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!