The Road Splits

Today, I sit at a crossroads. Tomorrow I return to this inn where I’ve spent so much of the past four years. However, for once, the friends I’ve made here are not returning with me. After years of studying, crying, and laughing together, we are saying goodbye. A few are going abroad, a few have jobs either here in Oklahoma or further afield, and then there’s me, still here for another semester before beginning my life as well.

I can’t imagine college without them. We’ve been together for so long. I’m happy for them, though. They’ve worked so hard to get to where they are today. I wish them the best of luck as they fly further and further away. I want to see them succeed. I want us all to meet again in five or ten years and hear stories of the incredible things they’ve accomplished. Even if we’re not physically together here by the warmth of this fire, I know they will always be with me. After so many years and memories, I hope even time herself cannot pull us apart.

So to all who are leaving this place and moving on to new roads, I wish you the best. I hope you find peace and safety and love. I hope you’ll continue to move forward, building off the lessons we learned here together. And more than anything, I hope you remember you’re never alone. Even if we no longer see each other every week and no longer speak most days, I will always be here for you. We walked the roads together this far. Never feel like you must walk difficult roads alone.

Finding Home–家に帰って

Another semester is coming to a close here at OU. That makes two since I returned from Japan. It’s started to hit me recently just how long it’s been since I got back. The Japanese language has three primary verbs for traveling: one for going, one for coming, and one for returning home. I thought I’d returned, but I don’t feel home. Don’t get me wrong, I love OU and my friends here. I love being able to communicate with almost everyone. I love eating cheese in ungodly amounts and being able to make tacos without breaking the bank. But despite all that, I don’t feel like I’m home. I miss Japan. I miss the mountains and the sakura in spring. I miss the smell of the ramen and curry shops along the streets by campus. I miss the friends that came to mean so much to me, even though we were only together for a short time. Mostly I miss the feeling of home that I got from my neighborhood with its quiet streets and the small bakery where I’d buy breakfast. I know it’s unrealistic to look back and see only the happy parts. I spent many lonely nights in Japan aching to be here with my friends. Well, they say absence makes the heart grow fonder. I suppose it’s true.

As it drifts farther into the past, I’m trying to keep my experiences alive within me. I no longer respond to people automatically in Japanese, and I’ve lost the habit of converting all of my purchases into yen in my mind. But I don’t want to lose the part of me that loved and embraced living in Japan. I’m still studying Japanese, though I’m sure I’m not as good as I was a year ago. This semester I’ve also been attending the Japanese Club at OU as much as I can. I have friends there from Japan, and it’s so comforting to fall into discussions about which conbinis (convenience stores) we liked and our favorite parts of town. But for every happy memory there is a pang of longing. For every shared smile from an inside joke in Japanese there is an ache for the sights, sounds, and smells of Kyoto. When I boarded the plane to come back to America, I truly thought I was coming home. Now I’m not so sure.

As I approach the end of my college career, I will look for opportunities to go abroad again. I want to find my home. Perhaps it is somewhere here in the States. Perhaps I found it when I was living in Kyoto. Or perhaps it’s somewhere I have yet to go. Wherever it is, I won’t stop flying until I find it—the place I was meant return to. Home.

Frozen Time

The past few weeks have rushed past me, occupying my time with midterms, my Fulbright application, and various events on campus. I have adjusted fairly easily to being back in the States, but some days I still am struck by the loss of the mountains on every horizon. In general though, I have been too busy to give much thought to the life I left in Japan. It is the mixed blessing of busyness.

Overall it has been a good semester. I have a class with my OU Cousin for the first time this semester, so she and I get to see each other regularly. I also had the privilege of attending OU’s International Prom with her and a few of my other friends, where we celebrated the international community here at OU. I am working to take full advantage of the many opportunities presented by the university to engage with the international community, including a daily international news update and the school-wide Teach In on the strengths and weaknesses of constitutions. Meanwhile I continue to be involved with the JCPenney Leadership Program, joining with other business students on campus to pursue professional development and the life-skills we will need after graduation.

