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Sunrise in the Land of the Rising Sun

There’s nothing quite like the sunrise from your own window, in your own home the day you leave for a long trip abroad. This is, I think, generally true, but all the more so if you’re going to be leaving your friends and loved ones for a full semester or an entire year. In my case, it was the latter. And my house has giant windows, which seemed the morning of September 12th almost to spite me as I left for the airport. The house has giant everything, if I’m honest, something of a symbol of American luxury that I can’t help but contemplate when I travel to Asia. I lived for a summer at a Buddhist monastery in Ningbo, China, and learned that this sense of bigness is hard to find in many personal spaces abroad. Though there are plenty of giant buildings, big streets, and big cities, personal accommodations in Asia are made for people of a much narrower stature than myself, and for people accustomed to being a lot closer to one another.

It was that kind of knowledge that left me so excited, curious, and apprehensive about the adventure to Japan I was about to embark upon; and it was that morning’s sunrise, my girlfriend’s I’m-trying-to-be-strong smile, and the soft warmth of my dog’s fur that reminded me, yes, there were a lot of things it was going to sincerely hurt to be away from for a year. Part of me wondered, perhaps a little cynically, whether the trip was really worth such a sacrifice.

But of course emotion speaks in that primal language, and a larger part of me knew that what was to come was something I’d spent the better part of a decade preparing for. This is my future, for better or worse, and when I’d decided to go back to school in pursuit of an Asian Studies degree, this was already part of a loose plan I’d mapped out for myself. So after a slow, tearful, reluctant farewell with my beloved, I boarded the plane that would take me to a place I’d never been before that I would soon begin to call home.

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Kamakura, my first stop after taking the shinkansen from Narita Airport

The Known Unknown

Narita Airport wasn’t what I expected. It bore more of a resemblance to the Shanghai Pudong Airport where I’d flown en route to Ningbo than it did LAX. It wasn’t as big as I thought it would be, and felt crowded and dirty. I realized that I’d never even seen pictures of it before. So as I scrambled to fill out immigration documents and stood in a long line of other foreigners, mostly from other parts of Asia, I had to remind myself that I too had foolish prejudices. I thought of Japan as modern, clean, organized, and above all more polite than we’re used to in America, but those concepts were in many ways just stereotypes, and the reality was that no matter how generally familiar I was with Japanese culture from afar, via TV, comics, friends, and reading about Japan’s history, this was my first time to ever visit the country. I checked my expectations, took a deep breath, and walked on through the line.

Even my checked expectations would prove unrealistic. On top of the general feel of the airport (which did at least function in a very organized and polite fashion), when I was taken aside to get my residence card with a couple of other foreign students, we were taken to a small, dirty, poorly-lit back room where a pile of children’s toys sat next to an old crib, and various worn-looking paper signs in Japanese and English adorned the wall, cautioning us against a variety of prohibitions. While I waited to be processed, an unhappy native Japanese traveler rather noisily informed the staff of her dissatisfaction with some element or other of her recent treatment, and there was a continual shuffling of airport employees as they attempted to resolve her issue and figure out how to process me and another student. After getting my resident card, crossing through customs, and retrieving my errant luggage, which was no longer on the carousel due to the length of time it had taken me to get through, my expectations had another challenge: trying to figure out which train to take to get to Kamakura. When I finally navigated what the best cost-to-effort ratio was through much consulting of my phone, and finally located where my chosen train was to depart, I had to actually buy the ticket, a process that involved a small piece of paper that a wandering ticket sales employee helped me fill out while I stood in line. I brought the paper to the the man at the counter, who hemmed and hawed a bit before finally giving me my final total. It all seemed weirdly imprecise.

I took my train without too much added difficulty, and figured out how to buy a local ticket at a terminal in Ofuna Station. I stood in a wobbly, charming monorail car next to commuters of all types for the short distance to Kamakura, where in the dark and intermittent rain I dragged my luggage another ten minutes to my hostel.

