Friday, October 4, 2013

I Put My New Shoes On, Suddenly Everything's Right.

street art in an area of Tokyo we call "Tokyo Brooklyn"

The first period class I taught yesterday has a turtle in their classroom. I've been watching it the past few weeks when I go to class 3-1. Without fail, the stubborn and determined creature tries to get out of its glass encasement. It repeatedly throws one front leg and then the other on the side of the terrarium and pushes itself up and inch or so with its back legs. Then, it slides down, all fours submerged in water once again. It does this over and over. Every time I see this turtle, it's trying to escape, mind and body merged into one self-propelling force up, up, out. In one class, I noticed it perched on the fake rock in the middle of the glass box. Its whole body was stiff, rigid with longing, and its head, fully extended from its shell, was stretched forward and up. He was staring at freedom. He longed to be outside of the prison forced on him.
homemade Japanese dinner 

Those who have communicated with us in the past 8 months know that our particular location and situations have taken a toll on us. I've felt exactly as I imagine that turtle does. It's not any one thing, but the combination of distinctly different culture, incompetent financial aid workers at John's Tokyo-based university, the lack of depth, meaning, fun, or even teaching, in my teaching job, and the perpetual feeling of being outsiders. I've really wanted to practice the little Japanese I've learned, but the culture is such that even if you can speak Japanese, most people here speak to you in the English that you know. It's hard to get better because there's very little opportunity to practice. On the other hand, we are in a different country, and are expected to speak the official language. It's a major catch-22. Our compounded grief and anger about our entire unfulfilling situation (in work/ grad school) keeps us from trying to immerse ourselves and be involved.
Sensoji, a famous Shinto shrine in Tokyo
This has been the situation since our return from our welcome and gluttonous week-long Alabama vacation (seriously, we were fed such good food and ate way too much of it). Every day has been relatively "schmeh," as we so articulately put it. I've become all too good at combining specific situations into an all bad picture of my life now. Not surprisingly, when you add together a job you don't like, a language you can't speak, friends you miss deeply, extracurriculars you used to love that you now don't take part in, residual negative body image, waiting impatiently for the future, and ample time to brood about all of the above and more, the combination is more than detrimental; it's deadly.
rice field in July

Stress causes deterioration in everything from gums to skin disorders to heart disease. We've both had panic attacks here, an uncomfortable situation that I haven't found myself in since middle school. I finally decided that I can either watch the worry literally tear me down, or let loose and chill the fuck out. I know, I know, what a simple solution, right? But I assure you, even with yoga, breathing exercises, and regular runs/work-outs, it's much, much harder than it sounds. I am more thankful now for these amazing and efficacious tools, and can only grimace at the idea of getting through life without them. I also find comfort in the fact that this gestation period is a "pull back" to catapult us to even better and brighter things. I am glad that in the future I'll be able to look to my amazing life partner and say, "OMG, do you remember when..."
secret abandoned shrine

On a slightly more academic note, I've discovered that I am not, in fact, racist! What a relief, right!?! There are many things about this culture, etc. that really don't sit well with us (i.e. government subsidies of concrete, hierarchy and formula over merit, the education system as we see it, the way Fukushima has (not) been dealt with, etc.) and a lot of times these formularies have caused those wtf kind of feelings. But truthfully, learning more about the culture through a number of anthropological and biographical accounts we have come to understand our feelings as something much deeper and more complicated than dislike. It's the same kind of relationship we have with our own country.
"Get your shit together" could be the mantra for the next year or so.
Ichihara's pretty side

Change starts inside, right? I fall on and off the wagon, but most importantly, I keep getting back on. I read recently that "willpower is a deep inner force that is the balance between self-effort and the ability to surrender." Giving up is not surrendering. Falling into acceptance of circumstance with the fortitude to stay on the path is. It is right attitude, which encompasses focused effort balanced with open-heartedness. Effort without softness creates the attitude I've held for the past 6 months: an inner hardening and loss of sensitivity. Instead I need to open to grace.
eka hasta bhujasana

