Cool Kitakami!

Hey! Here’s the promotion video I participated in recently for Iwate Prefecture and the International Linear Collider. Man! I can’t watch myself, and looking at the view count, neither can anyone else! Haha, I kid, I kid. Glad I got a chance to take part in showcasing some of my favorite parts of Iwate. Take a look at the other videos below:

Life in Iwate

The Future

The ILC

baby blue, pikachu

babybluepikachu

Just pretend I’m wearing a dress with a Pikachu pattern on it.

Spring! I can feel it in my bones. I went for a run tonight and the wind had a warmth, had a body to it. Mount Iwate may still be capped with snow, but the buds of the sakura only need a few weeks more until they greet the sun.

The prefectural office is full of people who are starting their new lives, so it certainly is the season of change. But for me, the end of summer still marks the start of a new “year,” just because that’s when school always started…way back when. (Ugh. Next year is my 10 year high school reunion, effff) The only thing I really need to change at the moment is … my phone, my camera, my computer. Unfortunately, I can’t do any of that until I secure my next form of employment (and make a down payment on a wedding. and make a deposit on an apartment. and buy a new suit, etc)… Well, whatevs. I’m still feeling pretty buoyant by all these people changing around me!

Just gotta watch out for gogatsu-byo~

(JPN lesson: gogatsu-byo (五月病);depression in the month of May, because you just spent the last month uprooting yourself to a new job or school and are just now coming down from the adrenaline high)

moving on up

jinjiidothelast

After four years in the same office at work, the NPO, Culture, and International Relations Division has moved three floors up, and folded into another division to become the: Office of Young People, Women, NPO, Culture, and International Relations (I think. I forget the English name we came up with, we should have just called it Office of Miscellaneous Stuff). This “office” is just a small space set aside in an even larger office, which I forget the name of. So! After four years in a cozy little office with my desk in front of a choice window, I’m now surrounded with fifty people and my chair is in a constant war with the back of the secretary’s chair.

Well, I knew I had to experience a true Japanese working environment at some point!

A ton of people in my division are transferring out too, including my two big bosses,the Chinese CIR, and my darling lady supervisor. Ugh! Personnel transfer always sucks, no exception. I will never get used to people moving in and out every April 1st! Yes, usually the new people are pretty chill, and we all become friends eventually, but it’s just this moment of dread I face every year. Who out of all my friends are leaving? Who am I going to miss the most? Who the heck am I going to eat lunch with?

Nothing will compare to the transfer three years ago, when Junya and friends left, and to be honest, there was no one that really ever took their place (or X’s or R’s either, when they left the following year). I still miss them, so badly, if I let myself think about it. But other things changed. You need change, or you can’t grow. Nothing really changed at all for me in 2013, except for having an exceptionally busy August. Everything else (relationship, work, living environment) remained unchanged from 2012 (which was admittedly the Year of Amanda). And I think I suffered from that. I withdrew a bit. Frankly, I withdrew a lot, mostly into my relationship, and into knitting, I guess.  I don’t regret staying a last year as a CIR, but I think I stagnated. No, I know I did.

The thing is, in four months, I will be the one who is leaving. Which is also strange, and weird, and frightening, and…exciting. But mostly stressful. Think about it: In a year’s time I will have ① changed jobs (hopefully lol) ② moved to a new apartment ③ gotten married, hello!!! While these are all pretty awesome things that I am looking forward to, I know myself enough to know that I get weird during these times of change. When I first came to Iwate, I don’t think I like, spoke to anyone at work for two months – and this was a job I had dreamed of for YEARS. This was a place I wanted to be. And yet I still felt so strange and out of place. Don’t even get me started on my personal life at the time. SO I expect there to be growing pains.

