Peanutbutter Cups and Pizza

Peanutbutter Cups and Pizza

Today was a special, out-of-the-ordinary day. I was invited to road trip with a family from the church on their way to Fukuoka to go to Costco, all of places. I know it’s clearly not a traditional Japanese outing, but the woman who invited me, whose eldest daughter is two years younger than me, rightly assumed that I had been missing more American-type environments. The last time I was in the States was over six months ago at Christmas, and in that time I’ve kind of re-acclimated to life in Japan, so the trip to Costco was kind of a mish-mash of comfortable nostalgia and surreal dysphoria. I don’t intend for this to be a long post because I really just wanted to focus on one thing that hit hard about this trip back to Americana (complete with a big bag of Reese’s peanutbutter cups and a huge slice of pepperoni pizza), so I’ll just get right to it.

As I wandered the spacious aisles and chatted with the family about life in the States and in Japan, a vague inkling kept nagging at me, and at first I couldn’t put my finger on it, so I tried to ignore it, but about half-way through the trip and right in the middle of Costco, it hit me like a bullet train. I kept expecting to see my family. A small part of me was waiting to see my Mom or Dad or one of my sisters pop their head out of the aisles calling me to rejoin them. I turned to the woman who invited me, “Mina,” and told her this, and as soon as I said it, I realized another thing: that’s just not going to happen. So in the middle of this huge (especially by Japan standards) warehouse store, surrounded by crowds of unfamiliar faces both Japanese and foreign, I felt like a little, lost child and it was gut-wrenching. I immediately felt tears stinging my eyes, and “Mina”, this kind, gentle-spirited woman, quickly tried to comfort me.

The moment went as quickly as it had come, but even now when I think about it, I have fight to keep the tears back. I almost wish I could explain it way; like, maybe just blame on the fact that I’m on my period, or maybe I was just tired from getting up early, or maybe I was over-stimulated from the trip, but I think my reaction goes even deeper than all those things. It was visceral. It was bigger than just, “Oh, they’re not here right now, silly girl.” It felt more like, “Oh my god, these familiar faces, these larger-than-life, almost mythic people, who were once a huge part of my life, who were once my whole life–when was the last time I saw them face-to-face? The last time I heard their voices in real time? Felt their hands in mine? Felt their arms around my shoulders? Was it really just six months ago?” Because in that moment, it felt like a lifetime ago, and that was what caught me off-guard.

I’m sad and ashamed to realize that some of the most powerful and enduring relationships I have have been reduced to 1-2 hr video chats once every few weeks. How did that happen? Is that just what happens when someone becomes an expat? If this, indeed, is part of the package, then I’m not sure I want it anymore. It’s sobering thought, for sure, but in a way, I’m glad this happened. I’m glad to have a little more perspective, because as I’m writing this post, there is, in fact, a big possibility for change in the air. At the moment, things need to be kept under wraps, but just in case anyone forget (or didn’t know in the first place), my life is constantly in transition, and for some reason I can’t seem to stay put for very long. Keep on the look out as I am able to share more with you all, and as always thanks for reading!

Jaa ne!

Two Things

Two Things

This afternoon at church, I spent some time chatting with a young family over lunch, and as they got up to leave, the mother invited me to join them in walking over to the small festival that was happening in town. Suddenly, I had a choice to make, and if you know me at all, then you know that I am absolutely the most indecisive person on the planet- no joke. The young woman laughed, and said that I sounded just like her small boy (he’s a very genki three year old with enough energy to power a small country). She then held up up two fingers, and quoted her son, “I want to do two things,” and I laughed, but totally agreed. I could completely relate because, yes, I really did want to do two things! And that’s always been the issue for me, especially since coming to Japan. Pretty much from the moment I stepped off the plane on day one, I have found myself caught between two deep and conflicting realities. Part of me was (is) so ecstatic to be in Japan and eager to soak in the experience, but the other part was (definitely still is) terribly homesick and uneasy. I thought the uneasiness would wear off as time went on, but it’s never really faded away, and that’s been really troubling. I’ll still find myself questioning my decisions to come out here and then to stay and continue teaching for another year because I want to do two things.

I want to go back to the States and live (relatively) close to my family. I want to watch my nephew grow up. I want to spend time with aging grandparents. I want to be able to visit my friends. But, I also want to stay in Japan. I want to learn the language and experience the culture. I want to build relationships with the people I’ve met at the church that I attend. I want to travel around the country more. I’ll find myself going back and forth pretty often, and even though I’ve made the decision to stick it out another year, the truth is that I’m really struggling.

