Rebekah’s Homestay

Finally I get to talk about my amazing homestay in Japan, with my host sister A.T. and her family. Before I even got to the house they were being hospitable. Hospitality is a huge part of Japanese culture and I had heard so much about it, so I was extremely excited.

We met up with our hosts on Keio University’s campus and then they took us home. The subway ride to her house was quite interesting. Besides the subway system and there being turnstiles inside the train station when you wanted to change lines, my host sister carried my bag! This was entirely new to me. I know that it is the hospitable and nice thing to do but in America I was so used to carrying my own weight. It wasn’t as funny as seeing little H.O. though lugging around Atiya’s bag however. When we arrived at our station we made a quick stop at their house, then off to a traditional style restaurant. Not until now a couple months after the trip have I realized how Japanese people park. Every time we parked anywhere they would park backwards so with the front facing out and back of the car facing in.

Like I expected, we left our shoes downstairs before we enter the “house,” then stepped up into the house and wore slippers. The house was surprisingly very modern and western. I was hoping to have seen a more traditional house, but they did have one traditional room where her mom mainly slept rather than her designated room upstairs where I stayed. Several other students had found the same thing; their families had one traditional room as well. From this observation I inferred that the younger generations preferred the modern and western feeling homes, while the older generations felt more comfortable in traditional settings. My host family was so kind, I felt a little bad for taking her mom’s room, which had a beautiful view of Mount Fuji. Waking up to such a beautiful view was breathtaking.

Then came the dining experience. For my first homestay meal it was incredible. It was both delicious and I got to see more hospitality in the work force. I got to try Fugu! The deadly puffer fish. I was a little nervous at first but excited to branch out and try new foods. Fugu turned out to be very delicious and I had other types of fish. Our server was very cute; she served us tea, came in and checked on us periodically, when we had our hot pot she would come in and scoop up the grease. It was an overall great first experience and we had a nice conversation about our families. Some things I had expected and did see were the small cars, slipper situation, constantly feeding me, and showering first, bathing afterwards. The breakfast was better than any I had in America – little sausages, eggs, a little salad, yogurt, etc. The breakfasts and quite frankly every meal were amazing. The meals were some of the things I looked forward to the most. They were always checking in on me, and her mom always offered me tea and more food to keep me fed.

While I stayed with them they took me to a ramen museum and a cup noodle museum. Ramen was my ultimate goal and I ate more Ramen than possible. I enjoyed spending time with my host sister and mother at these really cool cultural places. I learned quite a bit about ramen and cup noodles on this trip. Even though I stayed in a home stay, I only saw my host father twice, mainly because he is a pilot and doesn’t come home often. However I enjoyed my time with the whole family. I think the main reason I enjoyed this stay the most was how similar our families were. My mom doesn’t really work but is a choir director; A.T.’s mom is an interior coordinator and stays home often. My dad was a pilot and is in the air force and was gone often like A.T.’s father. My brother is in college and her sister is in college in the USA. In fact her sister goes to the college my aunt teaches at. Our families have so much in common and I felt at home in Japan.

Rebekah Armstrong
School Without Walls

November 18 – Meeting Yuuri

The first place we went to in the Tohoku region after Sendai was Minami San-Riku. As we neared and entered Minami San-Riku we saw miles of barren land with just a few buildings that the tsunami spared and didn’t fully wash away. The floodgate was mangled and broken, and the disaster prevention center was just a skeleton of the building that used to stand there, and bring peace and hope to its citizens. It stood there red and with mangled pipes and stairs barely holding on — like the few survivors who clung for their lives to the stairs and antenna at the top.

We had just pulled up in front of the junior/high school building and looked out into the town. There was a small area with several little stores, but aside from that everything was gone, just the single road going down the middle and the few buildings that survived to decorate the barren plain.

After our small little tour of Minami San-Riku we had the pleasure of meeting with a high school student and alumni of the TOMODACHI program named Yuuri. She was in her junior year so about our ages. She told us a captivating story of her experience with the tsunami and what she is doing now to tell those stories and help out. She was at school when it happened, which was located at the top of a very high hill safe from the tsunami’s reach. She and her classmates watched as the town was engulfed by the waves. Her grandfather was killed while in one of the hospitals when the tsunami came and swept it away. She would never get to say goodbye. The courage and strength she had was truly amazing and inspiring. She had acted as strong and unafraid as possible during that horrendous time as she tried to comfort her friend who was in so much fear. However you cannot be strong all the time, and so she herself became fearful of the tsunami as she watched it take away everything, and the friend she had just comforted came to her rescue.

