For my entire life, I have never been able to properly express why I love Asia so much or how much I needed to go there; it was just that, ever since I was a child, I knew deep inside that I had to go. My whole life has revolved around that moment; one could say that I even chose to attend Denison so that I could go abroad.
Junior year, I came to the conclusion that I had to go to Tokyo, Japan, for an entire academic year, much to the shock of my family and friends. I don’t blame them, honestly, for to send a loved one to the other side of the earth, who wouldn’t be apprehensive? However, I came to the conclusion that I would not be able to fully appreciate my study abroad experience in just three or four months, so I braced myself for eight full months in Tokyo, without a return trip to America during that time.
Even now, my heart races at the memories. How can I describe the incredible panic and wonder I felt in that first day? How can I express that the feeling continued every day for 8 months? Every train ride was a new adventure and I relished losing myself in the massive sprawl of cityscape. I get chills upon the recollection of the crowds of thousands in Shinjuku and Shibuya, the absolute spiritual calm I felt in the temples of Kamakura and on the beaches of Okinawa; the warmth I felt conversing with Japanese people in their own language, the feeling of ‘home’ I get whenever I see photos of the places I’ve been…My only explanation is that I have fallen in love with the country, body and soul, and every day I ache for it.
“I learned how to be fearless when entering a place full of strangers or when it came to having a conversation in Japanese; I learned that spontaneity is most often the way to priceless memories…”
I suppose I should say how the experience impacted my studies, but I found more subtle learning in the narrow streets; I learned things that could never be taught in a classroom. Yes, I can recite all the prefectures of Japan and explain how the government works and how I, as gaijin, fit into the system. More importantly, I learned of true loneliness, away from all that was familiar, and it was true that some days I wanted to scream with frustration at others and myself. There were days when I felt as though being a foreigner was a burden and I cursed my inability to blend into the crowd.
However, I learned how to be fearless when entering a place full of strangers or when it came to having a conversation in Japanese; I learned that spontaneity is most often the way to priceless memories, like when my friends and I would skip class to go to Osaka and Okinawa or a ski trip in Nagano. I now know the beauty of English, from the elation of hearing my native tongue in a foreign place. No class can properly convey the polite kindness of each Japanese person I met or the total safety I felt walking alone down dark alleys at 3 am.
Japan has changed me, to my very core. I can feel it in the way I hold myself, hear it in the way I talk and think, and recognize it in the way I treat others. I understand now what every international student at Denison goes through when they come to school here. There is immense fear, fear that you will never find friends or learn the language sufficiently, the pangs of frustration when you feel lost in an unfamiliar place, and the ache of missing those closest to you. However, there is nothing like the pride you feel in surviving and thriving in this environment. Moreover, those feelings are dwarfed by the absolutely beautiful moments of clarity and understanding, acceptance and wonder. Truth be told, I would do it again, a hundred times, because studying in Tokyo was nothing short of the greatest experience of my life.
Elise Bowling ’14 of Newark, Ohio, majored in East Asian Studies.