It was a different first vision of the country than I expected to have, especially given how much I already felt I knew about Japan. But what I knew had, of course, been filtered through an endless screen of cultural filters: media outlets selected only the best and most interesting stories, other people had shown me their best pictures and told me their least-mundane stories, and even friends from Japan had talked more about cultural differences than mechanical ones. Everyone’s seen about a thousand meanwhile in Japan memes, ranging from jokes about the questionable content in some anime and manga (read: cartoons and comics) to jokes about the eccentricity of certain citizens or oddities of cultural practice, but those are mostly false-positive stereotypes. Put simply, Japan isn’t that weird. If you took a sampling of the weirdest stuff in America or any other country, you would end up with similar memes, all while having to acknowledge that few of them reflect daily life. Whatever we think we know about a country is a heady mixture of the assumed, the relayed, the exaggerated, and the misconstrued, and so wherever you may be headed, expect to have your expectations overturned, even (or perhaps especially) if you think you know so much about the place that you’re the exception.


The streets of Nagoya at night. This is probably what most people expect Japan to look like.


The Differences are Different

One of my mentors at my home university has told students to avoid overly simplistic and overreaching thesis statements in their papers, often saying, “Don’t tell me that the differences are different, tell me why they’re important.” That advice seems to apply equally to writing this article, but in attempting to implement it, I’ve run into the problem of the fact that Japan is both different and not all that different from my home country. Insubstantial or surface-level differences aren’t hard to find, but it doesn’t take long to realize that there are still streets, sidewalks, convenience stores, big-box stores, Italian restaurants, office buildings, and laundromats. The cars drive on the left side of the road, as once upon a time Japan took some of their modernization blueprints from England, there are vending machines almost everywhere you look, and it can be hard to find public waste receptacles because of Japan’s ideology that people should be responsible for their own garbage, but these sorts of immediately noticeable differences become window dressing in short order.

Larger differences might be, say, registering at a local municipal office if you’re becoming a resident. This is not an especially English-friendly process, and thankfully in my case I had a fellow student from Shinshu University to assist me. I’m currently living in Matsumoto city (松本市), and after settling down in my university apartment I needed to register with the government and open a bank account. So my companion picked me up and we took the bus over to Matsumoto’s local shiyakusho (市役所) or City Hall. We filled out at least 4 different forms via at least 4 different windows, which included some sort of insurance desk and something about the Japan Pension Service, and I was fingerprinted. In exchange for this process, they gave me a massive packet with a guide to the city, coupons to local museums and attractions, a map, and schedules for local transportation. This was all decidedly Japanese, including the bustling, crowded, and organized office in which it took place. And, as also seems par for the course in Japan, despite having received numerous explanatory papers, I was still very confused about many things, but was also glad for the friendliness extended to me not just by the employees and my assisting student, but also the system itself. I would venture to guess no local municipality in the U.S. has such a comprehensive package to give their long-term visitors from other countries.

My apartment has been another adjustment, though it’s easier for me than it might be for someone else, given that I’ve traveled around Asia staying in hostels. The apartment isn’t entirely unlike a good hostel, in fact: it’s small and old, but clean and (mostly) functional. Japan, as any visiting gaijin (foreigner) can tell you, is not built for large people. So it follows with the average Japanese apartment. It’s ostensibly just one room with a small bed, and what amounts to a hallway with a kitchenette on one side and a door leading to a tiny bathroom on the other. There’s a balcony, which is common practice almost everywhere in Asia since you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who owns a machine for drying their laundry. My front door uses a key-card style key, which is a small, metal, rounded-rectangle of a thing that fits into the front part of a two-segment doorknob. Once inserted properly, the front part of the knob can be rotated right or left to unlock or lock the door, and if unlocked, the back part of the handle can be turned as you would expect. The tiny bathroom has been something of a challenge given that I’m six feet tall, and learning the ins and outs of the small gas range took some time. The range isn’t a full oven, but just a big slab of a device hooked up to a gas valve, resting on a cabinet, with two burners and a small oven-like tray in the center. I didn’t initially realize that using it required manually turning on the gas valve at the wall every time. Hot water isn’t dissimilar: for hot water either at the tap or the shower or bath, you have to use a small unit that looks like a home air-conditioning panel. This will allow you to turn on the boiler and set the water temperature, though we’ve been cautioned not to use it for more than 30 minutes, or it may get turned off and require that we call someone to turn it back on.

