My New Life in Spain

My feelings towards my new life as an English teacher in Spain change drastically from moment to moment. At times, I think… Wow. This is amazing. This is such an awesome opportunity to live and work abroad and experience a new culture. I’m so lucky. I have thoughts like this after a great class at school, or while exploring a new city.

Then there are other moments when I feel so lost… Amber, you’re ridiculous. Why do you keep moving to countries where you barely know the language?

I was stuck in this thought cycle last weekend at a salsa dancing club in Valencia. It was a combination of two new life challenges: speaking Spanish and my identity as a dancer. My thoughts were battling my experience, and I couldn’t help but think, You’re an athlete, not a dancer. And the noise from the club made it impossible for me to understand what people were saying, even if I could speak their language fluently.

These moments when I feel completely and utterly lost because of the language barrier remind me of my two years in Japan. From 2014 to 2016 I lived in Fukui Prefecture as an Assistant Language Teacher with the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program, and I also went into that experience knowing zero Japanese. (Am I brave or am I stupid? is a question I ask myself…)  After leaving Japan, I only had two months of transition time at home in California, and then I traveled with my dad in France and Switzerland for three weeks doing via ferratas, and now I’m completely immersed in Spain. The food, the language, the culture, the history, people’s attitudes, the daily schedule, my role at school… so much is drastically different!

The newness can be overwhelming at times, but luckily I’ve found a comfortable apartment where I can decompress. I live on the liveliest street in a town called Almendralejo, population 34,000, with three flatmates. I have my own room but I share the living room and kitchen with two Spanish university students, Carmen and Fede, and another English teacher named Margrit from New York. We have a balcony overlooking a big plaza boasting three restaurants and a playground, which is often filled with kids buzzing around on scooters. I can walk to a bar or a grocery store in 2 minutes, and rent is ridiculously cheap.

I teach at two schools. One is a private Jesuit high school and elementary school in a pueblo of 2,800 people called Villafranca, which is about a 15 minute drive from my apartment. I catch a ride to school with a young teacher who wants to improve her English, so we alternate speaking English and Spanish. The other is a public high school in a town of 3,700 called Hornachos which is nestled below a small mountain range. The weaving road to Hornachos, next to red flat lands and speckled with olive trees, reminds me of Australia. I pass the 30 minute ride to school by practicing my Spanish with my generous coworkers who give me lifts.

My work life is satisfying and challenging. When I first arrived here I told my supervisors that I had two years of teaching experience, and that I really wanted to take an active role in teaching. So in my 12 classroom teaching hours, I’m completely responsible for planning and teaching 8 of those on my own. After studying the material given to me by the main teachers, I design a lesson filled with interactive presentations, songs, games, role-play, debates, or whatever I can think of. I’m really grateful for the chance to use my creativity! 

At the elementary school, I’m teaching social science to 3 classes of rambunctious eight, nine, and ten-year-olds. The textbook features topics like “The Water Cycle” and “The Geosphere,” and it’s a great challenge for me to make these subjects accessible for them. I use some techniques I learned in Japan, such as walking around and checking their pronunciation individually (with many smiles and high-fives!) I’m picking up quite a few classroom management ideas. I use a call and response rhythm game to get their attention when they become noisy.

 

 

In my free time, I go to the gym, dance zumba, cook vegan food, study Spanish, or hang out with my roommates. I travel at least once a month. So far I’ve been to Madrid, Caceres, Badajoz, Seville, and Valencia, on weekends, and I have a long list of places I want to go!

Although it was a difficult decision, I decided to stay in Spain for my winter holidays. I will be volunteering at a youth hostel in a small pueblo outside of Granada. I hope that my experience there will be up to par to what I did last winter vacation! I volunteered on an oyster farm in Kumihama Bay, Japan, where I learned all about the process of farming oysters, and got experience life as a farmer for a week. In the village I only met two people who spoke English: Atsushi, the generous man who coordinated my stay, and Goshia, another volunteer from Poland who became a very good friend. Even though it was cold, my week volunteering there tops my list of experiences in Japan.

I love living somewhere new and learning how everything works! Atsushi told me that when he lived in Canada, his mind expanded 100 times, and I can completely relate. Every time I live in a new place, I can feel my brain growing… there are so many possibilities for this life!

