry, I may wish I were home, I may wonder why in the world I ever
decided to do this, or I may never want to return to Florida. But it's all a
part of this special experience that no one else in the world gets to have.
Sure, there are other exchange students, even exchange students in Japan,
maybe in my city, but ask them and they will tell you that no one has the
same exchange. So this is my year. My own, unique year that I will be
spending in Tome, Miyagi, Japan.
Hopefully I will remember that as I'm standing in the airport on Friday,
buckling under the weight of all of my luggage, wishing I had spent more
time in the gym so I could carry it all.
still hits me sometimes. Iíll be sitting in class and realize, ďwhoa, Iím in
JapanĒ. Iíll be reading a book, or deep in my studies, and be shaken out by
the sounds of everyone around me speaking a foreign language. Itís still
unreal. There was never any shock at the airport, not even on the plane.
When I got here, it still felt like Iíd be seeing my family and friends the
next day. Maybe it was pure exhaustion from the 13 hour time change and the
14 hour flight, but after some rest the first night, it still hadnít
completely sunk in. But here I am. I been living in Hasama, Tome, Miyagi,
Japan for three weeks, and Iíve become so incredibly comfortable with my
lifestyle here, Iíve shocked myself.
Life in Japan is different, but I knew it would be. Eating is
different (chopsticks), foods are different, houses are different, cars and
roads are different, the toilets are different, school is drastically
different, the language, of course, is different, names and books are
backwards, every where you look there is something new, something unfamiliar
to digest. My life has changed so much in such a short amount of time; Iíve
felt so many emotions, met so many people, and heard the word ďkawaiiĒ
(cute) probably a million times. Iíve become accustomed to saying
ďitadakimasuĒ before eating, seeing cars driving on the opposite side of the
road, and taking off my shoes when I enter a building, though not gracefully
as the Japanese do. There are still some things that Iím getting used to:
bowing all the time and the sun going down at 6pm, and I just cannot manage
to slurp my noodles when I eat.
I went to my Rotary club the first week I arrived; however, I only
was allowed to stay for about 15 minutes because it was held during my
school lunch break, and apparently I'm not allowed to miss any classes at
school (even if I'm only going to be sitting in the library). It was all a
blur. I do remember that the Rotary club sings, but of course, it was in
Japanese so the only word I could really make out was "Rotary". Then I gave
my speech, received a yukata (traditional Japanese dress), and was given my
monthly allowance by the club President, and then I was rushed back to
school for 5th period.
School is fantastic. Iíve been in school for three weeks. Itís crazy
being the only non-Japanese student. Everyone knows my name. Everyone. And I
find that I actually quite enjoy the attention! Itís definitely motivated me
to study more, and listen harder to every conversation to pick out the
things I can understand and figure out the words being said. The problem
with Japanese is, you could speak it fluently and still not be able to read
a single thing. Trying to take notes in kanji is... well I can only compare
it to when youíre in math class... trying to draw whatever figure is
important for the particular problem. You keep looking up at the board and
down at your paper, and you think youíve got it just about right, and then
you realize your lines are crooked, youíve drawn it too big or too small,
and it basically looks like something that lives on Elm Street. And everyone
around you seems to write so flawlessly. Itís an art. And a science. Itís
impossible. But Iíve been studying diligently - speaking, reading, and
writing: hiragana, katakana, and kanji.
As far as schoolwork goes, I really havenít done any. The Japanese
students take 14 subjects! And Iím only in about 6 of those classes - one of
which is PE. When Iím not in the classroom, Iím either in the library
studying or in an English class with the ALT (Alternative Language Teacher).
Lunch time is by far my favorite period. We eat in the classroom, not in a
cafeteria, and itís so much fun, even if I donít understand 90% of the
conversation. Iíve found that laughter is a common language, and it doesnít
matter whether you say something right, wrong, in English, or in Japanese,
you can make people laugh.
I know I have more to say. I could talk for hours about Japan and the
things Iíve experienced in my short time here. I already feel a loyalty to
this country; it doesnít threaten the pride I have for being an American,
but I feel that it just fits in harmony with the rest of who I am. I still
have the entire year ahead of me, and I canít wait to see how it unfolds. I
am so grateful to everyone whoís made this possible for me. Thank you from
the bottom of my heart.
