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5 posts categorized "Kelly Luc"

07/13/2016

Learning to Say Goodbye

 

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I first said goodbye to home as a bright-eyed 17 year old, embarking on her first adventure away. Besides a few trips out-of-state for a science competition (yes, I know), I knew little more than the admittedly large area that comprises Los Angeles County. Cliché as it was, I felt like the entire world was at my fingertips. Goodbye was a word that was wagging on the tip of my tongue.

Goodbye this time is a stone in my stomach. Goodbye this time tastes like melancholy and missed opportunities. It lingers like a threat. I found home in Japan, and sometimes I doubt whether the home I left behind is still waiting.

And of course it is. But it’s hard to remember; especially when I'm in the midst of what I can confess is simply a dreamy escape. It’s hard to remember when I look at the kind faces of my host parents, who I may never get to see again. It’s hard to remember when I’m getting a delicious meal can cost as little as $3 at a convenience store. It’s been especially hard when I make my daily walk home, and realize how all routines come to an end.

I took a walk with my host mother to fetch groceries over the weekend. We had lunch at the same restaurant that she first took me to. When we first met, we wore coats and warmed our hands as we quietly admired the cherry blossoms. This time, we fanned our faces and sought out shade in the pauses in our conversation. Coming to Japan wasn’t easy, but like the weather, my world has warmed. I found contentment. I really did. And how can I say goodbye to something I’ve only just encountered?

And I don’t know. But I’m trying. Please believe me, I’m trying. And some of my fellow students might be ready to leave. But others will be just like me, waiting in apprehension. Fearing the weekends because it means one weekend less. Trying to squeeze in everything you “would find time for later.” Whining to friends about the possibility of returning.

But I’m trying. And it’s still July 11, and I don’t leave until August 5. So I don’t know when attempting becomes succeeding. But, I’m learning to say goodbye, I am. And I don’t know if it’s working, but it’s what I’ve been trying.

I stopped trying to think about the world as ending. I thought to possibility. I looked to the future I put on pause, and realized how much is ahead of me. I agonized over job hunting, and grimaced at requirements (Royce Fellowship—why!) I looked back to family, and back to friends who had stood beside me from the very beginning. Goodbye carries finality, but it doesn’t always have to. The world spins onward, and so do we. I love Japan, I do. But the first part of learning to say goodbye is recognizing that I need to.

So when the time comes, goodbye Japan. Thank you. Maybe I’ll see you again.

Thank you.

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06/14/2016

A Brief and Inadequate Guide to Survival Japanese

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Before coming to Japan, I had studied Japanese for 2.5 years. In my home university, I am officially “advanced.” I will tell you, straight and clear, that I was nowhere near “advanced” when I arrived in Japan. I could and can communicate—so let’s just go with “survivable.” With enough gestures and a Japanese-English dictionary app however, one might even say that I was “actually more than just survivable!” However, one thing that has and still does hit me in the face is my total inaptitude at actually using practical Japanese.

Teachers will tell you that you will learn these skills on your own. You will be forced to use it, so there’s no need to waste study and/or class time on learning how to order food at a restaurant, or the most polite way to avert attention from restaurant solicitors on the street (TIP: if are a visible foreigner, they will follow and badger you). If you like me, you might just accidentally end up responding to the waitress’s irrashaimase (welcome!) with another irrashaimase.

For those who haven’t studied Japanese before, this barrier is (obviously) even higher. I knew, and still know the feeling. Not knowing kanji is hard enough, but having to get used to the two other writing systems can be hellish. Japanese words can seem long and ghoulishly impossible to memorize. I remember sounding out ever syllable in the beginning: “i-ta-da-ki-ma-su?” “shi-na-ke-re-ba-na-ra-nai”?

Simply ghoulish.

Thus, I have chosen to make my own extremely brief, and incomprehensive guide to surviving in Japan as someone who is far from fluent in Japanese. And someone might tell you that this excuse for a guide is inadequate and makes one sound like a total foreigner. They are absolutely right. Nevertheless, they are things that helped me navigate Tokyo.

  1. When you’re entering a normal restaurant, one of the first questions
    you will be asked is 何名様ですか (nan men sama desu ka—how many people?). If you’re eager to practice your numbers, you can say 一人 (hitori—one person), 二人 (futari—two people), 三人 (san nin—three people), and so on.
  2. When leaving the restaurant, I’ve been told that the proper thing to say is ごちそうさまでした (gochisousama deshita—thank you for the meal). ありがとうございます (arigatou gozaimasu—thank you) is of course also okay.
  3. When you’re in a fast food restaurant, and want to get carry-out, say 持ち帰り(mochikaeri). Alternatively, you can just gesture towards the door. If you want to eat in, ここで (koko de—here) is enough. If you want to get “only the burger,” for example, you can say たんぴん (tanpin—single item). If you want the set, just sayセット (setto).
  4. The most useful word you can know in Japanese is すみません (sumimasen). Use it to say sorry, excuse me, or to get someone’s attention. It’s honestly priceless.
  5. If the menu has pictures, and you want to try using Japanese, just point and say これをお願いします (kore o onegaimashimasu). Pointing is obviously also enough, but it’s always fun to try. When you’re done ordering all the desired items, you can just say 以上 (ijyou—that is all).
  6. If you mess up in the subway (for example, you enter through the wrong entrance, or use the wrong exit), I’ve found that walking up to the nice man watching the subway gates and hesitantly saying すみません、間違いました (sumimasen, machigaimashita—sorry, I made a mistake) is generally enough to have your mistake corrected. Of course, this should be done immediately after realizing that you have made this mistake. Similarly, there are moments when you can’t get through a gate even though you have enough money on your subway card. So far, hesitantly sayingすみません (sumimasen) to the same nice man has solved this problem for me immediately without requiring any extra explanation or context.
  7. If someone you don’t know is talking to you, or is trying to give you something on the street and you don’t understand/don’t want what is given, just looking down and slightly bowing/nodding your head is enough. In some ways, it’s the polite thing to do. If desired, you can also throw in the forever-handy すみません(sumimasen), if your heart desires.

