Kurisumasu, Omiyage, and Fitting-in: Third Monthsary of KAKEHASHI Journalists in Japan

DISCLAIMER: The contents of this article only reflect the views of the authors. The writing does not reflect the views of the AFS Philippines, Japan, and MEXT.

Faiza and Micah met in the oddest but most meaningful of times. They met after Micah submitted her articles to Revolt Magazine PH. She shared her exchange student journey on the magazine and her struggles to get aboard even before that. Faiza is a young Indonesian journalist, and she read Micah’s articles after the coordinators from AFS Japan shared Micah’s writing. Faiza did not hesitate to approach her fellow journalist after Indonesia’s photoshoot at the hotel’s garden.

Both students are part of what could only be described as the bravest batch of Asia KAKEHASHI Project exchange students. After their two-week quarantine period in the hotel, the participants were safely brought to their local chapters and now are about to celebrate their 3rd month of staying in Japan.

For this time, Micah and Faiza will tell more about what is the life of being an exchange student in Japan and how they manage to still make it through 2021 away from their home country, family, and amid another wave of COVID-19.

Micah: “New people, new stories, new experiences, and new point-of-view”

My host community is so great! They warmly welcomed me when I first arrived at the airport with other exchange students. The language barrier is so visible as we are sometimes being lost in translation or mumbling unknown words when we speak with locals, but guess what, they are all so happy to help and amazed that the 留学生 (exchange students) chose to live, explore, and learn more about their community despite the global pandemic we are all facing.

Also, my host school is so caring with us. My placement is in a dorm (which is under our host school), and it is not boring at all! It gives independence, and the dorm mothers here love us so much that they always talk to us about our school and where we went. The food is so yummy, I ended up gaining weight here.

My classmates are nice as well. I am in the same class with my fellow KAKEHASHI-er, Tan, from Thailand. Our class is more focused on liberal arts, giving us more time to learn English and history. We also teach our language to our classmates sometimes. The funny thing about it, I am teaching them two languages from the Philippines already. Filipino, the national language, and then the Swardspeak, which is the gay lingo, is commonly used in my home community, Manila. A notable difference between Filipino to Swardspeak is that if somebody wants to say “let’s go!” or “行きましょう!”, the Filipino term for it is “Tara na!” or “Taralets!” but in Swardspeak, it will be “Gorabells, mga bakla!” or “Gorabells!”.

I also got to a lot of places in my community thanks to my schoolmates’ ever-great efforts. I was shocked when the Junior High School students were the ones who organized our field trip one time. Our second school trip is now organized by the class section where my fellow KAKEHASHI-er from Indonesia, Rahmi, is placed. New people, new stories, new experiences, and new point-of-view. It may be winter here, but it will not stop the bloom of new friendships. Besides that, I also met a lot of students who have great stories to tell. Hearing their stories and their willingness to share their stories with me makes me glad as an exchange student and a journalist who relies on people’s stories on having insights into Japanese society.

Anyway, now back to school topic.

Together with the AFS Hakata Chapter, they threw a welcome party for us. We don’t have food, and the party is not that long because we are still obeying the rules and measurements to decrease COVID-19 infections. Still, nothing can stop my community and school from becoming hospitable after finally having us and continuing the purpose of intercultural learning and bridging our countries to Japan.

Faiza: “My host community are so warm and welcoming”

At first, I kept my expectations low at everything. Worrying too much will make me compare and expect impossible things between us, so what comes to my mind is always to bring kindness and hospitality everywhere I go. But I have to say I got a blissful host community, either it’s in my family, school, and chapter!

So I was placed in different conditions than the others. I got three host families. Truly impressive, right? For now, I’ve just spent my time with my first host family. I got a kind host mom that felt like my true soul match, a cool host dad, and three funny and unique young brothers. We often spend quality time together, like playing board games and talk about special moments on that day. My host mom is pretty busy, so I cooked dinner sometimes. I also love cooking, so it was a pleasant moment for me.

When my host family finished their food and said, “ご地租様” (“gochisosama” which means “thank you for the meal”) I felt never-ending joy in my heart. I want to show my love and gratefulness through the foods that I’ve made for them. Sometimes it’s desserts, snacks, or main meals for dinner or lunch. I’ve already cooked 14 kinds of meals. Of course, I introduced Indonesian meals and snacks, too!

Even our Christmas dinner theme is Indonesian foods such as Anchovy Fried Rice, Javanese Fried Chicken, Javanese Fried Rice Noodle, Fried Chicken with Sambal (spicy Indonesian sauce), Chicken Katsu, Palm sugar Fried Banana, and Balinese Egg tart.

