Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Japan, Love, and Monkeys

Hello Everyone! Or as they say in Japan, “Hajimemashite;” I am pleased to meet you!

Studying abroad in Japan was a dream come true for me, a dream I honestly almost gave up on. But luckily I have a fiancé, Simon, who loves to travel and he was thinking about studying abroad. We started talking about it, walked into the Education Abroad office to get more information and, voilà, away we flew to Japan!
Well, not quite that quickly.

But we had a blast. I’ll admit that classes were secondary for; I wanted to get good grades of course, and not wreck my GPA. But the experience was more important to me. We went to Nagasaki, and we got to be there for the harvest festival O-kunichi, which was amazing. It felt like the whole city turned out for the parades.

The school system is different there; in college, classes meet for ninety minutes at a time, and many classes you only attend once a week. For language classes, we met four times a week, but the rest of our classes were once a week – literature, history, society. Also, by Japanese law, you must attend 2/3 of your classes to take the final, otherwise it’s an automatic fail. Being an LAE major, I’m used to classes that you fail if you miss three times, so their college seemed much more relaxed to me than our American ones. It’s funny when you think about the tough Japanese high school system that they’re famous for.

Traveling with a loved one was a unique and exhilarating experience. I don’t recommend it for couples that have gotten together recently, but we were already engaged when we left. It definitely shaped my experience. The choices for what we decided to do together were often different than what we would have done if we’d studied separately, but at the same time we had experiences we could remember together. And we found new dishes together, such as gyoza (fried dumplings), champon (soup dish Nagasaki is famous for), and nikumon (steamed buns). Now that we’re back in the USA, if I look at him and say I miss Sumiyoshi gyoza or want to have champon for dinner, he knows exactly what I’m thinking.

To save money, we didn’t travel outside Nagasaki on our own; there were a couple trips that were part of the cost for the program, including a trip to Unzen’s famous hot springs. There are pros and cons to that; Simon and I missed out on visiting Kyoto, Fukuoka, or spending some time in Tokyo before we left. But we became “natives” at getting around Nagasaki city, especially the stretch between Togitsu in the north and Dejime towards the south. Not only did we visit as many of the tourist places in Nagasaki as we could, but we also spent our weekends walking through the city. We found several small shops and cafes that way, and we came across an open-air market that way, too.

"Machi" means city, and Nagasaki, along with many places in Japan, is split up into little machis or "sub-cities" that encompass so many blocks.  It took about 5 or 10 minutes to walk from one machi to the next, though that was on the main road. The side roads could lead you around for 20 minutes or half an hour before you reached the next machi. At that time, the men's international dorm was in Heiwa-machi, futher down in the city. It was about two hours walking time, at a brisk walk. (Yeah, I did that one weekend).

Our second week in Nagasaki, while walking around Heiwa-machi and Matsuyama-machi, the district right next to the men's dorm, we passed Peace Park, which is a recreational park near the Atomic Bomb museum and the Peace Statue. There was a track, a baseball court, tennis courts, stray kitties, and a traditional archery dojou. The traditional archery style is called "Kyoudou," which literally translates to art of the bow in kanji. The dojou was on the far side of the park, and a man-guided river ran past it. There's a road, and a little paved bridge that connected the park to the road on that side, for delivery bikes and pedestrians. We had been walking along the river, so we saw the archers practicing and stopped to watch.

Two of the students and a woman we later found out was their school teacher came hurrying out of the dojou and across the bridge, and rushed past us on an errand. They came hurrying back five minutes later, and the woman, Harukawa-sensei, stopped to ask us if we wanted to join the dojou. Yep, just straight up, "Hey, you look interested. Want to step inside?"
Her English was wonderful, and she was able to translate for us until she and her students had to leave. We had a great first lesson, and they convinced us to come back again. We went back, tried to figure out a day when both the archery Sensei and Harukawa-sensei would be there. Some of the Sensei, which is the plural form of Sensei, knew broken English, and the high school students knew bits of English. We knew bits of Japanese, so between all that and hand gestures, we were able to learn and progress throughout the semester. Of course we had to pay a fee for joining the dojou, but it was shockingly small and completely worth the experience.

