MANILA, MAY 5, 2008
(STAR) By Katerina Rara - I’m standing on a mountain road, face tilted upwards at the cherry blossom trees above me. I reach out and touch them, eyes lighting up as my fingers brush the soft pink petals. Today I’m blissfully aware that I am in Japan — that, though I’m far away from my friends, I am in a land I’ve always dreamed of visiting.

Late last year, I learned that I had been chosen as one of 10 students to be sent to Japan as an exchange student in a program supported by Japan’s Ministry of Education (MONBUSHO) and by the Youth For Understanding International Exchange. I had been elated (yet daunted) by thoughts of what I’d leave behind during my one month abroad: my family, my classmates, and my closest friend and confidante: my iPod. Such thoughts disappeared, though, when I arrived in Japan.

During my first three days in Japan, I stayed in the National Olympic Memorial Youth Center with my Filipino friends and with Indian and Korean exchange students. All of us were thankful for the YFU volunteers’ readiness to assist us; for the language lessons that we took; and, of course, for the free time that allowed us to bond with each other. I learned much in Tokyo, and not only about the Land of the Rising Sun!

On my fourth day, I separated from my newfound friends and boarded a plane for Okinawa, where I’d be living for the rest of my stay. At Naha, I was greeted by Hokama-san, the area representative, and by my host father Tatsuo-san. After a car ride that lasted for an hour and a half (and which was both amusing and agonizing, the latter since I realized that my host parents spoke no English), I entered my new home in Nago City.

Both Tatsuo-san and his wife Reiko-san were eager to teach me about the Okinawan way of life. On my first night as their “daughter,” Tatsuo-san played me the sanshin, Okinawa’s unique musical instrument, and Reiko-san taught me how to use chopsticks the correct way. In the weeks that followed, the three of us attended the Cherry Blossom Festival; watched the Eisa, Hatomabushi, and Yotsudake dances in Onna Village; and visited Shuri Castle, the Cornerstone of Peace, and Churaumi Aquarium.

What was just as enjoyable as touring Okinawa was meeting my host parents’ many relatives. Tatsuo-san and Reiko-san’s three children, who were in their thirties, had toddlers I could play with. I became close to Jenny-san, my host parents’ Filipina daughter-in-law, over karaoke. Tatsuo-san’s sister, who sang in a band, often danced “Cho-co-la-te (a-choco-choco)” to amuse the kids. His amazing 87-year-old mother once biked over to the office to tell me about her experiences, even touching upon the war.

I got down and dirty in my school, Hokubu Norin. Don’t get me wrong, though — Hokubu Norin specializes in agriculture. At one point, I harvested lettuce in the rain and sold bags of them around campus with my classmates. (I‘d like to believe that the teachers bought lettuce from me because I was such a charming saleslady.) The lettuce-harvesting was a highlight of my school life, though my academics — especially math and English — were interesting as well. You have no idea how much I looked forward to going to school!

My wonderful teachers were cheerful and hospitable. Erina-sensei and Masamichi-sensei, who taught English, lent me guidebooks on Okinawa and told me about the prefecture’s quirks. My social studies teacher confessed that his grandmother was Filipino, and that he loved adobo. One Japanese teacher wore glasses, pigtails, and pink scarves to school every day, reminding me of a character in the manga series Shinshi Doumei Cross. My Health teacher was — believe it! — a sumo wrestler.

I showed my perky 1-D classmates the Philippines on a map, told them about our native foods, and taught them Filipino phrases. (Many of them started using Magandang umaga to greet me every morning.) My best friend Reiran showed me around school, taught me to read and to write some kanji characters, and told me about her future goals. Ayaka-san and I spoke the language of love — in other words, we talked about the guys we liked. Kotono-san, who worked part-time at a fast-food joint near my house, transliterated kanji into hiragana for me, so that I could sing the school song with her.

On my last day of school, which coincidentally was Sports Day, my classmates had a party for me. We played Bingo, which was difficult since the numbers were rapidly shouted out in Japanese! (“Go-ju-hachi! San-ju-kyu! Ni-ju! Ju-ni!”) After the game, Reiran gave a short speech (in English!) for me and handed me a compilation of letters from my classmates. (I thanked the heavens that my classmates wrote in hiragana and katakana.) When they waved goodbye to me at the end, I willed myself not to cry. I still did though.

It was with much melancholy that, after a month, I boarded the flight returning to Narita from Naha. My host parents, used to goodbyes, didn’t shed a tear — they had three grown kids, after all — but I did. A YFU-Japan returnee who was with me at the airport told me, “Most people think that crying isn’t good, but I think that it is. It means that you enjoyed.” I had to agree as I hugged her and bade my new family goodbye.

The trip changed me. Living with other people taught me to become more thoughtful and careful with my words and actions, since there was a chance that I could be misunderstood. Staying away from my family and home taught me to become more independent. I learned to appreciate ordinary days, as well — something I previously thought impossible.

Now I miss taking off my shoes and calling, “Ittekimasu!” and “Tadaima!” at the doorway of my host parents’ home; using chopsticks, even with spaghetti; sitting with my legs and feet tucked under a kotatsu; and greeting everyone with a bow and a smile. I still expect to hear “Irasshaimase!” upon entering a store; to see Tatsuo-san’s pickup truck in front of my school; and to smell Reiko-san’s fabulous breakfasts. Sometimes I think that I see Jenny-san in malls, carrying her daughter Risa-chan, but I know it’s only my imagination.

I will always be grateful to YFU-Philippines, YFU-Japan, and MONBUSHO for making my dream a reality. My journey would not have been possible without their guidance and support. Thanks to them, I have forged friendships that will last a lifetime, have accumulated good memories that will lift my spirits, and have learned to respect and appreciate cultural differences. Thank you. Salamat. Domo arigatou gozaimasu.

To those who want to do as I have — take a chance. Don’t waver in your resolve. It will be a big step in your journey of self-discovery. I learned that teenagers all over the world speak the same language after all... What will you find out?

When a drop of rainwater falls upon my cheek, I let go with a smile. I can’t stop to admire the world here. Even the mountain roads ahead of me are strewn with cherry blossom petals — cherry blossoms, flowers of mourning, and of spring and new beginnings.

I brush back my hair, step back, and turn around. My new parents are waiting for me patiently, smiling. I take one step, and then another, until I am striding back towards them, the wind on my face and new hopes in my mind. I have come so far.

I still have a long way left to go.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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