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 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

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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

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.

Modern Women

I am a woman. I grew up knowing that pink was the proper color for me, that I should one day look like a Barbie doll, and that boys were gross. These were all parts of my childhood, though I later grew to realize their inaccuracies. As I grew older I believed that I could be a scientist, author, lawyer, even a corporate executive if I were willing to put in the time and effort to succeed. Now, I know that, although I can be whatever I want, I will have to be willing to work harder than my male peers and make sacrifices that a lot of my female peers will choose not to make. We’re all “equal,” but in a tie between me and an equally qualified male, I lose. All of these are facets of my life as a modern American woman. However, I’m not staying here. I have flying to do. Birds aren’t meant to stay in a single tree their whole lives. So what does it mean to be a modern woman somewhere else?

The other day, I attended a lecture on gender in contemporary China given by Kevin Carrico, who focuses his research on China and the dichotomy between tradition and progress in modern Chinese culture. He was telling us about “Ladies’ Academies,” finishing schools of sorts scattered across China. In these institutions, men graciously transform wild modern women into pure, traditional Chinese women. These young ladies learn important feminine skills like cooking, embroidery, and a deep understanding of the Chinese classics that define a women’s place. Dr. Carrico went to one of these academies to talk to the men who ran it. They explained that these academies were necessary because the balance of yin and yang was off; that women had ceased to be women and thus men were turning to gambling and alcohol and prostitutes to satisfy the emptiness in their homes. Apparently, all problems in modern Chinese culture can be traced to this failure of women to keep to their sphere. Men in all these changes have been the victims. And what of the women who come to these schools? Many are seeking to make themselves more attractive to men in order to find a husband.

I’ve wondered before how my life is going to play out. I don’t want to raise a family or stay at home, yet many of my beliefs and values are very conservative. The balance between liberal goals and conservative values will always be a difficult line for me to walk, and it will only get harder as I one day begin to look for another to share this journey with me, so I understand the motives of these young ladies. However, the idea of preying on fears of solitude in order to promote a worldview that treats women as a scapegoat for all society’s problems is sickening. The world has changed over the past centuries—this is a fact. Not every change has been good, but that doesn’t mean all progress is evil either. Perhaps the changed role of women has been one of the factors in the larger societal changes, but no problem is simple enough to assign all blame to a single player.

The lecture made me stop and reconsider my own place again. My role as a modern woman is infinitely more complex than I had imagined. I will spend my life fighting to be seen as me, Kestrel, not as a faceless woman, modern or otherwise. I believe that my gender is part of who I am, but it doesn’t define me. I can be strong and a leader and successful. I can be ambitious and put aside the idea of raising a family in favor of building a name in the world. Does that make me some sort of societal ill, upsetting the delicate balance of the universe? I’d like to think the universe is much less sensitive than we humans are. If the universe does in fact care about the minutiae of what I do with my life, I think we may have bigger problems than me choosing not to be a housewife.

Cowboys, Gentlemen, and Samurai

Growing up I always loved cultures. I loved learning how different people from different countries could hear the same stories and understand them in different ways. I wanted to see the world through the lenses of other cultures, so that I didn’t miss those other meanings to the common stories of my childhood. As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to see that culture affects far more than just stories. The effect of culture and language on brain functions, values, and business has only become apparent to me recently. But now that I have been exposed to these new sides of culture, I thirst to learn more.

Earlier this week, I had the incredible honor of working as an honorary intern at an event hosted by the Texas TriCities chapter of NACD, a nonprofit that works with boards of directors. This particular event was a fireside chat with Lady Barbara Judge, a pioneer and champion for women in international business. She has worked in the United States, Great Britain, and Japan in both the public and private sectors. Listening to her discussion of cultures and the business climates of these three vastly different countries was exhilarating. Although I wish I could cut off my words here and instead post a transcription of the conversation, neither of us has time for that. Instead, I will share her analogies for the specific business cultures of the three countries.

The United States, where I and probably most of you live, is filled with cowboys. As a native Texan, I fully understand this imagery. Cowboys like open spaces. They live freely and ride out towards the horizon with little thought to where exactly they are. However, cowboys don’t trespass. In general, if they see a fence, they’ll stop and find a new direction to ride. This is how business in the United States works. Generally, people do what they want and ride as they will. But we have laws, and they are not meant to be broken. We keep our fences brightly painted to make sure they are not missed.

Unsurprisingly, Great Britain is not inhabited by cowboys. The Brits can best be described as gentlemen. Gentlemen, unlike cowboys, don’t ride alone. Gentlemen sit in clubs and their actions are defined by the group. There are no set rules most of the time. And yet, people all do essentially what they are supposed to because gentlemen have codes. These codes keep the gentlemen together and in line. Unlike rules, which are meant to be followed, codes have an underlying theme of “comply or explain.” Not every code will be followed by everyone, but those who choose not to comply must explain why the code is not best for them. This allows for more flexibility in cases of diverse interests, but also limits the freedom of exploration that cowboys tend to embrace.

