Thursday, March 29, 2007

Finding the Strength to Forgive

I'm strongly considering applying to go on another Rotary Youth Exchange as a year long exchange student. When the idea first materialized, back in mid-March, another thought also came about. I had been thinking back into the early days when I first applied to Rotary. The organization asked my family if they would be willing to host an exchange student from Argentina, who would be coming to Verona. The deal was 2 weeks, and my Mom was more than willing to agree. And so the Garner family became Ale's first host family during her year long exchange to New Jersey, America. 2 weeks turned into 4 months, in which everyone discovered that hosting and being an exchange student was not the easiest thing in the world. Ale spent hours on the computer, immersed in Spanish and her home culture. We all wondered if she wanted to make her year the best that it could be. But what's worse was that her 14 year-old host sister and future exchange student to an unknown country, Julie Garner, was not the best host sister in the world. Ale and I fought quite often, making snide comments at each other. I don't really remember all the things that happened, but I know it wasn't warm and fizzy friendliness.
And after being an exchange student for all these months, and understanding exactly what she was going through, this is what I have come to conclude. Ale had never been the older sister in her family in Argentina, while I had never not been the older sister. I was young, and eager to travel. She was 17, and on her first big trip outside of her part of the world. I had these preconceived notions about exchange students. I didn't understand what it was like to be in an entire different culture that you knew next to nothing about, being thrown into a school system with no similarities to your own, being spoken into in a foreign language that you can barely understand, and having people have high expectations of you, some in which are impossible to reach. I didn't know that all these factors plus more were constantly weighing in an Ale, and thus I took my own ideas about her. Things didn't work out between the two of us. And yet, a few months after she left, the wounds in which we caused on ourselves began to heal. At school, we passed each other everyday in the hall. A cold stare went to a simple wave, occasionally followed by a smile. The next thing I knew I was calling her name from halfway down the hallway screaming, "Ale! Good morning!" Breaking all the rules, she even secretly told me which country Rotary had placed me into. She knew about Japan, even before I did. Our originally rocky relationship continued to grow warmer and friendlier as the days passed on by. In February, we even arranged to meet up in Montclair to see our other exchange student friends. Nothing can really compare to when you are sitting at a Starbucks in Montclair, with 4 continents. Yurie from Japan, and Asia. Judi from Germany, the European. Ale from Argentina, and South America. And of course, yourself, American, of North America. I think that's the kind of feeling that the Rotary Youth Exchange program hopes to promote. And when you sit speaking your native tongue to these girls, who all speak different languages, grew up in different cultures with different ideals, and yet are sharing one common factor. THey are exchange students right here right now. There is no greater way to look at the world than thru the eyes of an exchange student. And I was lucky, because the year before my big adventure, I was given the friendship with these 3 girls. Wonter turned to Spring, which blossomed into Summer, and ALe and I were great friends. But when the time came, as it always does, for Ale to leave, I didn't get to say, a proper goodbye. I was stuck in summer school.
A few weeks later, and it was my turn to be an exchange student. In Japan, my first host family, the Masaki's, had an older daughter, Naoko. Today, I consider Naoko to my unofficial big sister. I love her with all my heart, and I look up to her just like any little sister looks up to their older kin. But things were not always peachy. In my first month, I was convinced Naoko quite disliked me. She always seemed busy and annoyed every time I tried to talk to her. Eventually I came to realize that it was all in my head, and that we had both been raised in different cultures that emphasize a different way to treat people we love. By November, I officially began calling her my big sister, and she eventually accepted that I was her little sister. Leaving her family was really hard for me, but I was always welcome back. And sometimes I would go for a visit, and it would be like I never left in the first place.
In March, right after the idea to do another exchange materialized, and I spent an exciting day with Naoko and her family, and I began thinking about Ale. Ale, who I now consider to be a very good friend, who emails me on the occasional holiday or just out of the blue to say hello and wish me luck on my exchange. It had been over 9 months since I had seen her, and 7 months since I had come to Japan. 7 months since I had begun to understand what she was going through in those days when I cut her no slack for not being a perfect exchange student. I had learned why she had spent so much time on the computer immersed in Argentina life. Sometimes, we as exchange students get so hammered at in our host country language, that the only thing that soothes us is some good old native tongue. I began to understand why some days she was in a bad mood, and seemed quite annoyed when I tried to talk to her. We exchange students don't have perfect days. Sometimes we wake up on the wrong side of bed, or ar stricken with early morning homesick that shoots the rest of the day in the butt. I realized why she didn't want to watch TV with my family every night. Because she couldn't understand what most of it meant, and sometimes she wanted to make sure we had our own space. I saw why Ale was never very busy. It wasn't because she hadn't made any friends, it was because she was unaware about how to ask them to go out for a hang out or something. There a million things about Ale that I was finally able to understand, because I experienced them as an exchange student. Thinking about it all, and I realise that when we lived together, we both made numerous mistakes, but luckily were eventually able to overcome them and be friends. But there is more to it. This post is called finding the strength to forgive for a reason. Since I had come to realize that the reason things did not work out between Ale and I was not all of her fault, like I had previously convinced myself, I had begin feeling guilty. This sounds silly, especially since we did end up becoming friends and we both put the past behind us. And because it was certainly not my entire fault. But I looked at the relationship I have with Naoko, and wondered if things could have been like that with Ale. To be honest, I don't really think that things could have been like that with Ale, but I do think those 4 months of living together could have been easier if I had known everything I know now. In mid-March, a few days after realizing this whole thing, I sat down and wrote Ale a long email. I told her everything that I have just typed in this post. I hoped that she would understand it all, and not be offended or having no idea what I was talking about. I poured everything out into an email, freeing the guilt like feeling that I had mounted in my stomach. I was not asking her to apologize, and I was not apologizing either. I don't think either of us has to apologize, because we both put the past behind us long ago. Instead, in those words, I found the strength to forgive, not Ale, but myself for reasons of not understanding, for not cutting her slack, for not trying harder to connect, and for easily giving up on having her as even more than a friend, but as a host sister.
It took her over a week to get back to me, and I anxiously awaited for her reply. I hoped she would understand what I had said, and I wanted to hear what she had to say. As the days rolled by, I made images in my head that she was angry with me, that we had silently agreed to forget about all that trouble, and now I was bringing it up again. I also thought she read it and had no idea what I was talking about, and just thought I was having a crazy hallucination Exchange student moment. But when she did get back to me, neither incident occurred. She had been busy, but when she opened the email, she read and absorbed every word. She told me that it had made her cry, not tears of sadness, but tears of happiness. She told me that sometime over her year in America she made this very same realization, that we had both been fools. Her way of forgiving herself was putting the past behind her, and building the strong friendship we have today. She pointed out that a year abroad changes us in a million ways, but perhaps, the greatest gift we develop, is the strength to move on. At the end of the email, I signed, "From Your American Younger Sisier, Julie" The final closing door came when I read the bottom of Ale's reply email, "From Your Argentinian Sister, Ale." That's the best way to leave things. And you know? I really do think I'm one of the luckiest people in the world. I don't think many people can say that they have a Japanese and Argentinian old sister.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

A Little Friendly Competition WIth the Osakis

In the past week of my time living with my third host family, the Osaki's, sports have been a key part of life. Biggest understatement of the week. It seems like we are all eating, sleeping, and breathing with thoughts of the sports that are going on in the world. In Melbourne, Australia, the FINA World Championship Swimming competition is being held, while Tokyo is holding the World Championship Figure Skating Competition. After living in a very competitive atmosphere, catching a little bit of competition as well, I'm beginning to understand why there will never be world peace. And it all comes down to Synchronized Swimming. Okay, so that's a joke. Yet, still, I could never imagine the position sports that barely affect me would be putting me it.
Synchronized Swimming. Now I've said this before, but if anyone ever tells me that this is not a sport, I will smack them so hard they won't know what hit them. Though I can't honestly say that I have not been one to make fun of the sport. Before actually trying it, I used to think water ballet was stupid. But now? Synchronized swimming or "Shincro" is a very difficult and gruelling sport, which my two youngest host sisters participate in. I've been fortunate it try it, or better yet, been beaten to the pulp by the sport. I won't go into to the arduous details. But just know, that the following day after my first attempt at the sport, that I, a fairly athletic 16 year-old, could not get out of bed. Here in the Osaki house, Shincro is always being watched, by everyone. I mean everyone, from my 7 year-old host sister, 15- year old host brother, and 76 year-old host grandfather. We all watch and make remarks about how Japan is definitely going to get 2nd or 3rd, while Russia and Spain will determine which place Japan will get. Because, in the world, Russia, Japan, and Spain are the top 3 Shincro teams. There is no questioning that simple fact. I was told this once, quite firmly, as if applying that I would not be allowed to argue. And honestly, I didn't care enough to argue. Now, however, I've become a bit of a fan of watching the sport on television.
After each and every round, or song display, my comments are always welcome, even though I'm not exactly Japanese or a Shincro master. Just as long as the comments are criticism towards Russia and Spain, and praises for Japan. For the first part of the Melbourne games, I was an advocate for the Japanese Shincro girls. I was more than happy to cheer for my host country, which looked to be quite a strong team of girls. Not that I had a choice anyway. Unfortunately for me, America also participated in the Melbourne Games. Why is this unfortunate? Because they got smoked. I may well very be an exchange student in Japan, with an insanely competitive sports family, but I am first and foremost an American. The incident occur ed in the afternoon at March 23, 2007, during the main portion of the swim competition. Russia was in first place, Spain in second, while Japan barely held third. The last participants were the two American swimmers. I watched them secretly hoping they beasted out in the water. Don't get me wrong, if America couldn't win then Japan would be my first choice. But as I watched the Americans seemingly flawless performance, and listened while my host family suddenly became quiet with worry, I couldn't help but laugh deep inside. That was until the scoring portion. American got 5th place, leaving Japan in third place. Now I don't know anything about Synchronized swimming, but they did very well, I don't know why they got such a low score. My host family suddenly became a herd of Yankee fans at a successful Red Sox game. They were cheering and thanking whoever it is they thank when they pray. I sat in annoyance, trying to figure out where we went wrong. The Japanese team had made a little mistake, while the American girls had done everything right. Then my host mom, noticing that I wasn't dancing around like a baboon, said, "Aren't you happy? We won!" Hey I know I do alot of Japanese things, but I'm not Japanese. "Well America lost. And I'm American." She suddenly got very stern, "Well we're Japanese." Everyone quieted down to see what I was going to do. The air suddenly went from a cheeriness to a stern feeling of unease, so thick, I could have cut it with a knife. I couldn't help but look at the faces of my host sisters, each wearing a confused and hurt expression that I'd suddenly Benedict Arnolded them. I sort of burst out laughing at this one. And soon everyone was back to being laughing and cheering. The way I see it is that I was probably the only person in the whole entire universe that really cared whether the Americans won in Synchronized Swimming. I'm also probably one of the few Americans who really cares about the outcome of the Melbourne games. Actually I don't really care, except that if Japan loses, I may not get dinner. Maybe I should care.
Figure Skating. The competition had died down alot, when the Osaki's had a full party with Obachan, Ojichan, Aunt, and cousin, Ebuki. These dinners are always really enjoyable, because everyone is friendly and careless, just excited to be around family, or maybe food. Probably the food part. Yet, I stupidly committed the ultimate crime against Japanese people during the Figure Skating Event. After we were all fed, the group gathered around the big screen TV to watch a figure skating competition being held in Tokyo. We missed the very beginning explaining who was favored to win, but I think that everyone predicted it wo be one of the fabulous Japanese girls. The first contestant was this Italian athlete named Carolina. She was a great skater, and I could agree with my host grandmother, host sisters and cousin, on this fact. But I could not agree that she was pretty. Her eyes had a mile in between them and her nose looked like a tree stump. Call me insensitive, but this is what I thought. SO as they praised her for being a gorgeous woman, I peeped in that she was ugly, at least by gaijin standard. And I got in trouble for it. My host grandmother told me that I shouldn't make judgements on people based on looks. Because that was just utterly wrong, no matter what culture I came from. I felt really terrible, so I decided to keep my mouth shut for while. The next competitor was a very talented South Korean. And yet, when she began her program, everyone grew quiet, which I suspected was from the worry that she might beat a Japanese skater. God forbid. Then the whispering began, as the skater made some incredible jumps. Aunt and Ebuki remarked on the skaters ugly looks. While Obachan sat back in her chair and nodded in full agreeance. This is when I committed the ultimate crime against Japan. I said that I thought the South Korean was very beautiful, and that she was a far better skater in anyone else in the competition thus far. As soon as the words seemed to come out of my mouth, the judge threw out my defense lawyer and sentenced me to life in prison. God forbid a Korean be pretty! I was so in the dog house for this comment. Unfortunately for me, Japan won the 1st and 2nd place medals in this event. I heard about this one for a long time, especially since the pretty Korean got 3rd.
There is another competition going on. In Japan, the spring time is also the time for the country famous high school baseball competition. Kochi is actually a very strong prefecture for baseball, and has 2 teams in the competition, one in which is my host brothers school, and Muroto. A week ago we watched Muroto smoke their opponents and move into the next round. But as I sat there watching my host father smoke out the ears at the fact that his Kochi school was losing, I realized that this house is far too competitive in sports. Later, I called my Mom, to see if she was following the results of the Melbourne games. She thought I was mad because of how much I was talking about them, and didn't even know that Melbourne was having games. Thank god she is coming next week, allowing me to miss the final portion of the games. If I stay, I might end up dead.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

