Tellus: (tel’us), n. 1. [Latin] earth, soil, and the land; a country; the world. 2. a collection of Willamette University student’s insights, stories, photos and thoughts from their experiences studying abroad.

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On my return from abroad…

I kept a daily journal about my life in Japan last semester. Thanks to that journal, many details that I might have forgotten have stayed with me; I would recommend the same approach to anyone on their way abroad. But it’s been months since I last wrote about Japan, and my life there–this time and space between the me of now and the me of Japan is enough to create a distortion in my memories. Was I ever really there? Did I ever walk the streets of Kawagoe, speaking Japanese to the people that worked in the shops? Did I really take three hour long classes four days a week?
It feels like I dreamt of Japan. It’s all too easy to gloss over things in my mind’s eye, editing according to mood. I was deliriously happy–I was isolated, the only blonde, constantly scrutinized–I ate nothing but delicious food–they had nothing vegetarian easily available. This is why I am so glad to have my old blog to turn to. I can remember that, yes, there were many times that I felt like I was having the time of my life. I can also remember the times I nearly cried, wishing I could dye my hair black, wishing I could suck my big, foreign nose back into my face. I remember the lovely meals that my host mother made for me, the wonderful places that I’d eat. I can also remember that I had to play twenty questions to figure out whether the foods I wanted had meat or animal stock.
Japan is a vivid memory–Japan is a place I dreamt up. It’s hard to say which I believe more from minute to minute. So much happened that was so incredible: walking the streets of Kyoto, Tokyo, Kawagoe; going on trips with my host family; getting used to a twice daily train ride; getting used to standing out (although I never fully adjusted to that) and to not hearing English.
Then I returned to America. My first impression: Everyone is blonde. My second impression: Where are all the trains? How do we get from place to place? My third impression: Everyone speaks English!
I had become so used to formulating my thoughts in Japanese when planning to address others that I could hardly stop myself. I would speak to friends in English, generally, but whenever I thought about addressing someone outside of my in-group, I would think to myself, “Ah, it falls to me to go talk to them; my Japanese is the best in the group.” This still hasn’t totally stopped, which is confusing when I raise my hand and address my English teacher in Japanese.
I know that this is a mish-mash, a glommed-up mess of ideas that are only half expressed. There aren’t words in English for some of the things that I feel upon returning. It’s a sea of little moments, little jolts, little differences. Nothing huge or overwhelming, and as much good as bad. But different–yes, things are different in America.
I loved my time in Japan, and I wouldn’t go back and redo it for the world. But I learned that I could never really live in Japan, not for longer than I did. Because I am a blonde who doesn’t want to be seen as a foreigner at all times and in all ways. Because I want to speak Japanese, but not if the store clerk is going to assume I hardly know Japanese and speak to me in plain form, calling me ‘omae’. Because I love many things about Japan, but not that I felt constantly watched, not that I felt constantly fat (I was, compared with the women around me), not that I felt like an alien in a crowd of ordinary people. I don’t want to look in the mirror and jump, gasping, “A foreigner!” genuinely and with true shock.
Maybe this all sounds dramatic. Many of my wonderful memories stuck with me, too, of course. But the real lesson that I took away (aside from my stellar classes) was just that. It’s a great place to visit, but it can’t really be home. Even with a host family that I loved, I can’t imagine how I would last.
For those thinking of studying abroad, particularly if you’re going to physically or culturally stand out in the country you want to visit, this is my advice: Go. Take every opportunity that knocks. Have the time of your life. But be prepared for moments when you’ll need the support of other Americans, and make sure you have access to that support. You can’t take anything for granted. (In Japan, the word for ‘animals’ doesn’t include fish or birds. The three words that are generally translated as ‘fruit’ refer to anything that grows from a tree; ‘vegetables’ grow from the ground.) So go, but prepare yourself for all the little shocks that no one thinks to tell you–thinking you already know, thinking it’s common sense.
And write a daily journal, and take several hundred photographs and movies. Because, at the end of it all, you may think to yourself: Did I really go to (_______)? Or did I dream it all up?
Thank you for your time, especially if you were a faithful reader,

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