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.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

so i begin traveling

So it's decided. Finally. I'm going to Taiwan.

It was August, too, when I saw my friend off at the LAX. We had spent most of the previous two years together in the same program and grown really close--so close that it was sometimes hard for us to be tender with each other. We fought and argued. We made up. We ate together and laughed and talked for hours and hours until I had to finally get in my car and drive back home in empty early-morn streets. We were pretty much an essential part of each other's life at that time, and the idea of us getting on separate paths felt simply absurd.

But we did, and neither of us cried at the airport. Well, I did as I waved and watched her walk to the security check turning around over and over, but I don't think she could see it from the distance. When we said goodbye, we didn't know what to say, so we said, "See you."

No, I absolutely did not expect that we would have to wait for two years for that. Then, yes, I did expect this would happen.

It was almost on a whim that I booked my flights. We've kept in touch through a handful phone calls, IMing, emails and Facebook messages, and there certainly was an increasing sense of anticipation for our reunion ever since I came back to Japan this January. We are closer now, we should definitely meet up! The issue, though, was the lack of initiation on both parties due to ever-changing work schedule. Or it was the reason on my part. I say I will visit her in Taiwan once this project is settled, and always something comes up and prolongs the end of the project. So I finally decided to just make time and go.

There's always been a part of me that yearns to travel and see the world; then, there's another part of me that worries saying things like What about language? and I won't be able to see everything in such a short time! I've been fortunate to have more opportunities to go on short trips and meet more travelers in the past few years, and that changed my mindset. The truth is that there are ways to communicate without language if you are only willing to try, and it is simply impossible to see everything. Sites won't go away, though, so you can just hop on the plane, into the car, and go again and again as long as there's an urge to see more. The important thing is to go there first. At least once.

One thing about traveling is that it seems easier to do so when you have a stable ground to come back to. I didn't have that for long while I was moving around in the US, looking for a job and working to get a work visa. Yes, I had a place to live, eventually a job to feed me, and friends and roommates to greet if I went away for a bit and come back, but the uncertainty in my foreign status gave me nothing but a sense of instability. Now, back in my own country and not having to worry about the legal right to be here, I feel I can finally start flying out to see more of the world (which is metaphorical, for "the world" includes many sites in Japan that I've regrettably missed so far).

So this trip to Taiwan will be great not only as the long-awaited chance for me to see my friend again but also as my very first step into the world I have yet to see. The trip is two weeks away and I am already thrilled.

The only issue for now is that most Chinese phrases I know are the ones I learned from the Chinese pop songs my friend introduced to me, so I can say "Don't leave me," "I want you to know you are the most beautiful person," and "Do you want to kiss me?" when I can't even ask to get the bill at a restaurant.

Time to study!

Friday, August 5, 2011

on creativity

Today, I was talking to a friend who likes to draw, take photography, write, and all that jazz.

Him: "But I never have time to really do any of these."
Me: "True, it's tough when you work...but you should try if you like doing these."
Him: "Well, yeah, I guess when it comes to creativity, I tend to refrain from really getting into it because, I guess, I'm afraid of being a failure or something." 
Me: "Well, there's no..."
(I pause and think.)
Me: "Well, actually, there is...but you gotta try anyway!"

Much as I wanted to say there's no failure in creativity, my instinct told me there is. I couldn't ignore that voice in my head. But now I think about it a few hours later, and I guess there actually is no failure in creativity if that is for our own personal use. But when it is for someone to see--that's where all the bad books, bad drawing and badly taken photography come in, and I understand why my friend gets cold feet, as it is probably in our instinct to share our creativity. The fear of sharing something not good enough has stopped me many times from posting here even though I know this blog gets only a handful of readers.

The fact is, though, it's still better to share, because creativity often evolves when it's shared. Comments from my writing peers, both positive and negative, have empowered me a lot in such constructive ways. Being creative is often accompanied by wanting to be good, and to be good, you have to accept the possibility of you being "a failure" and still create the best you can. 

I'm telling this to myself as I ramble, and wishing that I had given this as my piece of advice to my friend. That would've sounded a bit better than "You gotta try anyway."

Friday, July 1, 2011

the taste of summer

I think of summer, and I think of sweet white stickiness in my mouth.

When I was little, my family would visit my mother's family in Yamagata every summer during the obon period. Obon is a week in mid-August that I liked to compare to Dia de Los Muertos when explaining to my American friends. In this week the dead are supposed to come visit us, and, though we don't commonly play music or dance, we do different things to welcome the spirits depending on where in Japan we live.

In my mother's hometown, they make "vehicles," which are horses and cows, by attaching sticks to cucumbers and eggplants as their legs, and provide a feast to welcome the spirits after the long journey back home.

I really wanted to participate in the making of vegetable animals, but because my parents both worked, our family usually arrived just in time for the visit to the graveyard. Upon arrival, we would see the cucumber horses and eggplant cows proudly lining up on the table, waiting to bring the dead people on their backs, and a pile of dango (mochi dumplings) on a huge plate.

