It was finally time to retrace my steps and return from whence I came. For most, it was a shock and surprise to see me stateside – I had only informed my parents and a few friends of this trip. When coming from such a distance, the temptation to toy with people is incredible and of course won out in the end. If my return were merely ‘unlikely’ or ‘unexpected’, that would draw out certain reactions. BUT, if my return seemed like nothing short of an impossibility then I could expect the reactions to be a bit more interesting. During the entirety of my trip, I was able to have a lot of fun with this fact. The reason that I selected such an odd time to kick off towards home was mostly on account of my fraternity pledge program. Logically I would be able to see the greatest number of family and friends this way. I figured that my family would always be accessible if I ever went home, so I might as well align a trip so that I could see everyone else as well. I of course also wanted to be around for the pledge program itself. I’ve played my role with it in the past, and getting home to see the fun come full circle as an alumni always seemed something of a necessity to me. So with that in mind, I had one very short week within which to cram every aspect of home that I’d missed. This is going to be a rather different travel account due to there being no particular itinerary and no sightseeing to be had. Just getting there, getting my America fix and then getting back to where I belong.
The first stage of this trip was set to be the overnight Jumbo Ferry, which leaves at 1am to get me to the airport in time for my 8am flight. No problem, done this before. But, given my fortunes with air travel, it was only right that I should be told by the clerk that the boat would be running two hours late on this particular night. Getting there before my flight by boat, or any other form of public transit was now an absolute impossibility. So, standing on some dark pier at 1am on an odd side of the city, I had no choice but to get about 45 minutes south to my place so that I could drive to the airport. Amazingly, a friend of a friend and total stranger to myself was willing to wake up and get me a lift, which solved half of my problem. Now, I know driving a car 3 hours to the airport wouldn’t seen like such a tough situation, but I would presume that you are unfamiliar with the costs of driving in Japan. Off into the black of the night I rode, though I was absolutely exhausted. I can say with confidence that I was swerving on the expressway, often coming back into consciousness halfway into the neighboring lane. I was awoken once by the sound of another car’s tire rubbing on my fender. Obviously this was unsafe and would never fit my normal driving standards, but there was truly no other option. ‘Sorry, I was too tired’ is just not an acceptable excuse for missing that flight. Once I arrived in Osaka, I still had no idea how to get to the airport. After burning up any potential buffer time by overshooting and going to Kyoto, I started to get really worried. I was frantically asking convenience store employees and countless toll booths where I needed to go. After some screaming in the solitude of my car, I figured out what had to be done and arrived at the airport with less than an hour before departure. I had to stick to my all too familiar routine of running with luggage to make sure I didn’t miss anything. In the end, I still had a little leeway and managed alright. The 125 dollars for gas and tolls (one way) plus the 30 dollars a day to park my car had me a bit sullen, but at least the all night drive set my sleep schedule perfectly for flying to the other side of the world.
After a short layover in the capital, I was on my way to Chicago. When I wasn’t asleep, I was making the most out of my new tablet purchase who’s battery easily lasted the duration. Once in Chicago I had to go through American immigration for the first time in a while. And I do say, I quite enjoyed the extra attention from answering truthfully the countries I had been to since my last time home. North Korea especially drew some questions from the immigration officer; Pakistan didn’t help. Once on the other side, it was clear that I was in a whole new world. I was really shocked by the diversity of people in America. After all this time basking in the homogeneity of Japan, seeing people of different colors and size en masse was a tad peculiar. The other point that I picked up on was what seemed like a supernatural sense of hearing I had. Suddenly being able to understand all the wisperings that clog a populated place was almost surreal, and this all played into my desire to speak. Not to anyone in particular, but only because I could. The ability to speak freely and understand everything had me making small talk with whoever I came across. The fun of that aside, I was told that a storm knocked out my connecting flight to Grand Rapids and that I could leave the next morning. After fumbling about without an American phone or money, I was able to secure a ride with my Aunt Linda and Uncle Tom who by pure chance were in the area that weekend and would be heading home. Somehow I was able to get to my house only a few hours after the intended time, though the 35 hours of transit time left me on the brink of death.
It was time for the fun part though. My parents had planned a dinner for that evening, so all we had to do was collect the children. My sister was at Butch’s with a number of her friends, so we went in to fetch her. Fortunately, she was turned away from the entrance, so we were able to get in close. Her friends noticed her parents had arrived, but when she turned around and saw me it took several moments before she was able to respond. It is a lot of fun to bear witness to and cause these reactions. Next up was Parker who was currently at tennis practice. At the DeWitt facility, I just went down to the court level and sat on the bleachers until he noticed. This didn’t take much time, but it still got the desired response. Then as a family plus grandpa we enjoyed an all American meal at Red Robin, as per my request.
My trip was designed to maximize my exposure to food, friends, and family but in lacking a real plan it becomes harder to write about this as a if it were a journal. I’ll just try to lump different categories into paragraphs and say what I managed for each.