Although many of my activities have not changed, my life at OU is changing whether I like it or not. My friends who I’ve studied alongside since we arrived here freshman year are searching for full-time employment. Most of them will be leaving me when this year ends. At the same time, with President Boren stepping down at the end of this year, the school itself is poised for change in the coming year. Life at OU as I have known it is changing. Like anyone else, I don’t care for change. If I could freeze these years and my friends and keep things the way they are, I would be very tempted to do so. However, I know that time flows on, with or without me. I will cherish these days that I have left with my friends while looking forward to new horizons and adventures. There is still much of the world left for me to see. I cannot fly if I remain here, frozen in time.

Houston 2.24.17

My Dearest Friend,

I’m so glad I got to come home and see you and others these past couple weeks. Last semester was long and I needed my time at home resting more than I can say. However, as I sit here on the plane headed back across the Pacific, I’m more excited than ever to resume my adventures in Japan. I have so much left to see and do, and I don’t want to waste the rest of my break or the upcoming semester. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I want to fully enjoy it.

While I was at home visiting, I had a frustrating realization: I don’t have many stories from my time here so far. I could talk a bit about my classes and how difficult they were. I could also talk about my general impressions of Japan and Japanese culture. Outside of that, however, I didn’t have much to say. Most of my stories ended up being stories about other people, some of which I hadn’t even witnessed. How did that happen? I know a few reasons. First, experiences don’t usually make good stories without other people in them. I’ve explored a bit and seen some places, but I usually end up going by myself. This is excellent for collecting pictures but isn’t great for stories. Also, a lot of the time people are hanging out together, there’s alcohol involved. We’re all legal, so it isn’t a problem, but the party nature of most international student interactions decreases my chances both of being involved and recounting stories of it later.

I’m not really sure what to do about this dilemma. As much as I’d rather travel Japan with a few close friends, I don’t always feel like I have that option. I don’t tend to have much success planning excursions or events, and I can’t control whether or not I’m invited to come along when someone else has planned the trip. Most of the interactions I am invited to are nights out and the like. These are fun and I try to go occasionally, but allowing them to make up all of my stories paints both my time here and myself in a bad light.

I’m trying to find opportunities to make memories that I can share, but it’s difficult. Hopefully I’ll do better this semester than last, but that doesn’t set a very high bar. Wish me luck. I’ll try to write again soon.

Sincerely,

Kestrel

A Wallet and a Journey

Instead of writing a letter today, I wanted to simply tell a story, particularly to those of my friends who are studying abroad or plan to in the future. Two weeks ago, just as my spring vacation began, I lost my wallet for the first time in my life. I was out with friends and had the wallet in my back pocket. Whenever it’s there, I check on it occasionally because I’m paranoid. Well, at one point in the evening, my wallet wasn’t there anymore. My friends and I all searched the building, retracing my steps since we’d entered. I knew I’d had it when we arrived, but now it was gone. We talked to the staff as well as a couple other foreigners we’d met, but no one knew anything of it. We finally gave one of the workers our contact information and left for the night.

The next day I filed a police report as is protocol in Japan. They assured me I would be contacted if my wallet was found. They, like everyone else I had talked to, seemed pretty sure that my wallet would turn up. In Japan, personal items are usually pretty secure. Pickpocketing and petty theft are fairly rare. Cash is a little bit more likely to be taken, but wallets are usually returned. Alas, I am one of the unlucky—my wallet still has not been found. Within a few days of submitting the police report, I had to begin preparing for this very eventuality. Do not get me wrong, things could have been much worse. Nothing totally irreplaceable was in my wallet. I didn’t have to secure a new passport or anything like that, but I did need a new Japanese residence card and a new health insurance card. So last week, I got to fully explore the wonderful world of dealing with everyday bureaucracy abroad.