 

 

 

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Scaling Cliffs in Switzerland and France

 

Imagine yourself on a cliff, your harness tied into a metal cable via 2 carabiners and straps, standing on metal rungs looking straight down 800 feet. You are above an expansive green valley high in the Haute Savoie region of the French Alps, south of Geneva.  An hour ago, it was raining, but the sky has cleared, and rays of light filter through the clouds like a message from God.

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This is the view you see. Your heart is beating quickly, yet you are safe. Does this sound terrifying to you? Would you try it anyway?

In Italian, Via Ferrata translates to “the Iron Way.” The origins date back to the First World War, where some Via Ferratas were built in Italy to help troops cross over the Dolomites efficiently. Now, they are the perfect excursion for thrill-seekers, and make epic cliffs more accessible to adventurers of all ages and levels of athleticism.

I got the chance to try 17 via ferratas this summer with my dad in the Swiss Alps and in the Haute Savoie region of the French Alps, north and south of Geneva. We zoomed through valleys and up tiny winding mountain roads in a rental car, following advice from “Via Ferratas of the French Alps” by Richard Miller. Our original goal was to to cram as many vias as we could into our two weeks together.  Later our goal changed just to do the highest rated vias. Since my uncle Jimmy had been climbing with Dad a few weeks prior, he graciously left me his harness and carabiners, so all I had to do was buy a helmet and gloves and we were ready to go.
 The guidebook we were using rates vias from 1-5 and with three factors: difficulty, exposure, and accessibility, A, B, or C. Difficulty is how physically challenging it is, exposure is how high off the ground it is, and accessibility is how long it takes to walk to the start. Dad first wanted to check I was capable of managing the equipment, so we started with some easier routes. The first few we did in the Savoie region were a 2,2, A called St. Sorlin d’Arves and a 3,3, A at St. Colomban des Villards, Savoie. These required a low level of athleticism, and we saw kids doing them too.

Once I realized that I could easily do a 3-3, I tried to convince Dad to let me try a 5-5. He finally conceded at Les Rois Mages, Assois, France. The scariest part of that route is a single-line bridge, with only one shaky wire to walk on and one to hold on to, and a huge drop-off beneath you that you are forced to look down at as you sidestep across. (We always wondered how we would get back off if we fell off that part. I think I would go about it like a koala.) After that route, I felt the true draw of via ferratas: a combination of fear and exhilaration, and at the end a huge sense of relief mixed with accomplishment and achievement.

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This was one of the scariest moments of my life.

This was my dad’s second summer of doing Via Ferratas in a rental car ($13 per day from the Geneva airport on the French side). He discovered them in 2010 when his friend Anne Claude took him on one in Engleberg, Switzerland.

“I kept thinking, ‘the Swiss are crazy,’ as I was climbing,” my dad told me. “But then here I was on a cliff with incredible views feeling safe. I was hooked.”

He bought the harness, helmet, and two via ferrata straps and caribeeners, and spent the summer driving around Switzerland in a rental car.

Getting to the via ferrata was often an adventure in itself. Many vias require a hike in, and sometimes it’s tricky to find the trail.  On Via Ferrata des Orres (5,5,B) in Crolles, France, we almost gave up after a 5 mile hike and bush walking next to the cliff face, but then I backtracked and realized we had missed the unmarked trail leading to the start.

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One of my favorite vias we did was Crotte a Carret (5,5,A) in France. After a 2 mile downhill hike, we reached the cave where it started. In the 1800’s, Jean Carret built a little dwelling in the cliffside next to this cave so he could do prehistoric digs.  Now one of the hardest vias in the world starts from inside it.

 

Another highlight was the via out of St. Hilaire du touvet, near Crolles, France. This via was a 5,5,A, with many laybacks and small holds. It was raining that day, so we weren’t sure if we would be able to do it. But we decided to hike to the start and see if the weather would take mercy on us. Luckily, the sky cleared just at the right time, so we were able to do the climb. I saw paragliders swooping by us along the way, as well as a mountain goat leaping down the cliff.​

 

Along the way, we stayed at youth hostels and cheap hotels. As I try to follow a mostly vegan diet I was mostly buying my food at grocery stores and preparing my meals on the go. We snacked a lot on trail mix and fruit in between vias. I enjoyed cooking for my dad in our hotel room.

