Saturday, May 6, 2017

Old Friends in New Places

As far as I can remember, the Hippo Office in Cambridge was always bustling with people from around the world – interns from Mexico and Japan, members from Taiwan and Italy, and visitors either coming with their friends or simply following the curious call of language and music. By the time I had to say goodbye to that little office on Sherman Street, I had made pockets of friends from around the world. However, with the way LEX Hippo is, farewells are never final, and by some incredible stroke of luck, I’ve had the chance to meet some old friends more than 7000 miles away from where we first met.


The Home Base!


1. Let’s zai jian, Boston Style!


At the beginning of November last year, I found myself on a plane to Saga, a small prefecture on the island of Kyushu. Given that it was my first time traveling alone on a Japanese domestic flight, I had spent the previous week worrying – what if I misunderstood the instructions and missed my flight? What if I couldn’t find my gate and accidentally flew to Okinawa? What if I never got to Saga and ended up in some alternate universe where Godzilla was real and ate my plane? And of course, my biggest worry: what if I never got to meet my friends? The anxieties, both the reasonable and the hyperbolic, dissolved once I settled down in my seat and buckled myself in. The next two hours were spent in quiet awe at the view outside my little plane window, and with the warm glow of anticipation.


Mount Fuji from a whole new perspective


When friends and colleagues found out that I was traveling to Saga, they were always baffled – why Saga? It’s tiny, more countryside than city, and relatively unknown outside of Japan – why not somewhere like Fukuoka instead? Each time I would answer proudly: my friend from Boston has just started a Hippo Family there! After more than half a year, I was finally going to meet Sagacchi – now a freshly minted Hippo fellow – and her lovely family.


The wonderful family!


Sagacchi joined LEX America shortly after I started volunteering there, so you could say that we grew up together in our Hippo experience. Back in Cambridge, however, I ended up becoming closer to her daughters, who – as a result of school – spoke more English than their mother did. At the time, my Japanese was close to non-existent, so my interactions with Sagacchi were mostly aisatsu and small talk, usually in English.  


This time, however, when I landed in the Saga airport, the dynamic had changed – now, I could greet Sagacchi in Japanese! Of course, my speaking abilities were (and are) still limited, but knowing that we now had more languages in which to communicate opened new doors for us. In the first 30 minutes alone, it felt as though I had gotten much closer to Sagacchi than I had before. No longer restricted to the weather or the scenery, our conversations could stretch into more interesting territory, like our language progress, our experiences in places where our native tongue was not spoken, and Sagacchi’s own fellowing experience.


And it was not just Sagacchi – when I was reunited with her daughters, and our conversations tumbled into Japanese instead of English, there was a visible change in our interactions. Before, I had felt that we were close, but there was still a sense of distance between us. Now, the barriers were erased, and the distance faded away. Especially with Sagacchi’s youngest daughter, A-chan, who would rarely come near me in the past, would now let me hug and carry her around. Hope and Violet, her older daughters, now referred to me as their お姉ちゃん, and seemed even more comfortable talking to me than before. While I had previously known about the emotional power of language, now that I was seeing it in action, I could see exactly how strong it was.


Enjoying Hippo activities as one big family!


It was a short four days in Saga, but I still managed to meet some wonderful people and make new friends! I got to visit my host mother Tabasa’s childhood home, and meet her lovely father; I took part in a sharing session where one of the fellows, Beatrice, taught us a version of zai jian that had over 50 ways to say goodbye (!!!); the most exciting encounter, however, was getting to take part in Sagacchi’s family! It was so heartening to see her doing her best as a fellow, and super reassuring to meet her members – all of whom were friendly, open, and kind. It was definitely an evening of nostalgia for me, as we got to do a ton of Boston-style SADAs, which brought me back – however briefly – to that little office back in Cambridge.


It was difficult to leave that little prefecture at the end of my stay, but I did so on the promise that I would return! When I next do so, I’m looking forward to seeing how Sagacchi’s Hippo Family will have grown, and what new SADAs she and her daughters will have cooked up!


2. 多言語 Reunions and Lots of Nos-snow-lgia


Sagacchi was not the only Boston nakama I got to reunite with – it would be another few months before any familiar faces would cross my path, but when February rolled around, someone very special came into Tokyo: Elizabeth!


