Otsu 3.31.17

My Dearest Friend,

Spring has arrived in Kyoto and with it comes a new semester. It feels like so long ago that classes ended, and yet I had so many things I’d planned to do and haven’t done. However, I have accomplished a great deal since I last wrote. I’ve been working hard over the break on my Japanese. I’ve learned over 300 kanji and become somewhat more comfortable conversing in Japanese. I actually feel ready for this semester. I was so scared to start level four after I finished in January. My teachers had warned me to study hard lest I fail, and I took them to heart. After six weeks of hard work, I finally think I’m ready.

The break hasn’t all been work though. The new SKP students moved in a few weeks ago, so I’ve had the opportunity to make a host of new friends. I’m glad. The new students are very cool and I’ve had a wonderful time getting to know them. Just yesterday, a group of us went down to Otsu on Lake Biwa for the afternoon. The weather was beautiful and the lake was incredible. Lake Biwa is the largest lake in Japan, and it really seems like a tiny ocean. I could have sat by the lake and watched the water for hours. I wish we could have stayed longer and seen more, but Otsu is only a few towns away so we can always go back.

Now it’s time to study a bit more and enjoy this last weekend of freedom before classes begin on Monday. I’m excited about my classes and the adventures this semester will bring. It won’t be easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. I will try to write again after the first couple weeks and tell you how my classes are going. I hope you are doing well too. I miss you.

Sincerely,

Kestrel

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

Kyoto 12.29.16

My Dearest Friend,

Merry Christmas! I’m sorry I didn’t write sooner, but we’ve only been off school for a couple days now. I even spent Christmas studying for a test. But I’m alright. I have another week of break and then only a couple weeks left of the semester. It’s been a really long semester, so I won’t be too upset to see it end.

Although Christmas itself wasn’t particularly special, I’m enjoying my time off. I’m trying to do a full detox from stress, drama, and worries. So far it’s gone well. I’ve spent a lot of time relaxing, sleeping, catching up on housework, and trying to get into a good habit of doing yoga in the mornings. I’m also trying to work on my overall health a bit. I’ve spent the majority of this semester sick with one thing or another, so I’m trying to improve my nutrition and general well-being. I want to be healthier and better able to focus next semester so I can make the most of my time here.

This semester I haven’t done a lot of the things I meant to do and said I would do. Part of that was justified, part of it wasn’t. Now my goal is to figure out what I need to do differently so that I’m able to explore Kyoto and the rest of Japan before I leave. I don’t want to waste this chance. I’ve gone a few places and done some cool things, but I’ve created a new comfort zone here in Japan, which almost defeats the point of coming. I broke a barrier when I got on the plane alone to come here, but I built more as soon as my feet hit this soil and the culture shock swept over me. It’s about time I dismantled those.

I have a lot of regrets from my life thus far. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past or the future or simply just a different place. I don’t want to lose my time in Japan to those same snares. I want to live these days to the fullest so that, at the end of the day, there’s nothing I wish I’d had the courage to do. If I were to leave today, I don’t think I’d be able to forgive myself for how I’ve handled this time. Which means that I instead need to spend today out, doing things I may never get a chance to do again. Today’s the only day that matters, so I won’t spend it in a way that I’ll regret.

I hope your Christmas break is relaxing. I miss you a lot. I’m looking forward to seeing you, hopefully before too much longer. Please write soon.

Sincerely,

Kestrel

Kyoto 11.06.16

My Dearest Friend,

I regret that it has been so long since my last letter. My classes are quite time consuming, and I have twice been sick since I arrived here in Japan. Don’t mistake me, I’m having a wonderful time and I love Japan, but I’ve done a very poor job of keeping up with friends from home. I wish I were doing better, but I apparently am worse than I thought at keeping up with people I don’t see daily.

Since my last letter I’ve had better luck finding my place in the group. I have more friends to spend my time with and no longer feel so alone here. Time has started to fly by as my time is split between fun times with friends and my never ending studies. I have had time to enjoy Japanese culture though. A couple weeks ago I attended the annual Fire Festival in Kurama. The townspeople dressed up in traditional garb and carried huge torches throughout the city. It was fascinating to see. Unfortunately, the city was extremely crowded due to the popularity of the festival among tourists. Afterwards, a couple of my friends and I went to Chao Chao Sanjo Kiyamachi, home of the best gyoza in Japan. The restaurant is in a tiny shop, seating maybe 20 people, and has for several years in a row received the award for the best gyoza, the Japanese version of Chinese dumplings, in the country. The award is well given. The food was incredible. The evening was one of the best I’ve spent in Japan so far.

Besides traditional Japanese festivals, I’ve also gotten to experience a Western holiday in Japan. Halloween in Japan is definitely an interesting experience. The shops and restaurants all take advantage of the holiday to decorate and put out special products. Meanwhile, students, both local and international, jump at the opportunity to dress up and celebrate. Our dormitory had an awesome costume party. The creativity of some of the costumes was utterly inspiring. It was a wonderful time with friends and a great memory from the trip.

I certainly will try to write more often from now on. Hopefully my next letter will include even better stories than this one. I’m almost well again though, so that should help. On the other hand, I’m only a couple weeks away from my midterm projects coming to a head. So my next letter may be little more than literature analyses. I hope your year is going well also. I look forward to your next letter.