 

When I’m doing a via, I forget how high up I am. Just like anything, it’s an exercise in mindfulness and being present. I’d try to unite my movements and my breath, and observe the climb before starting each section, planning my movements ahead of time. When seen in sections, a huge overtaking becomes a set of steps. This way of thinking reminds me of the main point of one of my Japanese students speeches: “Set small goals that you can reach!”

My dad and I talk about flow, which is the feeling you get when everything else seems to slip away, and all that’s left is you and the rock. You’re not worried about anything else, but completely and totally in the present moment, one with your breath and your motions. On vias, especially on difficult ones, I could feel my reality dissipate, all my to-do lists and worries about the future melt into nothingness, as I just focused on ascending the cliff I was dangling from. It’s a rare feeling, but I want to cultivate it in my every day life. I’ve had these moments fleetingly in yoga and meditation, or other sports like ultimate frisbee. All that matters is the task at hand.

Next summer, my dad will return to Europe to do more via ferratas in the Italian Dolomites, and I hope to join him! I’m so blessed to have an active and adventurous father, and I want to take advantage of these summers we have together to do something epic. Does anyone want to join us?

Santa Barbara Summer

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This summer has been a whirlwind. After closing my life out in Japan – a long process which involved deep-cleaning my apartment, closing out my bank account and transferring money home, cancelling my local phone number, selling my car, bike and electric piano, saying goodbye to all my friends, students, and co-workers – I finally went home.

On July 26 I took two trains, a plane, and a bus from Fukui, Japan to Santa Barbara, California.

 

I was there for ten weeks, giving me ample time to reunite with family and friends and even do a bit of traveling.  I made sure to bask in Santa Barbara’s natural beauty, too. I spent many morning jogging and doing yoga on the beach.  On Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons, I played ultimate frisbee at East Beach and jumped in the ocean afterwards.

It’s amazing to see what everyone has been doing during the past few years. Several friends are pumping out their PhD’s – Natalie at University of California, Santa Barbara, Nari at Arizona State University- and my friend Emily just had a baby! Gina became a nurse, and Hannah Ruth is doing massage, dancing, and working at a church.  Tessa moved to Seattle and found a job there, and Julia is works in animation in Los Angeles.

I think summer is an ideal time to visit Santa Barbara not only because of the perfect weather. Summer in SB also boasts amazing farmers markets, which I went to almost every Tuesday and Saturday. In early August, Santa Barbara comes alive for Fiesta, also known as Old Spanish Days, which is a huge celebration with flamenco dancing, parades, food stalls, and streets filled with confetti.

My cousin Bridget has a grown-up job, which is so weird because I always imagine her as my little cousin. I used to babysit her and do her makeup (poorly), and now she is living on her own in Oakland! Her sister Lindsey is studying at UC San Diego but was home for the summer, and we had a blast eating smoothies and going to the rock climbing gym.

One weekend, I hitched a ride up to San Francisco with Bridget, Lindsey and their parents Andy and Kate to attend my first music festival. Outside Lands was held in Golden Gate Park, and lucky for me I had a free place to stay with Kate’s sister. I tried to connect with my friends who live in San Francisco, like my friend Amanda from elementary school, who is now working as a tattoo artist! I saw a friend from university too, Prescott, who lived in Israel for a few years but is back in California now.

On one of the days of the music festival, I walked 9 miles from where I was staying to Golden Gate Park, passing through Mission District, the Castro, and Haight-Ashbury. While I think it would be a fun place to live, I was struck by the gentrification of the city. Imagine juice shops with lines out the door selling $9 smoothies next to pan-handlers in every park.

It was also great to see my grandparents and cousins Jennifer and Brandon, who live in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles. My cousin Brandon is over six feet tall now! He’s a good basketball player, and we had fun shooting hoops and swimming in their pool. My mom’s dad is 99, and having his 100th birthday this year! Power to him!

Stay tuned for updates from the second and third chapters of my summer: climbing in Switzerland, and France, and moving to Spain!

A Gratifying Ending: My last week of teaching, and feeling proud

My Last Week of Teaching

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Two years went by in the blink of an eye! This week I taught the final classes to my Japanese junior high school students. I’d been thinking and thinking, feeling a bit overwhelmed by the question: What should I do for my last lessons with my lovely students who I might never see again?

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I made this poster for the English classroom. I hope they remember me!

