Saturday, April 18, 2009

One month in

This update is long past due. The pace of my life cranked up about ten notches once I felt better and entered into the outside world again.

My busyness has kept me from reflecting on my time here during the past week or so. I'm so glad it's the weekend and I finally have time to do so.

Exactly one month ago today, I stepped off the plane at Narita Airport, officially marking the beginning of the biggest adventure of my life. What have I done? What have I felt? How have I changed? There have been times of sadness and homesickness, times of excitement and disbelief, times of joy and times of anger, but through all my ups and downs, I have had such a consistent feeling of gratitude. I am 19 years old and I'm living and studying in Tokyo, Japan by myself. Often there are times where this just hits me and I have to stop what I'm doing and just take it in, embracing the reality of the moment. I am reminded of how blessed I am to have this opportunity at such a young age. It's incredible.

From financial support to words of encouragement to open doors, there so many people in my life that deserve to be credited for the opportunity I have to be here right now. I will be thanking them forever.

Time to move on to a more recent and detailed reflection.

Since I last updated, much has happened, much has changed. Where to start... hmm well orientation finished with two very interesting site visits to Yomiuri Newspaper and the Tokyo Stock Exchange. The Yomiuri Newspaper is the world's largest daily newspaper with a circulation exceeding 10 million daily! We were able to watch the newspapers being made and we were each given a freshly printed newspaper four hours before it was to hit the stands. We also heard about the company from its staff. With my strong interest in the news and in journalism, the opportunity to be at a professional newspaper headquarters in Tokyo was fascinating. The Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) was an interesting visit as well, but definitely not as interesting. The one thing that I was surprised 'not' to see were hundreds of men and women on the floor shouting and yelling as they bid (I don't really understand how it works. Just from pictures and movies I've seen this image). All of the buying and selling is done on computers at the TSE, so it's very quiet and calm with a few people on computers supervising the exchanges online.

Once orientation activities were over, it was time for life as a student in Japan to start.

Before classes begin, there is what's called Freshman Week at Sophia. This is where hundreds of circles (what are clubs here) cover the campus and freshmen and exchange students walk around and decide which to join. This was a crazy experience! There were so many people! I knew that what circle I decided to join was a big deal because circles here are regarded as the center of ones social life as a student. I just wanted to make friends from Japan and other countries too. I am now in three circles: the Sophia University Tennis Team, SISEC which is an international student networking/communication organization, and KGK, a Christian student group.

The tennis team is by far my biggest committment, but I am loving it! I am the only exchange student on the team. A lot of the students speak English thank goodness, so that makes everything much easier for me. Everyone was so accepting of having me on the team and many of them were excited that they had someone to practice and learn English with. We practice every Tuesday and Wednesday for five hours. I decided I didn't want to take part in the weekend practices because I want that time to be for travel and hanging out with friends outside of tennis. It has been so interesting being an athlete here. There are quite a few differences compared to American sports teams. The biggest difference is the formality of the team structure. The Sophomore, Junior, and Senior students are what are called the sempais (the elders/leaders) and all the freshmen, including me, are the cohais. When a sempai is speaking or critiquing us, we have to zip up our tops, take off our hats, take off any sunglasses, put our hands behind our backs, and put our razquets on the ground. They are spoken to as "Sempai ____(name)." Intense, huh? The Japanese culture is so strong and evident on the team. I'm enjoying learning from the perspective of a regular student and athlete.

As for classes, I am taking Japanese Language (everyday for 1.5 hrs!), Japanese Literature, Japanese Art, and Issues in Japanese Thought. So, I will be quite the expert on Japan when I get home, haha. Classes aren't too exciting or interesting, but I'm enjoying meeting the other students in my classes. Since my classes are in the FLA (faculty of liberal arts) Department and all my classes are in English and many of the students are international, they don't differ radically from classes in the U.S. The only big difference compared to Hope thus far (in terms of the classroom structure specifically) is that professors don't encourage discussion here (besides my Japanese Language course). They actually prefer it if you keep your thoughts to yourself unless the professor asks for input. Lecture is the main way of teaching. I'm going to have to get used to that. American students actually have a bad reputation here for talking up in class just to talk and make themselves heard, serving no real purpose for the learning environment. Lots of students and faculty have expressed their frustration about this. I can understand what they are saying because I too have had similar frustrations with students in the past and currently, but I definitely think that engaging students in discussion in class is a far better learning environment than just listening to a professor speak for an hour and a half. I will continue to observe the classroom and keep note of the differences when I notice them. I'm sure there are many more I haven't experienced yet.