Someone, usually my aunt, would open cans of fruit and pour them out into a big glass bowl. She then threw in the pile of dango, all of it, so the white balls would float in the sweet syrup like people in a very crowded pool on a scorching day. We all hopped into cars, my grandparents, my two aunts and uncles, my three cousins, my parents and me, all of us, and drove up to the graveyard. When we got there, my aunt would pull out white rectangular plates and, with a ladle, serve some dango and fruit in each. That was the "feast" for the dead family members, and because there were so many of them, only a little of the sweet dessert remained after filling up every plate. But my aunt always fed the remaining few dango balls to me. Or maybe not. Maybe it was shared among my cousins and me. All I remember is how I loved playing with the tender sweetness on my tongue, and how I wished I would get to eat more than three or four.

When I told my mother this is what I think of when I think about my summer memory, she said, her eyes slightly wide, "Grave dango? Is that the only thing you remember?"

Of course, that's not the only thing I remember.

I remember playing school with my cousin, who was like my big sister, eating grapes on the porch. I remember her saying, "Teacher, don't spit the seeds around, please," and both of us cracking up. I remember the bbq in the yard, a bunch of grown-ups drinking beer while we kids ran around chasing each other. I remember driving into the mountains with the uncles and meeting monkeys that came so close to our car it sort of scared me. I remember that pond in the yard where I found water striders. I remember those tiny creatures making me think I could walk on the water, too. I stepped on one of the lotus leaves that covered half of the pond and fell into the water.

That was the summer in Yamagata, but I didn't have many like that. By the time I was seven or eight, we would stop our regular visits because my parents were too busy arguing to travel together. That would distance me from my cousins so when we met again years later, we were more of polite strangers than the sibling-like pals who used to laugh and scream together. For a long time, as the memories seemingly faded, I wouldn't even realize I valued the time I had spent in that small countryside town.

But I did. I cherished and looked forward to it, because it had everything we didn't in the one-bedroom apartment in Kanagawa my parents and I lived in--the constant buzz of chattering and laughing and scolding, footsteps running around everywhere in the house, the smell of the hole-in-the-floor toilet and other kids who would find as much joy in spitting around grape seeds as me. I just never really acknowledged it, let alone saying it aloud, because a child was powerless and it wouldn't change things, and, because of that, it would make me sad to say it.

My cousin taking me to a walk on a field

After over twenty years, I still feel a bit sad when I think about the fact that the summers I loved were lost and that I didn't even consciously admit I loved them when I had them. But they were there, and I feel more lucky than sad when I think of the taste of the syrupped dango and waves of sentiment and nostalgia come over me, along with the memory of the suffocatingly hot and humid air of Japanese summer that left the skinny legs and arms of my cousins and me uncomfortably sticky.

 I wrote this to participate in the Summer Matsuri hosted by Loco at Loco in Yokohama.
Thanks a lot for the opportunity, Loco!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

sugar i love

Since a few months after I started living in San Francisco, on every Thursday, I would wait for a column to be up on one of my favorite websites, The Rumpus (in fact, I'm such a big fan that I should link to their site from here, so I just did). Now that I"m back in Japan, because of the time difference, I have to wait until Friday morning. So I try to be patient and wait for another night.

The column is written by a woman named Sugar. She is an amazing, brave, beautiful person and writer. I have dropped tears so many times reading her column, sometimes at home while putting on a make-up, other times at work behind the computer screen.

This week, she wrote to English/creative writing majors who are about to graduate. It rang with me so well not so much because I am a former English/creative writing major who was anxious about the future as because encouragement in her words felt just so appropriate for the current situation of my country where many are still left grieving with the future taken away from their hands unbearably violently and unexpectedly.

And it just happens that the people Sugar directly addressed the piece to are the ones who studied at University of Alabama, which is located in Tuscaloosa, the city severely attacked by the terrible tornado at the end of last month. I think it's a great gift. Although they may not be in the state where words are the first thing they ask for, I believe words will still help them keep standing, or collapse down and cry if that's what they need to do.
The most terrible and beautiful and interesting things happen in a life. For some of you, those things have already happened. Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.
Her words are beautiful, but I know it's not words that matter after all. It's what's behind, and hers have love, always. I'm grateful for Sugar, and I hope her words reach the ones who need them the most.

Monday, May 2, 2011

dealing with tragedy

Bin Laden is dead.

When I read the news on Twitter, I was struck by the empty feeling I always feel when I hear news of someone's death. Every time I get shocked, by the fact that someone who has been alive and breathing until just a second ago can be gone in the next. I was by no means sad, knowing what he has done, but when I began to see reactions from American people on the internet, I couldn't help but feel a wave of estrangement.Those were words of joy, excitement and celebration, none of which, to me, fit the occasion--whoever it was that died, it was an occasion of a death (or, in fact, four deaths, as the news later reported).

For all he did, he probably deserved to die. The world is most likely safer and better off without him. He was, after all, the leader of a bunch of terrorists.

But then, who ever deserves to die, really?

Two weeks after the earthquake on March 11, a boy gave a speech at his graduation ceremony at a junior-high in a town by the northern coast where so many people died from the tsunami. Tearful and clenching his teeth with sadness, he said;

"The disaster took away too many precious things from us. It was brutal. We are sad. It is really, really painful. But in this hardship, we should not resent. We should accept what happened and live on, supporting each other. I believe that's the mission for those of us who survived."