You Are What You Bleed

If I had a dollar for ever time someone here in Japan asked me, "What's your blood type?" I'd probably be able to buy Shikoku. The blood type theory of personality is a popular belief in Japan that a person's blood type or ketsueki-gata (血液型) can be used to predict their personality, character, and compatibility with others. Using blood type to predict a person’s character is as common as going to McDonald’s and ordering a Fried Shrimp burger. There is no solid scientific evidence that blood type has any relation to the theory. But that hasn't stopped the Japanese from believing in it.
When blood types were discovered in 1901, no one even thought to attach a superstition of personality to it. That was until 1927, when a Japanese University professor, with no medical background, published a book on blood types relating to personalities. Unfortunately this information was used in a wrong way. The Nazi's used blood types as supposed proof that Aryans were the 'better race.' This is because B blood is the most common in animals as well as Jews and Asians, while most Europeans contained O and A type blood. The blood type theory of personality wasn't used again until 1970, when Nomi Masahiko published a book on it. Since then, Japanese people have been obsessed with this theory.
Why? In my opinion, the Japanese are genetically quite a homogeneous race, but don’t want to seem the same. The Japanese population, however, has a fairly even distribution of a number of blood types. Hence, if grouped by blood type, diversity is created. Proof of this comes from the fact that the Japanese don't use the Rh factor when determining charcteristic traits. The Rh factor is the positive/negative part fo the blood. Since 99% of Japanese people are postive, a personality theory never had to be created. But that's only my opinion.
What's you blood type? Over 90% of the population of Japan knows their blood type, while 69% of Americans know theirs. Japanese popular culture has been saturated by blood typology for decades. Dating services use it to make matches. Employers use it to evaluate job applicants. Blood-type products — everything from soft drinks to chewing gum to earsers — have been found all over Japan. Blood type theory is widely popular in women's magazines as a way to gauge relationship compatibility with a potential or current partner. Morning television shows feature blood type horoscopes, and similar horoscopes are published daily in newspapers.
So what exactly does it mean to be your type of blood? Perhaps you are an A type, also known as the Farmer. Those with type A blood tend to be reserved, punctual, law-abiding, overcautious, stubborn, and unable to relax. You'd share this trait with Brittany Spears, Adolph Hitler, and George Bush Sr. AB's are the Humanist, said to be serious and solitary by nature, but also cool, sociable, popular, sometimes standoffish, and indecisive. John F. Kennedy, Mack Jaggar, and Jackie Chan share these traits with you. Maybe you're B blood, or the Hunter, seen as the worst of all the blood types by the Japanese. The traits are individualist that dislikes customs, strong, creative, wild, and unpredictable. Or maybe you are like me in the O category, or Warrior, seen as the best type. Our traits are trendsetters, loyal,
self-confident, independent, vain, and jealous.
Upon first learning of this theory, I found it amusingly naïve and just plain stupid. When I share the blood type theory of personality with people back home, they have the same reaction. We all think it's an incredibly silly concept. And yet the Japanese aren't the only ones with dubious personality theories. I mean, I come from a culture in which nearly everyone knows their horoscopes. Even though most say that they don’t really believe in astrology, everyone seems to know his or her astrological sign and most have a peek at the predictions now and then. But it doesn't just end at Horoscopes, our culture also uses hair color to determine personality. Blondes are commonly thought of as being innocent, naïve, or just plain dumb. While, red heads apparently have fiery personalities. Brunnettes are supposed to be boring and/or smart.
So what's your blood type? Even if you think it's a silly way to determine a personality, I think it's a good thing to know. Because when it comes down to things in Japan, you are what you bleed.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Taking A Vacation

Konnichiwa everybody! I'm writing to apoligize for the lack of updates over the course of March 29 to April 11. I'm going on the greatest Japan tour ever to be created in the history of Japan. And I'm really not exaggerating about this one either. Over the course of 2 weeks, I will be visiting Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto, Himeji, Hiroshima, Miyajima, and Kochi. 5 of these destinations will be visited with my Mom and Nana, who are coming to Japan for the first time on April 1st, 2007. As for you. Read all my new journal entries, I've been updating like crazy, and I'm sure some have been missed. But if you're interested in my activities of the GRAND JAPAN tours, then here you go:
Thursday March 29- Saturday March 31: Nagoya with the Hirosue's. I'm not totally sure what we are doing exactly but I know I get to see Nagoya Castle, Nagoya University, Japan Art Museum, and much much much more!
Sunday April 1 (Me):
11:00: Meet Naoko in Osaka
12:00- 7:00- Universal Studios Japan!
Sunday, April 1 (Mom and Nana):
2:30- Jackie Garner and Rosemary Young land at Narita Airport
2:30- ***depends on how quick they can get through the airport, get bags, head through customs, collect Japan Rail Passes, and make their way in to the Narita basement train station**
4:13-5:18-\ Narita Exp. 28- Tokyo Station 5:36- HIKARI 383 to Kyoto- 8:20
4:43-5:45-- \ Narita Exp. 30- Tokyo Station 6:06- HIKARI 423 to Kyoto- 8:43
5:13-19:17- \Narita Exp. 32- Tokyo Station 6:36- HIKARI 385 to Kyoto- 9:20
*Depending on the time they come in, I will meet them at Kyoto Station Shinkhansen station. They will then head into the station basement. Then we will head to the Kyoto's Traveller's Inn.

Monday, April 2: Walking, walking, and MORE WALKING!
8:00-8:30- Grab an easy breakfast at a local convenience store and halt a cab for Ginkakuji (silver pavillion)
8:30- 9:00- Explore the grounds of Ginkakuji
9:00-10:00- Stoll the Philosophers Path (No shopping, or eating as it's known for a expensive area). We can take a 5 to 10 minute break. 2KM- 1 3/4 miles.
10:30-11:00- Nanzenji
11:00-12:00- Walk to Chion-en and breifly explore the grounds. See famous old wood structure
12:00-1:30 Grab lunch at one of the stalls at Maruyama, take a nice break. Admire the park's beauty and why it is known to be Kyoto's top "hanami" or Sakura viewing spots. Probably be very crowded.
1:30-2:00: Explore Yasaka Shrine
2:00-2:45- Walk to Kodaiji and explore the grounds
3:00-Sunset: Make way to Kiyomizudera, pass along Yasaka no To (the pagoda in all of Kyoto's famous pictures) Walk along the Sannenzaka (path of easy child birth) The climb up to the temple is full of many various shops. Do a little shopping, but have at least an hour in the Shrine. Make sure to see the sun set. Explore Kiyomizudera- rest at Kyoto's most beautiful Shrine.
After: We have a few options, head down the mountain and find a nice little restaurant, catch a cab back to the hotel and find a cheaper restaurant around home, head back into Maruyama park to see the lite up Cherry Tree, go for another long walk into the Gion Geisha district for dinner and shopping. Let's see when wwe finish.

Tuesday, April 3: Tourist morning and Shopping in the afternoon
8:00-8:30- Breakfast at a Coneni and brief walk to Heian Shrine
8:30-9:45: Explore the beautiful Gardens and amazingness of the Heian Shrine
10-12- Get dressed up as Geisha
1-2- Take cab, bus, or subway to Golden Pavillion and explore the grounds
2-3- Bus to Ninnaji, explore grounds
3-4- Take cab, Bus, or Subway to Gion
4-whenever- Whenever, shopping and exploring old time Japan on the streets of Pontocho or Gion. This is the place to get an expensive but nice dinner.
Between 3-6, be sure to look for some Maiko and Geisha scurrying along the streets.