Towards the end of our stay, at our last time at the dojou, the high school girls asked us who the was the most famous Japanese that Americans know. Now, Simon and I know famous Japanese people; I knew about the singer Utada Hikaru before I went to Japan, and PGSM is one of my guilty pleasures, both before and still. I recognize the actresses names, but I drew a complete blank when they asked. I looked at Simon, and he blanked too. He went, "I could say something really terrible..."
"What?" I asked.
He kind of leaned toward me, looked embarrassed and said, "Godzilla."
I cracked up laughing. Of course, we had to explain to the girls what was so funny. They cracked up right along with us, and we had a great conversation from there.

Moral of the story: You can have random adventures just by stopping to admire people at something they're doing. Kyudou for the semester was not something we could have every planned on happening, or even think of it happening the way it did. And it made me think; when international students come to America, are there people that offer them these same surprising opportunities?

I can't decide which is better from my experience: my new sense of liberty or the new way of looking at others. By going to a "nontraditional" country, where nobody spoke English, I suddenly found myself wondering about our study abroad programs for the students who come to Platteville. What's it like for a Chinese or German student who is shy about using English? Is Platteville a place they feel comfortable in? What do they say about America, what stories do they tell when they go home? Things I never thought of in-depth before, I suddenly can relate to. Before I went, I thought, "Oh, the study abroad office has that all figured out." But when I was the student abroad, suddenly I wondered if anyone can really have it "all figured out."

The other awesome thing that came out of study abroad was my personal sense of liberty. I've always been shy when meeting people here in my own country; I was afraid of what it would be like meeting people in a new country. But it was so wonderful because it didn't matter. I wasn't the only shy foreigner, and I was expected to be odd because east-Asian cultures are so starkly different from America. I was still terrified of using Japanese and getting things wrong, but I never realized how much body language or physical action I restrained because I felt pressure from my culture. Everyone stared at me because I was taller in flat shoes than most of the girls in heels. And being white as paper may have played a part. But I developed a spatial confidence, and that helped boost a mental confidence. There were thingsI picked up in Japan that, had I not lived there, I never would have done, even when they made sense. Let me give you an example.

Umbrellas and fans. During hot weather, Japanese people carry little paper fans, or nicer ones if they want, to fan themselves. Japan is such a humid country, it's great to have a fan to carry with you for when there's no breeze or you're on the tram. And umbrellas. It wasn't as common for the guys to carry them, but even some guys carried umbrellas to shade them from the sun. And it actually made a difference. I quickly purchased one of my own, and used it almost everyday. It was amazing. And they're little things that actually help. Yet, even if I'd read about and thought it was a good idea, I would have felt very self-conscious carrying an umbrella on a sunny day or using a paper fan in class. Not anymore.

And I understand it can be taken too far; I understand students go abroad and can come back thinking that the host country's way of doing this or that is better. That's a damaging trap to fall into. But I don't think Americans should all grab there umbrellas and carry them around, rain or shine. I'm not going to carry my umbrella everyday. (Although, if you see an orange and blue umbrella on campus during a sunny spring, that's me and I'm having a great day).  Something about living in another culture, in a place radically different than my native culture, broke my inhibitions. Now, if I decide I want to use my umbrella on a sunny day, I'm not going to feel self-conscious about it. It's hard to describe fully, and I know many, many people my age have personal confidence without going to another country. But studying abroad, immersing yourself in another country, will unlock doors in your Spirit you didn't realize where closed. I encourage you, do this. Step outside the normal and the Known. Step into the Unknown; you will come to know how human the world really is.

Yes!! That is a monkey on me!!! Best picture ever, and I will write a post about it in the future. Stay tuned! Stay curious!! :D


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