Saturday, December 03, 2011
Itís been three months since I arrived in Japan, and I canít believe itís
gone so fast! I feel like Iíve come so far and learned so much, but there is
so much more ahead. If my experience was a real roller coaster, it would
make even those with a iron stomach puke. Language learning is constant, but
there are plateaus. There are days you donít feel like youíve learned
anything. Days you canít understand a word. Days when youíll go without
talking just because you canít. Some days will be good, but it doesnít mean
the next day will be better. There are so many topics of conversation, that
you canít possibly be prepared for all of them! Some days are horrible, some
days are boring, other days I just want to sleep. But the good days are so
worth every bad one. The days when I realize that I understand whatís going
on in class. The days the teacher tells the whole class that my kanji is
beautiful, the days when I have everyone surrounding my desk asking me
questions that I can answer. The days I talk entirely in Japanese without
even noticing. The days I get traditional Japanese clothes, the days we plan
our school trip (which I just got back from), even just when I get my
favorite Japanese food for dinner. The days when my host mom calls me her
daughter, when she tucks me into bed and says ďoyasumiĒ (good night) and
tells me that if I donít want to move to my next host family, I donít have
to go. The lows do suck, but the good days are worth it. Really worth it.
500x better than I ever couldíve imagined. For the first time, even after a
bad day, I sit in my room and truly feel completely happy. For the first
time, I canít think of anything bothering me, Iíve nothing to complain about
except my lack of language skills; I finally feel content, like this is
where Iím meant to be. I feel like I have a purpose here, and even though
itís only been 3 months, I wish it had been shorter because I donít want my
exchange to end. I could live here in Japan forever. Sure, I stick out.
People stare. I donít fit into most Japanes
A few things:
-I just want to point out that itís not only Americans who ask strange
questions to foreign students. Japanese students are really smart, donít get
me wrong, but some of the questions... Iíve been asked if we have stairs in
America; if Christmas is in the summer; if we eat hamburgers every single
-We peel all fruits here, even grapes.
-I suppose my school is special, but we do change classrooms. Not for every
class, but for certain classes.
-Also, in Japanese classes, no one answers a question by themselves. If
youíre called on by the teacher, that means converse with your friends
around you to get the right answer and then you say it. There are certain
classes where this doesnít apply, and it certainly doesnít apply during
tests, but usually, even if they know the right answer, theyíll ask the
-Students are really close to their teachers. Mostly because they spend so
much time at school. School begins at 8:20am and then weíre done around 4,
then, if you have a club activity, you do that until 6:30-7pm, 7 days a
-We donít have substitute teachers. If a teacher doesnít come to class,
students just sit (quietly) and study on their own!
-Most homework is done at school. Students will stay after school to do
homework just because itís most important to be seen at school, even if you
really have nothing to do. The same applies to teachers and business people.
Itís most important to look busy-- and say youíre busy.
-No one is late is late to school.
-I honestly cannot remember which way we open books in America without
looking at one of the books I brought. We use both here, and itís really
-The same applies to driving. No idea which side of the road.
-You take off your shoes when entering a building, pretty much always. I
have three pairs of shoes for school, one for walking there, one for class,
one for the gym.
-There are millions of spiders here. HUGE spiders, but not in the house. I
never see any other bugs (except this thing called a giri-giri), and my host
mom has never once seen a cockroach in her life.
-Boys are a lot more touchy feely with each other. Not so much girls.
-Even Japanese people have problems with chopsticks.
-They really do touch my hair all the time, and tell me how good I am at
Japanese even if all Iíve said is ďIím from Florida.Ē
I feel like no matter what I write, it wonít truly capture all of the
feelings of what itís like to be an exchange student. And Iíve just read
back my first 2 journals, and I realized Iíve written absolutely nothing of
substance, so I'm trying to make up for that with this one. There are ups
and downs and certainly plenty of embarrassing moments, but I wouldnít take
back this decision for anything. It has been hard, especially when you
realize youíve been in a country for 5 months, and you still donít
understand everything, you still canít read kanji, and you still canít
always make yourself understood. I suppose this may specifically apply to
those countries with very difficult languages, but Iím sure that everyone
has felt a little bit of frustration with the language. It hit me again in
another way quite recently. Iíve been trying to keep a journal online in
Japanese an d when trying to translate it back into English, my brain fails
me. Itís not that my Japanese is that great, or that my English is bad; I
think itís just that Japanese and English are such different languages, itís
easier for me to understand if I keep them separate in my head or just use a
mixture of Japanese and English. Maybe thatís more confusing than I mean for
it to be? This also gets in the way when Japanese people (especially my
teachers) ask me what a word is in English, and I say I understand the word,
I just have no idea how to say it in English. And this is all completely
true. I think I just have figured out a way to memorize word concepts or
words from experience instead of just straight out of a dictionary. Itís
honestly necessary when dealing with Japanese, as they may have the same
expressions, but theyíre not used the same way at all. Needless to say, the
language is still one of the biggest things Iím dealing with. I can
understand every single word in a sentence and still not grasp the meaning.
