Participating in an exchange program is not for the fainthearted. The same goes for writing. I don’t know why I tried both. I welcomed 2020 with plenty of hopes and aspirations. In return, I got adversity and losses. The pandemic story is just the tip of my journey of trying to catch my dreams. I was returned to square one by conditions that were completely out of my control.
We were not the typical batch of exchange students catered by the ongoing Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) – funded Asia KAKEHASHI Project. We were the batch that the COVID-19 pandemic hit the most. Repeated cancellations nearly shattered the shared dream of being part of a 10-month exchange program and intercultural learning in the Land of the Rising Sun. These cancellations put our mental resilience to the test.
How It All Started
Most campus journalism seminars offered in my time as the Editor-in-Chief of my school’s publication were expensive. These seminars were also held in locations far from home. Only the privileged campus journos with ever-supportive schools enjoy the perk of joining these writing events.
I was searching on the internet for a free seminar or writing event. Luckily, the Goethe Institut Philippinen posted that they will have a writing event with the Japan Foundation and the De La Salle University’s Literature Department. They invited Dr. Yoko Tawada, an award-winning exophonic Japanese writer based in Germany, to talk here in the Philippines. The event was free and we can even direct questions to the speaker. I eventually invited my journmates to register for the event and use it as an opportunity to sharpen our naïve skills to prepare for the Division School Press Conference (DSPC).
“Writing in Two Worlds”
Dr. Tawada is more than just an exophonic writer and award-winning author . The most significant impact of her talk was probably sharing her life before becoming who she is today. Unlike others who traveled abroad via airplanes and ships, Tawada-san went to Europe via the Trans-Siberian Railway at 19. I didn’t realize that I had a fascination for these types of stories before. Given that my primary aim of going to her talk was for the DSPC preparation, I focused more on asking her tips on having confidence in writing stories in a second or third language.
Attending her talk was somehow a success. In the DSPC, I won 3rd place for News Presenting at the group category of Radio Broadcasting – Filipino, and 5th place at the individual category of News Writing-Filipino. Two other winners from our publications joined me in representing Manila at the Regional School Press Conference (RSPC). Unfortunately, we failed to join our region’s delegation to the National School Press Conference (NSPC) after being outranked by better campus journalists. What makes the loss worse is that it is our last chance to get to the NSPC. We’re already 10th Grade; Senior High School will be more of preparing us for universities, and joining next school year again would be a challenge with our juniors being better than us.
It made me hate myself. Why can’t I be as great as those other campus journos known as yearly qualifiers to the NSPC? Am I not good enough to make the dream I’ve been dreaming of since I started my JOURNey come true?I hate that I am settling for less and not challenge myself to some more excellent and significant opportunities where I can prove that I am great at something. I lost my great dreams, such as auditioning for the Philippine High School for the Arts’ Creative Writing specialization when I was in 6th Grade because of the fear of entering a dorm school in the mountains. Now that I lost my other glorious dream, getting to the NSPC, I need another route to consider myself a brilliant journalist.
Supposing that I am not a great campus journalist, I’d better train myself to become a foreign correspondent instead. I want to be as great as Kate Adie, who fearlessly reports in war zones worldwide. I want to be like Maria Ressa, who exposed the Islamic terrorists’ connections and networks in Southeast Asia for years as CNN’s lead investigative reporter in Asia before her fight for Philippine press freedom today. I want to share stories like Anderson Cooper, who always touches many people’s hearts, mostly when he covered Typhoon Haiyan that hit my maternal grandmother’s hometown, Tacloban. Even if it’s in German, reading and watching Uwe Schwering’s stories as a foreign correspondent based in Tokyo makes me more fascinated by the world’s biggest metropolis, East Asia, and the Pacific.
How about going to Germany or Japan? Being young isn’t a hindrance to studying in Senior High School overseas. My 11th Grade journey abroad will be a great story that I can tell as a novice foreign correspondent. Like my father, who worked as an Overseas Filipino Worker for years, I want to gain experience outside the country. I dream of becoming a diplomat. Entering an exchange program might teach me independence, make friends with people who share almost the same interest as I am, and have a practical and robust resume for the future to apply for jobs.
I finally decided that there would be no more second-guessing opportunities. I don’t want to be haunted by not trying something I wanted. I wanted to prove something to myself. If I wanted to become a foreign correspondent or diplomat someday, it would be better to start training myself earlier by becoming an exchange student.
Nana Korobi Ya Oki (七転び八起き）
Entering exchange programs can break bank accounts, so I searched for scholarship-funded exchange programs for Filipino high-schoolers instead. Two scholarships emerged: the KL-YES Program funded by the USA and the Asia KAKEHASHI Project funded by Japan. Unfortunately, these scholarship programs already finished their submission dates when I discovered them.