The situation is not the same. It wasn't other human beings that cast the tragedy upon us. It wasn't anybody's hatred. There would be no way of revenge even if we wanted it--how would we chase down, catch and kill nature? We never know if Japan wouldn't have wanted a revenge if it had been a human being attacking and causing this much devastation to our country, so it's not about Japan and America. It's about how we get over such devastation, the kind that keeps you up all night in fear and makes you bawl in helplessness and despair.

It's hard not to resent when you are in so much pain and sadness. It's hard not to hate when you lost things that were precious to you. But in all the brutality of what had happened, this fifteen-year-old guy refused to resent, and I find it extremely brave, because it's probably even harder. Resentment, anger, hatred, things like these can get you moving. It takes energy to give up on these and still try to move forward.

But that is the start, I believe, if we want to step ahead for the better.

So maybe we should stop rejoicing over another death, because after all what's behind the seemingly exhilarating joy is hatred, and such joy is in fact empty. This death doesn't cancel thousands and thousands that preceded. This death doesn't bring us back what we've lost.

The sad, but maybe comforting, fact is that there seems to be only a little we can do when something extremely sad falls upon us. We can just grieve and cry over whatever makes us cry writhing and fists gripping for as long as we need to, somehow leave that behind, and keep on.

That's the only way out, and we are all brave enough for that.

Monday, April 25, 2011

a young boy's voice from iwate

Today, I read heartbreaking  journal entries by Yuta Hakoishi, a twelve-year-old boy from Yamada, Iwate, a town that was severely damaged by the tsunami. Here's an English translation that I did on a whim (the original can be found here).

March 11, 2011

We were practicing a song for our graduation ceremony. A big earthquake came and shook us really hard. At first, I thought it was just an earthquake. There was a large tsunami warning, but I didn't think it was really going to happen. Even if it did, I didn't think the waves would be that high. I was totally wrong. I saw wrecked houses and buildings being swept away by water along Route 45. Mom and Dad were at my school before the tsunami. But then, Dad left in his pickup truck. I was worried about him. I prayed he wouldn't be swallowed by the tsunami.

March 18, 2011

It's been a week since the tsunami. Mom said she gave up on Dad because he hasn't been found after this long. Grandpa cried and said, "I'll build the house again and send you guys to school. Don't worry if your dad never comes back. I'll take care of you."

March 23, 2011

I graduated from Osawa Elementary. When we were singing a song, "Arigato (Thank You)," at the graduation ceremony, I was talking to Dad in my mind. "Dad, thanks to you, I finished school. Thank you, Dad." Then, somehow, my voice got shaky and I got a little teary. I had a dream that night. In the dream, Mom and Dad came home from grocery shopping at the supermarket in Miyako.

March 25, 2011

My relative got a phone call. They said Dad had been found near the fire department. We hurried there and saw him lying with his mouth open. My big sister cried so hard. Mom was speechless. My little brother was clinging to my relative. I touched Dad's face. It was colder than water.
In my head, I kept asking Dad, "Why did you leave the school?" I asked that over and over. I also told myself, "You gotta be strong." But my eyes got all teary. He still had his things on, like the titanium accessories, the charm for his feet that he had bought in Tokyo, the wedding ring and the cell phone. I was really surprised his watch was still working. It never stopped working when it was swallowed by the tsunami with my dad and even when my dad stopped breathing. It is my watch now. I will always keep it with me for the rest of my life.

March 26-27, 2011

I can't forget Dad's face. A part of me wishes I had not seen him like that. But because we found him, we can cremate his body now. I got to touch him, too. His chest was bloated. I think he swallowed a lot of water. I'm still glad we found him.

March 28, 2011

We cremated Dad's body today. My sister, Keijiro, Mom, and I all wrote letters and put them in the casket with him. When we said goodbye to him, I told him, "Don't worry about us. I'll take over your job." I got to hold his bones until we had to put them in the grave. I felt relieved when we finally buried him properly.

April 7, 2011

Today, I feel like saying thank you from the bottom of my heart. People who read the article about us sent us letters and photos of Dad from when he ran the Tokyo marathon. There were letters to my family, and to me, too. My dad is amazing. I'm really thankful today.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

a month and a day

I wanted to say something yesterday, the day that marked a month from the quake. I couldn't make it in time. But now, I'm finally writing. It's taking me a while to remember how. It is five in the morning, and, again, it doesn't look like I'm making it by the end of my day. I will start again when I get up.

A month has passed, and it's not cold anymore. Days are sunny, and flowers are blossoming.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Monday, March 21, 2011

what i learned from miyazaki

We have to create to reach out, not for our own satisfaction.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

dead and alive, living and dying

My late grandfather

Over the weekend, my mom and I visited Yamagata, where she grew up. The main purpose of the trip was to see her mom, my grandmother, in the hospital. From what we'd heard from my aunt, mom's sister, we thought grandma would be weak and groggy, probably not able to tell who we were, but when we got to her room, she smiled and grabbed my hand with strength that surprised me.

"Do you remember her?" my aunt asked, pointing at me. It'd been five years since I'd last seen grandma.
"Of course!" she said a bit indignantly. "But I didn't recognize her." She looked at me and gestured with her hand, "She was so little when I saw her last time!"

So she remembered me only as a little girl. She'd shrunken, and her hands were pale and bony. But her eyes had twinkle of a sane person, her words sharp and humorous.

