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

The Road Home

Recently I’ve learned something about journeys: even if you intend to occasionally return home, the place from which you departed eventually ceases to really be “home.” Over the Christmas holidays I went back to Sugar Land for almost a month. I said I was going home, and I really believed it at the time. However, “home” is not a static place. In fact, I’m not certain it’s a place at all. Home is wherever you have become used to spending your time. It’s the place where you come together with those you care about and wish to spend time with. The house I grew up in is still special to me, but it isn’t really home. College—this crossroads, this inn—has become my home. I remember being told that this change would occur. I suppose I believed it, but I didn’t really understand it.

The joy of returning home at the end of the break was greater than I expected. However, it was also accompanied by a sort of melancholy premonition: the time I spend here is ticking away rapidly. We will all have to say goodbye and, once again, we will leave home. There is solace though. We lost our attachment to our first home without even noticing it, so why do we assume the next transition will be harder? Every goodbye is hard, but every goodbye passes. I will leave this home too, and I will be grateful for the time that was, not bitter that it couldn’t last. Good things aren’t static; they change. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just something to be remembered so that I don’t lose the moment I have. Tomorrow will come, and I will return to the journey. Perhaps I will return to this home to visit, just as I returned to the home of my childhood, but perhaps I won’t pass this way again. Well, either way, I will follow the road.

“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Reconciled Contradictions

In our day and age we tend to restrict our journeys to real places and current events. This is folly. Many of the great lessons we ought to learn are readily available to us only if we look to the past. I just completed an enlightening journey through a magnificent memory palace housed in ink-stained pages.

The book I was reading is called The Ornament of the World by Maria Rosa Menocal. The book recounts a curious period of world history that is often neglected: Medieval Spain. From 786 AD until 1492, Spain, known as Al-Andalus for much of the period, had a fascinating religious and sociopolitical history. Although it passed through the hands of Muslims and Christians at various times, the Iberian Peninsula maintained a culture that had heavy influences of all three monotheistic religions. Although peace was not always prevalent, the culture was overall a tolerant one. People could be many different things, such as an Arabized Jew in the court of a Christian monarch. Contradictions were considered an acceptable part of life, within individuals and societies alike.

Why do we struggle with such ideas? Why is it so easy to dwell on our differences and so hard to be more than one thing? I am not advocating the eradication of cultural minutiae, please don’t misunderstand. I believe that every culture is valuable. I also think it is acceptable to become a hodgepodge cultural entity. That is the sort of person I wish to become—a living reconciliation of cultures. As I travel, either across the globe or back into the shrouds of memory, I want to assimilate the knowledge, passions, and dreams of those I encounter. I want to show that contradictions are not an evil to be destroyed, but an opportunity to be embraced.