I biked the 10 or so miles to a shopping mall that includes a small import grocery store, a Starbucks, and two sporting goods stores. I indulged in a few comforts from home and finally bought a new pair of running shoes. In running, and in life, I'm steering myself toward a minimalist path. I love these lightweight shoes so much, I smiled during the majority of my run tonight. "I put my new shoes on, and suddenly everything's right." :-)
new shoes 

Some upcoming events:

I've been practicing chado, Japanese tea ceremony, for about a year. I've been to four formal tea ceremonies, and worked in the background as a sort of server for two of them, and participated as a guest in the other two. I will actually perform the entire ceremony, front and center, and without instruction, this Sunday, October 6. If you pray, please include me. I'll really need to be on the side of grace for this one. My confidant, helper, and translator will be absent during this ceremony. It will only be me and a bunch of older Japanese women with no English-language. It should be interesting to say the least.
sirsasana prep

It's amazing that this practice encompasses everything I love and don't love about Japanese culture. It is highly formulaic and ritualistic, which at the same time requires focus and devotion while also stripping one of any variance. Sen Soshitsu XV's explanation sheds light on the apparent dualism: "There are many people who wonder why such ostentatious procedures must be employed simply to prepare a bowl of tea. But nowhere else in the world do we find a beverage like matcha that is offered by one person and received by another in such a spirit of mutual gratitude." It is an interesting parallel to life in that the way of tea must be acquired by means of the movement of your own body and through one's own experiences. It can't be learned by observing and listening to others, or imitating them. The only way to learn is through the movement of your own body and by accumulating experiences and storing them within your body. It is just like BKS Iyengar said of the study of yoga: "Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory".

sirsasana (headstand)
The weekend of October 11, John and I will get to go on a short trip somewhere. Receiving funds from a certain institution has been a hellish ordeal on more than one occasion, but we were finally given what we were owed and will soon be planning a short escape. Regardless of the location, it will be so good for us to get out of our town and out of the greater Tokyo area for a few days. I'll post updates as events warrant.
We'll take another trip for the new year, but the planning stage of that operation has not begun.
adho mukha vrksasana (handstand)
Venerable Tenzin Pemba, the resident Director at the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT)'s Hong Kong center, will be visiting Tokyo October 18-20. I am so excited for the opportunity to learn from and be in the presence of those on the path. Even though my studies in Buddhism have waned, I'm very much looking forward to these teachings. His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be in Japan November 21-22. I'm really hoping that circumstances allow an audience. It'd be amazing to hear his teachings in person.
eka pada koudinyasana

I've been diving deeper into the philosophy and study of yoga. After a new book at work yesterday, I went to the gym. For the past four days, a typhoon has been looming outside Japan, and we've experienced torrential downpours. It'll rain again tonight too. But, at the gym, while I was running sprints on the treadmill and trying so hard to embrace my new perspective, the sun broke. I watched out the window as the clouds parted, and got to see the entire formation of the biggest rainbow I've ever seen. It started off dull and barely visible, but by the time I shifted from sprints to jogging, the colors were bold and alive. A double rainbow followed that. It seemed the sky approved of my new vision. I smiled and thought that it all seemed like such hyperbolic symbolism...but I totally didn't care. 
urdhva dhanurasana variation 
rainbow shot from gym window
rainbow, cloud, from outside

Sunday, April 14, 2013

120 Hours in Phuket, Thailand

The plane wheels bumped the runway at 2 A.M. The Phuket National Airport reminds me so much of the Delhi bus station. Chaos. Coincidentally, Thais greet each other the same way as Indians, with hands in prayer. "Mai" replaces "Namaste" as the greeting. When I first arrived in Japan seven months ago, I involuntarily reverted back to greeting people this way. It took me a couple of weeks to break the habit and for the traditional Japanese bow to become automatic. The first two days in Thailand I was bowing to everyone. Finally, I got the hand gesture back. When we came home to Japan again five days later, it took a few more days to rid myself of "Mai" hands. It's like jet lag, but with greeting customs.