I’m struggling to make sense of how I could want two very different things so very much. Maybe this post is me asking for advice, or trying to poll for unbiased opinions? Or maybe I just want to know if anyone out there can relate? Does anybody else ever feel like they are completely stuck between two great desires? Trapped between familiarity and freedom? Caught between chaos and comfort? So often, I think, when we find ourselves in those kinds of situations, we rush to ease the tension and make a decision; we want there to be a clear right choice and wrong choice, but sometimes there really isn’t. Maybe, sometimes, we’re just supposed to live in the tension even though that, in and of itself, is uncomfortable.I don’t know, these are just my “late-night-I-really-should-be-sleeping-but-instead-I’m-having-an-existential-crisis” thoughts, and I really would love to hear you opinions, so feel free to share your experiences in the comments. Thanks for reading!

Jaa ne!

10 Songs from Animated Movies that Sound Just as Good (or Better) In Japanese

When I came back from the States after winter vacation, I told myself I would be serious about actually practicing my Japanese instead of just relying on my HRTs and JTEs who knew English to translate everything for me. I quickly realized that I still need a lot of help and still have a lot to learn, but one habit I’ve picked up is looking for and listening to catchy music in Japanese to help with fluency. I had so much fun finding these videos and singing along that I really wanted to share them with you all, so I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

1. I Like to Move It, Madagascar

2. What’s This?, Nightmare Before Christmas 

3. Friends on the Other Side, The Princess and the Frog 

4. Colors of Wind, Pocahontas (this video has the lyrics in romaji, so you should totally sing-along-I did!) 

5. I see the Light, Tangled 

6. You’ll Be in My Heart, Tarzan (this one also has romaji lyrics) 

7. When You Believe, Prince of Egypt 

8. Let it Go (Ari No Mama De), Frozen

9. I’ve a Got a Dream, Tangled 

10. For the First time in Forever, Frozen (this one is in romaji and kanji/kana)

So what do you think? Comment and let me know which songs you liked best! Plus there are a bunch more Japanese version playlists on youtube so you check those out too, and let me know if you think any other songs should’ve been on this list.

Jaa ne! (^_^)/”

Social Anxiety in Japan: A Vignette

Art by http://tetsuyayamatashi.deviantart.com/
Art by Tetsuyayamatashi

I think people will just always make me nervous, no matter how old I get or how often I do public speaking or stage performing (I was a drama/theater kid in middle and high school), it’s just a fact of my life- that’s just how I’m wired. If I’m in a crowd and everyone’s talking, or, you know, existing, it doesn’t take long for the noise to become unbearable; it’s like this intense buzzing that just gets louder and louder, and suddenly my ears start ringing and my cheeks feel warm and my arms go limp and I want to disappear into a puddle of jelly on the floor just to escape. Part of me knows I’m being unreasonable, but another part of me, the anxiety-ridden agoraphobe, says, “No, this is a completely normal way to react to being out among peoples.” Full disclosure, I think this is the same part of me that says all cars are “speeding metal death-traps”; I suspect there is an 80 year-old, crotchety shut-in living inside my brain- I’m gonna call her “Irma”. But now I’m way off topic!

This week I had a branch training meeting on Tuesday afternoon, so, that morning, I had to make the nearly three hour trek from my home in Ozu-machi all the way out to Fukuoka; I took the train, naturally (re: all cars are “speeding, metal death-traps”). I didn’t have to be in Fukuoka until about 2:30, so I was able to take a mid-morning train, and didn’t have to deal with crowded commuter trains. Traveling to Fukuoka was a breeze; I changed trains in the right stations, was able to find a seat each time, and the scenery was lovely. I always feel like I lucked with my placement in Kyushu since I get to be out in the rural part of Japan with lots of mountains, woodsy locals, open fields, and picturesque farm lands; even in the winter things are pretty green and still growing- last week one of my JTEs said he and his wife when strawberry picking! All that to say, I was very much at ease during my journey.

Photo Cred: Utsunomiya Terunobu
Photo Cred: Utsunomiya Terunobu

For a bit of context, another advantage (at least in my experience) to living in the country, is that not many people speak English- admittedly, this is also sometimes a disadvantage since my Japanese is non-existent. That being said, as a foreigner, I almost never get approached by strangers when I’m out in public. I’ve heard and read about foreigners who live in bigger cities like Tokyo, who sometimes get bombarded by eager, younger, Japanese people wanting to practice their English on them (the foreigner), and, honestly, that sounds nerve-wrecking. Here in Ozu-machi and where I teach in Takamori-machi (which is very rural), I am mostly unbothered when I’m out and about. I say “mostly” because when I do light shopping in Takamori, I’ll occasionally run into one of my shougakkou (elementary school) students, but they’re usually happy with a quick, “Hello! How are you? Okay, goodbye! See you!” And that’s that: no awkward, drawn-out conversation in broken English/Japanese; no uncomfortable, stop-start, back-and-forth talking; it’s just cute, simple greetings in under 2 minutes, and then I get to go on about my shopping in peace and quiet. That, I like.