But I have made friends; I can make small talk, and get rid of awkward
silences if I need to. I also just recently made my first speech on the fly.
It sounds weird, but in English, if someone asks me to introduce myself,
itís easy, I can make it up as I go along, but up until now, Iíve always had
some time (even if it was only 10 minutes) to think of a speech or
introduction before hand. But about 2 nights ago, I was told Iíd be
introduced, but not that Iíd have to speak. The woman introduced me,
proceeding to take up all of my usual talking points! Then when she handed
me the microphone, I was shocked. But I proceeded to make one of my most
confident speeches yet, and it made me feel really good!
Changing host families is definitely one of the hardest things youíll do
as an exchange student, at least when youíve had such a positive experience
as I have. My first host family was seriously like my own family, and I
couldnít imagine getting used to new people so quickly. But I am happy to
say that Iíve become part of this family so much faster, and they are some
of the best people Iíve ever known. Itís a little bit different, because I
had 3 sisters at my first family, and here itís just me and my parents, but
it forces me to talk at all times, thus improving my Japanese 10 fold. I
already feel so much more confident when talking, itís amazing. And now when
I do get to see my first family, itís so much more fun because I can talk
with them and play with them and just have a great time. Also, my first host
family was a lot busier, and since moving, Iíve been able to go a lot more
places and meet a lot of new people. This may be in part to my Japanese
getting better (Iíve got the whole ďmeeting for the first timeĒ conversation
down pat), but it is also greatly in part to my host family being amazing.
And now that itís coming up where I have about a month left with this
family, Iím getting that dreading feeling, and I absolutely donít want to
I think the one thing Iíve been asked the most (ďyou didnít speak any
Japanese when you got here?!Ē and ďwhy are your eyes blue?Ē) is what I donít
like about Japan. This is, of course, once you get past all the courtesy
small talk and really get to know someone, so really from friends and
family. The only thing I can really say that I dislike is called ď男尊女卑Ē
which means the suppression of women. Itís not really evident most of the
time, except for when we have assemblies the boys are always in the front,
boys are numbered first in the class, and boys are basically of higher
favor. It didnít really become evident to me in the home until I switched to
my second host family. Disclaimer: in NO way am I badmouthing my host family
AT ALL, itís just completely different. My host mom does all the house work;
my host father is very busy at work, Iíll give him that. But anything he
needs at dinner, my host mom stops eating and gets up and gets it for him,
even if heís the one closest to it. Also, at my first host family we all
waited until everyone was at the dinner table to begin eating. Here, my host
father will begin eating before all the food is on the table, and my mom is
always the last one to sit down. I would be lying if I said it didnít shock
me or make me uncomfortable at first. But I realize itís just a difference
in culture, and my mom doesnít think anything of it. However, boys Iíve
talked to at school seem to be on par with the ďladies firstĒ side of
things, and even though itís not a principle taught in schools or in
culture, it has become quite a natural thing for younger Japanese men.
Seeing snow for the first time has definitely been a highlight of these
last few weeks. I canít believe I made it to 3 weeks short of my 19th
birthday without seeing snow. Itís so cool. Getting hit with a snowball is
not as cool, but actually hurts quite a bit. It actually isnít that cold
here, and now that I have a proper jacket and gloves itís quite bearable. I
found that I quite enjoy the cold weather, so who knows, maybe in the
future...? One downside to the weather is that you seem to get sick easily.
Iím pretty sure Iíve made the joke before in my journal and plenty of times
in real life about Japanese people going to the hospital for everything. You
sneeze once and they ask you if you need to go to the doctor. But I guess
what I didnít realize before is that itís actually a very good practice.
See, Japanese people have amazing health insurance, which takes care of most
of their bills anyways, so why not use it? (My host mom said this to me.)
Itís also improved their life expectancy and makes it that much easier to go
without getting sick, especially because theyíre probably the hardest
workers in the world. So needless to say, Iíve spent plenty of time in
hospitals and doctorsí offices. Not the most fun time of my exchange, but
itís definitely a different! I remember thinking during the Rotary
orientation last year, I never get sick, so I wonít have to worry about that
while on exchange. Boy, was I wrong. Iíve been here almost 5 months, and
Iíve already sprained my ankle, and been sick with fever twice. I donít know
how it happens. Maybe itís a weakened emotional state, maybe itís the cold,
but I now realize that I do not know more than the people in charge of me,
and Iíve been incredibly humbled by these experiences.
