Phillip Cualing: Kitano Tenmangu Taiko Group

As May approaches, I reflect back on what was an eventful year, being in Japan as a study abroad student. Even though I felt I could have done so much more, been so much better in terms of my Japanese ability than I am now, I still feel like I accomplished a lot and gained new interests, taiko being one of them. When I was in the States, I had heard of it second-hand, but my first real impression with taiko came at a moon viewing at my local shrine in September. When I heard that performance, my first thoughts were of awe and then I wondered how I could do that, which is how I joined the taiko group at Kitano Tenmangu.

During last fall, I joined mostly for furthering my interest in taiko, so I did not really get to know all the members or learn all the pieces by heart, the latter part of which really showed during the end of the year performance when I had a lot of trouble and was rather embarrassed. Thus, I decided to make it my CIP so I could have the time to focus on it wholeheartedly and I believe I have learned a lot, not just in becoming better at playing, but also being able to interact with other Japanese people naturally.

I have a tendency to do things roundabout or in a strange way, and my first practice was no exception. Even though it was October already, I had no cell phone, so I ended up at our teacher’s house by accident instead of at the shrine. My contact (the teacher’s wife) was out, but her parents’ reception of me was humbling, because they not only helped me find where I needed to go, but also gave me a tour of the surrounding area, hosted me for lunch, and even visited a sake brewery with me. Despite my embarrassment at being in that kind of situation, I will never forget the kindness they showed me and hoped to pay it back by really committing myself to taiko this semester.

The practices are much more than practices in my view; we gather, frolic, catch up, joke, help each other, laugh, and plan for the future, not to mention learning new pieces and maintaining the ones we do know. All types of people participated, from children to adults, and our post-practice dinners were the most fun, because it was a chance for us to communicate in a natural fashion and actually grow closer as a group. In terms of people from KCJS, Nate and I were left over from last fall, and Diana, Andres, and Jackson joined us this semester. Arguably, there were a few bumps at first as we all adjusted into the flow of things, but by the time of our spring performance to start the new year, I thought we not only played well, but also got to know everyone else in the group well.

For someone who lacks any musical inclination, my taiko experience was amazing. I picked up a skill that I hope to maintain and grow when I return to the states and made many close relationships with people I want to see when I return to Japan and hope to return all the kindness and warmth I was shown when I was welcomed into the group. Though it may be impossible, I felt like I belonged a little bit when I participated in taiko, which means so much to a person who belongs to no set place or group in the States. Maybe it is because of the tight knit group mentality, but living in Japan just feels as natural to me as moving or breathing when there is the feeling of people who would support and encourage a foreigner, different as I may be.
Given my interests and classes, I have been hurtling towards a crossroads for quite some time, because of how hard it is to reconcile using Japanese and the life sciences in a career. Regardless of whatever happens from this point, the experience I received from participating in this taiko group was worth it, more than anything I could put on a resume.

Gabrielle Reinecke: O-koto and the Kyoto University Choir

While establishing a CIP and forging connections can prove a daunting and sometimes discouraging process, I found it to be an ultimately invaluable part of my time at KCJS and my life here in Kyoto.

My first CIP, which I have continued both semesters here, is learning how to play the koto (A traditional Japanese string instrument with moveable bridges) and it was through what I suspect to be a combination of serendipity and extreme thoughtfulness on behalf of the KCJS staff that I was placed in a homestay which made these lessons possible. My host mother had studied the koto for quite some time and was kind enough to introduce me to her sensei, who has been generous enough to teach me free of cost for the for the past eight months. This connection made my CIP search easier than most, as I had long admired the instrument and had vague hopes of learning to play it while in Japan. Their long-established relationship made the introduction process very easy, and it wasn’t until I undertook the task of introducing another student that I began to more fully understand the complexity and cultural context surrounding such arrangements. Because all parties involved lived in the same neighborhood, special care had to be taken in regard to kinjo no tsukiai (neighborhood relations) between my teacher, the host families, the students, and all combinations thereof. What I suspect might have taken two or three phone calls in the US took over fifteen phone calls and some rather complex social maneuvering and face redress strategies so that no party felt disregarded – no small task when it comes to the finer points of Japanese joshiki (common sense, if you will) and etiquette.

