The Hawbridge School
Japan changed me, in a way I cannot put into words. The day I flew to California, I cried by an airport security gate. I never cry, but I cried that day because I was going off to face an unknown, a world so different than my little southern town and my little tiny existence. I was scared, and unsure, and terrified that no one would like me, that Japan would never want anymore Kinsley Prendergasts. I was wrong.
What unnerved me, stemmed from the fact that I came from a place, I suspected, that was unlike that of everyone else. Because I came from a village of 2000, from an area where no one ever dreamed of learning Japanese, where much of who I was was defined by the fact that I was learning to speak a language so different than what monoculturalistic places like central North Carolina knew. Everyone else, they seemed to come from places bigger, more diverse, than mine, places with many cultures, where they might get to practice their Japanese, where they could claim they’d actually gotten to know someone from Japan. They’d probably be better learned, more worldly, less oblivious of other cultures than me. The program would be a place where they could thrive on their obviously talented language skills and appreciation of the culture. Me, though, I figured it’d leave me in a daze.
But things never go the way you think they will. They sometimes, go better. JET-MIP, went better. My fellow participants, they were a little better than me, and maybe a little more sophisticated when it came to the world around them. They were also kind and caring and willing to stand with me, and help me fumble through translation. They were 31 of the most amazing people I have ever met. I gained 31 best friends, 31 siblings, 31 classmates.
JET-MIP did leave me dazed, in the best possible way. It left me wondering, how there was so much out there I’d never seen, how everyone lives differently, but we’re really just the same. It made me wonder how the deer in Nara could be so used to creatures as strange as us human beings. I contemplated how temples and shrines could be so ornate and that religions unknown to me could be so fascinating. I questioned how dressed up in yukata, I could feel so much more elegant, so much more graceful than the girl I really was.
More than anything, this trip left me wondering how there could be a people as polite and welcoming as the Japanese, how it was humanly possible to go two weeks without meeting a person who frowned at me instead of smiled when a day at home has never passed like that. I never met a mean person in Japan, they were all just nice and inviting. And I, blunt and loud, unforgivably careless at times, who felt most at home in a room full of my screaming dysfunctional family, was still treated like an honored guest. They set aside my many imperfections, my broken Japanese, my strange eccentricities, and were kind to me anyway. I never met a people quite like that.
When I try to describe my experience, I always end up using the same words “amazing,” “awesome,” “very different.” People ask how so and then they ask what I did. I try to explain how every experience was amazing and awesome and very different than what I knew.
I went to Nara. I saw the deer. I petted them. I love deer. I wanted to take one home with me, but I don’t think my dog would like that too much. I ate with chopsticks in Nara. I still can’t use them right.
I went to Tohoku, if only for two days. I heard all about a smiling teacher named Taylor-san. I met an excited group of high schoolers just like me and a classroom of nine year olds who left me in awe. I saw a bridge with a rainbow and a man named Endo-san who carried on despite all he lost. I tried Kendo at Sendai Higashi High School. I discovered it doesn’t work well for undiagnosed dyslexics. I traded origami with a shy girl named Fuki. We’re email buddies now. In Tohoku, I even learned that just like you shouldn't go through an American convenience store, buy everything you see with a pretty package, and expect it all to taste good, you shouldn’t do that in Japan either. Lunch will be very strange.
I saw Kyoto. I bought my Granny a fan. I ate Indian food, something I’d never had. I really liked it.
I spent the night with a host family who charmed my heart forever. They were fun, and messy, and maybe a little dysfunctional, just like my family. They made me feel like I was no stranger. My host mother laughed and hugged and was so excited to get to know me. I hope she knows I was even more excited to know her and her family. My host father, though I only saw him for a few minutes, smiled at me, told me to “have fun” in English. He found out how to say that, even though he didn’t know English. My host grandmother dressed me up in a yukata, and snuck it in my bag, said it was a present. She’s what I imagine every person dreams of for a grandmother. My host grandfather took pictures of me and showed me his photography when he found out that we shared that interest. My five year old host sister never stopped moving, never stopped being happy. I think she was the best teacher of what life should really be about. My fifteen-year old host sister became my friend instantly. We were so alike, quiet at first, but then lively as can be. I have never made a friend so fast, to say we hit it off would be an understatement.
I stayed at the Institute. I took Japanese classes and I got confused. I met a kindhearted teacher who made me laugh, even when I didn’t know what she was saying. I tried on a yukata and had a photoshoot with a bunch of my friends. I stayed up late and used their vending machines for dessert drinks in the middle of the night. I had a sleepover on the last night with almost everyone in the floor of the lounge. When the security guard came around in the middle of the night and saw all of us asleep, I heard him laugh happily.
I went to malls. I bought frilly dresses like no one back home would ever imagine me wearing. I wandered around with friends and I looked like a clueless tourist. And then I spoke with storekeepers in Japanese. They told me I did good, even though I truly did horrible. I road bikes to and from the malls. I barely made curfew. I almost crashed because the breaks didn’t really work.
I went to Tokyo. I saw rickshaws and Tokyo Tower. I ran around Akihabara in the dark and decided I didn’t like it too much.
I tell people I loved it. I try to explain that honestly, it’s a place that is like nothing I could have imagined. For the people in my small little town, who have never left the East Coast, I hope I can properly give them a description of what it was really like. I don’t think I can though, because there is no real way to understand it without seeing it yourself. But I hope, I have helped people who didn’t know before to know that there are worlds so different than their own and that cultures are never the same but more beautiful because of that.
Twenty years down the line, I hope I still speak Japanese, that I still love their culture and their people and their land like I do now. I plan to take Japanese in college. Maybe then, if I’m lucky, I’ll become a JET ALT. It was never something I considered before this trip, but as cliche as it may sound, I consider it now. I think it would be an experience I would never regret. I’m going to cross my fingers that it happens.
Whatever the world brings to me in the years to come, I know I will never forget this trip. For two weeks, I was able to see the world through the eyes of two amazing people. Taylor and Monty, I hope wherever you are, you’re loving it. When I said I changed, I meant it. This trip changed me, but even more than that, your memories changed me. For that, I am grateful. Please know how many peoples’ lives you affected. And for us, it’s a better world because you were in it.
“With a Little Help from my Friends”
We were at a park like place in Ishinomaki, with the students from the local high school who had just spent the day with us. I think my reasoning for loving this photo so much lies in the love shone through it. We were strangers to each other, but we still laughed like old friends, and found ourselves without fear of all the differences that stood between us.