I could see it peeking out from my mailbox. Grabbing the thickly stuffed envelope with my sweaty palms, my heart felt as if it was about to burst. I was holding my dream (as well as my failure). Tearing it open, my hands trembling, I pulled out a thick white piece of paper. My eyes focused on the first word at the top;
I packed my bags, quit my part-time job and waved goodbye to my parents. As part of the requirements, the scholarship required you to spend a week in Sacramento State University. There you would attend classes brought by YFU. These taught you what to do and what not to do so you wouldn’t offend anyone during your stay. Once the week concluded, a flight was scheduled for our trip to Tokyo. The flight took over 11 hours. And I didn’t sleep a wink. And how could I? There were other scholarship award winners from all over the country. I began to slowly realize that my peers were dreamers just like me. Craving to explore the world on their own. Excited for their experience.
The room was filled with much older Japanese women. Old enough to be my grandmother. And they were all–naked.
Trying to keep a straight face, I started to pull out my bathing suit feeling a million eyes watching me. Misato leaned in and whispered something that made the hairs stand up on my neck…
“No, No, No. No bathing suits. Naked only.”
Wait. Naked? Only? I could hear myself internally screaming. I always wanted to be in a horror movie and now here I was–center stage. That’s why they were all staring. I was the only caucasian female in here. And they were about to see me naked. It was as if a unicorn just magically appeared in a field of wild stallions. I was that unicorn. Believe me, in most situations, I obviously would have said no. But they had paid for me do this experience with them. I’d be rude if I sat out on this one. And I didn’t want to be a thorn in anyone’s side. I reassured myself I was surrounded by women (much much older than me) but what harm could come from it? The only negative to this was that my host family would be seeing me naked and I had to live with them. (Awkward). But this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I stood there frozen feeling more and more self-conscious by the second. (Keep in mind, I don’t have a whole lot of self-love. I hated my body. And it was far from being ‘summer ready’.) Just like a rocket getting ready to take off into space, I began to do a mental countdown. 1…2…3!
I was officially naked.
Bare, I scurried across the locker room covering my chest with my forearm. I wobbled inside. I surveyed the room. Everyone was watching me. Their eyes were glued to me. Again, I’m not exaggerating. Stations with faucets and wooden stools were to the left. My mother and sister told me I had to rinse myself before going in the mineral pools that were located both inside and outside. As I began to rinse my body feeling as if I was the only person in the room, I began to giggle to myself. I was naked. I couldn’t believe I was doing this.
At first walking around in nothing but my birthday suit was my worst nightmare come true. But it bestowed a gift upon me that I wouldn’t have received in any other situation—confidence. For the first time in my life, I felt this freedom from the beauty standards that plagued the majority of my life;
You’re fat. You need to lose weight. Maybe you shouldn’t eat that. You need a tan. You’re not gonna leave the house looking like that are you?
I heard this nearly every day at school from the girls in my locker room. And sadly, I received it more times than I could count at home. Being here allowed for me to escape. I was free. Free from self-loathing. Free from criticism. Free to be naked.
Ditching the hand towel that I was using as a shield, I submerged myself in the mineral water. To be real for a second, I felt as if I had an outer body experience. In fact, I think I did. I was looking down on this happy girl just enjoying herself naked in front of strangers in another country. Who was this confident sixteen year old? This American girl was embracing her life free from the shackles of her adolescent bullies. I hardly recognized her. She was beautiful.
June weather is sweltering. It wasn’t the cool 76 temp that I was used to in SoCal. The humidity combined with hot rain leaves you feeling slimy. (I hated it.) Wearing makeup was out of the question. It would literally melt off my face by the end of the day. So when we arrived at the school, I was relieved. I needed to be in a room filled with non-stop cold blasts of air. (You already know how much I hate the heat). My first day on campus consisted of a tour. The building was three stories high equipped with both stairs and escalators. It was spacious and concrete. Far different than the dinky buildings back home. It felt almost as if I was walking around some corporate building. The moment students were released from class, I was swarmed;
According to Japanese legend, WWII survivor Sadako Sasaki folded 1,000 paper cranes from her hospital bed while battling leukemia. She hoped that by building paper cranes they would grant her wish: to survive. As a school, we decided to participate in the ‘A Thousand Cranes of Peace’ Project. We would create as many cranes as possible in honor of Sadako. My Okasan bought me special paper just so I could make my own cranes. At first, when I assembled a crane it was an absolute disaster. Hardly a crane at all. But after practicing and practicing, I finally was able to create my very own paper crane. Once I was done with one, I slid out another colorful sheet of square paper and began folding another. I’m sure I crafted more than 100 cranes. And now it’s one of my favorite things to do when I have the correct sized paper.
Although I was friends with what felt like the entire student body, I started to feel homesick the second week abroad. There were many nights that I laid awake in my bed listening to my favorite CD just to get some sort of comfort. I spoke to my parents sometimes on the phone but the conversation was always short. Sometimes I would email my friends. But I had to remember that it was important to remain here instead of in constant communication with my family back home. YFU emphasized that you had to immerse yourself in their culture. Their life. But the majority of the time that was extremely difficult. I didn’t speak Japanese. And although I tried to communicate with my peers it still remained a giant language barrier. The majority of our conversations were spoken in broken English and in some cases even in illustrations. I missed my friends back home. I missed listening to music with English lyrics. And as strange as it was–I missed my parents.
Traveling abroad touched my soul. It offered me acceptance, confidence, and freedom. I’m not saying you have to travel abroad to obtain those things but maybe just maybe you will get them when you least expect it. It’s a big world out there. There’s so much to explore and discover. There are people out there who are dying to know you. They are eager to share their life with you.
Think of the one place you want to explore. Commit to that place and go. Immerse yourself in someone else’s culture. Embrace adventure. What are you waiting for?