My subsequent interactions with my sensei and her other students always left me a bit flustered as I could never be sure I was properly adhering to these unstated (and, as a foreigner, rather opaque) social codes, but they were sensitive to my situation and my language skills helped carry me through reasonably well.

My sensei is a true bohemian and has that slightly eccentric flare I personally associate with masters of traditional crafts and art forms – a trait I’ve come to find very endearing, though it certainly threw me at first. She has a very flowery way of speaking that utilizes an impressive range of keigo (formal speech) and Kyoto-ben (the local dialect) which, while I had no trouble understanding linguistically often surprised me in usage. For example, though I am the student and much younger, she often uses formal speech towards me, that is to say, the sort of language I would be expected to use towards her. However, I quickly came to realize this is more a reflection of her personality than misinformation on my part in regard to the way formal language is used in a real-life context.

The sequence of aisatsu (salutations) took a while for me to grasp. One might think, ‘how many salutations can one possibly use?’ but Japanese salutations are not limited to words of greeting. Also included are acknowledgements of the previous meeting, a request for guidance in the day’s lesson, a promise to work hard, and any number of repetitions and reiterations thereof based on my sensei’s responses (which, in accordance with her speech style, were rather numerous). Another repetitive sequence also concludes the lesson.

Also of interest was the occasional use of the greeting ‘good morning’ despite the fact that my lessons have always taken place in late afternoon. This is something not usually taught in Japanese textbooks, and is apparently not even common knowledge among Japanese until about college age, but the greeting ‘good morning’ can be used the first time you see someone in certain contexts (at part time jobs, in the world of the arts, etc.) regardless of time-of-day.

Of course, I also learned quite a few pieces of music, including two of Japan’s most well known songs, and had the opportunity to perform on numerous occasions, but what remains with me was the time I spent with my sensei and the extreme care and kindness she showed me. It was my first time interacting with a Japanese person of her age and occupation, and I believe it gave me valuable insight into the inner workings of Japanese relationships on the whole, despite her undeniable uniqueness. I will remember the time I spent under her tutelage quite fondly and, with any luck, will have the opportunity to make use of what I have learned in the near future.

My second CIP I began only this past semester, but while it was also music-related, it gave me a very different insight into Japanese society, and Japanese college life in particular. Natasha helped introduce me to the KyoDai Gasshodan (Kyoto University Choir) and from day one they welcomed me as a real member. Because our school schedule operates on a different calendar from that of Japanese universities, it is understandably difficult for us to truly experience campus life here the way we would in the US. I never really felt like a student at Doushisha (or Kyoto Daigaku) until I had the chance to sing with them. For the first time I thought “so this is what it must be like to be a ‘regular’ student.” That feeling of belonging was invaluable, and I will  treasure the time I spent with them and the memories we made. I know how difficult it can be to get involved in a campus club or circle, but if you can make it work, it’s more than worth it.

Meg Beneville: Kyoto Cooking Circle

Meg Beneville: Kyoto Cooking Circle

For my CIP, I decided to take a Japanese cooking class. I’ve attended classes at the Kyoto Cooking Circle of Wings Kyoto and really enjoyed learning how to make many different Japanese dishes and interacting with the teachers and other students. The classes are very gaijin-friendly, and I’ve met people from all over the world, including Australia, Korea, and Spain. Many of them aren’t exchange students but are teachers or expats living in or near Kyoto. The Japanese people attending the classes all seem to have an interest in learning foreign languages or meeting people from different countries. They are very welcoming and we usually talk while we cook. I always get to practice my Japanese, and because we receive the recipes in both Japanese and English, I can compare the two and often figure out what different ingredients are in Japanese based on their English translation. I’m looking forward to trying out some of my new recipes when I get back to the States.