Wednesday, April 4:
8:00-8:30- Grab an easy breakfast from a Conveni and halt a cab for Nijo Castle.
9-11- Explore Nijo Castle
11-11:15- Shinsenen
?Time? (11:30-1) JR Sagano Line from Nijo Station to JR Saga Station (covered with JRP), 6 minute walk from JR Saga to Romantic Train entrance. 25 minutes of pure beauty through the Hozu river valley gorge.
1-2:30: Pick up lunch at a Yatai (moveable stall) and explore Nonomiya and Tenryuki. Y600. Be sure to walk through Bamboo Lane
2:30-2:45- Togetsukyo Bridge
2:45-3- Make the step climb up Iwatayama Mountain to feed the Monkey's
3:45- Take train back to Kyoto (Just wing it- I'm not totally sure how to do that.)



Thursday, April 5:
8-8:30- Take Tozaisen to Kyoto Station
9:14-10:48 - Board Shin-Kaisoku bound for Himeji
10:50- 11:15- A short walk through Himeji city to the beautiful Himeji Castle
11:20- 2,3- Explore the most beautiful Castle in the world
--If we want to explore more of Himeji, Take the city bus for Shosha Ropeway from JRESanyo Railway Himeji Station and get off at the final destination **Depending on time we finish-
3:29- 4:33 Hikari 467- Hiroshima
4:29- 5:32 Hikari 469- Hiroshima
5:06- 6:09 Hikari 471- Hiroshima
**Check in at the Arc Hotel
Friday, April 6:
9:30- Take the Hiroshima streetcar to Genbaku-domu mae
10:00- 11:30- Genbaku-domu and Peace Park
11:30- 1:30- Hiroshima Peace Museum
1:30- 5:00- Free time for shopping, exploring, Hiroshima Castle?,
5:00- 6:30- Head to Okonomomura. 28 Okonomiacki restarants in one place, and each is different.
Return to Hotel for early night


Saturday, April 7:
9:00-9:23 Sanyo line from Hiroshima Station to Miyajima guchi
9:40- 9:50- Miyajima Ferry 10:00- ? Explore the beautiful island and Itsukusa-jinja shrine, with the floating Torii in the near distance. Explore the island and maybe even get to feed the deer.
1:55-2:05- Miyajima Ferry 2:33-2:59- Miyajima Station-Hiroshima 3:10- 3:51-Hikari 464 Hiroshima-Okayama 4:52- 7:19-Nanpu 19-Okayama-Kochi
2:40- 2:50-Miyajima Ferry 3:04-3:31- Miyajima Station-Hiroshima 3:46- 4:27-Hikari 466 Hiroshima-Okayama 4:52- 7:19-Nanpu 19-Okayama-Kochi
Welcome Home, Julie!
7:19- Matsumoto-san picks up the Garners from Kochi Station and takes them to the Oriental Hotel, probably dinner as well
7:20- Take Cab to Oriental Hotel

Sunday April 8:
10:00-2:00- Explore Kochi's famous Farmer's market, which had a 300 year old history. Also climb up to Kochi castle. Have lunch in the ever interesting Hirome market.
2:00-6:30- Mr. Masaki is taking us to the Katsuruhama, most beautiful beach in all of Kochi, Godaison, famous shrine, and Makino Botanical Gardens.
6:30-?- Welcome Party from ROtary for Jackie Garner and Rosemary Young at the SHin Hankyu Hotel, will get to meet all; the host families and counselors as well as some teachers.

Monday, April 9:
Events are undecided at the moment. However Mrs. Osaki will be driving us wherever we want to go in the Kochi Prefecture.

Tuesday, April 10:
Sleep in!
3:00- Tosajoshi High School for a Koto mini concert
Dinner with the Hirosues

Wednesday, April 11:
8:30- Jackie and Rosemary depart Kochi Ryoma airport for home.

Hanami

You know what time of year it is when the beer cans turn pink, there are strange weather forecasts on TV and train stations are covered with pictures of flowers – hanami season.
Hanami season in March and April is, for many Japanese, the best time of year. This is when the cherry blossom trees all over Japan come in to bloom for between seven and 10 days and people hold outdoor parties to view them. Just for reference Hana means flower, while Mi means look. So Hanami essentially means looking at flowers.
The advent of the blossoms not only heralds the end of a harsh winter but also the beginning of another school year and a new fiscal year for businesses, so hanami is like a party to celebrate a new beginning. Late winter and early spring are really busy times in Japan. Then, in April, come the cherry blossoms like a breath of fresh air.
Why do the Japanese love the Sakura so much? They liken the petals to the life of the samurai – a brief explosion of colour, bright for the duration of their short life, before they wither and die. They represent the brevity of life and the frailty of existence, and this is celebrated by getting roaring drunk.
The parties really haven't changed since the old days. The first hanami took place in the seventh century. Originally a religious rite, it was held on a particular day and the coming harvest was forecasted from the condition of the cherry blossoms. The full blooms were symbolic of a full and bountiful harvest of rice, which the upper classes would celebrate by drinking and eating under the trees. Eventually it became a popular activity for all the classes of Japan. And the best thing to compare Hanami to is a big old picnic. In which, Families and workmates gather under the tees. They sing, drink, eat and talk until late in the evening.
The state of the cherry blossoms is also revealed to millions through the media. There are "sakura forecasts" – with pink dots covering maps of Japan on television and in the daily newspapers. This is followed by information on how to find the best displays, the areas where the season has finished and where it is just beginning. Hanami parties are planned around these reports. A sort of “sakura fever” grips the nation for the duration of the fragile blossom’s life. The last weeks of March were spent in anticipation for my Host family. Everyday was another day that the Sakura could bloom, so one must always be on the lookout. March 22, 2007 was a very warm day, so it was predicted that the flowers would be opening very soon. However, rain prevented the beautiful flowers from spring to life.
The Osaki's waited and watched the Sakura forecasts ever morning hoping to hear the wonderful news that the Sakura had bloomed. I really had no idea what to expect. I didn't understand the big deal behind a bunch of flowers. Osaki Okasan explained that one morning you just wake up, and all the flowers are in full bloom. It's as simple and as magical as that. I almost puked.
When it comes to flowers, I am possibly the biggest anti-Japanese personality. Take for instance, back in September thru mid-November, my Tuesday morning 4th period class was spent with the Middle School Second graders participating in the ancient traditional art of Flower Arrangement. Now I am all for cultural activities, but tampering around with flowers in a pot is just plain pushing it. Teachers, upon reading my schedule, would rave about how lucky I was to have been given the opportunity to participate in such a class. Each time, I made sure to bite my tongue. I switched out of the class upon first chance. And then there was my birthday party. I didn't want anybody to get me anything. I even told them that their presence at my party, was presents enough. Did they listen? Of course not. Almost every single one of my friends brought me a bouquet of pink and white flowers. It was truly horrible. Now don't get me wrong, it's not that I really hate flowers. I just don't see in them what the Japanese see. The Japanese, the aesthetics that they are, use flowers as symbols of strength and good fortune. I often find myself seeing allergies, bugs, and messes to clean up after they die.
There is one flower I really do like though, the Ume, or Plum Blossoms. I think that the reason I like them is because I feel bad for them. I cheer for the underdog on every occasion I get. Everyone is always talking about how great the Sakura are, and what kind of party they should get when they come about. Sakura get their own pick beer cans, national forecasts, and drinking parties. The poor Ume get no attention whatsoever. (Actually that isn't true, the Tosajoshi mascot is the Ume. I guess this could be taken in a few ways.) It's a light purple flower, and in my opinion, it symbolizes much more that the Sakura. While the Sakura symbolizes coming to life, the Ume blossoms at the end of Winter. It symbolizes that there is hope at the end of the long tunnel. It is how I felt when I moved out of my second host family.
One afternoon, Yurie Hirosue invited me to go Hanami up at Kochi Castle. I packed a Bento lunch, Kimuchi Onigiri and Goma Salad, and wandered to the castle, unsure of what to expect. Yet, not to my surprise, Yurie managed to pick a day, when there were no Sakura flowers in bloom. It was fine with me, however. The Ume were still around and I ate my Onigiri while peering up at the beautfil purple blossoms, and thanking them for bringing the end to winter.
The Sakura in Kochi finally did bloom in late March. I had gone to Nagoya by that point, and would probably not be back in time to see them. Osaki Okasan liked to joke that the bloomed because they knew I had gone. That way they wouldn't have to hear me tormenting the Japanese for their obsession with little pink flowers.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

