Week 8: Not Farewell, But Thank You

I told myself I wouldn’t cry on my last day at Technos.

All throughout the week, I was packing little by little, all while purchasing more omiyage souvenirs to cram into my single red suitcase. All throughout the week, teachers were reminding their classes to say goodbye before Rachel and Devesh’s last day. And all throughout the week, we were celebrating our time in Japan with dinners with the students and teachers. (Sidenote: Aubrey, one of the year-long TAs, makes such awesome spring rolls that I think it only took us and a handful of second-year students to devour at least 50 of them.)

All the while, I felt okay about leaving. By then, my wallet was looking a little too empty, while my brain was crammed with experiences and memories that I had yet to fully sort through and appreciate. Tokyo life is a blast, but it’s even better when you have people to share it with, and all those people were waiting for me back home.

True to Japanese hospitality, we received several wonderful send-offs during the week. Vietnamese dinner at Aubrey’s with the second-years, Okinawan dinner with the English department, and a huge sushi lunch with the college’s director and other administrators. But for me, the most touching goodbye was the pile of snacks and handwritten notes waiting on my desk Friday morning. Reading through the notes from all the students, even ones I had spoken to just once, really touched my heart. I feel so privileged to have briefly participated in the lives of these incredibly funny, engaged, self-motivated, and hard-working young people who were, above all, capable of such courageous and unreserved kindness to complete strangers. I could come back to Japan a hundred more times, but I already know that having them around made my two months in Tokyo an experience that can’t be replicated, and for that, I will always be grateful.

After an afternoon of hugs and goodbyes, I went down to Odaiba to check out teamlab Borderless, a digital art museum that’s, well, borderless. Colorful flowers, animals, and other displays flow from the walls, ceilings, and floors in order to immerse visitors in a world of light. Visitors also were encouraged to manipulate the artwork in different ways; one of my favorite exhibits allowed you to draw a small animal or plant on a special paper, have it scanned, and then watch it appear on the floor in front of you. There were plenty of hidden rooms to discover, including my favorite room filled with hanging lanterns that felt straight out of the movie Tangled:

Before leaving Odaiba, I made sure to stop by some famous landmarks, such as the Rainbow Wheel, the Rainbow Bridge, and a replica of the Statue of Liberty. I also found this really cool Takoyaki Museum, where you can try takoyaki (cooked balls filled with octopus) from different regions of Japan. The whole bay area is very sleek and modern, and a really cute place for couples to stroll along the harbor!

For Saturday, my last full day in Tokyo, I knew that I had to go back to Asakusa, my favorite city, wearing the yukata I had been too shy and self-conscious to wear the first time around. I definitely drew some looks on the train, but it turned out to be really fun! People were surprised that I had learned how to tie the cloth belt obi by myself, some old Japanese ladies helped fix some of the places where my yukata had bunched up, and I learned how to use a decorative hair stick (kanzashi) to tie my hair into a classic yukata bun.

What made my return to Asakusa special was the opportunity to act like a semi-knowledgeable tour guide for my friend Tatum, who was still getting acclimated to life in Tokyo. As we sat together in a ramen restaurant, listening to the roaring, slightly drunk laughter around us, I tried to give her what little sage wisdom I had about how to make those precious few weeks in Tokyo worthwhile.

Amidst my ramblings, I think my biggest message was to be kind to yourself and not give up hope. The first two weeks or so are honestly draining, because everything feels like a defeat. Riding a train, greeting a new co-worker, buying food, and a hundred other day-to-day tasks that are supposed to come naturally are suddenly mini-tests in Japanese culture. The constant feeling of incompetence can get frustrating quickly.

But with those defeats, there are just as many triumphs. While I certainly didn’t become an expert in navigating Tokyo during my time there, I did gain a great deal of confidence. A large part of that was due to practice and exposure, but also making peace with being a foreigner. While in Asakusa with Tatum, I accidentally led her into the wrong restaurant, something which would have left me flustered a month ago, but instead I smiled, apologized to the server, walked out, and just shrugged it off. I’m not a particularly confident person, but in Tokyo, there’s simply not enough time to spend worrying about mistakes. That realization in itself was perhaps my biggest triumph.

The more time you spend in Tokyo, the more you realize that there’s not enough time to discover all the many unique and wonderful places it has to offer. In spite of that, I don’t regret a single place I visited; in fact, that’s what makes me excited to pass the torch to the other Freeman Asia interns in Tokyo. Tokyo is so vast that everyone’s version of it is different: I fell head-over-heels in love with my Tokyo, but I’m also excited to hear about the version of Tokyo that my friends and classmates will discover.

However, for all that I learned and experienced in Tokyo, it ironically taught me an even greater deal about what I love about America. I’m glad that I came back in time for the Fourth of July, because before this journey, I’ve never considered myself a particularly patriotic person. It’s easy to lament America’s faults and failings, as we should, but I also learned just how deeply America has shaped me. Traveling to a country where most students never learned to express their own thoughts in argumentative writing made me feel gratitude for an education system that, for all its shortcomings, still aims to foster creativity and independent thinking from an early age. If I weren’t born in America, I would be a very different person; of that I am certain. I’ve felt many more tiny bursts of gratitude from coming back to America with fresh eyes, because for all wanderlust that my time in Tokyo has sparked, I think that America will always be my home.

So yes, I did in fact end up crying as I left Japan, but not from what I was losing, but from how much I had gained. For all the thanks that Devesh and I received from everyone at Technos, I feel like what I gave was just a tiny fraction of what I received. It sounds too good to be true when I tell people that I was paid to live in Tokyo to be an English major nerd and make new friends, but that’s exactly what happened. I wish that everyone could have the opportunity to participate in such a rich cultural exchange, because it made my travel exponentially more meaningful. I visited some incredible cultural landmarks during my stay, but my memories of watching Disney movies with students during lunch, singing karaoke, and laughing about weird English grammar rules are on par with memories of standing before some of the oldest shrines and temples in the world.

Before I left, I used to joke with my friends that Japan was some mystical fairytale land, that I would show up at the airport and find myself on a green screen movie set. With all Internet headlines about its weird mascots, niche establishments, and over-the-top reality shows, it’s hard to believe that such a place actually exists. But I am so grateful that my time in Tokyo wasn’t only filled with bizarre experiences but with many wonderful people, too.

I know that I can never properly express my appreciation, so all I can hope to do is pay it forward. In maybe ten years or so, I hope that I can be a host mom for students from Japan, so that I can share my country with the same energy that the Japanese people shared theirs. I also know that somehow, one way or another, I want to find myself back in Japan, so instead of saying sayonara, I want to say arigatou to everyone who helped make my first time in Japan an experience I’ll never forget!

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