One thing that I’ve observed while attending cooking classes is that even though some of the other foreigners have lived in Japan for years, that doesn’t necessarily mean they can speak Japanese. I was really surprised to hear one woman who had lived in Kyoto for over 5 years struggle with very basic phrases. This is not a judgment on other people, but rather something I’m very sympathetic towards, as I can imagine that moving to Japan without a formal way to study the language must be very difficult. It made me think about how lucky I am to be at a time in my life where I can come to Japan for the specific purpose of learning Japanese, and that I could do so at KCJS, where I am receiving such high quality language instruction. I’ve realized that there is a huge difference between living in Japan as a study abroad student learning about the language and culture, and what it’s like to live in Japan as an adult who ended up in Japan and is just trying to live daily life.

Unfortunately, Kyoto Cooking Circle only meets once a month. My original plan was to take several different cooking classes, but I was surprised to find that Kyoto Cooking Circle in the exception in that it is very affordable. Other classes I looked at were as much as 5000 yen per class, which was completely out of my price range. Because of this, I need to supplement my CIP activity with something else. So far, I’ve helped out with an English lesson for Japanese children, which was a lot of fun. I’m also looking forward to attending some KIX in the next few weeks.

Kristen Lee: Manga Museum Volunteer

I really enjoyed volunteering at the Manga Museum. The atmosphere of the museum is welcoming and comfortable. People of all ages sit by the bookshelves along the walls or outside on the huge lawn to read manga. The other Japanese volunteers are also very nice. Uramune-san, the person who is in charge of us, has been especially friendly and patient in helping us to establish a routine at the museum.

I think this may be the first time the museum has had KCJS students in the front part of the museum interacting with Japanese and foreign visitors. Our only job was to give English tours, so we often just stood by the front desk with the greeters until a visitor came who wanted a tour. We usually went on Sundays, but even though more Japanese visitors come to the museum on weekends, there seem to be fewer foreign visitors. I think that because foreign visitors are usually tourists, it does not matter to them whether they go to the museum on the weekend or a weekday. However, the museum was very flexible in allowing us to come whenever it fit our schedules as long as they are notified in advance.

I did not know exactly what to expect about volunteering at the museum, but I did think it would be easier to talk to the other volunteers about topics unrelated to the museum and get to know them better; however, they are very busy with their own tasks, so it is hard to ask them about irrelevant topics. Although the workers are always nice and patient in answering my questions about the museum, they do not usually initiate conversations with us. We also take our break at a different time from other volunteers. If there are other people in the break room, they are usually napping or using their cell phones, so we rarely get a chance to interact with them outside of the more formal work setting. Although the work setting of the museum may have been a factor, I think because Melanie and I always stuck together during our volunteering time also made us more unapproachable for the other Japanese volunteers to come and talk with us.

It is interesting to see how the Japanese volunteers interact with each other in the semi-formal work setting of the Manga Museum. For example, whenever another museum worker passes by, both people say「おつかれさまです」to each other. Museum workers also speak in formal Japanese to visitors. When a visitor leaves the museum, any worker near the exit bows and thanks them for coming. These ritualized greetings and switch in formality between fellow workers and visitors are very interesting to observe. The other workers even included us in their greetings, which made me feel more a part of the museum.

Anuj Patel: Kyodai Research

For my CIP, I had the chance to work in the Funahashi research lab at Kyoto University. To be honest, I was doubtful that the opportunity would come together at all. Three months is a fairly short period of time to contribute, and I certainly know nothing about animal research. Nonetheless, Dr. Funahashi exceeded my expectations immediately, not only by replying to my email but even inviting me to observe an experiment the very next week. Particularly because I also work as an RA in a lab back at home, I was excited about getting the chance to see what a lab in Japan would be like. Since I also didn’t have much experience with monkey research, I was also particularly excited about seeing these methods in use.