My Dignity and the Underdogs

This morning at 9, as I danced merrily in a patch of sugar plums in dreamland, a raspy "Jurie!" work me up with a startle. My host Obachan in a bathing suit, not a pretty picture mind you, wandered in my room, follwed by her army of cats and ushered me to get out of bed. It was time for the Kochi Over 70-years old Swim Team Practice. I reminded her I was in fact a little bit under 70 years old, but I'm not sure she really cared. So 10 minutes later, nursing a bad hair, fighting eye boogers, and just all around morning disease, I guzzled down a steaming hot coffee, while my host mom nearly wet herself. Twas' a sight for sore eyes.
I hopped into Obachan's ancient Mercedes as she yelled at me for being slow. As we drove away, she told me about the club. All the woman were Over 70 and this was the last practice prior to Spring Break. She went on to say that usually the practice was 4 hours, but today we would be going for 2. I asked her why, and she promptly replied that I wouldn't be able to handle it. Now I consider myself a pretty athletic person. I bike for 60 minutes a day and try to get an additional 60 minutes of running or swimming in 5 times a week. So her comment made me laugh. When will I ever learn?
At the pool arena, I was the youngest person by at least 50 years, and in some cases probably about 70 years. I was also the skinniest person by about 50 pounds in every case, but I won't go into my scarred memory of the old ladies locker room. I'll just say that it was not one of my fonder memories of Japan. In the pool, I made the first mistake of not taking a shower first. But being a cute young Gaijin, no one said anything.
For the warm up's the woman did some easy swims back and forth. I gently kicked back and thought, "this is going to be a piece of Chocolate cake." Some of the old whales, oops I mean woman, panted heavily as they returned from their course. I watched and tried hard not to laugh at all.
When warm up's were over, the woman got out of the pool for some excersizes, while I did some Breast Stroke drills. From the sidelines I watched as the elderly woman stretched and I couldn't help but remind myself that about my bowling experience (See The Obachan Factor.) And as soon as it was time for the actual practice, I had come to the realization that the Obachan Factor was going to occur at any second. And sure enough when the lifeguard blew her whistle, a midget woman of about 93, dove off the platform and began a Freestyle stroke that rivaled that of Ian Thorpe. In fact as I watched these woman dive off the platform, which alone is quite an interesting feat for elderly woman, I contemplated whether I ought to call the Japan Olympic Organization and ask them to come take a look.
You know Japan often does really bad at the Olympics, and I could never figure out why. But after the past week, it has all become clear. Thinking back to the Tug-of-War championships (See Class Matches), where Tosajoshi's biggest geeks crushing an intense Tug-of-War match, the Obachan's Bowling club of ancient fossils beasting a bowling rink, and more Obachan super human strength in the pool. Japan sends their athletes to the Olympics, while they should be sending their misfits, elders, and weirdos. So here is my advice Japan, send in the Obachan and the geeks. Everyone will think this little old 93 year old midget is to cute to be taken seriously, and then WHAM. She beasts in the pool like she ate rocket fuel for breakfast or something. Everyone realizes what a mistake they made when the very same woman, who can barely stand is crying her wrinkly face out while hoisting a heavy medal gold plate over her head, while complaining she needs her Walker.
I was far to ashamed of my poor swimming ability to join them. So for an hour I just practiced Breast Stroke and Back Stroke. I forgot how tiring swimming is for the body. But it's really comfortable when you lose yourself in your thought ans the focus to get to the other side. The only problem with pools in Japan are that they are designed for Japanese people, in that they are so shallow. Most Japanese woman couldn't touch the bottom without high heeled shoes, but for me, touching the bottom is a bit of a problem. It didn't matter after I got lost in the swimming, that is, until one of the Obachan remembered that I was still there. She got the other old ladies to come watch. They discovered a gaijin who was a fairly good swimmer. I think they must have expected me to sink like a rock or something. Because when I listened I heard them saying, "Jouzu! Mite!" (She swims well! Look at her!) I tried to ignore it, because I knew what would happen if I stopped and let them talk to me. But no matter what I did, it seemed today my dignity was going to take a real hit.
My host Obachan jumped in the pool, after I ignored the woman's cried for me to stop, she grabbed my leg as I frantically tried to kick away, and pulled me back. I briefly wondered if Superman was trained by an Obachan. SHe made me get out of the pool, despite all my pleadings. She told me that she would find a swimmer, who I could have a chance againt. Someone a bit more my pace, of you will. The result, Tanaka-san, a 88 year old woman, with severe arthritus, who was quitting the club because she was getting too old. In fact, today was her last practice. I suppose I should have been offended that my Obachan thought the only worthy swimmer of my poor skills was someone who needed a cane and 50 pills a day. But really, I was just please I wouldn't get too smoked. And, I know I keep saying this, but seriously, when will I ever learn?
The old ladies circled the pool and began a slight earthquake as the hobbled around cheering. My Obachan put me on a platform, until I informed I didn't know how to dive. She gasped in awe and said something about learning to dive when Matthew Perry pulled into the ports of Japan. So I had to jump into the pool and wait for the whistle, while Tanaka-san stood on the platform. When the whistle was blown, she dove in, and I kicked off the wall. The race had begun. Like my Obachan had said, Tanaka-san was the perfect competitor for me. We were perfectly evenly matched, that when I pulled ahead, I believe she was slightly suprised. The race in the 25m pool, was supposed to 100m, so 2 back and forths. I was a few seconds ahead of Tanaka-san as we made the first return, and I saw that she was tiring out. But like all old people in Japan, refused to concede defeat. It was such a close match. Though I ended up beating her. But the old woman claimed it was an even tie. I reckon the woman wanted Tanaka-san to remember her last practice on the team as a successful one. But Tanaka-san was not having ony of it. She asked me for a rematch. I was deatbeat tired, but I saw her wrinkled old face, and behind those eyes she was fending off severe leg pains. And I knew what I had to do.
So we raced again. And even though my plan was to let her win, she would have beaten me. I was tired, and she was determined. And those two factors combined, made Tanaka-san look like Michael Phelps in the water. She hopped out of the pool and into the arms of her old lady friends, while I was sort of forgotten about. The woman all laughed and joked about how fast she was, and how Tanaka-san creamed the gaijin. Now an 88-year old Obachan can tell all her great-great grandchildren that she beat a 16 year-old gaijin in a pool. I can't say I'm too upset about this.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Unexpected but Awesome

So my plans for today, Sunday March 18, 2007, were to sleep till noon, eat, sleep till 7, eat, and then well, sleep. But those plans were shot in the butt at 7 in the morning when my lovely host mother knocked on my door, "Julie! Time to go." 2 weeks ago I mentioned that I might like to run to Haruno Park and watch my host sisters elementary school marathon. Half-asleep I put on some running clothes, figuring that I was not going to get back to sleep, that I may as well make the best of the day. And I certainly did that.
I ran to Haruno Park, a gorgeous excercise facility about 6 kilometers up and down the mountains away from Kochi. I trekked through bamboo forests and windy peaks and made my way to my host sisters race. And I arrived at about 9. So from 9 till about 12 I watched at the Kouda Shogakkou students raced. Each grade had to do 2 kilometers. I arrived just in time to cheer on Hikari, and waited 2 hours for Maako's big race. I'd like to say it was enjoyable, but I'd be lying. It was so cold and frigid, that I began to wonder whether this whole global warming claim has any substance. I attempted to find my host mom in the crowds of cheering parents. Attempted is the best word that can describe the hopeless situation. Imagine about 1000 screaming Japanese woman, all with black hair, dull colored clothing, and turned backs. But I got lucky when a teammate from the Kochi Synchronized Swimming team spotted this clueless gaijin and directed me to whear my host mom was sitting. So I sat in the back of the stadium and watched as little elementary kids raced.
My favorite part about the race was the end. Not just because they were long and a little boring, but because the end always intailed a chubby little Japanese girl walking to the finish line. She was usually holding her hip, as to prove she had a cramp, or fakely limping. That girl was me. That girl who hated and avoided these physical activity sessions at all costs.
When the marathon was over, I headed home with Hikari and Okasan in the car. Back at the house we ate lunch and I decided to stick with my initial schedule. Better late than never. :) Upstairs, I curled into my futon bed and closed my eyes. And and as I began drifting into sleep, I heard, "JURIE!" I hopped out of bed and headed downstairs. 10 minutes later I found myself in the car of my host aunt and Obachan heading to some cultural concert. Somewhere in the ride I learned that today was never meant for me to just catch on sleep. At the Green Hall in the middle of the city, I watched the Japanese population of Kochi perform a various evented concert. Old woman did Hula dancing, young children danced to Hip Hop, Middle aged woman folded Kimonos, while one gaijin fought to keep her eyes open. It was a bit boring. No- it was very boring.
WHen it was all overwith, my host aunt picked us up. My Obachan was raving about how wonderful the concert was, and I fought with myself not to burst her bubble. Obachan and Aunt talked about what we could do next. It was decided that we would go to Haruno Onsen.
So Ebuki, Hikari, Me, Obachan, and Host Aunt quickly got some things together and headed to the wonderful onsen in Haruno. I hadn't been to an Onsen since October, when I went ot Dogo Onsen in MAtsuyama. Back then was shy. Today I ripped my clothes off and jumped in the Mineral water faster than you could say, "gaijin." When did I lose my morals?
After the onsen, we all went for a delicious dinner. I got to eat Hiyashi Ohm rice, which may actually be my new favorite food.
Back at the home, I felt like I really needed to call home. So seconds after I walked into the Osaki house, I rushed upstairs and called my parents. It was good to talk to them after a long time. I got a lot of things straightened out with the upcoming trip. When it was over with, I happily headed back downstairs. There my host mom pointed out that I had been living with them for exactly 1 month. I had totally forgotten. And a celebration of Apple and Chocolate Tarte was in order.
And I wanted to spend today sleeping.... haha