In February 2019, the AFS Intercultural Programs Philippines (AFS-IPP) posted a last call of applications for the Asia KAKEHASHI Project. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe created this initiative to strengthen Japan’s relationship with the rest of Asia. The Asia KAKEHASHI (Japanese for “building bridges”) was set to provide full scholarships to one thousand Asian high-schoolers over the next five years. Scholars will be able to study in both private and public schools in Japan.
I submitted the application forms and regained hope when I received a letter stating that I was qualified for the program’s interview stage. The interview made me nervous. My answers might not be the best as other students interviewed, but I know I did my best. I was so confident in getting the scholarship that I was crushed, knowing that I’ve only been selected as an alternate for the second batch. Despite my alternate status not being upgraded, I still went out to befriend the participants of batch 2. As batch 2’s departure date neared, the alternates were notified that we could try again to apply for the third batch.
And so I did.
If I am not mistaken, I was the only one from the second batch of alternates who applied again. I passed the written application, and I was interviewed again. It is more challenging than the past application, but everything is worth the pain for my dreams. I waited for my status to change. My friends from the second batch were all excited about the results. They even call me to ask for updates since they happily assumed that I would finally be part of the program. Sadly, after weeks of waiting, I was again assigned as an alternate.
I did my best for the 2nd try, but why was it so hard to achieve your dream? Where did I go wrong? Does holding on to a big dream mean I have to be crushed by disappointing experiences? I do not question how they decide nor how God gives opportunities and experiences since these things are beyond my knowledge. I questioned why I even gave it a second try.
I was about to let go. Factors such as advancing to the 12th Grade next academic year, finances, the need for lab tests, and of course, all the energy needed to get things done affected my desire to join for the third time. I had honestly lost my interest in submitting another batch of qualification forms. It would be another catch-22 situation. I answered no when the AFS Philippines asked if I’m still interested in the program. They asked me because they are happy to inform me that they promoted me as a participant in the program. Luckily, they gave me a reasonable amount of time to explain my side of it.
I believe that this opportunity should not be let go once it comes your way, for it is a blessing given to one in a million. An entrusted duty to be done better than your capabilities to grow as a person you should be in the future. My 16-year-old self cried in the corner as I write this to the Confirmation Letter they asked me to do.
Finally, after months of trying and tears gushed, I am now a Kakehashier!
Sayōnara, Manila (さようなら、マニラ）
I did everything I could to hold on to this scholarship. My luck almost ran out when I got into major problems, like applying for travel clearance, submitting my school forms, and communication about my exchange program became unclear and uncertain at some point. The entire process stressed me out, but I conquered all of it.
What inspired me to keep holding on is that unlike the second batch, where their program duration was seven months, the third batch’s program will last ten months. The regret of not being one of the 2nd batch participants faded when it became an exact win-win situation in exchange for all the hardships and sacrifices I had to endure to get the scholarship.
I might even get to watch how the Philippines will get its first gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics during my program; I am already looking forward to becoming my Filipino school newspaper’s first foreign correspondent. I planned to write about the Olympics during my stay. World, I’m about to achieve my journalism dream!
But then, as I said, the COVID 19 pandemic happened.
Wear a Mask, Onegaishimasu! (お願いします!)
The AFS Japan informed us that they would move our departure from April to May. It was moved again to August, and then late autumn. Ironically, the Olympic Committee moved the Tokyo Olympics from 2020 to 2021. The world neared anarchy because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigned last August 28. Japan now has a new Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga.
The COVID 19 pandemic stressed not just my mental health but also everyone in the program. Some from the original batch left the program because no one knew our exchange program’s final departure date. Others face existential crises—many experienced breakdowns. Our mental states were anything but good, especially when we spoke of the departure date. Our first “final departure date” was April 1, 2020. Today, we joked that the first departure date was false because it was April Fool’s Day, anyway.
The worst thing for me was that my original host school refused to accept exchange students due to the pandemic. It was a huge bummer that I was placed away from the Kantō region and away from the main Japanese island: Honshu. Well, at least, my placement is with my Seoul sisters with South Korea for being geographically closer to them.
I am already jealous of the former batches under these jokes, especially to my friends in the 2nd batch. Whenever we have Zoom meetings, hearing their exchange student stories pricks my heart as I compare what I am today with whom they are now.
Why did I have to feel left out? We were close for almost a year, and now I can’t even hear their stories. I want to talk to them, too. I should be in Japan now, talking about my daily struggles and all the fun experiences – if only this stupid pandemic didn’t happen. The reality of the pandemic made me cry every night.
Why was it so unfair? We are almost the same age, but why are they ahead of me? We’re in the same program; we simultaneously met each other, but why do I feel belittled every time they share their stories? Should I continue being friends with them? I am a nobody to them.
It might seem like I am overreacting, but this is the burden that I’m dealing with at the moment. I fear the hopelessness that tomorrow might bright. I am already part of the program, but why is it that I can’t even confirm when I am going to Japan this year? Why was life so unfair? Why is the world trying to stop me from achieving my dreams?
How can my fellow exchange students and I confirm that we will have a so-called happy ending to our exchange stories?