Aoi Church was not formally my CIP last semester but I was an active member since the time I arrived in Japan last September. I had first thought that being a regular member of the church community was not enough to warrant me labeling it as my CIP but I soon realized that the commitment was far greater than just attending church service. Of course that’s the image people have when they think of church communities. You get together for an hour or two each Sunday, talk a bit about Christ, eat some bread and then go home. It was very much like that for me when I went to church back in the States. However, in Japan, there is a notable emphasis on the community aspect of going to church. Certainly it retains a similar reverent vibe that churches in America have, but I have never been as involved in a church as I have been at Aoi. I do three main activities; I am a regular member of the church and attend all services and related events, I am a member of the church choir and I volunteer at the churches preschool, Panda Heart.
My activities usually started on Friday and ended Sunday evening. I would volunteer with the children on Friday afternoons. They were really cute and I learned a lot about patience and love and of course more about what Japanese non profits look like. I became really good friends with a particular child and I always looked forward to the time we spent together at the day care. Saturdays were usually free but sometimes I would have Panda Heart related activities or church outings. Not everyone went to these, but because I was always invited, I always tagged along. On Sundays I would go to church service, sing in the choir, and then stay afterwards for lunch and choir practice. I was usually done by early afternoon but I stayed around in the evening for dinner and evening service. I would speak with the members of the church and go out to places with them and at some point became close friends with many of them. They are bonds I’m not likely to forget anytime soon.
Of course being so closely involved in a Japanese community has its fair share of hardships. After I had crossed the line between new exotic gaijin member into actual regularly attending member, there were some things I had to change about myself. I felt like I had to mold myself better into their community and when I failed to do it brought about resentment and misunderstandings. Perhaps that is a point of caution I would like to address about CIP; entering a Japanese community is difficult but once you’re finally in it doesn’t get any easier. I am glad to say that being with everyone at Aoi has changed me for the better and has helped me understand Japanese culture in a new light but it was only after I spent a good amount of time thinking about it.
Being so involved was also a huge time commitment, one that does not mesh well with KCJS’s rigorous schedule. I always had to prioritize and ask myself whether getting my homework done was worth over staying a few extra hours at church. It was a bit difficult to decide, but I always did end up staying and I always did end up not doing my homework or turning it in late. It was something I had decided to do though because I felt like belonging to a community here was more important to me while I studied abroad. It’s different for everyone but I felt deeply that learning Japanese in a classroom was something good but learning Japanese in a real context was more helpful. Although I didn’t improve all that much I did find something vastly more important. I found motivation to keep on studying Japanese because now I have people I love that I want to speak about anything and everything about.
Japanese communities are tight and can be loving and nurturing once you are in them, but they can also be obligatory and sometimes destructive. But I learned to navigate the waters of a scary territory and came out feeling like I had really gained something. I consider my friends at church to be somewhat of a family to me now and saying goodbye has been straining on both ends.
I realize that many others didn’t come out with this type of experience but I account that to the very nature of CIP and the program. You really have to decide what the most important thing is for you. Neither answer is wrong, although your teachers will probably want you to do your homework, but I felt like I wanted to seize CIP as an opportunity to become a small part of Japan. To be remembered here rather than me doing all the remembering.
I really enjoyed my year at Panda Heart and Aoi Church and will have those memories for years to come