A few weeks later she said that they posted pictures of missing/dead people to be identified.  One happened to be a teacher she was very close with. She like many people hoped it was someone else not someone they knew and cared about. This teacher meant a lot to her. She listened to Yuuri and cared about her; however Yuuri realized she herself didn’t say how much she appreciated her. That was one message she gave to us. Tell someone you love them or appreciate them before it’s too late because you never know when they will be gone forever.  She and other students at her school tell their stories to outsiders and those within the town. Yuuri and only one other girl tell their stories in English though.

Another theme we saw like others we met was the emphasis of remembering and wanting us not to forget them. Many of us, even I, shed a tear for her story. The courage she had to tell the story again and to have lived it was amazing. She was a true inspiration. After she met with us and we asked several questions, we all went back to our lodge. We got to eat dinner with Yuuri and learned more about her. We ate a cute little dinner with fried oysters and other items. For dessert we made melted bananas with chocolate over a giant bonfire. We ran around and played soccer, a sport she just so happened to play. I felt like a kid again or at least as if I was back in America with my friends and bonding. While at the bonfire we discussed the day and Yuuri’s story.  We each reflected about what we saw and how Yuuri’s story made everything we had been hearing about Tohoku feel real. She had hopes and dreams like most young kids, and hers was to bring people from all over the world together to tell their stories, and connect. I know I wouldn’t forget her and hope to help spread her idea.

Rebekah Armstrong
School Without Walls

Keio and Karuta

We spent several days at Keio-Fujisawa high school. We attended classes with our homestays and their peers, saw club activities, attended the festival, and experienced traditional Japanese culture. The kids were very shy at times; they were afraid to practice their English. Even though they went to one of the top schools in Japan, they acted like regular kids. They ran in the hallways, laughed and joked around with friends, which I saw in the hallways and after school.

Something I noticed and found very cool was that classes go out for dinner or activities. Since they don’t switch classrooms except for gym, English, or some specialized class, they know everyone in their class. Having to spend every day and class with the same 20 or so people would be so fun, but after a while I would want new people. In America we eat out and hang out with our own friends, but I would love to eat out with a whole class who were my friends. Aside from having to sit in classrooms through long lectures and trying not to fall asleep myself, it was a great experience. The students were very nice and hospitable to our needs and some asked us questions. Some of us were even asked “do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend” a few times. I could see the different divides in friend groups at times when they were out in the halls, even in the classroom, but most people were very friendly with their club mates.

We had the honor of learning from one of the clubs a game called Karuta, a Japanese card game that has been around for centuries. It is a very intense game between two players and the Karuta club demonstrated it well. So the game is performed by two people facing each other with about 50 cards in front of them; there are two rows of cards adding up to twenty five facing each person. Each card has a certain verse from a poem and the goal is for you to find that verse and swipe it. You want to have no cards remaining on your side. To find the verses someone reads out a verse and then things get interesting, as they dive their hands out at one particular card hoping they get it first. If you get to the card first and it’s correct, you give one of your cards to the other person, making your number of cards go down and theirs go up. However we didn’t participate in that game because all the cards were in Japanese and none of us were fluent in Japanese. Instead we played another card game.

There were four characters – the emperor, empress, lord, and monk. Each person takes a turn and draws from a large pile with scattered cards all face down. When you draw a lord, you stop drawing and it’s the next person’s turn. If you draw an empress, you get to draw again. If you get the monk, then you put all your cards in the center of the pile face up. If you draw an emperor, you take all the cards in the center. To win you have to have the most cards. We played it with the Karuta club and it was such a funny game. It felt like back at home when you get together with your friends and play cards. There was lots of laughter and competition amongst the Americans and Karuta club. It never felt like we were any different, even the language barrier didn’t get in the way of a good game.

Rebekah Armstrong
School Without Walls

November 5 – Reunion

Today was a big day. It was the reception with the Akira Foundation, host families, and other Japanese sponsors. I was super excited to see A.T. and the others, but mostly excited to finally meet her mother. It had been such a long time since I had seen them. When we walked up to the building with Sosha and Shinobu, I saw little figures through the glass. I looked closer and there waiting were our Japanese students. We all, Americans and Japanese, started running towards each other, giving hugs and greeting one another. We were all ecstatic. It was a great way to start the day.