Okay, back to my Tuesday outing: once I got to Fukuoka, my stress levels spiked. The building in which our training was being held was right next to the station, so finding it wasn’t a problem,  but I had some time to kill before I needed to be in place, so I went into a nearby Starbucks (yeah, it’s everywhere, and the Japanese actually really love it). Stepping into that Starbucks was jarring; suddenly gaijin (foreigners, i.e. other ALTs from the company) were all around me, and I could hear English being spoken rapidly and fluently, and even though I had been back in the States only a couple weeks ago, it was still so discomfiting. I tried to not make eye contact and hold on to the last few moments of my solitude and anonymity, as I ordered a tall Chocolate Orange Frappuccino (do they have those in States? I hadn’t tried them before I left for winter vacation, so I didn’t think to check. Anyway, they’re delicious).

Once I was seated with drink (and iPhone- hello social buffer) in hand, I tried desperately to zone out the din, but by then my anxiety was already climbing. I remembered that the whole reason I was even in Fukuoka was to talk to these people, to “mingle” and “catch up”, to “brainstorm” and “share ideas”, and then I gave myself a headache thinking about it, well, I should say, I made my headache worse because, believe me, my head was already pounding from the noise and the people and the English. Oy. Even with all this anxiety though, I was able to go to the meeting and come out of it without a scratch. I guess the reason I say all this is to remind myself, and anyone else out there who also struggles with anxiety, that nothing is impossible. Don’t be afraid to do things at your own pace, but most importantly, don’t be afraid to do things period.

Sweet Trip

Sorry, it’s been a while! December was a bit of a whirlwind at work with a conference at a nearby school, demonstration lessons, and (of course) Christmas-themed lessons; I ended up leaving Kyushu on Christmas Day to visit my family back in Texas. It was a nice, if not short, trip, and it was good to see my family again. But now, I’m back and more determined than ever to make the best of this experience. Last weekend, I made a trip to Hikari-no-mori, a nearby town, to do some shopping and finally watch the movie Baymax (Big Hero 6); not exactly a particularly Japanese-y outing, but the movie was dubbed over with Japanese voice actors. And because my birthday was the following Monday, I bought myself some bath bombs from LUSH (yes, they have LUSH here- I was so excited about this!), a cool backpack, and a cute pencil case (pouch?). Check out my swag below!

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Anywho, for this weekend’s excursion, I decided I try to visit a shrine and the popular department store Desaki in nearby Kikuyo. Those who know me, know that I absolutely hate driving, so I find it a little ironic that I ended up in a rural placement where I have to commute (by car) for an hour through winding mountain roads on the opposite side of the road than I was previously accustomed. Nonetheless, today I opted to drive instead of taking the train since it was such a short distance.

The ‘shrine’ wasn’t really what I expected. To be fair, I didn’t really know what to expect since my knowledge of shrines is very limited; to prepare, I read before a short article on temple/shrine etiquette before heading out to try to find my first shrine. Long story short, I didn’t actually find it…I found this building instead.

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I’m still not really sure what this is, but I think next time I decide to go looking for a shrine here in Japan, I’m going to try to go with someone who actually knows what to look for. Oh well, you live and learn, right?

Anyways, Desaki did not disappoint. I’ve been to this store once before, with a lovely English woman who I met at a conference I went to in Aso-Nishi, but coming here alone was slightly different experience. Not better or worse, just different. What I did enjoy was getting to linger in the clothing section; for some reason, I love fabric with rich textures- wool, cotton, velvet, corduroy, flannel- you name it, I adore it. Ever since I was a kid, I have always loved running my hand through clothing racks in department stores, and the clothing section of Desaki was like my personal trip back to childhood. Plus, the clothes were all so pretty and of amazing quality.

Next, I headed to the craft department, and, let me tell you, Desaki is a scrapbooker’s paradise. Endless arrays of decorative masking tapes, rubber stamps, and beautiful paper crafts lined the aisles; I wanted everything! Although if I’m being honest, I wanted everything from every section- clothing, crafts, kitchenware! It was all so gorgeous and, again, very high quality, but I decided to show some restraint, and came of there with only a cute, small tea cup and this super sweet umbrella.

