Monday, December 10, 2012

Confusion and Listening

Learning Japanese is very difficult. It's probably one of the most difficult languages in the world. But that doesn't mean it's impossible to learn. I just have to work very hard to understand what people are saying and to be able to speak.

When I arrived in Japan, I had the basics. I could express wants and desires through my simple vocabulary and bare basic sentence structure, but that was about it. I needed more to function through daily life. My rotary club has been gracious enough to pay for Japanese classes for me.

A tutor comes to my school twice a week to help me improve my language skills. These lessons last about two hours each. My teacher patiently explains new words and teaches me new sentence structures. With her help, I've been able to improve my Japanese considerably, but I still have a long way to go.

I can have a basic conversation with someone, but I can't spout philosophical words. I'm afraid I even have a hard time interacting with my friends at school. They speak very quickly and I often can't understand what they are talking about. When I do understand what they are saying, I can't formulate a sentence fast enough to join in the conversation. By the time, I am ready to say something, my friends have moved onto a different subject, so I tend to stay quiet and listen.

When people communicate, they do it through many different means. Not only do people talk, but they use facial expressions and gestures to add more meaning to their words. But when people talk to me, I have to focus very intently on their words to find meaning in the strange sounds. ONLY on their words. There are times when I can't even look at someone’s face, so I walk away from a conversation and think, "Now who was I talking too???". I have focus so hard that I cannot even begin to watch for gestures or facial expressions. This means I get less information than normal out of a sentence, leaving even more room for miscommunication than language barriers already create. If you add in cultural differences to the language barrier, you have a very confused exchange student. But the confusion is just part of being an exchange student. Once in a while a light bulb goes off, and it's a moment of pure bliss. There's nothing like finding understanding in what's normally complete confusion.


When you're honest about your language abilities:

   pic source: whatshouldwecallme and blazersandpins

The Rabbit on the Moon.

Rabbits and bunnies are everywhere in Japan. Now, I don't mean I see them hopping down the street and around my school. I mean bunnies are a popular icon in Japan. There are adorable rabbits pictured on obentos (lunch boxes), chopsticks, dishes, and other objects. Sometimes even food comes in the shape of a rabbit.

The Japanese believe that if you look closely at a full moon, you can see the image of a rabbit in the shadows. This lone rabbit is supposed to be making Mochi, a sticky, smashed rice delicacy. This rabbit is also supposed to be a symbol of weath.

I, myself, have gotten into this "bunny" mania. While I've always considered rabbits cute and cuddly, I've become quite obsessed with these furry creatures during the last 4 months in Japan. My poor exchange student friends have had to endure more than one outburst on the cuteness of an object bearing the picture of a rabbit.
For more info on the history of rabbits in Japan and through Japanese culture visit:

Friday, November 23, 2012


Though it's Friday (and technically not Thanksgiving anymore) in Japan, I celebrated Thanksgiving by myself while hanging out in Nagoya. It turned out to be an amazing Thanksgiving because I was forced to truly be thankful for what I have, not just because I was participating in what has become a big commercialized holiday.

I was kind of down in the dumps this morning so I decided to take the subway to a random spot in Nagoya. I was too lazy to change lines so I just ended up at the last stop on the opposite end of the line that I live on. This isn't a popular stop at all. I was basically the only person left on the train by the time I reached my destination.

I headed out of the station and choose a random direction. The cloudy weather matched my mood perfectly. Not long after I set out, it began to sprinkle. I found a river and decided to follow it for a while. Soon, I stumbled upon a little park meant for very young children. I decided I needed to swing for a while. As I contortioned myself on the swing so that I could use my long legs to propel myself forwards despite the incredible low swing, I noticed lots of people staring at me as they drove by.

A man and his small dog soon appeared at the park. He was obviously staring at me in bewilderment, but I just kept on swinging. The next thing, I knew he was talking to me (in Japanese) and we're having a whole conversation about America, where I'm from, and the fact that I was a little homesick. Just as I thought our conversation was winding down, an older lady and her two grand children came down to the park. He introduced me to them and we all begin to talk. It was so nice to have someone talk to me in complete Japanese and be totally interested in me and why I'm at a random park in the middle of nowhere. The kids and I began to play together and we talked the best we could. They were so excited to have made a foreign friend.