Together we all went upstairs to the conference room and waited for the reception to begin. They had two men behind a table filled with drinks serving us. This was one of my first experiences with real Japanese hospitality. When we ordered drinks they would bow and thank us constantly, and I noticed this when we went to stores too. To my surprise a few minutes later, a group of women entered. It turned out to be the students’ moms. I studied the women hard as I searched for A.T.`s mom. The women were all dolled up for this reception. I saw one woman and could tell just a little that it was A.T.`s mom when she walked over. I had this image that her mom would speak perfect English because I knew they had lived in California for a few years. To my surprise it wasn`t amazing, but she was trying and I could understand her pretty well. We even had a long conversation about each other’s life and family. This meeting with the parents really showed me that not all Japanese were like our Keio students who could speak close to perfect English.

Finally the reception started and the Japanese and us Americans had to introduce ourselves. I think everyone was impressed because all the American students managed to say good morning and our names in Japanese. As I watched and even presented I noticed a few differences between our cultures. The Japanese students’ presentation about their summer in America was very polished and professional. Compared to the Americans who had two speakers come up with brief summaries of what they had done so far in Japan and America. It was much more spontaneous than the Japanese side. However it was a nice reception with great food. The curry and fried chicken was amazing.

Finally it was time for the Japanese and American students to finally catch up and visit Asakusa. We saw the beautiful traditional architecture on this long street. At the end was a large temple adorned with red and gold. We got to get our fortunes and luckily mine was pretty good, no bad luck this time. A.T. took me to her favorite snack shop and had me try dango, soy bean curd. It was quite gooey and nutty tasting. I’ll be honest at first I didn’t really like it, but as I kept eating it, it grew on me. In America a lot of our sweets and snacks are sweet; however in Japan a considerable amount of snacks and foods are savory. Another stop for us was a taiyaki shop. Taiyaki is a type of fish and this snack is basically a waffle in the shape of the fish with a filling. The flavors were chocolate (yummy!), red bean, apple cream, and one other flavor. I noticed the use of red beans and red potato flavored items, sort of weird but I guess it’s something they like. Most of the places we visited in Asakusa were food stores; we got taiyaki, dango, and visited a lot of rice cracker shops. Two pairings went to Seven Eleven and got Slurpees; to their surprise the sizes were way smaller than the normal American sizes.

I enjoyed the day catching up with A.T. and eating all the food I could. Sadly it was time to say farewell but we would be seeing them in three days. On Friday we were going to our homestays! We went back to Nui hostel and unwound getting ready for another adventurous night.

Rebekah Armstrong
School Without Walls

Travel Day – Solo Flight

It was a very eventful day. This morning we all were waiting for our flight to LAX and then to Japan. Everyone was excited to be going to Japan and even Ms. Fisher from the US Japan Council came. We all were laughing and Ms. Fisher made a joke about all of us having our passports. To my surprise when we were checking our bags, I pulled out my mom’s passport. My mom had packed me her passport, instead of mine!  She immediately got in the car to go get it.

I was very nervous and anxious because the adults were telling me all these different options I had. I could try and make the flight, go with Sally on the 7th and miss most of the program, or even fly with Ms. Fisher. I had so many thoughts going through my head and I was trying not to think about it. However, I did miss my flight. Then another option came up, to fly by myself this morning and go to Dallas instead. So I obviously chose this last option and there was a lot of anxiety and pressure to run and catch another flight to Dallas. I finally got on the flight to Dallas (we had to drive from Dulles to National Airport) and said goodbye to my mom as a flight attendant took me to the plane, since I was an unaccompanied minor. I could finally relax.

When I landed in Dallas I was informed that there was a shooting at LAX. I was very worried for my other group members. I thought I was able to finally relax but the idea of my group members being in danger was on my mind for the rest of the day, and I was landing before them so I didn`t know when I would see them. I got on my flight to Japan and my 13-hour flight began. I managed to sleep, watch movies, do most of my schoolwork and the flight attendants took good care of me. The flight attendants were so nice and when I was on the way to Japan, they moved me to 1st class.

