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.

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

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.

Kanazawa 11.27.16

My Dearest Friend,

I write to you now from the train home from Kanazawa where I just spent a wonderful weekend with one of my friends. We spent the day yesterday enjoying the sights and food of this historic city. It was an amazing experience.

We began the day bright and early at the fish market. Snow crab season is a few weeks in and yellowtail has just begun, so the market was bustling and full of the wondrous aroma of a fresh catch. We had an early lunch at one of the many small restaurants scattered amongst the stalls. Despite being the specialty of the region, a bowl of raw fish didn’t really appeal to me, at least before noon, so I opted for tempura. It was excellent.

From there we picked up coffee at a local shop and made our way leisurely to Kanazawa Castle. The old architecture was beautiful, but paled in comparison to the elegant gardens surrounding the castle and nearby shrines. The morning’s activities would likely have taken half as long without the multitude of pictures we both were taking. I sincerely doubt you will complain, though, because I am enclosing a few in this letter.

After the castle we proceeded to the Higashi Chaya district, an old part of town that is maintained to look as much like it did in the Edo period as possible. There we looked through shops and had our afternoon tea in an old geisha house. Obviously one of the most luxurious structures in the area, the geisha house made for an excellent respite from walking the crowded streets. Before we left the district, my friend and I bought ourselves each a cone of shoyu soft serve, a specialty in the region. Although one wouldn’t expect soy sauce flavored ice cream to be particularly good, it was excellent ice cream that tasted vaguely of salted caramel. We both thoroughly enjoyed it.

By this point we were exhausted, so my friend and I concluded the day with a nice dinner and a pleasant walk through Kenrokuen. The gardens were lit up beautifully, and we enjoyed the walk despite the late November chill. However, it was late, so we soon began our walk back to our lodging and bed. We rose early this morning to catch the train home.

It was a wonderful trip, and I’m quite glad I had the opportunity to go. Perhaps you’ll be able to come with me next time. I think you would enjoy Kanazawa. I hope your own adventures these past few weeks have been equally enjoyable. I look forward to seeing you, though it is still so far in the future. You will hear from me again soon. I look forward to your next letter as well.

Forever yours,

Kestrel

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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

Kyoto 9.27.16

My Dearest Friend,

I apologize for going so long without writing. It’s been a busy couple of weeks. I’ve attended many orientation sessions, explored Kyoto a bit more, and begun classes. I’ve also gotten to meet more people, which has been enjoyable.

The orientation week was boring, as orientations so often are. The information was useful, but was explained very slowly, so that we sat in lecture halls much longer than we needed to. At the time it was frustrating that the speakers went through each packet in both Japanese and English. Now that my classes have started and I have to follow Japanese lectures daily, I wish I’d paid more attention to the Japanese portions of orientation. Lectures are very fast and can be hard to follow even in English, but much more so in Japanese.

Last week was mostly a week off. That was very fortunate because it allowed us to settle into real routines. I began exploring a bit, both by myself and with friends. I still cannot navigate the transportation system, but I’m relatively confident in my ability to not get lost in the general vicinity of my dormitory. A couple of my friends and I even took a train up to Arashiyama where we walked through the bamboo grove. It was so beautiful there. I’m sending a picture of the forest with this letter. We had a wonderful time. I also had my first taste of matcha-chocolate swirl soft serve ice cream. I’m afraid I’ll need my own soft serve machine in the states so that I can keep eating it.

Around the dorm I have spent my time playing ping pong, joining group video games, and occasionally going out with my friends. It seems I’m not too bad at ping pong. Imagine my surprise. You remember how hopeless I was at the game back in middle school. I’ll keep practicing while I’m here so that I can impress everyone when I get home.

Although classes have only just started, I’m already quite busy. I spend about as much time in class here as I would in the States, but I’m getting fewer credits. It’s frustrating, but unsurprising. At least my hardest day is over. Wednesdays are lovely because I only have one class and it’s in the afternoon. I’m looking forward to sleeping in tomorrow.

I miss you very much, but I’m starting to enjoy being here even beyond the novelty. I’ve gotten comfortable cooking and shopping. Now all I need is to be able to fully communicate with people. I hope you’re doing well also. I will try to write again soon. Enjoy the last few days of September.

Forever Yours,

Kestrel

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