Beyond these sorts of mechanical adjustments, my familiarity with Japan has kept the culture shock to a general minimum. I feel quite comfortable here on the whole, and yet it’s still been an emotional experience, with some highs and quite a few emotional lows, the latter mostly due to occasional loneliness and feelings of isolation, missing my family, and most especially missing my girlfriend and my dog. If there is one huge challenge I feel I have to overcome, it’s living without those closest to me for an entire year. My dog is a pit bull I rescued from the streets of Texas around 6 years ago, a giant softie sweetheart that is probably the closest thing I’ll ever have to a child. My girlfriend and I got together only one year before I left for Japan (and she’s not Japanese, if you’re wondering), which makes the year apart even more of a strain than it might normally be. Humorously enough, the one thing I said I wouldn’t do was get into a relationship before I left—life has a way of mocking our plans.


Tiny washing machines and air-drying the laundry are par for the course in Asia, and Japan is no exception.


The Choice and the Challenge

But I made a conscious effort to make this trip happen. From six months filling out countless scholarship applications and asking my beleaguered professors for countless letters of recommendation, to all the preparation that goes into leaving one’s home for a year, to talking to my girlfriend about what I was doing to make sure we had open lines of communication and were on the same page, nothing I did was anything less than a whole-hearted, conscious choice. Because I knew that this is what I wanted to do. It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for years, because I love the language, I love the people, and I wanted to do something that would allow me to grow closer to them both.

The challenges, two weeks in, have already been many. My Japanese is considerably less than adequate for anything beyond everyday tasks. I can buy things in stores, exchange money, wish people good morning and ask them basic questions about themselves, in addition to answering basic questions about my own experience, but more complex instructions are still difficult, and I’ve had to cope with the realization that I am a much longer way from real competency than I’d imagined. The placement tests for language study at my Japanese university were humbling. Frankly, I’d never been more embarrassed to turn in a test in my entire life. Out of all the (as I thought) complex grammar that I’ve learned, none of it whatsoever turned up on that test, only some basic stuff, then a pile of things I’d never seen, which might as well have been gibberish. Kanji, the complex characters imported from China that represent one of three different writing systems in the logo- and syllabo-graphic totality of the written Japanese language, went a little bit better, and I was fine with the more basic reading and comprehension material, but the rest of it was just rough. To be fair, the test is intended to gauge proficiency all the way from total beginner to the level of someone who could do graduate coursework in the language, but I had hoped I was at least a little further up the scale than I turned out to be.


These are the kinds of places that even a small degree of language ability can make a lot more accessible. Learning a new language is hard work, but well worth it.

No matter. I didn’t just stumble into this gig on a whim, nor did I study for the last decade (with a few long gaps) just to let my pride get in the way of the end goal of Japanese fluency. If I haven’t done as well here on my first outing as I might have hoped, that just means I have that much more reason to buckle down and give this the attention it deserves and demands. I have a year. It’s a long time, but it’s also a short time—when it comes to something like the lifelong experience of learning a language deeply, there’s no room to squander any of it.

And that’s an important point. I am committed to what I am doing, and to the sacrifices I’ve had to accept in order to make this opportunity a reality. Anyone studying abroad owes it to themselves to ask questions about their motivation, and what they hope their end goal will be, not only because it helps at the outset to make plans and manage expectations, but because it can constantly remind you of what you should be doing at any point along the way. It’s easy to fall into numerous social and academic traps when studying abroad: hanging out with other foreigners, using too much English, not studying enough, or studying too much and not going outside and talking to people are all good examples of how you can throw away what you’ve worked so hard to achieve.

So every day here has been a choice. It was a choice to find the last bus to Eiheiji Temple from Fukui Station where I was seemingly the only foreigner for 200 square kilometers. It was a choice to stay in an apartment outside of the International House that my host university makes available to its exchange students. And it was a choice to leave behind so much that is precious to me in order to truly experience life in another part of the world. Because nothing worth doing comes without some sacrifice, whether that be of time, effort, or presence. Every morning, when I see the sun rise over the mountains between Nagano Prefecture and its neighbors Gunma and Saitama, I am reminded of this, and of why it’s important. I chose to be here, and the only one who can make the most of that choice is me.