Once I had landed in Japan It became a very confusing situation because I arrived before the others and the Japanese women helping me were confused too. I waited for about 30 minutes to 1 hour. Then I finally saw the group. We were all happy to finally be in Japan together and we met with our group guide, Sosha. Before going to our hostel in Asakusa, we ate dinner. I was surprised that the food was very tasty and reminded me of home. I had pork loin. It was very hard taking our luggage on the train, then to our hostel, but we finally made it.

When we first got to the hostel we had to take our shoes off which I knew was a norm, but I was surprised to experience it so soon. I ended up rooming with Jatalia and we slept on futons, which were soooo comfy. Several of us girls called our parents and friends to let them know we had made it — then went to sleep. Overall it was a very busy, hectic day but we all managed to have fun. We are FINALLY here!

Rebekah Armstrong
School Without Walls

Rebekah’s Summer Reflection

Through the TOMODACHI Program I have learned a lot about my own culture, Japanese culture, and built long lasting friendships. I wasn’t sure at first how the exchange would go, I knew I would make friends and learn new things but I wasn’t sure how smoothly things would go. I had previously had an exchange student and while it was fun having her she wasn’t the friendliest and wasn’t too respectful of our home. I expected the Japanese to be reserved and quiet for some time, but they ended up proving me wrong. Instantly we clicked, there were many different conversations going between the Americans and Japanese and plenty of pictures being taken. By the third day I felt like I had known these students forever and I knew I had made strong bonds with all of them.

The bus ride around DC was the first time I was able to look at my own culture through another’s lenses. I never thought about how much we love or use our flag until the Japanese brought it to light. Yes, I knew the flag was important to us but when comparing our national anthems and traditions I realized it is what brings us together as Americans and keeps us unified. The Japanese don’t have to express their love for their flag as much because they are a homogeneous country and know who they are as a unified nation. I found it amazing how good their English was as well. When talking to my homestay I would sometimes mistake her for an American teenager and would forget to speak slowly. There were some things I knew already about my country and could explain to the student quite easily and it was exciting going into depth on certain topics that they and I found interesting. However, I found out there were several things I couldn’t explain.

When we took a few to the Marine Barracks they asked a lot of questions about the military and the drills they were doing. I never even realized how much I didn’t know about my dad’s job and life I’ve been living. Being military I thought I knew everything. That was not the case though, I wasn’t prepared for their questions and I felt a little embarrassed that I have been living this life but never asked any questions. I didn’t know too much about my dad’s job or the ceremony going on. I know it opened my eyes to asking more questions to broaden my knowledge. That situation reminded me that most kids who live in dc don’t go to the museums or use the resources they have all around them.

Through the program I have also seen my growth as a person. My networking skills have improved, since we had so many opportunities to meet with important people. I had never heard or been to some of the places we visited. I got to see different organizations that broadened my view of social entrepreneurship and began to find organizations that interest me. Even though we are two different groups we were able to take a lot of similar ideas from certain speakers. We all got “don’t be neutral” from Mike Honda and how good diversity is. Over all through this program I have been able to meet so many new and important figures that opened my eyes to the opportunities around me. I have made long lasting friends helping me to become cross-cultural, and I have been able to help them understand America.

This summer has helped me look at American and Japanese cultures differently and taught me that even though we are far away we are also the same.

Rebekah Armstrong
School Without Walls
Washington, DC

DC Day 9: July 30, 2013

Today felt very calm and relaxed to me unlike the past week where we were always on the move. I have started to ride the metro now with my Japanese buddy who I will be home staying with and another girl who gets off at my stop. We met this time in the Foggy Bottom metro station and headed over to Sustainable DC. We learned a great deal about how the Washington DC area is doing with moving toward being the most sustainable city in the US. Seeing the ways we can help make things last and how we can make a difference makes me see how I live in a new light. I also got to see how I have been contributing by walking and riding the metro regularly, as well as getting a water filter so I don’t need to buy plastic water bottles which litter our streets and rivers. Then we had lunch and during lunch we were able to talk more with the Japanese. For me it was mostly about what are the best snacks and telling them some American staple foods they have to try, like Chipotle and any good burger place like Five Guys. We even brushed on drugs and alcohol and how people care a lot about the situation in Japan and even America. However, I find from experiences my friends have that the police in DC don’t necessarily arrest you if they see underage drinking or my friends never get caught smoking, but in Virginia they crack down on it very hard. I think maybe because in DC there are much bigger issues like shootings going on and they just can’t focus too much on what the youth are doing.

