Seated opposite Luke Straka, 28 year-old teacher and philosopher, in a rustic cafe on a Sunday afternoon, one can learn a lot about how to view the world.
“I think that language is the key to many of the philosophical and psychological conundrums that we face as humans in this world,” says Luke. “If I can do anything, I want to learn how to address those issues and use them to bring people together across boundaries.”
A big part of learning to transcend those boundaries is being comfortable with being a stranger in a strange land, a comfort Luke has been cultivating all his life.
As the oldest of three siblings, Luke has always been the trailblazer of the bunch, and this has offered him unique opportunities to break through boundaries he encounters.
“My brother, Carl, is the middle and Haili, my sister, is the youngest,” he says. “Haili actually just finished up her undergraduate education, so now we are all trying to find our own ways in the world. I’ve always thought about how I want to be a role model for them, and I want to show them they can go out into the world and be their own people.”
Luke’s family in Denver, CO is a very tight-knit band, and a large part of that bond is the journeys that have shared.
“We did a lot of family travel,” he says, “and it was every couple years we would go somewhere else. In elementary school we went to Cancun, in middle school it was Greece, and then high school was my first trip to Japan, which was with my aunt and uncle. My family has also always been super supportive of me going out to travel the world even on my own, but it has not been a friction-less road.”
Breaking Boundaries, Changing Bonds
During his time in university, Luke was afforded the opportunity to study abroad in Ethiopia through a pilot program offered by the International Studies Department. Through a grant from the US State Department, all expenses were covered except for each student’s tuition, so Luke jumped at the opportunity.
“This was the first time I ever went out into the world without my family,” he says. “so it was a very unique experience. Even the way I learned of it was unique, because, through pure luck, one of my classes one semester was being taught by a professor heavily involved in its planning. He just brought it up in class one day and asked if anyone was interested, and I was actually the only person that wanted to learn more about the program.”
Initially, Luke was unsure if he could get into the program, since it was targeted towards African Studies majors, not Psychology and Philosophy, his own fields of study.
“Thankfully, despite my different focus of study, I was able to get into the program,” he says. “but there was a little issue: I hadn’t told my family about the program. I had not mentioned it while I was applying and I made an off-handed comment once about the interview for it, but I had not yet made a proper announcement to my family. Needless to say, delaying the announcement may not have been the best decision.”
To hear Luke tell it, his mother is a fairly protective mama bird, especially of him as the first-born, and there was a small conflict between them over the program.
“My mother’s reaction, in particular, was a very strong one,” he says. “She said something like ‘Luke, don’t you know there are pirates there?’ to which I laughed and replied, ‘No Mom, that’s Eritrea.’ And at one point I remember her saying ‘I refuse to let you go.”
At the time Luke was still living at home and commuting to class, so his mother may have felt as though her eldest was still a child who could be grounded.
“I had to be frank with her. I said to her, ‘I’m sorry Mom, but I’m an adult, and you can’t keep me from doing this.’ After that, eventually, she came around and learned to check her own worries about me going out alone into the world, though it did take a while.”
Thus did Luke make a leap into the world, going to a place he knew nothing of with a myriad of new opportunities at his fingertips.
A Solo Stranger in a Strange Land
“It’s a little strange, but the culture shock of getting there actually energized me,” says Luke. “I had to figure things out on my own for the first time, and I got to do it in a culture that was completely alien to me. And because I was almost totally ignorant of Ethiopian culture and history, I came in with every expectation and no expectations.”
However, as the program was a pilot one, there was a nonnegotiable level of structure to the trip, so Luke was not afforded a limitless level of autonomy.
“In that regard, I kind of wish they had given us some more freedom,” he says. “We went on a lot of field trips and our weekends were very planned, so we were not given many opportunities to do our own thing. We would have weekends where we loaded up and went to see an old landmark or building and then we would get an information dump about it from a guide about its history. It was almost too structured. Not that that invalidates any of the experiences or lessons that I learned from my time there.”
