Category: Japan

Allons-y

I’m writing this post in the air. According to the LCD screen above my tray table, we’ve passed the Bering Sea and are somewhere above the Pacific. The screen also says that it’s 5:29pm–or, at least, that it is in Seattle, a relativism that my computer and I are more than happy to accept as true for a few hours longer.

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A letter from the Associated Kyoto Program congratulating me on my acceptance to the program.

Yatta

We were almost done with our house meeting this evening when the phone rang. It was Takemoto-sensei, my Japanese professor from last year and the director of the Associated Kyoto Program. Apparently, he wanted to show Kagaya-sensei, a visiting professor and next year’s resident director for AKP, the Tek. Given that the program decisions were supposed to be going out either today or tomorrow, everyone was a little on edge.

Things got more suspicious when Liz, the only non-Tek applicant to AKP from Whitman this year, showed up at our door. We invited her in and began chatting, but it escaped nobody that all five Whitman applicants were currently gathered in the living room, and two AKP representatives were en route.

There was a knock on the door. Takemoto-sensei, Kagaya-sensei, and Seanacey, the program administrator from Whitman, all entered the house, and took seats in the living room. We all stood up when they entered, partially out of nerves, and partially out of some strange, half-extinct practice of etiquette that seemed desperately important at the time. We remained standing until a very perplexed Takemoto-sensei politely but firmly requested that we sit.

First, ever the salesman, he led us in a group “thank you” to Kagaya-sensei for flying out and interviewing us. She had a difficult time organizing her flight over the weekend–her home college, Williams, had ten inches of snow when she left, so we were fortunate she was able to make it at all. We all obediently and humbly thanked her, bowing while trying to contain our anxiety.

Then: “I have something for you.”

He stood, and like an out-of-season Santa Claus, reached into his backpack. Out came cardboard boxes–prepaid mailers with our last names handwritten on the sides. “Mehoke.” “Wharton.” Kagaya-sensei slowly passed four out–

–and then a pause. Takemoto, his eyes gleaming, turned to Sara. “Oh, Portesan-san…” he started.

Heads swiveled to look. Was this the bad news? Were we a divided group– four lucky admitted students sharing a room with one who didn’t make the cut? Or did these four boxes contain the gentle, reconciliatory declination letters? The tension muted us quickly, and even the previously uncontainable nervous jitters fell still.

Then he pulled the fifth box from his backpack and handed it to her.

“These are all for you,” he said. “I suppose, in true American fashion, you can open them now…

On the couch, we exchanged glances. Was this some sort of trick? Trying to get us to broach Japanese rules of etiquette? It seemed entirely possible at the time–then again, Takemoto could have told us our acceptance depended upon our ability to compose spontaneous English haiku about small appliance stores, and we probably would have taken it at face value. Slowly, our hands crept to the edges of the boxes, and began to tear them open–some of us more clumsily and brutishly than others.

Inside, a shiny packet of Pocky adorned with a sticker encouraging us to “Stick with the AKP!”

A package of Pocky with a celebratory labelAnd a bundle of forms, bound with red string.

A bundle of formsThis is it. The months of preparation, the interview, the sine wave of excitement and terror about the prospect of living and studying abroad for a year… it all came down to the words in this packet of paper. This determined the shape of not only my next year, but in fact the rest of my undergraduate experience, and potentially the few years afterward. Those first few words would indicate whether I was going to have the experience of a lifetime.

Another photo of the letter, centered on the word "Congratulations!"A few gasps around the room, then a boisterous cheer, followed by expressions of profuse gratitude. “Sensei… doumo arigatou gozaimashita!” I reached over and high-fived Sam. People were hugging.

Everyone got in.

Nobody was spared from the excitement. Our RA and our native speaker immediately began making plans to visit Kyoto during spring break next year. We began listing the people we knew that we would be able to visit when abroad. All of the stress and worries of the past few days, weeks, and months, evaporated.

We did it.

We’re going to Japan.

Returning to Japan

On returning to Japan

A portrait of me holding a folding fan to my face

God, I’m a dork.

I went to Japan four years ago or so. This probably isn’t news if you know me– I bring it up once in a while, and it was a big deal to me when it happened. That said, in the four years since returning, I haven’t really written a ton about it, nor have I put any of my pictures from the trip anywhere except my hard drive. I kept an audio journal while I was abroad, and at one point I was working on digitizing and transcribing it, but that’s also fallen through the cracks. I have a bag of memorabilia at home that I saved with the intention of eventually scrapbooking it, a project that has been neglected as well.

This is not in any way to say that my trip was not worth it. Far to the contrary, my trip to Japan was my first significant trip abroad, and it opened my eyes to an entirely different cultural perspective than the one I grew up with. I stayed with Japanese families, met Japanese people, talked with and learned from Japanese students, explored the community of Hirado and learned– a little bit– what it was like to be a total foreigner in an unfamiliar country. I think my trip was significant enough that it inspired me to continue learning Japanese, and it’s part of the reason that I hope to return next year, and am considering teaching English there after graduation through the JET Programme. It was undeniably a worthwhile trip.

But it was, in the grand scheme of things, a taste. It whet my appetite, but now I’m looking at spending an entire year in Kyoto starting this fall (provided the program accepts me).

And I can’t wait.

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