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Red Aloha Shirt

    By Estanislao ‘Stan’ Cruz. February 24, 2015 - 12:28 am

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I felt like I was on a stealth mission except that I was wearing my gaudy red aloha shirt on the serene campus grounds of one of the most fashionable, affluent, private universities in Japan, Aoyama Gakuin University.

For five months, I lived the life of a student of Japan.

There lies the question: How did my journey to study abroad to Japan begin? To which the answer is simple: I love natto. Honestly, at HPU, I met people from a diverse international community especially from Japan and from those friends I got inspired to teach English. I got curious about the career opportunities available in Japan which made me do the research and set appointments with the study abroad office. From there, my dream became reality and my journey began overseas.

As a kama’aina, born and raised on the distant island of Oahu, I wanted to represent Hawaii and share the Aloha Spirit. However, out of the 13 million people in Tokyo, I felt like a tender and juicy turkey on Thanksgiving Day. I was not confident in wearing my red aloha shirt.

Moving to Tokyo was like moving a penguin to the island of, well, Oahu.

When I arrived at Narita Airport with an over-stuffed piece of luggage in each hand, three goals echoed and thundered in my mind: 1) experience a different career path, 2) learn a new language, and 3) make meaningful connections.

I began, however, with severe limitations on my practical language ability, which was basically zilch. On my first day of a social event, I tried talking to people in Japanese and I could only awkwardly communicate using body language. I was determined to improve my language skills. At the end of the semester, I was comfortable in Japanese and had made some good friends. Some of them were students who were interested in teaching. I achieved my ultimate goal when one of these friends invited me to teach a class of children. I was filled with joy especially when one of my students gave me an origami throwing star as a present to show gratitude.

Periodically, I learned by making countless mistakes and skillfully rode the unforeseen waves of Tokyo, flowing in the customs of Japan.

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I learned to wait on the right side of the escalator. I learned to use polite speech when talking to people older than me. I also learned how to speak casually when talking with friends so as not to be seen as being too polite. I adapted well and I started to expect the same of everyone.

Before heading to Japan, the single best piece of advice I received was from my Hawaii Pacific University Bookstore manager who told me to always be punctual.

In Hawaii, in general, we tend to be laid-back with regards to time. In Japan, by contrast, even the trains are always on time. When I agreed to meet a friend to hang out, I was late. It was a grave mistake that led to an uncomfortable situation. My friend was very understanding, but I learned the difference in expectations. Achieve punctuality and you avoid many gnarly wipeouts.

To this day, I wear my red aloha shirt in Japan with confidence. I learned to appreciate where I am from and what I can offer to Japan.

Going to Tokyo, I used everything I learned from prior experiences provided by my family, friends, job at the HPU Bookstore, participation in the Toastmasters, and at HPU in general.

The beginning of my experience was awkward and painful, but I learned and adapted to my new island. Today, I have new echoes in my mind which is, “What is next?” This curiosity makes me crave traveling even more and has enlightened me to the possibilities beyond my island in the Pacific Ocean. The only limits I have are the limits I create for myself.

Photos courtesy of Estanislao Cruz.