My main concern was that I would not have many opportunities to actually interact with my professor and the researchers in the lab, as everyone was fairly busy with their work. Moreover, without too much time or significant training, the number of things that I could actually help with were fairly limited. In the beginning, this is exactly what happened. After my initial tour of the lab, my main task was printing graphs. A lot of graphs. On top of that, I occasionally missed the memo when my professor went to conferences, and got locked out from the lab once. It wasn’t exactly the ideal opportunity to participate in society.

However, as time went on and my routine began to settle, I started to find excuses to talk with the other people in the lab. It would generally start with someone asking me if I wasn’t bored, printing graphs all day, and then the discussion would continue from there. I was finally able to have conversations! I got to hear about all sorts of topics, ranging from the added difficulty of having to publish scientific papers in English, to comments on Kyoto and Japan in general. When I brought back omiyage from Ise (which in and of itself made me feel a little bit more like a part of the gro up), we had a conversation about how many schools will go there as a class trip. As time went on, I also began to be able to contribute in more ways. I was able to help beyond printing graphs, and even got to help with the monkeys once. These sorts of experiences were not only exciting in their own right, but they also helped to create more opportunities to ask questions and speak with the other members of the lab.

This development took a fair amount of time, and it’s unfortunate that just as I begin to really start to make progress, I’m going to have to leave. I think a particularly large obstacle was having only a fairly small group of graduate students and my professor to interact with; apparently undergraduates don’t work as research assistants particularly often. I would have liked to meet more students, but given that Kyodai was on spring break, there also haven’t been any seminars or courses I could sit in on. (As a result, I’m glad that I also got to participate in KIX occasionally as well.) Overall, however, I think that my experience in the lab was a positive one. I got to maintain some sort of connection with neuroscience even while in Japan, and I got to get to know a group of interesting, friendly people.

Marli Gordon: Kyodai Choir Reflection

The first choir practice I attended at Kyodai University held many surprises for me.  That first day, four other KCJS students and I were warmly greeted by three choir members at the entrance to the University.  They then lead us upstairs to a large room where the rest of the choir was assembled.  Members surrounded us and introduced themselves, pointing to their nametags which they all had hanging on strings around their necks.  Every single person I talked to made sure to make us feel like we were part of the group.  As we participated in the warm-up exercises, the moment we looked confused, or even before we had a chance to, someone was always there to help us along.  We went through the routine of stretching, singing while walking, singing while walking backwards and other voice exercises.  The new members had their voices examined and I was placed into the Alto section.  We practiced with our section and then sang the piece as a whole choir.  After practice there was a designated time for people to make
announcements.  I quickly caught on to choir rituals such as the established responses to certain phrases.  Whenever a member was speaking to the choir he or she announced their name and everyone responded: “Whoa!”  If they mentioned a place: “so close!”, a time: “so early!”, a price: “so cheap!”  and so on.  These responses united
the entire club and created a fun atmosphere while listening to numerous ordinary speeches.   Once the announcements were finished we met with our section groups one last time before disbanding.  The Alto leader gave us a recap on practice and there was time for Alto-specific notices.  After some cleaning and a song by the guys,
then girls and finally everyone all together my first practice came to an end.

Before starting my CIP, I had been warned that it can be particularly difficult to engage Japanese in conversation but, instead, I found that I couldn’t get a word in edge-wise and was shocked by the contagious energy that everyone seemed to be bursting with.  After the first day, I left feeling confident that I would quickly make tons of friends.
However, as time passed and our novelty wore off, students stopped approaching us on their own.  I regularly talked to Alto members but otherwise I felt like I was sliding backwards and losing that initial sense of membership.  In retrospect, I think joining the circle with five other KCJS members and having that first overwhelming interaction with the Japanese students gave me a false sense of security that ended up reducing my efforts to socialize.  Another deterring factor was the number of practices.  The students
had most of February off and then when they did meet we were on Spring Break.  Despite these drawbacks I do enjoy being a member of the choir and internalizing Japanese social norms.  I hope to make the most of the last few practices
we have left and solidify the friendships I have made.