Elizabeth and the Intern/Staff Crew!


Getting to see Elizabeth again was extra exciting in the sense that we were meeting in a new, yet familiar context. After two years of interning at the Cambridge office and coming to understand the rhythms of LEX Hippo over yonder, it was both refreshing and reassuring to chat with her while here in the Tokyo office. It was as though both my US and Japan sides were coming together to meet, and I could see what parts of me had changed and what parts of me had stayed constant over the past few months.


On top of that, hearing about everyone back in the Cambridge office, finding out about their recent 言葉 discoveries, and seeing how the kids have grown filled me with a rush of nostalgia and warm fuzzies. More than once I found myself thinking about how much I wanted to go back – just for a little bit – to meet everyone again.

Daniel, whose hair was much better styled than mine!


However, another opportunity came barreling in not long after – in March, we had the Multilingual Snow Camp, where I had the chance for a reunion with Daniel! Unfortunately, given the massive size of the camp, we didn’t get to see each other too often, but one of the times we did get to meet, he surprised me by speaking to me in Japanese! I probably shouldn’t have been that shocked – we’d both been mixing around in a largely Japanese environment – but it was exciting to see the language progress we had both made over time.


The re-Lou-nion!


And just two weeks ago, I got to meet yet another old friend and his family: Lou! They took part in one of the Hippo Workshops on Monday, and again I was blown away by how much Japanese Lou could speak when he gave a short talk about his time in Japan so far. When Maddie and I had lunch with the family after, it was heartening to see him using bits and pieces of Japanese to talk with his kids, and how they too were receptive to the language. Maddie and I also had a lovely time chatting with his wife, Oksana, who very kindly indulged our attempts at speaking Spanish with her. It was clear to me that this was a multilingual family that was open to all languages and all people, and I’m excited to see what progress they’ll be making back in LEX America!  


So far I’ve had the good fortune to meet an old friend at least once a month since February – perhaps there’ll be someone coming to surprise me in May? Friends back in Cambridge, I’ll always be waiting~


3. From friends to 友達

Mara!

The good old Cambridge team of Genya + Elizabeth!

While in Boston, I got to cross paths with a number of Hippo members from Japan, who often came either in the capacity of interns or visitors. Thus, you can imagine you exciting it was for me to come full circle, and to meet them again here in their home country! What’s even better, however, is the fact that we now have more languages to communicate in. Be it Kama-chan, Mala, Dorami-chan, Akane-chan, or Genya – it has been so much more fun to chat with them not just in their native tongue, but in the various languages that they have interest in. It’s been awesome to see how much Akane-chan has improved in the realm of Mandarin, and it’s always a riot to talk to Genya in Spanish when he’s using his Española accent; meanwhile, getting to chat with Kama-chan and Dorami-chan in Japanese has made me feel even closer as we look back on old photos of the time we met in Boston. And somehow, my conversations with Mala often take place in a language comprised largely of hugs, high fives, and animated waving.

Akane-chan!

Dorami-chan!


I feel like around the world, there is often that one language that is dominant in the place where you are – be it English in America, Japanese in Japan, French in France or so on – but when we open our ears and hearts, even by just a little, other languages join the mix, making for an orchestra (or in some cases, interpretive dance showcase) of different sounds and movements. The level of fluency doesn’t always matter – perhaps you can hold an elevated conversation about Proust, or maybe you can at best introduce yourself and your family – but what matters is that you are sharing your linguistic experiences. The more we share, the closer we become, and the deeper our friendships get. And at the end of it, that may be all that really matters – that our friends become our 友達 who become our amigos who become our 친구. When that happens, we are not only meeting old friends in new places, but in the wonderful realm of new languages too.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Being Onii-chan!




Growing up I was always the little brother to my wonderful brother Richard. From what I understand from him now I was an absolute pain. Though, despite how big of a pain I was he always cared about me and was overall a great big brother. Before I came to Japan I always wondered how he ever dealt with me. 

For three months I lived with my previous host family, which consisted of my three little brothers Shoji, Seiji, Takeshi, and my host mother and father, Nene and Takuji. When I first moved in with them it was a completely different experience that I was used to as my host family before had no small children. Then here I was, with three of the most Genki children known to man. 



