Fun with the Fam

You’ll have to bear with my long-winded posts, I’m really only used to journal entry form of personal writing in which I put down nearly every detail I can recall, so figuring out how to separate the interesting from the mundane content will take some practice. Anyways, let me go ahead and introduce you to the Uda clan:

Katsumi: The big man of the house, he works as a nurse at the nearby hospital. He’s a huge fan of baseball, as he apparently is also of teaching, since he’s already filled much of the notebook he gifted to me on my first day with information on Gyoji, Japanese proverbs, famous baseball players, words I should know, and detailed transit information so that I don’t become hopelessly lost. His joking nature made it very easy for me to become intimate in the family, and while of course many of our conversations will consist of Natsumi going on in Japanese and I restrained to responding with grunts and the occasional “wakarimasu” as I have no idea what he’s saying, for the most part I’d say we have a pretty good relationship.

Satoko: The most caring lil’ ol’ Japanese mother you ever will meet, and I mean that. In addition to cooking some 5-star quality meals, she does everything from doing my laundry to vacuum drying my shoes after a rainy run to setting up defenses in my room against the encroaching mosquito threat. Given how I’ve somehow ended up in the top level class, I’ve had quite a few late nights, yet okaasan has been there the whole way with a concerned look plastered across her face, ready to jump in and help at a moments notice. In other words, Okaasan’s my number one cheerleader.

Leah: Named after Star Wars’ Princess Leah as I later found out from my host father (to be fair, the Star Wars series was solid), Leah is the youngest of the siblings. She reminds me a lot of my brother in her avid liking of manga, anime, and gaming, and I’m really interested to see how they’ll get along when they meet a couple months from now. Relations were a bit cold at first, but after giving her some help on an English homework we became much better friends, and I’m glad someone else has the role of being the youngest (I feel a bit over pampered as it is).

Natsumi: My older sis, probably the most amazing person I’ve met since coming to Japan. She doesn’t have a whole lot of work at college right now as she’s about to graduate, but instead of just vegging out as I certainly intend to do for a bit after graduating, she goes out of her way to make life easier on everyone else. Whether that consists of helping Okaasan with preparing dinner, going out shopping for food, giving me help with Japanese grammar, or straight up just doing her sister’s English homework for her, Natsumi’s care for others is quite remarkable. She’s been in my corner perhaps even more than Okaasan, staying up way past her usual bed time reading manga on nights that I just so happen to also be up late doing homework, glancing over every 30 seconds or so to check that I haven’t yet laid down my head in defeat. Even better than that, she laughs at my jokes, which for me is probably what gives me the greatest confidence in my Japanese ability, even if the ability isn’t actually there. If I can express my meaning strongly enough and concisely enough to inspire laughter, then I must have some level of Japanese skill.

We’ve done a lot of stuff together, and there’s certainly no way I’d be able to recount it all, but a few moments certainly stick out in my mind.

Day 1

After meeting my host family for the first time sweating bullets and mumbling absolutely incoherent Japanese (I did manage to get off that during stressful situations, I can hardly speak in English let alone Japanese, which hopefully conveyed my meaning). After a bit of self-introducing on the car ride back, the family decided they wanted to take me out for some soba, so we headed for the nearest sobaya.

While in the car, Otoosan was trying to explain to me the difference between hatake and tanbo, the prior referring to fields in which crops are grown in soil, the later referring to rice paddies in which the crops are grown in water. Unfortunately, I zenzen wakaranaied what he was saying, so after attempting in vain to explain the difference between the two types of fields, Katsumi pulled off the highway and drove maybe half a kilometer down a dirt road. We stopped at a divide between a hatake and tanbo, and pointing to each and naming them, Katsumi illustrated the difference. Of course I’m not usually this slow to understand Japanese and was probably just a bit thrown by having to meet this new family and realizing that I would be spending the next 8 weeks in their home, but I think this story effectively expresses the family’s interest in helping me with my Japanese education.

晩ご飯

Dinner’s probably the most important period of family time in the entire day. Okaasan and Natsumi will spend anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half preparing dinner, after which they distribute the food to each of our respective bowls. Fun fact about Japanese customs: each family member will have their own rice bowl, soup bowl, and set of chopsticks. Ever night so far has been an awesome experience, and the family seems to really enjoy it to with Okaasan gently suggesting I try eating something and the silent anticipation taken on by everyone as I try a piece of fried chicken or squid for the first time. I’ve yet to encounter something I haven’t liked, but I must confess that I have been able to avoid natto up until now.