Natasha Gollin: Kyoto University Gasshoudan

I have been attending choir practice regularly since I first joined the Kyoudai Gasshoudan, or the Kyoto University Mixed Voices Chorus, early in fall semester. There was a break for approximately a month this semester, but other than that, I have usually been going to practices twice a week, and if all works out I intend to appear in part of the annual spring mini-concert/happyoukai on April 28th.

Starting choir last semester was hard because I did not know anyone there, save for one classmate. Additionally, the others had a head start on the songs, and I even had to learn how to pronounce some Hungarian! There were also some choir traditions and routines that I had to get used to—staying after for announcements and optional singing time, for one. But now, not only do I understand a lot of the musical terms (such as gakufu, “sheet music” and ensoukai ni noru, “to appear in a concert, lit. ‘ride’”) and find the music easier to learn, but I have several fellow KCJSers there with me! I feel like my decision to continue choir had a large influence on the decision of not just one, but FIVE other students to join as well. I am also used to the routine of things, though it gets tiring at times going over the same part in the music ad nauseam, or doing exercises for reasons unclear to me.

Due to the costs and time involved, this time I also passed on a couple of major choir happenings that I had participated in last semester: the retreat (which cost far more than last time, and even included some school days), and appearing in the full concert (which costs around 10,000 yen, but I decided to at least be in the E-ru (theme/fight song?) and encore, which only costs 2000 yen—not cheap, but at least I perform at all). However, because of this and the time off, I feel a little less connected to choir this semester. There is less motivation to keep attending each practice when I will not actually be performing the songs.

At first I may have been a hindrance, but now I feel like more of a “real member” than before. For one, since the end of the winter concert, I have graduated from a chorus first-year to a shin-nikaisei (“new” second year)! Also, I have been part of a planning team for a fun Christmas event with party games and song performances for each other. I have also performed an English song (Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours”) with two other KCJSers at this semester’s version of that event…and it was a huge hit. One person didn’t even care about looking up the actual song—he just wished he could hear OUR version again.  We found out a few weeks later that our act had won the grand prize by popular choice! I haven’t been so pleasantly shocked in a while.

After my time with the Gasshoudan, I came to see that its members are committed in a different way from typical American choruses—perhaps more at the same level as a college a cappella group. Because of the choir’s many expenses and hours of practice per week, the members have a high degree of loyalty and commitment to the group—often it is their only extracurricular activity.  Also, as I mentioned in my blog last semester, this choir certainly has its traditions, or shall I say quirks—odd nicknames, staying after practice for announcements where people in various leadership positions run up in front of the crowd and say things in unison, singing extra songs after that, and an array of unusual warm-ups, such as forming large concentric circles and doing scales while marching quickly backwards around the conductor. I am still fairly sure that this does not represent Japanese choirs as a whole…as I said last semester, the Kyodai Gasshoudan is just “a group with a long and distinguished history of excellence and quirkiness.”

From my CIP, I learned that people will always be there to help me or explain things to me when I need it, so I should not worry and struggle through the music director’s instructions alone. Since they were there for me, I felt the desire to continue in choir and keep working with them to make lovely music—which is, in the end, the objective here.

Though the Gasshoudan was socially out of my comfort zone, I learned that while in a foreign country, it’s always good to put yourself out there and try to bond with your peers—to start talking with people, work hard at what you’re doing, keep a cheerful and approachable demeanor, and do not be afraid to ask questions. You will get a lot out of your experience, trust me.