I very quickly learned how to say the Japanese words you must need to be able to live with three small boys; Yamete (Don't do that!), Abunai (That's dangerous!), and Kyoskete (Please be Careful!). I probably ended up saying these words each about twenty times a day. This is all to say that living with three small kids can be difficult. 

This is not to say that I had a bad time living with my host family. I would say the exact opposite. I had a wonderful time. For as often as the kids bothered me or brought me to my wit's end they never saw me as a guest. They saw me at their big brother. When I would sit down in family Shoji, Seiji, or Takeshi would come and sit on my lap. When we went somewhere one of them would want for me to hold their hand. Shoji would want for me and Nene to swing him. When Shoji acidentaly turned off "Q Ranger" on Tv he would come to me saying "Make 'Q Ranger' come back!" 


The kids would poke fun at my Japanese and mimic it by saying "Yamete" in what they though my voice sounded like. After hearing me do it so many times, Takuji would jokingly say "Oh My God" in an American accent when the kids would do something bad. That's not to say that it was all Jokes made at my expense. Takeshi's English went from some simple words and phrases to some full on sentences! Sure the grammar wasn't perfect but this small child was speaking with a basic understanding of how English works! 

My Japanese increased exponentially due to constantly talking with the kids. They would point at object and say what they were called in Japanese. I also learned from them constantly saying certain words like "Iku-yo!". At the end of my stay I was able to get to the point that could hold simple conversations with them!

I think living with three Japanese little brothers really made me a better person. I'm more patient, I can speak Japanese, and now kind of know how to work a Japanese TV. In all, it was a wonderful experience that I don't think I would trade for anything!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

¡Es la primavera!

It's spring, and the cherry blossoms have been working on their peaceful domination of Japan. There's a good amount of updates waiting in the wings, but for this post I think I'd like to let the flowers speak for a little bit. 

Of course, it's always beautiful to see the branches swaying pink and white, but my personal favourite blossoms are the ones that poke their way straight out of the trunk, as if they couldn't possibly wait to clamber out. Whenever I see them I always think,  "あぁ、良く頑張ってるなー!" They're all doing their best, so I should too!

Happy Spring everyone!











Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Japanese Arcades: An Adventure in Fun, Cigarette Smoke, and Tinnitus

   
Akihabara at night
 Japanese arcades are a surreal experience which smells like cigarettes and looks like a las Vegas acid trip. In Tokyo there is a place called Akihabara. Akihabara is known for it’s unique atmosphere of cute girls in maid outfits, nerds, arcades, and more pachinko parlors that thought physically possible in this plane of existence. In reality it…is all of those things. It is also home to a metric ton of old camera and watch shops that seem to attract me like a moth to fire because apparently anything made of metal and glass in western Europe or Japan makes money mysteriously disappear from my wallet. 
UFO Machines!
     Between me politely saying “No thank you,” to the hoards of girls in maid outfits attempting to hand me flyers and my lusting after vintage Rolexes and Leica cameras, I occasionally visit the arcades. The first thing that strikes you when you enter a Japanese arcade is the overwhelming scent of cigarette smoke and tons of flashing lights…the entire thing is just a tad over the top. The first floor is typically full of “UFO Catcher” or, as I know them in America, “Claw Games”. The prizes are typically plushies or figures of video game or anime characters. Though due to the unique clientele that tend to frequent Akihabra the prizes are typically scantily clad female anime character figurines in inappropriate clothing. 
   
The Dragon's Mouth! 
 Above the UFO machines we arrive at the fire breathing dragon’s mouth, or at least that’s where you’ll think you are as you keel over from inhaling the equivalent of five cartons of seven star cigarettes in smoke. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived at the fighting game floor! The origin of the smoke can be found from the slightly disheveled salarymen who relinquish both smoke and 100 yen coins to the arcade machine in front of them. These smoke monsters maneuver the joysticks and buttons of their machine with the experienced practice of a craftsman with a lathe but with the speed of a nuclear weapon response officer. The result is the paragon of human concentration and hand-eye coordination. Well, they would be if it wasn’t the people upstairs.

