Not long after I moved to Japan in late 2003, the research centre that I had joined started planning overseas business trips to exchange information. At the time I didn’t realize just how research budgets work—and fortunately I wasn’t in charge of them—but the Centre paid for several of us researchers to go to the United States in early 2004.

The very idea of going to the USA to me was amazing. I knew nothing of the country except for the one year of American Studies I’d taken at univeristy, and of course (well, mainly) Hollywood movies. So I was starry eyed at the thought of visiting the Land of Opportunity and seeing it myself. We were all to go to Washington DC to meet with various science policy experts (politicians, bureaucrats and academics), then our group would split up and go to different places. I would travel with one other researcher from DC to places like Cornell University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, UCLA… wow it would be fascinating I thought.

The flight was the longest I’d been on after flying to Japan. Although I’d traveled a lot with my family around Europe I had never jet-settled anywhere far, so I was excited, anxious and ready to absorb the American experience. What follows are brief notes from that time, recollected from scraps of memories:

We have landed in Washington, DC. It’s freezing cold. There are icicles on my window in the hotel. The hotel is old, it has one of those old elevators where you have to pull the gate closed. Very cool. The roads to the hotel are cracked and have potholes. My non-Japanese colleague turns to me as we ride to the hotel and says, “This country is broken.”

We are meeting in a room just large enough to fit all of us around some tables. I have no idea of the purpose of this meeting, but apparently we’re introducing our research centre. We are discussing bioethics with policy makers. I feel quite out of my depth. Perhaps we’d prepared for this, but those meetings had all been in Japanese.

After each meeting we have photos taken with the people we’ve met. This seems to be a thing. I am collecting a ton of business cards.

We are taking photos of each other in front of famous monuments. It’s all a blur to me. The Whitehouse looks much smaller than I expected. I don’t know what I was expecting… What are we doing here?

It is late at night. We are standing on a street corner discussing tomorrow’s activities. One Japanese colleague is counting his money… I am certain this is not a good idea.

This plane is tiny. I am sat just behind the co-pilot. An alarm sounds in the cabin. The co-pilot says to the pilot, “what’s that?” Is he joking? I can’t tell if he’s joking.

I have no idea what we are doing. More business cards. More meetings. I take copious notes but I don’t know what the purpose of this is.

Cornell is freezing. It seems like it would be a cool place to do research for a PhD. I have a PhD but I feel very small. Anyway I am now well-practiced at introducing our research centre.

LA is hot. Hang on, we’re already in LA? Oh the trip is over. It was a blur. I have lots of business cards. Just time for some more photos.

I am looking out of the window of the plane as America gets smaller. “This country is broken.” rings in my ears.