The whole point of life is to make connections whether synaptic, experiential or relational. Sometimes, all three happen at once. I look back at my travels abroad as clusters of these connections that continue to define who I am. The experiences I've had in Haiti, Japan, and Russia consist of a series of random dots. Every day I make sense of another section of the resulting picture.
One of my first memories abroad was riding though the capital of Haiti in the bed of a pickup truck. Sitting on top of our team’s luggage, I had a 360-degree view of the passage we made through the earthquake-stricken city. The smell of exhaust and garbage was unforgettable.
Despite the grief and unimaginable hardship I witnessed, it was the joy that stood out. The joy of crossing cultural and language barriers to make real connections. The joy of helping people in desperate need and the gratitude they expressed. These memories of compassion still guide me today and challenge me to really understand other people’s struggles.
In the same year, I spent the summer in Tokyo, Japan on a cultural exchange program funded by a scholarship from Kikkoman Corp. I remember an insightful teacher there stating something to the effect of, “memory purifies all.” He was right. The time I spent in Tokyo with my host family, fellow American exchange students, and the new Japanese friends I made feels like something out of a dream.
While it’s hard to boil down my experiences into one anecdotal story, the subway seems like a good place to start. On the first day of school in Tokyo my host mother guided me to the train station and helped me through the hour-long voyage that brought me to the heart of the city - Shibuya. She spoke very minimal English so I had to soak in every train transfer and journey through the station to learn how to get there.
On the trip back home, I was challenged to go the journey alone. I inevitably got turned around and had to ask strangers for help. After a near nervous-breakdown, I finally found my way. As my first time using public transit in a major city, Tokyo was indeed a challenge. It was one that I overcame by making simple connections with people.
I’m still digesting my most recent travel experience to Russia. It was another summer I spent abroad before starting college. This time I was with a language program funded by the State Department. I can’t remember exactly what inspired me to choose Russia, but I remember recognizing the dark intrigue of the country in myself.
Despite the political tensions between Russia and the U.S., I felt nothing but acceptance from the people who hosted me in Russia. Their kindness taught me more about the country than I could have ever read in a textbook. My motivation to learn the difficult language was fueled by the desire to get to know them on a deeper level.
I consider the keepsakes I brought home from each of these trips to be my most prized possessions. They represent the abundance of connections I made and fuel a desire for more. They remind me both of how insignificant I am and how significant I can truly be through the eyes of other people.