But I am so ready for this. In all told, I will have spent five years as the CIR of Iwate Prefecture, five years living in a cozy apartment a hop, skip, and jump away from the main street, five years growing and changing and finding out what it is in this life that might make me happy. Still not sure about all that stuff, but who is? Here’s to the last four months before the next transitional phase in my life – let’s make the best of them!

the black wave, the time that passes

Photo Credit: AP and JapanTimes

Photo Credit: AP and JapanTimes

A strong breeze pushed against us as we stood in an abandoned, empty lot. The August sun baked the sand at our feet; the ground cracked and sprinkled with weeds. We stood near the shadow of a large, empty hotel, one that had been submerged under water only a couple years earlier. The lower floors were gutted; no walls left to cover pipes that jutted out violently, corroded by time and salty air. The top floors remained intact as a observation deck of the ocean, not one hundred meters ahead. The water was a dark, calm blue, and the coast zigged in and out like misshapen fingers, reaching for land.

We were waiting for a large group of American and Japanese university students who were touring Iwate as part of a prestigious conference. As a CIR, I spent the week accompanying them to various spots in Iwate: an industrial farm, a speech and reception with the governor, an economic workshop in Morioka. But we all knew the reason that Iwate had been selected as a stop on their trip in the first place. The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. The affected areas. The reconstruction. The people of the coast were there to show them the destruction, so that the students could report back to the world what they had seen.

My coworkers and I arrived early, and we exchanged greetings with the members of the local hosting organization. They held tours for people interested in seeing the damage, because they were confident that telling their story would help others remember the pain and tragedy in Tohoku. It’s now three years since the devastation happened. Three years is a long time, maybe too long for the world to remember. But three years is even longer if you’re living it. “This is what we can do,” said one woman. “This is perhaps the only thing we can do.”

It’s hard to ignore the frustration the people feel with their government, with the reconstruction. The world is filled with good people with good intentions, but good intentions do not build new homes and new towns. Japanese bureaucracy and its close ties with the construction industry has led to the area being cleaned up at a relatively quick pace, but empty lots and barren fields are not any easier for people to accept. It’s easy to build buildings and pour concrete. It’s so much harder to reclaim what had been but can never be again.

The higher you go up the scale, the harder you have to work to remember the scale of the disaster. Local city halls and offices are at work tirelessly, in temporary structures with inadequate heating. The prefectural office, filled with people doing the best they can hundreds of kilometers from the coast, moves slower. And the national government, perhaps the structure with the most power over anything, is now busy with dreams of the Olympics and squabbling with its next-door neighbors. “What about us?” ask the people of Sanriku. “You said you wouldn’t forget about us.”

It is, perhaps, the natural way of things. But for the first time, the people aren’t content to just say, “しょうがない (it cannot be helped).”  If the top can’t help them, then they will just have to help themselves.

That day, we brought around sixty students to the top floor of that hotel to watch a video of day of the tsunami. The president of the hotel had taken shelter on that very same top floor, and watched with despair as the the black wave poured over the sea wall and crushed everything on the ground. The ocean reached out and swallowed homes, businesses, people. And he filmed it all, not even knowing if he would survive himself. He filmed it all, the crash of the waves blocking out the sounds of everything else.

It was something I had seen so many times before. Yet, as the guide talked about the events of that day, I found myself fighting back sobs. How many times have I had to translate the horrific happenings of this day? How many times have these people had to recount their memories of a day that they wished never happened? “Get to higher ground!” the man shouted in the video, to people who would never be able to hear him. “The wave is coming!”

“The people had nowhere to escape,” said the guide. “We must tell our stories so that something like this can never happen again.”

At the heart of it, that is the greatest gift the survivors could ever give us. To experience such a frightening day, to lose all they held dear, to have to keep living every day when it seems there is nothing left to live for…and then they open their arms to us, and tell us their stories. So that the same thing will not happen to us.

But life goes on, and life repeats itself. And the ocean reaches back out to us, the giver of all things and the taker of all things, the beginning and the end, cool and calm and deep and terrible.

something, nothing, and everything

engagement02

The night after I had gotten back from the states, Satoru came over for a few hours. I met him after work at a coffee shop and he took me to get groceries and other related knick-knacks as I faced the prospect of unpacking my luggage. He seemed to be acting a little strange, but I figured it was just because I had already seen him yesterday, spent the night at his house, and seen him in the morning as he dropped me off for work. Too much Amanda for one day! I figured he could just help me warm up my apartment before he went home to relax. The room was like 4 degrees after being vacant for two weeks – another warm body could do wonders.

