Diversity Abroad – Blog

All Rivers Lead to the Ocean

Waterfalls from the Narrows in North Carolina. (June 2016)

Waterfalls from the Narrows in North Carolina. (June 2016)

Last weekend, I did something I hardly ever do: I went hiking with my relatives. We drove to the Narrows of the Green River, up in the mountains of North Carolina. Forested and winding, the path we took shrank and expanded as it followed the river upstream to a series of pounding waterfalls. The views were breathtaking and the water was cold, refreshing to our sweaty, overheated bodies. Occasionally, kayakers would come racing down the falls, neon helmets flashing under the bright afternoon sun. It was a beautiful place, with steep hills and paths with rope tied to trees to help you climb up and down the mountainside.

As a native Midwesterner who doesn’t hike, climbing up that roped path on the return route felt like one of the most physically exerting things that I have ever done. I was stiff and sore for three days afterward. But I have no regrets—instead, I’m looking forward to the next hiking challenge, even if I’m left panting and exhausted at the end of the day. The journey will have been worth the fatigue.

I imagine studying abroad in Japan will be a similar sort of experience. While I’ve visited Japan once before, it was a short, week-long tourist trip with friends. This time, I have two months left to prepare to go alone and live there—fully immersed—for a semester. It will be the longest I’ve ever been out of the United States, and the most time I’ve ever spent in a non-English-speaking country. Although I’m no stranger to studying languages, the prospect is still daunting.

My belongings for the summer. Fun fact: the bottom drawer is empty, and the middle drawer is only half-full.

My belongings for the summer. Fun fact: the bottom drawer is empty, and the middle drawer is only half-full.

The fact that I’m actually going, after months of applying to study abroad programs and scholarships, still doesn’t feel real—but I’m anticipating the challenge as much as I can. This summer, I’ve been practicing Japanese to maintain what I’ve already learned. I’ve challenged myself to live out of the contents of one suitcase and a backpack for most of the summer to learn what’s essential when I pack for Japan in August. My plane tickets to Nagoya have been purchased (buy those early—they get expensive fast!), and I’m working two jobs to save up for my time abroad. I’ve also pondered what gift I should give to my host family, but I have yet to make a final decision. (Luckily, I still have time.)

As for being in Japan and living there? I can try to imagine what it’s like, but I won’t know how to describe the experience properly without living it first. With that in mind, I’ve decided the best ways to prepare are to learn more about Japanese culture and current events, and to keep exposing myself to new opportunities to develop and learn from. This is the time for me to grow as a person, and I want to make the most of it, whether I’m bushwhacking in the mountains or living on an island archipelago roughly the size of California. In certain respects, hiking and studying abroad in Japan are similar. Both situations break me out of my comfort zones, and full immersion in either push me to new limits. Most importantly, though, both experiences prepare me for life in ways I never would have learned otherwise. I know now to bring plenty of water and to pace myself better when hiking. Likewise, I may not know what to expect when I arrive in Nagoya, but I will be ready to take my first steps off the plane into my next adventure, and to greet my future like a new friend:

Hajimemashite. Seki desu. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

Omamori (prayer charms) from the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. (June 2014)

Omamori (prayer charms) from the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. (June 2014)