Saturday, March 17, 2007

What It Means To Be Us

This evening the Kochi Rotary Nishi club sponsored the first ever Kochi Rotex Dinner. For those of you who don't know, Rotex stands for Ex-Rotary Youth Exchange Students, or people who have gone on an exchange to somewhere in the world and returned. The event was held at Rotary's favorite place, the Kochi Shin Hankyu Hotel, from 5:30 till about 8:00. Everyone involved in the Youth Exchange process was invited, which included about 10 Rotarians, 12 Rotex, 1 inbound (me), and 2 outbounds (next year's exchange students.)
I arrived very early and was greeted by members of the Nishi Rotary Club, men who I had not seen for a long time. I briefly spoke to them, and shocked the heck out of them with my Japanese skills. On floor number 12, Matsumoto-san, my host counselor, greeted me and informed I would be doing a speech. For the first time in my life, I was excited to do a speech in public. It's weird, I have been in Japan for 7 months, and the little things like my feeling on doing speeches has changed so drastically. In August through November, I dreaded speeches and avoided them at all costs. I memorized a tiny speech just so I would be able to not make a total fool out of myself. December through February, my feeling on speeches was neutral. I didn't care whether I had to make one or not, I just preferred to be somewhat prepared. Now I just like talking. I swear I like hearing my own voice or something. My speeches usually don't make any grammatical sense because I kind of just Caveman Japanese through it, but I get out what I want to say. And I can joke in Japanese, which makes everyone happy and remark that I have great skills. For today's speech, I didn't even think about it. Instead I kicked back and greeted the arriving Rotex people.
When everyone had arrived, the dinner started with the Rotarians doing opening welcomes. The Julie Garner pampering began when my teachers, Matsuoka-sensei and Kitazoe-sensei were introduced. Kitazoe-sensei talked about her experiences with all the exchange students over the years. They nearly forgot Matsuoka-sensei, and even though he tried to force me to be quiet, I jokingly reminded the Rotarians to make him speak. He talked in all of the Japanese indirectness about how badly last years exchange students were, and how I am "subarashii (wonderful)." Soon dinner was served, which comprised of Seafood Salad, Weird Potato Soup, lots of Bread, and Bacon Wrapped Steak. Then on to the enormous plate of dessert. It was discovered that I am better with chop sticks than with forks and knives, how horrible is that? After the meal it was time for the Rotex to speak about their experiences with going abroad.
One of the things I found most interesting was that everyone went to Tosajoshi High School, my host school. Out of the 41 Kochi Rotex student's, only 12 could come to the dinner. I probably should use a better word other than student. The oldest Rotex was in her late 30's, while many of the others were in their late 20's. At first I was a bit annoyed by the fact that many Rotex didn't even come to their own dinner. But when we received the pamplet about what everyone was doing, I soon realized why so few could actually come. Most of the Rotex were spread throughout the world and/or Japan. Many are/or had attended American or Australian Universities. And not just any University in America. I read off the list New York University and Cornell. Those that did not go to University abroad, attended the best schools in Japan. Many were currently living in Tokyo or Osaka, breaking the Tosajoshi tradition. If you ask most girls at my school what they want to do with their lives, most will respond with staying in Kochi. There isn't anything wrong with this, but it is really interesting to me to see girls who got out of Shikoku and got a taste of the world. Those same girls had trouble staying in the rural prefecture, and most of them couldn't.
The 4 Rotex from the 1980's, all of whom had gone to Brisbane, Australia, were currently English teachers in Kochi and the surrounding areas. They had all gone to International colleges and were fluent in English. But I found the girls closer to my age to be the most interesting. The exchange student to Austalia in 1998-1999 is a Kochi University student. She speaks perfect English, as well as Arabic. Or yeah, she's a Muslim. I mean full-blown burka wearing Muslim. She was definitely the most interesting to talk to. After all, most Japanese people don't know the difference between a Jewish man and a Muslim man, how could one convert to Islam? I learned that from her exchange, she got really interested in things outside her own country, discovered Islam, and essentially found herself. Another girl, Okayama University student, Akito, who had been an exchange student in West Orange, New Jersey, is studying to be a nurse. She wants to get a job in a big city, where she can use her English as much as possible. And there were so many more stories about how exchanges changed the lives if these girls, who probably would have grown up and stayed in Kochi for the rest of their lives.
I came to realize that I needed this dinner, this opportunity to meet people like me. I don't mean like me, in personality, appearence, and lifestyle. I mean so much more. Looking around at all these Rotex, I couldn't help but feel a surge of utmost gratitude and respect. Okay, fine, I'm in a country where you HAVE to repect your senior's, but it wasn't about following culture rules. After all, these girls certainly didn't follow their own culture and expected life course. They jumped on an airplane and lived in another country for a year. And you know? The world needs people like us. People who do something out of the norm, go on an exchange, and teach the world the truth about our cultures. I know for a fact that last year's exchange student from Japan changed the way I see Japanese people. She showed me that not all Japanese people are squinty eyed little geniuses, who eat fish and rish at every meal. (I'm not saying that's how I saw Japanese people, but you get the picture.) Who are the real ambassadors or our home countries? Sure the government sends some fancy guy who speaks in political jargon and thinks he represents a whole country. But the real ambassadors are us. The people who go abroad and want to teach the world about ourselves and our home cultures. And in the process of teaching others, we are learning ourselves.
I could go on and on about all that it means to be an exchange student. But no one but an exchange student really would understand all that comes in the package. Last year at my New Jersey Orientation, one of the main Rotarians said something that has stayed with me ever since. "You can tell anyone about your exchange. Mostly you'll get, "Why?" or "Cool!" But a former exchange student will only smile. Words can't describe an exchange."I don't know whether or not exchange students change the world. But I do know that without them, the world would be a little less knowledgeable. Tonight I was surrounded by greatness. The kind of greatness you don't hear about and nobody ever gets credit for. Even though every exchange student ought to get a lot of credit.
As the night dirfted on, it was time for my speech. I stood up, all smiles and slightly giggling, began. I talked about school and clubs. And I finished with the fact that I am becoming quite proficient in Tosa Ben, which is the horrible dislect only spoken in Kochi-ken. Nearly everyone wet themselves as this crazy gaijin spoke like a hick. Julie Garner pampering followed. I mean my teachers and counselors went on and on about how good I've been, how I'm trying so hard to learn Japanese, how out of 3 host families, 2 of them love me like their own. Lately al I have been feeling is down about the fact that my Japanese isn't quite good, but flattered isn't a good enough word to describe my feelings listening to them speak. I really did need this dinner more than I thought.
As the night ended, I found myself full, happy, and best fo all proud of myself. Tonight, I was surrounded my greatness. The very same greatness that I'm spreading as an exchange student. I hope I'm not sounding arrogant or full of myself. It's just that it's a bit difficult explaining what it means to be us. Exchange students.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Running

Do you ever wonder how seemingly normal, otherwise-well-rounded people find their way into endurance sports? Of course there will always be genetic anomalies out there who can burn endless miles without even trying. But where does the rest of the field come from? How does a person look at something like a slow paced long run- the out-of breath feeling of being untouchable from the rest of the world, followed by the creeping night fatigue. How does someone look at something like that and say, “hey, that might be something I’d be good at”? Or even scarier - “hey, that might be fun.”
At some point over the last year of my life, everyone has thought that I, Julie Garner, am crazy. I did, after all, jump on an airplane and head to live abroad in Japan for an entire year at the ripe old age of 15. But even before my big adventure, I took on another task that has forever changed who I am. I started running. Now I'm sure that doesn't sound like much, but it is, it really is. It isn't just any running either. I run long and hard runs, that often find my legs asking for a divorce.
When people find out where I run and for how long, they just think I'm utterly deranged. At home, my Track coach would remark everyday that even his best and daring runners wouldn't undertake the courses I liked. And these 'courses' and routes are what made the country of Japan, which is 73% mountainous, the perfect country for me. It's true, I run the mountains for fun.
Now don't get the wrong idea. I'm really a terrible runner. I seriously have the speed of an old lady on a Sunday morning. Before I started running last year, my mother would say that I run like a retarded turtle. Even now, after more than a year of running, I run like I have a sack of potato's on my back. But you know, I figure if you really love something, it doesn't matter that you aren't good at it and what not. And I love running. It's weird, because before I started running, I was the biggest 'avoid physical activity at ALL costs' kind of person. The dinner table and the couch in front of the television, went way back with my butt. Running rotation in gym class often prompted 'sick days' at school. Now after all that has happened, I can't imagine what I would be doing without running. That brings me to running in Japan.
Like I mentioned earlier, Japan is 73% mountainous, a sane runner's worst nightmare. But for me, absolute heaven. Since I am a pretty busy person, I only get in running about a hour 3 or 4 times a week. Though if it was my choice, I'd run everyday.
My current host house, the Kato residence, is in a more industrialized section. Yet I have already scoped out huge mountain trails, and a riverside run, a mere 5 minutes away. Though I have been told not to run up the mountain without a Japanese person, curiosity has always gotten the best of me. On top of the hill near the Kato's I was given a front seat at the most incredible view of Kochi City. My city. And when I dragged along my host parents, I pointed out each and every house and town I had been able to call home during my exchange year. Immensely impressed at my navigational skills, they complimented me profusely, and also breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I didn't get lost every time I went out exploring on a run.
Since the Kato house isn't too far away from Tosajoshi, my school, I also run at Josei Park. Josei Park is the 'big' park on the area surrounding Kochi Castle. The castle is situated on a hill, so that instead of running around the pond at the bottom, I find myself training on running up the steep ancient steps of the castle. Sometimes I like to think about who else might have run this way. I even make stories in my mind about Samurai's running up to warn the Castle of an approaching enemy. And always at the bottom, I smile as I run through the 400 year old gates, and look up at the gorgeous castle, almost twice as old as my country.
The best host family house for my tiring hobby, was the house of the Osaki's. Just a few feet away from the house is the start of a long steep hill up Kouda Mountain. It's not actually called, Kouda Mountain, but I don't actually know the name. Since I ran it so often, I'm pretty sure people who lived around the area, we're calling it Mt. Running Gaijin. Kouda Mountain is fascinating. I never get bored running up, the dusty deserted road to Kouda Tunnel. It's a little dangerous, since the road is as ancient as the mountain itself, and there is no sidewalk. But there are hardly ever any cars, and I have never seen anybody undertake the long steep walk up the mountain. Looking back on it now, I know my other 3 host families would have NEVER let me go on this run, but the Osaki's were never a worrisome family. They knew right off the bat, that running was what I like to do. And they weren't going to stop me because of a little worry.
When I first scoped out the area leading to the road up the mountain, I was afraid that straying off the dirt path would get me hopelessly lost. One side of the mountain overlooks Kochi City, which is the side I usually run on. But eventually, I tempted fate and took a dusty path off the road. I found myself climbing an incredibly steep slope, along side what looked like an abandoned cemetery. Here in Japan, cemeteries are very well kept, so I was very curious as to why this one was so out of order. I later learned that the reason is because it's about 400 years old, and no one bothers to take care of ancestors from that long ago. I fell in love with this road alongside a mysterious and peaceful cemetery, and didn't want to question it to much. When one reaches the top of the road, the trail leads into a deep thick forest. With lots of energy, I ignored my mind begging not to follow the road. Instead, I listened to my gut, and my love for adventure. Soon I found myself jogging down the mountain in a deep untouched brush in the lush green Shikokuan mountains. I crossed over rotting wooden bridges, and paralleled alongside of a gushing creek filled with the most crystal clear water one could imagine. In the middle of the afternoon, my mind was at ease from the sounds of crickets and birds, in the sound that I only ever hear during the late summer nights in America. It's times like these when I realize how lucky I am, and how much I truly do love running. I think only runners know the feeling I'm about to describe. It's like when you are running, the whole world stops, and for a few minutes, a hour, or however long you run, all the problems of the world are forgotten. And even if they aren't forgotten, and you still think about them, running makes it feel like nothing can catch up with you. Because for those minutes that the body is moving to the run, you are untouchable. The only person who can control what happens is you. You decide when to stop and go, how fast or slow, and where and when you explore. There is so much more to the feeling of running, but I can't get it out the right way.
Running in Japan, hasn't always been very easy. My first host family, the Masaki's, lived right in the middle of the city. Back then, I did not do much exploring, and was really limited to the busy mall areas. I was also forbidden to run at night, because the Masaki apartment is close to a few famous bars. The times I did get to go out at night, Drunks were very visible. I wasn't dismayed, though, and I joined the Tosajoshi Track and Field club. Unfortunately, it wasn't the kind of running that made me happy. I don't like being limited to just the Stadium Track, because I'm too adventurous to be stuck in monotony. By the move to my 2nd family, the Oono's, I had stopped the Track team in favor of a more cultural club, the Japanese Harp, the Koto. I had figured that when I moved to the Oono's, I'd get more time to do running. This was not the case. My host father was very strict, and did not allow me to do much exploring. I was not allowed to run at night, or even if darkness began falling. Since I arrived home at about 4:30, with the sun slightly going down in the wintertime at 5. Running was made impossible. My host mother knew that I needed to run, so she secretly helped me get in a few early morning jogs. I was content with these runs, but I didn't get to scope at the whole area around my host town. Which is something that saddens me even 4 months later.
I'm never going to be a competitive runner. I don't like competition, and I'm cetainly not fast enough or string enough for it. So why do I run? I run to live, and live to run. It's as simple as that. And you know, honestly, I'm probably one of the most fortunate runners in the world. After all, not many people can say that they get to run through an ancient Japanese castle, or that their favorite training spot is a 400 year old cemetary.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Obachan Factor