I suppose I should devote a chapter to Japanese television. It seems to
be all the rage on the internet with Japanese crazy game shows and quirky
segments, and let me just tell you... itís all true. I absolutely love
Japanese variety shows. Itís so fantastically entertaining. The costumes,
the games, the celebrities, and just the atmosphere of Japanese shows are so
fun. I will never tire of it. I think part of it is thanks to the language
of Japanese. There are just so many ways to say things and in so many tones.
Itís one of the reasons Iíve absolutely fallen in love with the sound, the
words, the script. Of course, there are normal television dramas, and Korean
dramas are really really popular here. Theyíre either dubbed or with
subtitles, and it really made me wonder why we donít have that many foreign
dramas available on television in America. It would definitely be
interesting. Iíve even taking to watching Japanese dramas (with English
subtitles) and improved my Japanese quite a bit. The interesting thing about
Japanese news though, is that itís not really ďJapaneseĒ. Let me explain:
all of the segments and news stories seem to come from the countries news
channel in which the stories are happening. For example, the morning news is
filled with translated news segments from Russia, China, France, America,
England, anywhere there is world news happening. Itís quite different
because it doesnít really seem to focus on the local and country news as
much as it does the entire world. Iím sure Iíd be much more knowledgeable
about current world events/politics if I understood all of what they were
saying! Anyways, I didnít really watch a lot of tv (or any at all) when I
first got here, but now itís a normal thing, and I find itís one of my
favorite ways to study!
Speaking of studying, school definitely takes up the bulk of my time. It
hasnít changed too much from the beginning, except now when teachers direct
questions at me, I can understand and answer them. Itís an awesome feeling
when you can understand the classroom conversation topics, but sometimes
itís really hard to stay focused! The Japanese school year ends in March
(March 1st is the ďseniorsĒ graduation ceremony), and the next year begins
in April. I think we only have about a week or two of break in between, but
no one seems to complain. Itís really different, seeing as Iíve done the
whole ďgetting ready for collegeĒ thing before I came to Japan (and am still
continuing now), I can accurately compare the difference between Japan and
America. Most people still have yet to take the tests to get into their
college. I think itís really weird that they wait so long. Itís not
procrastination either; itís a normal thing to do the college applications
and tests after you graduate. A lot of kids that donít get into normal
college go to a specialty school to get a license to practice a certain
profession; I guess thatís kind of the same as America. The rest of school
is basically the same. Iíve picked up more classes, so Iím in almost all of
them, and when Iím not in class I get to go to the library and study on my
own. Iíve also made a lot of friends, and Iím talking so much more with
people now. Itís really come a long way. Sure, now and then I get really
discouraged; Japanese is such a difficult language, but Iím just going at it
day by day, and the improvement is astonishing. Iím sure I complained about
kanji at one point or another, right? Well now Iím absolutely in love with
it. Not that it isnít completely time consuming and annoying and really
difficult, but itís also really useful! Without knowing the meaning of a
word, you can figure it out by using the kanji. Plus, kanji is so much
easier to read than the other alphabets. I mean, Iíve gotten way better to
where Iím reading quite well, but itís still a much welcomed break when I
get to kanji. I get a lot of kanji practice in classes like biology and
world history (where all we do is write kanji), and itís made it so much
easier to pick apart, recognize, and memorize kanji. Honestly, I donít take
too much time to study kanji because Iíd rather focus on vocabulary and
communicating. But when I email my friends with my cell phone and see a
certain kanji a lot, I end up memorizing it, and itís a great feeling. Of
course it happens the other way around too, when you see a kanji you know
youíve seen a million times and you always seem to forget how to read it!