For all we knew, my grandmother was dying. She is. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer two years ago, and the doctor told her family (she doesn't know) that she'd only have a few months. Since then, in our minds was always the question, How much longer will she last? When my mom and I planed this trip earlier this year, she asked my aunt, who told us visiting in February would be a bad idea because of the snow, "Will we still make it in time if we visit in March?"

Once when I was teaching English, my student and I started talking about adjectives about living and dying. As I explained the differences between dead and alive, and dying and living, a realization hit me, and I said, thrilled, "So when you're dying, you are actually living, too. Dead and alive don't happen at the same time, but dying and living do." 

That's what I saw in the white, small corner of the hospital room. Dying people are living, not dead. My grandma, though her body might be decaying little by little and she might've been the closest to death among the four of us, was still there, living.

She ate a dorayaki (which is a type of Japanese sweets) we brought as a souvenir slowly. My aunt and my mom were engaged in a conversation about their relatives. Grandma glanced up at me a few times and lifted her eyebrows in a smile, which made me feel as if I was the little girl she remembered. It was a fuzzy, happy feeling. Embarrassed by the assumption I'd made about her dying, I held grandma's left hand in my hands as she spoke with my mom, for she'd told us that the left side of her body was always cold. The talk went on, and my arms grew numb, but I kept my hands in the praying position feeling her hand, frail like a baby bird, gaining warmth, slowly, but surely.

Monday, February 28, 2011

an american day

On a cold rainy day, my friend took me to Costco.

It was my very first time to visit a Japanese Costco. Funny how a mixture of two familiars can be disorienting; all those Japanese products in a huge warehouse interior I've known from California for long.

Not everything was Japanese. In fact, it was the American products that appealed to me now that they aren't as common and boring as when I was in the States. I saw the rotisserie chicken I'd never tried though I'd always wanted to. The selection of cheese, ham and sausage was amazing. Out of habit, I almost bought the 36 rolls of Kirkland toilet paper and a huge bottle of orange juice that would last for weeks. But, in the end, I only bought a box of Campari tomatoes on a vine, which used to be my all-time favorite purchase at Costco.

My friend dropped me off two stations away from my place, so I had to take the train home. I'd never realized how much interest people have in tomatoes in this country; carrying twenty or so mid-sized tomatoes in a clear plastic box, you get serious staring (or glancing and looking away, in Japan's case).

Earlier on the phone, my mom, who had just strained her back this morning, nicely declined my offer to cook dinner and made a specific request for the food I could buy on the way home.

So I did.

Costco and McDonald's. What an American day it was!
(Well, at least, there's no teriyaki burger in the US.)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

is this finally happening?

A few days ago, we had such a nice spring day , the sunshine pouring down from the sky, the wind gushing through our hair (we call it "haru ichiban"--the first wind of the spring). I couldn't help but go out to take a stroll (in my TOMS!).

As I walked down the winding narrow street near my house, I started to feel some itch in my nose, then my eyes began to feel heavy. Soon I was sneezing, with my throat slightly sore.

I have the same symptoms with cat allergy; whenever I snuggle my cat, sneezing and coughing attack immediately. But this time, it was happening outside without my kitty, or any kitty. I went home and reported this to my mom, who uttered the much-dreaded word, kafunsho (hay fever).

It's dreaded because it's incurable. Once you get it, you suffer for years and decades. Though I've been allergic to some things, cats and dust namely, I felt lucky that my allergy didn't seem to apply to pollen. Finally, however, it may be happening.

"Maybe it's a cold," I said.
"Yeah, of course. Probably." My mom went along.

Today was another warm sunny day, and my nose itched as I walked in the street. My throat also itches, but well, maybe that started after I got home and played with the kitty. At least I'm not crying as some people with hay fever I know do...

Yes, I'm still in denial!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

needed catching up

I stayed up until five in the morning. I heard my mom in the kitchen when I got out of the shower, so I went downstairs to give her some things I bought for her yesterday. I ended up sitting on the kitchen floor while she fixed her lunchbox, with the kitty on my lap purring, happy that she had someone to give her attention, someone free of chores. There was a lot of talking to do, for my mom and I hadn't seen each other for the past three days (she was gone when I got up and I was gone when she got home). I ate the food that didn't fit in the lunchbox for breakfast.

It's eight o'clock now and I'm wondering if I should go to sleep or just stay awake for the rest of the day (and if that's possible).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

same mistake

Coffee in the evening. Regret in the early morn.


Monday, February 21, 2011


I've seen hipsters of the mission district in San Francisco wearing TOMS. Those little canvas slip-ons with cute pattern inside I saw in every store on Valencia. Never a big fan of slip-ons, I avoided buying them, until when my friend convinced me to buy a pair when we visited Whole Foods in LA before I left for Japan.

"Not that you have to buy them, but they are pretty reasonable," she said. "And really comfortable. Like, extremely."

I mean, who doesn't want a pair of extremely comfortable shoes?

I stuffed the new shoes in my backpack in case I felt like wearing them on the plane, but my Saucony sneakers were comfortable enough. The winter weather in Japan has been more suitable for boots, so my first TOMS have been sitting in the shoe cabinet for the past month.

But a sunny and relatively warm day like today is perfect to put on a brand-new pair of shoes!

