How do you summarize/condense half a year of your life in one blog post? I can’t, really, except to say that it was one of the best half-a-years I’ve ever had in my life. I was very happy in Japan and it was because of the people I came to know there, the work and purpose I had, and the wonderful, complex, difficult, welcoming, extraordinary, contradictory, sometimes familiar and yet singular and always surprising culture of Japan. I was challenged every day, with communication, with stereotypes, with my own and other’s cultural assumptions, and with what I thought were my limits.
Though we don’t like it, our best growth comes when we are made uncomfortable, and for the first month I was in Japan, I was made uncomfortable every day! (In the best way possible!) The challenges of living in another culture are beautiful but many! There are so many things that are unconscious for a native but completely unknown to a foreigner and not everyone you meet is understanding or forgiving of that natural problem. My first month I learned a new rule or norm every day, mostly by accidentally breaking it first!In the wonderful way things work though, the first month is also when everything is rosy and new and wondrous so you wake up to a challenge everyday but you feel excited and so ready to meet that challenge; “Bring on something else new!!” I found out just how elastic I am, to bend without breaking, to be pressed beyond what I thought I could do and find I am capable of so much more.
After the first month, and especially the first transition to a new host family, things became more familiar and homey, because I had found a home within myself and learned to love and appreciate Japan the way I found it. And things just kept getting better and better! I made a promise to myself while in Japan to always say “Yes!” After a couple of missed opportunities with my first host family, I didn’t want that to happen again. No matter what my inner self-doubt whispered to me, if I was asked to do something, I ALWAYS SAID YES. This led to some pretty great adventures and unexpected triumphs that didn’t always go the way I thought they would but were priceless just the same.
When I started this journey, it was because I believed that food and its’ production connect us all across the world, and I wanted to experience that. I believe it now more than ever and can’t wait to share that connection with Colorado. (Hopefully I have already shared it beyond Colorado, through this blog!) Most of the conversations I had with people revolved around food; food and language are so fundamental to our humanity. I loved how we could take something we had the most in common, food and farming, and use it to navigate what we had the least in common, language. I think this partly happened because of my position in Japan as agricultural research student, but also because Japan has such a foodie culture and they are very proud of their cuisine. They want to know what others think of it. I met so many great people this way and felt genuine connections with some that I will remember for the rest of my life.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned in Japan, is that communication happens in many different forms and while you can tell someone a lot of things, experience is where the most learning happens. I think I’m a naturally observant person and those skills were put to the test just to navigate everyday life but especially to study Japanese farming. I planted five crops, managed and harvested eleven different fruits and vegetables, and drove three tractors all without having anything directly explained to me in English. This attests to my host’s amazing good nature and willingness to teach and let me try things, but also my own ability to analyze my surroundings, learn quickly, and seek answers for my questions in untraditional ways. By my last months, I felt incredibly immersed in Japan and Japanese, so much so that it was a little jarring when some person or incident would point out that I was—much to my disappointment sometimes—a foreigner.
As I explored the Narita airport for ten hours waiting on my last flight out of Japan, I found a book store with Japanese cookbooks in English. I started flipping through one and became engrossed in its’ introduction. It was by an American woman who had spent many years on and off in Japan. She wrote that she never imagined she’d be publishing a book on Japanese cuisine when, forty years ago, she had left her first job as a 4-H extension agent (!) and moved to Japan with her husband. But “In the way that one thing leads to another in this life,” she described one experience then another, taking this job then that and now here she was, best-selling author of a book about her Japanese journey that I was standing here reading at perhaps the beginning of my own Japanese journey that had started in 4-H. Even two or three years ago when I thought about where I would be now, it was not in Japan; but one thing led to another and I am so glad I am! Most peoples’ lives are a crazy, beautiful, mixed-up, string of connected moments that may seem haphazard but form a unique narrative looking back; each experience contributed to who and what they are. I took the amazing opportunity to live in Japan and Japan has definitely shaped where I go from here. Who knows, maybe someday it will be back to Japan………
None of this would have been possible without the Colorado4-H Foundation funding nearly the entire study and the dedicated work of IFYE4-H staff in Colorado and Japan who initiated and coordinated the experience for me. Thank you to all those people especially Courtney Loflin, Rochelle Platter, Inoue Takahiro, Maeda Ayaka, and all five of my hosts in Japan: the Saitoh family, Nagai family, Deguchi family, Miura family, and the Yamamoto family. I would also like to thank 4-H Korea for their amazing help in hosting me for a week in order to extend my stay in Japan and then coordinating a last-minute flight for me when Typhoon Jebi disrupted travel plans. To all who have helped me along the way: Thank You.
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