We paid WAY too much for a cab to our hotel. I blame this on two things: 1. We hadn't properly memorized the dollar/yen/bhat ratios. 2. We were exhausted and had been traveling for about twenty hours total. 5 1/2 of those hours were spent in the worst place on earth. Seriously, there can be no place worse than the Shanghai airport. I imagine it as a lower hell realm. "Restaurants" had the rudest servers, service personnel provided no service, everyone was miserable because they had to wait in the international terminal, separated from the entirety of the airport, and when you looked outside, all that could be seen was endless haze. Seriously, they need to sell highly concentrated doses of vitamin D in that airport. Everyone would benefit, even the natives...especially the natives.

1700 Thai baht, the cost of the 35 minute cab ride from the northern located airport to our west central hotel, is equivalent to $57. No prices in Thailand, a cheap country to travel in as long as you don't let souvenir shops overcharge you, reflect the high cost of living in Japan, but that cab fare sure did. Oh, the "cab" was some regular dudes Honda civic. About every third or fourth roadside store is a stand offering cab rides to the some 6 million tourists who visit Phuket in a year. ALL of them are cheaper than the one we took.

Arrival. Check in. Pass out. Wake up three hours later. I figured sleep could come after a day of exploration. Free breakfast. Naps by the Indian Ocean. Clear water. Beautiful landscapes. Rented jeep dubbed SS DEATH TRAP. Seriously, it was. Shocks didn't exist and the axles were so rusted every turn felt like they were snapping in half. The "meat" of the lime green rental was JEEP, but the steering wheal was Honda. The whole dash had been ripped up and replaced with a thin metal sheet. It had an RPM gauge and speedometer poking through, but they didn't work. The gas gauge supposedly did, but I was skeptical. The floor was covered with mats, but if you moved them over with your foot you could see through to the road below. The bottom part of the back seat was not attached to the metal, so the back seat was really two horizontal metal bars with a back leather cushion that looked like an army of cats had desolated it. John had to keep one foot on the gas and one on the brake to start it. There was an emergency break, which we used, but I don't know if it was any good. I thought I'd be adventurous and get behind the wheel on the wrong side of the road on the wrong side of the car (their roads are like Japan's) but my bravery quickly diminished and I was passenger the whole trip.

Day 1. Skipped the tourist filled beaches in the afternoon and followed the locals inland to Phuket town. It was fun to walk around in this old "downtown" district. John got some great shots of locals and I enjoyed seeing many Buddhist temples, adorned with gold and bright primary colors. Other than people yelling to offer us rides (we exchanged the SS DEATH TRAP for a leisurely stroll), we enjoyed the old shop houses  Sino-Colonial mansions, and local flavors.

Day 2. Beach side. Pool side. Foot massages. The beach side is not only lined with shops and restaurants, but also an alarming number of outdoor massage booths. 1 hour foot and shoulder massages on the beach were about 5 USD. By the time we left, I had 3 massages (the aforementioned, one aloe massage, and one traditional Thai massage) and a pedicure, and I didn't spend more than $35.

Day 3. Sailing trip to Phang Nga bay. Famous for the location of the James Bond flic The Man with the Golden Gun, this island has a lot more to offer than a Hollywood name. We hopped on Captain Mark's Aussie sail boat with an Australian family and a childless older French couple to explore the hidden caves and secret hxng(s) (Thai for room; pronounced hong). In the case of islands, hxngs are inner areas of water not accessible from the perimeter of the island.

At night, we found an Italian shop that sold the freshest produce and comfort foods from home. We bought red-pepper roasted foccacia bread, tomatoes, basil, emmental cheese, fancy shiraz, and baked kettle chips. We went back to the hotel, made sandwiches, and cheered to the love that brought us there.

Day 4. Elephant trekking.  Gibbon Rehabilitation Center. Bang Pae Waterfall located in  northeastern Bang Pae national park. The rainy season hasn't happened in Thailand yet, so the waterfall was devoid of water. However, we still had a nice 30 minute hike to the top, led by the cutest dog affectionately dubbed Sir Shrimp Scamppers the wee wonder mut of Bang Pae. I've now been lucky enough to be led up hilly terrain and Himalayan mountains by the sweetest dogs in both India and Thailand. I left them with pieces of my heart.