My friend was right, they are extremely comfortable. They fit nicely, and they are super light. I wouldn't go on a hike in them (they are canvas slip-ons after all), but they are perfect for strolling around on a sunny, or even cloudy, day (no, they are not rainy-day shoes). And most importantly, they are cute.

What an awesome feeling to find another favorite pair of shoes! It totally adds to life's joy. My TOMS will be out more often as spring nears.

Oh, and it's also cool to know that with every pair of TOMS we buy, they give a pair to a child in need (One for One Movement) --of course, San Francisco hipsters love 'em!

Sunday, February 20, 2011


En is a Japanese word I like. The best way to translate it would be "connection by chance." Some may say it's "by fate," and the word certainly has the sense of "being meant to," but to me, "fate" is too strong a word. En is more like paths crossing, the luck of it, and the connection that stays after you go different ways.

Moving around and going through some goodbyes, I started believing more in en. You meet someone, and the connection remains after a goodbye.

So yesterday, I had a plan to meet up with my friends from college. I was just having brunch when I thought of another friend, Jodi, whom I also met in college when she was here as an exchange student. We'd known each other since then, nearly for eight or nine years, though we'd only seen each other twice after she'd gone back to Vancouver. We'd kept in touch mainly thanks to the fact she's such a good letter writer, and now, I knew, she was living in Tokyo though she'd said she was going to visit Vancouver till mid Feb.

Just on a whim, I texted her, along with my number, asking if she was back yet and saying we should hang out if she was. She called right away and said, excited, "Oh my god, I just e-mailed you like five minutes ago!"

Turned out she'd sent me an e-mail to my PC asking for my cell phone contact info literally five minutes before I sent out the text. Some synchronicity, isn't it?

We ended up meeting up in Shinjuku, shopping and walking around the city while catching up, and having dinner and drink with the college friends in our college city. I hadn't seen Jodi in four years and the other friends in almost six years, but it felt as if nothing had changed. "You haven't changed at all!" we all told each other.

There were, of course, things different from the "old days"--different make-ups, talks of career, loves lost and found--that told me we were not the college students who would drink and fool around all night, but what we'd had was still there.

It's not even about keeping in touch. You may hardly talk, or never, even (I hardly talked with my college friends while I was gone), but the fact you met and shared some time of your lives won't go away, and when luck has it so, your paths cross again, and you pick it up where you left it off.

That's en, and, I tell you, it's a great thing to believe in.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

thursday night

We went to a bar in Yokohama called The Tavern. The decor was nice. Lots of glasses, bottles, very bar-like. It was also a Ladies' night (every Thursday is) so the drinks were half off. We spoke with a friendly bartender from Spain and made a promise of visiting his country after he goes back. It was good, for my friend and I both missed speaking English. It's funny there are actually quite a many opportunities out there to speak the language in Japan if we just look, and I sometimes went for days hardly speaking English in San Francisco because I wasn't really looking for chances. Looking makes a difference.

The rain is hitting the windowpanes and I'm singing Priscilla Ahn's Rain in my head. It's a peaceful night.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

in the kitchen

My mom was peeling cabbage to make salad. I was cutting eggplant. She felt a leaf in her hands and said, "I know spring is coming when cabbage leaves are soft."

It made me happy about living in Japan, this little country with four beautiful seasons.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

longing for beer

Beer never was my favorite drink before moving to the States. Whenever I went out to an izakaya, I would order anything but beer. Cocktail, umeshu (plum sake), or something that's sweet.

But in the States, at bars where poor grad students would go out to, it could be complicated and pricey to get "something sweet" that was good. After getting cocktails that were too sweet and strong a few times, I gave in and just started ordering beer.

First, I was getting used to the taste.
I learned there were darker beers and lighter beers.
I learned I liked beers that are in the middle to the lighter side.
Then, finally, I started to be able to tell the subtler differences little by little.

I don't remember exactly when it was that I thought I liked beer. Maybe it was when I tried some German beer at Suppenkuche, a great German restaurant in San Francisco. Maybe it was around when I tried New Castle for the first time at a bar in Long Beach. It took me a few years, and I'm still a novice--I stumble due to lack of vocabulary when the bartender asks me what type of beer I like because I usually just rely on the color--but now I much prefer beer to "something sweet" oftentimes, especially with a meal.

And because I hadn't known the joy of drinking beer while I had lived in Japan, I didn't know, in my life in the States, I was being spoiled by the variety and the quality the country offers when it comes to beer. I thought it was normal for a bar to have different types of beer, at least three or four of them, on tap. Different colors, possibly from different countries.

Then I came back to Japan, and found that beer is Beer. Just one. No other choices. You go to an izakaya and order Beer. Of course, there are place that carry more than one type of beer, but they are usually all pretty similar, the light, Japanese-style beer. Don't take me wrong, I love Japanese beer, too. Sapporo is good. Kirin is nice. But when it comes to the variety, it's surprising how little it is compared to other drinks--they carry seven different types of umeshu (plum sake), ten sojus and twelve cocktails and sours!

I guess that explains why I used to prefer other drinks, often sweet, to beer before. Simply, most izakayas in Japan have much better a selection of those.

So I've been a little frustrated with the beer situation in Japan since I came back. The low-malt beer my parents drink didn't satisfy me. I went out and had some draft beer. It was good, but not enough. I missed being able to choose which beer I wanted. The tap handles.

Then, tonight, I found the perfect place.