     As you escape from the cavern of smoke you will notice two things; One, clean air is wonderful. Two, in the two seconds you’ve been on this floor, you’ve permanently damaged your hearing for life thanks to the fifty rhythm games all trying to be louder than each other. The result of this one-up-manship is a cacophony of high pitched vocaloid screams, androgynous boy pop idol screams, and screaming guitar solos. The rhythm game floor is a cruel mistress, she does not hear the cries of the weak, though you really can’t blame her—you can’t hear much of anything up there. As the old saying goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but passionate J-Pop songs will obliterate my eardrums.” 
Rhythm game players!
     After you’ve come to terms with your brand new case of tinnitus and you take a look around you will see the highest level of arcades goers, the rhythm game players. Well you’ll also see me at the “Chunitum Air” machine playing “ok”. Of course you will also see the high level rhythm game players. What’s special about high level rhythm game players? Well there’s the fact that they are decedents of Ninjas. These people laugh in the face of “hand-eye coordination,” these people’s hands and feet move with such speed that their movements begin to look like something out of a loony toons cartoon! If I were to compare, which I will, the rhythm game players make the fighting game players look positively geriatric. I don’t think words can adequately express this, thankfully I have Youtube so I can save a few sentences of trying to describe the indescribable with descriptions and just post a video.


     So, there you go, I hope you have enjoyed our magical trip through your typical Japanese arcade.  I highly recommend checking one out if you get a chance! They’re like a lot of things in Japan— weird, bright, exciting, and full of cigarette smoke!  Also, if you’re extremely lucky, you might wonder into the right one and see me flailing around on the Chunitum machine like a fish out of water! 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

You Are '16 Going On '17: The First Thoughts of the New Year

The Saitama Sky

あけましておめでとうございます!皆んなさん、久しぶりだね?この四ヶ月に、本当にいっぱい事が有ったー楽しい事、面白い事、嬉しい事、悲しい事、全部も経験した。この新年、何の冒険があるかなー?

Happy New Year everyone! It's been a while, but what a while it's been – it's a little difficult to believe that four months have zipped by, and that the buds of 2017 are slowly opening, but the months ahead promise to be filled with light and laughter. The pocket of time since my last post has been packed with adventures, ranging from my first solo Japanese flight, a shot at playing taiko, numerous failed attempts at making okonomiyaki and a number of successes at making Hainanese chicken rice, a slew of temporary host families and a shift to Yokohama.

My farewell card, also known as the board that launched a thousand tears

Saying goodbye to 2016 was tied up with saying goodbye to Saitama – a place which had, rather unsuspectingly, become home to me in the short span of a few months. Even though I had always been prepared for the day I would have to move, parting was far from easy. Somewhere along the way, the Hippo Families I had been adopted into became my real families, and I acquired a parade of moms, dads, and siblings that I looked forward to seeing every week. The more rational part of me scoffed at how weepy I was getting from just moving two hours away, but somehow the idea of not seeing the same familiar faces week after week was a little hard to bear.

But! As each of my Family members ended up saying to me: また会える!I trust that we'll be able to meet again, be it in a few days, a few weeks, or a few months – as we unfold into 2017, another nine months lie ahead of me. What will come next? Who will I meet? What new families will I end up a part of? Will I end up crying again when I have to move? (The answer is: probably.) However, no matter where I land, one thing is certain: the connections remain, and the thousands of threads connecting me from person to person will lead me to them over and over again – somehow, someway.

Today marks the first day of work in 2017, and the 9th day since my move to Yokohama – a place that has welcomed me with warmth and open arms. My host family has been nothing but kind, and I couldn't have been happier to usher in the new year in such good company – I am even more excited to see the Hippo Families that I will now be a part of, and the language discoveries we will get to make together.

The future ahead is blurry, specked with occasional moments of clarity – events to look forward to, people to meet – but otherwise a meandering path whose end is still unclear. As we take these first steps into the new year, I am filled with hope and anticipation –  ready for whatever and whoever 2017 will bring, and of course, in any language they appear in. 大家,我们一起加油吧!

