By Diana Rusnov, Foster Undergraduate participating in the Spring Break Kakehashi Project in Japan.
What a whirlwind the past week has been! I type this with great sadness, as I would have loved to explore Japan for another week (throwing my passport into the river doesn’t seem like a bad idea now, but if I intend to go back someday I should probably hold on to it).
I can’t quite piece together the right words to describe the incredible experience I’ve had.
Going into the trip, I had the preconception that it would be structured to the point of restraint- that we would be babysat and that we wouldn’t get to experience much. I also didn’t know anyone and assumed I wouldn’t get to know them or even remember their names. I guess I based much of that on a trip to Europe I had taken in the past.
But I was pleasantly surprised to see the friendly dynamic within our diverse group. We just worked. I truly miss seeing those familiar faces (all of whom are now Facebook friends, whose names I do in fact know), having dinners and hanging out after hours. I can’t imagine a better group of peers or two more dedicated coordinators to have experienced a new culture with.
In my past interactions with the Japanese, I have always felt awkward or felt like I was holding back from being my true self in order to assimilate into their high context culture. I was shallow in assuming that everyone would be exactly the same.
But any “negative” experience I had was quickly overshined by the overwhelming hospitality we experienced. For a government to completely finance this excursion for 20+ students coming from multiple universities and high schools, from all over the world, was unheard of to me. I had never been the recipient, or witness of that kind of generosity, not even within my native Bosnian culture. I felt so humbled and welcomed by JICE, and the entire country. Whether it was a small bow as we entered or left and establishment, a cashier/host running after one of us to serve us, or a nurse putting a coat around me just before I was brought to the hospital after getting sick, I always felt looked after and taken care of. I never felt judged.
I was continuously surprised by this trip: Excursions or lectures I assumed would not be particularly interesting turned out to be some of my favorites; Food that didn’t look particularly tasty ended up being the most delicious; A taxi-driver who barely understood us and gave us a discount on fare; My guide, Eriko-san, and her unfaltering quest to bring me to a clinic when I came down with strep throat. Even when I was at the airport about to head home, I stumbled upon a free Kimono try-on booth and was meticulously fitted by two kind ladies who quickly lectured me on “seiza,” or the art of sitting, and graciously took my picture before quickly undressing me to accommodate my flight. Never in a million years did I expect that would take place at the airport, and all free-of-charge. But that was the icing on the cake—and quite the complementary icing as it really captures the essence of the Japanese culture to do kind things without expecting anything in return.
It opened my eyes to the fact that we are, deep-down, the same—there are pros and cons to every culture, to every person. For that very reason, it’s important to go into an experience with an open mind.
Although I saw some beautiful places and met some incredible people, I am most thankful and most surprised that we had the free time we had to explore the city at our own leisure. It made me feel closest to the culture and the local way of life (although I doubt locals spend their evenings having photo shoots at the Shibuya crossing and they can probably find their way around the Tokyo Metro better than I). Those memories—running to make the last Sunday train (which we missed and had to find a Taxi), walking from Harajuku to Shibuya in the freezing rain, group trips to 7/11 and FamilyMart—are what I will most fondly remember for years to come (in addition to the Lululun face masks I am now addicted to, my Japanese medical card, and the heated toilet I am in the market for).
I still pinch myself thinking about the experiences I had, that I was even selected among a pool of incredibly talented and ambitious students. I’m not quite sure why I was chosen, but I’m unbelievably honored that I was.
I hope this was the first of many trips to Japan. I hope the future holds more. There’s never enough time to explore a city as much as you’d like to—no matter the number of days you have, there’s always something more to do.
Somewhere, some time ago, I heard that, “There’s nothing quite like the experience of doing something for the very first time—reading your favorite book, visiting a new place.” That’s why no matter how many times there might be, I’ll always be thankful the first one turned out so great.