Forever yours,

Kestrel

img_0604

Kyoto 10.13.16

My Dearest Friend,

Time seems to fly by while I’m here. I’m already three weeks into classes and my birthday is on Monday. I don’t mind though. The first month here was difficult, but I’m starting to get into a routine. After I wrote you last I was quite sick for a week, but now that I’m well I’m ready to try facing Japan again. I’ve made some wonderful friends here, and every week I seem to make a few more. I still haven’t seen much of this city, but I feel comfortable taking new routes around my part of town.

I truly wish I had lots of wonderful stories to tell from these last couple weeks but, to be honest, I’ve mostly been studying. My Japanese classes are really hard. I can tell I’m getting better though. The quizzes are a little easier to cope with and the homework goes faster than it used to, but that doesn’t mean I can slack off. The balance between succeeding in my classes and successfully enjoying Japan is really hard to find. I don’t know that I’ve done it very well so far, but I’m going to keep trying.

Last weekend I had one particularly fun break from studying. A group of the girls in my dorm had an international potluck. We all brought food from or inspired by our own countries and got to take a trip around the world on our stomachs. I managed to make passable nachos in a country that doesn’t really have cheese. It was difficult, but I didn’t realize how much I’d missed real, Tex-Mex style nachos. The best part is that now that I know how to do it, I can make more that I don’t have to share.

The topic of food is actually an interesting one. At school in America I find it really hard to get enough vegetables. I don’t always get enough here either, but whenever I cook there are lots of vegetables. Veggies are fairly cheap here, at least to me. On the other hand, many of my friends are forever being shocked by how expensive the fruits and veggies are here. It makes me realize once again how difficult it is to be healthy in America. I’m so used to having to pay a premium for a healthy diet while, in many parts of the world, college students are unofficial vegetarians because that’s all they can afford. At least here in Japan it’s fairly even. You don’t pay a premium for health, but it’s not discounted either.

There are many things here that I’m sure you would enjoy. I think I’d enjoy them a bit more if you were here with me. I know you want me to put you out of my mind and embrace this opportunity, but it’s hard. I am having fun though—I promise. And I’m still taking pictures and making memories to share with you when I return. I look forward to reliving all of them with you.

Forever Yours,

Kestrel

Kyoto 9.11.16

My Dearest Friend,

Much has happened since last I wrote to you. I have arrived in Kyoto and begun settling into my new home. The dormitory is comfortable and I like living here. Alas, it is also somewhat lonely. I never realized it was possible to live in such a large building and see so few people. Perhaps it is my own fault after having spent my first few days locked in my room studying, but there’s no use pinning blame now. It’s not all bad—I have orientation with others and sometimes join a group going out for a meal. However, I’m not used to solitude. Once classes start, I’m sure I’ll be very glad of this place of respite. I simply wish they’d start sooner.

It’s not fair to spend the whole of my letter complaining. This place is amazing. The city is framed by mountains, and beautiful old houses line the small, winding streets. It’s beautiful. Once the weather is nicer and I have my bearings better I’ll be glad to explore. For now I’m focusing on mapping out my immediate vicinity and repairing my sleep schedule. Luckily, the local convenience stores carry a good selection of fairly cheap food, so I have no shortage of rice balls, box lunches, and even salads. I’m grateful for that.

I’m sorry if this letter wasn’t as joyous as you’d hoped. I’ve only been here a few days and I was a bit preoccupied with my placement test, so I haven’t gotten settled outside my room. But I’m working on it. With any luck, my next letter will finally have some interesting stories of adventures. Thank you for supporting me through this past week. It’s been challenging for both of us, but you’ve been a lot of help. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Forever Yours,

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.

The Road Ahead

Three weeks left. It’s a crazy thought. How did it become the end of the semester so soon? I’m three weeks away from being half-way done with my college career. Where did it go? And even scarier—it’ll be over a year until I next sit here on the OU campus. When I move out of my dorm room and make the drive home, I won’t be coming back until my senior year. Thinking of how much can change in a year or a month or even a single day, what will life be like when I return? Will I know my friends still? Will they still know me? This year has been a roller-coaster of growth and laughter and pain. I don’t know if I could have gotten through it alone. Now I prepare myself to bid these wonderful friends goodbye and embark on my first journey alone.

I’ve spent summers productively in the past. Last summer for instance I traveled to China and took a variety of classes both home and abroad. This year I could take classes once again, but I’d rather find an internship. I’ve been searching since winter, and I haven’t had much luck. However, I have a couple leads left, so there is still hope for me. I want to grow. I can be productive and get classes out of the way, but I won’t grow by testing out of classes again. I really need this opportunity to put myself in a new situation. Then again, when the summer ends I’ll be plunged headfirst into a new world, so perhaps a summer of comfort isn’t such a bad idea.

For those who don’t know, I’m studying in Japan this upcoming year. I’ll be at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. It’s incredibly exciting, but also quite scary. I’ve never been to Japan. I’m not fluent in the language. This upcoming year will likely be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. However, despite all that, it may also be one of the best times of my life. I’ve been waiting for this forever. I’ve spent almost two years now studying Japanese diligently to prepare. And now it’s time to see the results. Now it’s time to fly. The paperwork is turned in. I’ve looked through the class list and attended the pre-departure orientations. Now, I have to wait. Wait and watch the skies. The future awaits.