Every night is something new and special, and it’s great to see how much effort and care Okaasan puts into making each meal. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be the night we made 手巻き寿司 (temakizushi), which was done by taking a sheet of nori (seaweed), putting in a bit of rice soaked in sweet water (not sure of the ingredients), and then finally putting in a bit of fish meat before rolling everything up and dining on our original creations. Otoosan bought some beers to celebrate the first week with his new son, telling me that it was just mugi juice if anyone asked (from what I gather there’s an official policy against allowing students to drink, but I think it’s hardly enforced). It’s been an amazing experience so far, and I really think I lucked out getting put with this family.

体育祭

Today (Saturday) I went with the family to Leah’s school club/sports festival. Unfortunately as I slept until about 11:30 (WHO AM I ANYMORE), I missed the part in which Leah participated. However, I got there just in time to watch perhaps one of the strangest obstacle courses I’d ever seen, but I’ll get to that later.

The closest equivalent to this event in American high schools would probably be Homecoming in the sense that it’s a large school-wide festival. However, in the case of the Japanese high schools, grades are broken down into teams that compete in various athletic and sports related activities (tug of war, relay race, obstacle course). Leah being with the first years was on the purple team, which unfortunately didn’t seem to be quite up to top standards from what I saw, but seeing as they have four years left to get it right, I’m sure they’ll be fine.

So this obstacle course. As I watched from the grass seated on a towel brought by Natsumi from the car enjoying a brunch of onigiri and donuts, I could only think of how wonderful it would be could this obstacle course be turned into some fashion of drinking game. The obstacle course was broken down into 5 parts, the first being a sprint then a hurdle, the second being a sack hop for about 20 meters, next a round with the dizzy bat (where my frat castle peeps at amirite?), next a military crawl underneath a net while four students mercilessly rained down on the participants with water pistols, and finally a random obstacle. For the random obstacle each participant chose a piece of paper, and on it was written the instructions they had to follow. Some of these were to ride a child-sized tricycle (child-sized by Japanese standards, so VERY small), pull a tire behind you with a rope for about 30 meters, balance a pingpong ball on a spoon while walking to the finish, getting a specific student out of the crowd to run across the finish line with you, and various other things.

Afterwards we drove off to a farm to get ice cream (one of the perks to living in a rural area). It was dope.

I suppose that most of the things that have happened aren’t really able to be recorded. It’ll be the small things, like Katsumi expressing his love for the movie Independence Day, Natsumi showing me some of her manga, Okaasan’s concerned look on her face if she sees me getting frustrated with work or if I come back from a run a little later than initially estimated, me showing the family some of my favorite tunes and listening to Katsumi try to sing along to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” Little things that only cause me to wonder at the fact of how readily I was accepted into this family, and how quickly I came to feel a member of it.

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Arrival

So I’ve been in Japan for I guess 11 days now, and so much has happened that I doubt I can go into enough detail to do each and every story justice, but I’ll give it my best shot. 

初めて日本

So the start to my summer adventure perhaps could have gone a bit better (it appears I lost my debit card in airport security at LAX, no doubt as a result of my panicked realization that I was about to go to a foreign country for 2 months where they spoke a language that for me had existed simply as a class), (long parenthetical ftw). However, after arriving at Narita airport in Tokyo and locating my group through a few strained conversations with airport employees, I was all set to get myself immersed in some quality foreign culture! 

On a side note, I stopped writing mid entry to hit up the Onsen with the host fam. As a young American male, I’m not used to stripping down to, as the guide to Hakodate provided by the program puts it, my “birthday suit” in front of a bunch of Japanese men, and my host father’s story about his high school experience with 痴漢 (most closely translate as child molester/pervert) didn’t do much to help. However, I quickly became comfortable letting it hang out, taking confidence in my average sized (I assume) Caucasian endowment. I’m sure for many of them that was the first hakujin chinchin they’d seen, I certainly hope I didn’t disappoint!

Moving on! After arriving to the hotel in Tokyo, I met up with my boy Seki Chanyu in the hotel lobby and headed out for the night. I’d always thought of Tokyo as an international city, I mean in almost every action film the main character ends up flying to Tokyo to confront some underground syndicate, but I found myself let down in my expectations of diversity. On a station platform of about 300 people, I found myself to be the only Westerner, and I must say it was really the first time I’d ever experienced being in the vast minority. However, it wasn’t a very large issue, and Chanyu and I soon got off the train at the Shibuya district of Tokyo.

It was very bright, and the streets were filled with people. Given my lack of sleep and the fact that I’d really not prepared at all for departing to Japan, all of this was still perceived in something of a dream-like state, as the Japanese I’d endeavored to listen for in every foreign conversation so that I might interject with a comment, was suddenly all around me. I can only describe the experience as 不思議 (fushigi), and there’s unfortunately no english word that quite captures that meaning. I guess the closest meaning would be, so wondrous to the point that you find something difficult to believe.

