Sunday, June 7, 2009

Chapter the First in "Sherry/Sharon's Big Adventure:" Background Info and Prattling

Section 1: Background Info

In my search for arts, culture, and adventure, it is probably inevitable that I would eventually want to go abroad. That desire "eventually" came around age 12 or so, but the means didn't come until this school year, in the form of the MISTI (MIT International Science and Technology Initiative) program, which pays for MIT students to do international internships, in France, Spain, Mexico, Israel, India, China, Germany, and, most important to me, Japan. These internships can be for a summer, as mine is, a semester, or a year. While there are a lot of other study abroad options at MIT, this is the first option that has been truly feasible, because the MISTI program pays not only for my housing, food, and commute in Japan, they also pay for the plane ticket and a weekend cultural excursion for all the MISTI Japan interns to Kyoto.

Japan is probably not the first place I craved to go (England/Scotland/Ireland, home of most of my ancestors, has that distinction), but Japanese is the first language that I genuinely wanted to learn. My mother's parents hosted a Japanese foreign exchange student while my mother was in high school, and my grandmother has stayed in contact with the group of Japanese students who lived in and around their farming community since then. The children's books on Grandma Dyer's shelves were a mix of Little House on the Prairie, selected Doctor Seuss, a battered, illustrated version of the "Wizard of Oz"-- and Japanese folk tales, reading from right to left, written mainly in hiragana, illustrated with delicate watercolors. I took Spanish in high school because that was what was offered, but I was delighted to find that amongst MIT's slim language pickings are six consecutive semesters of Japanese.

Interns are required to take at least the first four semesters of a language to participate in the MISTI program, and I have successfully (?) fumbled my way through that much. Japanese kicks me in the pants regularly in two different ways: I either find putting in the necessary hour-a-day commitment is impossible (sometimes for legitimate reasons, sometimes not), or I am so befuddled by alien grammar that I end up slapping together sentences with the approximate structural integrity of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. I am certainly not the gifted language student I had hoped to be. I have developed a pronounced stammer in Japanese that is directly resultant from a terror of being humiliated. ものすごくはずらしくなります!

After several false starts, I was placed in a small architecture firm in the Nakameguro area of Tokyo, Issho Architects. There are two partners and four other employees. I am the only MISTI intern at this firm, but several friends and acquaintances from my language class are interning nearby in Tokyo. I am staying in a "Sakura House," run by a company that caters to foreigners who will only be in the country for three months to a year and don't wish to wrangle with the difficult process of renting an apartment in Japan (an undertaking that requires guarantors and a "gift" of a month's rent to the landlord.) I have my own room and share a kitchen and bathroom with about six other people -- virtually identical to the arrangement I have been living in for the last three years of college, so I see no problem. :) I have free internet and a webcam, so I will be using Skype, a free program, to call friends and family at home. At this point I'm not really sure where I'll be buying food each day, but we have been told that it's actually cheaper in Tokyo to buy prepared food than buy groceries and cook your own. I guess I'll find out. 7/11 is actually big in Tokyo, and they have international ATMs, so I expect for the first week at least most of my supplies will be coming from there.

Section 2: Prattling

My flight left at 8:30 this morning (the morning I'm typing this; I have no idea what time I'll be posting it.) I am currently sitting in the Salt Lake City airport terminal; at 1:35 we will leave on a 12-hour flight over the Pacific, culminating in Narita Airport, Tokyo. I feel pretty good about this. I have my laptop, which tells me it has about 3.5 hours worth of battery, my iPod, which is good for another 2-3 hours, and three books I haven't read before. I have been flying from Omaha to Boston about four times a year for the last three, usually leaving for at least three months before I knew I would be home again. I really don't mind traveling at all; this is a nice airport. I can see the Rocky Mounains out the two windows, something completely new for me.

What is upsetting verging on nauseating is the night before leaving. This time I was all packed two days before except for a host of myriad small items (nail clippers, tweezers, a random shirt or two, Kleenex, maps to my house and office, travel size shampoo. . . ). I got to be home for two and a half weeks this time. The transition from being safe, protected (paid for), and unconditionally loved back into the "real world," which often seems to consist primarily of me flying by the seat of my pants from one near-disastrous almost-missed deadline to another and from one mildly awkward and clumsy interaction with one human bean to another, is always, but always, mildly traumatic.

I know that I chose my college, a three-hour plane ride from southwestern Iowa, and I chose to make my first time abroad a three-month internship in a country that is quite literally on the other side of the planet. It would be a lot easier to try to find some kind of job in Omaha for the summer -- it might even be an architecture internship -- live at home, commute, and not subject myself (or the people I love (a lot)) to a separation which is, frankly, painful. As I'm sitting here now, I'm quite, quite sure I am doing what is right for me. Anyone who has ever experienced the before-the-security-checkpoint-hug knows that is isn't really even in the same class as a "hug." It is too tight and held for too long and it says something that words can't say. I held that hug this morning, and then I turned and began the frenzied process of shuffling all my crap through the metal scanners (carryon suitcase on table, whip off the shoes and coat and ring and throw the wallet and phone and iPod out of my pockets in a shower into one of those gray plastic tubs, whip out my laptop and hurl it into another tub, put my backpack on the table, inch along the shiny metal surface to the rollers before the x-ray like a weird baggage inchworm). I called the moment I was through security -- I always do -- and sitting at my gate (not a long delay there; Eppley International Airport has eight gates in one terminal and eight gates in the other.)

I feel like a sheet on a clothesline; it flaps insanely, flips upside-down and inside-out, maybe even catches a few small arthropods by accident every so often, but it is firmly tethered to that line, and it's not going anywhere. That clothesline is located somewhere in Iowa, I would guess, or several somewheres in Iowa (and maybe even tacked down in a few places, now, in the northeast), but the sheet is billowing out over the whole world. I am pretty sure I would rather go through a thousand painful separations from people I love than to get to the end of my life with regrets that I didn't chase it out far enough, didn't go to the edge of the map, didn't make absolutely sure that the world is round, didn't see that I won't tip off the edge. I hope to participate in the MISTI program again next summer (barring further economic crises), and I intend to work abroad in other countries after graduate school.

I desperately don't want to miss anything.

What I do miss I want to be because I only get eighty years or so to work with, not because I was afraid or cynical or because I settled for something less than what I really truly wanted.

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