As we were all talking, the weather cleared up and the sunshine lit up the beautiful red leaves on the trees. It was then when I realized that though my family and friends are thousands of miles away, they are safe and happy, which is all that matters. As I looked around me, I was suddenly so thankful for the beautiful day God had blessed me with and all the friends I've made in Japan. My Thanksgiving didn't have a turkey or lots of pies and I wasn't surrounded my family, but it became of day of true thanksgiving. God has blessed me with so much: family and friends on two continents, a chance to experience a new culture, and so much more. It would be impossible to number the amount of blessing bestowed upon me. This is probably the best Thanksgiving I've ever had because I've come to realize what it truly means to be thankful.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

I'll smile more tomorrow than I did today

Today, started out terribly. I was feeling rather down facing what looked like it was going to be another boring day at school. There are times when I have absolutely nothing to do at school except study, alllllllll day long. All the second years (my grade) had exams today so I got kicked out of the classroom for the entire day.

But since the Japanese don't believe in central heating systems, only certain rooms in the school have heat. I was supposed to go the library, but since the windows are always open there, I decided to try out one of the study rooms. It was cold there too. So I killed two hours, while suffering through the chill, before heading to my cooking class. As this class started, I was ready to cry. I was so sick of cold rooms due to no heat, not understanding what is going on, not being able to have a normal conversation with my friends, and also being completely bored at school. Now that the initial excitement of my exchange as worn off and things are no longer new, I've been experiencing my first bout of culture shock. I'm afraid I've recently sunk into a depression like state. Nothing has able to catch my interest. I've started going to bed early and can barely get myself out of bed in the morning. No matter how much I sleep, I can shake feeling exhausted and I walk around in a fog. I've given up trying to speak in Japanese and barely talk to my friends at school. Things that are differently from the way they are done in the U.S.A. sometimes annoy me. I want my mom's cooking. I want to be warm. I miss my family and friends. I just want to go home. I can't remember why I came or can barely come up with a reason to stay. The only thing that makes me feel better is my nightly run.

My cooking group gave me things to do and I started to feel a little bit better. Plus, all the gas stoves running and the steam we produced while cooking warmed up the room and I finally got warm. But I still wasn't quite usual enthusiastic self.

After this class, one of the girls in my cooking group introduced me to a friend of hers who studied aboard in the U.S. This new friend and another girl from my cooking class, who has also studied aboard, went up to the roof to talk. I ended up telling them, in a mix of English and Japanese, what I've been experiencing lately. Not only did were they sympathetic, but they understood because they themselves have experienced the same thing. It was so refreshing to talk to people who truly understood what I am going through.

The next thing I know, I'm being invited to one of the girl's P.E. classes since I didn't have another class to go to today. We had to stop by the teacher’s room and get permission, before we dashed to my classroom to get my P.E. uniform. While I was changing in the bathroom, I realized that I'd forgotten to grab my gym shoes and my head band, but I couldn't go back to my classroom since the exams had resumed. My friend offered me her shoes so we ran up two flights of stairs to her classroom. These shoes ended up being at least two sizes too small, but I managed to jam my feet into them. My new friend also lent me her P.E. sweater since the air outside is currently rather chilly. We raced down four stories and eight flights of stairs while trying to beat the bell. No dice. The bell rang before we were even outside. I was carrying two school bags and my uniform wadded up in a messy bundle, all of which wasn't helping a speedy decent to the first floor. When we finally made it to the tennis courts, I had already missed the stretching session. The gym teacher immediately commented on my rumpled appearance. I had forgotten to tuck in my shirt and my pants were on backwards. Everyone got a good laugh about it, me included.