I settled on two simple activities: a game and a song. The song is called “When I’m Gone,” also known as “The Cup Song,” and its fun because every student gets a cup to drum on while we’re singing. The lyrics were quite appropriate for the occasion:

“When I’m gone, when I’m gone. You’re going to miss me when I’m gone! You’re going to miss me by my hair, you’re going to miss me everywhere, you’re sure going to miss me when I’m gone.”

I passed out cups, and demonstrated the drumming in slow-motion a few times. After practicing it a few times, I asked students to put their desks together in pairs (or make a circle if the group was small enough) so we could play the rhythm game and pass the cups. Some students loved it, and asked to play more after class.

The game I chose was simple “shiritori,” an easy word game where teams compete against each other.  The last letter of the first word starts the next word. For example: egg, giraffe, elephant, tree, etc… For ichi-nensei (first-years, or 12-13 year olds) I accepted words of any length, but for san-nensei (third years, or 14-15 year olds) I asked for words with five or more letters. I divided the class into 6 teams, and the first student wrote a word on the board and passed the chalk to the next player. Everyone loved it! By the second round, the whole class was standing and cheering for their teammates.

It’s an easy and fun game, and good for road trips or train rides. I play it in Japanese sometimes with my friends (For example: origami, itadakimasu, sushi, ichigo, etc) I hope that some of my students will play it again someday!

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I put this in the hallway to explain to students and teachers about my plans after Japan.  In retrospect the English I used was a little bit advanced, but I hope they got the idea.

Feeling Proud

For the past 2 years, I’ve been working at two junior high schools in Japan. Midori* has 380 students, and Chugo* has just 40. I went to Chugo every Wednesday, and Midori every other day. Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on my experience, I’m really proud of my efforts at both schools.

Midori

My first year at Midori, I strove to recreate the ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) position. When I first arrived there, there was no clear system for making a team teaching schedule. The Japanese English teachers I was working with were so overwhelmed with their other work so they rarely talked to me before our classes together (which is a problem for many ALTs!). I felt that I had to fight for change, for my own sanity as well as for my successor and every other ALT after us.

So I asked other ALTs for advice, and came up with a new system for the schedule, and presented it to my supervisor. I made my own schedule and printed out copies of it for my co-workers the week before classes.

The whole experience was a mental battle, since everything was happening in Japanese, and in order to feel involved I had to take action. So I decided to be extra friendly, and made a point to talk with teachers as much as possible. I consider myself to be an extremely outgoing person, but the language barrier made it harder for me to connect. I came to Japan knowing zero Japanese, and only 3 people besides me at my school could speak English well (the other English teachers.) Some of the other teachers knew a little English, but it was a constant challenge to fight feelings of isolation at school.

My first year, I wasn’t confident in my Japanese, but I knew I had to push myself to communicate with coworkers and new friends. So I found a tutor, and started meeting with him twice a week. Mr. Nakamura, who I met through a mutual friend, is one of the most patient people I’ve ever met. At the end of each lesson I was always surprised that I had been able to communicate in Japanese for an hour! After classes with him, I think I realized that ideal language classes should be conducted almost entirely in that language.

Thanks to Mr. Nakamura, during my last few months in Japan, I noticed myself using more Japanese with my co-workers. This helped me strengthen relationships with teachers. I made it a goal to have a pleasant exchanges with every teacher at the school, and talk to at least 3 teachers every day, and most days I did it.

At the end of year staff party,  almost every teacher wanted to shake my hand and offer some kind words.  They also gave me a beautiful book with hand-written messages, in Japanese and English, wishing me good luck and thanking me for my time.

Besides talking with teachers, I’m proud of the way I used my free time at school. Junior high school ALTs often have an excess of free time, because there are monthly tests at school which emphasize reading, writing, and listening more than speaking. Before the tests, team teaching classes often get cancelled as teachers want their students to prepare for the tests.  I didn’t want to stay at my desk during these long bouts of free time. So I found ways to be as active as possible. My first year, I made it my goal to participate with every after school club – basketball, soccer, volleyball, track and field, baseball, badminton, table tennis, soft tennis, art club, band – and I did it! I also ran the school ‘marathon’ with students.