You know you have heard the popular saying, "Behind every great man, there is a great woman," or something to those lines. Here in Japan the saying should go, "Behind every great Japanese, there is an Obachan." For the past 7 months I have been able to witness and experience the Obachan. And it has furthured my belief that Japan could have won World War II. All they needed to do was send Obaasan into battle. America would be called the United States of Nippon, Australia would be The Land Down Under the Rising Sun, Thailand, the Land of Smiling Japanese, and so on and so forth.
Firstly, let’s just explain what Obaasan means. It should mean Grandmother in Japanese, but it has a few related meanings, such as a generic term for an old lady. People who are close to the Obaasan, are usually allowed to call them by the less formal name of Obachan. And since I have had about 4 Obachans who have allowed me to call them this, I'm going to refer to them as Obachan. The Obachan Factor. I guess it could also mean, old woman with super human strength. But I will get to that in a moment.
A few days ago, I went bowling with my current host Obachan, Saiko Osaki. When she invited me to tag along with her, I figured it would be just she and I bowling. I've known her long enough to know that she was not going to sit on the sidelines. The woman is a busybody. She is 70 years old, though she looks in her late 50's, and in the past year alone, she has done more traveling throughout the world then most people have done in their lives. She also runs her own Coffee Shop and has a job selling sports wear for older woman. The real shocker is that she manages to spend everyday with her grandchildren, 3 cats, take care of her nearly deaf husband, bowl on Wednesdays, Hula Dance on Friday and Sunday, and swim 2 mornings a week. Does this suprise you? This is a typical Obachan, mind you.
At the bowling arena, we entered and were greeted by 10 elderly woman. Not just elderly woman, either. The only accurate way to describe what I witnessed was 10 little green Yodas, all with the hunch, wrinkles, and weird ways of speaking. Yoda was supposedly 800 year's old, well I reckon these woman were around that age too. I mean most of them could personally have owed Commordore Matthew Perry a dollar. Japan does, after all, have one of the world's highest life expectancies.
Anyway, they crawled over to their designated lanes and began practicing. Obachan Osaki sat me down to have me watch her game. She was playing 3 other dinosaurs, that instead of practicing, sat around the lanes chatting about husbands, cats, medicine, and other stuff old people talk about. I sat back and waited, preping myself for an enjoyable experience. I was thinking that the gutter would be getting a serious workout, at least one Obachan would throw out an arm, and the winner would be the only person to get their bowling ball to the other end. When will I ever learn?
As soon as the first Obachan took her turn, it all really came together. I mean EVERYTHING from the past 7 months that I have seen, spent a moment in awe, and then moved on. Often I would see an Obachan gently walking into their gardens, very sweet, and then she’d get the futons out on the drying line and start beating them with sticks and metal bats. I mean she was like a 5 year-old Mexican beating a Pinata on Cinco de Mayo. In the street, the Obachan have a reputation for going really slow. This is just to annoy you, because when they’re after that cheap rice in the supermarket, they can move at 100km/h, even the ones with walkers. The Japanese are known for the fact that they will fight to the death for a seat on the train. Obachan just have to stand and look old and withered for someone to take pity on them and offer them up their seat. This, too, is just an act.
The main thing about Obachan is that they are very familiar with the Japanese Bible, "Japan: This Is How We Do Things." But because they are so old, they don't follow the rules at all. The advantage with being that old is that they know pretty much everything, and so have perfected many things. This is probably why they spend so much time complaining that the young generation of Japan is ruining the culture and shunning their heritage, or that nobody uses the proper kanji – after over 300 years, they pretty much know all 50,000 of them. And Obaasan are involved in EVERYTHING. My school is pretty much run by alumni, who are now old enough to be sending their great-great-grandchildren there. One of my teachers, a young alumni of about 70 years-old, just recently had a class reunion with all her school mates and teachers. The main teacher must have been 400 year's old, no joke. It really looked like the former students propped the woman out of grave to pose for the picture. "She may be old, but she is sharp as a wit. She even corrected my poor grammar," my teacher joked. I really wanted to say, 'Well of course she corrected your grammar, she was probably around when they decided on how to use the grammar.'
Back to the bowling alley, I watched as 3 woman, who probably learned how to bowl back when the cavemen created the game, fling the round 3-holed ball at speeds that found me briefly questioning my ability of sight. Nascar folks would be choking on their tongues, Olympic bowlers would be shaking, and gaijins underestimating the power of the Obachan would lose control of their mouths and be forced to allow it to fling open in awe. My Obachan got a strike on her first turn. Did you know that when you get 3 strikes in a row, it's called a 'Turkey'? There were more Turkey's on that Old Lady team than there were in America on Thanksgiving. The winner of the day was a woman who was old enough to be my grandmother's grandmother. She got 5 strikes and 3 spares. I honestly don't think I have ever gotten more than 2 strikes in one game in my life.
These Obachan are incredible. Though I was shocked at their strength, when it comes down to everything, they really deserve it. These very Obachan witnessed their country change from it's native culture to it's modern state. They saw Militarism, destruction of their country during countless wars, and a wave of peace. They experienced death, poverty, hard work, and freedom. My Obachan once told me that her marraige was arranged by her family. I as an individual have no problem with this, because my best friend at home will probably have an arranged marriage. But I know the younger Japanese generation find that to be horrifying, among other things that these Obachan have experienced. And now these old woman struggle with the younger generation to keep a culture, that is 1000's of years old, alive.
Had Admiral Yamamoto sent in Obachan, I'd be fluent in Japanese. These cute little old woman, who can barely walk let alone beat futons with metal bats, are truly the strongest people you could ever meet. I really firmly believe this. And the great thing about them, is that when you take the time to listen to what they have to say, you learn so much. I hope one day I have the super human strength and mind power of a Japanese Obachan. If not, I'd still like to be able to beat futons with metal bats.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Class Matches

