Grace 2002 Christmas Letter

Dear Friends and Family,                                                                                               December 2002
                           I can't believe it's already Christmas! This year had gone by in a flash for me; I just finished the first semester of my fourth year at UAF (University of Alaska, Fairbanks) and probably have about another year and a half left before I graduate. I'm still majoring in Linguistics, although sometimes I question why. I don't really want to be a teacher or a translator (the two major jobs that people assume Linguistics majors get), but at least I'm studying something I enjoy.
                           I had a wonderful opportunity this summer; I went to Japan for a month on an exchange program. It was great! I was in Sapporo, Hokkaido (The northern most island), and the weather was about 70-85 degrees most of the time, except for one day, when we had a typhoon warning, it rained constantly all day. I loved it! It was a very interesting cultural experience as well. The Japanese people definitely have their stereotypes about Americans, some of which are true, but some that aren't. All of the students stayed with home stay families; I had 3 different families for the month I was there.
                           Each was very different, my first family was an older couple whose kids had grown and moved. They were more of an upper class couple and lived in a nice neighborhood (very hilly and steep; reminded me of San Francisco) in a suburb of Sapporo (Otaru). They were nice, but a little uneducated about Americans. All of our conversations included the use of the wife's electronic dictionary, since I realized that my 2 years of Japanese language learning meant almost nothing in the actual country!
                           Every morning, I walked about a mile to the nearest train station (Inazumi Koen station) and rode a hot, cramped and crowded train 5 stations east to Sapporo station - pretty much the middle of Sapporo. Then I would walk about a half mile northwest to Hokkaido University, where we attended classes. I can still remember the pre-recorded train announcements, and had them all memorized by the time my 2 weeks at that home stay was over! (Nomo naku: Sapporo desu! "Next stop: Sapporo Station!")
                           The only bad thing that happened during my 2 weeks with that family was that I got infected blisters on the soles of my feet, and finally after about 2 weeks, I had to go to the University Medical Clinic and get antibiotic cream (A kind of funny cultural difference: Japanese doctors don't like to tell you what's wrong with you, at least directly. When I asked if the blisters were infected, the doctor said, "Oh no no… But I think you need antibiotics!"). Within a couple of days, my feet were healed and I was mad that I hadn't gone sooner. I could have done so much more while I was there.
                           My second host family was wonderful. They were always having foreign exchange students stay with them, so they were very educated about Americans and gave me a little more freedom. They seemed very "Americanized" to me, it was very comfortable staying there. They also knew some English, which was helpful in conversation. I also realized what a small world we live in because their daughter, who is my age, has a friend from Fairbanks. I realized from looking at pictures that it was a girl from my Japanese Language 101-102 class!
Mall in Sapporo
                           They lived almost in the middle of Sapporo, so for the week I stayed with them, I had more access to places. They gave me a map of the city and let me "run wild." I took the subway to Sapporo Station when I stayed with them; it was my first time on a Subway. It was so much better than taking the train... And the subway stations are spotless! I still remember the whipping sound of the cables right before the subway would arrive, and the nice blast of cool air as it sped past me. Living in this arctic desert all my life, I wasn't used to the humidity; I thought I would die!
                           I spent my last week with a third home stay family, a widowed lady who lived in a small apartment in the very southeastern part of Sapporo. The view outside her window was the Sapporo dome (A huge sports area that looks like a giant aerodynamically shaped space ship!). She was very interested in Alaska, as she had been mountain climbing in Tibet.
                           Sapporo was wonderful; it is a very big city with tons of layered malls: over ground, underground and ground level! After a couple of weeks there, I realized that Sapporo (And the island of Hokkaido) is basically the Alaska of Japan; it's the most recent area of Japan to be "Japanized" (having a history of about 100 years), and like Alaska, Hokkaido has a native population called the Ainu. I believe their population has dwindled to around 10,000 and they have mostly assimilated themselves into the Japanese culture. But they do use their history as tourist attractions; all over Sapporo, you can find "Ainu" key chains and other "touristy" items in just about every shop.
Green Tea Dog                            Speaking of shops, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven with all the malls and stores! Although I couldn't buy any clothes (haha), I bought an assortment of little trinkets and keepsakes. One of my favorites is the Ocha Inu (Green Tea dog) toy that barks if you wave your hand next to it. He's the mascot of a certain brand of cold green tea that I drank everyday (yum!). There was also Kocha Inu Black Tea Dog), Ko-hi Inu (Coffee Dog) and a Rose Tea Dog! They were so cute!