I’ve mentioned in my letter series how disappointed I’ve been with myself for neglecting to really embrace my time in Japan and explore my city and the surrounding areas. Well, the natural extension of that sad fact was that I didn’t have a clue where I was supposed to be going or how I was supposed to get there. At first I was trying to work with one of my Japanese friends so that she could either go with me or walk me through these processes over the phone, but I soon realized that I didn’t have time to coordinate schedules before getting my missing items replaced. So I got a list of places I needed to go and forms I needed to acquire and then set off on my own.

I won’t go into the whole process because it was long and tedious. However, I will say I spent hours on busses getting from one part of the city to another just to struggle to communicate when I arrived. It was all incredibly stressful, but I did eventually get everything done that I needed. I was thrilled to be able to finally relax. And then, at the end of all of this, I realized something: I needed this experience more than I can every say. I know my way around the bus routes now. I am confident that in a crisis I can communicate in Japanese, even if it is somewhat childish and awkward. I’ve been to parts of the city I’d never seen and realized that different parts that I had visited were within walking distance of one another. If you had told me a month ago that I needed to, say, take a train to Tokyo, I would have immediately started asking people for help. I think I can do it myself now, even though I’ve never done it before. This whole disaster did what nothing else had and managed to finally push me out of my comfort zone. As much as I hated it and as much stress as it caused, I’m so glad it happened. Losing my wallet may very well have been the single most important and valuable moment of my trip to Japan thus far.

That’s my story. Now, a quick word to those who, like me, have trouble getting out of a comfort zone. You may think that by going abroad you’ve succeeded in breaking the barrier and popping your bubble. You haven’t. It’s far easier than I’d like to admit to build a new comfort zone in a foreign country. So don’t become complacent. And as little faith as you may have in your language abilities, you’ll be ok. I have friends who haven’t taken a day of Japanese who have seen more of Japan than I can name. You are your greatest enemy and biggest barrier. So get out of your own way. Yes, be careful and be smart. But the world isn’t dangerous enough to justify missing it. Do what you came to do. Don’t sit in your room and binge Netflix—that’s what home is for. You have to do it for yourself. After all, we can’t all be lucky enough to lose our wallets.

Kyoto 1.22.17

My Dearest Friend,

My first semester here at Ritsumeikan has finally ended. The last of my tests have been taken and papers turned in. I now have two months to relax and explore Japan before my second semester begins.

This semester was difficult and full of new experiences for me. It has been my first time living abroad, my first time living for a significant period of time without access to a car, and my first long-term experience with a language barrier. I’ve met people from all over the world who speak every language I can imagine. They come from so many backgrounds and are working toward a myriad of futures. Honestly, it makes me feel small. I’ve seen and done so little compared to most of these people. I’m trying to learn Japanese as my second language, I’ve only been to three countries in the world, and I’m already in my twenties. I have friends here who worked abroad in high school. It makes me wonder how much I missed on account of being born in America.

Don’t get me wrong, I love America. I grew up there, and it’s my home. However, it’s not perfect. The rest of the world seems so far away and insignificant as a child in the US, but it’s not. The world is a vast and marvelous place and has much to teach us, both as individuals and as a country. Many of the issues that are tearing apart America have found various resolutions in other countries. Instead of fighting about what ifs, why don’t we look at the outcomes? As Americans, we like to look at the rest of the world as if it was still in the 18th century. We talk about freedom and our unique place in the world. Yes, we are still a great country wielding a lot of power. But where the rest of the world has seen great progress in the last 200 years, we keep looking back at “the glory days.” I love the foundation of our country and the ideals of our nation. But the world is not the same place as it was when we were founded, and it’s naïve to act like nothing has changed.

