Becoming Myself: GAKKO 2016

What’s the “something more” that high school students look for?

This was a question I pondered when applying to GAKKO, an interdisciplinary camp held in Indonesia, Romania, and Japan. The answer I gave? “The freedom and encouragement to take risks, explore possibilities, and be part of a community and environment woven with trust and ambition to expand my horizons.”

At GAKKO, I got exactly that, and more!

When I signed up, I had no idea of what to expect; little did I know that 10 days of obstacles and unconventional fun awaited me.

I made a smoothie out of shirasu (whitebait), spinach, and tabasco. I ran across a field, screaming my head off, in front of people I barely knew. I composed a song—“Just Mess With Me”—choreographed it, and performed it in just 20 minutes. I conversed as Joey, the fictional bisexual Latino hippie pianist. I ventured into the forest with a blindfold on. I wore a bikini on top of my clothes, threw my hair into pigtails, and did the Harlem Shake. I was cluelessly dropped in the middle of a park and assigned to create a society. I went on an impromptu midnight hike wearing pajamas. I was challenged to create a shape that had “infinite surface area and zero volume.” I conveyed “powerful, bold, organic, tension, and order” with just five black squares. I discussed how sexist and racist Aladdin was. I illustrated 50 pictures in 50 minutes. I practiced burping on command. I attempted to convince my peers that “people are too nice” by tying rope and paper to trees. I contributed things to our Nest—the giant net where we tied up our work throughout camp—and burned it all down. I pulled my first all-nighter, and pranked my sempai with water balloons and face paint. I explored a whole lot of new things.

One of the biggest challenges I faced at GAKKO was being worn down raw, becoming vulnerable, and exposing the person that I truly am. At school, I feel like I have to be the perfect version of myself: the one who studies, is fun but not too crazy, and doesn’t deviate far from social norms. I would tiptoe around life as anxiety creeped around the corner, waiting for me to trip and tumble over into a jumbled mess. To avoid it from happening, I wore a dark, heavy mask that stopped me from reaching out too far into creativity, adventure, and my emotions. I believed that if I took some sort of risk, the world would bite back at me: “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” I always knew that the person I purported to be, wasn’t myself; however, I never realized how heavy the burden of my public facade was.

GAKKO was a place where I felt safe to be myself completely; parts of me that I didn’t even know existed surfaced. Once I was given the environment where I could safely take any risk, my entire perspective on life changed; it was as if someone lifted the dark cloak off of me, and I could breathe fully again. In this haven with no social judgement, I had the power to live my life the way I truly wanted to.

For example, after a little bit of my roommate’s much-needed convincing, I performed a hip-hop routine with my friends; and it turned out that I love dancing! I could never have imagined myself doing such a thing back home, where I would have cared too much about others’ opinions.

A significant step I took at GAKKO was to become honest. Previously, I tended to bottle up my emotions and didn’t let many people know how I was feeling. However, GAKKO pushed, pulled, and stretched me in ways that no other experience had before. For example, there was one full-day activity—to build a civilization—where I got involved in a conflict that I didn’t know how to deal with, and frustrated me greatly. At the end, it got resolved, but I still felt the bitter aftertaste of the quarrel. For the rest of the day, I felt extremely low-energy and barely talked, something I rarely do. Some of my friends, picking up on my unusual behavior, asked me what was wrong. At the start, I was reluctant to open up; however, I soon recognized that I wouldn’t feel any better by keeping in my emotions as I usually would, so I told them how I felt because of the activity. I came face-to-face with how I felt, and learned greatly about emotional honesty.

Through my experiences, I realized that my biggest flaw was caring too much about what people think of me. Perhaps it was because of the pressure to be the Perfect Student, my perfectionist personality, or the subconscious “Japanese” mindset to conform. Regardless, constant anxiety about my reputation would hold me back from taking potentially life-changing leaps. At GAKKO, I didn’t have to dodge opportunities because of social repercussions, or do things simply to impress others. I knew that my fellow kohai and sempai would be supportive of me, no matter what the result of challenging myself was. In just 10 days, I learned so much about what it means to truly live happily.

If there’s one lesson to take away from my experiences, it’s to live with an open mind and not care so much about what others think. It’s simply a waste of time and energy that hinders everyone from achieving happiness— a state of mind that’s attained by constantly challenging yourself and growing. I know it’s a lot easier said than done, but this is a difficult goal that I’m determined to achieve in the weeks, months, and years to come.

In the 10 days of GAKKO, I changed. I became indescribably frustrated. I got excruciatingly furious. I cried my eyes out. I was worn down. I was pushed over the edge, and pulled back up. I was unimaginably happy. I got my mind blown many times over. I questioned myself. I was inspired. I formed bonds. I became honest. I learned like never before. I was myself.

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