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Stranger in a Strange Land: Life Lessons in Kyoto

Dear Rudy,

Two years after graduating from college, I found myself footloose and fancy-free (read: jobless), with some savings and no desire to find another job or to go to graduate school. I had spent three years at my small college in rural Washington State studying the Japanese Tea Ceremony, along with other aspects of Japanese culture, and realized that I was uniquely placed to spend an unforgettable year in Kyoto, Japan pursuing my studies in Tea.

Although my stay in Japan was over a dozen years ago, I still feel the impact of Kyoto in my life. I can't buy four pieces of fruit in the grocery store. (The Sino-Japanese pronunciation for the number "four" is the same as the word "death," and thus is very bad luck). I canít watch someone put soy sauce on white rice in an oriental restaurant without cringing. I canít celebrate the New Year without remembering standing on a hill above Kyoto at midnight on December 31 and listening to all the Buddhist temples in the city ring their bells 108 times to remind everyone within earshot of the sins of mankind.

I remember the wonderful people who befriended me. The Buddhist priests, monks and scholars I was privileged to work with translating Buddhist scripture into American vernacular English. (A harder drinking, more fun-loving, more compassionate and kind group of men I have yet to meet.) The people with whom I studied Tea: the headmaster of our Tea School, his family, disciples and students. They all made this tall, gawky "gai-jin" woman feel I was truly part of a tradition of grace and beauty that stretches back hundreds of years. The students I tutored in English shared with me insights into Japanese culture that I would have never learned any other way.

Even fleeting encounters stick in my mind: the woman who called her family out to the street on New Years' Day to see this American woman waiting at the bus stop dressed up in traditional kimono; the proprietor of the umbrella shop in my neighborhood who deducted 200 yen from the price of my umbrella because I spoke to her in Japanese; the schoolgirls from the countryside who, while on a field-trip to Kyoto, were assigned to practice their English on a tourist and who laughed with me as I practiced my Japanese on them.

I have also kept an indelible memory of being a stranger, of being a five-foot, nine-inch, blue-eyed, curly-haired American constantly surrounded by short, dark-haired people who all spoke the same language. That was sometimes a painful shock to a shy, soft-spoken WASP native of the Pacific Northwest who had, prior to my year in Kyoto, very little opportunity to mix with people of other cultures and races.

That sense of being different, of standing out no matter what I tried to do to fit in, provided me with some idea of what visitors, immigrants and members of minority groups in the United States face daily in their efforts to cope with American culture. My memory of the politeness and kindness with which the Japanese treated me during my year as a stranger in their world provides me with a lasting example to use in my daily efforts to help those I encounter feel welcome in mine.

Not a bad souvenir to bring back from my stay abroad.

Happy traveling,




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