 

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All students at the school are required to complete the race! It’s 3k for girls and 5k for boys. (We’re not supposed to show student’s faces so I made them happy. )

Teaching the Special Ed Class

At my desk in the teachers room, the katakago (special education) teacher sat across from me. She always seemed exhausted, with a class of 5 rambunctious special education students to manage all to herself. When I walked by her room, I noticed they were louder and rowdier than other classes of 30 very quiet, respectful, rule-abiding students.  I knew she couldn’t speak English at all, so I was a little hesitant to make friends with her. But once I gathered my courage to start talking with her, I asked her if I could help teach English to her students. She immediately smiled and said yes, of course!

In the next few months I taught with her several times. She stood in the back and helped with classroom management while I directed the action of the class. It was so fun! We sang “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” a song that they vaguely knew but had forgotten, and then played Simon Says using the same vocabulary. We also played charades and pictionary. They loved it!

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Goodbye Midori!

Goodbye to my Visiting School

While Midori is in a valley surrounded by rice fields, Chugo is a tiny school nestled in the mountains behind my apartment. I really looked forward to Wednesdays there. Students and teachers at smaller schools are still busy with classes and after school sports, but small class sizes make a strong sense of community that was rather welcoming.

The English teacher at Chugo, Ms. Horie*, was a pleasure to work with. She told me early on that the only time she had to practice English was talking to the ALT (Assistant Language Teacher, or me!)  who came once a week, so I always made it a point to talk with her a lot. She always made time to discuss lesson plans with me. We taught some great classes together, including a few demonstration classes where visiting teachers from other schools came to watch us. In one of our most memorable classes, the unit of the textbook was “Fair Trade,” and we had students make skits about shopping for fair trade items. She conducts all of her classes almost entirely in English, which I really appreciated.

Chugo only had two clubs after school, table tennis and badminton. The table tennis coach was also the social studies teacher, who was a young man about my age who could speak English quite well. We became friends and I invited him to my salsa dancing club, which he joined several times. Thanks to my friendship with him, I felt comfortable joining table tennis every Wednesday. I grew up playing occasionally with my dad on our table at home, so I thought I was good until I played against a Japanese 12-year-old. Those kids are machines! They play 6 days a week, so even the tiniest students were more skilled than me.

On my last day at Chugo , Ms. Horie organized a special ceremony for me. I said a goodbye speech, which I chose to make in Japanese (for added challenge!), and one student said a speech to me in English thanking me for my two years with them. I was crying as they handed me a beautiful scrapbook with beautiful notes and photos from each student. It’ll be my treasure forever!

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Here’s the English room at Midori. Above my blue poster in the lower left, you can see all the previous English teacher’s posters.

Amber’s Farewell Speech

Here’s my speech (in English and romanji.) It took me more than a month to think of the message, write it in English, have my Japanese tutor help me translate it, and memorize it. I said it at both schools. At Midori , I had to say it in front of 400 students and teachers!

Hello everyone! I’m leaving Japan next week.
Minasan konnichiwa! Watashiwa raishu nihon o hanaremasu.
I’m going to miss you! I was really glad to teach you.
Totemo samishii desu! Minasan ni oshiero koto ga dekite, honto ni ureshikata desu.
But now I’m going to teach English in Spain.
Dakedo kondo Supein de eigo o oshieru koto ni narimashita.
You are all wonderful people.
Midori Chugakkou no minasan mo subarashii desu.
Before I leave Japan, I have an important message for you.
Nihon o hanareru mae ni, watashi kara no taisetsu na massage o otsutaeshimasu.
Communication is thirty percent language, and seventy percent feeling.
Communication wa kotoba ga san jyu percento dake desu. Kanjyo ga nana jyu percento desu.
If you speak from your heart, you will be understood.
Moshi kokoro o komete hanaseba, aite ni wakkate moraemasu.
For example, use gesture, eye contact, smile, expression, body language, intonation, and so on.
Tatoeba, eye contacto, egao, hyojyo, miburiteburi, intonation, nado mo yuko desu.
Be brave and follow your dreams!
Yuki o motte, yume o oikakete kudasai.
Also, special thanks to Mr. X, Mr. Y, and Ms. Z for taking care of me.
Saigo ni X sensei, Y sensei, Z sensei osewa ni nari arigatou gozaimashita.
For the last two years, thank you very much.
Ni nen kan honto ni arigatou gozaimashita.
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Goodbye Japan! Sayonara! Mata ne!

*I changed the names of my schools and the teachers I worked with to protect their privacy.

