The Road Splits

Today, I sit at a crossroads. Tomorrow I return to this inn where I’ve spent so much of the past four years. However, for once, the friends I’ve made here are not returning with me. After years of studying, crying, and laughing together, we are saying goodbye. A few are going abroad, a few have jobs either here in Oklahoma or further afield, and then there’s me, still here for another semester before beginning my life as well.

I can’t imagine college without them. We’ve been together for so long. I’m happy for them, though. They’ve worked so hard to get to where they are today. I wish them the best of luck as they fly further and further away. I want to see them succeed. I want us all to meet again in five or ten years and hear stories of the incredible things they’ve accomplished. Even if we’re not physically together here by the warmth of this fire, I know they will always be with me. After so many years and memories, I hope even time herself cannot pull us apart.

So to all who are leaving this place and moving on to new roads, I wish you the best. I hope you find peace and safety and love. I hope you’ll continue to move forward, building off the lessons we learned here together. And more than anything, I hope you remember you’re never alone. Even if we no longer see each other every week and no longer speak most days, I will always be here for you. We walked the roads together this far. Never feel like you must walk difficult roads alone.

Finding Home–家に帰って

Another semester is coming to a close here at OU. That makes two since I returned from Japan. It’s started to hit me recently just how long it’s been since I got back. The Japanese language has three primary verbs for traveling: one for going, one for coming, and one for returning home. I thought I’d returned, but I don’t feel home. Don’t get me wrong, I love OU and my friends here. I love being able to communicate with almost everyone. I love eating cheese in ungodly amounts and being able to make tacos without breaking the bank. But despite all that, I don’t feel like I’m home. I miss Japan. I miss the mountains and the sakura in spring. I miss the smell of the ramen and curry shops along the streets by campus. I miss the friends that came to mean so much to me, even though we were only together for a short time. Mostly I miss the feeling of home that I got from my neighborhood with its quiet streets and the small bakery where I’d buy breakfast. I know it’s unrealistic to look back and see only the happy parts. I spent many lonely nights in Japan aching to be here with my friends. Well, they say absence makes the heart grow fonder. I suppose it’s true.

As it drifts farther into the past, I’m trying to keep my experiences alive within me. I no longer respond to people automatically in Japanese, and I’ve lost the habit of converting all of my purchases into yen in my mind. But I don’t want to lose the part of me that loved and embraced living in Japan. I’m still studying Japanese, though I’m sure I’m not as good as I was a year ago. This semester I’ve also been attending the Japanese Club at OU as much as I can. I have friends there from Japan, and it’s so comforting to fall into discussions about which conbinis (convenience stores) we liked and our favorite parts of town. But for every happy memory there is a pang of longing. For every shared smile from an inside joke in Japanese there is an ache for the sights, sounds, and smells of Kyoto. When I boarded the plane to come back to America, I truly thought I was coming home. Now I’m not so sure.

As I approach the end of my college career, I will look for opportunities to go abroad again. I want to find my home. Perhaps it is somewhere here in the States. Perhaps I found it when I was living in Kyoto. Or perhaps it’s somewhere I have yet to go. Wherever it is, I won’t stop flying until I find it—the place I was meant return to. Home.

A New Journey—Costa Rica

Over Spring Break I had the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica, my first flight taking me abroad without crossing the Pacific. I was visiting as a student, studying the corporate environment and the function of leadership in Costa Rica. Although I was only in the country for 10 days, I learned a great deal and had the opportunity to experience a culture greatly different from any I’d been in before.

The business culture in Costa Rica is highly developed and well-specialized. Although agriculture remains important to the economy, Costa Rica has emerged as a hub for transnational corporations seeking a foothold in Latin America due to its longstanding democracy, low corruption, and established infrastructure. At the same time, Costa Rica has attracted many important manufacturing jobs in the pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and communications industries because it is relatively low cost while also having much lower risk than the many parts of Asia that would typically attract these manufacturing jobs. Tourism has also been a pillar of Costa Rica’s economy, with visitors coming from across the developed world to experience the natural beauty of the protected landscapes that make up 25% of Costa Rica’s total land area. Lastly, many entrepreneurs and corporations in Costa Rica are working to become more sustainable and promote environmentally friendly industries as a primary driver of the economy. This includes giants like Walmart and Gensler that work with local farmers and businesses as well as small local players who use their own limited capital and influence to promote organic products and clean industries. Altogether, Costa Rica’s economy is remarkably diverse and is growing rapidly as more and more companies strive to take advantage of its developed market and educated labor force.

