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.

A Starless Path

I guess I always knew growing up would be hard. I certainly ought to have known considering how often people told me. I’m finally starting to really get it though. As I try to decide what “grown-up” stuff I’m going to do this summer, I’m realizing that it’s way more complicated than just deciding. For example, one of my best friends wants an internship this summer. Great. However, he specifically wants one that is paid, near his family and friends, and that will teach him something valuable. Also fine. The problem is that lots of people want internships like that. In high school, we all got to be in high school. Sometimes we didn’t make a team or earn the best grade in a class, but it wasn’t really a big deal in the long run. If my friend can’t find an internship, he’s going to end up taking summer classes so that he can maintain productivity for the summer. But that would mean spending the entire summer away from home and also away from me.

I too have choices to make. I’d originally hoped to find an internship for the summer, but because I’m going abroad, my timing doesn’t line up with most internship programs. Instead, I’m going to try to test out of a couple classes. One of the classes I’d intended to test out of, though, OU doesn’t accept the CLEP test for. Now my 16 hour summer has dropped to a 13 hour summer. That’s still a lot of hours, but, at the same time, it’s not necessarily the best use of my time. I’m an economist so I’m always going to look at the opportunity cost when making a decision. Are a couple general education requirements worth giving up a summer’s worth of income and work experience? I don’t know anymore. How far behind will I fall in the long run if I fail to obtain this work experience now? I will never have a really free summer again. Study abroad trips and then graduation will interfere with all of them. This starless night is hemming me in. I cannot see the ground beneath me nor my path ahead of me. All I can hope for is that I can keep moving in the general right direction until dawn breaks and I can see my path once more.

The Burden of Hope

Not every journey takes you far from home. One of the most frightening and impactful journeys I’ve ever taken started in my own backyard. Sugar Land, my hometown, is just a half hour from Houston, TX. Houston has the unsavory reputation of being one of the world’s hotspots for sex trafficking. My senior year of high school, my principal took the senior class on a field trip intended to open our eyes to the world we had inherited. The first and, for me, most haunting portion of the day was spent on a bus tour of the city’s red light district. A woman who has devoted her life to trying to bring down the sex trade pointed out building after building, brothel after brothel, prison after tortuous prison. If it’s so easy to find them, why haven’t these harbors of sin been destroyed? That’s what I wondered that day. I left that experience wanting desperately to do something, anything. But what could I do? In the drone of my daily life, unable to take any action, the weight of that day was slowly pushed aside and forgotten. Of course, that’s the terrible thing—we forget. We forget about those women and their pains. We forget, but the nightmares don’t end, not for them.

That day could have been an untimely end of this journey for me, but, thank goodness, it wasn’t. This past summer, the burden was brought back into the light for me, this time in a way that allowed me to shoulder it. I had the pleasure of being in a community production of Les Miserables at a local theater. Despite my best efforts, I managed to find myself cast as a “Lovely Lady,” quite a pretty euphemism for such a tragically misrepresented group. However, my director was intent on showcasing the true nature of the sex trade—powdered and painted slavery. As I stood on the stage during the first run, dressed in a ragged corset and skirt, waiting to see which girls the various “customers” would lead offstage, I had a tiny glimpse of the world I was trying to reveal to the audience. As our choreographer coached us in how to stand and pose, I could only imagine the horror of actually being trapped in such a life. Not only did we use the production to give the audience a window into this shadow world, but we also donated a portion of the ticket sales to stop sex trafficking. Less than a year after my first true encounter with that life, I’d managed to become a part, albeit a small part, of ending it.

Less than two weeks after the closing of the play, I left for the University of Oklahoma, my burden weighing heavily on my mind, and my recent victory driving me towards further fights. That first weekend, the new freshman had the opportunity to learn about the various groups on campus that we could join. When one of the groups told me that they had a project working to raise awareness regarding the sex trade, they immediately had my attention. I ended up joining the group, the OU chapter of Enactus, an international organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for people in need through the power of entrepreneurial action. My Enactus team has three different projects, and I am working on Project Hope, the one that had caught my attention that first weekend. Because of this organization, I really am able to help make a difference. From organizing food and coin drives, to creating a documentary-style video, to hosting a speaking event for No Boundaries International, an organization working to end the sex trade in Oklahoma City, we are working to let the world know about modern slavery. I may not be able to do much, but I can do more than I had ever dreamed now that I’ve found others who also want to make a change. And if everyone does the little they can do, then perhaps we really can change the system. Maybe together we can make the world a little better and a little safer for us all. After all, my journey never was supposed to be just about me. If I don’t leave this world a little better than I found it, what was the point of journeying to begin with?