Thursday, January 5, 2012

just another list of new year's resolution

My mom made the best rice balls with the best mentaiko and seaweed!

2011 was a year full of unexpected events. It was a year where I had a glimpse of what it was like to lose a future. It was a year that made me cry in devastation, in hope, in sorrow, and in yearning to reach out. It was a year that taught me how much stupidity we humans have posed on ourselves and other beings on this planet, and yet, at the same time, how amazingly strong and beautiful our own kind can be. It was a year that will be hard to forget for me both on the personal and worldly levels. 

All the change that happened seem to have helped refine my focus, so, this year I'm doing something I don't usually do; writing down my new year's resolutions. I do have a habit of vaguely thinking about what I want the year to be like at the beginning, but it has been years since I last took the time to actually make a list. 

Here it goes:

1. Read more books and watch more movies. Keep track of them.
2. Make more time to actually sit down and write. At least 2 hours a week.
3. Publish a story (or more).
4. Find more translation work.
5. Save more money.
6. Start something to keep myself happy and healthy; gospel, yoga, african dance, anything.
7. Visit at least three places I have never been to.
8. Get a Japanese driver's license.
9. Eat less, sleep more.
10. Say "Yes" to any opportunities offered. 

I really wholeheartedly dislike pressure in general, but just like some medicine that tastes terrible, we need things that we really wholeheartedly dislike in our lives to become better beings. These words will prod me throughout the year.

I hope that y'all, too, have put together a list of resolutions that will give you a good drive for the new year. To the readers near and far, I wish you a very, very happy 2012!

Friday, December 23, 2011

santa's arm

In Japan, Santa Claus doesn't leave presents underneath the Christmas tree. Instead, he leaves them by your pillow.

At least, that's how it was when I was growing up. There was scarcely any room for a Christmas tree big enough to have many gifts huddling around in our small two-bedroom apartment, and I feel it might have been, and still is, the case with many Japanese families. After all, this country we live in is quite a small one.

My mother claims that Santa Claus had been coming since I was a little baby, but my memories of Santa begins at the age four, when I began wondering all about this mysterious old man who would deliver gifts to children. I don't really remember my parents telling me about him. My main sources of information were books, songs, and kids' shows on TV. I learned that he wore a red and white uniform along with a matching cap and carried a big sack of gifts. I learned that he came on a flying sleigh drawn by reindeer. I learned that he came into the house through the chimney. 

Wait, we don't have a chimney!

Just like most Japanese houses and apartments, there was no fireplace or chimney at our place. The realization got me anxious. I looked around our apartment and wondered if there was an alternative entrance for Santa. Windows might work, but they would be locked during cold winter nights. The same went for the door. It would be unsafe to leave it unlocked when everyone was asleep. 

For days, this kept me wondering and worried. I asked my mother, and she just told me he would find a way. On the night of Christmas Eve, I went to bed, thinking I would stay awake and catch Santa, and, of course, fell asleep before knowing.

In the morning, I woke up and found my gift by the pillow. I was delighted, but my curiosity wasn't satisfied. I asked my mother again how Santa had come in, and she grinned and said, "Well, you know what, last night someone rang the door bell around eleven o'clock..."

"It was him?" I gaped in excitement. I couldn't believe it. My mother had seen Santa Claus! It felt like the coolest thing in the world.

"What was he wearing?" I asked.
"Um...I don't remember well. It was a bit dark."
"But was he in red? Red and white like you see in books?" I pressed on, oblivious to the uncertainty in my mother's voice.
"Yeah, I guess so."
"Was he wearing a cap? Did he have a beard? Did you see the sleigh? Where were the reindeer?"

All the questions seemed to baffle her, and then, she said simply, "You know, I didn't get to see much because he just stuck out his arm from behind the door and left the gift." 

Now it was my turn to be baffled. All along I had thought Santa would actually come to the bed of the child to carefully place the gift for him/her, but now my mother was saying he hurriedly dropped off the gift at the door and went away. It was a bit disappointing, but I also felt it was understanding because he was a super busy man after all.

