Read the first part here.
The Senpais (先輩) and the Kouhais (後輩)
Entering an exchange program in Japan made everyone realize that they are not alone in facing problems. The old guards were also there and were willing to help us face every challenge. They are the definition of been there, done that, and their compassion to help their juniors continue to prevail, especially now in the period of the pandemic.
Any person who plans to enter an exchange program, especially the programs in Japan, must be aware of and respect the idea and norm of the senpai-kouhai relationship. Rooted in the Confucian philosophy (Li), it is not practiced widely in the Philippines, where juniors and seniors routinely and sometimes even openly compete. It would be absolutely shocking for Filipino exchange students to see how well-established the senpai-kouhai relationship is in Japanese high schools.
In Japan, the seniors are the advisers of their juniors. We often see this in anime and manga cultures. A good example would be the bond between teammates exhibited by the Karasuno High School Male Volleyball Team in Haikyuu.
As an “in-betweener” of the second and third batches, I often joke that I see the second batch as my semi-senpais. I have grown close to them during their cycle. I was also a batch alternate. I remain proud of their efforts to help my batch despite the difficulties in their schedules and the problems associated with the new normal (both physically and virtually). From April to June, the Filipino alumni gave free Japanese lessons to our batch virtually. The senpai assigned to teach me is Alexandra Opon of batch one from Davao. With Alex-senpai’s help, I learned the basics from Hiragana and Katakana (Kana) writing, sentence structures, phrases, and so on. I may not be the best student since my Nihongo skills are still novice compared to other exchange students of my batch, but I truly treasure the memories of being humbly taught and helped by my senpais, especially Alex-senpai. Alex-senpai contributed to my moving forward in achieving my dreams.
After the language programs and continuous updates given to us by the organization, the AFS Japan conducted webinars for the entire batch. This is where the Filipino batch 3 were challenged by the need for seamless teamwork. In the first few webinars, they assigned us to deliver a special report. Our special report was geared toward letting the Japanese community know how the Philippines was presently faring. I applied my radio broadcasting background to the challenge. I suggested that we make our webinar unique by creating a radio or TV broadcast simulation. With plenty of brainstorming, editing, and a healthy amount of suggestions from our senpais, we completed the task. We shocked everyone by showing them how we can deliver such a sugoi performance.
The alumni also launched their social media platform AKP Super Senpais to help the kouhais adjust during the pandemic. In their YouTube channel, Voices of Kakehashi, they shared pointers like how to prepare before departure. They also performed a comparative analysis of the Japanese dorm school, host families, and the differences between being placed in a city or a more rural area. They also shared tips and lessons that helped us understand Japanese culture better.
There’s Always Tomorrow
Ashita ga arusa (明日があるさ), singer Kyu Sakamoto said in his hit Japanese song of the same title. The song is about a boy who was afraid of telling a girl of his growing feelings. He meets the girl daily at the train station. Hearing “there’s always tomorrow” together with the song’s upbeat rhythm has always given me hope. The song also reminds me of silver linings, no matter how catastrophic things get.
We had a chance to meet Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad at our two-day virtual event, Asia High School Summit. Together with Japanese high schoolers, we exchanged ideas that we can do post-pandemic, like sustaining Asian tourism, economy, and diplomacy. Even if there’s a language barrier, I gained Japanese friends who were happy to share their stories and tips. We also had the opportunity to watch Kakeru, a live calligraphy event in Japan. We learned about different Kanji characters and how they are artfully painted on paper with fine brush strokes.
Along the way, I also bumped into a group of literary critics, reformists, and journalists who share similar ideas to mine regarding Philippine literature and journalism. I am a writer and a campus journalist by heart and soul, so I had to join their battle to fight against campus journalism and Philippine literature’s demoralization.
As the heat between the reformists and fanatics inspired me to help them save the Philippine literature from the ruins of romanticizing deviances and perversions, came the responsibility of representing my scholarship program. I can say that they do not affiliate my opinions about literature to it. However, I cannot hide the fact that I am still in the program, and my actions will reflect on me the rest of the scholars. I sought the wisdom of my senpais.
It was a hard decision, but it made me realize that I had a different life path when I published my controversial articles. Why do I need to question and compare myself with them now? Maybe it was fate that I have a different story to share. My story is unique, but I return to what brought me to the foreign exchange program in the first place: the concept of bridge builders.
It is still us—the chosen bright students from different Asian countries—who would contribute to the different paths we chose. It would still be up to our decisions which social problems we want to pursue and solve. Some of my senpais helped with the fulfillment of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. Others helped our organization as volunteers, while others served their LGUs and schools during the pandemic.
I chose the path that others haven’t chosen yet: being a vanguard of truth to develop our country’s literature and press freedom. I have never regretted this decision.
It is what makes me unique, and I need to own it.
Rising From The Ruins
I sometimes ask why God wants us to wait. Maybe He wants us to enjoy the waiting season, as he stated in Ecclesiastes 3:1: “For everything, there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.”
Strong bridges require a strong foundation. The COVID 19 pandemic proved to be a real test of our mettle. Our bridge-builders’ bonds became stronger. Resilience would probably be the secret formula to our firm bridge. It pushed us forward from every failure and regret.
Participants change, departure dates change, host cities, and schools change, but our primary goal of bridging the differences by the power of intercultural learning does not diminish. Other participants left our program because of personal and academic reasons. However, the fighting spirit that they left earned my utmost respect and all the other participants and alumni across Asia.
Indeed, exchange programs are not for the faint-hearted. Being in a new community, learning a new language, being the one who should break the ice to communicate with the locals, the list goes on.
Being an exchange student during the pandemic proved to me that it takes more than just resilience or interpersonal skills and the faith to keep going.
Sometimes, I am still appalled that my story is not as smooth as the others, but far crazier, unbelievable, and even pathetic (not all the time, though!). Other exchange students have their unique takes and stories, too.
I started dreaming about becoming an exchange student at 15. I experienced hardship at 16. I was closer than ever to achieving my dreams at 17. This is my weird foreign exchange story, peppered with COVID-19, crazy people, and even crazier opportunities for social change.