But honestly, you’ll get a hang of it. People in Japan are extremely kind, generally speaking, and everyone is eager to help (or at least find someone to help). So let loose, listen closely, and speak badly! 

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06/12/2016

I Say "Kama," You Say "Kura"

Image1 (3)Located about an hour away from the center of Tokyo, Kamakura is a popular daytrip for many urbanites looking for a reprieve in the bustling, crowded concrete jungle. Referred by some as a “mini Kyoto,” Kamakura is a city known for its traditional architecture, temples, and shrines. It boasts a long history, and a giant Buddha.

Although I had been to Kamakura once before with CIEE, I and two of my non-CIEE Japanese classmates had decided to go back to Kamakura as a part of our Japanese project. A few weeks of flippant assertions of “going to Kamakura sometime before the project is due,” we finally decided on a day and a time.

Fast forward (or in this case, backwards) to 9:00 am on May 22, and you’ll find me asleep on a train heading towards (Kita-)Kamakura. No, I did not miss my stop. It was a hot, sunny day, and I hated myself almost as much as I hated the mosquitos that flocked around me greedily.

Our first destination was Engaku-ji Temple It is known for being one of the most important Zen Buddhist temple complexes in Japan, but we primarily chose it based on mere convenience. It was less than a 5 minute stop from the station, and we paid the 300 yen entrance fee without much fuss, and found ourselves staring at a beautiful, spacious temple space that we didn’t quite have context for. This confusion was exacerbated by the hordes of elementary school children who had a field trip and/or assignment to speak to foreigners in English. Nonetheless, we managed to enjoy the temple between our brief Q&A sessions with 11 year olds, and the “Hello, how are you” greetings they offered (over, and over, and over again).

We next headed to Kencho-ji so we could access the Ten-en Hiking Course. Although there are several ways to get to the trail, we decided to enter through the temple, which means we unfortunately also had to pay an entrance fee. Of course, the temple itself is well worth a visit, but if you’re keen on saving money, there are several other routes that lead to the exact same trail.
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The Ten-en Hiking Course itself is steep. There are many stairs. These stairs are not fun. This was the resolute conclusion my (admittedly inactive) friends and I came to a few minutes into our hike. The trail itself? Absolutely gorgeous. It isn’t a hard hike at all, and after a brief incline you’ll be taken into a forested mountain area (with a sight-seeing spot where Mt. Fuji is occasionally visible!) It takes about an hour to get through the trail the short and slow way, and an hour and a half if you efficiently take the longer path.

Our next stop was the Hokokuji Temple, which boasts a lovely bamboo forest. It costs 200 yen to get in, and the garden itself is a lovely little pocket of nature. I highly recommend visiting during the summer, as the bamboo helps to cool down the surrounding area, and provides a sense of relief in the hotter days.

We ended our very frantic, sweaty-trip with a few leisurely hours at the Kamakura shopping street and the beach. There are tons of delicious snacks and temptations at the street, so be sure to come hungry (and/or with a very eager separate dessert stomach). We grabbed some dango and some fuwa-fuwa (airy, light) fruit shaved ice, and headed to the beach for the sunset.

We were absolutely exhausted and I eagerly succumbed to sleep on my commute home.

I (again, somehow, luckily) did not miss my stop.

 

05/15/2016

Carving Out A Space to Be Yourself

Everybody searches for a center. People naturally seek out places to plant their roots; they instinctively look for spaces they can return “home” to. Studying (and being) abroad is inevitably hard because it necessitates that one severs oneself from the familiar. And this is a good thing—it really is. But it’s also a hard thing. Everyone says it is, but hardly anyone expects it to hit as hard as it does.

Today is May 16, and this is my fifth month abroad. I spent my first two months doing an internship in Korea, and the next three weeks in the United Kingdom visiting friends. And like all people who are estranged from the old and offered the opportunity to remake themselves in a new place, I challenged myself and tried things that my past self would have never touched. In a new place, I didn’t have to be the “Kelly” people remembered. I could be the “Kelly” I always (thought) I wanted to be. But really, it’s a hard thing.

