Rosalyn Lucas Essay

Kurashiki Student Ambassador, 2011

I would like to thank the Heart of America Japan America Society, the Kurashiki City delegation and my host families for this once in a lifetime opportunity.

After nearly thirteen hours of plane rides (and one confiscated buffalo sausage) Lauren, Danni, Anna and I finally arrived in Kurashiki City, exhausted, but giddy and excited. We hauled our luggage to the hotel, then set out for our first meal in Japan, at a small “shabu shabu” restaurant a couple blocks down. This was my first experience with “shabu shabu,” where you boil your food right at the table. It was a lot of fun, especially then when we were hungry, excited and probably too jet-lagged to make much sense of our conversations. All the same, I remember feeling completely content and safe, even with five strangers, in a country I’d never been to before, with an ocean separating me from home.

The following morning we met our host families. Mine, the Itou family, I liked immediately. All three family members, my host mother Eriko, host father Osamu and their one year old son, Tsubasa came to the hotel to greet me.

On the second day of my home stay, the four of us took a trip to a Shinto shrine. I had left my iPod at home, thinking the trip wouldn’t be long. It turned into quite a road trip. But between the beautiful scenery, zipping past the window and Eriko and Osamu’s comfortable chatter, I was occupied the entire time. While I couldn’t understand much of the conversation, it reminded me of my own parent’s familiar banter, something they routinely do on all of our trips together. It was extremely comforting.

After traveling for a while we stopped at a rest stop There I had bought a fake bread roll. It was plastic, but deceivingly so. It looked and felt perfectly like bread. I would have eaten it myself, it if wasn’t for the smiley face printed on the front and the heavy smell of plastic.

Anyway, my host brother loves bread, the way an American child would love candy or cookies. This did not occur to me at the time as I tried to wrestle the deceiving plastic bread roll from its wrapper while sitting in the back of the car. As I was trying to open it, I paused and glanced at the seat beside me. That’s when I became aware of the two bright black eyes watching me from around the car seat. I glanced over, met Tsubasa’s gaze, and slowly and carefully tried to slip the bread roll (wrapper and all) back into the giant shopping bag. It was a disaster just barely averted. In my mind I didn’t know how I was going to explain to my family that I had unintentionally been taunting their child with a fake bread roll. These situations had not been discussed in my Japanese textbooks.

After eating at a small udon shop we went to the shrine. At the bottom of a set of stairs stood wooden plank with the number 628 carved on its face. This, Eriko informed me, was the number of steps from there to the top.

From then on I remember a blurring eternity of stone steps. But I will always remember Eriko explaining the lion statues guarding the entrance, how the one with its mouth open is “Ah” and how the one with the closed mouth is “Mm”. That day I also learned how to purify before entering the shrine; washing the left hand, then the right and then the mouth. I also remember how Eriko and Osamu took turns running ahead and bending over, looking between their legs and waving at Tsubasa. It was magical the way his face would immediately light up, a rare delighted smile would cross his face and he’d be off waddling at top speed to gleefully latch himself onto their legs. It was very sweet to watch.

We finally arrived at the top, to the main shrine. It was here that you could look out over the city in the valley below. It was beautiful and I was elated. Not only at having the chance to observe the worship and the gorgeous architecture, but at also having survived the six hundred something steps.

My time interacting with Tsubasa is one of my fondest memories. Being an only child, I’ve never had the experience of being an older sibling. Everyday he made sure to come into my room to inspect everything (my purse, my stack of manga, bottle of sunscreen, etc.) on the low table. I had been hiding a plum I had gotten from the Bizen Pottery trip, biding time until it had ripened. Without thinking I had left it on the table. Naturally he was able to zero in on it fairly quickly and by the time I had wrestled it gently from his little fist, there were two tiny teeth marks on the surface. It was a tad shocking since I hadn’t seen it near his mouth. I remember raising my head to look at him and meeting his level, evaluating stare. I had to laugh. No matter how stoic he seemed there was always an underlying spark of mischievousness. This little spark of defiance was very endearing.

