Time Sailing By: Semester at Sea

Tarah Fisher is a Third Year Psychology major, currently at Semester at Sea.

I distinctly remember a Monday night during my first semester at UVA. I was anxiously waiting to tryout for the University Salsa Club’s showcase. Like any other nervous first year would do, I chatted up the friendliest looking person in sight and asked what dorm she lived in. She had just returned from a semester abroad, at sea specifically, and quickly I learned not to assume that everyone was also a first year. She took classes on a ship, traveled across many oceans, and made incredible friendships with her classmates and professors. I told her that I would never be able to live on a ship for that long.

My name is Tarah Fisher, and in two days I will embark on the MV World Odyssey for a Semester at Sea.

I am not entirely sure how I convinced my parents to let me travel around the world on a ship instead of the typical study abroad in Europe, and I do not foresee the awe wearing off anytime soon. Like many students who are lucky enough to study abroad, I have a deep desire to travel. I seek novelty experiences as they broaden my horizons, challenge my perceptions, and force me to grow in ways that sitting in comfort would not.

I am thrilled to be traveling to countries like Ghana, India, and Viet Nam where I will be thrown into cultures, languages, and environments drastically different than my own. I will learn what its like to be a traveler in a country where one can not understand why the bus driver is yelling at you because you do not speak the language, or how your waitress has a huge grin because you unknowingly left an abnormally large tip. For many, this sounds like a nightmare. But challenging experiences like these are extremely important; they remind us that we are human, and we must embrace the layers of differences instead of allowing them to divide us.

Although travel is one of the most influential opportunities a person can be given, I recognize the privilege that comes with study abroad. I am extremely grateful for the support I have received, yet I am nervous that I will not seize every moment of the privilege I have been gifted.

So, I write this to remind myself that the once-in-a-lifetime voyage begins now. Soon, the sounds of the ocean will become the soundtrack of my life. Time will sail by. Don’t blink.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Golden Week: Okinawa and Osaka

Myliyah Hanna is a Japanese and English major who spent this past spring semester studying on exchange in Tokyo, Japan. Read about her spring break adventures!

Okinawa

Golden Week is a week of Japanese holidays, such as Showa Day or Children’s Day, that many people take off to vacation and travel. For us exchange students it meant a week off from class, my spring break. Golden Week is an opportunity to travel and therefore the prices of the shinkansen, Japan’s infamous bullet train, flights, and hotels are bumped up. Even though expensive, I asked myself when would be the next time I get a chance like this. And so, I booked a flight and an inn in Naha, Okinawa.

When I left for Okinawa, Tokyo was cool in the morning. The sun was bright and an early morning breeze swam through the city and across the shoulders of other people pulling suitcases alongside themselves. After a three-hour flight to Naha, I found myself overdressed. My leggings and t-shirt were too warm for Okinawan weather and I was paying the price via sweat. But the air near the airport smelled of the ocean and palm trees stood tall along the roads.

I decided to stay close to the airport since Okinawa doesn’t have trains. Besides a car, buses are the main form of transportation. In Naha, however, there’s a monorail that goes through the city. My inn was about ten minutes from one of the stations on the monorail. It was also about 20 minutes from one of the most popular tourist attractions in Okinawa, Kokusai Dori (Kokusai Street), a long road abundant with yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurants and Okinawan souvenir shops where one could buy a jar of habushu, or Okinawan snake wine.

The owner of the inn was a talkative, friendly older man who referred to himself as “Master” and spoke in the third person. In the morning he was usually near the entrance of the inn stretching to prepare for a daily run. Sometimes I would come down and see him playing with a short-tailed cat that often frequented the inn. The kitten was a girl who he had wanted to name Kentarou, a traditionally masculine name, but had yet to name her because he couldn’t think of anything else he liked. “See, if I named her Kentarou,” he said, “she’d probably get scared by the name and run off.” Every night he was usually in the kitchen, watching television and inviting people to sit and drink with him. Amongst some of those conversations, I had come to know him in a way that I wasn’t expecting. He was open and honest about his life, his feminine personality, his open marriage and three girlfriends. He had probably told me too much for even American standards, but I undoubtedly appreciated his honesty.

“Master” was just one person in Okinawa that I encountered and made me feel like I belonged, almost as if Okinawa had been waiting for me. Although I wasn’t free from the prolonged staring, Okinawans were more willing to approach me and ask me questions than people in Tokyo. It was also the first time I received so much positive attention on my braids since my arrival. There is something to be definitely said for Okinawa’s excellent hosting skills. It was the first time in my exchange experience thus far that I wasn’t the odd man out. I wasn’t othered. I was welcomed and I cannot begin to explain how necessary that was for me.