I even made the chicken katsu and Balinese egg tart several times because my youngest host brother loves it so much. Chicken katsu is kind of an acculturation meal between Indonesia and Japan. Originally it’s とんかつ (tonkatsu, a fried pork cutlet) in Japan. However, Indonesians with Islam as their religion (including me) cannot eat pork due to our religious beliefs. So, we substitute the pork cutlet with chicken breast. Interesting, right? Foods always bring comfort to everyone.

When I get inspired, I draw some pictures. My youngest host brother loves to draw so much. Especially creatures like 妖怪 (Yokai, a Japanese folklore creature) and monsters. When I draw something, he will sit in front of me and watch me draw until I’m finished. I draw many pictures of him. But after some time, I decided we should draw together, and it was a lovely time. He is a great artist already, and I’m proud of him.

My host mom teaches English to children. I joined her too sometimes. Her students are active and amazing. We have fun, and they often ask me questions. Fairly honest, I often learned Japanese from them too. Who said children cannot teach the older ones, well let me prove that such a thing is false. To express my gratitude and appreciation for them, I made two kinds of Christmas cards for them. When they received it, they said countless thank you, but it’s me that thanked them a lot. Don’t worry, I made personal Christmas cards for my host family too!

Everyone in the school is kind and unique in their way. Especially in my first week of school, I learn to get used to the Japanese high school students’ activities, like going to school by bus and train, plus walking. We walked together along the way to school every day. They taught me words and Japanese people habits throughout our conversations. We have fun on our walk to school, and it doesn’t feel like a 15 minute-walk at all. When I work on my 宿題 (homework), and I didn’t understand at some point, they helped me until I could understand it. The same goes for the teachers. At first, we get lost in translation sometimes, and then we exchange language with each other; for example, I taught them Indonesian words for the Japanese words they have said to me. Afterward, I pay attention to what they taught in front of us. If I can’t understand some lessons, I’ll learn about them at home after school with my dictionary. Such a supportive environment, isn’t it? As it seems, I had nothing to lose!

My host community, the Keiyo Chapter, are so warm and welcoming. We did the Do-It-Yourself candle making together as a welcoming party. Everyone made and chose their colors for the candles they wanted to make. We also discussed our purpose of coming here and exchanging our cultures amidst these dangerous COVID-19 situations to get less risk in our programs.

Micah: “Christmas made me feel homesick…”

Dorm placement also gives us another opportunity. Besides being in the dorm, we will also have a host family when the Winter break comes. In my case, my host family is my classmate, her mother, and their dachshund dog.

Being with them does not make me feel like a stranger, a guest, or nobody. I am one of them, I am a member of their family, even if it’s just a short stay, and they will always be in my heart. I admit that Christmas made me feel homesick because I celebrated Christmas Eve in the dorm, and it is my first time celebrating it without my family. As a Christian, it is not just a cultural tradition but also a religious one. Thankfully, on December 25, my God-sent gift arrived, which is finally being with my host family, and they welcomed me to their family by throwing a Christmas Eve Party that night.

Also, New Year’s Day is quite different than the Filipino New Year celebration. The same culture that Filipino families are doing at Christmas is all that Japanese people do in the New Year. I received the money in an ampao, which the Japanese call “お年玉,” and we also celebrated it with my host mom’s family.

Lastly, my host family let me wear Kimono. The exchange program to Japan will never be complete without wearing Kimono. Carpe diem, everyone! This is just once in a lifetime, and wearing Japanese Kimono surely is a long perfection and hold-breathing process, yet memorable experience.

Faiza: “The celebration of Kurisumasu and New Year means a lot…”

As I said before, I was never their guest or a stranger to them. I am the daughter, part of the family too. So the celebration of Kurisumasu and New Year means a lot for all of us. I cooked Indonesian foods for them and Chocolate Mousse as a dessert. We had Christmas dinner along with my second host family. It was pleasant; we ate delicious meals and had warm conversations. My second host family said they cannot wait for me to cook more Indonesian meals for them. Oh, I am so excited about that. I want to share my love through food with all of them. Afterward, we play board games like Jenga and Labyrinth together!

My classmates also invited me to a Christmas party, and I’m not lying when I said they are extremely kind and generous for giving me such an opportunity. We have たこ焼き (takoyaki) party and eat plenty of them. We also sang Christmas songs and played cards together like a true J. K. alias Joshi Kousei (girls highschooler)! Exchanging presents is part of our ritual, too. I got lovely hairpins, and that made me happy. Both of them are extremely heartwarming and special to me.

