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.

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

Caroline in Cairo: Observations

Over winter break I traveled to Cairo, Egypt where I spent a month with Lamis and her family. I had an amazing time, learned a lot of Arabic, saw some crazy stuff, and returned with a lot of stories! Here are some observations I made while in Egypt.

 

TRANSPORTATION

I’ve taken all forms of transportation available in Cairo.
Train- pretty cool. average train ride. my ticket from Cairo to Alexandria and back was 90 Egp.
Bus- no. never again.
Minibus- so so so crowded. also scary.
Microbus- super cheap and generally pretty trustworthy. Most tickets were 4 Egp.
TukTuk- So much fun! They’re usually decorated with feathers, lights, or stickers. The only downside is how slow they are.
Boxtruck- Yikes. Crammed with people, nails sticking out of the sides, guys hanging on the back, and a very bumpy ride.
Taxi- some drivers have timers that determine the fare. These drivers are suuuuper slow. Downside of taxi is that sometimes the drivers try to be funny.

1st Microbus ride! In a boxtruck with Salwa (Lamis's friend) before it filled with people! a camel counts as transportation, right?! a mean taxi driver In Lamis's father's car on the way to her mother's village! a man in a village outside of Tanta driving his cart a donkey with a job I rode a donkey sans saddle. it was scarier than the camel.  Lamis's cousin was very patient and only laughed at me a little bit. the train to Alexandria. round trip= 90 egp a boat we rode in Alexandria

There are no rules for driving. At all.

Cars will try to run you over. Especially female drivers.

Crosswalks either don’t exist or they’re not visible. Crossing the street basically just means jumping in front of cars and looking mean enough to hopefully make them stop for you.

Sidewalks are where stores conduct business, the street is shared by pedestrians and cars.

Traffic lights and stop signs are suggestions.

Animal-drawn carts aren’t the weirdest thing. If you leave the house you’re most likely going to see at least one donkey pulling an orange cart

 

FOOD

While in Egypt i ate pigeon, rabbit, quail, beef, chicken, fish, shrimp, ful, t3mayya, kufta, koshary, mulukhayya, and just about every other thing you could think of. The food was always so good. I was fortunate enough to have an excellent host mother (my friend’s mom) who was continuously cooking for us.

1st meal in Egypt! kufta from down the street 1st breakfast! (Lamis's mom said "Don't port this picture! they'll think i'm starving you!") cotton candy at the souq! I wanted the heart and i didn't even ask, the guy just knew. snacks and drinks by the Nile (Lamis and her dad got a hummus drink) Lemonade with mint and pomegranate juice with seeds eating Libyan food with Lamis's old neighbors posing with a dead pigeon Lamis's aunt cleaning the rice for our lunch Lamis's aunt baking the rice a delicious home cooked meal in a village outside of Tanta creeper shot of the meal Koshary (not at Abu Tarek's place) Egypt has Chili's and Johnny Carino's ??? cotton candy by the sea (not pictured: the sea) a very popular seafood restaurant in Alexandria my plate of seafood

Nescafé is love. Nescafé is life.

Guests are served coffee, tea, juice, or Nescafé made to their specifications on a silver tray.

Every meal must have side dishes. Grape leaves, stuffed vegetables, other meats.

Black tea usually follows a meal.

There are endless types of cheeses and everyone has a different favorite. *Cue weird looks if you eat the wrong cheese with the wrong meat.*

You can get a sandwich for 2 Egp (shoutout to Shabrawwi) that tastes amazing.

Falafel is called T3mayya is Cairo. Just go with it.

Abu Tarek has the best koshary and that’s final.

Lemonade will probably never be the same for me. I drank a lot of Lemonade with mint, 2hwa mazboot (sweetened Turkish coffee), and tea with mint. I also tried fresh mango, strawberry, and guava juice!

 

 

SOCIETY

There is a song for everything. Everything has a movie or TV show reference, a little chant, a song, or some connection to pop culture. 

Key gestures and phrases made my life 1000x easier.

ex: there’s a gesture to show someone you’re actually full and not just being nice.

there’s a phrase to tell the person asking for money that you don’t have any but you hope their life gets easier.

*sidenote* sometimes shopkeepers will tell you that your items are free and you don’t have to pay. they’re just being nice %99 of the time and you really do need to pay

I’m creating a second post dedicated solely to shisha and coffee shops.

The Quran is absolutely EVERYWHERE. This might’ve been the biggest shock for me when I got to Egypt. Almost every car has بسم الله, ما شاء الله, الله اكبر or some other religious phrase written in sharpie, painted, or (the most common) attached as a sticker. Taxis, buses, microbuses, and minibuses are especially decked out in written prayers asking for God’s protection. Quranic recitation is unbelievably prevalent. I heard recordings of the Quran being played in: taxis, microbuses, grocery stores, on the street, shops, etc. I was touring the Citadel in Alexandria and i even heard one of the cleaning men reciting the Quran.

