This is it, guys.
Below stand the very last of my Japanese adventures.
Or maybe not very last. That wording is mildly depressing given the current context. How about we go with “the very last of my Japanese adventures for the very near future”. Much better! I must say, though, that after going on this quirky, crazy, cultural thrill ride, I can’t help but feel that my life’s journey has reached at least some sort of end. So, please excuse any excessive emotion as I force my mind (and fingers!) to focus on my writing and NOT the feelings that my subject matter bring about, which generally tend to leave me teetering back and forth between:
1) reminiscing my writing time away and
2) dashing from my desk in search of tissues to compensate my overworked and under-thanked tear-ducts.
Today I think that I will start by recounting my final adventures and goodbyes, but stay tuned for some final reflections on my chemistry research and personal experience at the end of this post.
My last weekend in Japan fully convinced me that I had been elevated to the ranks of the truly blessed: even five days before I left for the U.S., I still found myself meeting new people. My friend Sharen from Brunai had invited about eight of us international students on an excursion to Onomichi for a firework festival, the second largest firework festival in the Hiroshima area of the entire season. There were a bunch of new faces in our group: Motaz from Palestine, Toan from Vietnam, and Jason from Canada,
all of whom are standing to my left in the above picture, names listed in order of right to left (I’m the girl in the tan skirt in the center!). We arrived in Onomichi at about 2:00 PM, and since nightfall was not scheduled to hit for another five hours, we decided to go on a temple walk to kill some time. Most of the temples were actually closed due to tourists staking out the surrounding area for good spots to watch the firework show later, but that didn’t hinder our enjoyment of the hike at all! In fact, we probably had more fun making jokes about the futility of our efforts than we would have if the temples had been open. There were also plenty of cool sites to explore that were not at all affiliated with the temples
as well as some magnificent views, so, truly, we had no room to complain.
Before sitting down to watch the fireworks and enjoy my very last Japanese festival, our group stopped by a small restaurant whose specialty was cold ramen (one of my favorite Japanese dishes) and started to have some really great cultural and religious discussions that continued far into the evening. In retrospect, conversations like that, filled with such diversity of experience and thought, are what I miss the most about my stay in Japan.
I was able to sleep in Sunday morning and prepare for the potentially emotionally trying event of the coming evening: my official farewell party from the international students. Per my request, we decided to head out to an authentic Chinese restaurant, a forty-five minute walk from the International House (and if any of my international friends are reading this, I sincerely apologize for that exceedingly long walk. Ha! I swear I thought it was only going to take twenty minutes). Once we were seated, our numbers continued to increase and, soon, we had a severely packed table. I was incredibly pleased (not to mention touched!) that so many people would come to see me off even though it was the Sunday night before finals week. If only the waiting staff had been nearly as pleased…
I also received some extremely cool going away gifts, including an authentic Mozambican bag from Watanabe (my Japanese friend who lived in Mozambique for two years), a bell adorned with the maple leaves local to Miyajima from Afreen, and a Japanese sun hat and baseball souvenir from Motaz. Afterwards, a smaller group of us decided to go out for ice cream,
and I learned that although the word parfait is French indeed, the French know of no such ice cream snack. Yet another fun fact from Fanny! Gah I miss those fun facts…
…but no! No reminiscing! I shall push onward with my story!
Monday night, after my second-to-last day of work, the lab threw me their own going away party,
and how could a party with the above group of people not be fun? The majority of the evening consisted of all of us cooking dinner together. We made takoyaki,
and a regional dish that tastes very similar to okonomiyaki but is folded over like an omelet.
We spent the rest of the evening talking about the differences between America and Japan, and despite the fact that my eyelids were visibly drooping by the end of the evening, it took all my effort to tear myself away from the party.
Although the lab had technically already said goodbye to me the night before, I arrived at work early Tuesday morning, eager to check the NMR spectra of the experiment I had performed the previous day. This experiment involved a rather desperate attempt to react that same thioxanthone derivative I previously mentioned, this time with trifluoromethanesulfonic anhydride and lithium chloride. I was rather skeptical of the reaction to begin with (probably because I was the one to offer up the mechanism!), and, lo and behold, it didn’t work. However, the NMR spectra showed that I had been left with starting material while all of the articles I had read indicated that, if the reaction I was attempting didn’t work at all, I would be left with a dimer, not starting material. So, my theory is that both the previous reaction with oxalyl chloride and the current one proceeded, but that the product was so unstable that it decomposed almost immediately. If only I had had a little longer to work with it. . . but, hey, I have three more years of undergraduate research ahead of me, so hopefully I’ll get to work with at least one molecule until completion!
Because my lab group was so awesome, leaving the lab discouraged was completely out of the question. Inagaki-san gave me an incredibly inspiring talk about how the life of a chemist is wrought with failures and a group of my closest friends from the lab presented me with a scrapbook of the time I had spent there.