The moment that my first Christmas is celebrated in Japan, a country I never visited before with lovely people. In Indonesia, Christmas is celebrated only by Christians and Catholics. But hey, it’s all about respect and gratitude here. My religion taught me that, so I truly cherished every moment on it, appreciating human lives and what made them alive. To be truly human, treating each other equally and respectively without seeing their differences. I found beauty in them; they hold a special place in my heart.

New Year in Japan is truly unique. We went to my host mom’s parents (obaachan and ojiichan!) house and did 餅つき (mochitsuki), a Japanese tradition for celebrating the new year. In cold, windy weather, we made mochi from scratch. There are many toppings that we could try such as きなこ (kinako, or ground soybean), あんこ (anko, a red bean paste), cocoa powder, also everyone’s favorites: 磯辺巻き (isobeyaki, a mochi dipped in soy sauce and wrapped with dry seaweed). And if you think mochi is only available for the sweet tooth, then you are wrong. We ate savory ones too! Like お雑煮 (ozoni, a Japanese New Year mochi soup), and it warms our body and tastes nice!

My host grandmother, a.k.a obaachan, taught me a lot about Japanese cultures in the past. She showed me an old haiku painting and explained it to me thoroughly. It was totally impressive; I was lucky because I am also interested in such a thing. While waiting for the clock to hit 0:00 a.m, obaachan bake strawberry cake and prepare おせち (osechi, one of traditional Japanese foods) for all of us, and I helped her too. She talked so much to me about her interest in my country, Indonesia’s cultures, and I happily explained it to her.

Finally, the 0:00 a.m hit. We ate 年越しそば (Toshi Koshi soba, a year-crossing noodle) it’s a long time customs that people believe will bring good luck in that year. Sounds good, isn’t it?

January 1, our breakfast was osechi! To be honest, the taste of them is unique. It’s sweet and savory at the same time. Each food symbolizes different meanings through its shapes and colors. My favorite is 黒豆 (kuromame, or black beans). It symbolizes good health and good luck in the new year. Then, we prepared ourselves to pray at a local shrine.

Wearing kimono is something that I’ve wanted to try for so long, and my host mom made me wear it too. It was such a lovely kimono that we bought on a local vintage market a week ago. My host mom knew what she’s doing. She said nowadays, people, especially the young ones didn’t know how to wear a kimono properly. Indeed, it was complicated but brought so much grace upon it. As life did to us, sometimes it’s complicated, but they taught us many things and brought joys too. We pray at the 人っじゃ(jinja, a shrine) and watch the traditional performance.

Don’t forget to check out omikuji too! It’s a paper that tells us how our year is going to be. Well, better be safe than sorry, right?

Message to the incoming KAKEHASHI applicants?

What? Fourth batch? Yes, there is!

The call for applicants for the Asia Kakehashi Batch 4 (2021–2022) was released by AFS Japan last December 24. Interested applicants should contact their country’s AFS offices or other official sending organizations (like Bina Antarbudaya in Indonesia and AFS Philippines) for the local selection dates. We’ll wait for your stories in the next cycle, and we hope you also enjoy your stay in Japan just like Faiza and I did.

I knew you felt nervous, and maybe sometimes you questioned your self-worth. It’s normal, don’t worry, it is part of our journey, too! You were never alone after all. You got yourself and your endless support from your loved ones. Please look at the sky now and whisper, “At least I could grab the stars through my effort in reaching my dreams now.” What matters the most is the realization of not stopping learning and being kind towards each other. This is Faiza, and I believe in you!

Micah Corin A. Salonoy & Faiza Layalia Az-Zahra

Micah Corin A. Salonoy is a HUMSS graduate of Manuel A. Roxas Senior High School – Manila. Salonoy became Ang Gulong’s editor-in-chief in the school year 2018–2019, becoming a two-time RSPC Qualifier (2014, 2018). Together with 17 other Filipino students, she represented the Philippines in the third batch of the MEXT’s Asia KAKEHASHI Project. Faiza Layalia Az-Zahra is a 17-year-old 12th Grade high school student of 7th Surabaya Municipal High School. She likes to explore her hometown’s never-ending tales, especially the stories of local collectives, communities, events. She also likes interviewing artists. Together with 23 other Indonesian students, she represented Indonesia in the third batch of the MEXT’s Asia KAKEHASHI Project.

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