This isn’t to say that people in Tokyo haven’t been kind and gracious either. I’ve run into many nice people who were patient with me as I tried to explain myself in nervous Japanese. I will say, however, that even though Tokyo is the most global in its visitors and stores, Okinawa’s mindset is far more international. There is no need to remind a foreigner how un-Japanese they are in their mannerisms or mother-tongue. Okinawa knew that, and it didn’t care.

Okinawa was laid-back, lacking some of the rigid social rules I discovered in Tokyo. I noticed this especially when it came to clothing. In Tokyo, certain styles of tops and dresses–off the shoulder tops, open back dresses, spaghetti straps–have a reputation for promiscuity. In Naha, however, these tops and dresses were abundant in Naha. Simply put, it was too warm in Okinawa to cover up. Tokyo is serious; Okinawa is a beach.

Two days before my flight departing from the island, I visited an interactive workshop that specialized in traditional Okinawan sango dyeing. The building was styled after traditional Japanese architecture and soft music played overhead. Upstairs was where I sat at a table and used coral and paint to create designs on a t-shirt. The entire workshop, which was about an hour, cost about 30 dollars but it was well worth my money. Later that day I also visited Shurijo Castle, a World Heritage site and one of Okinawa’s oldest historical monuments. The inside curved and weaved through numerous rooms that each held their purposes, such as the throne room for celebrations and a raised platform room where past kings conducted political business.

I didn’t know what to expect what when I landed at the airport. I imagined long rural roads, strangers distancing themselves from me. Okinawa surprised me, opened up a whole other side of Japanese identity I thought I would rarely see. The friendliness I experienced in Okinawa alone is reason enough for me to go back. I was reminded that Japan is not only Tokyo, the one place that seems to ring in our minds the loudest when we hear the country’s name. Okinawa reminded me that central Japan, the big cities, are not the end-all-be-all. It also reminded me about the pleasures of taking a break from crowded areas to breathe and stretch, feel the ocean on my toes and the sunshine on my skin.

Osaka

When I hear the name Osaka, I think of medieval Japan. I think of how important Osaka was as a trade post and a cultural hub where many of the great poets journeyed to. I think about its proximity to Kyoto, Nara, the once great capitals of Japan before it was decided that Tokyo would become the next, and final, capital.

Japanese literature classes can only teach but so much. I knew of Kansai-ben, or Kansai dialect, and of Osaka’s infamous okonomiyaki, which I can only describe as a vegetable and meat pancake. Other than that, Osaka remained a mystery to me. Japan is ultimately more than just Tokyo and I wanted to experience the Japan that wasn’t in Tokyo. After Okinawa, I returned to the airport and boarded a plane heading for the port city.

Admittedly, when I arrived in Osaka I was excited to have trains and subways to ride again. The airport stood atop an island about twenty minutes or so from Osaka itself. When I landed, the waters and sky were streaked with flecks of gold and purple, the windows of the stylish airport glittering with the sunset. It was rush hour but people were calm, taking their time to board the trains heading into the city. Osaka has its own loop line that circles the city, making stops at the most popular locations. The guesthouse I stayed at was on one of these stops, two minutes from the station.

My favorite part about Osaka is the fact that the city weaves its rivers into its architecture. Bridges are abundant, each with their own character and connecting different areas together. Atop the Umeda Sky Building is an observation deck. I went and ordered a parfait to enjoy the breathtaking view. Mountains stood tall along the horizon and I could see planes descending to land at the nearby airport. The outside observation deck had speakers playing the epitome of cafe music, with its soft guitar and drums. It was windy but the circular deck gave me one of the best views of Osaka. I could see the curves of the river and how they emptied into the sea; I could see clouds lifting off from the mountains.

It was at night, however, that Osaka’s young spirit opened itself up to me. Dotonbori is undoubtedly a tourist site, but the attention it attracted was nothing but positive. Everyone was relaxed and enjoying themselves. I indulged in the sights and smells of ramen and okonomiyaki. There was laughter and music and relaxation. As I walked through Dotonbori, crossing bridges over a glimmering river to the other sides of the area, I walked aimlessly and took in what Osaka gave to me. I had chosen a small izakaya to eat dinner at that night. I sat at the bar, where I watched the two chefs prepare the meals and joke with one another. I was the only foreigner in there at the time, but that didn’t stop anyone from asking me questions. Before I left they wished me luck in my studies, asked that I come back to the izakaya when I’m in Osaka again.

