Kyoto 6.23.17

My Dearest Friend,

With a month left of my semester and a month and a half until I leave Japan, the end of my time in Japan is drawing close. This semester has flown faster than I could ever have imagined. The month since I last wrote has been a blur of flashcards and readings, trying to keep up with my workload. Now with the end of the semester in sight, my normal work has been supplemented with presentations, exams, and research reports. It will be very difficult to make sure I don’t let my busyness get in the way of enjoying my last few weeks here in Japan.

I did have a break this past week however. Two of my close friends from the States are studying in Asia this summer as well, and they stayed with me in Japan for a few days on their way. It was fun getting to catch up and show someone else the city that I’ve loved living in all year. I also finally visited the Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji, along with the Ritsumeikan World Peace Museum. It was a relief to have a break from my studies and to explore the city a little more. I also had forgotten just how much I missed my friends from home. So despite being very sorry to leave Japan, I know I’m returning to great friends who love and miss me.

Before I leave I’ll sit down and try to put into words all the things I’ve learned here, but one is already on my mind. Growing up, I loved studying ancient history and civilizations. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese—these groups were so much more interesting to me than politics or modern cultures. It still makes sense to me. I’m a lover of fantasy, so civilizations with their own histories and cultures that were fundamentally removed from me were more interesting to me than the mundane realities of my world. What I didn’t understand until recently is that modern European or Asian countries were no more real to me than their ancient counterparts. I was just as removed from the modern world. Growing up in America, especially living in one city for the majority of my life, everything outside America was either the same as America or didn’t really exist. Even after visiting China last summer, I still didn’t really understand that people live in ways that are fundamentally different than how I always had.

It turns out, I don’t need a car, a dryer for my laundry, or even to be home with my family on every holiday. All of those are good things, but they are not necessary aspects of life. There are also things I always expected to be part of my future that don’t necessarily need to be. I expected my future to be defined by working long hours before coming home to a silent apartment, living out my life in the States. That doesn’t have to be my future. I can travel. I can live in a new country every few years. I can find things I love to do and work to support myself, even if it’s not building a glamorous career. I don’t know what my future holds, but that’s half the fun.

My friend, when I return we will have so much to talk about. I hope you’ll still recognize me. I feel like I’m so different than I was when I left. Honestly, I think I’ve grown into a stronger and more beautiful person. Hopefully you’ll agree. I’ll try to write again once finals are over.

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.

As Crianças

One of the most common questions I’m asked is,”What’s your favorite part about Africa?” My response has been the same for the past three years: the kids. It’s hard to explain to people who have never been to an orphanage the emotions you experience while there. Feelings of anger, mostly directed towards the parents who abandon their children, feelings of sadness, and feelings of confusion abound, but are quickly overpowered by feelings of joy, by laughter, and by hope. The children in Jennifer’s home in Mozambique are some of the most incredible children I’ve ever met. They’re faced daily with huge obstacles yet have the most smiley faces and joyful hearts. They love with the purest, simplest kind of love that transcends any barriers of language or race. They work diligently and purposefully, never complaining about the hand the world has dealt them. They worship freely, purely, beautifully. They dance unhindered by the weight of the world or by the judgement of those around them. They are the reason I travel 9000 miles away to a country that is not seen by most as a beautiful one. They are the ones closest to the Lord’s heart, the ones who He speaks of when He says “pure religion.”Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset Processed with VSCOcam with t1 preset IMG_0016 Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset Processed with VSCOcam with m5 preset Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset Processed with VSCOcam with m5 preset Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset Processed with VSCOcam with m5 preset Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset Processed with VSCOcam with t1 preset Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset Processed with VSCOcam with p5 preset Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset Processed with VSCOcam with p5 preset Processed with VSCOcam with t1 preset Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset Processed with VSCOcam with t1 preset Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset Processed with VSCOcam with m5 preset Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset Processed with VSCOcam with p5 preset Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

Reflections by the Fire

I sit here in this place that has become my home and think. I’ve become so accustomed to this inn and these friends and the laughter and stories that we’ve shared. A lot has changed over the months here though. Many friendships have grown, though some have faded. Some paths have converged, while others have split, leading us apart. I’ve met some of the best friends I’ve ever had, and also lost contact with some of my friends from childhood.

It’s not just the group that has the changed though—I have changed. I have been assured by my friends that I’m very different than the girl who came to college last semester. The months have worked their magic and aged me. I have become more relaxed, more open to others, and more cautious with my words. I have learned more than I could have dreamed. Topics I once knew nothing about, I can now hold an intelligent conversation concerning. This semester I was involved in another political discussion group, again joining with other students to watch the weather of the world. After the first few weeks, I noticed that my fellow group members, knowing my field of interest and study, would ask me about economic issues in Asia. At first, I really didn’t think I was qualified to give any sort of response. However, I began to see a change in my answers as they became tolerably informed. I am by no means an expert, but I know enough now to analyze and think critically and give informed opinions.

The opportunities I’ve had this year have been innumerable. I’ve gotten to sit down and talk to academics and business executives. I’ve traveled to new parts of my country, while preparing for my first flight abroad. I’ve made friends from throughout the world, even from my own corner of it. As much as I’m excited to fly next week and start my journey abroad, I’m a bit sad at the thought of leaving this inn and this fireplace. However, I know I will return. And when I do, I will be a bit older and a bit wiser than I am now. Such is life. Even returning to the same place, I’m not really the same person who left. But I don’t believe that’s a bad thing.

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?