Another night after dinner I introduced Tsubasa to my CD player. He loved it. He’d pick up one of the headphones, grin, then hold it to my ear for me to listen. Whether he liked my music choice or was just enthralled with the buttons, he and I sat there for quite a time, while I tried to show him the stop, play and skip buttons. I felt old, like my parents when they tried to teach me how to work the record player.

Going to the Buddhist temple and Bizen pottery district was one of my favorite trips. The temple was gorgeous. It was raining when we walked the path onto the grounds. Once inside we sat in a traditional tatami room with one wall open to the gardens and a pond. The rain seemed to emphasize the spirituality, the sacredness of the temple. It was relaxing, gave the garden a vivid green color and made the air sharp and cool. For lack of a better word, it was enchanting. Kneeling on cushions, drinking tea in a traditional Japanese room, looking out into the rain-soaked gardens-it was absolutely magical. It would have been absolutely perfect if I hadn’t been mentally berating myself for forgetting my camera.

After the temple we went to a sushi restaurant. The four of us were split up and sat with members of the Kurashiki Welcome Delegation. Everyone was so kind and sweet. I loved having the chance to talk with everyone at my table. The food was delicious too.

From the restaurant we walked to the Bizen pottery shop, where we had the chance to make a traditional tea cup. The owner and his wife were also very nice. They gave us each a little decorative pottery piece to put in the bottom of the tea cups. When I thanked them, the owner smiled.

“It’s small, but it’s from the heart.” He told me.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I cried at the welcoming party. At the end they formed a circle (“a circle of love” as Mr. Benson put it) and had the four of us go around and shake hands or give high-fives to everyone who had come. When I came to Eriko and the others, I just started crying.

My second host family was the Yorozus. Misaki Yorozu had been hosted by my Aunt Janette the summer before I came. We had become friends and had kept contact over Facebook. I was ecstatic when I was told I would be able to stay with her! Her family consisted of her mom, Kazuko, her father, Kazutoyo, and her older brother, Kentaro.

I visited two high schools during my stay. The first was the day we met the mayor, and the second, was when I went with Misaki to her high school. I got to shadow her through many of her classes. In her first class, world history, I had to stand and introduce myself. Then other students would ask me questions in English. One boy asked what I thought of his hair.

Kazuko packed us each a bento lunch. My first bento box, I thought cheerfully as I walked up to school. It was amazing. It turned out to be the most adorable lunch I’ve ever eaten. Kazuko had made a little bear head out of rice, with seaweed eyes and mouth, and even a drop of melted cheese for the snout. There were even Rilakkuma sausages and a Pikachu seafood piece. It was adorable.

At lunch I sat with Misaki and a group of her friends. They started to look up kanji for my name. The first ‘ro’ was easy. However, ‘za’ (how my name pronunciation goes in Japanese) was much harder. After a while of playful bickering they settled for ‘sa’ with the character for tea. But kanji can be read two ways. Hilariously enough could be read as “ro-cha-rin”. They laughed, but assured me it was cute. One of the girls, who was involved in calligraphy, wrote it for me on my notebook cover.

After classes, during the cleaning time, I had another chance to talk with them in the hallway. They named off pop culture references to see if I recognized them. One of my favorite moments was when one girl asked me something in Japanese I didn’t quite understand. She told me to wait, and then hurried back into the classroom for a piece of paper and a pencil. She drew a female stick figure with long hair.

“Japanese girl” she labeled it aloud. Then she drew another stick figure beside it. “American boy.” She told me. She then proceeded to draw five more stick figures around the first, each time marking them “American boy, American boy, American boy.” From each “American boy” she drew an arrow pointing to the “Japanese girl” with little hearts hovering above. Then she looked me squarely in the eye and asked me very seriously in English. “Does this happen?”

At first I was speechless. Unsure how to answer, I nodded and resorted to my favorite Japanese word: “Sometimes?”

