Global Engagement Day: Study Abroad Story Time

Now that I have studied abroad twice, I was called to participate in a panel during Global Engagement Day! It’s only a little alarming to think that I’ve already made it here (we’re rounding out year three of this blog, which makes me feel old…) but an honor nonetheless. The panel I participated in was named Study Abroad Story Time, an informal panel of students who’ve been abroad mixed with students who have yet to go, swapping stories and advice. If there’s one thing I really love, especially now, it’s reminiscing about Spain. This panel was made for me!

Throughout my time abroad, I’ve generated more than a few transportation near-horror stories, and I told one or two on the panel. I had a great time listening to the stories of others – everyone has been so many amazing places, and several GEFs are incredibly gifted story tellers. And of course, I loved getting to share some of my tales from Spain and England. My favorite thing about the panel was actually the reactions I got to some of my stories. I had many great experiences in Spain, and one of the most unique was my time shadowing a resident in the emergency gynecology and obstetrics ward of the hospital in Alcalá. I’d forgotten quite how remarkable it was to get to see C-sections and babies be born in Spain until I got a stunned reaction to the story. I was feet from the king of Spain at one point. I had to wait to see the doctor until a criminal, flanked by two policeman, was finished in the one room in the free clinic. Getting to tell my crazy stories to others was a great reminder of how unique and amazing my experience was, and it made me ache to go back.

My other favorite part of the talk was getting to share my stories about my host family. I ended up being the only one at the table who had lived with a host family, and people were eager to hear about how it was. This was another element of my trip that I’d grown to take for granted – I forget that not everyone has the amazing opportunity to live with a sweet host mom and sister for four months in a cozy apartment in Madrid.

My travels have taken me to so many places and given me so many memories that I will cherish for a lifetime. Getting to spend a small part of my week sharing those sweet memories with other fellows was an absolute treat, and I can’t wait for more story-swapping next year!

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

Look Beyond Yourself

This semester, I decided to step out of the comfort of my own sheltered existence. For years, I was obsessed with Europe - my homeland, my calling, the place where one can walk around any city and experience a million marvels of architecture and culture in a single day.

To be frank, I never felt the urge to venture beyond, to experience or learn much about the rest of the world. It felt so unfamiliar - and foreignness is scary. I dove into my high-school level world history and human geography courses, reveling in the beauty of historical and socioeconomic trends. It was all very academic. Genghis Khan did such and such, killed a bunch of people. History from a distance - these people didn't feel much like people. Their story was a collective one, and thus abstracted beyond emotion.

Enter the course Arab Spring. Already I was intensely invested, because my sister had lived in Egypt in the year before and the year after the 2011 revolution. Her normal updates at the time morphed into reassurances that she hadn't been in the metro when security forces let off tear gas, that she had stayed in her apartment while a protest went on in the square just a few meters below. My own blood's tangential involvement meant I was more personally invested in the outcome of the history being set in motion. I followed closely on social media, watched in horror as I saw photos of bloodied protesters and read about their struggles to take back control of their own beloved country.

And, this semester, I decided to jump back in academically. The class 'Arab Spring,' taught by Dr. Joshua Landis, utilizes all sorts of perspectives with which to see this important period in Middle Eastern history. Viewing the events through economic, historic, social, and personal lenses (the result of reading academic journals, memoir-like books authored by seasoned journalists, and first-person accounts alike) weaves a series of frames into one larger story of the struggle of a people. Perhaps it is the addition of social media as a crucial narrator for the revolutions, a medium through which the very people involved can offer their thoughts, unfiltered. Or the fact that it is people my age who are putting their lives at risk to overthrow the propagators of autocracy and oppression. But the course has resulted in a strange amalgamation of academic study and personal investment in the future of the region.

I encourage us all to look beyond - if all you check each day is your social media feeds, make an effort to also read the news. And if you read the news, follow social media feeds that put another layer onto the often tragic but sometimes faceless events that occur everyday around us. Become invested in knowing your world. And when a chance comes for you to change it, do your part.

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

Holiday Head Start 2016

My 3rd year at Holiday Head Start!

For those that are not familiar with HHS, it is the official philanthropy program of the Asian American Student Association at the University of Oklahoma. It’s goal is to provide a holiday meal and celebration to underprivileged families from the surrounding city. A major portion of the funding for this came from Asian Food Fair, AASA’s largest event on campus where it provides a venue of authentic  Asian cuisine from ethnic restaurants in a buffet-styled environment at an affordable price of ($5). Other fundings came from organizations such as Student Alumni Association, Student Government Association, College of Education, and restaurants nearby.

HHS Committee 2016

HHS Committee 2016

I’ve been doing this for three years. It alway brings me joy to see families having a pleasant experience knowing that they may not be able to have that during these harsh economic times. I’m also impressed by how much AASA does to the community overall; not only are they providing an experience for college students, but the profits derived from the food fair go straight to the philanthropy event, meaning AASA made no financial gains from any of this.

HHS Committee 2016

HHS Committee 2016

Overview of the event happening. I'm wearing a blue jacket!

Overview of the event happening. There’s me in the blue jacket!

Pictures with friends!

Me and my friends posing for a picture! 🙂

SGA Budgetary Committee Fall 2016

This past semester, I had the opportunity to serve on the Budgetary Committee of the Student Government Association at my university. The responsibility of the committee is to allocate funds from the student activities fees pool to student organizations.

After being exposed to so many incredible opportunities and student groups on campus, I feel it was important for me to go behind the scenes regarding the operations of the SGA Budgetary Committee. During the previous Spring semester, there was some shaken controversy regarding the bias the committee had against multicultural oriented organizations. That event caused friction between the organizations and SGA. Due to the emphasis of serving others, SGA administration had to reframed itself with policy changes concerning the issues the students had voiced. The primary changes was switching the application process to strictly an online form, creating auxiliary funding, and expanding organizations opportunities to apply for funding outside of primary funding, where a majority of the funding occurs during the school year.

I’m proud to be apart of a committee that makes so make incredible decisions on how to best serve others with the limited resources it had. While I was skeptical of some of the proposed changes, I feel more confident than ever after this past semester that the changes we had to make are the right ones.

I look forward to continuing that service next semester!