I was stunned by their thoughtfulness, and as I read the comments and looked at the pictures, filled with inside jokes and inspirational little tidbits, I almost lost it. The fact that I was supposed to immediately depart from the lab and head over for a final, FINAL goodbye party at the International House did nothing to ease my overtly emotional state. Not to be outdone by my Japanese friends, Fanny and Vivian decided to cook dishes from their respective countries (France and Colombia) to enjoy at our final gathering, ratatouille and masitas.
We talked and laughed for hours, accompanied by good music and good food, and as we began breaching the subject of the Apollo missions (still not quite sure how we got onto that topic), I suddenly looked up at the clock only to realize that it was 2:00 in the morning. But, hey, I was flying halfway across the globe the next morning, so staying up late could only help my jet-lag, right? Heh. The next fifteen minutes were filled with hugs, making for an especially tearful goodbye.
Wednesday morning, some friends from the lab picked me up to take me to the airport, stopping first, however, to indulge me in one last ramen meal.
And then it was time to say my final goodbye, my goodbye to Japan,
and I was left to reflect on my time there as my twenty-one hours of travel began.
So, let’s have them, some reflections on my chemistry research and experience!
Wow. Even just looking back at all of the chemistry-related things I learned during my eight week internship is slightly overwhelming. First, there is the plethora of simple things. I’ve become comfortable handling reagents ranging from the highly reactive to the menacingly toxic. I’ve developed the strength and patience to add reagents like butylated lithium from a handheld syringe at a dropwise pace over what once seemed to me brutal periods of time. I’ve learned how to handle what I would have previously thought to be complex procedures with ease, moving things in and out of the glove box and filtering them under argon without much difficulty. My chromatography columns, which used to resemble crooked, bubbly disasters of silica gel, sample, and eluent, now run evenly, and separate compounds efficiently and well. I no longer unknowingly waste large amounts of product during extractions and continue to make wiser and wiser decisions when it comes to not losing my product in unnecessary steps. In short, my organic lab skills have improved enormously and I am continuing to make better and better judgment calls when it comes to dealing with unexpected or difficult-to-handle results.
I am excited to say that this newly held, practical laboratory knowledge is accompanied by some new chemistry knowledge as well. Because my focus in Japan was solely carbene chemistry, I have learned a whole lot about carbenes from both my post-doctoral mentors and some classic scientific literature on carbenes from researchers like Tomioka, the “persistent triplet carbenes” guy, and Iwamura, the “high-spin polycarbenes” guy. One of my proudest moments was my last Friday afternoon presentation, one that I gave to an associate professor and my lab peers, in which I was asked why I was hesitant to use a particular reagent to form my cationic product, and in response cited the 1981 paper Dication Ether Salts from the Reaction of Trifluoromethanesulfonic Anhydride with Activated Ketones, just as familiar with its results as I was with the examples presented in my basic organic textbook. My Organic I professor would be proud!
My personal growth was probably even more extreme. Being put into situations in which I had to fend for myself was rather exhilarating, especially the times in which my meager understanding of the Japanese language proved useful to myself and to my friends. For instance, one time my Austrian friend Beppino was wanting to buy an iPad from the local Apple store in Saijo, but the saleslady only spoke Japanese. Somehow, with only the Japanese I had picked up from lab and some online classes I had been frequenting, I was able to clearly pick out that the iPads were not currently available and wouldn’t be in for awhile. The shocked expression on Beppino’s face when he realized that I had just translated for him was priceless.
Another huge lesson I learned was how not to panic when faced with difficult situations. A large portion of this “lesson” was learned over time in the lab, but I will never forget how I got to experience firsthand the choice “to panic or not to panic” when forced to bike through Kyoto, the city with the highest rate of bicycle accidents in all of Japan, after having not biked for about six years. A lot of close calls were made over that three day trip in Kyoto, but the near accidents that seemed discouraging at the time, I am thankful for now. Every time I almost ran into a pole or nicked the heel of businessman due to lack of control of my vehicle, I began to realize that I was faced with a choice: to panic right before that point of impact or to think clearly and, instead of letting anxiety wash over me because of the embarrassment and shame to come when I failed, focus on doing whatever I could to salvage the situation. If I claim to live by faith, claim that the God of the universe has taken my shame upon himself that I might live in joy and by grace as I slowly move towards that perfect connection with Himself, others, and nature that I was created to experience, then I can’t allow panic or anxiety to distract my focus from experiencing by way of discipline all that has been so freely given to me.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I will never forget the people I met in Japan, all of you guys from Japan, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunai, Paraguay, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Honduras, Italy, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Siberia, France, Russia, Turkey, Mozambique, Palestine, Rwanda, and beyond. And as for Professor Yamamoto and his laboratory…just wow. You guys taught me so much and did so much for me that I don’t think that I will ever be able to properly thank you. Each and every one of you have personally affected me in ways deeper than you may ever realize and I am delighted to call you friend.
Sayonara, Nihon. It’s been grand.