Sunday, January 31, 2010

Waffle Fish?

Hello again! To answer a few recent FAQs I have received; (1), I did not move to the Kansai region; I am, in fact, still living in Sendai (2) Nor was I kidnapped by a motorcycle gang following Thanksgiving vacation and kept in a secret location that lacked WiFi (the creativity of this suggestion, however, was impressive) (3) The suggestion that a secret boyfriend is keeping me from focusing on work is equally invalid (and perhaps even more improbable) (4) Yes, Kelsey, your blogging skills are inevitably superior to mine; I will attempt to rectify this by providing more pictures than you (if a picture is worth a thousand words, this both justifies the fewer number of entries AND means that I win the blogging war. Congrats on your grad school acceptance to DePaul in Chicago; you owe me a pizza).

In actuality, my camera connector cord went MIA for a month or so, after which time I was focusing on final exams and my research project. My apologies for the lack of updates!

I have been asked by several individuals what, exactly, the term "Fulbright student" means; what are the perks/obligations of the Fulbright grant? do I have to attend classes or lectures? what, in plain English, exactly is the topic of my research? What do I do for fun?

The Fulbright experience is different for every grantee due to the variations in language ability, university affiliation, and area of research. The general requirements of the program are relatively unstructured; each grantee is required to submit a monthly progress report, attend a mid-year conference, and submit a final product (e.g. a research paper) at the conclusion of the grant period. Otherwise, the student is free to tailor the program as he or she wishes. Each student is assigned a university affiliation based upon their topic of research, and is given an advisor with whom they correspond regarding their research progress. My advisor at Tohoku University is a professor in international law, and teaches several classes (Japanese language only) on politics and international relations that I am currently auditing. In addition, I have chosen to take several Japanese courses to improve my language skills and knowledge of kanji.

Other than classroom work, the only academic obligation I have is my Fulbright research. Broadly defined, the topic of my research--which has changed slightly since my arrival to better correspond with the university's available resources--is analyzing the rhetorical narrative that underlies Japan's overseas deployment of the Self-Defense Forces for humanitarian reasons (represented by participation in post-2001 UN peacekeeping missions) as opposed to counter-terrorism activities (represented by activities in the Iraq/Afghanistan/the Indian Ocean). Besides presenting at a mid-year conference (held in March), I am free to research at my own pace as well as to ultimately decide the nature of the final product to be submitted in September.

The Fulbright grant is not only an opportunity to conduct research in another country, but also provides funding and time for the student to enjoy and immerse him/herself in the culture and customs of that nation. It is incredibly rewarding to interact with Japanese students and local residents, particularly as one develops a better sense of social expectations and familiarity with the terrain. However, depending on one's placement in the country, this also brings interesting challenges. While Sendai does have a significant foreign population, the majority of exchange students come from nearby countries such as Mongolia, China, or Korea. This means that, perhaps unlike students located in more American/Western Europe-populated such as Kyoto, a tall, fair-skinned American walking to the supermarket attracts an unbelievable amount of attention. Although this brings its own share of opportunities (several of my friendships with Japanese individuals were products of coffee shop encounters with the "local American"), it can alternately be very uncomfortable when one attracts unwanted attention from individuals as well as very isolating.

There are other instances, however, when looking very obviously "foreign" has created fantastic opportunities! The other Fulbright students and I participated in the Kyoto Ekiden marathon (a team relay marathon race) in November, and together comprised the only "international" teams in the race. (Interestingly, this resulted in a lovely picture of our team gracing the pages of a daily Kyoto newspaper). However, the other race participants were very enthusiastic and excited to have an "international relay," and the experience was certainly unforgettable! (we did, however, come in dead last.)

An addition perk of Fulbright is the opportunity to travel around Japan. With Fulbrighters spread all across the country (from Hokkaido to Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima), this means that one quite often benefits from free lodging and a personal tour of the area! There is also an abundance of local sites to visit; below are pictures of Yamadera (a mountain temple located about an hour outside of Sendai), and the Sendai Daikannon statue (an amazing statue/museum combination that overlooks the entire city). Onsen, temples, and local interest sites make perfect daytrips for free weekends!

Look at the size of this rock?!?!

Yamadera...almost at the top after thousands of steps.

But so worth the hike!

The Sendai Daikannon...taller than the local Best Western hotel.

The thing is monstrous. Honestly.

In sum, the Fulbright year is what you make of it, both in terms of travel and cultural experiences as well as research opportunities! The opportunities of a Fulbright year certainly outweigh any uncomfortable experiences one might encounter during the time spent abroad (and Sendai's local anko-filled waffle fish certainly pose a worthy challenge to Nestle Toll House, despite the lack of chocolate).

That's all for now--I'm off to Starbucks (yes, that hasn't changed) to study for finals! More to come later.