It was my first time playing tennis, but it turns out I'm not too bad at it. But the best part was talking to my new friend and her classmates. It was the most fun I've had at school in a while and brought me out of my sleepy state.
I studied in the library for the last hour of school before heading to English club for a while. I managed to leave school at the perfect time and found my bus waiting for me at the bus stop. As soon as I got home, I went for the longest run of my life. While I ran to an unknown portion of Nagoya, I realized I'm fine. Being an exchange student isn't easy, but it's worth it. The friends I've made here and the things I've gotten to experience make this difficult time completely worth it.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bus Schedules

I hate bus schedules.... As I headed out to meet friends about a week ago, I managed to read my bus schedule wrong in three different ways. Needless to say, I missed my bus. My host parents always tell me that if I miss my bus there is another bus just a block away headed to a different subway station so I started walking in that direction. I saw bus stopped at a bus stopped at what I thought was the right bus stop so I jumped on it thinking it must be headed in the right direction. Forty minutes later, I`m at random bus stop, somewhere in the 4th largest city in Japan, completely lost. Suddenly, I saw a bus headed to a familiar station so I decided to take that. After that bus and a subway ride, I finally met my friends at our meeting spot, miraculously only ten minutes late. I was sweaty, tired, and slightly wind blown after running all over place, but I got to see a good portion of Nagoya, exercise, and renew my hatred of bus time tables.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Taikusai (Sports Festival)!!!!

The morning of the sports festival was two days after the school festival. The sky was a deep blue and the sun was baking everything in its intense heat.

Everyone was so excited for the Taikusai (sports festival). Two classes made up each team. My class was proud to be a part of the dark blue team. That morning, every high school student filed on to the large outdoor sports field. We began with an assembly. Each team stood in straight military style rows in front of our team flags and the podium. Standing side by side, we formed a giant rectangle. We listened to several speeches, including one from our principal. Before and after each speaker, the students had to bow to show respect. We sang the school anthem as the flag was raised and then we all began stretching. Schools in Japan have a certain routine for stretching. Typically, this routine is set to a rhythm kept by leaders counting. This time, the rhythm was kept by the school orchestra playing upbeat music. I couldn’t believe how perfect the song was for the rhythm.  After stretching, the games began!

There were foot races, relay races, and all types of amusing competitions. I complete in the 1,000 meter relay, Kani Kani replay, Taifu no Me, and several other events.  In the 1,000 meter relay, we had to run half of the large arena and then pass the baton to one of our team mates.

I was surprised to complete the Kani Kani relay without a broken bone or at least a sprained ankle. In this event, teams were divided into pairs. These pairs stood back to back with their elbows intertwined and their ankles tied together. The object was to be able to move sideways in a systematic and synchronized hopping movement. We had to perform this odd movement while racing around a cone and then towards our team mates on the other side of the arena. Once one pair crossed the line, the next pair could go. The team who got all of their pairs across first, won. I can’t express how difficult this can be, especially when you are as uncoordinated as I am. (In gym class, as we were practicing for the festival, I managed to fall on the same poor girl twice and roll my ankle several times.)

In the Taifu no Me, a team is divided into 2 groups of 16 people and then these two groups stand on opposite sides of the arena facing each other. Each group of 16 people then stands in a formation of 4 rows of 4 people. A long pole is grasped in each hand by the first row of one of the groups.  They hold this pole out in front of them while running around a cone and then towards the other group. When the group gets close to the other group, the middle two runners  fall out of formation and the two runners at the end of the pole lower the pole close to the ground while still running. The other group must all jump over the moving pole while still standing in neat rows. The pole is then brought back over the entire group’s heads and then sat down in front of the first row in the new group of 16 people. This first row takes the pole and repeats the process. The 4 people who just ran then falls back into formation in the new group, replacing the people currently running .The game continues in this manner until each row has run with the pole.  The first team to complete the relay wins.  (“Taifu” is Japanese for “typhoon”. “No”  is a particle that acts like an “ ‘s ”. “Me” means “Eye”. Therefore, the “Taifu no Me” means  “Typhoon’s Eye”.)  

At one point, I noticed how well my team (Blue) seemed to be doing in all of the competitions. By lunchtime, we were in first place! The afternoon was filled with amusing relays and races. There was an obstacle course relay; a relay in students had to dress teachers up in costumes, and a student vs. teacher relay race.