I remember writing my paper and reading how Japanese is basically the
same and there arenít horrible dialect changes or accents... and I was
completely and totally wrong. Iíve heard about the Tohoku, my part of Japan,
accent, called ďzu zu benĒ, ever since I got here, and only when I went to
Kyoto on my school trip did I actually realize the difference. I mean, Iíve
not been anywhere else in Japan, so I just thought the people around me were
speaking normal Japanese. Once again, very wrong. My current host father has
one of the heaviest Tohoku accents possible. So thatís definitely a
challenge... and itís a challenge I never even fathomed when thinking about
being on exchange. Of course, it makes people who arenít horribly accented
that much easier to understand, but it also means I have to listen extra
hard, and I only understand half the things (if that much) of what my father
says. And he loves to talk; itís only quiet when heís asleep! -- This is an
ongoing joke between me and my host mom! Saying my first phrase with a
Tohoku accent-- had to be one of the funniest parts of my exchange. For the
most part, I speak quite normal, Tokyo area Japanese, but being around this
host family, and talking so much more has apparently had an effect on my
pronunciation. We were all sitting at the dinner table (my dad, mom, older
host brother and his wife) when my mom asked me a question, and I just
replied normally, and everyone at the table stopped and was like ďNO,
RACHEL!Ē I had no idea what they were talking about, and they corrected my
pronunciation because what I had just said was really accented. I hadnít
So now that the holidays are over, I can talk in full about the
experience as an exchange student here. Itís weird because in Japan, they
get all decorated and ready for Christmas, and then it doesnít really
happen. Itís just a normal day, not a holiday. New Years, however, is a huge
thing here. In Japan, Christmas is a time to spend with your boyfriend and
girlfriend, whereas New Years is a huge family affair. First of all, you
write a postcard to every one you know. Not just some people. You literally
write one to everyone you know. My host family literally received hundreds
of postcards on January first. Of course, itís very time consuming to write
and get them all out before New Years, but I still think itís an awesome
tradition. December 30th is cleaning day. Thereís a tradition where they
throw rice into the house to rid it of demons; however, itís an old
tradition, so we didnít actually do any rice throwing, just cleaned every
corner of the house. Unfortunately, after like two weeks, and my room went
back to looking like a hurricane came through. Next, relatives visiting,
mochi cutting, tv watching, and soba eating at midnight. Literally at 12 am
we sat down and had traditional Japanese soba noodles. The next morning,
January 1st, we got up early and headed to a shrine called Chusonji.
Everyone goes to the shrine on January first to give money, pray, and buy
mamoris (good luck charms for the New Year), and also get your yearís
fortune. Mine was really good, by the way. So Iíve now got mamoriís galore,
and my own sarudoshi (year of the Monkey, the year I was born, Chinese
zodiac) bracelet given to me by my older brother. The rest of the holidays
were spent with family, visiting family, eating, and sleeping because we
were all tired from getting up so early in the morning. The best part about
visiting family? Toshidama. Itís basically a New Years allowance that all
the students receive from all of their relatives. I honestly wasnít
expecting to get any money at all, but letís just say, I ended up rich.
Also, since the year just started, every time you see someone you know for
the first time, you have to go through the ritual
「明けましておめでとうございます。今年もよろしくお願いします。」yeah, itís ridiculously long, and there is a
lot of bowing and such. At school and with friends we shorten it to
「あけおめ、ことよろ」or sometimes just 「あけおめ」which is must easier to say.
Anyways, I also just finished celebrating my 19th birthday here in Japan.
Birthdays really arenít a huge thing, but I did get presents; we did have a
cake; I got texts from my friends wishing me a happy birthday, and it was
really quite pleasant. My host motherís birthday was the 3rd (mineís the
5th-January), so we got to celebrate it together, and so that was really
special. Luckily, my birthday was over the winter break, as always, so I
didnít have to go to school.
And the holidays arenít over there! The 14th of January was this years ďdontosaiĒ.
In my city, they do it, well in Japanese they call it ďnakedĒ, but itís
really only like half. Guys are shirtless, women are not. Anyways, they
marched with torches, flags, and bells from one shrine about 500 feet to the
next shrine. Then, at the second shrine, everyone has made a big pile of all
their New Years decorations and such, and itís lit on fire! Of course, since
it was freezing outside (it even began snowing halfway through the parade),
the fire was welcomed by everyone, until it got so big and so hot that
everyone just ran away from it. It was seriously one of the coolest things
Iíve seen. The pile was huge! Definitely a memorable night.
EVERYTHING in Japan is decided by jan ken pon (rock, paper, scissors). It
is the reigning decision maker and it is never debated. Iíve only seen one
time where a boy was like ďno, wait, one more time!Ē We seriously go with
whatever the game decides. Whether that be who has to give the groupís
answer in class or who has to dissect the pig eye in biology lab. You can
play with like 10 people too, just when you lose you back out. Thereís
actually a more complex version thatís more like a game you play when youíre
bored, but Iím not sure I can explain it without confusing everyone, so when
I get back, weíll play, okay? I have an ongoing war with a friend in my
class. Heís lost like 4 or 5 times, and even our teacher asked about it the
other day. Best benefit? The first time I got pudding as a prize, and now he
owes me even more snacks. Itís absolutely hilarious.
One thing I donít really want to talk about, but know I should is the
tsunami that hit Japan almost a year ago. I live in Tohoku, extremely close
to where thousands of peoples lives were literally washed away by the tide.