*sidenote* One of the mechanics across the street from Lamis’s house blared the Quran non-stop 24/7 the only exception being during soccer games.

Idle chitchat is mandatory when a guest comes over. I really value alone time so i occasionally struggled to keep up with the Egyptian social life.

People stare. A lot. Some people make weird comments. No one ever touched me or was hostile. 

Personal space doesn’t exist outside of the house. There are a ton of people in Cairo and it’s very apparent when there’s a big event or holiday. (like New Year’s Eve)

Foreign brands are everywhere (they have cheetos).

People yell in the streets at all hours of the night. It’s fine. Most people are awake anyway. 

Being late is normal. Meeting times are just general suggestions, give or take a couple hours.

Men will invoke the name of God while catcalling you because that makes it fine???

 MONEY

Haggling is a must. Speaking Arabic helps. Being Egyptian helps even more.

The conversion rate during my time in Egypt was about 18-20 Egp/ 1 USD.

Egypt was very affordable for me but worsening economic woes have exacerbated class tensions as purchasing power decreases and prices of basic goods continue to rise.

I gave my dollars to Lamis’s dad to convert for me at the bank. I didn’t mess with conversion companies but I did see some around.

I bought lots of gifts and spent rather freely and i ended up spending ~1100 Egp / Week. (including a train to Alexandria and frequent trips to coffee shops)

 

I know that generalizations aren’t the best way to obtain a nuanced perspective of a country or a culture; however, the aim of this post is to provide a fun and funny glimpse into Egypt as I saw it.

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

Updates on Future Travels

Unfortunately I am not going to be able to study abroad this summer. I have been looking into the Journey to Tanzania trip and it was not the actual program fees that were the issue, but the fees for the classes that I would be getting credits for. That program is six credits and with my out-of-state tuition, let’s just say it was a touch expensive. I will have to sit this summer out and just work during the summer instead.

Although I was looking forward to Tanzania, I may have to search for another choice because I am not sure if the college will repeat this program next summer. And another thing to add to this ever-increasing list to take note of is that because I am now a biology pre-PA major, I have a lot of requisites that I must complete before the end of my four year under-graduate career. Looking into programs that will allow me to get the requisites that I need for this major is hard enough, but to find times that I can support myself while taking part in the programs is even more fun (that is sarcastic, by the way). This is the major theme that I am trying to get at with this post — studying abroad is not as easy as everyone makes it sound. It takes time, compromise and a lot of patience. A lot of thought has to be put into whatever program you choose because although studying abroad in a country like Tanzania would be super amazing, you have to make sure that you are getting classes that you need out of it too. So if there are any pre-med, PA, nursing or whatever students reading this right now, it is going to be especially hard for you to find the time in your schedule and a program for you, but once you put in work it will be worth it. There is only so little time for us in under-grad to study abroad and we might as well make it count.

Austria and Delta Phi Alpha

Austria and Delta Phi Alpha

A few days ago I received an email from Delta Phi Alpha, the National German Honor Society, saying that I have been awarded one of their spring semester scholarships! I am so grateful for this honor, which will make it possible for me to visit the CERN particle physics facilities in Geneva and also travel to Munich to view the 13th century Parzival manuscripts.
I haven’t really posted anything about this yet, but next semester I will be studying abroad in Graz, Austria! I am so excited to be living in a foreign country for five months, especially one where I will be able to practice my German skills on a daily basis. Although it is a bit intimidating to be going to Austria, where they speak a different dialect of German than the one taught at most American schools, I can’t wait to challenge myself by attempting to live in German as much as possible. My university, Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz, has a buddy program so I can connect with local students as soon as I arrive in Graz, and I plan to make as many connections with Austrians as I can so that I can fully immerse myself in the culture.
Although I can’t actually register for my classes until I arrive in Austria, the courses I requested are going to be very different from my usual load. History of Austria, the Symphony in the 18th Century, and Japanese Art will all be taught in German, and I am looking forward to both taking classes in a foreign language and the fun subject material. But the course I’m most hopeful about is a graduate level course called Space Law and Space Policy, which will be taught in English. This course aligns perfectly with my future goal to live abroad and work in the space industry, so I really hope that I can take it!
Since the Austrian semester doesn’t line up perfectly with the American system, I have a six week winter break this year, which I am definitely not complaining about. I can’t believe that in less than two months I will finally be moving abroad!