                           Another interesting aspect of shopping in Japan is the customary greeting from the employees. Whenever you walk into a store, someone, somewhere (usually a girl, with a purposely high-pitched voice) will say: "I-ra-shai-ma-seh!" In the big department stores like Yodobashi Camera or Bic Camera, there would be 5 or 6 employees chanting this all at the same time!! Sometimes it would get so annoying, because it would be stuck in my head later on! "I-ra-shai-ma-seh!" "I-ra-shai-ma-seh!" Sometimes they would get carried away: "I-ra-shai-ma-seeeeeH!" AAAhhhh!!
                           Hehe... Anyways, for the first couple weeks, I often went out on my own, trying not to spend so much time with the other exchange students. I wanted to see how much I could do on my own with just a map and my (blistered) feet. It was very fun and at times, very humbling.
                           Always pay attention to what you're doing! The most embarrassing thing that happened was when I took a bus to go to a Shinto Shrine that I'd wanted to see. I went to pay my money in the machine at the front of the bus, took my change and got off the bus. The bus driver called me back and started rattling off Japanese too fast for me to even begin to understand, pointing at the pay box. I got embarrassed and kept apologizing, not understanding what he was saying. Finally I realized that I hadn't paid for my fare, I had only gotten change for my 500 yen coin! After I realized this, I paid my fare while people on the bus started snickering at me. I got away as soon as I could, thankful that I'd never see any of them again! I think I had hurried because I was starting to become annoyed with being stared at by Japanese people.
Hokkaido Shrine
Hokkaido Shrine
                           That was one thing that almost became too annoying to bear. Japanese love to stare at foreigners. Having blond hair/blue eyes and overweight made me one of the best candidates for being stared at. Another one of the exchange students from UAF had the same problem - he's 6 feet tall, husky and has fiery red hair. He said his host family jokingly gave him the nickname Akuma, "devil."
                           The university took us exchange students on many field trips; we went to botanical gardens and museums and lookout points. We also had an overnight trip to a volcano site. The weather was kind of muggy that day, but I got some pictures of steam rising from the reddish-orange ground of lava rocks.
                           Since Hokkaido isn't a very old island, there weren't many temples or shrines to see like there is on the main island of Japan. I did get to go to a Shinto shrine where some kind of event was taking place and I video taped a little bit of a Shinto priestess doing some kind of ceremonial dance with a sword... It was very beautiful.
Grace and Yusuke
Me with Yusuke
                           I think one of the coolest things I got to do while in Japan was interact with children. The host families took many of the exchange students to a language club, me included. There, they would listen to tapes of children stories and such, sing songs, and play games in different languages. It reminded me of Sunday school. Anyway, I met an exchange student's host family's 3-year-old son Yusuke (pronounced "Yuskay"). He was such a cutie; it was so fun to have an actual conversation with him in Japanese, although the Japanese was very simple. I have him on videotape at our going away party, eating a rice ball and talking to me. I asked him what he was eating and he would respond "gohan!" (Rice), then I'd ask if it was good and he would say "oishi-ku-nai!" (It's not good!), then I'd ask why he was eating it, and he would respond with his favorite phrase "Wakanai!" (I don't know).
                           By the time the month was over, many of the exchange students had become good friends. I made friends with 3 or 4 of the Massachusetts students and was sad when we all parted to our own flights at the airport. We were all glad to be going home though.
                           My Japanese teacher had told us about the "W" shaped emotional roller coaster when traveling to Japan and it definitely affected me. He says when you book the tickets and start packing, you're at an emotional high and stay there until a few days or weeks into your trip. Then culture shock hits and homesickness sets in for a while. After a couple more weeks, you begin to adjust and make friends and come back to a high, and then towards the end of your trip, you fall to a low because you're going to leave new friends, but then you're also excited to come home and skyrocket back to a high.
                           He also said that after people come home, many get depressed because of how things have changed or how they can't really tell people about their trip because their friends can't relate or imagine it the way they remember it. Like now! I could write on and on about that one month, and you guys are probably thinking I'm crazy! Hehe.
                           Well anyway, it really was one of my dreams come true: to start a collection of stamps in my passport. I think I'll try Europe next... Maybe after college...
                           Well, I hope everyone's year has been a good one, and best wishes for next!
                                                                                   Merry Christmas!

Toyo VolcanoFurano Lavendar fields
Toyo Volcano                                                                              Furano Lavendar fields

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