When I left America to come to Japan, I didn’t know much about the rest of the world. I thought I did, but I was wrong. I still know very little, but I know some things. And the biggest thing I’ve learned is that while the US has an incredibly strong military, we are not the only important players in the world. We don’t know everything, and in a lot of areas, we’re falling behind our peers. So instead of arguing about the precise meaning of a centuries old document, can we agree to open our eyes and start doing something? I’ve met so many people here who would not go to America if you paid them, not with the way our country functions right now. And I can’t really blame them. But it is my country, and I won’t abandon it, not if I can help it.

My friend, please try to learn something from my experiences here. I know it’s hard to see clearly from inside, but try. We have to do something, and we can’t all get up and spend a year abroad. All we can do is try to bring that global awareness back with us in our suitcases and share it. I miss you dearly. Hopefully I’ll see you soon.

Sincerely,

Kestrel

Tragedies

These days the world seems increasingly frightening. You only have to turn on the news to be inundated with horror stories of violence and sorrow. Every day it seems a new tragedy strikes our world. It’s easy to wonder what happened. What caused this increase in pain? I’ve spoken to many young adults of my generation and heard them asking this and similar questions. Studying history has led me to an uneasy answer—it hasn’t increased. The world is no more messed up than it was in the past. In fact, many aspects of society have improved. Death rates have decreased and many victims now have legal recourse against assailants. For much of history, most victims of violent crimes had to suffer in silence. So what did change? Why does the world appear so much worse?

The short answer is technology. Through radio, television, and now internet, we see atrocities. We know the death tolls and the faces of the victims. We see the results, and we hear of these occurrences immediately. The other change is actually positive—we care more. Most ancient civilizations had at least one group of people they considered lesser, sometimes not even seeing them as human. This mindset led to the targeting of women, children, and minorities often with little to no societal or legal repercussion. Today, most people have a visceral reaction against such ideas. Thus, when a shooting or rape occurs and is reported, most people are upset and offended. This shows how far we’ve come.

The problem is the people who haven’t progressed with the rest of humanity. Some people still look at certain groups and deny their personhood. Does an individual renounce their humanity when they move to a new country or they choose someone to date? Of course they don’t. So it’s time to stop living in the Dark Ages. Murder is a crime. Rape is a crime. The victim is a person, so there is no excuse for the perpetrator. It doesn’t matter what boxes we can fit them into, we’re all humans. We live in the 21st century. Don’t let fear or hatred turn back the clock on society.

Bearing Hope

I have returned to my inn, my temporary home, after another flight. Last week I traveled with a few of my friends to St. Louis, Missouri, for a national expo with Enactus. I’ve spoken about Enactus before—it’s the group I’m working with to bring down sex trafficking. It was, in fact, in furtherance of this goal that I was at the expo. My team was going to present a short explanation of what we’d been doing this semester to a panel of business executives. Why is this important? Well, first, the winners of various rounds earned prize money for their projects. All of the teams are working on limited budgets to solve problems in their communities so this money is quite valuable. Second and, for me, more importantly, these business executives are in a position to do far more than I can for my cause. As I told the tale of the voiceless victims of human trafficking, I watched the faces of the judges, hoping to see reflected in them the concern I felt. In some faces, I did.

My team actually made a wonderful showing considering it was our first year at competition. We placed in the top 64 teams, bringing in a few hundred dollars for our projects. As for me, I was inspired by the number of teams working toward the same goal as me. There were numerous projects regarding sex trafficking, and some received significantly more funding than we did. These were much older projects that have had amazing impacts and will continue to do so. I didn’t realize so many people knew or cared about those faceless women sold into prostitution. It was a blessing to see.

The winning team from the US will be competing in South Africa in a few weeks against the top teams from across the globe. I can’t imagine how many other projects there are worldwide to bring down the sex trade. If just 1% of projects are dedicated to this end, then there are hundreds of projects around the world working alongside mine. Together, we really do have the ability to make this change, both in our individual communities and around the world. Together we can bear hope into the darkest corners of the world to those who need it most. This is my dream. Perhaps it is also the true reason for my journey.