新年快乐!May the year ahead be filled with peace and hope for everyone~


Friday, December 2, 2016

Some Japanese Food for Thought

Japanese food, oh how I love thou; at least most of thou. I loved almost all of the Japanese food that I ate in America, and for good reason, a lot of it wasn't really Japanese food. It was Japanese food made for American people. However Japanese food in Japan is a bit different. Here are some Japanese foods eaten by real Japanese people, some tasty, some not so tasty. 

Ouishi!  (Photo credit: Luke Chan)

   Lets begin with my favorite Japanese food, okonomiyaki. Have you never heard of okonomiyaki before? Well, if you haven’t, I’m sorry that you're missing out on one of life's greatest mayonnaise topped joys. The are of cooking okonomiyaki has two predominate schools of thought, Hiroshima style and Osaka style. Both are made with batter and whatever the person in the kitchen can find to throw into the mix. Ok, well maybe that's not entirely true but generally some octopus, shrimp, and/or beef is thrown into the mix along with some diced veggies. But the big difference is the inclusion of yakisoba noodles in Hiroshima style. Of course this has resulted in a rash of okonomiyaki gangs meeting in the street and fighting à la West Side Story. Well, maybe not, though some people are very opinionated about their okonomiyaki. However, feel free to disregard any critic, the beauty of okonomiyaki is that it can be made however you want! That is, of course, as long as you're not a heathen that eats okonomiyaki without mayonnaise. 

Udon (Photo Credit: Toyohara)
   The Japanese love noodles. How much do the Japanese love noodles? They love them enough for there to be over 20,000 noodle restaurants in Tokyo alone. That's not counting the outlying cities like Yokohama, Matsudo, and Saitama. That works out to an average of 9.1 noodle restaurants per square kilometer in the city of Tokyo. While I am left curious as to where to find these statistical 1/10th scale noodle restaurants, I can vouch that every other restaurant in this city is a statistical full size noodle shop.  
Is this small enough to be one of the mythical 1/10th restaurants? (Photo credit: A World of Flophouses)
  So why do the Japanese like noodles so much? Well because they're delicious and cheap! There's also all sorts of variety when it comes to the noodles! There's udon, ramen, soba, yakisoba, somen, chanpon, hiyamugi, tsukemen, rice noodles, and many, many more! You can have them hot, you can have them cold, do you want them lukewarm? I'm sure there's a restaurant that does it! Do you want lamb in your Udon, no prob! As Journey said, "Any want you want it, that's the way you need it!" 

Anko (Photo credit: Ai)
  So far i’ve been giving Japanese food amazing praise, though, no one is perfect and neither is Japanese food. One of the worst experiences in life I find is to not be included in a group that you want to be in. Such is my case with the people who like anko. What is anko? anko is sweet bean paste that is put into many Japanese sweets. Some even put anko into their ice cream. However, I can not stand it. The reason is because Louisiana red beans have the same texture as anko but instead of being sweet, they’re dry tasting. Because of the two beans sharing a texture but not a taste, I can not enjoy them. I want to enjoy anko, and though the heart is willing my stomach is not. 
Black Goma Dofu (No photo credit because the website google images links to  is currently down. Also only two images of black goma dofu exist on the internet apparently)
  The eighth amendment of the US constitution bans the use of cruel and unusual punishment. However Japan is not defended by the US constitution. The third article of the Geneva convention bans cruel and unusual punishment, however, though Japan did sign the treaty, they did not ratify it. So in this land of Japan we are left completely undefended from the true darkness that lurks within the hearts of man. Eating goma dofu. More specifically back goma dofu. Goma dofu is “tofu” but made from sesame. So I am going to save you the torture of trying this unholy abomination, It has the texture of thick jello and the taste of Satan’s running sock. It is the only food I have tasted in Japan that I could not bring myself to swallow. For as long as I live, I believe I will always be haunted by the memories of the cold october night that I tried goma dofu for the first time. 

