written by Mary Alnessa Ignacio (participant to Japan)
Days, weeks, and months after I landed home, I can still feel the tingling feeling in my bones. It
I could never forget the day I arrived there. There I was, shuffling towards the arrival exit of the Narita International Airport, trudging my large luggage when I saw two girls waving the blue AFS flag. It was absolutely nerve-wrecking and I was feeling an overwhelming wave of emotions crash onto me over and over again. I was shaking a bit I think. I made a beeline towards them. I smiled.
I was the first and lone representative of the Philippines in the 4 week Japan Summer Language Program. It was my first time to get out of my comfort zone and live in a foreign land all by myself. The months leading up to this, I wondered if I was even qualified to do a travel like this. I was usually the quiet kid in class who had her nose in a book during breaks. Suddenly I was in the land of the rising sun about to experience this whole different culture and meet an incredible spectrum of people. To say I was terrified is definitely an understatement. But I made the choice. I took the chance. I left family and friends back home to change the way I saw the world.
There were over 50 participants from 13 countries in this program scattered in five different cities all over Japan. We had a three day arrival orientation where all those cultures came alive. I have traveled abroad in the past, but this was an entirely different experience. We spent our meals in this beautiful food court place where I had some of the most interesting conversations. I found myself on different ends of the table. I would have a discussion about Italian History with the Italians for breakfast. For lunch, I’d talk with my friend from the Faroe Islands about our school schedules and see how alike and how different they were from each other. For dinner, I marvelled at just how skilled one of them was at creating beautifully crafted works of art. Those three days alone made me realize just how special each culture is, and how special our Filipino culture is. Some of them have never even heard of the Philippines before! The arrival orientation was just memorable and I am grateful to the AFS staff in Japan for making that entire experience life changing. I have always grown up shy but the experience nudged me towards this sea of cultures I’ve never sailed before. It made me wonder why we conflict over different traditions when they should just be celebrated. One culture wasn’t better than the other; they were all equal because they come from distinct lands.
I attended a language school in Nagoya and stayed in a host family in a rural city 40 kms
away called Okazaki City. We learned Japanese for five hours from Monday to Friday. My
commute to school took about an hour and a half every single day and I’d wiggle through the jam packed Tokaido line to school along with businessmen, families and students to get to Nagoya Station. Nagoya is a high rise urban city sprawling with arrays of street lights, shopping districts and business centers. The main station had this swirly pointed monument from the Sakura Dori exit that looks beautiful if you see it from the top floors. Because it was such a modern district, the arcades, convenience stores, bookstores, coffee shops and help desks weren’t too far out of reach.
My home city Okazaki contrasted that concrete jungle. I loved the ride home every day because you’d see the transition from the racing blur of buildings to the emerald landscapes of the countryside. Okazaki really felt like a home to me. I lived on the outskirts of the city where you’d wake up to the soft hum of the local Meitetsu train shuffling along with majestic hills and mountains standing behind it. My host family welcomed me well and I found happiness in all the little things I experienced with them. My host mom worked in a convenience store so there would be random days where she’d surprise me with my favorite flavor of ice cream. After one tiring day at school, they made the exhaustion go away when we made Takoyaki together. On my last weekend, along with my host uncle and auntie, we went to the towns of Inuyama and Asuke where I got to see a 400 year old castle and this lake that sparkled crystals with the reflection of the sun. We had major miscommunications because my Japanese and their English were limited. But they made it work out and always made sure I was okay.
I absolutely loved learning the language in school, understanding the sentence structures and
learning new vocabulary words. But I loved the out of school interactions more. We really got to experience the life living in Japan. We had frequent field trips to nearby landmarks where
memories of a lifetime were made. The people who brought this experience close to my heart were none other than the Nagoya chapter group—fourteen other exchange students who come from America, Italy and Norway whom I now consider my Nagoya and Japan family. We spent every single day in class together and would go on outside after school adventures. I can’t even explain how special it was because there were so many laughs shared, so many inside jokes created, and on the last day, so many tears shed.
Lukasz, the Polish guy from Norway and I had to leave a day earlier en route to Tokyo because
our flights were the earliest the next morning. The final hugs were the saddest. I didn’t want to let go of them because I knew that once we boarded that shinkansen train, nothing would be the same ever again. There would be no more meet ups, no more squished elevator rides to the fourth or seventh floor, no more comical lessons, no more class breaks together. Just as quick as we were put together last June, we were separated again. The last day was the most bittersweet. On board the three hour journey to Tokyo Station, I could still vividly remember saying goodbye. I could still remember it up to now. I could hear their cheery voices. I could hear their “let’s meet up again in Switzerland” jokes. I could feel the joy we shared as we sang “My Heart Will Go On”.
AFS connects people. It creates a home in places so far away yet so near at the same. It bonds
you with so many beautiful people and allows you to craft memories you could never experience elsewhere. Never would I have thought I could survive a month like that. It was a rollercoaster from start to end and there was a lot of bumpy days. To be honest, the experience did really push me outside the world I’ve always believed in. It was not all comfortable and sometimes the rollercoaster ride would send me flying out of my seat in shock! But it was a wonderful learning experience all together. On my hollow days back home, I can just look at my bedroom wall and reminisce how memorable those four weeks were. If we are all stars then the program has connected me with other beautiful stars in the universe into a breathtaking constellation. I see the memories all the way back home. They make me feel warm inside.
I left everything back home to change the way I saw the world and I can now say that I did. The
entire experience was made worthwhile by the cultures that found their way to my heart and the Japanese culture we all shared and engaged in. I miss them all dearly. It kinda makes me sad sometimes but I am constantly reminded of the greatest month of my life.
Indeed, the tingling feeling still runs through my bones. It happened. It really did. I’ll wait for it to sink in.