Lastly, you have Japan. In Japan, the idea of corporate governance is still new, and so isn’t as well defined yet. Most of what they have has been imported from the West, so elements of cowboys and gentlemen mix with the native culture. Lady Judge suspects that we will find that Japan is still filled with samurai. Samurai are strong, with the freedom and independence of cowboys and the codes of conduct of gentlemen. But samurai have something all their own: honor. Samurai and the business culture of Japan will be ruled by honor. Rules or codes will be enforced by the thought of the shame that would result from breaking them.

After Lady Judge finished her description of these cultures, the moderator, Anna Catalano, who has also worked extensively abroad, made a comment about having spent five years in London trying to work as a cowboy in a gentlemen’s club. Although intended to be a humorous comment, I realized that she was right. I was born a cowboy in a lot of ways. But if I want to find a niche abroad and actually succeed in other business cultures, I’ll need to learn to be a gentleman and a samurai and any number of other things. I will never succeed if I try to go abroad as a cowboy. Instead I have to become a part of whatever culture I’m trying to work in. Only then will I succeed in this vast and diverse world.

The Origin of Stigmas

Like perhaps many Americans of my generation, I grew up seeing items in stores labeled with the oh-so-familiar “Made in China” stamp. I thought this was a mark of poor quality and cheap materials. I had no foundation for this belief—it was simply that which I had always known. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that this stigma may in fact be unfounded. Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to a lecture by Dr. Elyssa Faison, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Faison’s lecture focused on the American views of the major economic powers of the East at the time of their rise, namely China and Japan.

In the late 1940s, just after the close of World War II, Japan was making great strides to rebuild its economy after the war. And yet, the American perspective on Japanese goods was less than optimistic. The label “Made in Japan” was a running joke because who wanted cheap Japanese goods? This all too familiar situation did not, however, stem from actual poor quality goods. Instead, a slew of propaganda created for the war had been slowly released from production and began to invade the minds of the populace. These “documentaries” and advertisements accused the Japanese of underselling Western products and pirating Western designs. Thus the global image of the Japanese economy turned sour. These ideas remained prevalent into the 1980s when Japanese electronics and cars began to find their way into the West. For years, the older generations were hesitant about trusting Japanese made cars and gadgets, but slowly the old stereotypes began to die and were replaced by a respect for the strong and unyielding Japanese economy.

As I listened to Dr. Faison’s lecture, I was struck by the similarity between these outdated ideas about Japan and my own childhood beliefs about China’s economy. Therefore, I was very curious to find out how these representations came to be transferred from Japan to China. The answer should not be surprising. Just as US propaganda painted the Japanese as scammers and thieves for the sake of WWII, the rise of Communism in China drove the US to declare a new enemy. Propaganda once again served its purpose and dictated a generation or more’s view of an entire nation.

That’s the path these ideas took to their resting place in my childhood beliefs. There is little to no evidence to back up either of these stereotypes, and yet they are very hard to displace. Many Americans still consider Chinese goods to be inherently cheap. Given time, we will, hopefully, overcome these misconceptions. Then we will be able to see other cultures for what they truly are, rather than for what an outside power paints them to be.

A Dinner with Journalists

Last year I learned about the President’s Associates dinners and attended an informal discussion with Mr. Robert Gates. This year I was eager to finally attend one of the actual dinners. Last week, that opportunity came. A friend of mine and I went together to the dinner, ready to hear from two giants of journalism, Bob Schieffer and Jim Lehrer. Although journalism is not among my fields of interest or study, the insight of these two men was phenomenal. Both of them had worked for many years reporting from Washington, and so their thoughts on the current political environment were particularly interesting.

They explained how, in their opinion, many of the problems in Washington stem from the “industrialization” of politics. The political sphere has become an industry dominated by professional players. It’s not about getting stuff done, it’s about getting in. This has increasingly led to the polarization of parties. The moderates are disappearing from politics. And it’s the moderates who are most important in Washington. Without compromising on little things, the government shuts down, literally. I agree with them wholeheartedly. Politics shouldn’t be like picking teams in schoolyard sports. “I want pro-choice so you have to be pro-life” or “I’m fiscally conservative, so you can’t be!” That’s not how party politics should be. If it is, maybe we shouldn’t have party politics. I don’t know why no one in the world of politics seems able to say “I agree with you” to anyone of another party. I feel like on most things we should agree. We all want our country to function, right? Surely none of us really want to eternally spiral deeper into debt. Instead of starting all our debates and decisions from a position of opposition, we need to start by identifying our common goals and interests. We can only make progress if we start from common ground.

America can’t lead the world if it can’t lead itself. We will lose any and all respect we have in the international community if we can’t get ourselves together. And because of the money, that’s not going to happen from the top down. It has to come from the bottom up. If we, the voters and the future politicians of America, don’t step up, nothing will change. And if nothing changes, there won’t be anything left to lead. We are the future of America. We need to be knowledgeable and willing to take the hard steps to make politics about governing again instead of about getting elected and making money. The longer we wait to make a change, the harder it will be to change the system. This is our country too. Let’s focus on bringing people into office who are willing to work with one another rather than unilaterally push their own agendas through. I don’t care how good those agendas seem—we’re better off with a team player. And it’s up to us, the people, to make that happen.

 

P.S. If that started to sound rant-y I apologize. I strive to avoid political rants in anything I post online. (Partially because I’m not informed enough to be worth listening to.) However, I wanted to discuss the dinner, and that was the part that most resonated with me.