Gibbons are apes indigenous to East and Southeastern Asia. They resemble monkeys in appearance and habit  and are known for their speed and distinctive singing. Sadly, the species was wiped out through poaching by the 1980s on Phuket island. Now, they are making a comeback through WARF's Gibbon Rehabilitation Project. I was in tears when I learned about the lives of some of these resilient creatures. There are numerous gibbons being used as tourist attractions on Phuket. By paying to have photos taken with a gibbon, people are helping to reduce the number of wild populations and cause suffering to these animals. Most of the apes at the GRP had horrific backgrounds: being drugged to stay awake, and forced to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes for tourists' entertainment. We bought t-shirts and donated a huge chunk of money so these sweet creatures may one day make it in their natural homes with their families.

In the evening we drove to a beach about 6 km away and had a yummy buffet-style dinner at a place called Nok and Joe's. This restaurant has a pleasant story. Joe is a Canadian expat who moved to Thailand and met and married Nok. After the 2004 tsunami, Joe built this restaurant entirely out of driftwood (bar, chairs, tables, everything). The atmosphere was uncannily similar to the flora-bama. It was a bit touristy, but quite warm. The couple gave Nok's original seafood restaurant to Nok's sister. The night we went, we enjoyed a Caberet show with Thai ladyboys, hosted by the worst open mic guitar player. As we were leaving, the man started singing "Sweet Home Alabama" and I knew that few things in my life would feel as surreal as that moment. Seriously, dude. We're in freaking Thailand! Before we left, John showed the dude his driver's license, and the singer's reply was, "I don't want your ID, I want your money!" We didn't break it to him that we lived in Japan, with rapidly declining yen.

Day 5.FLYING HANUMAN JUNGLE TOUR! The raddest thing ever. A zip line course through one of the preserved rain forests on Phuket island. 28 lines. Crazy height. Rad views. I was full of adrenaline the entire 2 1/2 hours. The longest ride was 400m with a top speed of 60 km. WOO! Okay, honestly, I was scared poopless, but it was so FUN! Of course, by the time my brain juices settled, the course was over. Next time, I'm hanging upside-down.

During sunset we climbed up giant rocks on the beach's perimeter, and watched how fast the fire retreated to the west. The red-orange plasma reflected on an 18th century-like ship and the blue water. At that moment, anything I imagined was true. The Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans are now settled in pockets of memory and I'm anticipating all the gorgeous and mundane pleasures of the future.

High tide, in the twinkle of glowing lamps, we walked, toes in the sand, cool water whipping, playing, trying to reach our thighs. Every moment like this is perfection. Whatever beach, any lover's hand, there's something about the water that pulls us to the beginning of time, when we are one with every creature we used to be, and we can hear desire like an ode driving us to evolve into even more greatness.

We noticed a neon- glowing bridge in the water, at the end of the beach, and like bugs to light, we were drawn. The contraption looked like giant legos pieced together to make a 100 yrd. bridge on the water. At the end was a ladder down to a roped off swimming area, deeper into the ocean than I would ever swim. We wobbled to the end, brave, and giggling, and thanks to this wonderful play toy some random children, John, and I can now claim that Jesus was not the only one to walk on water.

Day 6. Lazy day preparing for returning flight.

Phuket's total population is roughly the same as Mobile, AL, however they see 6 million tourists/yr. Surprisingly, since Putin's trip to Phuket a few years ago, a majority of these tourists are Russian. According to The Phuket News, Russian tourists and Chinese visitors accounted for 38% of arrivals to Phuket last year. But a lot of locals and Aussie expats I met don't care for them. The reason according to the aforementioned source: Russians  like exclusive things...and that's the problem- there are no exclusive things in Phuket.

John and I were at a restaurant about 5 minutes from our (almost) beach side hotel (first we had to cross the street and walk through a small field) and the table beside us was a Russian family. We observed them rudely calling servers, walking up to the kitchen area and taking things, and constantly harassing the workers. They had someone at their table about the entire hour they were there, and were requesting outrageous things like (4) boxes of Kleenex and plain white toast. The servers ablidged and smiled, but I could tell they were offended.

