Episode 4 │From Handa to Hikone (JAPAN)
Updated: Sep 22
"It wasn't so much about going somewhere or doing something or eating something. It was about talking to people... Maybe at the end of the day you still don't know these people super well, but you can see how kind they are and that they want to share their life, stories, time, and laughter with you." (Irene, Episode 4)
Irene Li and I went to the same university, but weren't aware of each other's existence until we met at the Japan Center for Michigan Universities (JCMU) in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture, in the summer of 2013. As most of the other students were, I was impressed by her magnetic personality, curiosity, and confidence to be able to explore without always having a clear goal in mind.
Irene had previously been to Japan in high school through an exchange program run by Youth for Understanding (YFU). During that time she spent a summer in Handa, a small town that's in Aichi, the same prefecture as Nagoya. She stayed with a local family and attended a regular Japanese school (as opposed to a Japanese language school designed specifically for foreign students), following the same curriculum and participating in similar activities as the Japanese students did. Her experience left such an impression on her that she decided to minor in Japanese at Michigan State University, and returned to spend another summer there (specifically studying Japanese in Hikone this time). She did a homestay during that summer as well.
"Not every adventure you go on is going to be successful and interesting. You're not going to find a rainbow every time (and that's okay)."
Aside from discussing the charm of quieter and smaller areas in Japan, reminiscing about old times, and examining what it meant for her to be able to communicate with her Taiwanese grandmother more after learning some Japanese (colonial history remains relevant), Irene also showed that she's an explorer who knows how to accept the adventure as it comes. Sometimes you have experiences to be wowed, to take an awesome photo, or to have a thrilling time. And sometimes you have experiences simply to see what's out there and connect with people along the way. She's had her fair share of both, and appreciates what can be gained even from the seemingly mundane parts of life in a different country. Irene is currently studying cancer biology as a PhD student at Stanford University, and can be found on Twitter (@irenoplasm) and Instagram (@irenoplasm).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "From Handa to Hikone (JAPAN)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!