The bar is called The Taproom, and it's located in Yokohama near the Kannai station. The place looks pretty little, though it sounds like it's actually not with the upstairs space with extra seats, and the wooden interior has such a cozy, warm feeling to it. And, oh, the tap handles! My heart shivered with joy when I saw there are about fifteen or so of them behind the counter. I tried a Belgian beer called Winter Wit and another beer brewed by Baird, the Japanese company in Shizuoka that owns the bar, both of which were really really good; and their American style BBQ was actually better than the BBQ I'd tried in California!

We started talking with the bartender, and when he found out my friend was from Denver, he told us he'd gone there for Great American Beer Festival last year and stopped by at several breweries. He couldn't remember their names when my friend asked, but he said, "I'll check when I go home and let you know next time. You're coming back, right?"

Without hesitation, we said, "Yes!"

So for now, I'm happy to say I've got The Taproom to fulfill my thirst for beer and the whole bar experience-random tipsy conversation, a tiny bathroom and paying at the counter (yes, even little things like that), and hopefully, I will find more places like this as I continue with my search.

Monday, February 14, 2011

good food cursing

"Wow, Mom, your fried chicken is good. I can't stop eating."

"God, I'm so full...Oh! These anpan (red bean bun) look so good! Can I have one?"

"Hey, there's flan in the fridge. Let's have it for desert."

"I know it's three in the morning but I'm hungry...and I don't think these rice cookies have so many calories..."

Who said Japan is a skinny country?

Saturday, February 12, 2011


My mom makes me wonder if I talk this much, too.


i miss

being on the bus listening to my iPod words of angry people and thrilled kids still coming in through the earphones; getting off at geary and fillmore, holding the door before and behind me, afraid of it closing on me; walking up post street, stopping by at new people and buying new orleans style iced coffee ("with half & half, please." "good choice!"); sitting down on a bench at peace plaza, sometimes alone looking up at the pagoda (ah that lovable over-the-top japaneseness!), other times with the people i worked with, the ones who made life easier when it wasn't.

the cold, moist surface of the wooden bench.
the fog, the sunshine, both.

Friday, February 11, 2011

it's snowing!

I haven't seen snow in four years, and this winter it's everywhere I go; Lake Tahoe, Salt Lake City, and now in my hometown.

The only snow I know is a kind one, a white blanket tucking us into her softness, soothing our minds. Quiet, quiet, it's a snow day.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

learning to ski

There are some new things I experienced while I lived in San Francisco, and skiing is one of them. Well, not precisely. I had skied before, just once, about ten years ago on a high school field trip. Though we had lessons with a professional instructor, I couldn't even learn to stop. The most vivid memory I've kept from the trip is of sliding down a hill at full speed, which probably wasn't that fast but felt so to me anyway, yelling, "HELP MEEEEEEE!!" until another instructor finally stopped me before I dove into the line of his students.

Thanks to this both terrifying and embarrassing experience, I decided skiing wasn't for me. It was a torturous activity. Not fun. I'd never tried it again since then even though my mom, who's from Yamagata, a northern part of Japan with lots of snow in winter, told me how fun it could be if I practiced a bit more.

So when my friend asked me if I wanted to join him for a snowboarding trip to Lake Tahoe, I hesitated. But there was a promise I'd made to myself when I'd moved to San Francisco; to say yes to any opportunities for new experience. So yes I said. Even if I couldn't ride well, it would be nice to see some snow anyway, and it was snowboarding, not skiing, this time. There are a lot of people who enjoy snowboarding. Maybe it's actually easier than skiing.

"Snowboarding is tough," another friend told me.
She was going to Lake Tahoe with us. It was about two weeks before the trip, and I had been getting myself ready for snowboarding, rehearsing in my mind how to keep balance, trying to build muscles needed for the activity.
"Why don't you ski instead?" she suggested. "It takes a lot of practice and time to get used to snowboarding, and we're only going for a day. I don't know if you get to enjoy it. You know--," she added, "You're not really an athletic type."
That is true. Of all the adjectives out there, no one would choose athletic to describe me, unless they are being sarcastic. But, you know, you never know until you try, right?
So I declared, "I'll be fine!"

A part of me was indignant at her doubting my capability of learning snowboarding in a day (which probably was right), but another part of me was simply traumatized, almost, by the experience in high school. I'd failed once already, no need to try again.

But my friend kept insisting on me skiing. She said she was going to ski, too. And one day, about a week before the trip, she told me a story about her friend who'd gone for a snowboarding trip with her for three days and hardly enjoyed any of it because of having such a hard time learning to ride.

At that point, I was losing my confidence about learning to ride quickly. I was, after all, not athletic at all, and the muscles hadn't developed as much as I'd wanted. It scared me to think I might end up struggling in snow for the whole day.
"Snowboarding is tough," my friend said. "That's why I think I'm gonna ski this time."
"Okay." I gave in. "Maybe I should, too."

Thank God I did.

With skis on, even getting up after a fall on the flat ground was a challenge. Struggling helplessly on the snow, I realized my friend's insistence on making me avoid snowboarding was sheerly an act of thoughtfulness. I couldn't imagine doing this having both my feet tied onto a single board. If I fell on that, I would lie and move about like a dying cicada until someone came for rescue.

