Overseas Briefing

By Guest Contributor

The mackerel pike is a long skinny fish that is quite common to Japanese cuisine. Arriving in Tokyo in early fall, I was presented with the opportunity to eat this delicacy, often burned black, at what seemed to be every other meal. Breakfast, lunch or dinner — it made no difference — Sanma, as it’s called here, was on the menu.

The fish itself is tasty, but it is the process of eating it that becomes complicated when you realize it is almost always served with the bones intact. I will admit, when no one was looking, I occasionally resorted to ripping out the spine and eating it with my hands. In many ways, this little fish represents a perfect metaphor for the most important realization that I’ve had whilst abroad.

I’ll admit that before coming to Japan I had this image of study abroad being all kittens and rainbows. The reality of my situation hit me like a bag of bricks. Instead of the fun, kooky adventures I had planned, I felt trapped in my own personal hell, a suburb of a suburb of Tokyo called West Kokubunji, in a dorm where my entire room is often shaken by the trains located under me. To paraphrase Chris Farley, “I was livin in a dorm down by the train tracks.”

Compounding the problems of my home life was my 45-minute commute to school and three hour blocks of class Monday through Friday. I’ll admit that I have been spoiled since freshman year by the high quality of Middlebury’s language teaching, and was thus disappointed by the language instruction here. At this point my frustration was reaching critical mass, but I was managing to contain it. It was my dealings with Japanese bureaucracy that proved to be the tipping point.

As anyone who has studied abroad can tell you, getting the requisite papers, approvals, etc. can be time consuming and frustrating. But in Japan, bureaucracy isn’t just for entry: it’s a way of life. For example, in order to put money on your account to print in the library, you must talk to five people and have a document stamped no less than eight times by the head librarian merely in order to print. I had already been in Japan for nearly 2/3 of my semester, yet had spent more time dealing with bureaucracy, commuting to and from school and hating my classes than I had spent exploring Tokyo. I realized if I did not change my experience, I would end up regretting my time here.

In search of adventure and food, one night my friends and I boarded a train for Tokyo station. Walking through the city at dusk, seeing the neon lights and speeding trains and smelling the waft of grilled chicken skewers was the antidote I had desperately needed.

It was sitting in a small restaurant located in an underpass beneath some train tracks, devouring skewers of meat with friends, that I came to a realization: if I were going to truly enjoy being in Tokyo, I was going to have to learn to eat the meat and avoid the bones — or end up chewing on them.

Studying abroad is undoubtedly challenging, but if you only notice the hardships, you won’t ever have the opportunity to turn them into triumphant experiences.

For me, it was easier to grab the fish with my hands, rip out the spine and eat it like a rack of barbecue ribs. But this method is haphazard, often leaving bone fragments waiting like land mines in the meat. The bones are tiny, annoying to bite into — but are overall entirely harmless. By dwelling on the bones, I had forgotten to savor the meat.

Everyone will at some point bite into a bone or two while studying abroad. It is up to them as to whether it is the bones or the meat that defines their experience.

Written by PAUL GERARD ’14 from Tokyo, Japan

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