Matsumoto City, my home for the next year.

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A New Beginning and A New Lifestyle

Marhaba! My name is Sofia Sinnokrot and I am a second year student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For the 2018-2019 academic year I will be studying abroad in Amman, Jordan. Being half Palestinian and visiting the Middle East several times in my life, I do not share the culture shock that many of my fellow peers have experienced from the moment they saw the McDonald’s sign written in Arabic.


However, visiting the Middle East and living in the Middle East are two completely different situations; the latter in which I was not prepared for. In the United States, we take for granted many aspects of our daily lives that are additional privileges in other parts of the world. For example, Jordan is one of the poorest water countries in the world. That being said, my apartment is only given a measurable tank of water for the month. Once that water runs out, we have to wait until the next refillment period or pay a large amount of money to get a new tank before. We are not able to drink the tap water from our kitchen sink, and have to pay for additional water jugs once we run out of drinking water. It is emphasised that laundry should only be done on the first day that our water is refilled since a load of laundry requires a significant amount of water. Water alone is a major change for me to adjust to while I am here. Being a runner, I consume at least 3 liters of water a day. Not having access to water fountains in buildings is something that is actively on my conscious and an adjustment I have had to account for in my daily routine. Coming from Chicago, unlimited drinkable running water was a norm for me that I took for granted. The same goes for electricity. Electricity in Amman is very expensive, and drying machines are rare household items. Instead of having my laundry done in a few hours, I have to hang my clothes up outside and wait two days for them to dry.


Life in Amman is very different compared to life in the United States. Most of the food in the supermarkets are imported from nearby countries. Thus, grocery shopping can become very expensive. Vegetables that are imported are sprayed with an extreme amount of pesticides and the chemical taste of them has made eating food an unpleasurable experience. Although I could go on forever comparing the simple life of living in America to the more complex adjustment of living in Amman, there are many positive aspects to each scenario. For one, I have become water conscious. With global warming on the rise, gaining environmental friendly traits is NOT something that should be talked about in a negative way. Jordan being a poor water country is extremely unfortunate, but I am now conscientious of my water usage. As well, instead of buying from supermarkets where goods are imported, I have learned to buy from local sellers. Not only is the food comparably fresh and cheap, I am helping the seller’s family as well as the Jordanian economy.

veggie stand

It is the little things that I do not normally think about that make adjusting to life in Amman a little bit more difficult than I expected. Nonetheless, I love my life here so far and I am very excited for the next few months!

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Finishing college and Cambridge

This week I finished my college degree. In the past five years I have written dozens of papers, taken countless tests and quizzes, and spent hundreds of hours in the library, but Thursday night that all concluded when I submitted my final paper. As I said before it all feels a bit odd finishing my degree at the University of Cambridge, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.


A pasture near River Great Ouse.

With the completion of this study abroad program I feel well prepared to jump into my next stage of life. In college I lived in the urban city of Berkeley, the rural mountain community of Monteverde Costa Rica, and now finally the historical town of Cambridge. I never thought going to university would provide the opportunity to travel and live in so many new places and I can confidently say that living abroad has been the most educational experiences during my time in college. Powerpoints, lectures, and discussions provide for academic growth, but living in a new country allows for growth in far more important ways.

Snapshots of St. Ives, Cambridgeshire on my 23rd birthday

Having visited the UK once before and having previously studied abroad, I did not experience the same radical personal changes that are common from your first time abroad. That being said, this experience was in no way any less important. At UC Berkeley students feel an intense pressure to immediately launch into a career, which makes a high stress environment conducive to rash decisions. Being here we were all so engaged with the Cambridge community and English culture that we didn’t have the mental space to worry too much about job apps and resumes. This is not to say that career planning was put on hold, to the contrary this program has provided the time to think deeply about my career priorities and goals. I have had many discussions with the locals, my professors, and my peers about careers in medicine and science. I even perused the job openings on the local hospital’s website this week. Studying abroad at the end of my college career has provided freedom and time to deeply ponder my career direction and aspirations, a luxury I would not have had if I was back home.

Local snacks! These were the best scones I have ever tried and we couldn’t resist indulging in the wild blackberries.

