I came across this quote by Henry Miller, and I think it captures the essence of my time abroad:
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”
It’s been a while — a little over three years now since I first set foot on your floors. I had just graduated high school, deferred my college admission and bid tearful goodbyes before embarking on the 11-hour flight to Tokyo in July 2019. I remember stumbling out of the airport and greedily drinking in the sights and sounds as they flooded my senses.
It was a whole new world, but I still had to find my way to you. Dragging my suitcases and asking for directions with my very limited Japanese abilities, I made my way to the correct Shinkansen train platform.
I spent the next four hours on the train imagining you and questioning my decision to meet you. What would my host family’s home look like? What about my school and the uniform I would have to wear? I nervously contemplated the 10 months ahead of me while rehearsing my introductory Japanese.
After what seemed like forever, I heard the train conductor announce your name as the next stop. I got up, gathered my two giant suitcases, and made my way to the exit. Stepping off the train, my anxiety melted away when I saw a group of people with signs cheering and welcoming me to my new home. Swept up in hellos and hajimemashites, I barely had time to register the surrounding environment as I met you for the first time on the drive to my host family’s home in Nishi-Ku.
I received the house tour in a mix of Japanese and Google-Translated English, learning household practices such as taking a bath before showering, chopstick etiquette and phrases to say when entering and leaving the house. Already, my brain was filled with your customs, and I was determined to embrace them all to make my experience as authentic as possible.
The next few weeks passed similarly, every day bombarding me with new information.
I picked up my school uniform and schedule — I took 12 courses in Japanese, including calligraphy, tea ceremony, physics, English and more. Your people were kind and welcoming: I joined the school tennis team and found a group of friends. Your food was amazing too — I enjoyed classic Japanese staples, explored new textures and tastes and had a neatly packed bento box for lunch everyday.
Soon though, the flurry of new information had passed and I settled into a routine. It was lonely; I struggled to communicate with my host family and friends due to the nuances of Japanese that I was struggling to pick up. At the same time, it was hard to phone my friends and family back home with time differences and clashing schedules. The holidays came around, and while it was incredible to learn about your traditions, I missed my family and the familiarity of wintertime at home.
The feeling of loneliness lingered for a long time, but I tried to focus on the experiences I was lucky to have — I attended a Hiroshima Carp baseball game, improved my Japanese enough to be a tour guide at your Peace Memorial Museum and Park, saw fireworks and ran a 5K at nearby Miyajima Island and found new favorite snacks and stationary at your convenience stores. Your slang and your streets became familiar, and without even realizing it, I had come to call you home.
But too soon, it was time to return to California. My time with you was abruptly cut short because of COVID-19, and I didn’t get to say goodbye to everyone I wanted to. I shed tears as I watched the streets I had come to know and love fade into the distance as my Shinkansen sped away. I settled back into life in my hometown, going through the motions and carrying on with life and college. Whenever anyone asked about my trip, I answered their questions without considering the real impact it had on my life.
But now, as I reflect on my time with you after so long, I realize that what made the experience so formative wasn’t just the places I went or the people I met. You taught me so much about myself and how to approach the world around me. Like Henry Miller foretold, you trained me to approach every new destination as a new way of seeing things. I’ve gained new perspectives and empathy for people who don’t live life exactly as I do.
So thank you Hiroshima. I’ll take your lessons with me into every chapter of my life — and while it might not be easy, you’ve given me the confidence, resilience and outlook to make the most of whatever comes my way.