Culturally, I wasn’t sure what to expect in Costa Rica. I had vague ideas about Latin American cultures, but the picture painted is usually one of an underdeveloped third world country. What I found was starkly different. Costa Rica is highly developed. The population is over 98% literate and the country is 99% electrified. The national electric, oil, and medical services are relatively expensive but highly efficient. Costa Rica has a well-developed educational system and a steadily growing economy. All in all, it is a first world country. At the same time, driving through San Jose, we saw unmistakable signs of poverty and crime from ramshackle buildings to the ever present bars protecting the windows of residences and businesses. In this way, Costa Rica reminded me of China. Both nations are straddling eras, with elements of both preindustrial nations and modern economic powerhouses coexisting within a single country. Old and new, rich and poor exist side by side.

Altogether, I had a great trip and enjoyed myself. I also learned a lot. The way we classify countries is far too simplistic. Calling countries “first” or “third” world gives the impression that some countries are better or further along in history than others. This isn’t true. Different countries have different struggles and different economic systems. However, every country has its own strengths and all have something to contribute to the world. I want to continue traveling to experience more cultures and learn to appreciate the unique gifts that each brings to the international community.

Frozen Time

The past few weeks have rushed past me, occupying my time with midterms, my Fulbright application, and various events on campus. I have adjusted fairly easily to being back in the States, but some days I still am struck by the loss of the mountains on every horizon. In general though, I have been too busy to give much thought to the life I left in Japan. It is the mixed blessing of busyness.

Overall it has been a good semester. I have a class with my OU Cousin for the first time this semester, so she and I get to see each other regularly. I also had the privilege of attending OU’s International Prom with her and a few of my other friends, where we celebrated the international community here at OU. I am working to take full advantage of the many opportunities presented by the university to engage with the international community, including a daily international news update and the school-wide Teach In on the strengths and weaknesses of constitutions. Meanwhile I continue to be involved with the JCPenney Leadership Program, joining with other business students on campus to pursue professional development and the life-skills we will need after graduation.

Although many of my activities have not changed, my life at OU is changing whether I like it or not. My friends who I’ve studied alongside since we arrived here freshman year are searching for full-time employment. Most of them will be leaving me when this year ends. At the same time, with President Boren stepping down at the end of this year, the school itself is poised for change in the coming year. Life at OU as I have known it is changing. Like anyone else, I don’t care for change. If I could freeze these years and my friends and keep things the way they are, I would be very tempted to do so. However, I know that time flows on, with or without me. I will cherish these days that I have left with my friends while looking forward to new horizons and adventures. There is still much of the world left for me to see. I cannot fly if I remain here, frozen in time.

The Road Goes On

I have been back in America for a month and a half now. Midterms are starting at university, and it is now an inescapable fact that I won’t be going back to Japan any time soon. This is not a short vacation back in the States—I’m here to stay for now. I can’t say I like the idea. I got so used to being in Japan.  I complained about it while I was there, but I also loved it. Now I’m having to adjust to being back here. However, I don’t want to become content. I don’t want to lose my drive to travel and see the world. While I’m here though I will continue searching for ways of staying globally involved.

In pursuit of this goal, I’m trying to engage with other countries and language associations outside those I have been involved with in the past. Across campus there are seminars about myriad places and cultures, and I want to learn more about all of them. This week I attended a lecture by Dr. Liu on the history of Chinese radicals. I was probably the only person in the room who’d never studied Chinese, but it was fascinating nonetheless. I was able to learn more about the relationship between Japanese and Chinese and their shared history, as well as continue my study of kanji, the Japanese writing system derived from Han Chinese.

Even as my classes focus on business and economics, I am actively working to continue a rounded and global education both through my continued study of Japanese and Spanish as well as through lectures on campus and personal conversations. I learned a great deal about the world while I was abroad, and I’m more aware than ever that there is much more to learn. I’ve traveled far, but the road ahead of me will hopefully take me many more places before my journey ends.