Because of this, itís an easy drive to the tsunami location, and Iíve been
more than once. Itís not a happy feeling. First, I visited a place by
Sendai, and was completely shocked at how clean itíd become. And when I say
clean I mean just space. You can see the foundations of where houses used to
be, but thatís it. Just space. I guess you really have to understand what
Japan looks like to get what ďspaceĒ means. Japan is so crowded. Itís a tiny
island country with 128 million+ population. 75% of the country is
mountains, and so there really isnít a lot of free room. Houses, buildings,
everything is pushed up together with really narrow roads and barely room to
breathe. So seeing that much room with just nothing was astonishing. At that
time, I was riding with my older brother and his new wife. She had grown up
in the area, and he went to school there, so theyíre both very familiar with
it. As we were driving they werenít completely lost, but a little bit
confused trying to figure out where to turn, where to go because it looks so
completely different from the place they used to know. And there are no
landmarks or anything. I think thatís when it really hit me. What would it
be like to return to my hometown, and have it just be gone? Obviously, I
know that isnít a reality for me, but it just made me think.
The second place I went was on the border of the Miyagi and Iwate
prefectures, called Kessennuma. It was not clean. It wasnít touched. There
are just buildings with nothing inside but debris. Boats in the middle of
fields. Tremendous piles of broken things. I really donít want to spend too
much time on this sad time, but I donít think I have the words to explain.
Not in Japanese. Not in English. There just arenít words to convey the type
of feeling that hits you like a semi. Itís almost been a year, and
naturally, itís still a big deal, with commercials often showing reminding
everyone not to forget. And every time there is an earthquake at school, the
girls scream and cry because theyíre reminded of the time they were at
school and everyone thought they were going to die. I honestly canít even
And now that Iíve fully depressed everyone reading this journal, and even
brought horribly sad feelings to myself, Iíll try and sum everything up.
Japan: itís not all flashing lights, anime maniacs, and unspeakables in
vending machines. I guess itís just like any country and it depends on where
you live. I mean, Iím not from Vegas, so my city in Florida gets plenty of
sleep, which is totally different from the Japanese students who seem to
always be studying. Iíve found that my same curiosity that brought me to
trek to the other side of the world, is found in almost everyone here.
People are basically the same. We have the same habits, expressions, etc.
Weíre just separated by culture, by language, by unknowns. I think the thing
Iíve been most amazed about here is just how fully and completely the
culture envelops the country. Being from America, everyone has always been
different. Not in a bad way, and Iím not sure how t o really explain it, but
something you do may not be what your neighbor does. For the most part,
Americans are taught to be individuals, to think for themselves, and we have
a culture that really pushes that. For example, at the orientation last
summer, we each paired up and were told to explain ďour cultureĒ. Not our
host countryís culture, but our own culture, each individual culture, in our
homes. They couldnít do that in Japan. Everyone basically is the same. Itís
so different from what Iím used to, and it makes it really hard when I try
to answer questions from people about ďAmericansĒ. Just like it was
difficult for me to transition into a culture completely backwards from my
own, itís difficult for them to imagine what itís like to live somewhere
where itís not all the same culture. I suppose that puts a little bit more
pressure on me, because I know just as Iím getting my impression of Japan
from them, they all are solidifying their ďAmericanĒ images from associating
with me. I hope thatís a good thing.
My life is not exciting enough to write journals. Sure, it seems exciting
and mysterious to everyone back in Florida or where ever you may be, but I
feel like Iím giving away the best part of exchange by writing everything. I
have no real good way to introduce this journal except to just say that my
exchange year is something Iíll never forget and itís something Iím not
willing to let go of yet. Iím lucky in that I get to be here in Japan for
almost a full year, and I have had so many experiences and made my own life
here. I feel like writing a journal for posterity really is like giving away
all the secrets about life and myself that Iíve learned. So instead of
writing in excruciating detail stories and experiences that I know would
bore most of you anyways, Iíll just break down a few (actually quite a lot)
of my experiences or how Iíd sum up the last 9 months of living here in
Tome, Miyagi, Japan.
Iíve thrown beans at the demon to get out of our house and bring the good
luck in (a holiday called setsubun which is in February, and I did
mistakenly reference this in a previous journal).
Worn traditional Japanese clothing (yukata, hakama, and kimono) and danced
not exactly traditional dances in front of loads of people (though not while
wearing the traditional clothing).
Seen the best night view in the entire world (Hakodate, Hokkaido).
Am planning on being in the huge summer festival here in Tome, and going to
see the biggest Tanabata festival in Sendai, and maybe some of the other
famous ones in Tohoku.
Iíve been to Hokkaido, Tokyo 3 times, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Sendai, both
Disneyland and Universal Studios, seen the Pacific Ocean and the Japanese
Iíve visited ridiculously rich neighborhoods, and seen the places where the
tsunami absolutely tore peopleís lives apart.
Met people who lived next to the nuclear plant that was destroyed March 11,
Been to Matsushima, one of the 3 must see sights in Japan which is not even
an hour away from me.