"So you only saw his arm?" I asked.
"Just the arm."
"That's right."
"What was his arm like? Was his sleeve red and white?"
I wanted to make sure the famous man had come in his famous red coat and white cuffs. I somehow felt it would prove authenticity of the identity of the Santa Claus my mother was talking about.
"Yeah." My mother smiled and nodded with confidence. "It was red and white."

That's how I got this vivid image of Santa's arm sticking out from behind the heavy iron door of our small apartment, and it stayed with me for a long time. Whenever my friends mentioned Santa Claus, it came back to me, and it gave me a strange feeling to think about the gap between what my friends must have been picturing as Santa and this image of the arm of a busy man I had in mind. It was the gap between a pure, happy fantasy and a reality, and thinking that I knew the reality none of my friends knew made me feel both superior and slightly melancholy at the same time.

It's been long since Santa stopped coming for me, but there's one fantasy about him that I have kept. When I have a child of my own and hear a door bell late on the night before Christmas, I will open the door--open it wide--and invite him in. We will chat a little over some herb tea and I will ask him all the questions I have had about him and his job. I won't keep him long, just until he finishes his cup of tea and has had enough rest.Then I will see the old man off at the door so he can keep working for the rest of the night, while the curious child in me smiles, finally perfectly content after a long, long wait.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

enoshima island--my religion

Wow, I can't believe I have left this blog untouched for nearly three months. It's a bad habit to stop writing whenever I get stuck with something--a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence, or even a word. This time it was a pending review of a film that I really, really liked. Really, really liking something sometimes makes it extremely difficult to write about it while you are still extremely wanting to do so.

While the review stayed pending, there have been other things also pending. There are times in your life when it just seems impossible for any progress to be made and you are running out of the energy to change it, and the past month or so of my life has been that way. It's like a rainy season and I know it will go sooner or later. I tell myself that every time. Still, it is frustrating when you are drowned in this strong sense of stagnation.

So today, though I was still dragging the aftereffect of the recent stomach flu, I decided to pay a visit to Enoshima Island.

I don't see myself belonging to any religion, but the way I have been with this small island, I might as well call it my religion. There are shrines up the long stairway, and I do always visit the first one whenever I visit the island to go through the usual "worshiping" ritual, throwing in coins, bowing, clapping, then bowing again after you finish your "prayer." For me, and probably for many Japanese people who visit there, this act has hardly any religious connotation. It is rather cultural and a way to show respect just as taking off one's shoes before entering the house. When I put my hands together and close my eyes in front of the shrine, my words are directed toward not only the goddess of the shrine but also the island, the ocean, the trees, everything that surrounds me on the island.

But, yes, I might as well call this island my religion because I do go there seeking support and comfort and I always find it. I came here before my college entrance exam. I came here while I was applying for grad school in the States. I came here when my mother got sick and when she was recovering. I came here after the earthquake in March. Every time, somehow, it got better. I felt better. If nothing else, it is a truly pleasant place to visit especially on a sunny day like today.

I was there only for an hour or so, visiting the shrine, walking around, taking pictures and browsing shops. The wind was gushing, making the ends of my scarf flatter and leaving my hair all messy. The sun was high up all while and black kites were floating in the blue of the sky. All was beautiful, and it gave me back my energy. Yes, again, I found what I was looking for in Enoshima.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

the importance of being there: japanese work ethics

It's eight o'clock on a Wednesday night and I see on TV hundreds and thousands of people standing outside the ticket gates of a big train station in Tokyo waiting for the trains to start running. The big typhoon that has been attaching Japan for the past few days has just passed through Kanto and is moving toward Tohoku. The people on the TV screen all look tired, some terribly soaked carrying broken umbrellas. I wonder why these people came out when it was clearly warned on the morning news that the typhoon would be in full swing later in the day. I wonder why their companies let them come.

It reminds me of the days that followed the earthquake in March. The air was, reportedly, increasingly getting radioactive, and trains were running only sporadically due to shortage of electricity; yet, many just left home in the morning as if nothing had changed to get on commuting trains that were even more packed than usual from the unsteady schedule.