Although my time in Osaka was limited to a day, it’s easily one of the most memorable. I didn’t want to leave. The people were incredibly friendly and unbothered about my foreignness. If anything, it emboldened many to ask me about my studies, where I came from, my reasons for coming to Japan. The week of traveling reminded me about the importance of traveling in the first place. Of course seeing monuments and visiting famous areas is always an experience in itself, but certainly, the beauty of venturing oceans away from home is to interact with people and to learn their stories and their habits. Okinawa and Osaka presented to me the beauty of human curiosity and kindness, the kind that one can find only when they travel.

I returned to Tokyo via the shinkansen, or the bullet train. I was convinced by some friends who have been to Japan numerous times to ride it at least once while I’m here. From Osaka to Tokyo it was about two and a half hours, but the trip itself felt so much shorter than that. At one point Mount Fuji stood in the distance. I scrambled to take a picture, but the train curved and Fuji-san disappeared from my sight.

I wasn’t expecting Osaka to leave such a deep impression on me, but that’s what makes it so alluring. Osaka was young and carefree, wanting to take you everywhere and show you everything it could. Osaka showed off its mountains, its rivers like snakes emptying into the sea. Osaka’s nighttime dress was bold and kind, and when it saw me off to return to school I knew I had to visit again before I returned to America. Osaka still has so much to show me, and I eagerly await my second chance.

Daily Life in Tokyo

Myliyah Hanna is currently studying abroad in Japan. Take a look at her most recent blog post!

The alarm goes off at 7:30 in the morning, a sharp vibration against my mattress loud enough to rumble me awake. I turn over onto my side, stare at the screen of my phone, and realize that I do, indeed, have to get up to get ready for class. But I set it on snooze for another fifteen minutes.

 

I don’t think we are as aware of it as we could be but, at some point, we fall into routines. We put our shirts on with one arm first before the other, then the pants, and then the socks. We pour the cereal into the bowl before the milk. We make sure to grab the keys before we head out for the day. I think a lot of these little rituals are inherent at this point in our lives, routines that are so deeply carved in our muscle memory that one step out of place would cause a twinge of confusion.

 

At the same time, I wonder if the routines practiced over in America would follow me here into Tokyo. Would I still wake up the same, walk at the same pace, execute the same social cues out in public like I did in America? I don’t ask these questions to have a clear cut answer; there is no yes or no. In a few days I will have been in Japan for a month, and while that lends itself to a decent amount of time to have a response to that question it still isn’t one that is directly answered.

 

Instead, I’ve come to understand it as doing as the Romans. In a new country and a new environment with its own history and patterns, I needed time to figure out how to comfortably move throughout Tokyo. There were days of awkward language exchange, where Japanese leapt off my tongue and drowned in a pool of miscommunication. There were days of mistakes and remaining a “typical foreigner” in the eyes of onlooking natives. But it is in those discomforts and in my own personal sense of being a foreigner here in Japan that I find myself developing more routines. Every day is a chance to practice speaking and continue to strengthen my language acquisition. Every day is a chance to learn a new rule or discover a new place and why it’s significant in Japan.

 

Unlike many of my friends, I have never traveled overseas until this semester. Realistically my family can’t afford overseas travel; scholarships and loans are how I’m surviving here. This is the first time I’m truly engaging with myself on an international scale, figuring out how I work amongst a country that is not mine and where the language is still so new to me. As daunting as it may sound, I’m thriving here. It is challenging to go across oceans and time zones and separate oneself from everything that is familiar to them. Humans are creatures of habit and putting oneself in another environment where one has to create new habits can be difficult, but thus far it’s been rewarding.

 

One of my favorite habits happens whenever I am leaving or entering the dorm. The lobby is stone tile. On the right wall is a glass window that the caretaker of our dorm can see through. Ahead are the mailboxes, and on the left side is a wooden step and more rows of little storage boxes. In Japan, most apartments and dorms have a standard genkan, or the entranceway. Much like at home where I took my shoes off at the front and then put them into the closet, I take off my shoes and step up into the dorm. For some, it might take some getting used to especially if taking off the shoes at home was never practiced. Doing this every day not only attests to the spotlessness of the dorm floors but of how these routines have blended together for me.

 

As a creature of habit, it is near impossible for us to escape a subconscious need for structure. And while that it is true, it doesn’t mean we are required to stay attached to any one habit for the rest of our lives. Perhaps that’s the beauty of traveling overseas and being able to break away from habits that can become so mundane after years of repetition.