  

Monday, November 14, 2016

60ft Up and Screaming: Joy's First Adventures in Japan

I had been in Japan for approximately four days. I had prepared myself for a slew of situations, but somehow I never expected to be twenty meters in the air, wobbling my way across a rope bridge and hanging onto my harness for dear life. My host sister’s reassuring voice came floating from ahead, “大丈夫、Joy? Are you okay?” My legs were shaking and my head was spinning, but somehow I managed to squeak back, “大丈夫です!頑張ります!” With another three shaky steps, I stumbled onto the platform, and immediately my host dad and brother erupted into cheers behind me. Up ahead, my host sister broke into a wide grin, while my host mom gave us all a round of applause from below. As my heartbeat gradually slowed, I looked up and took a deep breath. In front of me, the lush forest of Tsukuba rolled against a bright blue sky. My adventure in Japan had just begun.

I look like I'm smiling but deep down I'm screeching

As I write this post, two months have passed since I first stumbled into the 日本 Hippo Family. Since then, I’ve gotten to experience a slew of amazing things – from onsen soaks to cooking takoyaki, from multilingual speeches to school presentations, from riding buses to hip hop classes, and perhaps most fun of all: the myriad of Hippo activities and families. As I look back on the past eight weeks, one particular adventure keeps springing to mind: my very first trip with my host family, who I had known for less than 24 hours at the time, to the beautiful (and terrifying) Tsukuba Forest Adventure. At the time, I was busy trying to keep my balance on the five hundred different rope bridges I had to conquer, but lately, it’s begun to dawn on me how apt it is as a means to understand my time in Japan thus far. Here’s a quick look at the various ways in which my first adventures in the Land of the Rising Sun have been akin to being 60 feet up in the air.

It has been quite the journey – both on and off the cat bus.


1. What looks easy may be incredibly hard...for now.

I am, unfortunately, rather far from being athletic, and I tend to count SADAs and dashing for the train as my usual means of exercise. On the other end of the spectrum lies my host family, with my dad, sister, and brother as some of the fittest, quickest people I’ve ever met. To put it simply, if you compared us to the Mulan song “I’ll Make A Man Outta You”, they’re the Chinese army at the end of the song, while I’m tiptoeing in at the opening notes.

An accurate depiction of me vs. the rope course

As you can probably imagine, my journey across the dangling ropes was about as speedy as a tectonic shift, or perhaps a little faster than snow melting in Boston in February. Combined with my mild fear of heights, every course felt like a spinning, palpitation-inducing eternity. Every time I’d finally clamber onto the next platform, I’d watch enviously as my host dad and siblings swiftly navigated across the ropes. They made it look so easy that I was flummoxed – if they could be so nimble, why couldn’t I?

This little girl was a 6th my age and could speak 6 times faster than me – but she did speak to me!

The answer, of course, was simple: these were activities that they had done before, and in abundance. Even if the rope courses were new, climbing, balancing, running – these were second nature to them. It’s very much the same with language – we live our lives so close to the words we speak that we barely take notice of how easy it is for us to wield them. When I first arrived in Japan, I could only look on only longingly as the conversations galloped ahead, but I’ve kept the same comforting thought in my mind: what looks easy is only difficult for now. With time and a lot of experience, I’d be trotting alongside the conversations around me. What matters, in the end, is not how long it takes for me to get across the ropes, but the fact that I’m getting across them at all.


2. Don’t sweat the reactions

As I was struggling across the rope courses, I ended up voicing my distress in a number of ways. These noises ranged from freshly hatched velociraptor to skydiving turkey, and elicited concerned questions, chuckles, and encouraging words from my host family. While they each had their own way of expressing their care, my host family as a whole never stopped watching out for me, and it was with their support that I got through each course.

A children’s picture book, or a photo of Joy mumbling in Japanese? We can’t be sure.

Over the past two months, I’ve made a wide variety of sounds in my daily life as well, though thankfully not as strangled – my attempts to acquire not just Japanese, but also Spanish, German, Korean, and Russian, have meant that an army of garbled mumbles has made its way out of my mouth. This in turn has brought on a range of responses, including but not limited to: a laughable “Ah, this one clearly reads manga” from one of the fellows in my Hippo Family upon hearing my unusual Japanese phrasing; a concerned squint as my host mother tried to figure out which Russian phrase I was attempting; slow, careful enunciation from my fellow intern Yeppi; or a happy thumbs ups from my host siblings when I figured out the right way to use a phrase they’d taught me.