Volunteering on an Oyster Farm

This story was also published in AJET  (Association of Japan Exchange and Teaching) Magazine.
http://ajet.net/ajet-connect/volunteering-on-an-oyster-farm-by-the-sea-of-japan/

 
Driving down meandering roads along the Sea of Japan, I felt a mixture of fear, homesickness, and excitement. I was heading for a week-long homestay on an oyster farm and guesthouse in Kumihama Bay, a tiny town that none of my Japanese friends had ever heard of. I knew that at least one person there spoke English, but I hadn’t met him.

I felt powerful yet terrified. What was I doing? I could be with my family in California. “You better be here next year!” The words of my grandmother during my last phone call home echoed in my mind.

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Thanks to Google Maps, I had a location that I was driving toward, although I couldn’t read the name of the place I was going. All I knew was that a man named Atsushi had agreed to host me through the Help Exchange program (helpx.net) that I had used before in New Zealand and Australia.

I arrived at a house with an indecipherable sign. Looking at my phone, and then at the sign, it seemed as if the two mysterious kanji might be the same. I sat in the car for a few minutes, gathering my courage and telling myself, “Get up. Get out of the car. Get up. You can do this.”

A full five minutes later I stepped outside into the freezing dusk. To my left, I could see Kumihama Bay and a deck with two dark figures in blue suits spraying water at some crates. “One of them must be Atsushi,” I thought to myself. “Maybe I should just wait for him to finish…”

But my legs betrayed me. I was already walking towards their front door when the grandparents spotted me.

“Ey! Konbanwa! We-ru-ko-mu! Watashiwa Tatsuo.” A wrinkled, grinning man came forward to shake my hand, American-style. “ここでなにしてるの?はは!じょうだんだよ!わたしたちのいえへようこそ!”

I blinked, confused. I couldn’t catch anything he had said.

“Oh no, not another one who can’t speak Japanese,” said his wife, a stocky, strong-looking woman. At least that’s what I thought she said.

Oh no,” I thought to myself. No one speaks English here. I’m doomed…”

“Kuruma? Pah-kin-gu? Doko?” The grandpa gestured for me to come — I think he wanted me to move my car to another parking spot. As I walked to my car in the darkness, wondering how I was going to survive the next week with my infantile Japanese, an angel appeared. Another foreigner was walking toward me on the street, frizzy red hair spilling from her winter cap. Hallelujah! I had no idea there would be another foreigner here.

“Hi, I’m Gosia,” she said. She helped translate for me what Grandpa was saying, and hopped in my car to direct me to the right parking spot. Later, I found out she is from Poland and has a master’s degree in comparative cultural studies with an emphasis on Japan. She has a one-year working holiday visa for Japan, and had already been volunteering on this oyster farm for almost a month. Gosia was my savior for the next week as I tried to adjust to the family and their habits.

Later, while drinking tea and attempting small talk with the grandparents in the kitchen, the door opened. In walked Atsushi, a tall and smiling man, looking windswept from working outside all day. He introduced himself enthusiastically in perfect English, and I immediately felt at ease. We would have many deep conversations in the next week. He showed me to my private room, made sure I knew how the heater worked, and asked me to try on my work uniform.

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The ridiculous but very practical clothes he loaned us were blue overalls with thick, waterproof pants and a jacket underneath. Gosia and I joked that we looked like Mario.

The next morning, after a breakfast of granola and fruit, Atsushi assigned us our tasks, and took time to carefully explain what he wanted us to do. My job was to pack oysters into boxes, weigh them, and put stickers on the boxes to be sent to customers. It was a task similar to an easy puzzle, and I found it quite relaxing. When I finished a box, I would carry it to the grandmother, Ayako-san, in the kitchen, and have a brief exchange where she would offer me tea and a break. I would politely refuse and keep working.

My spirits were further lifted by Atsushi’s kindness. Every time he walked by, he would greet me with a smile and say something like, “Thanks so much for being here. You’re helping a lot! You’re an important part of the team.”

This ten seconds of his time did wonders for my state of mind, and I’m sure I became a more productive worker after his encouragement. I decided then and there that if I am ever in charge of other people, I’m going to frequently and genuinely let them know how much I appreciate their hard work. This was the first of many moments when I realized that Atsushi was much more than a simple oyster farmer.