Most private schools in Japan finish the school year on March 16th, while public schools end a week later. Often a few days before the last day, schools try to do something fun in celebration of the ending of tests and the completion of a grade. Tosajoshi Girls High School and Middle School in Kochi, Japan does something called Class Matches. Basically all the homerooms of the schools compete for the titles of the best homeroom. The competitions are in the sports of, Volleyball, Badmitton, Basketball, Dodgeball, and Tug of War. All the girls in the homeroom are required to compete in at least one of the sports. And everybody does, because it can be alot if fun if you win.
When the homeroom teachers post the signup list, basketball, volleyball, and basketball are usually the first to fill up. My first choice was basketball, but seeing as I couldn't read the list when it was put out, I got stuck in the sport seen as the lowest and worst of the choices, Tug of War. But that it is all said and done, I'm thankful for this.
Monday Class Matches were incredibly boring. My homeroom class, Yano-homu, was expected to get crushed in every one of the competitions. This is because the class is an A class, which basically means all the smart kids are in it. Smart kids just can't be good athletes, it's a universal thing. But for Wada-homu, with the girls who aren't able to tell the difference between a school day and a sleep session, the matches were hands-down easy. And like expected, Yano-homeroom, Volleyball team led by Aimi, got pulverized. It was too painful to watch. Then our basketball team got murdered by Chugakkou Ichinensee (7th graders.) Soon our Badmitton team followed in pursuit of a slow and drawn out embarrassment. And for a whole day I sat with my Koto friends and cheered for other classes. I really wasn't into it, and I was annoyed that they stuck me into Tug-of-War. I even considered using the Cold I had as an excuse to not come the next day. It was really that boring. I'm so glad I didn't.
On Tuesday morning, I rushed to school. Inside I quickly changed into the Banana suit, okay, my Winter gym uniform. Then I put the blue headband on my head. Each homeroom has a different color or pattern and my class got Sky Blue. Wearing it and I looked like a Kamekaze, but so did everyone else. With my friends Mosa and Tomoko, I walked down to the green courtyard for our instructions. Tomoko and Mosa had to leave me because they had Dodgeball, so I made my way over to the weirdest looking group of girls in thw world.
To start, in Japanese, Tug-of-War is "Tsunahiki" but pronouce it quickly and you get, "Tunahickey." Tuna. Hickey. Now in my entire life, I never ever thought I would say those two words in the same sentence. Now the thing about the Tug-of-War portion of the day is that the girls who have disabilities, don't know how to do anything else, or are just really slow in signing up for sports, are all the participants. The Yano-homu team, made of 10 girls, was no exception to this. 1 member had a broken arm, how she competed I have yet to figure out. 6 members were about half of my height, bean pole thin, and had about as much muscle as a rotten tomato. Of these 6 members, 1 was the highest scorer on a math exam on all of Shikoku, 3 were famous Calligraphy award winners, 1 was the captain of the school Japanese chess team, and the last doesn't actually talk. That left me and 2 other girls to be the heart and pull of the team. For me, it was as hopeless as trying to teach the theory of Evolution to a vegetable.
We were the first match of the morning, and we were playing Wada-homu, the team that had a lot of potential and were the favorites of my grade. All 10 girls were Matcho butch girls and looked really pumped, probably because they had eaten rocket fuel for breakfast or some sort of sports enhancer. Wada-homu had won all of yesterday's sports. Today they were hoping for a sweep on all the games. Yano-homu had two hopes on that morning, to survive the first round and not lose any arms in the process. I think that was a pretty good hope for our situation.
The bean poles all squished together in the front, as opposed to what the other team were doing by spreading out. The other 2 strong girls were spread out in the line. One of the bean poles directed me to be the anchor, her reasoning was that I was the biggest and most strong on the team. I'd like to say that was a compliment, but really it was the most truthful thing I have heard in a long time. She saw me roll my eyes and she smiled as she said, "We are going to do great. Just do you best!" I told her I would try, but our team didn't look like a group of Tug-of-War geniuses. She laughed and said, "Everyone will do their best. We are going to win." I didn't say anything, but secretly admired her confidence.
When the referree gave us the minute warning, 2 of my team members fretted because they didn't know the rules. How could they be Math geniuses if they can't figure out how to pull a rope? I watched as the Wada-homu girls pulled off the chains, popped a few enhancers, got someone to use the whip, as Yano-homu girls talked about Chess strategies, yesterday's lunch, and what a pretty color we were represented by. Okay, so I'm exaggerating a little bit. But really, it was this bad.
Why I even put effort into the rope is beyond me. But when the referee blew her whistle, 6 bean boles, one non-functioning arm, 2 semi-strong girls, and one gaijin beast, suddenly came to life. After about 5 seconds of losing ground, everything seemed to click. By then, Wada-homu didn't even have a chance. The dream of sweeping the Class Matches was thrown away as seen as the whistle was blown to confirm that Yano-homu had won.
Shock. That's not even a good enough word to describe the atmosphere. Wada-homu girls were laying on the ground and crying their eyes out. They were also bowing and apoligizing to their classmates for destroying the dream. I could tell the whip was going to be used after this one. The spectators, mostly middle school girls were cheering. The remaining Yano girls thought it hopeless as well, seeing as they didn't even come to cheer us on. Only the Yano-homu girls seemed unfazed. Nearly 20 seconds after the whistle was blown, they were continuing their conversation on Algorithms. I watched as the girls at the Score Board, who had prewritten Wada-homu as the winner, expeditiously cross it out and write in Yano-homu. But it didn't end there. We got word, that no only had we gone onto the second round, but the Yano-homu Dodgeball girls had also won their first round. But the biggest shock was that suddenly, I was confident, for lack of a better word. I ran around to my team members and yelled, "Ganbare!" Accidentally, I took up the post of being team captain to the Yano-homu Tsunahicki team. The girls didn't have a problem with it either. They did away with their geeky conversations, and brought about cheers and pap talks. We didn't have too much time to be excited, because the next round took place 5 minutes later. I was much better prepared this time. I wrapped the rope around my waist, and began screaming "GANBARE!" as soon as the 1 minutes mark was called. People from all around the school came to watch the screaming Gaijin as she wrapped a rope around her waist and angrily pulled. That's not to say I really believed we could win the next round. But something inside me snapped- somthing that wanted the win more than anything.
Round 2 was against the winners from the Kokou Ninensee (11th graders.) They didn't look very strong at all, but by that point I had learned never to judge a book by it's cover, or a Tug-of-War team by the amount of geeks it has on it. When the whistle blew, the bean poles lost way too much ground for a quick defeat. So for about 3 minutes, 2 teams were locked in a tug. We were all pulling and slowly getting tired, both teams not gaining or losing. But I watched as my girls began to tire out. I couldn't let them lose it. I started screaming and cheering again. And then we won...
Round 3 was quick and painless. I didn't even get a chance to cheer. The Bean Poles beasted. That's all that really needs to be said. After, we had some free time, and instead of discussing geeky stuff, or watching the Yano-homu Dodgeball girls, we stayed behind to watch the competition. The final team was a Kokou Ninensee class, that was made up of a mix of short and strong girls. They had creamed all of the teams they played, including the team that had given us a 3 minute tug. There was no way we could honestly beat them. That was even said from the Bean Pole who had been so confident in the beginning. I hoped otherwise. The final round would be best out of 3.
Round 1 was a disappointment. The best that could be said was that we really really tried. 2 incredible teams locked in an epic tug for about 2 minutes. My team lost beacuse we were all so tired and tripping over our own feet. It was painful to lose for everyone. During the side switch, I rounded the girls up and listened to what they ahd to say. They were all tired and were happy to get second place. I agreed but told them that we couldn't let them sweep all the games. Let's try to win at least this one. "Ganbare!"
Wrapping the rope around my waist, the sun shining down hard on us all, I began cheering. And then every Yano-homu began cheering and screaming. And I knew. Once that whistle was blown the opponents were done for. The score was tied even. But we had the upperhand. We were confident, rushing with adrenaline, and want to prove everyone wrong. And we won.
The best part was running from the rope all the way to the gym where the Dodgeball girls were playing. We ran in and screamed, "WE WON!" Every single girl in Yano-homu started howling and dancing. We all put our arms around each other in a circle and cheered and cryed and laughed. And for the first time all year, I became more than just the exchange student. I was just one of the girls. I was just of the girls who had brought victory for Yano-homu underdogs. Being a gaijin didn't make me and better or worse than my classmates, we were all here fighting for the win and trying our hardest. And I wasn't a gaijin. I was a Tosajoshi Ichinensee, heartily cheering with her classmates.
When the day was finished, all 2,000 members of the student body piled into the courtyard for the announcements of the best classes. Like everyone expected, Wada-homu won first place in the high school circuit. They didn't look too happy about that, though. They had lost in Tug-of-War and Dodgeball, Yano-homu beat them out for 2nd place. What came as a real surprise was the fact that Yano-homu won second place. All the homerooms had prepared a cheer for if they were to actually win. Well that is, every homeroom but Yano-homu. Nobody ever believed we could actually win. But we did. So when they called out Yano-homu, our cheer was "EEeeerr!?!?!?!?!" The class presidents were all supposed to go up and receive the certificate from the principal. But when it was our class president's turn, I suddenyl receieved a big push from behind. I found myself arm in arm with Aimi, as we walked in front 2,000 other girls. The principal announced out winnings, as she and I bowed together and took the certificate. Walking back to the homeroom, I held the certificate high above my head, which prompted Yano-homu to loudly cheer. I smiled the laughed as hurried back to my seat, feeling like the luckiest girl in the world. And knowing in my heart, that even little things like today's events would never have hapened if I had stayed in America this year.
Lately all I have been doing is complaining that things aren't working out with my homeroom. And yet, as I stood there, in front of 40 classmates and friends, I realized that it doesn't matter. The Class Matches were the greatest way for me to say goodbye to the homeroom class. It's time to move on, but I will always be thankful for these wonderful memories.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Like I Never Left

Being an exchange student means living and experiencing things that spending the year in our borth countries would not allow us to experience. During orientation when the Coordinators of the exchange are talking about all the benefits of the program, they fail to mention one thing. One thing that is so important to me, that I can't imagine where I would be in the course of my exchange without it. And it doesn't happen to every exchange student. You have to be really lucky and work very hard for it. For me, it was finding a host family that I became part of. A family that even though I no longer live with, welcomes me back to the home as if I never really left in the first place. That family, the Masaki's, are and always will be, one of the best things that I have experienced on my year abroad to Japan.
Yesterday, I went back to visit my first host family after a 4 week hiatus, in which I moved into my third family. As I walked through the Masaki family pharmacy, it felt the same way it did 4 months ago, when I walked through the sliding glass doors everyday after school. My host mom was working behind the counter and she looked up and exclaimed, "Ah! Jurie!" We began talking, never once letting a difficult language barrier block our way. I showed her the schedule I had made for the upcoming trip from my Mom and Nana, and she whisked off to make a copy for her family. I mean, the fact that my family from America's visit is that important to them, must show something. Soon I heard familiar footsteps and my favorite person in all of Japan came bounding the stairs. Naoko Masaki, 22 year old Kobe University college student, and the girl, whom I really consider to be my big sister, ran at me and gave me a much-needed hug. I've written about what it is like to be a younger sister before, but I want to add something. The thing about Naoko is that she and I are 100% different. She likes Couture clothes, galleons of makeup, and girly stuff. The kind of stuff that I don't really think too much about. And yet, when she stands there in her Cheetah skin leather coat, knee high heels, makeup painted face, and all-around Diva look, I can't help but absorb every word she says. I find myself wanting to be just like her in all the cool ways. It's weird to think that I LIKE being a younger sister.
Anyway we begin talking, and to my disappointment I found Otosan Masaki was away in Takamatsu on business. But they invited to hang out the next day, go to the movies, and enjoy a fun-filled afternoon with my first host family. Naoko suddenly grabbed my arm and pulled me through the back of the pharmacy and up to the apartment, I lived in back in August through November. The Masaki's just recently bought a dog, which Naoko wanted me to meet. I hadn't been back in the apartment since November, but it hadn't changed at all from my memories. Walking up the stair case and through the garden was nothing new to me.
Obachan, my host grandmother, whom I really adored even though it was really difficult to communicate with her, greeted us merrily. I was shocked at how lively she was, but really overjoyed to see the elderly woman so spirited. Naoko told me in secret that ever since they got the dog, Obachan had been acting excited and much younger everyday. I couldn't help breathe a sign of relief, after all, she was my adopted grandmother for a few months and seeing her so energetic brought on a good feeling. Soon I met, Sakura, a little weiner puppy that was the cutest thing on 4 feet. I watched as Obachan played with Sakura merrily, getting nibbed on slightly. Ojisan, my host uncle, came into the room, and we were all conversing about the upcoming trip. I showed them the schedule, and they complimented me on my amazing planning skills. Sometime in the festivities of Sakura's cuteness and Obachans laughter, Naoko invited me to lunch with her and Ojisan. And soon we were heading to my favorite Okonomiacki restaurant, Hakobe.
At the restaurant Naoko and I began talking about the upcoming trip. I told her that I was going to Kyoto in the early morning and would be waiting for my Mom and Nana for about 8 hours. She came up with a brilliant plan. Instead I should take the bus to Osaka, and we could meet up at Universal Studios Japan for an awesome day. It was perfect! I'd get to make an already brilliant trip, even better by spending time with my big sister in Osaka. She also took on the task of helping my plan some last minute details with the Kyoto portion of the trip. I asked Naoko when she would be heading back to Kochi, and she said she was coming back specially to meet my Nana and Mom. Back at the pharmacy I said a reluctant goodbye to the family. But I wasn't worried because the next day I would be meeting with them to see a movie and hang our at the Aeon shopping center.
The next day 2:30, Otosan and Naoko came to pick me up. I hadn't seen Otosan in a month and was very exicted to see that he hadn't changed very much. I would have drove my bike over to their apartment, 45 minutes away with no trouble but Naoko informed me that Otosan wanted to check out the premises. On the car ride to the Masaki apartment, he interviewed me all about my new family. His conclusion: that I am very happy and lucky to have such a great new family. Naoko later told me that he was very worried about the whole thing. That fact is that he didn't realize how difficult things were for me in my second host families house, until I told him towards the end of the stay. She said that when they found out, the Masaki family was very worried about me. But my new family is absolutely wonderful, no difficult weird rules about going out with a trusted first host family. Because he is Japanese, Otosan tried very hard not to show any emotions on the whole matter, but I could tell with every thing I talked about, he was breathing easier knowing I was happy. And at one point, after I told them that my new host grandmother had a decent amount of grandchildren, Otosan said, "Yes Masaki Obachan has 4 grandchildren and Julie and Sakura." Sometimes you don't realize just how special these little comments make one feel.
At the apartment, I again climbed the steps and headed into the living area to be greeted by energetic Obachan and Sakura. We went into the living room to talk about everything. We made the schdule for me meeting up with Naoko in Osaka and then heading to Universal Studios Japan. Then she also made me relieved when she anounced she would travel with me to Kyoto so I wouldn't have to go alone. I love her! Then we talked about the upcoming travels and picked out a company that would dress me, my mom and Nana like Geisha in Kyoto. Soon we were off to Aeon shopping center. In the car we joked around as I talked in bad Japanese slang. You know what I realized? Lately all I have been doing in worrying that my Japanese is terrible. But when I'm with the people who really count, the Masaki's and my current host family, I can communicate and be understood. That being said, I'm horrific at the language, but I figure if I can make people laugh in Japanese, I'm not all that bad off. And I can do that. Naoko showed me her University card and I showed her my Gaikokujin identity card. We both nearly we ourseleves at how awful the pictures were. And they all admitted that with my Rotary application from last year when I was pretty fat, they were really suprised that I wasn't a fat American when I walked off the plane in August.
After Naoko and I got Purikuras, the Masaki's and me headed down to a Katsu restaurant for delicious fried food. We joked through the whole thing and then heade dup to see the movie. Before we went in, Otosan pulled me aside to talk to me. He said sternly that he would call Matsumoto-san and ask permission about Osaka and then I would tell my host family. He continued talking about how worried he was and that it prbably wouldn't work out. I shocked him when I said I already talked to Matsumoto-san about it and that my host family was really fine with it. Infact they were encouraging of it. Otosan was shocked. I think my 2nd family experience really made him worried about breaking rules. Not that he ever broke any rules, they were just really strict about thhis kind of stuff.
After Night Museum the movie was over with, we headed back to the car. Otosan wanted to get me back as early as possible (still thinking about the strictness of the 2nd family.) As we neared my host house, he breathed a sigh of relief and said, "I'm just very glad that you are happy with this family." And when we pulled up to the Osaki house, Otosan and Okasan said that whenever I am free after school, I have to come and visit them. Osaki Otosan came outside and he and Masaki-san discussed the upcoming trip, while Okasan Masaki hugged me and Naoko to keep warm. Soon I was saying goodbye and thanks for the amazing time and heading into me current host house.
I don't think it's possible for someone to become part of family that we weren't born into. But I think being an exchange student gave me the opportunity to get as close to a family as possible. I love the Masaki family, and really don't know where I would be without them. Even when things were bad in my second family, I never got America homesick, I did however, get a strong yearning to go back to the Masaki's. And when I do go and visit them, it really feels like I never left in the first place. Yeah, it's that special.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Getting Stared At