The following day was the trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima. The Hiroshima Peace Park Museum was incredible to visit and I am so grateful for this opportunity I would not have had at any other time. It was truly a powerful, humbling experience. It just brings home the realization that all of the horrible things we can imagine, most can’t compare to what humans can inflict on each other. But it also represents hope in the face such an unimaginable tragedy.

Miyajima was a more cheerful part of the trip. We had the chance to see the waist-high deer that dotted the streets. They were cute, except when they discovered loose clothing or food. But the four of us had a great time with pictures and touring the shrine.

The next day I returned to the high school with Misaki so I could experience the tea ceremony since she is a member of the club. All of the club members were very sweet. They created a circle of chairs and since I had met a couple of them previously, we talked more and played a game. Originally it had two words in Japanese, but to make it easier for me they changed it to “Lady Gaga.”

When we arrived back home, Misaki had to leave to go back to school, so I stayed with Kazuko. Later that day a monk was supposed to come to the house. In the end we ended up folding origami together until he arrived. Kazuko asked him if I could watch and he said it was fine. So I sat behind and watched as he chanted before the small shrine in one of the rooms. I can’t possibly describe the awesome speed and exactness of the chant. As someone who can barely do tongue twisters twice in a row, I sat in awe the entire time.

The following day we rode the ferry to Shodashima Island. It was my first time swimming in the ocean. We then rode around the island, visiting a museum and village devoted to a movie filmed there called “24 Eyes.” I had never seen the movie before but it was interesting to walk around and see everything.

The next evening we went to a friend of Misaki’s house to play with sparklers. We watched fireworks from her house and I got to play the game where you break a watermelon blindfolded.

One night before Misaki had asked me if I would like to babysit with Kazuko. At first I had thought it would be for a neighbor or for a friend. It turned out that Kazuko volunteers at a daycare center. She encouraged me to talk to the children in English, so I began working on a running dialogue with myself. Unfortunately, I think I made a couple children cry since I was a foreigner. I apologized to them in English, but they neither understood nor were consoled. Then again, they might have simply been tired.

One little boy however did eventually warm up to me. He was wary of me at first, stoic, silent with an angelic little face. I talked to him in English, coached him on color coordinating the playpen balls into the plastic dish I was holding. My greatest accomplishment of the day was seeing him smile. I was sad to wave goodbye.

My last trip with Misaki was to Okayama with her friend Yuka. It was a lot of fun. Yuka and Misaki did everything they could to show me, as Yuka put it, “young girl culture.” We did photo booths together and went shopping. We also went to get a tea drink with tapioca balls in the bottom. It was very delicious. I had an amazing time.

I was completely overwhelmed by the kindness I was shown during my time in Kurashiki. Everyone I met was so warm, welcoming, kind and generous. I could go on forever about the incredible hospitality. I never felt so welcomed, so at home. For my first time traveling this far away from home, that was not something I had expected.

There were things I thought I would never, ever have the chance to experience. Things like being able to go to a Japanese high school, go shopping with friends, be called ‘big sister’ or being told ‘okairinasai’ (‘welcome back’) when returning to the house. These were things I had seen through a small window into Japanese life through my studies-it was something I had accepted I would never be a part of.

But upon arriving in Kurashiki, everything just…came together. It never failed. Just when I thought I had achieved the perfect experience, it got even better. I honestly felt I was in a dream. I had thought nothing in life could possibly be so perfect and complete. I have happily been proved wrong.

The experiences I have had, I will cherish for a lifetime. It has truly been the most enriching, wonderful experience of my entire life. I can not thank the Japan American Society, the Kurashiki delegation or my host families enough for this opportunity. Not only has it been a blessing to my life, acquainted me with wonderful people and inspired my studies, it has instilled in me the passion and the desire to become a better ambassador for others, so that I can share the kindness I have been shown to others and return the generosity that has been bestowed on me.

Again, thank you for this amazing, life-changing experience. -

Rosalyn Lucas 2011 9