A friend questioned it on Facebook, expressing how terrified she was being in such a catastrophic situation: "Why don't companies tell their employees to stay home for a few days? Is work that important?"

Another answered: "I think it's important to carry on as usual because things are really crazy now."

I got his point. I was touched by all those workers who try to be in the office and carry on their regular tasks. It was simply noble and respectable. At the same time, I saw her point, too. I echoed her question in my head many times: Is work that important?

Work is important. If we all stopped working for good, society would not function. But then, to the questions Is work the most important thing in our lives? and Does only being at work mean working?, I say, with much determination, no.

While it is really admirable to continue working as usual to keep society functioning, that is not-should not be--the most important thing in our lives. Instead of stuffing ourselves into packed trains to get to the office knowing another long and exhausting journey is waiting at the end of the day, spending time with our family at home for a few days could benefit society by easing the people's fear and anxiety. Besides, not a few tasks we do in our offices are possible to be done by telecommuting in this technologically advanced era and country with emails, instant messengers and online file sharing.

So--again, was it really necessary to force our already stress-and-fear-ridden bodies to endure long and suffocating commutes when there was a possibility we might again get stuck somewhere unable to get home?

I don't know. Well, to be honest, I don't think so. I really think the government, prefectures, cities or companies better tell people it's okay to stay home--or, rather, they should stay home to avoid possibly unsafe, confusing and exhausting situations especially after an event as grave as the Great Earthquake.

Some companies did, but many didn't, because in the Japanese work ethics being there really matters. Whether it's a completely meaningless meeting or a shaking office building on a terrible typhoon day, being there at your own desk is the important thing. And that I believe is why many companies didn't let their employees go home early enough today, forcing them to stand there waiting for the train to move, soaked and terribly terribly tired.

I know it happens sometimes. Sometimes, we just can't help ending up soaked and terribly tired to do what we need to do. Sometimes it is necessary, and I see diligence as one of our culture's greatest values; and yet, watching the exhausted commuters helplessly looking up at the electronic display for any positive news for their long-awaited return home, I can't help but feel a bit frustrated with the strong belief in being there equaling working that is so rampant in our society, and it pushes me to consider leaving the country again just a little more seriously on this typhoon night.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Taiwan, here I come.

I'm flying to Taiwan tomorrow. All is packed, pretty much, except for the chargers. Chargers are the tricky ones. You want to charge your phone or mp3 player till the last minute, and that always means you have to leave the chargers out of the suitcase until the last minute. So now I have a big piece of paper on my desk that screams CHARGERS!!! Let's hope I won't get used to the sight of it before tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

the lady at the store

Last week, we had a moving day at work. We were moving our office one station away, and a few coworkers and I sort of went back and forth to carry things to the new office. The new office is pretty rad. It's a tiny, cozy space surrounded by cool temples and nature and right across from a preschool so you can enjoy hearing little kids happily chirp and shriek through the window glass as you work. We all liked it the moment we saw it.

Excited as I was, there was also a bit of sentiment. Moving is sentimental because you are usually leaving something, somebody, somewhere you've come to know pretty well behind. I knew I would miss our old office, an aged Japanese-style house. I would miss hiking up the hill every morning. I would miss sitting down on the tatami mattresses and even the spiders and moths who quite peacefully shared the space with us. 

There was another thing I would miss: that convenience store down the hill. It was basically the only store where we could buy lunch unless we wanted to eat at an ancient-looking Chinese restaurant nearby every day. Though I would usually bring my own lunch, it was pretty much my habit and rare chance of exercise to go down to the store to get something--tea, juice, ice cream, sweets, chips, anything.

There was this lady who was always there around lunchtime, a skinny woman with long, dark hair, with a charming smile, probably around ten years older than me. She was already a pleasant cashier the first time I saw her, but in the weeks and months that followed, we had slowly warmed up to each other. Now when she saw me coming in, she smiled a bit more widely than usual. I could hear a bit extra friendliness in her hello. I'm sure I did the same; I smiled bigger and said thank you more enthusiastically when I received the change and left. On every visit, I would glance around to see if she was working and was a bit disappointed if she wasn't.