It might not be a first world nation, but there are worst fates than residing in exotic Thailand. Our unofficial plan is to get as many people as we know to move with us there and open a make-shift operation providing English lessons, yoga classes, and kayak tours (You know who you are people; you better deliver)! ;-) Our official after-Japan plans are unknown. We still have so many places to travel while we're on this side of the world.



Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Rants, Recollections, and Musings: A Review of Early 2013

Experiences and (Jaded) Commentary

Waiting anxiously in a hospital emergency room not once, but twice in a week does more than make you understand how Spanish-speaking immigrants in America feel. It leaves you feeling beyond helpless, blunderous and exposed in a world that "foreign" does not even begin to describe. Thankfully, my husband's severe stomach pains that led us stumbling into such incompetence were nothing serious. After some painstaking paperwork and tests, as well as sure incomprehension about how Japanese hospitals work, we were sent home (twice) with some medicine and "reassurance" that everything is fine. Really, we weren't feeling so reassured, due to many factors, chief among them: our limited Japanese (fruits and vegetables, colors, and random nouns and verbs do not help you at the hospital), the doctors limited English, and the fact that we went through the same process two times in one week in two different hospitals. We spent way to much money on tests that John's ridiculously expensive insurance should have covered.

But even in shadows, there is proof of light. After some intense reading about John's symptoms and the accuracy of the kind of test he was given, we've finally relaxed and are happy to report that normalcy (or what can be considered so) has returned. And now, of course, we have these lessons if this worst-case-scenario ever pops up again. For example, always ask for test results, as one hospital won't call another to get them, but will make you go through any procedure you've already done. There are certain people (who in all honestly are just trying to help) that you should not tell about hospital visits. These people will proceed to plan any necessary subsequent visits to the places they think best, even if there's a perfectly respectable English-speaking, technologically advanced clinic one hour bus ride away that you can certainly navigate by yourself.

In other news...well, there isn't. We are continuing to labor in our oh-so-unfulfilling "jobs". John's contract at the elementary school an hour and fifteen minutes away ends March 9. After that, I think he'll take some time looking for jobs in our city. It's about time he works closer, so he's not commuting two and a half hours a day. All that train time (see previous entry about Japanese transportation, with an erroneous title about whiskey that is subsequently explained in said entry) seems to be, from what I've read, a direct link to depression. Either he'll find a job he can bike to, or he'll tutor privately. We're both excited about this, because it gives him more time not only to be at home, but to employ himself in activities he actually enjoys. Some things he doesn't enjoy are: the train, inevitably filled with staring (and occasionally yelling) drunkards and sardine-packed-people; two graduate university classes costing upwards of $3000 that employ professors who can't understand English (in a TESL graduate program) and others who use the exact same activities from previous semesters; the two hour ride to said university; cucumbers; and his wife, who feels obligated and grateful to leave her usual bubble of activities, endlessly making social engagements.

Of course there are high points. We've heard from many expats that the six month mark is an unusually tough time of adjustment. Add to that a job where I'm sitting 6-8 hours a day (makes me oddly miss retail and not-so-oddly, movement) and you've got this: a bitter blog entry composed mostly out of a need to keep up with this project after skipping two months and to quell my boredom. (I am currently at previously mentioned desk with no internet and no lessons for today. I am typing in notepad because Word corrects me too much). Even with all this apparent hostility, though, my aim is to say yes to all of the Japanese experience. Though it's misunderstood and frustrating, there are parts that are truly beautiful. One of those is the community center English class I teach on Tuesday nights. That class is full of gengki (roughly translated as fine, enthusiastic, full of life) 50-70 somethings who teach me about Japan/ Japanese culture and speak English as eagerly as a children open birthday presents. As the lingua franca, when these people travel it's all they have. English literally opens worlds for them, and they are so happy and so grateful that I take the time once a week to speak with them and teach them. One woman in her early fifties, Miyahara-san, brings me omiyagi--a souvenir, memento, or keepsake; an object a traveler brings home for the memories associated with it-- every week. I've received books, candies, pictures, pamphlets, food and trinkets from her. She's taken John and I to see shrines in other cities, to Tokyo German town, Yokohama, and other places.

You can see Fuji San (Mt. Fuji) vaguely in the distance 
Ah Hell Naw!
Foreigners Graveyard 
February 24 she took us to a soba-making class, where we made Japanese noodles from scratch. It was a little frustrating, firstly because John and I both had colds, and were doped on OTC meds. Secondly, because it seems that the Japanese way of teaching goes something like this: show someone how to do something; let them try for about thirty seconds; tell them they're doing it wrong, and in the name of "reshowing", actually just finish said task. I see this everywhere, from mothers talking to children to teachers talking to students. It's amazing anyone learns to do anything...I guess they're practicing alone.

There are a handful of people who shower us with such kindness. If I can't return what they've shown to me, I can pass it on.

Currently, I'm skimming through a interesting book full of commentary about Japanese culture. It's quite an academic read, and after about ten pages I have to put it down in exchange for a novel, newspaper, or the NYT crossword. However, it's teaching me so much about the culture.

"Uchi (inside) and soto (outside) have metaphorical extentions in Japanese like in no other major language. These metaphors have cultural social, and cognitive implications and underlie key concepts of the culture." Some people would say that uchi space is up to one's skin, composed of the brain and other inner workings. But Japanese takes it much farther, so that it can mean one's house or home. A Japanese house is usually surrounded by either brick walls or fences. There is always a gate. Once you enter the gate, you feel the first sense of uchi, being inside the walls. But this is ambivalent, since it's still between the soto and uchi of spaciality. The ambivalence continues in the genkan, where your have to take off your shoes, no option. The genkan might seem like the inside because it is under the roof, but it is lower in height than the entrance, and acts as a sort of holding space before one is invited in. Still, once past the genkan, you are not in uchi, though it may feel so. The layout is designed so that guests are rarely able to access the innermost areas.

Uchi space is not just physical but also social. This space is one of involvement. As with collectives, people rely on expanded rather than individualized ego. There are other key cultural concepts that identify the uchi/soto relationship, respectively:
1. real wishes vs. stated reason
2. humane feeling vs. social obligation

overall, these metahpors (uchi/soto) help to explain  various cultural as well as linguistic phenomena (such as why people never say excuse me in crowded areas: you are outside their uchi space). The distinction between uchi and soto also help one to understand the many different Japanese linguistic forms, which change depending on who you're talking to and where you are. For example, there are four different ways to say what translates as "I understand," depending on if the person you're talking to is a superior, peer, family member, etc.To learn more see "Uchi and Soto as Cultural and Linguistic Metaphors", by Seiivhi Makino, a chapter in the larger collection Exploring Japaneseness: On Japanese Enactments of Culture and Consciousness, ed. Ray T. Donahue, 2002.

There are some examples of this. So far, I've watched two Miyazaki films (Japanese animated movies) that are aesthetically quite beautiful and teach you about Japanese mores the same as fairy tales inform one about American ideals). One is called Spirited Away ( Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi "The Spiriting Away of Sen (name) and Chihiro (name)" in Japanese). The film tells the story of Chihiro Ogino, a sullen ten-year old girl who, while moving to a new neighborhood, enters an alternate reality inhabited by spirits and monsters. After her parents are transformed into pigs by the witch Yubaba, Chihiro takes a job working in Yubaba's bathhouse to find a way to free herself and her parents and escape to the human world.  Another is called My Neighbor Totoro (pronounced toe-toe-row). It follows the two young daughters of a professor and their interactions with friendly wood spirits in postwar rural Japan. I learned from this movie (and indirectly from a teacher at my school) that children and parents bathe together well into junior high school (Again adding to the sense of home and family as uchi territory) .

There are some 50,000 convenience stores in Japan. These places are surprisingly convenient, unlike anything we'd compare them to in America. You can buy bottled drinks, alcohol, produce, some groceries, ready-to-eat (but fresh daily) food, vitamins, school supplies, some OTC meds, and other things. You can also buy an assortment of magazines, anime and otherwise. On this aisle long rack of printed pages, there are many anime pornos, in plain sight of anyone reaching two-and-a-half feet, featuring big-busted women fingering themselves or tied up and crying.

In Okuizumo, Japan, a replica of Michelangelo's David was installed without much warning last summer. The famously nude biblical hero is raising eyebrows-and reportedly scaring children- in this town in Shimane prefecture. The sixteen-foot-tall statue was donated by a local businessman who hopes the town's residents will learn to appreciate the sculpture. However, the townspeople are calling for underpants.

That's right, underpants.
on a statue.
Of David.

Despite the reputation of some Japanese for- shall we say- esoteric sexual predilections--full frontal nudity is illegal in photos or on film.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the anime women were "wearing" scantily drawn bras.

On the one hand, I am a Westerner (Soto space). Granted, the women are drawn, and parents can keep their children from seeing what's inside. But seriously, aren't drawn pictures of sexually exploited women (uchi,culturally) much more offensive than artistically sculpted penises (soto, culturally). Also, did I mention that not only do parents and children bathe together, but people (men and women separately  often bathe in public bathes together. Kids see "private parts" on a daily basis. Instead of fearing a sculpted member I'm afraid these little boys and girls should fear becoming call girls who stand dressed in school girl outfits to entice men inside, or businessmen who are married to their jobs instead of their wives. Japanese businessmen are required by custom to get so shitfaced with their bosses after work that by the time they realize it, twenty years have passed, their children are grown, and they've never made their wives moan.

I've also noticed that compulsory education in Japan is a lot less about subject matter and a lot more about teaching children "how" to be Japanese. There are countless assemblies with limitless rituals, students stand and sit and move according to custom and always in a group. They're told to work hard and study without actually being taught anything (they're told many things; they're taught nothing, except, by example, to always appear busy and sacrifice oneself for the group). OF course, this group mentality does have some merit. Americans are taught in sports and groups that "there is no I in team," altruism is (usually, omitting Ayn Rand and her sociopathic brain farts erroneously labeled books) celebrated, and we're taught to work together despite our differences. These are lessons, in individualist America, that I think are very important. But here, the worst extremes of "doing as your told" are all summed up in one example.

I was in class with a Japanese English teacher, not teaching, of course, but repeating and murmuring words in "native" tongue, whatever that means, since "native" English varies from Alabama to Boston, Yorkshire, or Sydney. I've decided that my job here is less as a human being and more as a robot. "Greetings children. I am from Alabama. Where are you from? Do you speak English? How do you say __ in Japanese? That's right. In English it's __." sigh. Never am I asked to plan lessons, or talk about how second languages are actually acquired. Mindless repetition is the way in education though, from Tokyo to Montgomery we're wasting malleable gray matter on cramming. Save critical thinking for college, board members say. Fcuk the board members. I know why it's not happening here, but I don't know why American teachers aren't on the goddamn streets taking legislative buildings by storm. When/ if I move back to America I envision myself a radical. I'll picket and protest and rip flags and bare breasts. I'll use all my time to study Spanish and then volunteer at City Hall to help immigrants fill out paperwork. Non-native speakers need friends. Educators needs to burn multiple choice tests. ETS needs to fuck themselves.

In the Japanese class my rant pulled me from, the students were doing a worksheet. At the end of class, the teacher had written on the chalkboard

11 and 12 were sentence answers while the others were just words, so they got lines. Students were called on to write the correct answers on the  board. Things were running relatively smoothly (as defined in a classroom at this school) until number 11. A student was called up to write the correct sentence answer. He began to write but there was not enough room on the line. Then, the strangest thing happened. He just stopped. He didn't write beyond the line, or below the line, he just froze, like someone had just asked him to figure out the square root of a decimal in 1 second flat. This fourteen year old adolescent couldn't finish the sentence because the line on the chalkboard wasn't long enough. He didn't want to write outside the line. He couldn't until he was told to do so. So he froze.

This is what memorization and regurgitation is doing to children's brains. They're so concerned with vomiting up the wrong answer, or in this case, "coloring" outside the lines and standing out, that they can't think at all. Of course, we can't blame the students. Thinking has never been modeled for them. The "resolution" came about 90 seconds later when the teacher realized the student was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Teacher apologized profusely (for not providing the adequate dimensions of what to do/ how to act) and drew the line a little longer. I am continuously stunned at the thought of this episode.


We're waiting for the weather to warm a bit so we can continue to explore the Boso peninsula- the southernmost part of Chiba prefecture. We went once, unexpectedly, but an old single-car diesel train all dressed up for the day, and then hiked up dirty hills and slid down frozen-leaved paths.

Recently, however, since it's still winter, we've been exploring the Tokyo city-scape. Saturday, February 23, we went to Roppongi, in Tokyo. Known as a favorite expat watering hole, this town became a hub for westerners after the war, and as a result there are a number of what I'd call titty bars, with big Nigerian men constantly on cell phones try to pull you inside. "Ladies free. Free champagne for ladies!" Mmm, no thanks. I'll stick to the vegetarian restaurants and art museums, thank you. For lunch we went to a chain restaurant called Frijoles; John called it "basically Chipoltes". It's the first burrito I've had in Japan that I didn't make and it was amazing. Veggie burrito with fresh guac and a dos equis; yeah, the rest of the day had to be awesome. Luckily, it was, with the exception of John's credit card getting stuck in an ATM it took thirty minutes to find and an additional forty-five for someone to remove.For dinner we went to Chien-Mai, an all vegetarian Taiwanese restaurant. It was small, as every restaurant in Tokyo is, and the waiter was very gengki. He was a skinny old bald man, full of life and an ear-to-ear smile. He wore a bow tie and spoke fast and sweet. Other than the art, I think he was my favorite experience. We went to a place called Mori Art Museum that was showcasing an artist named Makoto Aida.Controversial and diverse, his art was the perfect commentary on Japan and 21st century society. Graphic, colorful, and raw. The exhibit had everything from school-boyesque sketches to installation pieces. It was exceptional. You should look 'im up.

Being Gone

Back in Alabama friends have had babies, and others are getting married. People have moved, visited, grown, and changed. Life, as always, continues. I've found that a very dependable feature of people who live abroad is hearing them talk not just about their homelands, but about the experience of leaving. One thing that undoubtedly exists between all of us-regardless of the differences- is fear. There is a palpable fear to living in a new country, and though it's more acute in the first months, even year, of your stay, it never completely evaporates as time goes on. It simply changes. We're still in the "How do I make friends, adjust, and master the nuances of language?" phase. Next comes the "What am I missing?" phase, which takes this paragraph round full circle. As we settle in to our new lives, time passes and becomes less a question of how long we've been here and more of how long we've been gone; we'll realize people have grown up, moved, married, they will have become completely different people--and we will too.

It's hard to deny that the act of living in another country , in another language, fundamentally changes you. Different parts of your personality sort of float to the surface, and you take on qualities, mannerisms, and opinions that define the new people around you. And there's nothing wrong with that; it's the reason we left in the first place. I wanted to evolve, to change something, to put myself in an uncomfortable new situation that would force me into a new phase in my life.

Having to start from zero and rebuild everything, having to re-learn how to live and carry out everyday activities like a child, fundamentally alters you. Yes, the country and its people will have their own effect on who you are and what you think, but few things are more profound than just starting over with the basics and relying on yourself (and perhaps your wonderful husband/wife) to build a life again. There is a certain amount of comfort and confidence that you gain with yourself when you go to this new place and start all over again, and a knowledge that-come what may in the rest of your life- you were capable of taking that leap and landing (however hard) at least once.

But there are fears. And yes, life has gone on without you. And the longer you stay the more profound those changes will become. Holidays, birthdays, weddings, births-every event missed is a tick marked on a seemingly endless ream of paper.

I know that after this experience abroad I'll look back and realize that so much has happened in my absence. Who knows how hard it will be to start conversations with people after two years, when I am the outsider to inside jokes.

To live in a new place (no matter how truly frustrating, foreign, and difficult; as an outsider in an isolated place) is a beautiful, thrilling thing, and it can show you that you can be whoever you want - on your own terms. It can give you the gifts of freedom, new beginnings, curiosity, and excitement. But to get on that plane doesn't come without a price (and I don't just mean the $1500 just to get our suitcases and our bodies here). I cannot be in two places at once, and from now on, I will always lay awake on certain nights and think of all the things I'm missing out on back at home.