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All in all, this weekend was truly a success. But maybe next weekend, I’ll do something that won’t make me want to empty my wallet. Lucky for me, Aso has some great hiking trails, so I will be sure to check those out, so long as the ash isn’t too troublesome. Oh yeah, did I mention that my town is located near the base of an active volcano that has been spewing smoke and ash for the better part of two months now? I hadn’t? Well, it is. It’s pretty cool actually, as long as you don’t get too close.

Well, jaa ne! (That roughly means, “see you later!”)

Onigiri & Ugly Sweaters

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These are two things that have nothing in common. Onigiri is a Japanese staple food: a rice ball that is often filled with a variety of foods, sometimes fish, vegetables, and/or other meats; it can be wrapped in seaweed or not. The rice may be plain or mixed with fish, veggies and/or-you guessed it!- other meats. It’s most often eaten at lunch, or (depending on the filling) at breakfast as well, although that’s less common. Ugly sweaters are an American Christmas staple item. You can find them in thrift stores, second-hand shops, and now even major department stores are getting in on this ironically cool trend. Some people (like various members of my family) will even take a reasonably nice sweater and ‘ugly it up’ by adding faux greenery, gaudy Christmas lights, tree ornaments, and those cute mini Christmas present things.

The other day, I had the opportunity to try my hand at making onigiri at one of my schools; it’s a bit trickier than you’d think, or maybe I’m just inept. The smaller of my junior high schools Takamori *East*, had a special school lunch last Wednesday; all the teachers, students, and even moms from the community got together to cook a big meal at the school. One of the dishes was- you guessed it- not onigiri; actually, it was inari sushi, a fried tofu pouch filled with rice, the leftover rice was used to make onigiri! Anyways at school, in front of the moms and two of my third year students, my onigiri skills were pitiful; when I couldn’t get the hang of perfectly cupping the rice mound in my palm to get a triangular shape, my students suggested I tried forming them into simple balls- that was also not working because my hands were drying out and the rice is very sticky! The trick is moisten your hands with water before every dip into the rice, and I would sometimes forget to do that, so I kept getting clusters of rice stuck to my hands and fingers.

After several failed attempts, it was clear that I was not going to get the hang of onigiri right then in that moment; in fact, I had barely been able to make two severely misshapen blobs before the rest of the women and girls had expertly packed every last grain of rice into neat little triangle shaped mounds. But, all in all, it was such a fun day. I chatted with my students and the other teachers in broken, slightly awkward Japanese (on my part), and simple, sometimes broken English (on their part). We all worked together like a big family, and I felt lucky to be a part of it.

Later that day, I stayed up late to perfect my onigiri skills, and the products of that labor were pictured above.

Earlier this week, in my other, much larger junior high school, I got to share with the students my Mexican-American heritage by showing them how I celebrated Christmas with my family. One tradition that my family and I have really come to enjoy is our annual “Ugly Christmas Sweater Party”. The students got a kick out of the pictures I showed them of my family’s party sweaters from the past couple years, and got a chance to make their own. I put them in groups of four and gave a sweater template printout to each group. As I wandered around the classroom to inspect their progress, I watched as my second year students collectively worked on their sweaters by passing the sheet around so that everyone in the group got to draw or color something. That was real teamwork, and I couldn’t help but think that that was definitely not how group projects went when I was in school back in the States. With my first years (ickle firsties!- you get bonus points if you get the reference), however, it was a different story! A few groups did the same kind of division of labor, but a few others had one student (usually a girl), who ended up doing most if not all the work, and she also turned out to be the better artist. It was hard to tell just how this happened or what dynamics may have been at play, so, as a former psychology major, I couldn’t help wonder about it for the rest of the day. But, rather than bore you with my theories as to what was going on, I’m just going to show you pictures of some of their work.

In my second year class, it was clear that the sweaters weren’t supposed to be cute or fashionable, so there were some real funny looking ones, and I’ve pictured my favourite. I liked it because the students had the creative idea to draw Santa as a blobfish, which (according to this article) was once voted ugliest animal.

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In my first year class, the students and teacher all thought the sweaters were actually kind of cool-looking (I guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder), so they went the more fashionable route and created some really cute and classy sweaters.

This first one was done by a group that shared the workload equally the way that my second year students did.

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This sweater was mostly done by one particularly talented girl out of a group of four students. It’s definitely impressive, and so kawaii!

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It’s exactly these kinds of cultural exchanges and experiences that I hoped to have when I decided to come out here. So that’s all that I have to share for now. I hope you enjoyed the stories and pictures.