On the moving day, before I stopped by for the last time at our now-former office to fetch some things, I went into the store to get coffee. I was hoping the lady was there, but at the one open cashier was an elderly lady who was also pleasant but not to the point of the friendliness I shared with the younger lady. Disappointed, I stood behind the guy who was paying; then, my favorite lady came out from the staff room like a blast of wind (well, not really, she just trotted out happily) and called out to me from the other cashier, "Next, please!"

We grinned and she scanned my coffee. "One fifty," she said. I paid. As she gave me back the change, I blurted out, "We're moving the office to the next station, so I won't be able to come here anymore." The truth is that I could still come here, but somehow, it felt as if it was truly the last time to see her.

She looked a bit surprised, but then the smile returned and she said, "Oh, really? Where did you work?"
"Up the hill. You know, you go straight by the bakery and make a left at the temple, then up the long stairs."
"Oh yeah, I know what you're talking about."
"Yeah, but we're moving a station away. Guess I have to find another convenience store."
"Will you be closer to the beach?"
"Kind of. We are near the temple."
"Oh, I see."
We were smiling at each other. A customer was waiting behind me.
"Well," she said. "Goodbye, then. Good luck with your work."
"Thank you. I'll see you around."

As I walked out the door, I realized it was the first real conversation we had ever had. Until then our interaction had been strictly limited to business without a single case of small talk. We still knew we recognized and maybe even slightly looked forward to seeing each other. It's funny how things happen just like that, being there simply felt and sensed but maybe never acknowledged. It's that girl you met in your second grade homeroom who would always smile at you when your eyes met even though you would never really talk because she belonged to another group of friends. It's that favorite hair stylist who would take your hair seriously and actually enjoy conversing with you, who you would one day remember realizing you had stopped going to that salon. Later you wonder if it was only you or you both felt the same--happy to see each other--though there's no way to confirm. That's fine. That's whatever you believe.

But I'm glad I got to confirm something with the lady at the store before I stopped going there. Even that confirmation might be something only I imagined, but that's the meaning that little small talk will hold in me, which after all is all that matters.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

japanese love

Last month, on my mom's birthday, I posted the following as my Facebook status:

Happy Birthday, Mom, once the biggest enemy but always the biggest support and inspiration. I love you.

I had already wished her a happy birthday in the morning before I left for work, but a hint of sentiment that crept into my mind on my lunch break made me post this. There also was an urge to express my feeling in English, for, strange as it is, I sometimes feel it easier to express my feelings in this second language than my own.

People "liked" it, and it made me happy; but then, I realized there was no point in writing something like this on a semi-public place without sharing it with the person it was addressed to. So I forwarded this to her, saying, "This is the message I put on Facebook."

When I came home, she told me she didn't understand it, reasonably, for she hardly speaks or reads English. I translated it for her.

"Uh-huh," she said.
"Yeah, I just thought it would be only fair to share it with you because it's to you."
"You're right. There's no point just showing it to strangers."

We laughed and the talk ended there.

The thing is that I didn't include the "I love you" part in my translation. I assumed she would know, which she most likely did, but I also didn't know how to translate it. Sure, I could have translated it literally or chosen a phrase with similar meaning that is more commonly used in Japanese, but that wouldn't have conveyed what I meant in the English "I love you," the casual yet meaningful expression of affection.

So I just opted out not to include it in my Japanese translation, and my mom, clearly aware of the fact I did, also left it unmentioned. "I love you" floated around for a little while in the somehow comfortably awkward air between us and dissipated as my mom went back to folding clean laundry and I turned to go up to my room to put my backpack down, first feeling a bit sad we seemingly couldn't exchange words of love directly but then realizing that it was how love always had worked between us most of the time; unsaid and sometimes hidden, but constantly floating around us like the sweet scent of orange osmanthus in autumn so we notice only if we pay attention.

True, a part of me still prefers straightforward exchanges of "I love you"s and hugs, but now I can say, no, the Japanese way of love isn't bad, either. Not at all. Because it's there, if you're willing to breathe it in.