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

Reading About Confucianism

This semester, I am co-moderating a reading group on The World’s Religions by Huston Smith. Like the name suggests, the book is an introduction to the world’s main religious traditions, and it includes chapters on Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The other moderator and I hoped that a discussion of this book would introduce students to other cultures and ideologies that they would not have otherwise interacted with. And, so far, it is going well! This week we read the chapter on Confucianism, and we had an interesting discussion about immigration and the role religion plays in it. As the book highlights, Confucian culture, which focuses on the collective, is very different from Western culture, which tends to focus on the individual. This fostered a debate about the difficulties immigrants face when trying to retain their own sense of cultural identity when they move to a new country.

At the end of the chapter, Smith includes an interesting claim about the future of Confucianism: that it will not survive in a Westernizing world. This statement created a furious debate about the validity of the “Clash of Civilizations” narrative and whether these two world views can coexist. All of the members ultimately agreed that globalization will not spell the end for Confucianism, although its emphasis on the collective might be in danger. In the end, this reading group is doing exactly what I hoped it would do—introduce the members to different ideas and world views that they may not have known much about.

51gy-BK9CGL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_                    9313244_orig

 

Interfaith Dialogue

A few weeks ago I was able to go to an interfaith dialogue panel, which a friend happened to be on. While this event was not necessarily international in nature, it dealt with understanding different religions and learning how to interact with cultures and ideas that may differ from your own, which is essential in the field of international relations. This specific panel was sponsored by the Religious Studies Student Association (RSSA) and featured a Protestant, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, and an Atheist. It was fascinating to learn about each person’s world view and discover where they all intersected and diverged.

The panel began with them introducing themselves and giving a brief introduction to their respective traditions. Then they answered a few basic questions that were mostly there to familiarize the audience with the finer points of their beliefs. After that, the audience was able to ask the panel questions. I think one of the most interesting ones asked was about their religions’ view of social justice, which brought out an array of answers. Ultimately, the important conclusion they all reached was that their answers to this question were ideals, and that most people probably wouldn’t actually follow through on these professed beliefs. It really emphasized the fact that everyone views religion differently, and that to truly understand what someone really believes, you need to ask them.

C38-297x300

(Picture taken from Xaverian Missionaries USA)

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

Kanazawa 11.27.16

My Dearest Friend,

I write to you now from the train home from Kanazawa where I just spent a wonderful weekend with one of my friends. We spent the day yesterday enjoying the sights and food of this historic city. It was an amazing experience.

We began the day bright and early at the fish market. Snow crab season is a few weeks in and yellowtail has just begun, so the market was bustling and full of the wondrous aroma of a fresh catch. We had an early lunch at one of the many small restaurants scattered amongst the stalls. Despite being the specialty of the region, a bowl of raw fish didn’t really appeal to me, at least before noon, so I opted for tempura. It was excellent.

From there we picked up coffee at a local shop and made our way leisurely to Kanazawa Castle. The old architecture was beautiful, but paled in comparison to the elegant gardens surrounding the castle and nearby shrines. The morning’s activities would likely have taken half as long without the multitude of pictures we both were taking. I sincerely doubt you will complain, though, because I am enclosing a few in this letter.

After the castle we proceeded to the Higashi Chaya district, an old part of town that is maintained to look as much like it did in the Edo period as possible. There we looked through shops and had our afternoon tea in an old geisha house. Obviously one of the most luxurious structures in the area, the geisha house made for an excellent respite from walking the crowded streets. Before we left the district, my friend and I bought ourselves each a cone of shoyu soft serve, a specialty in the region. Although one wouldn’t expect soy sauce flavored ice cream to be particularly good, it was excellent ice cream that tasted vaguely of salted caramel. We both thoroughly enjoyed it.

By this point we were exhausted, so my friend and I concluded the day with a nice dinner and a pleasant walk through Kenrokuen. The gardens were lit up beautifully, and we enjoyed the walk despite the late November chill. However, it was late, so we soon began our walk back to our lodging and bed. We rose early this morning to catch the train home.

It was a wonderful trip, and I’m quite glad I had the opportunity to go. Perhaps you’ll be able to come with me next time. I think you would enjoy Kanazawa. I hope your own adventures these past few weeks have been equally enjoyable. I look forward to seeing you, though it is still so far in the future. You will hear from me again soon. I look forward to your next letter as well.

Forever yours,

Kestrel

img_0231 img_0264 img_0326

Belly Dancing

Last year, I joined a belly dancing club through the Arabic Flagship, and this year I participated in it again. It’s a chance to learn more about Arab culture and do something I love—dance. I’ve danced for most of my life, but I stopped in high school and only picked up belly dancing in the spring of my Freshman year in college. In my opinion, dancing is a good outlet for all of the stress school causes, and it’s also a lot of fun to put on a hip scarf and hear it jingle around you. Last year we spent most of our time learning the basics of belly dancing and threw together a relatively simple dance number for the Arabic Flagship talent show. This year, though, all of the club’s members are veterans and we’ve graduated to harder combinations. The moves are more intricate and faster, which makes mastering them difficult. But, somehow, we seem to be managing.

A typical meeting this year consists of three parts: drills, dance one, and dance two. For the first fifteen minutes or so, we drill various steps, like hip circles, shimmies, and short combinations from one of our dances. Then we move on to our first dance, Ah w Nos, which is one of the dances we will present at the Arabic Flagships talent show. This dance does not fall into a particular belly dance style, but it is much faster and more complex than the one we performed last year. We spend about forty-five minutes reviewing the combinations, learning new ones, and running through the dance. After that, we move on to our second dance, done in the Khaleeji style. For me, this number is particularly difficult as Khaleeji is a new style for us and a lot of its movements are foreign. We usually spend about thirty minutes on this dance, reviewing, learning, and practicing. With the talent show only a few weeks away, hopefully we can get it all down!

Unity and Politics

Last week, OU hosted its first Unity Symposium. It was an event put on by various student groups that sought to promote renewed understanding and acceptance of peoples with different backgrounds and beliefs. I’m going to be honest, I am currently writing this about a week removed from the event and just a few days after the 2016 Presidential Election. From my vantage point right now, it seems that Unity Symposiums are needed now more than ever, and I’m sad that not a lot of people were able to attend. The symposium consisted of talks from people of differing backgrounds—Muslims, veterans, conservatives, African Americans, undocumented immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community, just to name a few. It was a chance to come together and hear their side, and then ask them questions about their experiences or anything you did not understand about them. It humanized “The Other,” something that I think our country sorely needs in this moment. After the horrifying rhetoric of this election, the people of this country are more divided and aware of their differences than ever. Some people seem to think that Trump’s win gives them the right to demean others and hold themselves above anyone who thinks differently than them, and that is just not right. America is a country built on diversity, and it should accept and celebrate that diversity. Do the words on the Statue of Liberty not say “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”? Does it not ask other countries to “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me”? Once, our nation called out to those who were hopeless and hurt, but now it seems we have locked our doors and forgotten what it truly means to be an American. To be an American is to stand up for our neighbor, for those who are different than us, for those who are hurt and afraid. We should be the safe haven of the world, a place to seek refuge and acceptance. We should not be ruled by fear and irrationality. We are stronger than that. We are better than that. In light of the current political events, we need to be more accepting and understanding than ever. We need more events like the Unity Symposium, because we are stronger together—and no one should tell you differently.

Image result for give me your weak statue of liberty

(Picture taken from First Friday Book Synopsis on WordPress)