You know that pure and utter joy you see in the eyes of children when they see Santa Clause for the first time. We all know that heartwarming feeling you get upon watching children experience the jubiliance of Christmas miracles. Now picture that Santa Clause suddenly transforming into a big horrible green monster with all the elements to scare the crap out of normal kids. As a foreigner in Japan, both experiences of joy and horror follow me wherever I go. Though the proper term for foreigners, particularly Westerners, is "gaikokujin," the Japanese often use another term, which is "gaijin." The word can be strongly objected to, as it literally means "outside person", as opposed to "foreigner", and allegedly has an implied exclusionary tone. Trying to put it into an example in English, and I can come up with a couple good ones. Sometimes instead of saying so and so is Jewish, we'll say Jew. And also so and so is Japanese, we'll say they are a Jap. Basically Gaijin, like the given examples, can be taken offensively in a context. Yet to me, I take it kind of as a joke, and a label of my species. In Tokyo and Osaka, the two biggest cities in Japan, there are plenty of foreigners. So many, that most Tokyoites seem to consider it a nuisance. But, I was placed in rural Shikoku, the prefecture of Kochi to be exact. It is the rated the second most country type prefecture in all of Japan, and definitely one of the poorest. I love this place with all my heart, and consider it as my second home. But because it is so far off the beaten trail, there are very few foreign people. And with an aging population of Japanese folks that have had little or no experience with foreign presence, I get stared at. Alot. I can't even begin to go into all of the times I have been stared at. It's a daily occurence. I can't go anywhere without one little kid screaming, "Mom, look! A GAIJIN!" Or an old woman stare at me with her mouth slowly opening as she wonders as to what type of species I am. I've been in Japan for over 11 months, and the most people get used to the stares, I still hate them. It bothers me because no matter what, no matter how hard I try to fit in here, immerse myself in the language and culture, there are people who will never accept me. It is truly disappointing at times. My current host sister rather enjoys going to the mall with me. She thinks it is hilarious how most people refuse to believe I'm real or something. She made a type of list of Japanese people and how they stare. In turn, I formed my own list. The two lists slightly differently, because Michiyo has't had to live with my horrible disability of Gaijinity.

Staring Categories
I.] 3 Sub-Groups (3 D's of Japanese People)
1.] Double Take Group
a.) Look Away-> the people that belong to this group are usually the more cultures Japanese businessmen or residents of Tokyo and Osaka. Basically what happens, is that they see the Gaijin, briefly think, "Oh Gaijin." Then quickly look away, while not giving it another thought. This category is a universal category.
b.)Head Springer-> the folks that belong in this group are the people that give themselves Whip Lash everytime they see a Gaijin. What usually happens is the see a Gaijin, continue on with their business, then suddenly realize they just saw a Gaijin. With that there head springs toward the direction of the Gaijin, to make sure they aren't seeing things. There people are usually too shy to talk to the Gaijin.
c.) English Student-> these people are usually students at local English Conversation schools. They see Gaijin every week at class, but are always on the look out for someone to practice with. They are usually very annoying folks who persist on English practice.
*How to the "English Student"-> When a curious looking young adult approaches you and begins speaking in English. Say in Japanese, "Sumimasen. Eigo go wakarimasen. (insert non-English speaking country) kara kimasta." If that doesn't work, then run away.

2.] Drop Ice Cream Group- Staring and eye contact is seen as a bit of an annoyance to the Japanese culture. But young children, who haven't been broken by the system, and the elderly, who just care about the rules anymore, fall into a special staring category.
a.) Kids-> Usually young children who watch a lot of Anime and Manga, and not much news with foreign influence, although any young child who has never seen a foreigner before will have something to this reaction. The will drop their ice creams and scream, "Mom! Look! GAIJIN!" It will draw attention from not only the parents but also from people who heard the scream.
b.) Elderly-> Most of the elderly people in Japan have never had much contact with the outside world. And those that have had interaction off Japan, are so fascinated by it, that they stare just as much. Almost all elderly Japanese people stare at Gaijin. It's also a very uncomfortable annoying stare that may include a mouth dropping.

3.] Don't Associate, It's Not Safe- There are very few of this category left in curious Japan. These people are usually not educated in matters outside of Japan, or they just don't want anything to do with Gaijin.
a.) "Mommy I'm afraid!"-> These are the young children who have never seen Gaijin outside of horror, murder, and other bad media. They usually hide behind their mothers in fear and don't siccumb to curiosity like Drop Ice Cream kids.
b.) Rather stand-> Given the choice between sitting the whole 2 hours home on a train or sit next to a Gaijin, these folks will stand. It's not a bad feeling, it's just that they don't know how to handle a foreigner.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Planning

On of my favorite quotes of all time is, "Life is that little thing that happens to you, when you are in the middle of going on trips." I don't really know why I like it so much, except that it sums up the way I feel about everything.
Just recently, I received an email from the College Board, which is the group that makes the SAT's, and also plays a strong influence on helping kids with college decisions. A year ago, sitting on a computer in the comfort of my New Jersey, American home, I would have scoured the email and absorbed every word of it, with hopes that it could help me get into my top choice schools, University of Virgina, Georgetown, or the Naval Academy. Now? These sort of emails are always quickly deleted, as they just take up space in my already overflowing email account. It's filled with words of love from family and friends at home, words in a different alphabet from Japan, and words of support and friendship from exchange student's across the world. In my current place and time in the world, these emails are what make me happy.
Normally the College Board email would have been thrown away in the trash bin before even reading it. I don't why, but I opened the email titled, "For High School Juniors." The first sentence caught my eye and has stayed with me since, "March of your Junior year is the perfect time to start planning your college experience..." Well, it is March of my Junior year and the only thing I'm planning is a grand Japan tour with my Mom and Nana. We're going to explore the ancient capital of Kyoto, see the most beautiful Castle in the world at Himeji, learn about the bombing of Hiroshima in the city itself, cruise out to the floating Torii of Miyajima, and explore my adopted city of Kochi. SAT's seem so far away from that.
Last year at around this time, I unceasingly thought about the future. College and how I was going to get there was always on my mind. I used to be one of those people who doesn't like suprises, someone who likes living knowing what the next day brings, and living by the books, like going to college in a conventional after graduation with everyone else. But I'm not like that anymore.
A few weeks ago, my Mother sent me an email, which I'm not sure that she knows made me feel a whole lot better. "...In case you decide to take a year off and visit Australia, Argentina, Germany or wherever. We don't care. We want what you want!" This line made me feel like these recent feelings are okay to have. That it isn't a terrible thing that I don't really care about College. But that's not to say I don't want to go to college eventually. But I'm sitting right now in another country that I have grown to love, despite all it's numerous hardships. I can't help but feel that there is nothing I would rather be doing than living in the moment, right here and right now. While most American Junior high school students are studying for AP exams, I'm studying maps of Kyoto. While taking SAT's, I'm passing in notes in 4 different alphabets. Upon speaking to guidance counselors and college admission officers, I'm conversing with locals in Kochi, Japan and learning things that I could never learn anywhere else. I'm doing what I do best, exploring while absorbing knowledge, and then growing from there.
It seems like our whole life is about the next step. What I mean is in elementary school, we are learning and planning for middle school. In middle school, we eagerly look forward to high school. And then we are on to college, which prepare up for the future careers. And when all is said and done, we still plan for the next step as we wait for retirement. When do we ever get to just kick our feet up and relax for a moment? When do we get to just enjoy who we are and where we are at a particular moment. I try to think of a good answer for that, but I've got nothing.
With school, at least for me, brick walls have always protected us from the real world, and all it's burdens. It is scary, nothing is for sure, and life is never easy. But those walls have also shielded us from the real world's wonders and knowledge that no teacher can acurately teach. I broke out of those walls, much earlier than usual, and got a strong dosage of life. Now I don't know how I'm going to be able to go back. Maybe college is different, though. I guess I'll figure it all out one day.
I know I'll eventually be in college one day. When that may be, though, I haven't a clue. It may very well be the customary time of right after graduation with my classmates. As for right now, I'm going to continue researching places I want to see on the Japan tour. So that when it's time for the trip, we'll see what we can.
Nothing in life is ever for sure. Like asking myself where I'll be in 10 years. I don't even know where I'll be tommorrow. But you know what? I'm really not too worried about it.