The entire day was great fun. We were all covered in sweat, but happily raced and cheered for friends and team mates all day long. We had another assembly as the day came to a close.  It was time for the winners to be revealed. My team (blue) won!!! Everybody went wild. People were jumping, cheering, and crying.  The class leaders went up to the podium to accept our certificates.  Hugs and taking lots of pictures was definitely in order.  After the award ceremony, as the flag was lowered, everybody in the school linked arms and swayed to the music, while singing the school anthem.

I’m afraid I had to leave early due to a Rotary event (my Welcome Party).  I changed from my gym uniform back into my school uniform in a frantic hurry.  I met my homeroom teach just as I was racing out the door. He shoved a celebratory Popsicle in my hands as I ran by. I dashed down the hallway and skidded to a stop, managing to just barely avoid crashing into a teacher coming around a corner. I stumbled by with several bows and many “Gomenasai’s” and ran down the stairs as fast as I could and out to the school gate where my Host Mother was waiting to pick me up in her car.

I reflected over the entire day throughout much for the night. It had been such an amazing day. I am so proud to have been a part of something my classmates wanted so badly. I was sad to have to miss the after party, but one of my friends took pictures for me. Apparently, there was a baton twirling club swirled long string like devices with the ends lit on fire and the teacher band also preformed.

Friday, October 12, 2012

School Festival (Bunkasai)

I'm afraid I have been too busy to write lately. Two weeks ago my school held our sports festival (Taiksai) and our school festival (Bunkasai). You may have heard of these before as they are events often featured in Japanese dramas, TV, and anime. They are an integral part of school life in Japan.

My school takes both of these events very seriously. The Bunkasai was an extravagana held over Sunday and Monday. For these two days, Parents, Grandparents, students from all of Nagoya, and other visitors swarmed the halls of our highschool.There were so many people that navigating the wide hallways became rather challenging. Everyone packed themselves into the brightly decorated classrooms to observe the handywork that we had slaved over for so long.

Our classrooms had been transformed from the ordinary to a cardboard walled maze with posters plastered everywhere, bearing information on themed topics. My class had choosen the theme "Gamble". Our room became a maze of gambling parafanilia and addiction information.

The first day dawned rather rainy. Many of the elaborate outdoor decorations had to be taken down in an attempt to save them. Rainbow colored banners had been hung hign above the courtyard and even the staircases had been decorated. The main staircase outside had colorpaper stuck to the inside edge of each stair so that when looked upon from a distance it showed our school's insignia in a colored rainbow.

On the big stage in the courtyard, students preformed various routines much to the audiances great delight. Bands played traditional Japanese music as me as today's trendiest hits. Dance groups captivated the public with amuzing or complicated routines. Whole school clubs preformed their craft in complicated showcases. There were even displays of Ikebana (traditional flower arrangements) and Shoudo (calligraphy).

Many class rooms sold food to the visitors. Theses food stalls were a big hit. Long lines of people stated assembling even before they opened for bussiness. Delicasies like "Kuraage" (fried chicken), "Curry rice", Takiyaki", and "Ramen" were sold at extremely cheap prices. Girls stood at the back of each line with advertising signs. They would often jump up and down, shouting, and wildly waiving their signs to coax hungry people in their lines.

I can't possibly discribe the atmosphere. There was excitement and and competition all bound together with delicious food. Smiles were plastered on the students faces as they wove through the crowd.

After the two days ended, we all filled into the big gymnasium to hear the results of the competition. The teachers had gone through all of the classrooms and voted for the best ones. Each winner was revieled by a scroll casted out of a window on the far wall. As each scroll unraveled, a great roar would come over the student body. The sound of cheers, screaming, and clapping filled the air. Something else was reavieled at this moment, but only to me. I came to realize how important this day was to them. A good portion of the gym was in tears. Whether in sadness or triumph, the tears streamed downwards. To me, this was a fun, cultural event with delecable food. But to them, it was so much more. It's one last day to have fun before exams. It's also a day to bond with classmates, show off your school, and have a study break. So much time and energy went into organizing, and creating every aspect of the school festival. Every heart desired to win.

My class did not win any rewards or certificates, but we had fun anyways. My homeroom/English teacher treated us all to popsicles and sugary drinks. It was surely a day we will always remember.