Food. In the lead up to my return, my mom requested a list of what I wanted to have waiting for me. I can survive just fine here in Japan, but some gaping vacancies on their supermarket shelves often leave me pining for home. From my mother’s kitchen, I requested a proper steak, stuffed shells, & chicken pizza. And of the pantry I was in dire need of S’mores Pop-Tarts, Ruby Red Squirt, grapefruit juice and some sort of cinnamon cereal. A trip to Meijer with my mom yielded all this and more, plus a handful of things I was excited to return to Japan with to share with others. The other side of this was getting to a number of my favorite restaurants. I already mentioned Red Robin, but also missed Hungry Howie’s, Jimmy Johns, Gregordog, New Holland Brewery (for food and drink), Big Apple Bagels, and even Phelps cafeteria. In all cases, especially of the home cooked meals, it was just great to be enjoying some of my favorites again.
This was immensely delicious.
Friends. This was a very big chunk of my trip, so capturing it properly will be hard. I planned on my first weekend back being mostly family oriented, but I was able to squeeze in Andy Lutz and his wife Yaoyi. They made the hike over from Ann Arbor to join me for some drinks, pizza and the ever so delicious Taco Bell. I also saw Jon Tromp who I joined for some Ethiopian cuisine in East Grand Rapids. On one of the weekdays, I made some rounds over at Hope College, visiting among others my adviser and Japanese teacher. Both were a bit shocked to see me. The true floodgate of friends opened on Monday night though, when I showed up unannounced to a pledge event. The same shock and awe shown by my sister was worn on the faces of everyone. Following that night, I consistently returned to the fray to revel in the pledging process and to connect with brothers old and new. An especially great time was had on Wednesday night when the Hope crowd lets loose and joins together in fellowship and deep philosophical discussion at the New Holland Brewery, the Curragh, and even Parrots. On this night I dusted off my grand stein for the brewery, and was able to see a great many friends for the first time in ages. The night was a rampant success and filled with many laughs. More than anything it was just so great to be doing this again in a place that I knew with people I cared about.
The zenith of the fraternity experience takes form during the ‘Hell Night’ and subsequent activation party. Many of my closest college friends made the trip back too (with others coming back from China, New York and England), which combined with the jovial new members, fostered an atmosphere so great to again be a part of. While going to Japan was obviously the right choice, it always felt like I was torn from my college comforts a bit too soon. With a local job or at least one in the country, it would have yet been possible to see these friends on a regular basis. Again, it was this particular chance to reconnect with all of these friends that I built my return around. By the end though, this joy carried a tinge of bittersweet as I realized this was essentially the end of the college experience I enjoyed for a number of years – this was a last hurrah for the fraternity especially. From here on out, all I can really expect from Hope are news bulletins and solicitations for cash. Were I to return in even a year or two, most everyone and the connections I had would no longer be centered around Hope’s campus. It is saddening to know that future contact with any of my college buddies will need to be a lot more intentional and never so convenient. Of my graduating group, only one resides in West Michigan. I had no choice but to make the most of my time.
A number of the guys all enjoying some pee pee ha ha time.
And finally, Family. While finding the proper balance between family and friends proved difficult, maximizing time with my kin was certainly a priority. I rarely ate a meal alone, and was generally joined by Tiffany, Parker, or the entire crew. I found that the maturity of our conversation had indeed advanced two years or so too; the banter was genuinely entertaining for all. Aside from the nuclear family, I had some exposure with the Koppenaal’s through New Holland & Crazy Horse, the Bock side at the Wednesday Big Apple gathering, and the Bussies for lunch and a Hope basketball game. All were good chances to remind everyone that I was still alive and doing very well. While I perhaps had the most fun visiting with friends, the family aspect was undoubtedly the most meaningful. One of the things that Tiffany and I did was buy a 1,500 piece puzzle to enjoy together, along with occasional assistance from mother. Unfortunately we couldn’t wrap it up before I left, but I know mom will take care of it some day…
The Bussies at full strength.
When everything was said and done, my departure had some emotions weaved into it. Not specifically because I was going to be missing people, but I think I was just overwhelmed by everything. The friends by night family by day schedule mixed with a losing battle against jet lag had especially worn me down, and by the end of the week I felt as if near death. But, to sleep was to miss out on my limited time, and it was rapidly evaporating. I think this along with the weight of my looming flights and drive necessary to make my return opened the door just a smidgen for my feelings to escape. Everything about going home was a throwback to a great time in my life. Everything I enjoyed about college was present, but the kindness and comforts of home were particularly hard to say goodbye to. I suppose that one of the things that makes living so far away possible is to lose touch with everything that would make you homesick. Having all those bits and pieces not only come rushing back, but dissipating in such dramatic fashion inevitably took its toll. That said, I don’t have any regrets. I accomplished everything I had hoped for, and far more than I could have expected. To stay any longer would have turned to stagnation and likely done very little to improve my already fantastic time. Of course more time to relax would have been great, but no amount of time would have rendered my goodbyes to friends and family any easier.
Enjoying some New Holland with Tiffany, Mom….and Rick Petzak?
Once alone in the terminal, the pain of leaving eased as logic found its way back into my mind – I was going back to Japan, and I do like it there a lot. There was nothing to do but follow though with reality and return from this intermission to continue with what will likely be the most dynamic chapter of my life. I was beyond fortunate to have had such an opportunity as this. It was a different kind of trip though. Returning to someplace I have already been would generally come off as redundant, but the people, the memories, and seeing all that they meant to me more than justified it. Thank you to everyone who either made this experience possible, or contributed in some way to it.