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The Beginning

Oh my god, that was a whirlwind.

I thought my transition from finals to Japan was a lot of commotion, but today I went from the most laid back working environment anyone could imagine where everyone knows everyone and all the material is understandable, to being in charge of 9 students–all of whom have taken zero to two years of Japanese–as they arrive in Japan. Even when I first arrived at Narita Airport this morning it had not yet set in that I was truly starting my job today. Students began showing up and soon the little meeting room in terminal 1 was overflowing with students and luggage. With confidence I agreed to be the first RA to bring a group of students to the hotel and check in…and they all looked at me like I had all the answers.

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I round up my group of ducklings and set off for the trains below Narita. It still takes a minute for me to be sure I am boarding the right train, and even though I thought I knew the answer, as I was double, triple and quadruple checking, the students peppered me with questions about how to know which train to ride. I tried to point out the ways to know, but even as I did so there was a voice in my head saying “What if you tell them this and then the train you get on goes in the wrong direction? What if the first answers you give them turn out to be wrong and that is how they see you for the rest of the program?”

Despite my *inner* paranoia, my 9 ducklings and I got on the train and set off into the unknown. Yes, I mean that literally as well as figuratively. Literally we were heading to Narita Station, a place I had never been, and I would be in charge of keeping everyone together as we walked with our luggage and such down narrow streets filled with cars, people and shops to a hotel I had never seen before. I knew I would have to check in the students, but I didn’t know what that meant. I knew generally how to get to the hotel, but I didn’t know what it would look like or if I would be able to help all the students get there.

But also I mean this more figuratively. This is the beginning of so many things. This is the beginning of orientation and the “real” part of my job as an RA. This is the beginning of moving to Yoyogi–a place I have visited but never lived. Prior to this point I have only ever stayed somewhere longer than a week in two places–Minnesota and Makuhari. These past two weeks I was in Makuhari, so it felt like coming home more than a “new” adventure, but from this point forward everything will be new to me. Sure I may know more than the students do–I know how to get around, I have no qualms about using Japanese to random people, I know where certain things are and how to approach certain situations–but on many levels this is as new to me as it is to them. Even though I am in a position of semi-power and responsibility, there is a part of me that feels like the FOB student I was last September.

Luckily for all of us (particularly due to the boiling temperatures and direct sunlight) we made it to Narita Station and then to Wakamatsu Honten, the hotel. Even though I was nervous and had all my senses on hyper alert during the 20 minute walk, it was fun hearing and seeing the students reactions to Japan. Some students pointed out things they had only ever heard about, some talked about what they wanted to do, while others yet asked me about my experience in Japan. I can’t tell you how many times I looked back to check that I had all 9 students with me.

Wakamatsu Honten is a traditional Ryokan, or Japanese Inn, and has rooms that sleep four to six people, have tatami mats lining the floor, futon and yukata to sleep on and in, and public onsen for bathing. Check in went smoother than is possibly imaginable, and soon the students had keys and were off to their various rooms. I don’t think any of them anticipated what the rooms would be like and as I went around making sure everyone was ok, everyone else was darting here and there checking out each others rooms and asking random questions of each other and of me. Of course, only the lobby has air conditioning already on, so we all came in sweaty from walking with luggage only to sweat more standing around in hallways without air conditioning.

Once I knew everyone was safe and had a room, I felt more in my element–and incredibly amused by all the exclamations and questions, which were mainly things I wondered about the last time I was in Japan.

“Where are the showers? How do we use them?”
“Do I have to take my shoes off?”
“There really isn’t wifi in the rooms?”
“Where can I buy a bandage to cover my tattoo so I can enter the onsen?”
“What is happening tonight?”
“When do I need to be back?”
“Will you come with us to explore?”
“What is the Japanese particle to count shoes? There are so many…”

Now I am a pro. Before I didn’t feel like a pro, but even when I don’t have a perfect answer for someone, I know how to help them or how to find someone who can help. I was nervous that I wouldn’t know what to do; that the students wouldn’t see me as a leader; that the students would prefer to speak with someone with more power and knowledge. But now I know that I possess enough knowledge, and even if it doesn’t seem like it, I know a lot about Japan and Japanese culture from my time here.

And because I know things about Japan, there are many things that don’t stand out or surprise me. But now I am being given a second opportunity to experience Japan for the first time–through the eyes of these students. And it feels as exciting as it did the first time, if not more because now I am excited for them to discover everything for the first time themselves.

The only reason I had a minute to breath is because my group is the only one that has arrived at the Ryokan so far and I am stuck in the lobby monitoring the comings and goings of students, making sure they are happy and safe. Fortunately or unfortunately for me, my group is awesome, and every single one of them dropped their stuff and went out exploring! The next two days are going to be filled with orientation and actually moving to the Yoyogi Olympic Center, so I will be back with stories soon!

Thanks for reading! ^_^

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