Friday, June 4, 2010
Halfway around the world: A student reflects on the CCHS band trip to Japan
As I stepped tentatively into the packed bus that would soon carry me to JFK International Airport, I decided to banish any preconceptions about the noble and ancient country I would soon be visiting. But no matter how I had prepared for the two-week journey in store, the “Land of the Rising Sun” would have surprised me at every turn.
A member of the Concord-Carlisle High School Concert Band, I was one of some eighty or so students taking part in a musical and cultural exchange now in its fourth iteration. The trip involved a short stop in Tokyo, then a stay in the city of Sapporo, where we had our most significant musical collaboration with a high school there, followed by a longer stay in Nanae, Concord’s sister city. Students stayed with Japanese families or in hostels in both cities, and joint concerts were given in both. As soon as we stepped off our plane in Tokyo, I began observing my surroundings with curiosity and awe.
Japan, I was soon to find, is a country wrapped up in a startling, seemingly irreconcilable paradox in that it is simultaneously both extensively modernized and steeped in tradition. Bustling Western-style shopping malls are sprawled out next to Buddhist temples sleeping peacefully under the shade of painted pagoda roofs; buttered toast and marmalade sit on breakfast trays next to bits of squid and kamaboko (a traditional Japanese fish loaf); an array of shoes influenced by American and European styles can be found lined up in the traditional Japanese fashion in the little hollow in the foyer of each Japanese home. It wasn’t long before I began to wonder just how a country as traditional as Japan could so readily accept Western culture and innovation.
But almost as quickly as the question occurred to me, I realized that the paradoxical situation in modern Japan is really no different from the similar dichotomy we experience in the United States, where many of us subscribe to capitalist and patriotic values while simultaneously paying homage to our European, Asian, African, or Latin roots. Truly, the idea of balancing modernity with our familial customs is not foreign to us. In fact, the longer I spent in Japan, the more I came to realize that the people of this burgeoning Asian country aren’t nearly as different from us as perhaps we like to think.
Our cultures are certainly different in numerous startling ways, of course. Though it was tasty, Japanese food was difficult to get used to at first, and decidedly different from the microwave ramen and food court fare we might carelessly associate with the country. Trying such anxiety-inducing delicacies as sea urchin paste, squid, wasabi sauce, and the notorious nato (fermented soy bean) certainly reminded me of how far away from home I was.
Participating in traditional Japanese ceremonies and cultural activities served to heighten this sense of culture-shock, as did the many customs and domestic conventions typical to Japanese society. Removing one’s shoes after entering a house, adding a small bow to every thank you, cautiously avoiding a direct “no” in answer to a question and taking care never to leave one’s chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice are but a few among them.
But despite these differences, it became quite clear to me over the course of my trip that I shared some very fundamental dispositions with the people I met. We didn’t speak the same language – at least not verbally – but we were able to communicate in surprising ways. Gestures and charades were an immediate crutch, bridging a linguistic gap and proving that we had more in common than we may initially have assumed. One night at my home-stay in Sapporo was spent poring through an illustrated guidebook to all the Japanese onomatopoetic expressions – there are hundreds, many signifying emotions and circumstances – which further instilled in me a faith that we discuss and care about the same kinds of situations in our individual languages. Of course, the entire purpose of the trip was to share music, and the musical communication in rehearsals and performances was perhaps the greatest proof of all that we share the same emotions, passions, and deep-seated sentiments.
But even when we couldn’t find a way to communicate – and perhaps especially so then – it was evident that we had much in common. One of the most important and eye-opening experiences of the trip for me was sitting in the living room at my first home-stay and simply listening to my host student speak to his parents. The syllables themselves were foreign and unintelligible; but in them I heard emotions that were familiar to me. I watched exchanges that I’d had a hundred times over in English with my own parents, understanding more than I ever imagined I could. Following gestures, facial expressions, and tone, I found I was able to relate deeply with even the most incomprehensible tidbits of conversation.
Thinking back to my initial self-promise to set aside my preconceptions of Japan, and indeed of Asia as a whole – this being my first trip to the East – I realize now that I had very little notion at all of what the continent was truly like. In fact, I had given it almost no thought whatsoever. It is very easy to think of a country like Japan in terms of headlines and news reports, cities and roads, car factories and toy stores. Indeed easiest of all is to forget that there are actual people living in the countries we read about, and that they lead individual, simple, mundane day-to-day lives just as we do.
Sitting down to reflect on what this trip meant to me, I realize that if I’ve learned anything from it, it’s that there truly are seven billion people on this planet, and that beyond our isolated town of Carlisle, they live and breathe just as we do. I’ve visited Europe many times, but until I’d seen Asia, I couldn’t possibly have understood the vastness of the human population. It’s a big world, after all. ∆
© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito