Never Quite Gone.

You know that old saying, “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl?” Sometimes, in this interconnected age, I think it’s harder and harder to take the girl out of the country… or state… or city. That’s certainly the feeling I got when on the train the other day in Tokyo. My brother was visiting me and we were touring around some of the interesting parts of town when I looked up and spotted this advertisement, like the face of a neighbor among strangers.
MastersAdSmall

Back in Augusta, this week among all weeks of the year was the most exciting, frustrating, and bewildering as our otherwise relatively quiet, southern city was flooded with foreigners from up north or out west — and even from other countries. Everyone prepared like it was an oncoming hurricane, buying up toilet paper and milk and either leaving town or trying to stay home as much as possible. The traffic is terrible. One of my first “real” jobs was working at the Masters tournament as a cashier’s assistant — seven 14 hour work days on my feet with only 1 half-hour break unless it rained enough to close up shop for a while. Fortunately for the workers, it always rains at least a little during Masters week (during which the British players usually manage to pull ahead, somehow).

Despite the pain and consternation that memories of the Masters holds for me, it is a uniquely Augustan festival and reminded me quite sweetly of home and of all my fellow Augustans living through it. As strange as my surroundings may seem, as disconnected as I may feel from whatever is happening back in that peach of a city I grew up in, reminders of a loving home among the people who live there are never quite gone.

Oh, and smile, Augusta, people the world over really are watching you this week and wishing we were there. >^_^<

Advertisements

明けましておめでとうございます!

After Christmas, CricketChild  and I got to have a mini-reunion with some of the awesome people we met three years ago when we were here together as a part of Bob Jones University’s Mission Team. One day we had lunch with pastor I and family. Another day we had a lovely hike around a plum-tree-covered mountainside with the S’s and enjoyed throwing pebbles into the river with their daughter, M. I would say skipping pebbles if we’d been able to find more flat ones. On another day, we had lunch with the I family and then went out with Mrs. S and young M again to shop for some discount warm clothes at Hard Off, my favorite store in all of Japan. Back in Georgia, I didn’t need much different clothing for summer and for winter! Adding a jacket and gloves pretty much covered things. Thanks to my Aunt Merris in Wyoming, I came with a proper winter coat and some boots, and I’ve been slowly acquiring enough long-sleeved things and leggings to layer up for the cold parts of winter. IMG_20151228_12051912440528_10153779262492618_5522762590166163297_o

Whenever I shiver here in Japan, my Japanese friends assure me cheerfully that it’s been a warm winter so far, but it will get much colder by February. Great. :-/ Oh well, at least I’ll probably get to enjoy some snow in exchange for the cold. Actually, it seems like most of the time there’s beautiful scenery around, being cold is involved.

CricketChild and I traveled up to her place on Sado island for New Year’s. After all of the activity around Christmas down in Moroyama, I was looking forward to a vacation from vacation! We took the JR train from Moro up to Takasaki, then the Shinkansen to Nigata and the ferry from there to Sado. The ferry ride is 2.5 hours long and the ferry itself is a little like a miniature cruise ship! Each stretch of the trip was long enough to settle in a relax a bit on the way. 🙂 12440385_10153779262217618_180875173044614533_o

The island seemed deserted for the first two days we were there! Most of the businesses had closed for New Years, which is a much bigger holiday than Christmas is even in the States.  Friends have informed me that the Japanese spend their New Year’s deep cleaning their houses — but the quietness of the neighborhoods around CricketChild’s apartment had us wondering what else the Japanese do to celebrate New Years. Surely the biggest holiday in Japan doesn’t only involve cleaning house and sitting quietly indoors! Turns out a big part of the Japanese New Year is traveling to see family and going to pray at the local shrines. The shrines set up quite a festive atmosphere with food stalls and merchants on the shrine’s grounds. Maybe that’s where they all were.
ToriGate
On the 5th of January, I reversed the travel process and went home. The ferry ride, apart from yielding some excellent photos of seagulls, also provided an excellent opportunity to gather thoughts about all the experiences of my first Japanese winter so far and catch up a bit on writing to you all. I’m sure many of you have some sort of resolution for the new year — mine are to rest and to pray more. It’s too easy to become too busy all the time.MistyGull.jpg

Christmas Upside Down

Christmas upside down.

This was my first Christmas away from home and family. As such, it felt important to decorate and celebrate with as many of the usual traditions as possible. Still, with the business of finishing up classes for the fall and preparing for the Church Christmas program on the 23rd of December, it took me a while to get all the decorations up. For the first 15 years of my life my family had a fake Christmas tree. Every year we’d take it out of wherever we’d stored it and put all the pieces together, scraping up our hands spreading out the wire branches and fitting them into the correct slots on the plastic tree trunk to the groovy tunes of old Christmas bagpipe records between sips of nutmeg-laced eggnog or hot cider with cinnamon sticks. Eventually we threw out the old tree when we realized it was shedding more than a live tree would, and we’ve used real trees ever since.

Back when Judy was with me, we made it a project to explore and reorganize the storage closet upstairs, so I knew where all of the Knoxes’ Christmas things were and had made them conveniently accessible against the day I’d need to fetch them out and decorate. They have a small artificial tree — 4ft tall, and sometime in mid-December I decided it was time to put it up! It may become a truth universally acknowledged, that the harder something is to get wrong, the more hilarious the mistake becomes when it is made. The Christmas tree was an example of this. I read on the box that no assembly was required, all I needed to do was remove it from the box, set it in its stand and decorate it. Taking it out of the box and putting it up wasn’t hard at all — though, just like the artificial tree we used for the first 15 years of my life, the really-forever-and-evergreen tree shed as many needles as its natural counterparts might. Once it was up I faced a bit of a conundrum. It was supposed to be four feet tall and tree-shaped. I seemed to have a 3.5-ish ft shrubbery instead. :-/ Surely it was missing an upper piece! I hunted around in the storage closet and the Christmas decoration trunk to no avail, and even emailed the Knoxes about it. After a good night of sleep I took another good look at the tree and realized my mistake: I’d put up the little tree upside-down.

ChristmasShrub

Oh, Christmas shrub, oh, Christmas shrub!

The Christmas shrub incident reminded me of Judy’s blog about her time here. When looking for remarkable cultural differences between Japan and the US, Christmas celebrations are no disappointment! Celebrating Christmas in Japan is a little like celebrating in an alternate world! Perhaps because the Christian population of Japan is so tiny, Japan doesn’t seem to have any ancient Christmas customs of its own. Still, Christmas is a surprisingly popular holiday here. Of course, to the Japanese, Christmas is less about celebrating divine, unfailing love and more about celebrating romantic and parental love — the only people who usually receive gifts for Japanese Christmas are children and sweethearts. Christmas Eve in Japan is a time for couples to go on romantic walks through illuminated landscapes before cozying up over sliced of Christmas Cake (basically a strawberry shortcake with other tropical fruit slices in the whipped filling between cake layers). Families can look festive wearing party hats and popping confetti poppers before blowing out the candles on their Christmas cakes and letting the kids open presents from “Santa-san”.   And one mustn’t forget the Christmas chicken from KFC! That’s how the Americans celebrate, after all, and Christmas is an American holiday, originally ;-). Actually, my students have all expressed shock and dismay when I’ve confided in them that Americans don’t usually associate KFC, or even chicken, with Christmas at all, and that our fruitcake is something drastically different. Apparently a popular ad campaign from KFC portrayed foreigners settling for fried chicken when there were no turkeys to be found in Japanese markets and the tradition was born! Now, you have to reserve your KFC dinner at the beginning of December if you hope to have it at Christmas — and it’ll cost you $50-70.
This year, a friend who’s teaching with the JET program up on Sado island, came down to spend her Christmas break with me in Moroyama. She arrived just in time to join in our Church’s Christmas program and feast at the local community center. It was a time of lovely music, a special Christmas kamishibai (narrated picture show), and phenomenally good food.  Our own Christmas celebration was a peculiar mix of American and Japanese customs, with a dash of our own hobbies and occupations mixed in.  We spent Christmas eve exploring some of the hobby shops and book stores of Akihabara — I’m pretty sure 15 year-old me and friends would have fainted from excitement at all the anime and manga merchandise we saw. Hey, I was still pretty excited as it was! I made it home without spending too much money, but still having a renewed appreciation for the artistry in hobbies old and new.
IMG_9074
We picked up a little Christmas cake at the station on the way back and enjoyed lighting and blowing out the candles for Christmas after we returned to the house late that evening. On Christmas morning we opened stockings and ate convenience-store fried chicken and some home-made mashed potatoes, each taking some time to call our folks when it was time-zone appropriate to do so. It was on Boxing Day that we had our “real” Christmas dinner, once again surrounded by the good folks at the Clift’s home and table a few hours away.

All in all, it was a wonderful Christmas. Recently, it came up in conversation with a student that what makes a day special, better or remarkably different than any other day, is the time spent and memories made or reviewed with people who are important to you. This holds true, even on the other side of the world.

 

In Sickness and in Health

The thing about germs in a foreign country, is that they tend to be foreign germs. During my second month or so here, I found a you-tube vlogger who said a common experience among Westerners coming to Japan is the advent of a horrible head-cold. I was no exception to this rule. When I first arrived, I had one week to shadow Mrs. Knox in her classes, two weeks of vacation to prepare to teach, and then I was to hit the ground running. I hit the futon coughing instead. Thankfully, after about ten days of sickness, when it became apparent to me that I couldn’t just shake the thing off by myself, Mrs. Knox was still in town and able to take me to the clinic to get some medicine. During the time dear Judy was still with me in Japan, those first three months, I think I was sick for about half of it. Judy told me once that she had begun to be afraid I’d never get up and leave the house again.

The second time I had to go to the clinic for medicine, my friend Mrs. E took me. When you’re running a fever it’s really nice to have someone else do all the talking and then interpret the medical terminology later. Apparently I have bronchial asthma in Japan. I ended up back in the clinic again last month (by my own telephone and navigation skills this time — yay!) while Mom and Dad were here visiting, and colds that usually take about a week to totally get over without any doctor’s visit in the States seem to take twice as long to dissipate even with the help of whatever this (actually amazingly helpful) stuff the doctor has prescribed here. I’m back to hoping now, just like I hoped after the last times I was sick, that my immune system has finally adjusted to our new circumstances and can finally get over things more easily.

My housemates, Mr. Tumnus the rabbit and Tiger the cat got sick at about the same time I did, each with something different, so it was an adventure in medication for a week or so — everyone needing different little pill packets or eye drops given at different times of day. Thankfully, my furry friends cooperated and everybody seems to be feeling better, though Tummy still has weepy eyes and the occasional sniffle. 😦  Myrtle and Yurtle, the turtles, remain as greenish and robust as ever.
MedicalThoughtQuote
The way to handle sickness is a little different in Japan. When I first visited three years ago, one of our team members, Lana, got some kind of flu in her first few days in the country. It was summertime then, and terribly hot in the upper room we girls shared at the first location we were helping out at. Though Lana was miserably uncomfortable in the stuffy room, every time any of the Japanese ladies found the AC turned on, they’d bustle over and switch it off again so her sickness wouldn’t worsen. After they urged her to get some rest and bustled out again, Lana would turn to us with pleading eyes and we’d switch the AC back on so she could sleep. 🙂  When one of our team members cut open her foot badly while playing outdoors, a fifteen-minute argument ensued between the denizens of differing hemispheres over whether it was better to bandage the wound to stop the bleeding or leave it open to get air to heal.  Another difference seems to be in how to view doctors’ visits. At home, if you get the sniffles or a cough, you go to the drug store or your own medicine cabinet and take some cold medicine. You drink more fluids and try to rest. You stay home from places where you might make other people sick. Here in Japan, you go to the doctor at the first change in your health (they always say “go to the hospital,” which sounds very serious to an American), are in and out of consultation with him in ten minutes (after waiting an hour in the waiting room — some things are the same), pick up your scripts across the street, and carry on about your regular business with a white medical mask to shield the people close to you from your germs.
Mask copy

Another difference Judy and I noticed right away that impacts your health in Japan is the diet. Of course there’s a lot more walking and biking in Japan — we expected that. There’s also a lot more seafood and vegetables in each meal. Less protein. Less fat. Fewer calories. We expected all of that, and thought we’d probably lose a few pounds in the first month of living here. What we didn’t expect was the massive amount of food eaten at a meal and the tiny amount of drink consumed. Every traditional-style meal involved a large, rounded bowl of rice, a little bowl of miso soup, a single child-sized cup of drink (often left unfinished by our Japanese friends) a chunk of meat or assortment of tempura, a side of salad and pickled vegetables, (sometimes noodles, too, depending on where you eat) and a small cup of hot tea. Maybe 8-12 ounces of fluid in the meal, not even enough to fill our standard American 16 ounce glass once. Certainly, it seems, no one here is trying to get in their 64 ounces of water a day. We spent the first couple weeks over-full and dehydrated until we could figure out how to politely manage the portions and learned to take advantage of the drink vending machines on every-other corner.

Amazing how ways of scientific and medical thought assumed to be established and irrefutable fact are not recognized in other medically advanced, first-world countries. Another reminder that even people much smarter than I am don’t know everything and that I shouldn’t assume so many things just because I’m used to my own slice of American culture.

It’s different, and I’m a bit slow to get used to the local ways, but the Japanese are known for having long life-spans, so I guess they’re doing something right. 🙂

The Delight of Singing

Back in college, I had a group of friends from many different majors and backgrounds. One thing most of us had in common was that we like to sing and play games together — on several memorable occasions we reserved the choir room and gathered around the piano, taking turns playing and singing hymns, Disney, and Broadway tunes. Everyone, regardless of proficiency, belted out the music, and the more adventuresome/dexterous would sing in parts. It was such a lovely time. Here in Japan, singing is a national pastime — you don’t have to go far to see signs for the  カラオケ (karaoke) bars lighting up the night! Friends, families, co-workers, and classmates often go and sing together or compete with one another for the best performance. It’s apparently considered a way to open up to and build camaraderie with the people in your circles, and singing can be just plain fun.

That camaraderie of those singing parties from so many years ago came back to me last Monday. The Clifts, Smiths, Marcys, Nowaks, N. Heikoop, A. Esposito and I had gathered at the Clifts for an American Thanksgiving (it was a Japanese holiday that day, so everyone had the day off to travel). Between a wonderful home-made dinner and a three-kinds-of-pie-plus-apple-tarts-with-icecream dessert, we retired to the living room to sing with one another. Beyond just the real and general friendliness of creating music with people, singing music with words like the hymns we chose seemed to reflect a special bond I find everywhere I meet these kinds of Christians. Each person there sung with their hearts open. We sung words about struggles, pain, healing, forgiveness, and a gentle and uplifting love that will not let us go. We sang about God, our provider, protector, and friend. Some early Christmas carols even made an appearance, exultant about the solid hope and help that the existence, actions, and teachings of Jesus Christ offers to anyone who wants such a thing as solid hope, for anyone who wants life and life abundant.

For me, thinking is preferable to feeling. And if I’m going to feel, I like to think about why I’m feeling what I am before I commit to admitting to feeling anything. I had been feeling sad when I arrived at the Clifts’ house, perhaps because of homesickness, perhaps because of being physically run-down, but, before I could even fully understand the becauses, over the friendship, food, and the singing, the sadness was comforted, and happiness sent out a warm little blossom instead. What a joy there is in giving thanks with others who also have so much to be thankful for — each person recalling individual struggles and God’s help along the way. What a joy there is in having the discord gently tuned out of a tired heart and singing sweet praises instead!

The peaceful love of that afternoon lasted even as I missed my train on my return trip and found myself with a spare hour in the late-night cool of the empty train platform. My phone turned to Psalm 139, and more of our college-days’ music, choral music this time, flooded back to me.

“If I ascend into heaven you are there,
on the wings of the morning.
And in my deepest despair,
your hand shall lead me. Your right hand shall guide me.
Though darkness shall cover me, light will surround me.

And I will praise your name. I will praise your name. I will praise it with my whole heart.”

Giving Thanks

Hello everyone!
I’ve been in Japan for 8 months.
This blog certainly doesn’t reflect that well. My hope was to catch up on blog-writing instead of Nanowrimo — instead I haven’t written at all. 😛
I suppose this is the halfway point of my term here, though the Knoxes and I haven’t spoken about exactly when I’ll hand back the baton. I remember thinking back in September how surprising it felt to have been here for half a year and that I was really getting used to living here. Only Last week did I realize that six months had turned to eight.

Homesickness

Funny thing about moving to the other side of the world — you’re supposed to get homesick. Homesickness is an injury of the emotions that I’m not often subject to: whenever I would travel within the states, there was the thought that I’d see whomever was missing soon, and they understood my absence, so I didn’t need to miss them much. Technology has been very helpful, too. Facebook and texting make it easy to continue superficial interactions. Also, life is usually too busy for me to do more than think in passing, “It would be nice if Katie and Andrew were here to do this with me.” or “I wonder how Matthew is?” or “Kirstin/Crista/Becky can’t eat this yummy thing I’m about to eat because of allergies.” or “I miss the folks at game night/Bethany/Overbrook Chapel.” or “Fooey, it’s too late to send this card in time for Dad’s/Mom’s birthday two weeks from now.” And then I might pause to call these people and the others I’ve thought of and realize it’s 4 in the morning for them and I’ll have to try again another time. Moment over, busy-ness resumes, and I’ve been fine.

But now it’s fall. Fall has always been the most beautiful time of year, filled with perfectly crisp and colorful mornings, warm and fragrant fruit of the kitchen, and happy plans for framily holidays. Everybody’s more festive in the fall. People go apple picking, hayriding, bonfiring, costuming, and begin to practice for caroling.

It’s hard not being home among friends and family and neighbors for fall. ^_^
You end up missing unexpected things when you’re living in a foreign place. Like pumpkin spice anything. Facebook tells me the Autumnal Grinches are still complaining about the saturation of pumpkin spice everything, but be happy; here in my part of Japan, there’s nothing pumpkin spice at all! I was excited to find a pumpkin roll cake at my grocery store around Halloween and surprised when it tasted like pumpkin sans-spices. I was excited to be given half a pumpkin by a friend and surprised to find that it was green and gourd-shaped. O_o   Apples are still pricey. I’ve lost all hope of finding egg nog.

No Thanksgiving turkey for me at the market, either. Thankfully, some dear friends in Nagano had me over for an early Thanksgiving dinner on Monday the 23rd — turkey and everything! The weather is gorgeous and no one is tirading because of Christmas decor showing up in stores — and family sent me cider mix and excellent hot cocoa. ^_^ With such nourishing supplies, I will do better than mere survival.

I’m thankful for technology, that makes it easy to connect. I’m thankful for this opportunity to be in Japan for more than a year, working with people I love doing things I love for the beliefs that give me purpose and for the God I love. I’m thankful for the students that smile and love their classes with me and for the students who don’t smile but try hard anyway, and especially for the students who hate my classes and are so frustrated, but whom I still have a chance to help somehow. I’m thankful for my family and friends who are patient with me when I’m distant and who still want to keep in touch. I’m thankful for my family who are taking the time and cost to visit me during my time here — Mom and Dad came during the worst homesickness and made things so much better! I’m thankful for the friends I have here in Japan who take such kind care of me and who put up with my foreignness and have fun times with me anyway. I’m thankful for God’s constant demonstration of loving kindness, provision, and care for me — Whenever I’m discouraged, He reminds me that He knows the number of hairs on my head, that He loves me no matter what, and that I’m never actually alone. 🙂

That’s a lot to be thankful for. ^_^

Nightmares

You know that dream you have every so often when you have something important to do in the morning, the one where somehow you oversleep and miss said important thing? That nightmare plagues me every day I have classes to teach.

Well, yesterday it came true– despite setting both a phone alarm and a manual, battery-powered travel clock alarm as a back up, I woke up an half hour into when I was supposed to be teaching class >_<.  Thanks to my brother for giving me a call! The soft and pleasant ring tone woke me, which leads me to strongly suspect the alarms simply never sounded, especially since I am not a heavy sleeper and I tested the alarms today and can hear them through the whole house!
Anyway, my internet students waited kindly and anxiously for my arrival and class carried on! Awesome students to wait over half an hour and still want to have class! ^_^ Still, I’m really chagrined about the whole thing. Avoidable or not, it sounds terribly irresponsible to be late because “I overslept.” This morning I set my two alarms again and added an extra computer alarm to the mix, but my trust in my technology is broken. I’m afraid I won’t be sleeping well for a while after this. 😦