by Colleen McCollum, CCI High School Abroad Participant in Japan
Among my friends at my host school in Japan, there were two exchange students: a girl from Hong Kong, and a girl from Slovakia. Our friendship had a sort of inevitability to it; if you spend a few hours in a library with someone every single week for four months, you can’t help but get to know them. I was lucky to have these two. They were nice, they were fun to talk to, and I learned all kinds of things about their homes’ cultures. Slovakian food, the gap between Hong Kong and mainland China, Christmas in Europe, and the taste of CocaCola chicken.
Unfortunately, all good things must end, and in this case our time together came to a close in December. They were both going home in January. We decided to spend one last day together in Japan.
True to Japanese culture, we went to a karaoke box. My Slovakian friend couldn’t keep up with the Japanese lyrics, so we meticulously searched the song database for all the English songs: Lady Gaga, Owl City, Panic! At the Disco, Avril Lavigne, My Chemical Romance, Train, Coldplay… It wasn’t easy, but we managed to keep this up for a solid two hours. All that singing made us hungry, and we had lunch at an independent ramen restaurant. I say restaurant, but it was only big enough to seat 12 or 13 people max. A friendly old woman took our orders.
Ramen is a classic food in Japan, the equivalent of the American hot dog or maybe chili. Of course, there’s the Cup Noodles that many Americans live off of (I’m looking at you, college kids), but homemade ramen is another matter altogether. It always comes in a big deep bowl, steaming and smelling amazing. The most common toppings are bamboo shoots, a slice or two of pork, maybe a piece of dried seaweed. Of course, there are many varieties of ramen, and it’s not just the toppings that change. The soup itself can be flavored in many different ways.
We ate our ramen in the accepted Japanese way: with a lot of noise. The Japanese slurp their noodles. I’ve heard it increases the aroma of the noodles. They’re very fast, because the longer you leave ramen sitting, the soggier the noodles get. The way they grasp a bunch of noodles between their chopsticks and slurp it all up in one go is pretty impressive. Of course, being exchange students, we lacked this professional skill, so our progress was considerably slower.
With nothing much else to do, we went shopping. Clothes stores, accessory stores, shoe stores, music stores, and of course our favorite: the 100 yen store. It’s the equivalent of the American dollar store, and there are 100 yen stores all over the city. They have everything, from food to socks to hairpins to giftbags to garden decorations. We were there on December 30th, which meant they had all manner of New Year-related things too.
We talked on the train home about going home. My Slovakian friend was leaving Japan with mixed feelings; she loved Japan, but she missed her friends. She was also worried about how behind she would be in school, and everything that would have changed in her absence. It made me wonder how things would be different for me when I returned to America. Just because I returned to America, it didn’t mean I would return to life exactly as it had been. I felt in that moment the constant progression of time, how I truly couldn’t ever go back to ‘before.’
My friend from Hong Kong saw her return to China as temporary. She’ll be back in Japan by spring, to attend prep school for Japanese university. I think she’s brave, for having the courage to find a future in another country.
None of us were the crying type, so there were no tears when we said good-bye at the station with promises to keep in touch. Then we all stepped onto our separate trains, literally and figuratively, and departed in our various directions.