 

Coming to Japan was a breath of fresh air. I put on a new pair of glasses, drank in the vivid sights and smells of this chain of islands. I figured out the best streets to take to get to the konbini or the supermarket. I figured out the route to my classes, which buildings they’re being housed. I figured out what time to eat dinner was best since the dining room would be full of friends and at a decent enough time to have dessert later. I figured out how to respond to cashiers at stores, how to hand them my cash or card.

 

It still remains, though, that the one habit I developed as soon as I got off the plane is the openness to being wrong. I certainly had that back home, but I had to develop a real understanding that I was going to make mistakes, like throwing paper in the noncombustible bin or fumbling over my Japanese and saying something strange. But in a way, reminding myself of that during this first (almost) month I have reminded myself to be patient. I don’t have the malleable mind of a small child anymore and I’m not a natural-born polyglot, but every day I have to push myself to find the courage to speak Japanese. And slowly, but surely, I’m improving.

 

Reflection of arriving in Costa Rica

Jamir studied abroad this past summer in Costa Rica for six weeks. This is his second journal on the blog. Check it out!

Jamir Nahuel Kai

15 May 2016

Study abroad reflection #1 

It’s hard to accept reality. A strange articulation, I know, but I can’t express the bulk
of my feelings right now in any other way. I’m experiencing a surreal blend of comfort,exhilaration, and unease. Primarily, I’m overwhelmed by the gorgeous climate this evening. Fresquito is how my host-sister’s boyfriend described it. I would agree, cool and fresh feeling.

Secondarily, I miss my fiancé already. We haven’t spent more than a day apart for the last three years, and the plane ride to Costa Rica was enough to make me feel the distance between us that is to last for the next six weeks. Once I process the tropical breeze alongside the pangs of missing my beloved, I begin to tear up.

I can’t believe I’m finally here! I’ve been dreaming about this very place since ninth grade. That’s six long years of fantasizing about walking amongst the mountains and the bugs (so many bugs) and seeing beautiful, diverse, Spanish-speaking people all around me. And now I’m here. Los ticos do indeed, as all the posts I have read claimed, greet kindly all passersby. And greetings are specific to the time of day. 

My host-sister is a ray of sunshine, but busy. To make sure I got to see the beauty of the town and surrounding towns, she and her boyfriend took me for a sunset drive around the highs and low of Carrillos Alto and Carrillos Bajo. We took an even further trip out to a bigger town called Grecia and I tried my first authentic Costa Rican dish! I didn’t like it all that much. But that’s okay! Dinner by my already loving and caring host-mother, Alicia, was fabulous and filling. First day of school is tomorrow. Bright and early.

UVa in Costa Rica Pre-departure reflection

Jamir studied abroad this past summer in Costa Rica for six weeks. Check out his journal before he left on his trip.

Jamir Nahuel Kai

12 May 2016

Pre departure reflection

My passport has finally arrived! My new duffel bag has finally arrived! I just picked up a new pair of sunglasses and my two ounce travel bottles are filled with sunscreen, body wash, and bug spray. I’ve spent hours online researching various aspects of Costa Rican culture and I’ve had a long conversation with my host parents’ daughter about my stay in their home. It is now officially feeling quite real that I will soon be leaving for Costa Rica and living in Alajuela for an entire six weeks. But even though everything feels prepared, the butterflies in my stomach are telling me otherwise….

What if I don’t like the food? What if my host family aren’t okay with gay people? Will I be able to stay in contact with my mom without an international phone plan? And what am I going to do without being able to sleep next to my fiancée and our two dogs every night for a month and a half??? The truth of the matter is I’m equally as worried as I am excited for this imminent trip.

However, as a teacher candidate in my fourth (out of five) year at the University of Virginia, I recognize the value and importance of studying abroad. I can’t wait to start experiencing the new culture, meeting new people, and improving my Spanish. I’ll be doing a semester-long teaching internship at Monticello High School in the fall and taking standardized assessments in July, so I want my fluency to be as perfect as possible before returning home to the states. I also can’t wait to be capturing moments, sharing them with my loved ones, and transmitting my experiences in various forms. Above all, I’m very thankful for this opportunity as I’ve never been out of the country and I’m the only person in my entire extended family to attend college, let alone spend a month abroad to study a foreign language. I shall return stronger, more knowledgeable, and with un montón de memorias that I’ll utilize and cherish forever!!