Finally, I managed to learn to get up. Sort of. Then it was stopping, slowing down and turning, none of which I could do very well. My athletic friends were patient, though, and with their help and guidance, I eventually learned to keep my back straight like a statue as I sped down the hill without falling.

We went up on the lift and skied (and rode) down. Up and down. Up and down.

After a few rounds, my friend asked, "Having fun?"

I was, truly. It amazed me how something that had once seemed impossible could be not only possible but so enjoyable. It wasn't my physical ability--I was as athletic (or not athletic) in high school as I am now--but the mindset. In high school, skiing was merely a mandatory part of the school trip. I hadn't chosen to do it. With this mindset and absolutely no experience, I had no faith whatsoever in my ability to learn skiing. All I thought during the lessons was, I can't do it, I can't do it, I can't do it. 

This time, though the voice was still there, barely but surely, whispering the same thing, it wasn't my main concern. I was determined to have a good time whether I could ski or not. My friends, with their you-will-do-it-or-you-won't attitude, made me move before I could start thinking, and once my brain recognized the activity as enjoyable--wow, skiing is fun!--that was that. It was fun.

As simple as that, but it took me ten years to learn it, just as skiing--keeping your feet shoulder width apart, bending your knees, moving your weight inward and outward, all those tips I'd heard but never really practiced before.

"You'll be hurting all over tomorrow," my friends told me as we drove home after a long day, tired, lazy and peaceful. "Maybe you'll have a hard time walking."

Well, I thought. That's not such a bad price for what I've learned, is it?

After all, if you can't walk, you can ski!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

warm warm

A hot bath makes all the troubles go away.


be young, be free

Today, walking down the stairway to a train station, I saw a crowd and heard music and yelping. I peeked through the crowd, and there was a bunch of young people of different colors singing and dancing to musical numbers.

They were a group from the US called The Young Americans. I stopped to watch for a few minutes--and ended up staying for half an hour till the end of the performance. I was captured by their energy. Oh, how joyful they were, their voices, their smiles and dancing so powerful!

Joy is contagious.Though the majority of the polite Japanese audience stood still except occasional clapping and picture/video taking on their phones, there were lips curled into smiles, eyes twinkling and giggles as happy as the musical numbers the performers were singing.

And then, there was a sudden urge, to dance, to sing, to laugh and speak English, a language I've somehow been helplessly in love with. I didn't do any of them, but the sentiment was so strong it made me a little teary-eyed as I stood in the crowd, the sound of English words so familiar in my ears.

The performance ended in great applause, and slowly, people began scattering away. I started walking toward the ticket gate, too, and then it occurred to me that it was an urge to let go, to be free. The young performers dancing, enjoying every moment with hope and joy, that sense of being in the present, that's what I was longing for. In an attempt to readjust to my own culture which so far felt rather restricting, I hadn't had that feeling of freedom since I'd come back.

For a moment, I missed California terribly, but then, I decided it wasn't the matter of where. Wherever you are, you can feel whatever you want--hope, joy, you name it--and it's all up to you to create where you want to be, whether that means refusing some restrictions of your own culture if necessary to protect self or bursting into dancing and singing in the middle of a foreign train station building, hooking the busy commuters and spreading joy even just briefly.

Maybe not briefly. The train ride home was a happy one.

Thank you, Young Americans!

Monday, February 7, 2011

body, space and purpose

I've been sneezing and sniffing a lot, and don't know if it's a cold or allergy (oh my beloved kitty, I know I'm allergic to you). My skin is also suffering, and so is my stomach. I often catch myself holding breath. My shoulders are always tense, and I need to loosen up, making a conscious effort to breathe in and out deeply.

My body is trying to adjust, and I wouldn't say it's because I'm in Japan. I always go through this period of tension with an environment change. A move, a new semester, a new job. It's probably natural, to some extent at least, because after all changes come with some stress, wherever you are.

But one thing I miss being in Japan is space to stretch out. Grass fields and beaches to lie down and do nothing. Japan is so small that space has to be used efficiently, so it feels as though you always have to have a purpose when you are out. You can lie down and relax at home, but once you step out the door, walk toward your goal, no stopping, or stopping only for a purpose such as tying your shoes, buying train tickets and lighting your tobacco. 

So instead of wandering out the door with a paperback and some money for coffee in my purse as I would do in San Francisco, I spread my arms and legs on my bed and relax, and then, when I feel I've wasted enough time, I shake myself up to put on a make-up and change, getting ready for a purposeful outing.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

round and chubby

I met with a friend who I hadn't seen in 6 months.

"Oh, you've got your hair pretty short!" she said.
"But...with the sides like that, it kinda makes your face look round and chubby, doesn't it?"
"Um," I said, "I think my face is round and chubby. I gained weight."
"Right on!"

I wish I could say it was my hair, but when I came home and pulled up the hair on the sides, my face still was round and chubby in the mirror.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

reverse culture shock: "irassyaimase" at the store

Coming back from the States, I now find it odd when I go to the store and the clerks say, "Irassyaimase! (Welcome to the store!)", without looking at me. It's as if they were in a musical; when one of them says it, it's the clue. The others, each of them, say it (or sing it, almost, in this particular Japanese-store-clerk intonation) while not stopping whatever they are doing even though they haven't even seen the customer who just came in. Once I was at a store and a clerk started blurting out while putting out some stuff onto a shelf, "We offer a variety of gift ideas for Valentine's Day. Please do take a look!" It bewildered me, as it only seemed as though she was talking to the shelf. That's what she was looking at. The shelf. She didn't even glance at me for one second. But because there was nobody else around her except me, I understood she was talking to me.

