The Difference Between a Summer in Mississippi and Japan
It’s another summer evening reminiscent of those past, the air heavy with humidity and awash with the sounds of hundreds of chirping cicadas signaling the sunset. As I retrace my steps on the same path towards my room, the faint warmth of the asphalt radiating through my shoes, I feel a sense of contentment after eating dinner with my friends under the soft glow of the moon. Despite the street lights of Tokyo now lighting my path rather than the stars over rural Mississippi, I still feel a sense of home.
For one month every summer for the past nine years, I’ve been a camper at a Jewish summer camp in Mississippi called Henry S. Jacobs. Over the time I’ve spent there, I’ve come to call it my home and made unforgettable memories and friends. Before the end of this summer, I would have considered myself well acquainted with deep southern culture interestingly combined with reform Judaism. Nevertheless, I could never have prepared to experience the stark contrast and surprising similarities between a Jewish camp in the quiet farmland of Utica, Mississippi and the bright and flashy streets of Tokyo, Japan that never quite seem to sleep or allow for a moment of silence.
Back at Jacobs Camp, I was a counselor-in-training alongside twenty-four other high school students whom I had known for years. As I drove into camp, the all-too-familiar sight of the chapel by the lake surrounded by pines, cabins, and eventually campers was comforting, leading me to remember again that this was truly my second home. At least to myself and my two close friends whom I shared a cabin with, Jacobs camp is the celebratory scream of “opening day at HSJ!”, fried chicken and fresh banana pudding for the opening night dinner. Beyond these long held traditions, camp is a pool packed with two hundred campers, and it is sitting on the cold tile floor for the first night in the cabin with kids and counselors who share an infectious sense of joy for a modest summer camp tucked so far into the woods. It is the Friday nights shared among all of camp, bringing life to the dining hall during Shabbat as we jump together, clad in white and singing out in Hebrew until we lose our voices. It is the everyday flow of camp, the few days we spend trying to win the camp-wide maccabiah (color wars), and the nights I share with staff friends cooking french toast and shakshuka in the test kitchen after the lights in the camper cabins go out. It is sitting on the camp director’s office porch eating almonds with my friend Erika at 1 am, and it is sitting on the stage in the dining hall in the dead of the last night of camp, eating cookie dough with two friends and a classically SoCal rabbi as we cry about the next eleven months we’ll have to be apart again. Between the southern Jewish atmosphere, the people that build our community, and the space that we fortunately get to share for a month every summer, I am reminded that Jacobs camp is home.
Suddenly, I’m 6,725 miles away from Mississippi studying a language I’m not fluent in with people I’ve never seen in my life and a culture that’s far from my own normal. Japanese quickly takes the place of English and Hebrew, and instead of supervising my cabin of fifth graders, I’m watching out for myself while wandering the streets of Sangubashi. The common occurrence of chain pizza joints becomes curry shops tucked away into almost unnoticeable Shibuya and Harajuku street corners, and Friday night challahs are replaced with small breakfast breads from the National Olympic Youth Center cafeteria and melonpan from a popular Shibuya stall.
Still, the place that once seemed out of reach turned into a new home. Convenience stores called conbinis that existed in every possible part of Japan were my new grocery stores. Soon enough, I discovered that Japanese character-themed desserts—even so much as peering at my ice cream cone was a wholly Japanese experience, the matcha flavored frog’s chocolate eyes staring back into mine— became my new Blue Bunny ice cream sandwiches served for dessert that stuck to my fingers. Arcade Taiko drums took the place of Shabbat band drums, and new friends filled the empty space by my side as we taught ourselves to play an unreadable yet universally understandable rhythm game, playing so often that blisters began forming on our hands. While southern sweet tea gave way to fresh matcha, visiting shrines on weekends became my new Shabbat morning services.
In the midst of it all, I still found a number of links between my homes; although both places that I hold close to my heart are separated by thousands of miles, nothing can place distance between the valuable memories that my friends and I created together even during the latest hours of the night. 6,725 miles makes no difference for the feeling of sweat running down my back while walking under a row of trees on an unbreathably humid night, or the sounds of cicadas alerting me once again to a sunset with a shared sun. As one of my program leaders Karen-Sensei advised all fifty-eight of us during our Tokyo orientation, “don’t live with one foot in Japan and the other at home in the ‘States.” Yet, as I stepped outside of my dorm in Sangubashi each morning only to be greeted by enormous crows and muggy weather, I never truly walked with two feet in the same place; I danced across the two countries, playing a game of strategic hopscotch with the places I considered my homes until I felt at peace.