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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

I Don't Speak Japanese: My Time Abroad in Hiroshima.

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;

"Congratulations!"



I did it.  I plopped myself down on the couch feeling so overwhelmed with emotion that I cried.  And I never cry at anything.  (I've learned to cry overtime on the inside like a winner).  Was this actually happening?  I pulled it off.  Me.  I was going to Japan.

Youth for Understanding (YFU) had partnered with corporate companies to offer scholarships to high school students with an opportunity to travel abroad (for free).  YFU was offering a six-week stay with a host family in--Japan.  To be considered, I had to write 12 essays (mainly pertaining to my strengths and weaknesses, how I'd survive with the language barrier, etc), obtain 2 letters of recommendations and succeed in my one on one interview with a YFU spokesperson.  It was a lot to take on but I knew I could do it.  I had to pull through.  This scholarship was as good as mine.

Sending my packet out was like sending a part of my soul.  A piece of my heart.  I was hoping that someone would see how much this trip would mean to me.  I admired Japanese culture, animation and obviously (their food).  Nervous and plagued with anticipation, I checked the mailbox every dayAnd I'm not exaggerating.  I'd hurry towards the mailbox eager to see something from them and frowned when I came up empty.  I know it seemed silly but I needed to know the answer and if all my hard work had actually paid off.  And it did.  I took a chance.  And now I was getting the opportunity of a lifetime.






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.

When we finally landed it was as if I was on another planet.  I still felt that I was living this sort of dream.  But here I was walking around Japan.  (No big deal.)  Once we landed in Tokyo it seemed like one gigantic blur.  One moment we were stepping off the plane, the next minute we were boarding the Bullet Train or Shinkansen.  As our train traveled at warp speed, each of us waited eagerly to reach our next stop.  Munching on snacks and taking in the scenery from outside our windows, we were all anticipating each other's host families.  My nerves were on edge.  Would my host family like me?   Would I be too weird for them?  I was classified as being weird back home.  Would they feel that way about me here?  What if they complain about me and send me back home?  (Highly unlikely. But when your nerves are in control you start over analyzing.) 

Amongst the sea of people waiting at the Hiroshima station, I saw a sign with my name on it. The welcome sign was decorated with paper cranes and scribbled in Kanji.  My host family huddled together anticipating my arrival until our eyes locked with one another.  Smiles slapped across their faces, they waved.  There they were, my family.  And they seemed so incredibly friendly.
I was lucky.  Not just because I had received this opportunity but the program was either a study abroad or a travel abroad.  You either were here over the summer studying abroad only to resume the normal fall session back home.  Or you were a travel abroad participant who was here to just experience Japan for six weeks.  And since I was graduating from school before my trip, I was essentially on one big vacation.  Free to enjoy my summer without any strings attached.  Well, except for one.  I had to attend four weeks of Japanese High School.  (Funny how I graduate from one only to attend another.)  My home for the next six weeks resided in a small district located in the mountains of Hiroshima.  I lived with my Okasan (my mother) my Otoson (my father) and my host sister Misato or Mi-Chan.  I followed the rules out of respect.  I wanted to immerse myself in their culture.  

Living with my host family was great.  I had my own bedroom and bathroom which ruled immensely.  (Don't you realize how awesome that is when you're a sixteen-year-old girl?) My Okasan always got up early and fixed us breakfast.  I'd come downstairs to a spread fit for a king.  Fresh miso soup, sticky white rice, granola cereal, juice, milk, noodles, etc.  Back home I just had a bowl of cereal and that was it.  Here it was different.  Every meal we shared together, we talked about my life back home and what I wanted to do while I was here.  My Okasan spoke English which made it easy to communicate amongst one another.  I'd say something and then she'd explain it in full Japanese to my Otoson who barely spoke English at all.  Conversation over meals was always forced back home.  You communicated with zero enthusiasm when someone asked about your day, how you liked your meal, etc.  Communicating with my host family in this environment felt natural and engaging even with the language barrier. 
Before attending high school (all over again) my family thought it would be fun to go sightseeing.  I was not about to turn down sightseeing!  One of their recommendations for an activity was going to a Japanese Bath House or Sento.  Beaming with enthusiasm, I packed my bathing suit and we were on our way.  I assumed maybe just maybe it was like the water parks back home.  I was curious to see how their version of a water park worked.  Would there be indoor slides?  Arriving at the Sento, I followed my mom and sister while my father disappeared into another room.  Turning the corner, my eyes nearly popped out of my skull.  

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 escapeI 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;

"Hi, my name is _____.  Can we be friends?"

This happened all.day.long I'm not exaggerating Everyone wanted to be my friend.  Everyone wanted to be close with the blonde American girl.   Everyone wanted to hang out with me and touch my hair.  (Personal space doesn't exist in Japan).  As overwhelming as it was at that moment, I felt wanted.  And apparently, I was what many referred to as 'kawaii' (cute).  I was cute and popular?  This was definitely some sort of dream.  None of this ever happened back home.  I don't think they realized how much I truly needed acceptance and how important it made me feel. 


School hours were longer than what I was used to.  Quite opposite from the 7:30 to 3:30 pm school day back home.  I joined Misato in all her classes.  I wore a uniform which consisted of a white button down and a black skirt.  (Which was hell since I love jeans.)  And since the classes  were all in Japanese (except for English) I either:


a.) Slept
b.) Read a Book
or
c.) Created Paper Cranes





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.
  
The last day of high school back home was more of a relief than a sad farewell.  All my American classmates were crying and hugging.  I couldn't wait to go home and be done with it.  (I was that disassociated).  But here it was far different, I was presented with a large thick card with a photo of my home-room class.  All hugging and smiling together as they threw up peace signs.  They had come together to give me a proper send-off.  My home room became an extension of my family.  I considered them to be my brothers and sisters.  I didn't want to leave.  I fought back tears as I read their sentences scribbled in their best English;


"I hope to come to America."

"Friends forever."

"I will miss you."




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?


xx


Meg






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7 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed reading this! You had a great opportunity, lucky girl!

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  2. Thank you Evonne! I was definitely very fortunate for this amazing opportunity. I hope it inspires other people to see the world.

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  3. Hey it's Misato, your sister!
    This is absolutely amazing and made me so proud of you, made me cry.

    I was a little worried then if we made you kind of uncomfortable, or if things in Japan were not what you'd expected because our culture, poor English and etc... but now I know you are so so special enough to have fun in such a different world.
    You were always curious and we loved looking how you're popping out your eyes.

    We truly loved having you, we're so blessed. I'll definitely share this blog to my family :)

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    1. Hello Misato (my sister)!
      I'm so glad you read it! Spending time with you and your family was a blessing!
      It's okay! That experience in the bath house was one of the best moments of my life. I loved every moment that I spent with you and your family. I had so much fun and I miss every part of it.
      I was so excited to learn new things and your culture.
      One day I'll have to return and spend time with you once more.

      Miss you and Love you!

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  4. This is such a great post! I enjoined reading about your experience so much! This is truly inspiring Meg and I'm so glad you found confidence especially being so far from home and unfamiliar with your surroundings.

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    1. AHH! Thank you so much for reading! <3 I'm glad I was able share my experience and I'm hoping it inspires others to travel as well :D

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  5. This can be a vital step for a student who is thinking of a later career in a field hire someone to write a paper that requires proficiency in a foreign language, or has regular interaction with foreign citizens.

    ReplyDelete