Went to a private sumo wrestlersí practice, and then later to the actual
Learned that sumo wrestlers work out ridiculously hard, and they only eat
twice a day.
Iíve seen Kabuki and No, traditional Japanese plays.
Been to temples all over Japan in Kyoto, Kamakura, Hiraizumi, Hakodate.
Hung out in the hot springs with all kinds of naked women.
Sang karaoke in front of my entire class.
Saw snow for the first time and loved it; decided I hated it and never care
to see it again after it constantly was there for over 5 months.
Broken my ankle and gone up 4 flights of stairs every day on crutches with a
cast all the way up my leg.
Iíve gotten really sick and been taken care of by someone whom I now
considered to be a second mother.
Taught my dance class a dance I made up from scratch because apparently I
dance ďAmericanĒ and ďthereís just something different about itĒ.
Completely embarrassed myself in front of loads of people.
Iíve been treated like an idiot, and Iíve acted like an idiot.
Iíve completely messed up the language and also have times when I make
absolutely no mistakes and I astound the people listening to me.
Iíve been made fun of, told Iíve gotten fat and that I look cute in purikura
pictures, because it looks nothing like me.
Iíve also been told I have the best Japanese of any exchange student in the
past 10 years, Iíve been complimented in ways people who arenít exchange
students can never ever imagine. Thereís just no feeling like it and no way
to put this feeling into words. Itís something beyond all else, in a
different realm of senses.
Japanese people donít expect foreigners to speak Japanese, and so theyíre
always surprised when I can talk and understand them. Itís very different
from America because we expect everyone to speak English.
Find myself talking to myself in Japanese.
Started to read manga in order to have a fun way to study.
Realized people who do really LOVE manga are about as few as they are in the
Writing up and down is way way harder than youíd think.
Iíve walked through a blizzard with nothing but a light coat, sundress, and
tights while my French friend screamed bloody murder the entire way. Thought
I was going to die.
Met some of the coolest past, present, and future exchange students ever.
Saw Funky Monkey Babys live in Sendai!
Became an Arashi fan girl, Ohno-kun<3
Sat in seiza (traditional Japanese sitting position) until my legs were so
numb I thought Iíd never be able to walk again.
Watched some of the most interesting television shows in the world. Hands
Gotten used to toilets that are just holes in the ground.
Also, become very fond of toilets with warmed seats, cars with televisions
in them, and your bathtub talking to you.
Gave Mothersí Day presents to 5 moms.
Cleaned the school after every school day.
Taken off my shoes after walking into a building, and put them back on when
leaving (still continuing to do this).
Joined the choir, then quit to join kendo, and then was told I couldnít join
kendo. Then finally was told I could but the seniors are done with clubs in
about 3 weeks, so...
Made soba (noodles), gyoza (Chinese dumpling), and mochi (sticky rice cake).
Cooked macaroni and cheese for my host families. Itís always a hit.
Learned to slurp my soup.
Eaten beef tongue, shark fin, raw whale, and blowfish, all of which are
Come to absolutely love octopus, squid, and seaweed.
Korean seaweed is the absolute best snack on the planet. I would eat it
every day if I could. It tastes just like potato chips, dad, I swear.
Eaten grilled cartilage, intestines, hearts, brains, livers, and skin. Not
as bad as you might think, but certainly not a recommendation.
Learned to never ask what it is youíre eating.
Now proclaim my favorite breakfast to be raw egg (or half boiled egg) on
I now am super skilled with chopsticks. Can pick up, cut, and pretty much do
anything with them.
Iíve gained weight. Iíve lost weight. Iím pretty sure Iím back right around
where I started.
The luggage you acquire on exchange is astounding.
Given a speech in front of 2-3000 Rotarians in Japanese as the exchange
student representative for the district.
I find it a lot easier to read kanji then the alphabets or God-forbid, using
Become a part of 3 different families and am about to move on to a 4th.
Started to wonder why we donít wear uniforms and no makeup to school in
Found out how Japanese graduation ceremonies are ridiculously long and not
so much fun.
And the whole school attends because itís on a school day in the morning.
Lived with a family of 9 people... with one bathroom.
Got to have my sister, Hannah, from Florida come visit me here for a little
over a week!
Found out Iím the first year long exchange student to come to Tome in 20
years. And Iím staying with the same family as the guy who came here then.
Fell in love with the countryside versus living in the city.
Though it is really weird living in a city where everyone knows everyone.
Itís weird being out of American culture for this long. I know nothing about
Thought that people that have more exchange students in their districts
probably have more fun and was honestly quite a bit jealous at first.