 Furthermore, living in Cambridge has given me a window into a different lifestyle. In the United States I would never have the chance to live in an 800-year-old building or visit ancient Roman sites such as Bath. There is a sense of permanence here that is oddly comforting: life has persisted for thousands of years and will continue to do so while you are here, and after you are gone. Layered upon this antiquity is a vibrant modern culture. Walking through the beautiful stone buildings you see live music almost every day, food from all over the world, and the distinctive youth fashion. Life here is founded on traditions and history, but also innovative and progressive. Getting to experience life in England I can now relate better to European foreigners and better understand what influences their morals and values. I will incorporate various habits and customs that I learned here when I return home.


Gonville & Caius College on King’s Parade

A piece of England will always remain with me in the form of the growth I experienced here. Cambridge has given me a certain steadiness and confidence that I would not have had if I chose to do summer school in Berkeley. I feel more firm in who I am, but at the same time more open to change. Studying abroad has been an exercise in assessing my strengths and weakness; I know what I am capable of and what I need to work on. As I pack my bags, melancholy washes over me: it is difficult letting go of this beautiful chapter in my life, but I can’t help but be excited for the next one. I am no longer a university student, but I know that as long as I can travel I will never stop learning.




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A Day in the Life in Spain

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Lessons about Learning, Taught through Teaching

Being abroad is an opportunity to learn so much about the world we live in, and while I haven’t yet talked much about what I’ve learned with my program’s workshops and partners, I’d like to use this space to talk about how I’ve learned. What I’ve learned comes next post and ho’ mama, it’ll be a big one! My trip to Mexico City is through one of the University of Washington’s “faculty led” programs. My program director Anu and her staff Panch, Rafa, and Sasha have designed this trip with intentional placement of lecture locations and more importantly, a wide variety of experts in every topic. While some of Anu’s partners use standard lecturing, some have gone above and beyond with the most wild forms of pedagogy. Most of which involved me crying in the end.

Just this week with an expert on migration, Dani used what he called “the pedagogy of the oppressed.” It began simply, as most do, with us writing a couple things. It was two lists of five items each, the first being things most important to us, and the other being people and ideas in the same category. These were my lists to start:

Okay, still simple. At this point in the workshop, we were all still laughing and having a fun time getting to know Dani a bit more. Then came the imaginary scenario, which consisted of three stages. We all sat down and closed our eyes to listen to Dani speak a scenario of a calm night at home.

“You have your nighttime cup of tea, read a book maybe, all is calm. You go to look at the tv and drop in horror to realize that your city has just been bombed. The United States has been attacked and you need to leave. You grab what you can and leave your home. At this point cross off two items off either list. Hurry, you have no time to think, just do!”

He ran around the room ushering us to cross our items as quickly as possible making it hard to think. It was a bit of a shock, especially when I was feeling so immersed. I frantically glanced at my lists taking away internet and safety. Feeling a little startled but still okay, we continued to stage two.

“You begin walking in search of a new home, avoiding conflict and strife. After walking for many weeks, your feet sore, hungry, maybe not having showered in a while (I was thinking to myself how I kept water access in my lists so I was good, just imagining walking with my family). Finally, you arrive at the border to Mexico, thousands of people waiting to get through. Please all of you, make two lines side by side facing forward.”

The ten of us students did as he asked, unsure of what was to follow. Dani then got up to stand in front of us all. He said something in Spanish at this point (I don’t know Spanish) but I could tell he was acting as a customs officer. “Papeles! Papeles!” The officer gestured to our lists in hand, which I guess acted as entrance forms. He began working his way down the line, looking at each list. I was near the back. “Yoooouuuuu… (*looks at papers*), you can go in. Welcome to Mexico! And you, hmmm, family huh? You can’t go in, turn back to the city being bombed behind you, you’re dead.” Us in the back were shocked at what we saw, some breaking out in emotion as they found their supposed fate. He claimed one could go in if they did him a “favor” with a disgusting grin and look in his eyes. “I’ll let you think about the decision and come back.” Finally, he came to me. I was terrified. He takes my papers by force, looking at both lists. “You can come in, but only if you have to cross out everything on these lists, only you get in.” My heart skipped a beat. It was on the next beat when a quiet “no” found its way out. “Are you sure? You will die in that city being bombed behind you.” Still unable to think, a more muffled and nervous “no” tumbled across my tongue. “Alright, turn around. You’re dead.” After a few seconds of shell shock I thought to myself, I couldn’t leave my family, my friends, everything that made me feel like me and then some. I couldn’t leave it behind. I’d rather have died than lost it all for a chance to continue. It was at that point I realized, I likely would have committed suicide if I had gone through. Having gotten through depression earlier this year, I knew it would resurface far worse. Either way I would have died…

