Foreign Yet Familiar

Early on last spring semester, I went to an information session for a study abroad program in Barcelona. My intention was to get a checklist of everything I needed to be eligible for that program, but the result was something much different. After giving the whole application spiel, the Office of Global Programs representative announced a new, unprecedented opportunity: the Japanese government had offered to take fifty Columbia undergraduates on a ten-day, all expenses paid trip to their country. The details were very ambiguous, but I knew I had to apply. Chances like that one don’t just spring up, and when was I ever going to go to Japan?

I went online, filled out the application, and then forgot about it for months. About a week before letters were sent out, I remembered I had applied and started getting anxious. A few people had mentioned getting rejected already and I still hadn’t heard anything. I was riding that fine line between complete surety that I was next and a nagging hope that I had gotten accepted. Luckily, the latter pulled through.

Seen in Kyoto.
Seen in Kyoto.

With something like 470 applicants, I was stunned that I snagged a spot. The surprises only continued once the program began upon our arrival in Japan. We were visiting Waseda University in Tokyo and were split up into groups for tours. A girl my age led us around, making sure to show us the shrines tucked into the campus’ corners, patiently answering our questions about womenomics and her plans for the future. As she explained that she wanted to go to either the States or England for grad school, her classmate ran up to say hi. As they quickly caught up, something in me paused. I definitely knew the girl. Not the tour guide, but her friend. Her face registered and our eyes locked. She smiles wide and says “How are you?” but not in that standard, small talky, stand way. This was familiar. This was a hey old friend what’s up kind of thing. Clearly, she recognized me too but I’m stumped and can’t figure out where I know her from. I ask her where we’ve met before and she mentions that she had studied at Columbia a few semesters back. But that’s not enough for me to unravel the mystery. Miles away from home with forty-nine regular Columbia students — none of which I had ever met or seen before — and the one familiar face I find belongs to a Waseda student? To a student I’ve run into by chance at a university I’ve never heard of, in the largest city in the world? What are the odds of that?

Five or six days into the trip and I start to feel antsy. I’m not used to the food and have been feeling a litle queasy. I haven’t spoken to my parents yet or gotten a good’s night sleep, all thanks to the insane time difference. Everything feels Foreign and Different and a little Unsettling. I know exactly what I need: a quick conversation in Dominican Spanish, habichuelas to put on my rice, something to ground me. As soon as we board the tour bus, I pop my headphones in and start my go-to playlist — the one that gets me through midterm homesickness, the one that substitutes my mother’s voice when it’s too late in the night/early in the morning to talk on the phone. Japan is wonderful and incredible and I definitely don’t want to go home — I just want something comforting. An hour into the music, we approach a building with beautiful tile work, intricate iron gate work on each balcony. I know this style, I know what this building is going for. Its roof is similar to Gaudi’s Casa Battlo and the iron gate work is reminiscent of Casa Mila. I’ve studied Catalan too much and for so long to know that this building could have been plucked from the streets of Barcelona. This strange, colorful building doesn’t fit into its surroundings but that doesn’t matter. It fills that anxious part of me in the blink of an eye and I keep quiet, as if sharing the moment could make it disappear in an instant.

Seen at the Fushimi Inari Shrine
Seen at the Fushimi Inari Shrine

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to a few foreign countries in the past two years. I’m a planner, so I always have a list of things to do, places to see, and foods to eat ready a solid month before a trip. I go places with enough knowledge to recognize it, to know what to expect. This trip, the Kakehashi Tour, was the first time someone else handled all of the details. It was the first time I went somewhere with pretty much zero background information, which could’ve been a disaster for a nervous wreck like me. But, that’s the thing about Japan. Just when I felt like I was about to lose myself in a sea of unfamiliarity, something would reach out and say, I’ve got you, you’re right here. As soon as the reality of the matter — that things were New, Different and a little Strange; that I was actually in Japan — was about to overwhelm me, something Stranger would pop up and settle me and for that, I will never forget this trip.

This post was originally published on Confab. You can find some photos from the Kakehashi Tour here and read more of my writing here.

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