Come to realize that living in a city with absolutely no exchange students
and a prefecture with only 2 (well technically itís the whole North East
side of Japan with only 2, including myself), is the best thing ever. All my
friends are Japanese, and it has helped my Japanese tremendously.
And finally, Iíve become fluent in Japanese. Though Iím not to the point
where Iím satisfied completely, I know itís pointless to doubt it now. But
Iíve found something else. I realize that while I came on exchange
explicitly to learn another language, (I did have some other motives but
that was my biggest one), it has become less and less of a priority now. I
donít mean that in a bad way like Japanese is too hard and I donít care to
learn it, because I do and I want it more than anything and I study every
single day even if I just end up remembering one new word. I mean that I
value myself and my experiences so much more than when I arrived 9 months
ago. I find that even though I do want to be fluent 100% more than anything,
the little experiences, the way I approach things and my attitude about them
has changed too. Thereís so much more to exchange than learning a language,
which I suppose I knew but I didnít actually know. Itís also made me come to
appreciate English being my first language. I think I think more in depth
now about things we say, and itís weird when I find that I donít understand
something even though itís written in English (I think that might be the
most frustrating), but English really is a beautiful language.
Iíve done all of this in just 9 months. 9 months that have absolutely
changed my perspective of myself, the world, and especially of the Japanese.
I still have 3 months left. 3 months during which I plan to explore more of
this new world I live in and make my mark, becoming a lasting part of the
lives of the people whom I know I will never- can never ever forget.
Hopefully, I can make it so I wonít forget Japanese either.
All my friends are going home. Itís weird to watch people say
their goodbyes or write their last speeches (though I should be doing mine
too), when I just canít get the feeling of leaving into my head long enough
to get all the feelings Iím sure Iíll be feeling out on paper. Iíve tried,
but I just canít tap into the idea that Iím actually going back. In the same
way it didnít really click that I was in Japan when I got here, I havenít
yet processed the reality that Iím going back to Florida.
I still have a month here in Japan, a month that I plan on taking advantage
of as much as possible. Iíll get to meet some of the new exchange students
for 12-13, and Iíll get to travel and experience the Japanese summer
festivals. Iím not at all looking forward to leaving, but I am a little
looking forward to going back. Maybe itís because everyone else is going
back. Maybe itís because my family is telling me how much they miss me and
how much they canít wait to see me when I return. Maybe itís just because
Iíve come to terms with the fact that this is a limited time thing. Either
way, the signs of the end of exchange are all around me.
Of course I have
regrets. If I had been perfect when I got here, there wouldíve been no
reason to go on exchange. If I had spoken flawless Japanese when I got here,
or any at all, it wouldnít be so impressive that I speak, read, and write so
well now. But I do not and never will regret going on exchange or coming to
Japan. I fit in here a lot better than youíd believe. I do love the culture,
regardless of how completely and utterly complicated it is, and how closed
it is to foreigners.
I think it was when my new host mom told me about my
host brother. ďHe never used to talk before you got here. Heíd just say Ďmay
I be excused?í after he was done eating and go in the other room alone and
watch tv. But since you came, Rachel, heís become so much more fun and
I started to think. As exchange students, we all think about the changes
that we experience within ourselves during exchange. We wonder how people
will perceive us when we get back. If theyíll see all the experiences and
the depth and the parts of us that exchange and brought out, sculpted,
reformed. If theyíll see all the things we have to offer and the amazing,
bilingual, independent person that weíve become over the course of these
10-12 months. But this is the first time Iíve thought of the effect I have
on the people around me. The people that I live with, the people I go to
school with, the teachers whose class Iím in. But the truth is, that we have
an amazing effect on everyone we come into contact with. Even those who just
listen to us talk with our host families or friends in passing. The old
ladies sitting on the train next to us who never believed a foreigner could
speak her language. The truth is that this year isnít just our own. It
effects us, the exchange students, the most steeply and the most
unforgettably, but what about the people whose families we become a part of?
The host dad who has my kimono picture as his cell phone background? What
about the host siblings who canít imagine when you leave? Or decide they
want to be exchange students too?
If anything, I want that to be a part of the memory of my exchange too. Not
just the fact that I got another home, a year in a foreign country and a
second language. I want to remember the things that I struggled with and the
things that from here on out Iíll do better. The things I learned about
myself that were not so warm and fuzzy, but are a part of who I am. The
people whose lives I became a part of, and who will be an everlasting part
of mine. Of course itís not so easy for me to forget, considering Iím the
one who has to change everything about their lifestyle one more time, but I
think itíll be a little bit easier going back knowing that Iíve made a
difference here. It brings a sort of peace. I think thatís the sign of a