10 DAYS UNTIL I GO TO JAPAN! (But who’s counting?)

My freshman year is over.

It was chaotic. It was stressful. It was a crazy new experience. I got to go to so many places, learn so many things, and meet all sorts of awesome people. Moving out and saying goodbye to the friends I had made this year was a bittersweet experience. Sure, we’d be back in a couple of months– but our freshman year is a time we’ll never get back.

So. 

Moving on.

Northeastern’s on summer break! I’m done with classes! Which means I can finally, finally allow one reality to sink in that I’ve been suppressing the entire semester:

To demonstrate just how long I’ve been waiting for this day to come, let’s tell a brief, disjointed story:

I’ve wanted to go to Japan, then, for a very long time. But it had always seemed like a distant dream. One of those things you obtain in ten years or so, after you have a stable job, save up some money, and are able to take off a week or two for vacation. But then, in my junior year of high school, two friends of mine achieved the dream. 

They had won a scholarship through Youth for Understanding, an organization that sets up study abroad programs for high school students. For six weeks, they would go abroad and live with a host family for six weeks. And they were going. To Japan. I was pretty jealous. I was sufficiently inspired to apply for the same program the year after. Somehow I managed to win one of five full-tuition Mazda/Nationwide Community Scholarships.

But as we all know, last summer, Japan went through the horrible tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami and the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster. Therefore, I was shipped off to Germany instead.

I wouldn’t trade my experience in Germany for anything. Germany is das schönste Land an der Welt, and I was lucky enough to get the greatest host family in the world. But still, in the back of my mind, I wanted to go to Japan. The other nine kids on the same scholarship felt the same way, as I discovered when we visited the Mazda Europe Research and Development headquarters.  Here, in addition to showing us how concept cars are designed (it’s pretty awesome) they also taught us a little bit about Japanese culture.

That day, Mazda gave us a couple souvenirs. There was a Mazda magnet. A little booklet telling us about the history of the company. And…

A daruma, for those who don’t know, is this sort of symbolic Japanese traditional doll seen as a symbol of good luck and hard work. Upon receiving a daruma, you paint in one eye and set a goal. You then place the daruma in a place where you can see it every day, reminding you of your goal. When your goal is finally achieved, you paint in the other eye.

Guess what I wished! (Hint: I’ll get to paint in the other eye very, very soon.)

So this little daruma has been sitting on my desk all year, reminding me of my goal. I thus applied for Northeastern’s Dialogue of Civilizations program to Japan, and by some miracle, was accepted. And I am ecstatic. Amazed. Stunned. And extremely, extremely excited.

So, in 10 days, I’ll be headed off to Japan.

To live my dream.

Let’s do this.

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You should read these webcomics as well

Read the first round of webcomic recommendations here!

It’s finals week here at Northeastern. My orgo final is this Friday. I actually need to get stuff done. 

So while I’m doing that, go and read these awesome webcomics:

Cucumber Quest – An adorable comic about bunnies going on an epic adventure together that also parodies stereotypical fantasy stories.

Three Word Phrase – A series of random, often non-sequitur comic strips. Half the time, I swear, I have no idea what’s going on.

Kid RaddI’m recycling this from my super-old blog. It’s basically the comedic story of a fictional video game character who escapes his game and has to adjust to life in cyberspace. Somehow it turns into an existential-action-adventure epic. The entire comic, which was completed in 2004, is composed of 8-bit sprites all designed by the author. Though it’s a bit long, it’s definitely worth the read.

A Modest Destiny – While we’re talkin’ sprite comics, this is one of my first and favorite webcomics. This is another comic that begins as a humorous, fantasy RPG parody but turns into a much deeper, emotional story. All of the sprites and backgrounds, again, are created entirely by the author rather than ripped from video games. Unfortunately, the comic is on what looks like permanent hiatus.

ADDITIONALLY: Anyone have any recommendations? Seriously, though. Good webcomics are hard to come by.

Do you have BOYFRIEND? And other conversations with Japanese girls

I’m a bit dumb, so I chose to get tutored in Japanese this semester instead of, say organic chemistry or calculus. No matter. I got a tutor kind enough to tell me about this event:

The event was at Showa Boston, a language and culture institute located about three miles away out in Jamaica Plain. Showa Boston is actually just a branch of Showa University, an all-women college located in metropolitan Tokyo. Students hoping to improve their English skills can ship up to Boston to study abroad. Showa Boston’s location is a little isolated from downtown Boston, though– it’s nestled out among trees and grassy hills and suburban neighborhoods. Thus, Showa Boston is trying to connect to the local community. They want their students to connect with Americans. To practice English.

