As I graduated from a simple observer into a storyteller from these experiences in this program, every moment was a reflection. Each metro journey was a new realization, with a different perspective on common issues, ideas, and thoughts. Each place visited offered an insight that dared to break stereotypes and misconceptions on Japan that we had, and that helped us discover more about ourselves. Each story heard was like a new light in our night skies, fireworks that made our minds that much wider, and that unified us. I want to talk about some of my realizations, now that this life-changing book is on its final few pages.
I realized, first, and funny enough, that what I think I know of the world and its people is NOTHING, because I’ve actually experienced so little of it. Watching world events unfold on, say, CNN or the Internet, will never match actually being in those places. As Dan Davidson once said to me, “You can’t really understand someone until you can live a day in their life”, and that empathetic saying is the perfect cover to describe my experience in Japan. Living in a homestay in the suburbs of Tokyo, going to a triple-disaster affected region and talking to its people to hear their stories – ALL of their stories, not just the disaster-ones – eating good food and laughing with friends, as songs filled with happiness and a joyful future flutter into the night sky of a community fractured still in a town still rebuilding…I reiterate: You know nothing about the world until you can actually experience it, with all of its people, acknowledging your biases and putting them in a backseat. Once I realized that, the experience really became something special.
I realized what it takes to be a true leader, a wolf at the head of its pack. There are three main factors: Incredible inner strength and faith, grit in the face of disaster, and the ability to sacrifice for what you believe in. One can say all they want they have what it takes to be a leader, that they could start their own business and write their own story, that they could easily recover from a disaster. I know I used to put on that false front, ‘till we met three figures that tore down what I thought of as leadership: Jin Sato, Rock Newman, and Andy Shallal. These three, coming from three different walks of life, all define it. Jin Sato becoming a mayor of a town newly destroyed, Rock Newman constantly fighting racial adversity in America as a Black man with the appearance of a white man, and Andy Shallal coming from Iraq to America & founding Busboys and poets. They embodied inner strength, the grit it takes to lead your own story, and the ability to sacrifice for what you believe, and I know I never would have gotten their experiences had I not done TOMODACHI.
I realized that out of every disaster can come opportunity, with the effort of a diligent mind. When I visited the city of Ishinomaki and walked through the “scenic route” – where we saw firsthand destroyed homes, empty foundations, piles of garbage and lost possessions intertwined with an air of defeat – it reminded me of the apathy that is seen in the ghettos and impoverished parts of America, especially in D.C. Yet, the comparisons became hopeful, after we were introduced to two local groups doing what they could to bring beauty back to their homes: Ishinomaki 2.0 and Kagikakko Café (Kagikakko was started by High Schoolers, and is successful. I was taken aback.) These groups realized that as the old days were gone, taken away, so came a new day where they could appreciate what they took for granted and, as such, reimagine their lives and work to create a new opportunity for themselves. That spirit to always move forward caused a tremendous shift in my cynical worldview. Even the people at the lowest of times can make opportunity for themselves, so what’s my excuse? Why couldn’t I make a change?
But my final realization began to form after our visit to IDEO Tokyo and our last days together in D.C., and that is this: It takes little steps in your community first to make a big change in your world. Now, this sounds almost far-fetched, but think: If every ghetto, every disaster-destroyed community, every part of a bad area, could take or were given the little steps needed to persevere and climb above their negative circumstances, a world where we could all live close to true happiness could be a possibility. It all starts with the little steps though. For me, that little step is education, but I am not just talking a school education. I’m talking about educating people about different ideas, about different perspectives, about different experiences outside of the norm or the comfort zone. I’m talking about fostering creativity in the youth of our communities so that they can grow up to make the changes we couldn’t make happen, happen. I sure know I wouldn’t be saying any of this if it weren’t for me being able to escape America for some time, and many others like me hold the same sentiment, such as my now close friends K.Y. and S.M. For me, I realized that community is the key, but the community must first be educated on how it can be a unified force of positive change. Without the community, there is no tree. With the community though, a thousand cherry blossoms can bloom. It all starts with the little steps of watering and nurturing the community to become something great, by actively being a part of it and working for not just your own, but for its greater good.
So now, it’s time to close this book and place it on my forever growing mental bookshelf. I do not know what the future holds for me, except that it is something great, and I wholeheartedly thank everyone and everything that was part of this experience for me. Each of these realizations, and the ones not mentioned, are only the leaves stemming from the roots this program has grown in me, and as the future goes on, I look back leaving a message to two. For the TOMODACHI family I have now: Though we may walk many different paths, we still walk side by side in our shared hopes, dreams, and experiences, and where that path leads…well, it’s a victory no matter how far we have to walk. Thank you for making me believe I can become something great again, that I can do something to make the future well. For all future participants: I know not of what your experience may do for you, but just remember: Ichi-go, Ichi-e – One life, one meeting. Whatever you make of your experience is up to you, but don’t forget the lessons you’ll learn and the amazing people you’ll meet from this. I know that I won’t. So, until the next book…
Washington Latin Public Charter School