Even if you’re having fun, it’s a hard thing. Even if you’re exceedingly successful, it’s a hard thing. Because really, there’s a sense of shattering. An un-centering. All the components you thought of as quintessentially “you” disintegrate. One’s identity becomes an even bigger question mark, and that’s a lonely thing. When you can’t recognize yourself, you begin to doubt whether or not you’ve actually “become” someone at all. Fun suddenly isn’t enough, because you worry about the price you paid and the person you’ve become. And this feeling is human, and it isn’t exclusive to being abroad (though being abroad often compounds it). It took five months, and I’ve finally begun to feel it.

It is in this moment that I turn to the small things. Everyone has their own way of coping with the world, but sometimes even the very reminder that I'm in Japan is enough to snap me out of my funk. I take long walks along idyllic rivers and crowded parks. I allow myself to become immersed in the commotion of a language I vaguely understand. I daydream in hopefully un-crowded trains and let myself just “be” without thinking too much about its implications. I spoil myself with overpriced sweets shaped like cute characters, and entertain the idea of staying in Japan forever. I find a routine (in school, in waking up, in early dinners and even earlier breakfasts), and subsequently find ways to disrupt it (with impromptu plans and questionable decisions). I, beyond anything else, remind myself to forgive myself for my perceived failings. I forgive myself for not being myself.

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So take at least this much from me: Japan is a different place, and in difference we (meaning “I”) look for change. We run towards it blindly, trying to drown ourselves in the surface (superficial?) aspects of difference. We marvel at cherry blossoms, admire kimonos, and vaguely express the desire to do the tea ceremony. We imagine and try to realize our fantasies of huge groups of friends, our wistful hopes for a close-knit community. We’ve been told that we will evolve and become a new person when we’re abroad—someone with a broad worldview and a completely renewed perspective of the world. We rush, trying to take in all the big things at once, swallowing them up desperately as if it will make a difference.

And of course, not everyone who is abroad feels the same way I do. And not everyone will be as phased. But for those who are and/or will be struggling, know you are not alone. Know that it is okay to take a moment and breathe. To find your space. Japan is a different place, but there’s no rush to figure out whether you’ve become a different person just yet.

05/12/2016

When Sweet Isn't Sweet Enough

Japan loves its seasons. And no, I’m not talking about just good ol' autumn-winter-spring-summer-type seasons. Those are kisetsu (季節), and as much as Japan enjoys gazing at cherry blossoms during the spring and watching fireworks in the summer, it adores shun (旬) just as much.

Used to describe seasonal food rather than seasons, I've come to learn that shun is likely the largest determinant of the contents of one’s meals. Well, at least that's how it is with my particular host family. This became very apparent to me during my very first night in Japan, when my host mother served me ichigo (Japanese strawberries). And these, my friend, are nothing like the strawberries you pick up at your local Ralph's. 

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These perfectly shaped, ruby red fruits were everything I ever wanted a strawberry to be, and then some. That night, I was convinced that I had just tasted the most supreme of supreme fruits. I swear a smile was being compelled out of the deepest depths of my sugar-loving self. I was practically floating in strawberry-induced bliss until suddenly I heard my host mother exclaim: 甘くない! (not sweet). 

“Really?” I inquired in Japanese, not quite-sputtering. “Whatever could you mean?” I imagined myself saying in an overdramatic English accent.

She simply replied: 残念ですが、旬が終わった。(It’s too bad but the season is over.)

Suffice it to say, we didn’t have strawberries again.

Later on, I learned that peak indoor-grown strawberry season takes place between December and March. Apparently the strawberries we had that night can't even compare to in-season strawberries. During this period, a small box of strawberries can run upwards of 1000 yen (~USD 10) at a grocery store, or 6900 yen (~USD 69) at Tokyo’s luxury fruit parlors. Following strawberry season is cherry season, and summertime welcomes melons of all varieties, mangos, and grapes. Persimmons and apples are particularly tasty in the autumn, and citrus have a reputation as being quintessentially winter. Of course, shun applies to far more than just fruit, and almost every meal with my host family has been accompanied by a brief culinary lesson.

For instance, my host father’s handmade takuon (pickled daikon radish) tastes best for the two months following January, and katsuo (skipjack tuna sashimi) is at its most delicious in the spring. One of my host father’s personal favorites, takenoko (bamboo shoots) are at their softest and most expensive just after cherry blossom season. Once the last of the beautiful pink flowers had fallen, my host father kindly asked my host mother to make some takenoko for dinner.  She obliged and we proceeded to eat some variation of a takenoko-and-rice for the next three days.

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All in all, I’ve become increasingly accustomed to my host mother’s daily explanations of food over the last month and a half. Beyond mere flavor, I feel there is something about abiding to the seasons that pays respect to the cycles and limitations of life. Like cherry blossoms, there is a temporality and impermanence to the food that my host family consumes. Because they willingly partake in the natural restrictions of nature, even the most beloved of food is off-limits until the appropriate period has begun. I will never quite forget my host father’s face when my host mother served takenoko (for the sixth time) with the firm declaration that this was saigo (the last time).