Lately I’ve been feeling tired and a little sad. I’ve slowed down a bit, taking more time to care for myself and do the things that make me feel like time isn’t moving quite so quickly (reading, playing ukulele, checking out the cafes in my own neighborhood, actually doing my homework). I’m getting used to living in Tokyo. Seeing and hearing Japanese everywhere is familiar, to the point where speaking English with an American cashier is disconcerting. I’m still having fun, and making a point of getting out of my comfort zone and exploring new places whenever possible. But at this point, sightseeing doesn’t feel quite as exciting as it used to.
So I was feeling a little sad when I boarded a shinkansen to Kyoto with three friends this past weekend. I’d been to Kyoto before, and I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it. I wanted a transcendent experience, something that would resolve all my questions and change me as a human and make studying abroad feel like the life-changing adventure it’s supposed to be. Stuck in my head, holding everything I saw up to an extraordinary standard, I wondered why I came–until I had an unexpected encounter.
It wasn’t transcendent or extraordinary. It was just a kitten. But that kitten, and the way it brought me into contact with strangers who were just as delighted by it as I was, got me out of my head and my predetermined notions about what to expect. For the rest of the trip, as we explored a bamboo forest at night, enjoyed a foot bath in the middle of a train station lit by kimono-patterned lanterns, and visited a castle, I was present in my surroundings and with the people who were with me.
I think there are a lot of expectations built up around studying abroad. We’re told it’s a life-changing experience, full of adventure, personal growth, and revelations. Though I anticipated bumps along the way, I know I thought of going to Tokyo as an extraordinary adventure. And in some ways, it is. But the fact is, studying abroad isn’t the same as traveling. When you stay anywhere for a long time, even the extraordinary fact of being on the other side of the world comes to feel a bit mundane. That’s the difference between visiting a place and actually living there–it has the reality of regular life. Like holding the shrine kitten, living in Tokyo isn’t always transcendent or magical or profound. But for me, just being there is enough.