In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan
I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.
My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.
The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.
A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.
I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.
So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.
Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.
We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.
Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”
Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?
I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).
Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.
A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.
In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.
I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.
They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)
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