Prior to LEX, I used to be incredibly self-conscious – nervous that people would find my speaking odd and eager to make every utterance perfect, I ended up spending more time stealthily checking my dictionary apps than actually talking. However, just like how you can’t look up “how to cross a tightrope” when you’re wobbling across one, I quickly came to realise that once you’re in the midst of a conversation, it makes more sense to throw yourself into it and just go with the flow. Where I used to be embarrassed when people laughed at my speech, I’ve now come to embrace it – if I can elicit a chuckle or two with my samurai speech patterns and pick up the conventional phrasing after, then I’ve succeeded both in learning the norms of the language and in making someone smile. It’s not a bad position to be in.


3. Each challenge is different and the same

Before embarking on the Forest Adventure, I don’t think I had ever seen that many permutations of rope bridges. There were tightropes, suspended nets, twisting logs, X’s and O’s, swaying ladders – every time I thought there was no other way to make a bridge, a new one would lay itself before me. However, no matter how different they were, every bridge was just a variation of the same theme – a challenge to get from one point to another. And even more comforting was the fact that waiting at the end of each set of bridges was a zipline – the process may have been a struggle all the way, but I always knew I could look forward to whizzing through the air as the scenery unfolded before me.

Seen consecutively: the different reactions to the same rope bridge, featuring my host sister and me
Internal monologue: "help"

The challenges I’ve faced in Japan follow a similar pattern – on the surface, they may look considerably different, but digging a little deeper often reveals threads of similarity. Running a multilingual workshop, giving cultural presentations to kindergarteners, and talking to new mothers about language acquisition may all seem quite distinct, but they all revolve around the same goal: to connect with people through multilingualism and multiculturalism. These challenges may occasionally have been as terrifying as being suspended on a rope, but as trying as they could be, I knew I would finish with a zipline ending – connecting with new friends and family, learning more about others’ language discoveries, or simply soaking in the warm, bright atmosphere that Hippo tends to create.


4. There’s beauty in every step

When I first started out on the Adventure, I was somewhat myopic – completely absorbed in trying to bulldoze through the course, I could barely see past the bridge before me. This single-minded determination kept me blinkered until halfway through the course, as I was shuffling onto yet another platform and plodding over to the next section – behind me, my host dad called out, “Joy! 景色!” At the time, I didn’t quite understand what he was saying, but as I looked back to see him gesturing ahead of me, I turned around to see what it was I had been ignoring: the vibrant waves of green, the yawning blue sky, the sunlight blotting the leaves – the lush, summer scenery of Tsukuba.

The evening sky in Kawagoe

It was then that I realised what I had been missing when I had been wrapped up in the task before me – no matter how nerve wracking each course was, I was surrounded by nature, by gorgeous greenery and soft forest air, and flanked by kind, caring then-strangers who would soon become my family. As I slowly got the hang of things (pun retrospectively intended), I could start noticing – and appreciating – the beauty that I was immersed in.

The pastel view on the bus ride from Narita

I started out in Japan roughly the same way – there were times when I’d get completely wrapped up in my head, where I’d worry about understanding the culture, about how slowly my language was progressing, about whether my work was up to snuff. But over time, I’ve become better at pausing, taking a slow breath, and looking up. Every time, something beautiful reveals itself to me – be it in the steam from a cup of tea, the evening blue of the Saitama sky, a new word clicking into place – and I’m reminded of how extraordinary it is to be here, in this time, in this place, with the people around me.

A hidden street in Urawa

I’ve probably worn out my rope course analogy for now, so I’ll wrap things up with a finishing note: when I followed my host family on their adventure, I knew from the start that I’d be terrified, that it’d be difficult, that there would be times when I’d be ready to give up. But somehow, I still found myself on a platform more than 80 feet in the air, carefully latching myself onto the fourth, final, highest zipline. As I leaned back into my harness and kicked off from the platform, I knew that deep down, I had no regrets.

The 金木犀 in full bloom by my train station

These past two months have zipped by, but still more beautiful and wonderful adventures stretch out before me. Every day is a 宝物 – a treasure – in its own way, no matter how simple or small. I’m holding onto my harness and still wobbling a little, but words cannot express how excited I am to stumble into the next ten months ahead. 皆んな、これからよろしくお願いします!