Thus, they decided to invite freeloaders (like me) over for free food.

I’ll take it.

So I hopped on a bus, and an hour later, I found myself in a room packed with Japanese girls. I was with my tutor and two other guys, but we ended up splitting up– doing so would give more students the chance to practice English. I wandered over to the food table alone and tried to make myself a rice ball…

After clumsily slapping together some poorly made rice balls, I awkwardly asked to sit down at a table. Three girls sitting around me were brave enough to strike up a conversation. However, their English was a little shaky. Still, we all tried our best:

We chatted some more:

And then it somehow turned into this…

And then into this: 

I'm a cynic. It's true.

And since they were getting the chance to practice their English, I decided to take the chance to practice my Japanese.

I spent the rest of the evening speaking in half-Japanese, half-English. The girls were merciful to me, though, and used only English. (My listening skills suck.) We discussed celebrities, movies, music, Justin Bieber and the Backstreet Boys… typical girl talk. And at the same time, I couldn’t help but notice the culture gap. America and Japan are worlds apart in terms of politeness:

Overall? It was a bit awkward, a bit nerve-wracking, and totally awesome. The three girls I met were really nice. The food was tasty. I got to test out my substandard Japanese skills. And now I’m more excited than ever to go to Japan. Only 18 days until I leave! But who’s counting?

Sh!t kids say

So I’ve been volunteering at a new place this semester. Before, I was teaching biology at Sociedad Latina. And it was total disaster. Every week, for those six hours a week, I dreaded going. Something had to change. After consulting with my Civic Engagement Program advisor (who was very understanding) I switched organizations, to the Yawkey Boys and Girls Club.

Thus I’ve been volunteering in the Boys and Girls Club art room for the last few months. It’s been so much better. So much. For one, there’s a lot less pressure. I’m not expected to teach kids science, in a fun and engaging way, every week, 6 hours a week. I’m also not expected to keep them in line, by myself, as I was at Sociedad. No. At the Boys and Girls Club, I simply assist the head art teacher as he engages the kids in various projects. And we’re working with art. I love it. The kids love it.

Yeah. Switching was the right decision. I actually look forward to volunteering now.

Still, it’s a challenge. The kids are still crazy, and the place is still chaotic. Imagine giving a room six and seven year olds craft supplies. Now imagine what the room would look like two hours later.

(It looks kind of like this)

Okay, that’s an exaggeration, and that photo is NOT of the Boys and Girls Club. But still. It gets crazy.

The atmosphere of the art room is much more relaxed as well. At Sociedad Latina, kids were *supposed* to do their homework in silence. In the art room, kids can casually chat while drawing their pictures.

Which means I get to listen in to the thoughts of our generation’s elementary and middle schoolers…

Sometimes it’s been nothing short of horrifying.

Or a little gross…

Or sometimes, totally heartbreaking.

The art teacher and I have noticed some rather upsetting trends among the kids, in fact. Call me a stickler, but I honestly don’t think these kids need smartphones.

And– this is going to sound really hipster, but I’ve seen it in action– these kids are often a little brainwashed. Spoon-fed by the media, I guess. They’ll spend their time obsessing over Nicki Minaj and LMFAO, reading sensational murder articles to each other, gossiping about Kim Kardashian. And they’re, like, 10. I was shocked by this conversation I got into with a kid…

Perhaps the most difficult thing is to get kids to try. Art is a touchy subject, it seems– when kids’ drawings don’t turn out exactly the way they want on the first try, they give up. Immediately. Or they’ll ask you to draw things for them. I try to explain the importance of persistance, how essential practice is. But I suppose, at that age, it’s hard to imagine.

But I really have to take everything with a grain of salt. I don’t know what it’s like in their shoes. I didn’t grow up in the city, in a poor or disadvantaged area. My parents have always pushed me to be independent, to think for myself, to fight to excel. Some of these kids don’t have the luxury of being told that they can.

It’s been an interesting semester.

It’s Kleenex time

Boston has been experiencing some unseasonably warm weather lately. 80 degrees in April, sunny days, gentle, fragrant breezes– the whole spring package! The flowers even decided to bloom early, much to my delight…

Eh. Nothing a little loratadine can’t fix. Unless Mother Nature decides to do an all-out-full-frontal assault…

And that’s when the Kleenex comes in.

