The Final Post

January 12, 2017

I don’t even know where to start. I get it now…how study abroad can be the best time of your life. You change; you come home a completely different person. I’ve moved around quite a few times throughout my life – New Jersey, Germany, Italy, Okinawa, Virginia – and I have always considered Okinawa to be home. It’s where, for the most part, I grew up, I took care of my family without dad around, made stupid decisions, and maybe even learned from my stupid decisions. Going back every summer and winter break is what keeps me going during the school year, honestly. Knowing I can eat Okinawa Soba, chill with friends at the seawall, and swim in the clear ocean again. Okinawa is home, no doubt. This was the first time that returning home to Okinawa felt unfamiliar. It almost felt wrong. I was leaving home to go to Okinawa.


Immediately after spending two days in Akita, everything became…light. There’s something about Akita. I felt more like myself in Akita. It’s not really the actual place of Akita that made me feel like myself because man, I’m not going to lie, we all hated that we were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by rice fields. But honestly, if given the chance to study abroad at Tokyo or Osaka, I would choose Akita every single damn time. You could walk 5-minutes off campus and see older people working on the rice fields. These older individuals were all very sweet and had no problem speaking to us despite our broken Japanese. You’d hear a car pass by you every 10-minutes so walking around with the sun beating down on your face was such a nice way to relax. There were shrines nearby that we would walk to, always placing a 5-yen coin and praying at the entrance.

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I’m never going to forget the quick walks to Banafi, the convenience store right off campus. The amount of riceballs and beers bought there was endless. The older guy that runs that store is so dedicated to his job. Working from 7am to 7pm almost everyday and remembering our faces. He even brought his dog into the store sometimes – an old, fat beagle. The dog would slowly wobble over to me and hint for me to pet it. Sitting on the benches in front of Banafi while eating our bentos (boxed lunches) during the summer and drinking our hot cocoa from a can during the winter.


Or the quick walks to aBar right next to Banafi. Since we were in the middle of nowhere, the only bar near us was this one. It was made for the international students, although Japanese students would go as well. There were karaoke competitions, DJ nights, band performances, etc. that students would participate in, hoping to win a free drink by the end of the night. Everyone would go so you’d obviously talk to students you wouldn’t talk to otherwise in class. Oh man, the nights spent there were too fun.


The one and only Shimohamahimehoma beach trip during orientation week is still my best memory from Akita, well, everyone’s best memory. We had only been in Akita for about 5 days and we all decided to go to the beach together. All of the international and first-year students since none of the other students had arrived on campus yet. Waking up super early, riding the train (after missing the first train, of course), swimming for hours, drinking beers and blasting Chance The Rapper, singing karaoke at the shack with the wandering dog, Udon in the city afterwards…we were all so tired and red by the end of the day but full of so much joy. It definitely set the tone for the rest of the semester.

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Train 2.jpgSpeaking of missing trains, you become a true international student at AIU once you miss at least three trains or even buses due to reading the schedule incorrectly. I can’t tell you how many times I have been yelled at for messing the schedule up HAHA it was fine though because honestly, the memories made while waiting for missed trains are some of my favorites. Creating videos of the Mannequin Challenge because of the nonstop laughter or the photoshoots I did with my friends around the entire station.


I’m so thankful the school planned out field trips for us. I know that sounds like a cliche high school thing but these bus trips definitely gave us the chance to explore Akita more. All of the international students signed up so once again, you’d spend time with students you wouldn’t otherwise talk to during class. We went to a samurai town, aquarium, deepest lake in Japan, Oga Peninsula, and watched a Namahage performance. Not only did I explore around Akita, I was also able to travel to Tokyo twice and Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara once. Meeting up with high school friends in Tokyo, walking around Shibuya at 4am, and eating ラーメン in individual stalls are a few of my favorite memories from Tokyo. And Osaka, wow, watching Isabella get rammed in the butt by a deer begging for food was absolutely hilarious. I couldn’t breathe from laughing so hard. Or the time Isabella went running ahead of me, desperately searching for a bathroom for me at around 12am, and us ending up going to a club and dancing for 3 hours solely because I needed to use the bathroom.