The problem is that when someone talks to you without really talking to you, you don't know if or how you should respond. It was much simpler in the States. Clerks greet and talk to you, if they want to, and you know they are because they are clearly looking at you. "Hi, can I help you find anything?" they say. "Oh, no thanks. I'm just looking." Somebody talks to you. You respond. Done. Clear and easy.

But maybe it's not the case in Japan.

I go to another store and walk up to the second floor. It's deserted on a weekday afternoon, but they somehow have five clerks hovering around. They see me and say, one by one, "Irassyaimase!", and--out of habit--I respond, to each, by nodding and mumbling, "Oh, hi." Then I see their puzzled faces and realize it was, if not inappropriate, unexpected. I think of what would be most appropriate and decide most people probably just ignore the greetings, or maybe simply just acknowledge but not really respond.

This avoidance of direct interaction slightly bothers me, though I understand this is deeply rooted in our culture. There's the traditional notion of customers being superior to store clerks; thus the superior need not bother to respond to words from the inferior. But more prevailing than that here, I believe, is the Japanese tendency to avoid conflict and confrontation. Rather than directly staring into eyes and throwing messages at each other, we prefer to look sideways and mumble off, almost to ourselves, euphemistic words that imply what we want to say. This often makes it difficult to get points across, but it's also a virtue, a wisdom to cooperate peacefully in small communities in this small island country. It's about being polite and respectful. It's about keeping enough distance not to step into other people's territories before getting permission. You know, like cats looking away, trying to make peace, and, after some time, softly sitting down beside you without you noticing.

I leave and walk into the next store, and when the clerk welcomes me, I curl my lips into a smile without a word, trying to keep the balance of ignoring and acknowledging. I don't know if I managed the task of juggling those two together. I couldn't tell, for I didn't really look at her face--just a brief glance, half a second. If I failed, well, she just let it pass. After all, that's the whole point of this ambivalent communication, not to cause conflict, right?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

there's been love

I went to visit a friend to meet her 3-month old daughter. Ah, those little hands (with super little fingernails, as the Korean girl says in Juno), marshmallow cheeks, and toothless and yet sweet mouth! She wiggled, and it filled me up with warmth that tickled inside my heart. I was captured.

Babies do that. You look at them and see how precious they are and, all of a sudden, you feel an urge to hold them tight into your arms, press your cheek onto theirs and keep them away from all the bad things in the world. It's an instinct. It's love.

And whenever I fall in love with a baby, it gives me hope, because for every one of us alive, even if we feel nobody has ever loved us, there have been moments when someone fell in love with us. Those moments might not have been permanent. That someone might've been just a passerby. But there has been love. Someone saw us and felt the urge to protect us from all the bad things in the world. How could we survive our baby time, otherwise, being so helpless and fragile?

I believe this love might sustain us when we are desperate and feel there's no love, even if we don't remember.

Friday, January 28, 2011

culture shock

Visiting is one thing, living is another. I've visited Japan several times for the past years, but all that time I lived in California. When you are a visitor, you don't mind differences in lifestyle, those little "inconveniences" here and there. They only start to annoy you when you know you are going to live in the place for a little while. That happened when I moved to LA. And now, after six years, it's happening again in Japan.

I shop around and see everything neatly packaged. I see a crowd of people waiting at a red light in my small hometown even though there's absolutely no car in sight and you can cross the street in ten steps. I hear all those announcements and signs telling you what to do and how so that everything will go smoothly.

Ah, Japan. I feel a bit desperate. Though I know all this makes my country a clean, safe, nice place to live, it's also something I kind of wanted to escape from. Or maybe I feel desperate because there's this sense of responsibility that I have to follow all the rules because I'm a native and understand everything. One thing about getting culture shock in your own culture is that you don't really get to have the excitement of acquainting newness, the feeling of a fresh start, that you would get in a new environment (well, if you desired to come to the place in the first place, at least).

With your own culture, it's different. You know it all too well, and you expect it to be the same. And then it presents itself as quite unfamiliar.

I feel Japan is cheating on me.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

recycling a blog

One of my new year's resolutions was to start writing a blog, constantly. I'd just learned about some of my friends' blogs, and that inspired me to do the same. Again. The problem is I always start something like this and stop after a while, being too busy or finding writing something presentable on a regular basis quite a difficult task.

I decided to set up an account with a Japanese blog service, and then realized I had this one and that there wouldn't be any better time than now to write a blog in English. Now that I've moved back to Japan and won't be using the language as much as before. English, I'm afraid of losing it. Language is so easy to lose.

So here it is, I'm recycling a blog I started 18 months ago, around the time many of my friends went back to their countries after graduation. It's my turn now. It's my first night in Japan and my mother is smothering me with all that motherly attention we call love. As much as I appreciate and enjoy it, there's a part of me who yearns for privacy, and writing helps. It always does.

And so I try to continue even if I end up stopping again. At least my butt is on my chair and I've been thinking in English for the past fifteen minutes or so. Not a bad (re)start!