Atsushi had loved English in junior high and high school, and he attended college for architecture in Osaka. When he was 22, he lived in Canada for a year and his thinking totally changed. “When I was in Canada, my world expanded more than 100 times,” he told me. He came back and worked in Japan for a while, but he soon went to Australia for a one-year working holiday visa. Six months into his trip, he started receiving letters from his family asking him to come back to Kumihama. Since he is the eldest son, it is Japanese tradition for him to inherit the family business and help his parents as they get older.

Now, he helps his parents, Ayako-san and Tatsuo-san, with their minshuku, or Japanese guest house. He also runs the oyster farm that has been in the family for three generations. His grandmother used to row out to the platforms in a wooden boat.

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During the week, I had many eye-opening conversations with Atsushi about a range of topics from the politics of fishing to the failing education system in Japan.

Thanks to advice from a foreign friend, Atsushi discovered the Help Exchange program, where he could invite travelers to stay at his house for a few weeks or months at a time. People volunteer in exchange for room and board. This is a win-win situation for everyone: travelers are happy to contribute to his family, learn new skills, and live in a beautiful place for free, while Atsushi gets free help with his oyster work as well as cooking and cleaning for the minshuku. Also, he really wants his nine-year-old daughter Yuzuki to learn English.

Yuzuki-chan plays the piano, and every day I would hear her plunking the same tunes, including the “Mickey Mouse Club March.” At first, the girl was a little shy, but soon my ukulele, magical singing Santa hat, and frisbee won her over.  (I find that frisbees, games, and musical instruments help break the ice with non-English speakers. That worked in other countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, too.) By the end of the week, we were playing together every day. She would relax with me and Gosia at the kotatsu (heated table) at the end of the day, drawing pictures or teaching me Japanese.

Just like how his daughter has an atypical childhood, with a never-ending parade of foreigners coming and going, Atsushi is not your typical oyster farmer. He wants to change the way oysters are grown in Kumihama Bay, borrowing ideas from French, American, Australian, and Canadian farmers to make the process more productive and efficient.

When he took us out on the boat to see his platforms, he asked us to lift a cockle box and feel for ourselves how heavy it is. Both Gosia and I were able to lift it, but just barely! There is a lot of manual labor involved in oyster farming, and the process can be sped up with the help of simple tools like a metal hook to grab multiple boxes at once. Machines, such as one that Atsushi uses to break up the clumps of oysters, can also replace tools like hammers and streamline the process.

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One of Atsushi’s oyster platforms

Atsushi thinks that rural areas in Japan need innovation, because populations are decreasing and young people don’t want to continue the work their grandparents started. Other farmers are reluctant to try new techniques because of their traditional values, but  one of Atsushi’s goals in hosting volunteers is to collect ideas.

One night, he sat down with Gosia and I and asked, “What ideas do you have for me? What can I do to make your experience better?” I was really impressed with his openness. I have volunteered on ten farms in New Zealand, Australia, and Indonesia with the Help Exchange program (I wrote this articleabout it a few years ago), and I have never met a host who asked volunteers for advice.

After experiencing volunteering as a means of travel, I realize that sightseeing is exhilarating but exhausting. I don’t have a strong desire to do it for more than a few weeks. However, if I try to integrate into the community, make some friends, and feel like I’m contributing to something larger than myself, I can stay in each place longer, learn more, and make deeper connections. As I’m observing and internalizing, I constantly ask myself: what do I want to adopt or exclude from my own life?

Mostly, volunteering makes me realize that there are hundreds of people with different lifestyles than mine, and that there is more than one way to live on this planet. Before I traveled, I only had a narrow vision for what was possible. Now I realize that it’s possible to start a cashew factory in Bali to help a needy community, or to have a zero-impact life on a self-sustaining farm in New Zealand. I lived with these people and was able to see the world through their eyes. I’ve picked up skills like milking a goat by hand, chopping firewood with an axe, cutting sashimi, and more. I’ve learned the process behind how foods from kiwis to milk to oysters are cultivated.

Atsushi told me that when he went to Canada, his perspective expanded more than 100-fold. Every time I travel, I feel the same way. Every time I volunteer, I can entrench myself in a community and force myself to be involved in a way that sightseeing does not allow.

I’m planning to use Help Exchange to volunteer again. There are more people to meet, more skills to learn, and more adventures to have. I’m young, and I have the energy to do it, so why not?

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Here are some more photos from the adventure!