Houston 8.9.17

My Dearest Friend,

I’m back in the States. It’s been a long year since I was last living here, but I suppose it’s good to be back. I loved Japan. I loved living in Kyoto and looking out my window to see mountains circling the city. However, I think I have learned what there is for me to learn in Japan at this point in my life. Living abroad, I learned a lot about myself and the world I live in, but I also found that there is much I don’t know about my own country and myself. Before I go abroad again, I have things to do here.

First, I want to continue developing myself and my interests. I tend to become mired in my work, so I forget to pursue interests and hobbies. Worse yet, I sometimes forget to enjoy them once they’ve been added to my daily to-do list. I want to make a focused effort on having hobbies and extracurricular activities that I enjoy outside of my major and career goals. Related to that, I want to keep working on my language skills, now for my own sake rather than for classes. I’ve spent a lot of time on my Japanese, and I want to keep it up. I want to become bilingual. Living in an international dorm for a year, most people I knew spoke at least two if not three or four languages. I want that too.

The next primary goal over this next year is to continue my journey toward self-sufficiency. I’m finally living in non-university housing for the first time since I left home. I’m also working on getting a part-time job to pay for as many of my day-to-day expenses as possible. As a college student in America, I have always had a foot in both worlds, childhood and adulthood. After having been mostly independent and self-sufficient for a year abroad, I don’t want to go back to being a pseudo-adult. I’m not in a position yet where I can shake it off completely, but I can start a conscious journey toward being fully independent.

Lastly, I want to further invest in my relationships, both here at home and those I built while abroad. I have always struggled to stay in contact with people I no longer see regularly. For much of my time abroad, I had little if any contact with people from home. However, I also was reminded of how wonderful my friends from OU are and how important they are to me and my life. I want to actively invest in and develop those relationships further while maintaining the friendships I spent a year building in Japan. I am no longer content to take a passive role in my friendships. My life is only as fulfilling as I make it.

I have changed a great deal over the past year. Now that I’m in motion, I don’t want to stop. There is so much more out there for me, and I am capable of so much more than I have in the past expected of myself. This year, back in a comfortable place with a group of amazing friends nearby, is the perfect time to explore what I can do. Once I have tested and expanded the limits of my capability, I will be ready to explore the world more fully. My next flight is coming soon—I want to make sure that I’m ready for it.

Sincerely,

Kestrel

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

Kyoto 5.7.17

My Dearest Friend,

It seems that this semester will be busier than last. I cannot believe I’m already a month into the semester, and I am only now having time to write you. The beginning of the semester was stressful because of drama, problems with my schedule, and a more intense workload than last semester. My classes are substantially harder but my Japanese does not appear to have kept pace. I will get through the semester, but it will be extremely stressful.

There is good news, however. For one thing, my English classes this semester are much more interesting than last semester. They’re more challenging, but I’m learning a lot. Two of them are politics classes, one regarding theories and one specifically focusing on Japanese politics. I’ve never really studied politics, but it’s an important topic to be familiar with as an international studies major and I’m really enjoying those classes.

Also, I finally had the opportunity to visit Osaka. As silly as it sounds, I had lived here, half an hour by train from Osaka, for 7 months without visiting. However, a couple weeks ago I finally corrected that mistake. I spent the weekend hanging out with some students in my program who are studying business at the Osaka campus of Ritsumeikan. We went thrift shopping, visited Osaka Castle, and then had dinner downtown. All in all, it was an awesome experience, and I had the privilege of sharing it with some amazing new friends.

That’s about all that’s been happening for me. Summer is coming and every day is warmer. It’s still comfortable for me, but several of my friends from further north are already concerned about the coming heat. The flowers are mostly gone, but the city is green again and the various bugs are all coming back. I saw my first spider of the season yesterday. Kyoto has these large, penny-sized spiders that live absolutely everywhere. I’ll try to send you a picture later, but many of my friends are terrified of them. I’ll admit they’re creepy and all too common.

Good luck with finals and the end of the semester. I wish the best to you all, especially those who are graduating in the coming month. Have a great break. I’ll try to write again soon.

Sincerely,

Kestrel

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