On The Importance of Journaling Abroad
About two weeks ago, a fair-sized group of us were enjoying dinner at a restaurant called Steak Gusto down in Yonago. We dined and caught up on the latest happenings from our respective schools and lives. During this dinner, talk of writing and journals came up. I mentioned that I keep a journal (which I write in almost daily) and even shared a bit of it. I'm sure most people are tired of hearing about it, but I wanted to spend some time talking about how invaluable keeping one has been. And perhaps the best way to do this is to explain what not keeping one was like.
So let's go back in time.
In 2007 I came to Japan for a study abroad program. It was a lot of firsts for me. It was the first time I was away from my family for a prolonged period. It was the first time I came to Japan. It was the first time I flew in an airplane for that matter. We spent five weeks in southern region of Kyuushuu, wherein the bulk of our time was centered around Fukuoka. I love Fukuoka. It's one of the best cities (if not the best) I've been to in Japan, and easily trumps more popular choices like Osaka, or Tokyo. The trip overall was an amazing experience, which is probably obvious since I once again found my way back to Japan. Reminiscing aside, we did a lot of stuff. From Fukuoka we ventured out into almost all of Japan's southernmost region, exploring Kagoshima, Kumamoto, Beppu, Mt. Aso, Sakurajima, Amakusa, and more.
I like to think I have a pretty decent memory, but I know too well the trappings of relying on something that inherently prone to failure. Eventually I reasoned that my experiences in Japan would be no better than the dream they used to be if I couldn't remember them. Everything simply felt too good to be true and perhaps the heart of my fear was that it might vanish completely. I wanted to somehow preserve it while I was there, and so I photographed everything. If memory serves correctly I used four SD cards and took just over 4000 pictures.*
There was plenty to remember - and plenty of things to remind me - but still, I spent more than a few nights worried that I might one day forget elements of the trip. If you asked my roommate at the time, the talented Dustin McCurdy, he probably would remember at least one or two late night conversations about this. For the next few years after I returned home though, I could easily recall and retell any singular experience from my time overseas.
Then those years passed.
There was a day when I wasn't able to remember something about where I'd gone. It was a relatively small detail, but even after scanning through my pictures I only recalled the itinerary - the place and a general sense of what we did - but something was gone. It was an awful feeling.
Fortunately, there's still plenty of it left in my head. When I went back to Fukuoka with Mitsuko - a full seven years since the last time - I was able to navigate with the utmost of ease. I knew what stops to get off at, which corners to turn on, and where my favorite spots were. I feel however, that these things I remembered so well were routines. I learned them through rote memorization as a result of living there for a short period of time. Some of the more fascinating things I did have become only a single picture with no information attached. As I mentioned earlier, when I look at those pictures I can easily remember that portion of the trip but the specifics are sometimes a wash.
When it comes to memory it's quite easy to make exaggerations, or even worse, fabrications. Ask yourself now if you've ever recalled a story that wasn't exactly true, contested by a friend who was also there, or even called out for being slightly to completely false.
I brought a journal along but I wrote in it only a few times. I knew people would rather see pictures (if they were at all interested) than listen to - or worse, read - my visually challenged recollections. I rediscovered this spiral notebook many years after the trip, and had a read. There wasn't much. An old drawing of Link from Majora's Mask (likely because I bought the Japanese manga), a few notes and email addresses from the students I met (none of whom I managed to stay in contact with), and a single entry about a page long.
You can read about that entry right here but for this post I'll say that it was an amazing thing to look back on. I suddenly became so upset with myself that I hadn't written more. It was dated, which sort of locks it down into a certain event (one would think) but when I had a look at the pictures around that period I couldn't find anything which would've inspired that entry. I made no reference to it in the spiral notebook, only claiming that whatever had happened was changing my life - for the better.
I promised myself after that point I would do a better job of writing things down should I ever have a similar experience like that again. When I spent six months in Kofu, with Mitsuko, I filled up an entire volume (around 256 pages) mostly because I had a lot of time to myself and my thoughts when I wasn't talking with her wonderful neighbor, Keiko-san.
Now four volumes in to all of my Japan experiences, I can say that it's been the single most rewarding thing I have ever done. Everything has been documented. My highs and lows. There are times I have already forgotten because there were so miniscule in the grand scheme of my life right now, but important enough for that day. Those tend to be the richest thoughts that I write. From making note of an instance when I was frustrated or reflecting upon an opening/closing ceremony to preserving a touching or even silly moment I had with a student, these are the moments worth remembering.
It might be a bit scary, and it's definitely something hard to be consistent with, but if you really want to know who you are I would recommend that you get a journal and start writing.
It just might surprise you.
*Who else remembers back when it took that many SD cards to get that many pictures. We weren't rocking these 32 and 64 gig cards. I still remember paying $120 for my first 1 gig card.