(Truly, though, my allergies aren’t that bad at all. Those with real allergies, good luck this season!)

In which judo sends me into a nervous breakdown

I mentioned before that I was taking judo. Judo is definitely a challenging sport, and our sensei is tough on us as well. He actually wants to teach his students the basics of judo and help them master it rather than run some casual, half-baked class.

Which meant, for instance, that he asked everyone to buy a gi, the uniform used in judo. A gi can run you anywhere from $50 and up. Having two part-time jobs, I ran out and bought one– but some other students were less willing.

And no disrespect for that. Not everyone has cash to spare.

Sensei also started to teach us higher-level moves, and expected us to pick up on them. One class, to everyone’s surprise, he introduced us to throwing:

I, along with many of the students, were probably thinking something along the lines of whoa. Slow down. Regardless, we practiced getting each other off balance, getting in the right spot for leverage, and then…

We actually threw each other! It was pretty crazy, that class. We were all very meek about throwing each other, especially since we didn’t want to hurt the other person.

So a lot of the students felt that it was becoming a little too much. As displayed in our declining attendance from class to class…

I started having trouble as well. As previously stated, I was the worst person in the class. And then the more casual class-goers stopped showing up. That left the serious kids, the ones who could pick up the moves right away, the ones who could execute everything perfectly, and… me.

I still couldn’t do the most basic roll, the front ukemi:

I still couldn’t do a backwards roll:

And I simply couldn’t master the techniques as quickly as everyone else. Sensei and the other judo assistants were on my case constantly.

The second to last class was the worst. We learned a new throw that day, one that looks kind of like this:

Now, people have a natural fear of falling. I mean, I’m naturally going to tense up when someone tries to hurl me to the ground. And this throw takes your head over the person’s shoulder, giving you a good look at the lonnnnng distance your body has to go before it hits the hard ground.

And because I tensed up, I couldn’t fall properly. Instead, I landed rather painfully on my hip:

Sensei, baffled that I couldn’t land when I was able to every other time, had me thrown again.

And the same thing happened.

Twice as painfully as before:

I’m not very good with physical pain. In fact, I’m kind of a pansy. I can’t handle it. Thus, I, Vy Nguyen, a legal adult, a college student, burst out crying in the middle of the classroom. And I couldn’t stop. And I more or less embarrassed myself in front of everyone.

The leg I had landed on was extremely sore for  a few days, but otherwise, I was fine. But I had besmirched myself. And I feared getting thrown again. Do I return for the last class?

On the last class, too, sensei had promised that he would test us on everything he had taught. Those who did well enough could receive a yellow belt. But I knew, with the way I had been performing, that that was impossible. I couldn’t roll. Couldn’t throw properly. Couldn’t even land, the most basic and essential judo skill. Do I go back?

I took this moment to draw inspiration from Scott Pilgrim, who, throughout the whole series, just wanted

…and I knew I would regret it if I didn’t return. So I went to the last class. And sensei tested us, first on rolling.

And then throws…

And finally, a surprise round: he made us actually fight. Like a practice match. Against the more experienced assistants.

The test ended there. We all sat down and waiting for him to announce the results.

Well, okay, there was actually one guy who wasn't allowed to get one. He had skipped a class too many.

But although there were five people who could get the belt, he had only two to give out. He decided to give them to his two “top students.”

The first belt, as I expected, was given to the only other girl who had stuck to the class. This girl is a natural. She could pick up the techniques nearly instantly and execute them perfectly.

And as for the second one…

WHOA. WHAT. WHAT IS GOING ON HERE. QUALIFYING TO MOVE UP A BELT WAS CRAZY ENOUGH. BUT NOW HE’S GIVING ME A BELT?

I was totally and utterly shocked. I knew I had gotten better since that first class, but to get a belt? Whoa. That day I ran back to my dorm in complete ecstasy to show my friends:

And I can’t shake the feeling that I want to continue. Though I struggled with judo, I also had a ton of fun learning it. Nothing can beat the feeling of a well-executed throw, or a smoothly done ukemi. I miss the competitive outlet of tennis, and judo seems to provide it. And the judo assistants– the ones who have been doing judo for years– you could sense the love they had for their sport. I wanted more. I still want more. Unfortunately, the nearest dojo is about an hour’s commute away. It could be doable. Perhaps, next semester, I’ll have to see.

But for now? One small achievement for a crybaby girl.

I CAN HAZ BELT!