The small, close-knit community and campus brought us together – eating the set lunches together everyday, chilling in Komachi lobby, staying up till 4am every night. I could list all of the wonderful memories but there’s too many to list. You wouldn’t have the sense of family at any school as we did in Akita. We were all there for each other. It was the people, definitely. Especially Patrik and Isabella. The both of them changed the course of my study abroad experience.


Patrik, man, I don’t know where to start with this guy. Be honest, right? He actually went back to Okinawa with me for the couple of weeks of winter break. We became friends after day 2 in Akita. He complimented me on my smile and I thought he was an arrogant boy. Funny how quickly things changed. Surprisingly we were in the same Japanese class (his Japanese is 10x better than mine), and as a result we were always together, studying Japanese, eating meals between classes, learning the lyrics to Childs Play, talking for hours about the meaning of life…he really loves asking people what the meaning of life was. I still remember the first time he told me about this “beautiful sadness.” I’ve always been told that sadness is a bad thing but now I understand that it’s the complete opposite. We have all gone through pain but it’s only made us aware of ourselves. Patrik made sure that I understood how sadness helps you grow. Without sadness, we wouldn’t appreciate the happiness. Every time I was down, he would come in with this dorky smile, raise his voice, and bounce his shoulders and explain to me that because I was sad now, I know that I was happy before. I made great memories and now I have those to cherish. A beautiful sadness.

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I want to share with everyone that I fell in love with someone while studying abroad. Making myself vulnerable to her seemed like a risk knowing we would only be together for a short time. But, it was a beautiful risk, creating the space for her to make me feel more protected. I experienced the most intense feelings with her…confusion, desperation, pain, heart-exploding joy, and passion. She made me happy. It has been two weeks since I last saw her smile. You know, if it’s meant to be, it will be. We might come back to each other, but we might not. You can’t let the uncertainty stop you from doing anything. Fall hard and deeply in love. Go all in, man, because when are you ever going to have the chance again? Just live in the moment and let things play out the way it’s supposed to. I’m so happy that I fell in love with her while studying abroad. My time in Akita wouldn’t have been what it was without her by my side. Thank you for being vulnerable and letting me be a part of your life.

Like I said, it was all the people. I’m not sure what I was expecting from Akita. Maybe to speak Japanese fluently, meet some cool people from Europe, and leave knowing I had “ the best time of my life” as most people claim study abroad to be. I do have to say, Akita far reached my expectations. Akita has become one of my homes to me. Thank you Akita, for the confusion, heart-exploding joy, pain, constant excitement, and beautiful sadness.


Tori in Spain: The Boy Who Bowed

October 13, 2016

Since coming to Spain, I have had the privilege of joining BocaTalk, a group who walks through Madrid every week to sit with people experiencing homelessness and listen to their stories. Before we leave, we make sandwiches together to give to the people we meet that evening. However, our motto is, “It’s so much more than a sandwich,” because the focus is on listening, not material goods given.

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I have been both broken and blessed through this experience. I am thankful it has broken me, because I believe people must be broken before they can receive blessings humbly and give themselves to others wholeheartedly.

Last Wednesday started off with a blessing named Maria. I sat with her for a long time despite my inability to understand and to express what I wished to say to her well in Spanish. The language barrier is still really hard for me, but she didn’t seem to care. I think she told me her life story, but am honestly not sure. Whenever we didn’t have words, we just looked at each other. That was powerful to me.

Her gaze held no bitterness or resentment. I often resent myself for the privilege I have been given, and I felt that she was skeptical of my intentions, but appreciated me despite my brokenness. As a knelt on the ground beside her place of residence (a box she sat on) and all of her belongings (a small cart), she was worried for me. “Why are you on the ground? Don’t get your pants dirty! You don’t need to sit on the road.” Here she was, an old woman whom had experienced oppression and exclusion from society, worried about me, a privileged White American on a semester of vacation. 