Adam Roberts: G-Front Kansai, LGBT Support Circle

My spring semester CIP is, as I said before, working with G-Front Kansai, an organization dedicated to the support of LGBT people in the Kansai area and, by extension, Japan as a whole. At first, the circle was not what I had expected, but I soon came to appreciate the members’ standpoint, their limitations, and their strengths.

My experience with LGBT circles has mostly come from the brief exposure to the GSA that I had during my freshman year in college. Through these student organizations, I had come to expect a more activism-oriented approach to dealing with LGBT problems. However, when I participated in my first LGBT circle meeting here in Japan, I found something very different in the Doshisha LGBT circle. (This post is not about the Doshisha circle, but it is part of the experience.)

The Doshisha circle, for starters, was entirely closed and a complete secret. I am not sure how some of my fellow KCJSers initially discovered it, but I had to be invited by a member who was already in the circle in order to attend their lunch meeting. Although I was not sure what to expect when I arrived, I was simultaneously under- and overwhelmed. The lunch meeting was precisely that: the members were eating lunch together and chatting with each other. I expected some planned activities or discussion about sexuality to take place, but when I finally began engaging the members in conversation it was like pulling teeth to get them to speak about themselves or their experience as sexual minorities in Japan. It struck me that even in a meeting geared specifically towards lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people, some members were still uncomfortable with the idea of talking about the issues facing them. The conversations between individuals ranged from mundane to raunchy, but there was no apparent goal set for the circle.

I attended a few more meetings, and one day I asked the circle’s leader if some straight friends who were “friends to LGBT people” (I couldn’t conjure up the word for “supporters”) could come to one of the meetings, as they were interested in getting involved with the group. The leader talked in circles for a bit, said “chotto” about 100 times, and then said that they were not allowed because it was a group for gay people.

I was so frustrated that I never went back.

Jump ahead to January 2012, and I am looking for a new CIP. Fukai-sensei found G-Front Kansai on the internet and suggested that I attend. When I went to the first meeting with Lucia, we were instructed to wait at the bus platform at the station and call a phone number. A few minutes later, the circle’s leader came and met us at the platform, and we followed him through the streets of Osaka until we arrived at the small apartment in which the meetings were held. The first meeting went well – a straightforward explanation of what the organization did and how often, as well as collection of dues. I was somewhat overwhelmed and felt more than a little awkward about the language barrier, but after going to dinner with them I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

As my time in G-Front continued, however, I came to realize that many of the characteristics that I had found so frustrating in the Doshisha circle were present here as well. One example was the lack of conversation about activities, activism, or even just opinions on issues facing sexual minorities in Japan. I even felt awkward about asking their opinions on some broader issues, and some of the opinions they shared surprised me.

I questioned how organizations like the Doshisha circle and G-Front could keep themselves going with such small memberships (6 people was average attendance at the meetings I was able to attend), and what good these groups were doing when they had so few katsudou (though G-Front has a great deal more than the Doshisha circle).

At some point, it struck me that these groups are not focused on activism in the sense that we think of it in the West, mainly because the set of issues facing the LGBT community are different – in Japan, the potential repercussions of being outed could be considered much more severe than in America due to the emphasis on group membership. Once you’re different, you “can’t be in that group anymore.” I understood then that these groups, though they do engage in some activism, are more focused on creating a safe haven for those brave enough to come to the meetings. This also explained the (frankly un-)surprising amount of sexual banter that occurred at some of the meetings – there is no other place in the world where these people can completely bare themselves without fear of being ostracized.

Even though the passive nature of some of these groups frustrated me at the beginning, I was reminded how important it is to have these sorts of spaces for people to fully express themselves without fear of judgement. Being a gaijin (and therefore excluded from many of the experiences that Japanese people have), it took a longer time to perceive the rationale behind the groups’ natures. Most importantly, however, I realized that I had forgotten how difficult it is to be in the closet, and to feel that pressure on the other side of the door, keeping it shut.

Though I still believe that the ideal way for these groups to solve the problem of discrimination is to engage in political activism, I was reminded that treating the symptoms can be just as important as finding a cure.