For Luke though, while the program may not have been as free as he would have liked, he still came away from it with at least one new perspective: he needed to see more of the world.
“What I took most away from Ethiopia was the desire to travel more, it kind of whetted my appetite,” he says. “I really wanted more experiences of being awed by ideas or things that I had never thought about, because that was easily the most memorable part of my time in Ethiopia. Having never studied or even thought about Ethiopia before, the country really blew me away, regardless of how curated the experience was. I realized the appeal of throwing myself into a culture headfirst and then making my way through it.”
In a way, the experiences in Ethiopia prepared Luke for Japan, and each of those experience has provided a good break in routine, something which Luke relishes.
“There were many students in the program who were shaken up by the ‘shock’ in culture shock,” said Luke, “but I honestly found myself enjoying each unplanned addition to our schedule. They provided a fun experience that allowed me to break from the routine of everyday life.”
Though, everyday life is a big part of making a home no matter where you are, and Luke has undertaken this challenge over the last year-and-a-half after he came to Kiryu, Japan to teach English.
Surprisingly, adjusting to life on the complete opposite side of the world was fairly easy for Luke.
“When I arrived, my hand was held through just about the whole process,” he says, “Which, in a way, I was let down by again because I really wanted to make it on my own, warts and all. But while I lacked the opportunity to really start out on my own, I have really tried to make up for it in my routine here.”
Developing a routine for himself took some time, and even then there is still so much that is left up in the air about Luke’s everyday life. Everything from salsa lessons, temple runs, cooking classes, Spanish classes, writing, and even yoga have found their way into his routine in one way or another.
“The first year I didn’t really have a routine per se, and I don’t have a really big one even now,” says Luke. “I didn’t really know where to find the routine, and I guess I still don’t. But that doesn’t strike me as a bad thing. I’m more comfortable with the things I want to do and what I can do, and it leaves things open in a weird and interesting way. If anything, it’s consistently inconsistent, and I have to say I like it that way.”
This unpredictability is a key component in the writing that Luke does. During university his studies revolved around writing and constructing ideas, and even now he still tries to write about those subjects as often as he can.
“The first time I get out to a new place there is so much to take in, and that is incredibly stimulating, creatively speaking,” he says. “It’s that kind of stuff that will make me want to write the most, and, to me, travel and writing almost go hand in hand. In general, that’s probably why I like travel so much and why I like to break the routine as often as I can: it motivates me to create and find some order amidst the chaos.”
All order has a certain base foundation, and for Luke that foundation has changed multiple times over the years. Lately, he has looked at creating order through the study of language as it pertains to psychology and philosophy.
“In living here in Japan, I have been experiencing firsthand what it is to have to learn a new language and live within it,” he says. “And what this process has taught me is the value that having another language brings to your ability to think about really any concept. If you can construct a thought in a different language, then you can think about a problem from the perspective of that language, and that can bring forth so many new possibilities. In terms of the big picture, I’m not really sure what that means, but my biggest takeaway from it was very simple:
“I need to share this message with the other people in my life in whatever way I can.”
At the moment, Luke is sharing this message with his students and friends here in Kiryu, but he has no intention of stopping anytime soon. Be it through his writing, teaching, or simple spoken words, Luke will continue to break boundaries and bring people together.
Luke is a second-year JET here in Kiryu, and this summer he will be returning home to Denver, Colorado to start the next Chapter, which may see him traveling to Spain. He’s a very interesting person, and never short on intriguing insights into even the most mundane things.
I hope you liked this week’s post, and please consider sharing it with someone you know! Every little bit helps.
Song of the Week
“Wild World” by Cat Stevens
I asked Luke for this week’s song, and he came up with a wonderful choice, and a touching reason to boot:
“I think about my mom when I hear this song, because I feel like this is the song my mom would have written for me and my siblings. If only she had been born a Muslim singer-songwriter, of course.
“Happy belated birthday mom.”
If you would like to listen to this song or any of the other prior Songs of the Week, check out the Spotify Playlist linked above!