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I told her I was so grateful for her words and thankful to have met her, she pointed at the sky and said “No, todas gracias a Dios.” All thanks to God. After that, I began to understand more of what she was trying to communicate to me. She told me of her Christian roots, how good the Lord was, and how He always heard our prayers. I wanted to pray for her, but she told me that prayer was for quiet, private places… not on the streets. There’s a verse in Matthew which says just that, and I was humbled by her wisdom and knowledge of scripture. Here she was, an old woman whom had been victim of abandonment and countless difficult circumstances, blessing me, loving me, and pointing me to Jesus with her steadfast faith and joy. 

I left her later that evening, and continued on with our group throughout the center of Madrid. I struggled with my ability to walk away from Maria. She could not walk away from her circumstances, so why was I able to walk away from hers without a scratch? Privilege is a terrifying and convicting thing.

Little did I know what was in store for me the rest of the evening. Less than a half an hour later, I met the boy who bowed, and our encounter broke me.

We were wandering the side streets of Puerta del Sol, when we came upon a man whom was lying facedown on the street, holding a cup in his hand. We tapped his shoulder to ask him his name and offer him a bocadillo, expecting nothing out of the ordinary. I was shocked when a young, beautiful pair of brown eyes met mine. This child could not have been older than my little brother, and here he was, alone in the streets. We tried to talk with him, but realized that he could not speak English or Spanish.

We left him a sandwich and walked away, feeling like we had nothing else to offer him since we didn’t share a language. This young boy was alone in a foreign country where he could not be understood nor could he express himself to others.

I felt paralyzed. 

I realized that we didn’t offer him a juice, so I grabbed one and ran back to him. I placed it in his hand, placed my hand on his shoulder, and merely looked into his eyes, hoping to communicate all I wanted to express to him through a look. Even if we had shared a language, words would not have been sufficient for this moment.

I left deeply disturbed and couldn’t hold back my tears.

WHY WAS I ABLE TO WALK AWAY? Why didn’t I sit with him longer? I should have stayed. Should have done something more. Should have bought him groceries for the week. Should have done anything to show him that he was loved and valued and worth it and not alone.

This experience has lead me to question the hip-evangelical-Christian subculture I immerse myself in at home. My love of bible verses in calligraphy, fancy dinner parties, hospitality, quiet times on perfect front porches, freshly picked wildflowers, acoustic music, hipster cafes, and organic food feels silly and superfluous when juxtaposed with Maria’s simple life. She loves the Lord with all she has, which is just herself. I have much to learn from Maria.

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Do we hide behind the trappings of our Christian subculture? What does it mean to live courageously and walk through life with open hands? Faith requires surrendering all we are and have to the Lord in the knowledge that everything we have we have been freely given.

Luckily, the Lord does not need us. He has already won. It can be easy to feel guilty and helpless and be paralyzed by the brokenness and inequity in this world, but we serve a God whose light cannot be subdued by darkness. My prayer is for the Lord to take my guilt and helplessness and change it into a fire within me that pushes me to give of myself, my money, my time, and my privilege in radical, courageous ways. I know it is impossible on my own, but trust that the Lord is inviting me into His beautiful story of redemption and healing in every moment, I just need to learn to say yes to those invitations.

A good friend and I sat down for coffee yesterday, and I began to process this experience with him and my frustration with privilege and guilt for the joy I derive from traveling, good food, and other material comforts. He wisely reminded me that in order to give to others, we ourselves have to be filled up. The list of things I love that felt wrong and superfluous after talking to Maria are all things that remind me of deeper truths and allow me to savor life with others. Without those reminders and relationships, I would not be wholehearted enough to give away anything at all.

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I hope to see the boy who bowed again, and hope to give more courageously to him next time. Not because it is required of me, but because the Lord is inviting me into the extravagant adventure of loving and caring for His children.

 

 

 


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