So, I went where I had success before - 4-H. They had a program that offered one-month exchanges! My goal at that time was a year-long exchange, but I wouldn't pass up an opportunity for a one-month exchange if it was available to me... And it was there, a program, in my vicinity, all I needed was my mom's approval!
And my mother said that we couldn't afford it. Naturally. But to let a small thing like money get in the way of my ambition? No way. I am a firm believer of, "If there's a will, there's a way."
So at 14 years old, I started looking for scholarships. I wrote essays, did interviews, stood in front of a panel of judges who were going to determine my eligibility - and vuala! A trip to Japan! How was Mom going to say no now?
To be honest, although money was a real issue, my mom was just trying to determine my level of seriousness. She was really scared to have her youngest child at 14 years of age travel across the world by herself. But luckily, I wasn't truly by myself in this adventure. I had my best friend in the whole world since I was 5 years old experiencing it with me. Her name was (and still is) Adrienne. And she and I successfully packed our bags and embarked on our first trans-pacific flight to the Land of the Rising Sun.
What was even better was that, since it was the same program in which Mie came to the United States, we were able to arrange so that I was able to go to Mie's house in Japan! Therefore, I was headed for Matsuyama-shi, Ehime-ken, Shikoku!
But first, before we went to Japan, we had to endure a 3 day intensive culture-shock prepping course in Seattle, Washington. At this class, we were told to prepare ourselves for a totally different culture, totally different food, and a world where there was no English. Well, with two years experience at Mori-no-Ike, that should be a no-brainer, right!?
Well, after the intensive culture-class in Seattle, we took the 12 hour flight across the ocean and went directly to our host family's location. Unfortunately, Adrienne went to Kobe whilst I went to Matsuyama. Separately, we both had a wonderful experience.
When I first landed in Matsuyama, there to greet me was Mie's grandparents. So happy to see me, and I them, the first place they wanted to take me was a traditional Japanese restaurant. Now that I was officially in Japan, I was to experience the quality of real Japanese sushi and other items.
Unfortunately for me and for them, however, I was NOT prepared for such an adventure. I actually grew up on the horrible American-food delights such as pizza, macaroni and cheese, hotdogs, and french fries! I had absolutely NO palette for foreign foods what-so-ever. This was a real life-changing experience for me. It woke me up, at the age of 14, to stop eating crap and start trying new things.
I tried my best, that first day, to eat everything those sweet elderly Japanese people put in front of me, but every time I took a bite... No joke! I gagged! The taste of seaweed... Of fish! of Squid! Oh my gosh it was too much for me. The Japanese intensive culture-shock class did NOT do real Japan any justice. I made a promise to myself since that day to start eating differently. And I'm glad I did.
It wasn't until later that I was able to meet Mie, her siblings, and her parents. They moved me into a lovely room at their house in Matsuyama and my life in Japan began for the next month.
Here I will list off my favorite culture clash things I experienced.
1. My Japanese host-mother (Mie's mom) went to work every day dressed in a business suit on her mo-ped. This was hysterical to me at the time!
2. My Japanese little-brother had a beautiful bowl of white rice and put soy-sauce, mayo, ketchup and mustard on it at the same time and ate it... Okay, maybe that's not normal Japanese culture but more normal weirdo little brother! Haha!
3. Many Japanese people have no idea where States are in the United States. I told one guy that I was from "Michigan" and he asked me if it was close to "Hawaii". I learned to just say that I was from the United States.
4. Many Japanese families have a Buddhist shrine in their house to honor the dead members of their family. And at this shrine it's very customary to provide food (like a bowl of rice, a fruit, and a cup of tea) for the dead to enjoy. Much like how Westerner's leave flowers at the graves.
5. When practicing Kendo, you have to yell really loud. As I described in my previous post, Mie was a part of the local Kendo club, and I had the wonderful experience to go participate in the club one afternoon. And, sure enough, I got to wear the Kendo uniform and get a beginner's lesson! They did not like my meek and embarrassed, "Yaa men!" They kept saying, "louder! louder!" It was fun, but I was a little embarrassed.
6. Japanese people love green tea flavored ice-cream! What a shocker to see GREEN ice cream! To my 14 year old eyes... it looked really gross. Nowadays, I think it's delicious!
7. The Japanese "man of the house" seriously works all day and you never get to see him ever. He leaves really early in the morning and comes home way late at night.
8. To prevent getting sunburned or even a tan while driving, many people, and especially Mie's grandparents, wear like... these weird sleeves. I've never seen the like in America, but you basically put on these sleeves and they stay on your arms through elastic and you only wear them while you're driving! Really weird.
9. Japanese people really love Baseball. Basically, when Japanese people, at least in my experience, aren't watching the news, they are watching baseball.
10. Last but not least, Japanese paper products are the BEST!!! The Japanese people certainly have a knack for cuteness. Their stickers and their paper products, whether they are memo pads, stationery, or personal planners or agendas... They are the best quality and of the cutest variety than anywhere else in the world. If you ever go to Japan... Bring spending money for their paper products alone!!! At least if you're a paper and pen nut like myself you'll want to.
This was obviously my first trip away from home for that long of time frame, and it was really easy to get homesick... But Mie's family was so welcoming and kind to me, I can't express the level of gratitude I feel for them.
At the end of the trip they compiled for me a lovely scrapbook for me to remember my time with them by. I will make sure to find the pictures and upload them next time I go home to my mom's house.
If any of you ever have the opportunity to study abroad and experience a home-stay, I have to say it is an unforgettable experience. You will never forget it, and you will create life-long friends.
All of us in the world truly are all connected and to be able to realize that people that are so incredibly different from us are also remarkably the same is a comforting thought.
This trip to Japan was not my last, because I still needed to know more.