I was a ghost in a shell for the rest of that presentation. A third stage had a happier ending about rebuilding a future for those who got through but I was too distraught to fully participate. Dani took us through just an inkling of the emotion and struggle that comes with migration. I was in tears for over an hour, far after the exercise was over and well into the lecture section. This was some of the most powerful learning I’ve had on this trip.

Another workshop was on gender and violence. After a lecture about the horror of Mexico’s feminicides, we were all asked to split into two groups, “men” and “women.” There were more women than men so we improvised. Each group had six people (some staff joined in) and were given simple rules for the exercise. The “women” could not talk. They had to sit down and try to swap seats with each other in the circle of chairs. They had to use eyes to communicate. I was placed in the “men” group. We had to prevent the “women” from standing up by any means necessary. That was our only rule. You could tell by the discomfort expressed by all of our faces that no one wanted to grab them by the shoulders to hold them down. Instead, we rushed to block them by crowding the middle of the circle but they could still swap side by side. So we started blocking their vision. I took my raincoat and held it in front of my colleague Maana. After a minute, she began to look frustrated and upset, not being able to yell at me either. Every passing second built my guilt up higher and higher, pillar by pillar into a mental Burj Khalifa. The exercise ended, “men” being victorious with their obvious advantage in the rules. The prize was nothing.

It was time for a debrief and our instructor, Marcela asked a very simple question. “Why didn’t you work together?” Then it hit me, there were so many possible workarounds. “Crouching isn’t standing!” I thought. We weren’t inherently against each other or anything like that. I was wrong, there was a prize. The Burj Khalifa of Guilt becoming a tower so tall that it pierced the stratosphere, a sight to surely see. After the debrief, I walked out and just sat alone. It was so easy to just stop the “women” with our advantage that we didn’t think to help them. We just wanted to win so to speak. The metaphor to society was clear yet also the most foul, disgusting thought you could come to. Far more powerful than just saying that society has a patriarchy.

There’s one more practice in pedagogy I’d like to share. Don’t worry, I realize this is long but this one is far simpler than either of the previous. We spent a day shopping! We left at ten to visit La Mercede, the largest public market in the city spanning many warehouses full of small stands. They sold everything from fruit to anti-witchcraft soap. It was crowded, smelly, unsanitary in some places like the warehouse full of animal cages filled with pigeons, chickens, puppies and chickens. You could smell the animal rights abuse. We rushed from section to section to section following our group leader, Rafa. The ground was cracked in some places causing me to trip several times. The day had no lecture, just observing our surroundings.

After a few hours at La Merced, we left to for a second unannounced market located in Polanco. Polanco is one of the richest neighborhoods in Mexico, containing the most expensive strip in all Latin America. After a short walk, we arrived at El Palacio de Hierro, a single store designed to look like a mall holding stalls for each and every high end brand like Louis Vuitton and Coach. It was built with the intention of being the very best for the very highest class. Upon going inside, I could feel the inequality as a pit in my gut. It was like walking inside a diamond with how fancy it was set up. What was worse was the whole area felt like home in Seattle. I found myself split between wanting to buy things and protesting the blatant waste and classism. They had a TV in the ceiling acting as a sky or stained glass window depending on the time! Shame? Guilt? No, it was pure disgust that I felt in the end. I couldn’t stand being in the area any longer. I was glad to leave and never return.


Each of these methods in teaching have something in common, feeling. So often in the classroom we have facts and theories spat at us from a distance. How often does a teacher let us learn through experience or emotion? It may be more difficult but the power of these more personal pedagogies is easily worth the trouble. These lessons may be the most painful to experience, but they are easily my favorite moments in my time abroad thus far.

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