We hit up an automated sushi restaurant, I had my first big boy beer, we walked around a bit more and ended up going to a government building which supposedly had a famed view of the city. I’d forgotten my passport in the room, and the program coordinators had made it expressly clear that were we to be approached by a police officer and found without our passport, this would be potential grounds for immediate deportation. Given this warning, I wasn’t terribly amused when my friend started joking about the fact that I had drunken underage and didn’t have my passport with me in front of the security guards at the government building. Luckily I wasn’t arrested, and after enjoy a cloud obstructed view of the city, I returned to my hotel and promptly crashed on the unoccupied bed.

The next day we departed for Hokkaido, where we took the first part of the placement test for the program. Afterwards I wandered the streets with some others, and I was interested to learn that there were simply no trash cans on the streets of Hakodate, the first of a series of many culture shocks. After taking the next part of the placement exam on Friday, we prepped to meet our host families Saturday morning, which while initially a source of great stress, turned out to be in fact the one thing that reinforced my belief that 2 months in Japan would be well spent.

My host family is a lot like my one at home, being comprised of a mother and father in their early 40’s and two daughters (21 and 15). I doubt I would have made it through the first week without their epic encouragement; it’s really something I couldn’t have ever expected.

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走る白人: The Backstory

So some of you might be wondering as to the title of the blog, and it roughly translates to “the white person that runs.” I usually wouldn’t identify myself upon such a basis, but being one of maybe 3 foreigners in an entire city, I can’t help but be made more conscious of my ethnicity. For those who don’t know, I’m an avid runner, and on my daily runs through Hokuto and Hakodate, I have yet to run into a single foreigner, in general only seeing fellow 外国人 at school. Of course I don’t believe there to be any inherent malice towards me nor do I feel that way, but I imagine that it must be something of a novel experience for many in the area and their guarded reactions seem to support my belief. Regardless, let’s get into my story:

I expect the majority of the readers of this blog will be from my friends and family, and if you qualify as this please go on to the next post, as this will be rather repetitive and uninteresting. But if for some reason you’ve stumbled on this blog, perhaps after a long link hopping journey or maybe looking for a bit of insight into the study abroad experience, I’ll give you Ben Saunders in a nut shell.

I’m a student at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, majoring in International Economics, and in order to graduate proficiency in a foreign language is required. I guess you could say I’m a bit behind the curve in my Japanese class, my strengths seem to lie in other areas such as mathematics and economics, but on top of that I’ve become painfully aware of the short-coming of my study habits.

I suppose it may have stemmed from an excessive concern for grades and measuring myself with a GPA, but my current study method can be broken down simply into “memorizing quickly, and forgetting just as fast.” Especially for learning a foreign language, this technique is not terribly effective, but in general I am force to face the fact that despite attending great institutions and on the whole being successful, I really know relatively little in the way of practical knowledge. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and should perhaps leave the personal reflection to my journal.

The reason I say this is to better illustrate my reasons for doing a summer abroad. I’ve studied Japanese for 6 years (4 relatively unserious years in high school, 2 fairly serious years in college), but I have quite a ways to go before I’ll be able to pass as a proficient speaker. I’ve never really spoken Japanese outside the classroom (in the few instances my friends and family have goaded me into greeting our waitress or other in Japanese, they have been without fail of a different ethnicity). As I really don’t like being thought of as a rude American racist, I’d for all intents and purposes ceased trying to engage foreigners in Japanese conversation. However, the convenient thing about Japan, is that I can safely assume everyone to be able to speak Japanese, and the practice has already greatly helped along my proficiency.

Other than a student of Japanese, I also run. A lot. I do a lot of other things normal of young college students, but for the purposes of this blog I believe this to be sufficient. In the words of Forest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

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You heard right…

I went ahead and decided, despite my initial hesitations, to go ahead and start a blog to chronicle my experiences in Japan. I’ve found it considerable difficult to communicate in real time with anyone from home, and those of you who have complained about the lack of information coming from my end have effectively guilted me into starting this blog. However I’m not doing this entirely grudgingly, as I believe this will be something that I will enjoy, and something that might be in a sense therapeutic to some extent (Japanese only wears on one’s mind). Additionally, in my intensive study of a foreign language, I’ve discovered a greater appreciation for the nuances of speech that can effortlessly and concisely be expressed in my native tongue, whereas in Japanese some expressions simply cannot be translated at all, or at the very least require such a maneuvering of various grammar structures to even resemble the initially intended meaning that the strength and value of the expression is lost. Regardless, I’ll apologize in advance for the excessive use of complex english that will no doubt be present in this essay (most likely a result of the pent-up frustrations I’ve had from various instances in which I could not satisfactorily express my thoughts in Japanese). Anyways, I’ll try to keep this updated, read as much as you want as closely as you’d like and if anyone wants any extra details on anything or would like to comment just shoot me a message on Fbook (always nice to know people from home haven’t yet entirely forgotten about my existence). So with that let’s ikimashou!

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