After lunch we headed to U Street and visited Martha’s Table, an organization to help poor children and people who need food, education, clothes, and a safe environment. While there we did a service project where we prepared food to be sent out in their trucks to feed those who need it. I was on pineapples and then moved to onions, which was a big mistake. Through that experience I found out I am pretty bad at cutting produce and that onions are horribly mean to my eyes. We even got a tour of the facility and took a picture on the playground. We all wanted to play and see the young kids in day care but it was nap time. Afterwards, before we went to Busboys & Poets, we got to go into Martha’s Outfitters and go thrift shopping for a little. While there I also noticed and heard from two Japanese girls that they don’t do too much thrift shopping or DIY’s (do it yourself). However Japanese girls go get their skirts tailored to be really short, but in America especially in schools it is sort of looked down on or you get in trouble for wearing short clothes (it is the fashion now though).

At Busboys & Poets I was surprised, I thought we were going to just learn about what they do at Busboys and learn about why he created the place. I was shocked though at how we began talking very passionately and I mean VERY passionately about how our freedoms are depleting, about how we could become a fascist country, and about our voting rights. During the discussion we also learned that in Japan the young people don’t really even vote and that is almost the same here. Personally I wasn’t a fan of Mr. Shallal, but I did however like what he got me to take away. I liked that Busboys & Poets was a place as he said where all cultures and people are welcomed and art, politics, and music collide. He made me realize how much freedom we have begun to lose and if we do walk out of classrooms in protest it results in harsh punishment. So it makes me think if we are so far down this road of lost freedoms how do we take our freedom back and how do we stand up and fight for it. That is a question I think for everyone including me and Mr. Shallal because if we want to stand up and do anything we are punished and discouraged, but how do we keep on pushing?

–       R.A (:

Rebekah Armstrong
School Without Walls
Washington, DC

DC Day 2: July 23, 2013

Today, Tuesday, we again started our day at American Councils, beginning our day of excitement and learning. Our first stop today was United Way in Alexandria, Virginia. While there we learned a great deal about the history of United Way and why it was created; the way I interpreted their mission was to do your part and volunteer or help those in need so that we can stay united as a people and country. We also learned about other organizations and disasters where organizations were created to sponsor volunteering or to help certain situations gain the attention and help needed. Aside from the learning we also had to brainstorm situations where volunteers might have been needed and the Japanese did the same as well. When I observed the three different time periods I saw they were mainly pink post-its (Americans) and not as many blue types of post-its (Japanese). Throughout the day I learned that volunteering is becoming more prevalent in Japan but all I thought was ‘oh everyone must volunteer because it’s a requirement but also benefits the volunteer’. That wasn’t the case.

We also had a heated/ competitive mini Jeopardy game from what we learned and the Japanese were mixed in there. The teams were Pink Water, which was my fabulous team, Team Cookie Time, and Team Boys (very creative). Sadly Team Pink Water was in last and Team Boys ended up winning. Our last encounter at United Way was to make reading kits for the children’s books we brought in. That was incredibly fun to see the creative side from the Japanese, but also to help make reading fun for kids too.

After all the sitting in a room almost all morning, we went outside and walked to the Torpedo Factory. It was fun to have that time to really talk to the Japanese about themselves and become friends. I learned that they had this cool sports tournament they do with everyone at the end of the year. I almost got one Japanese student to sing for me but he still wouldn’t sing even after all the praise and encouragement me and another Japanese student gave him. When we got to the factory the Japanese students were amazed at how the factory was full of art. The question going through my head was ‘do they not value art or see art that often in Japan?’ I spent our time with a Japanese student walking around and marveling at the cool art. We even got to meet an artist who sells her art in Japan as well!

After our fun at the Torpedo Factory and at United Way it was time to head to the old Japanese ambassador’s home for a little reception. I was so excited to see other TOMODACHIS like our group and because we got to ride in a taxi to get there. It was so crowded when we arrived and we had to sit so closely my feet went numb. The best part I thought about the whole reception was looking around and seeing so many Japanese students knocked out. It was funny seeing the different positions they could fall asleep in. I thought the day had been great. I learned more about volunteering, a topic I am truly passionate about, I spent more time learning about Japanese culture and the cool things they do, and I met more TOMODACHIS just like me! By this second day I felt like the Americans and Japanese had known each other for more than just two days, more like a lifetime.

R.A  (:

Rebekah Armstrong
School Without Walls
Washington, DC