Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I used to believe that I thrived on being busy. During my time here at Swarthmore College, staying up until 2 AM in McCabe library became the standard and there were even times when I would watch the sunrise from inside the Science Center (a beautiful morning scene if you ever get the chance to see it–which I’m sure you will eventually). I became used to seeing the faces of the early morning EVS people working through the night and into the morning. In doing so, I also became used to drinking coffee like water, to the struggle of keeping my eyes open in class, and to receiving emails from my professors asking me if I’m doing well. Yes, that was what “productivity” meant to me and though I felt exhausted from a day-to-day basis, I could not imagine life without this stress and pace.
I’m not sure whether I finally burned out (which I most probably did), but after returning home from last year’s spring semester, I found myself sleeping early at night and sleeping in late. Though I had nothing to do, boredom seldom creeped its way into my mind and rather, I was just content to stay at home wasting time reading and catching up on Game of Thrones. Yet, that month too flew quickly and by the time that I knew it, I was on the plane to Hakodate, Japan where I would be spending two months continuing my study of Japanese.
And while my Japanese did improve immensely, to the point where I was able to joke around with the old men from local bars, I was even more surprised to find myself falling back into daily habits of my childhood. While it was an intensive language immersion program, it was a completely different lifestyle from what I had become used to at Swarthmore, to what I had come to believe was the only type of lifestyle that was right for me. Without the pressure to remain on a constant pace of productivity, I felt free to spend my time as I wanted to, which meant playing Pokemon and Animal Crossing on my Nintendo DS and going on extremely and unnecessarily long walks instead of taking the city tram, the preferred bus-like mode of transportation that took everyone everywhere.
At first, it would seem that my time in Hakodate was so easygoing as a result of having so much free time and fewer things to balance… But I had free time since summer began and it was clear to me that the carefree, mellow life of Hakodate differed from the sort of numb, dull time that I had back at home. Whereas I was merely content at home to finally have nothing to do, life in Hakodate gave me so much to do–places I wanted to visit, friends that I wanted to spend more time with–without ever feeling like I needed to do it. It was a childlike excitement and curiosity to do and learn so much, unaccompanied by expectations that have felt so natural for too long.
In part, I felt so much like a child, carefree and wild, because of the host-family experience that made up part of the Japanese immersion program. Still very young themselves, they gave me the space and time that I needed to enjoy the city on my own, able to come and go as I pleased. At the same time, living with them indeed felt like a family and, for which I’m even more grateful for, I learned so much about taking time for myself, about enjoying life and being happy.
During our first weeks together, I wondered whether their lack of complaining about work and their lives was some sort of language barrier or politeness on their part. When I asked how work was going, hoping to understand how they were doing emotionally, I was always answered with the same replies: “It was tiring” or “I have a lot of work to do.” But it was always said with a smile or a jokingly distressed frown, assuring me that they had come to take enjoyment out of their work lives despite the stress of it.
I was so accustomed to hearing about one’s work and how much one has to do, it struck me as odd that such topics were hardly touched on. Don’t get me wrong–they indeed were very busy with work, leaving early in the morning and returning late at night for dinner. Yet, it was clear to me that for my host parents, work had its place at the workplace and once it was done and over, there was no use worrying or fussing over it. I was even told to avoid doing any school work in the living room, leaving that space only for enjoying our meals and company. “Muri Shinaide,” my host father would advise me. “Don’t overdo it.” It was all for the better too, as I had some of my best memories with them over exceptionally long dinners, always served with a chill, golden pouring of my host father’s favorite beer, Kirin.
In many ways, they are much cooler than I will ever be–musical, athletic, attractive, and genuinely kind–but it was their way of being happy that I felt was missing from my life too. They took enjoyment out of the seemingly mundane moments of life so that it didn’t matter whether we were having our morning toast and coffee or out camping on the lakeshore, we reveled in the moment.
When people ask me what I learned during my two months in Japan, my immediate response is always “Japanese” because I could never put into words what this experience really meant. The weeks were filled with hours of study but in spending time with my host family and friends, I learned that life doesn’t have to be so stressful, so filled with a necessity to “do” something. Whether walking through the city alone or drunkenly doing karaoke with friends, enjoying the moment is doing enough.