Manxian Zhang: Zenryuji Nursery School

Back in the United States, I mentored a Chinese toddler who was adopted into an American family at the age of one. While I introduced aspects of his forgotten culture to him, he showed me what it is like growing up in an ethnically different family in a foreign country. I found that mutual exchange of knowledge extremely gratifying so I decided to continue that sort of interaction with children while I am here in Kyoto. I figured that volunteering in a nursery school would be the best choice since I would be able to teach the children some English and perhaps some American children games while their behaviors as well as the teacher’s actions would allow me to observe the values and expectations instilled in four to five year- old children.

That sort of interaction was not so easily achieved. My duties initially comprised of patting the children to sleep and disinfecting their toys. Not a single word was exchanged during my first couple of visits. So I decided to come an hour earlier and eat lunch together with the children. Changing my hours was the right decision. During lunchtime, I would pick a table to sit and talk to four or five kids as we eat. Japanese suddenly become ten times more difficult when talking to the children in the nursery school. Not only did they have strong Kansai dialects, but also they would talk about their classmates and address themselves in the third person, which sometimes confused me, as I would lose track of the subject of the conversation. I also noticed that children could play with anything you give them. During playtime, the teachers usually provide a few selections of toys for them, but that did not deter them from having a great time with clothespins and cups, not your conventional toys.

Also, I was pleasantly surprised by the extent the teachers allowed me to help out. I poured tea for the kids, brought out some of their meals, put the tables away, wiped the chairs and helped perform some other miscellaneous tasks. Initially, I was allowed to play with the children after lunch, but the duties I have to perform increased incrementally to the point where before mealtime I helped prepare lunch and afterwards, after cleaning up, I was usually sent downstairs to pat the younger children to sleep.  So the time of actual interaction with children was limited to just lunchtime and even the time set aside for lunch was not set because it seemed like every time I go there, lunch ended at a different time.

I did not succeed in getting the amount of interaction I wanted with the children (I never got to teach them children games or fun methods to learn English) and with the teachers (they were all very busy throughout the time I was there, as their duties range from a caretaker to a janitor). Despite the short amount of interaction, the teachers did not make me feel as an outsider as they would have me help out as much as possible. In addition, I was able to observe the values and expectations promoted in early Japanese education and I witnessed the dynamics of the children’s interaction among themselves and with the teachers. Although my CIP experience was not everything that I had expected, I learned so much from it and gain so many unforgettable memories. So my best advice to future students who are looking for CIP activities, don’t come into it with a list of expectations, you probably won’t fulfill all of it. Instead, enter your CIP with an open- mind and be prepared for failures and unexpected achievements.

Julie Shih: Nico Toma Hospital Volunteer

Every week at Nico Toma is a different experience. As a group that plans and puts together activities for hospitalized children, one week we would be packing items to sell at their bazaar and another week we would be helping to serve food at their annual Sakura café. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect each week, but that was part of the fun, and the volunteers were always energetic and welcoming. While helping them prepare, we had many opportunities to talk with fellow volunteers. They were naturally curious about the places we came from and we also discussed the differences between American and Japanese culture. I also got the chance to talk to some volunteers about their experiences volunteering with Nico Toma and why they decided to become involved. Many of them had been part of the group for years and years, and from working with them, I could feel a strong sense of solidarity.

I’ve volunteered back in the States before, but never in this kind of setting. It was hard to see the children attached to tubes and machines knowing that there’s nothing we could do regarding their illnesses. I couldn’t help but wonder what a childhood would be like that was spent going in and out of the hospital. However, I’ve realized that children are children wherever you go, energetic and mischievous (one boy snuck back for seconds!), who enjoy playing with other kids and playing games on their DS. Seeing everyone smiling and enjoying the café, I hope that we’ve been able to do what we can to bring some joy into their lives. Overall, volunteering at Nico Toma was an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.