Japan Journal 1: What am I doing; I feel under-qualified?

[Can you put semicolons in a question? Well, new rules for English.]

So these journals are going to be specifically for the study abroad program I’m doing in Japan about ideas of mental, physical, and environmental wellness.

Why did you apply for this program? What do you hope or expect to gain from this experience?
The story of how I found this program isn’t really an interesting one. I wanted to study abroad while I still had easy access to the opportunities, but didn’t have enough space in my last year and a half to take an entire semester off and study abroad. I only have a fading memory of my high school Spanish classes, so I’d need a program that didn’t have a language requirement. I was scrolling through the Learning Abroad Center programs, and the title of this one was really appealing to me. I know little about Eastern philosophy outside of the cheap iconography American pop culture has re-appropriated – yin-yang symbols, hyper-sexualized anime girls, dragon tattoos – and decided it would be well worth my time to deepen my understanding. A few members of my family have dabbled in martial arts and Buddhism, but they either have long since stopped practicing or are no longer around, so I’m curious what some of the things were that they might have known and believed, and how that might have interacted with a Western mindset. I’ve also always been interested in having a balanced mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. I’m looking forward to applying what I learn to my own life and possibly my future career in non-profit work.

japanteeoopsThough I am amused that both America and Japan have clothes with grammatically terrible text in each other’s official languages.

What do you already know about Japan (culture, politics, history)?
I’m a little ashamed to say it, but most of my exposure to Japanese culture comes from watching anime. I want to say I’ve picked up a few actual cultural tidbits, but I welcome any and all criticism. I know they tend to adhere more strictly to a social hierarchy than Americans do, that saving face is important, and that sticking your chopsticks upright in your food is very rude. I’ve noticed that doorways seem to be very important – everyone is very conscious of when they have their shoes on. It also seems like people pray to their ancestors, but I don’t really understand how that works so I won’t presume to know what that means. I’m looking forward to getting a better taste of Japan next week (next week!!!!!!)

Regarding their history and politics, I know they still had a monarchy and an emperor during WWII, but switched to a democracy afterwards. As I’m thinking about it, I wonder what made them go so quickly after Hiroshima and Nagasaki to wanting to be just like the U.S. (In Praise of Shadows mentioned that that’s where Japanese culture was headed). That seems like a really strange response to say, “Hey, you just killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people with radioactive demonfire. We look to you to lead our cultural renovation.” Note to self: research this.

How might you describe yourself as a global citizen? Provide specific examples(s) or situations in which you felt you were part of the larger world.
I feel like I’m not all that qualified to call myself a global citizen. I do enjoy learning new things about other countries and all the backstory about their traditions, language, etc., but I feel like I’ve only ever gotten appetizers of experience. I’ve never been abroad for more than nine days, and this is only my third time leaving North America. I’m not one of those people who actively seek out complete cultural upheaval because fairly often I feel a little off-kilter in my own society’s social interactions – how would I fare in one that is completely different than that? That’s also part of the reason I liked the shorter group trip – I know I’m going to screw up somehow, but I’d rather screw up with someone else.

I’m trying to think of a situation in which I felt like I was part of some global community, but the only times I can think of were ones that happened right here at home, which makes me skeptical of what I was really feeling. However, I can think of two experiences that I felt made me a more compassionate member of the human race that happened to take place internationally.

Kitti, Pohnpei, Micronesia
In January 2014 I went with three other students and two group leaders to Micronesia to learn about the culture, teaching opportunities there, and do a little service work. We stayed with a host family for two of the nights to give us a better taste of island life. It was… rough, in a lot of ways. There was a language barrier with most of our host family members, the hospitality customs of Minnesota and the island were completely at odds, and I had never seen anything slaughtered before I saw two pigs and five dogs slaughtered at a birthday party for the village leader. We were all feeling a little stressed when the kids finally started to warm up to us. We went swimming at a local “beach” (a.k.a. coral shelf from which you could jump into the water), and we all realized that we didn’t need language to play the same water games. It was wonderful, and if we the students broke some social custom, they just thought we were funny instead of rude. The kids who knew English started asking us about our families and ourselves, and we asked the same. They taught us some words and numbers in Pohnpeian, and made this awesome connection through fun and general curiosity that I think we’d been searching for since we first met our host families. Our host families and their relatives hosted a party for the kids and us on our last night there, and the fun continued as we all played games and did Zumba (courtesy of my health nut friend) on the dance floor of a tiny hut we all crammed into. I’m not much of a kid person, but I loved how open they all were to us, and I was glad to reciprocate their open arms.

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I’m a moron and didn’t bring my camera to Kitti, but here’s a market in the capital, Kolonia.

George Town, Grand Cayman
In August 2010 I went with my high school’s marine biology class to Grand Cayman to SCUBA dive for a week. We rented a boat for one of our dives and our “captain,” so to speak, was a man named Ricardo from Honduras. He was talking with a group leader and I was listening to their conversation. He talked about how he had left home years and years ago, more than 10 if I remember correctly, so that he could find money to send back to his family. His mother had made it to the U.S. and he sent money to her each month to help sustain her, as well as his siblings and his own young family still in Honduras. He had planned on only working for a year or two before he’d have enough saved to move in with his mother, but instead he ended up on Grand Cayman and visits his wife and kids as often as he can. He had not seen his mother in eight years. At that point I had never been so close to poverty as to be able to see the kind of sadness it brought to his eyes. It wasn’t anyone with a face, people being visibly and outright cruel to others, it was just the economic system, something so big you almost can’t blame it, that was tearing his family apart. It gave me a chill to try and fathom how you go about missing someone for that long. Not how it was possible – Ricardo was clearly doing it – but how do you get up and walk every day for so long in the absence of someone you love so much?

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Ricardo, who I hope has been able to see his mother by now.

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