I have made three great friends so far from school. One of them is Kelly and she is an exchange student from Montreal, Canada. She's a lot of fun. We've been hanging out everyday together. I enjoy talking about Canada with her and learning about the Canadian perspective on the U.S. from her perspective. Another friend is Ai and she's a freshman here at Sophia. She is Japanese, but she lived in London for seven years, so when she speaks English, she has an English accent. She is so sweet and kind. Today she's taking me shopping! It'll be fun. The other friend I've met is Valentin and he is from Vienna, Austria, but he studies in Switzerland. He's straight out of a catalogue and his accent is fantastic! Haha. European men are much different than American men. I've thoroughly enjoyed conversations with him. He's very entertaining. Last night Kelly, Valentin, and I went out to an English pub together in Shinjuku. I look forward to getting to know both of them more. We have a great time together.

Well I am off to get ready for the day. I have another picnic in the park to attend, this time with SISEC, then off to shopping. I haven't been taking many pictures lately.. not good. I will include some in my next update for sure.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Sakura, Sickness, and Sleep

The sun is out, the air is warm, the cherry blossoms have bloomed, and I'm inside on my bed, with an ear infection in both ears. Not fun.

Last Friday, I paid my first visit to a Japanese hospital. The name of it was Sanno Hospital and it is known to be one of the nicest hospitals in Tokyo. It sure was! I felt like I was in a hotel. I went there after a week or so of pain and swelling in my left foot. Well, after two and a half hours and lots of yen handed across the counter, I had some medicated bandages to wear and a guilty and relieved consious. So much money spent, but luckily nothing seriously wrong with my foot.

After my hospital visit, I was in the mood for some American food. As I wandered along the clean and classy streets of Roppongi, passing Japanese gardens and hearing accents from an array of countries (10% of the population of Roppongi are from a different country), I spotted 'New York Bagels' and headed towards it. It was so nice to sit outside, relax, and enjoy some comfort foods: a bagel, a coke, and a salad. Whenever I get to drink a coke, eat a pizza, some Italian pasta, I feel immediately soothed by the familiarity. It's nice. I drink atleast three cups of my British tea a day. Yes, I just have to. Mmmm.. Well, after lunch, it was time to meet up with some friends at my school for some socializing under the sakura trees. The weather was so warm Friday afternoon. We all just sat under the cherry blossoms, enjoying each other's company, as well as the company of the many people around us participating in the same activities. We listened to a Japanese man and his friend play some Beatles songs on their guitars and sing, we watched some students make origami out of newspaper, we enjoyed the attention from the people as they waived to us and giggled (we were some of the very few foreigners in the area). It was a very nice afternoon. Once day became night, we all headed to a welcome party for all the international students hosted by our school. It wasn't too long. We had some dinner, met some other international students, watched some performances, then headed out for the night. We just went to a small bar/restaurant in Shibuya for a couple hours then went home.

It was late Friday night that I noticed my hearing was going a little bit. I didn't think much of it. I have had a cold for about a week, so I knew it was just part of the head cold. But, as the night progressed, the pain in both of my ears got worse and worse. I was scared. I looked up some home remedies online, tried one of them out, and finally got to sleep at 3 am. Not a good night. I woke up the next morning with my hearing still gone, but the pain was no longer. I went about my day just fine, even enjoyed a dinner out with the family for Hinako's 4th birthday and a late night at a local hot spring with Kayo. Sunday was a different story. I couldn't drink a sip of a water or walk a step without being sick. It was horrible. I was so nauseous. Kayo took me to an emergency clinic where the doctor told me I have deep ear infections in both of my ears and that I have to stay in bed for two to three days. He put me on five different pills. So far, so good. Sunday afternoon and night were bad, but yesterday and today, I feel better. The nausea seems to be gone, but the congestion and the ear pressure are still present unfortunately. I had to miss out on a trip to Kamakura yesterday where the Great Buddha statue is and I can't go in to school today either.

I wish I had a more positive update to share, but this is life, right? No matter where you go, if it's Holland, Michigan or Tokyo, Japan, life is still life and you just have to go with it. Now that I'm not feeling nauseous, I'm not minding this time off to just relax, organize my thoughts, slow down a bit. I feel like everything has been happening so fast lately. I can't believe I've been living here for three weeks already. I need to just live here, in the present. I want to feel like a resident, not a tourist.

Well, the kids and Takashi just got home from the park. I think I'll go say hi to them. The kids are so refreshing to be around. They make me laugh. Hopefully next time I write, my health will be all better! Classes start next Monday. I'm looking forward to them very much. I haven't formally studied since December and I'm missing it.