We sat and chatted for an hour or two, our coats and jackets still on, huddled in front of the heater. He seemed about ready to go when he asked suddenly, “Oh yeah, so what’s your New Year’s Resolution?”

“Oh yeah, you wanted to share them when I got back,” I smiled.

“I’ll tell you mine,” he said shyly. He got out his phone and looked at a list, and then put the phone down. Biting his lip, he looked up at me.

“My New Year’s Resolution for this year is…to marry you.”

I grinned at him. I knew about as much – it was something we had talked about, many times. So many times. That’s where we were headed. That’s where I was ready for us to be headed. So I was going to ready whenever he was going to ask me.

But he looked confused. “So will you marry me?”

Oh. Oh. Oh!!!!

“Of course!” I breathed, my mouth moving before my brain had even comprehended the words. I lunged at him with a tight hug. “Yes, yes, yes!”

I don’t think he had planned for it to be that night, or even that moment. I don’t think he even knew that those words would be coming out of his mouth until he said them. Which is so perfect. Which is so him.

So us.

I was alone for a while in Iwate, and I always wondered if I’d ever feel real love, or if it was just an illusion that didn’t exist. But when it finally happened, it was so true and real and gentle and powerful that I couldn’t even remember how to doubt it. It just felt right. And I’ve never really had any other words to describe it. I’ve only rarely written about him and us, and that’s because words only dilute what we have between each other. I don’t know what our marriage will be like – heck, I have no idea for what a wedding would look like – or what we will be in 5 years, or 10 years, or 50 years. I’m scared of the irreversible, the forever, the erosion of passion that will come with the passing of time. But I’m more excited about the happiness, the realness, the messiness, the love. So we’ll take the leap.

There was never any doubt that we would.

engagement01

just thinking about it makes my nose tingle

Photo: rkxrk.jp

Photo: rkxrk.jp

I’ve been into wasabi lately. Actually, I’m into all spicy dishes, and I can tell my tolerance level is growing (though I do realize that wasabi and capsacin are different kinds of spicy). Wasabi is great because it really kicks you in the nose, but the pain goes away quite quickly. If you get too much on your piece of shrimp sushi, you’re going to have to hold your nose for a few seconds, but once it’s gone, it’s gone. In comparison, I went to a South American restaurant and had a spoonful of a really spicy vegetable mix that lingered for about an hour. Yet I’ve been the person who gets the secret maguro roll that’s actually filled with wasabi (it’s a drinking game), and I was fine after I swallowed it all down.

Basically, I’ve reached my later twenties and need a cure for hangover – wasabi, my new friend!

Iwate actually produces a lot of wasabi though I must confess I’ve never bought the root and grated it myself (buying it pre-grated in a tube is more my style). It’s all down in Tono, the land of traditional Iwate folklore and kappa demons and the like. They even have wasabi-flavored soft serve. Well, pretty much all places with a special local product will serve ice cream of the same flavor (which leads to sea urchin and squid ink ice cream and other unfortunate decisions). Soy sauce ice cream in Akita is pretty good too, I must confess.

kitakami living

ilc

Photo Credit: LC Newsline

Hey! There I am! It’s a picture of me the latest edition of the LC Newsline, the online newsletter for all things International Linear Collider. For those who didn’t read my last gushing entry about it: it’s a huge particle physics collider (like CERN-level science folks) that may be built in the Kitakami mountain range of Iwate. So I occasionally get to do work associated with it – mainly translating pamphlets and interpreting for scientists visiting the area. I should really write more about it, considering it’s my absolute favorite part of my job right now. I’m not a physicist or an astronomer or even a rocket scientist, but if I can have just a little bit of a hand in this project, I’ll be one happy clam.

Check out this prefectural link for an overview of the project. Well, I pretty much wrote it so consider it another blog post (of which I know make very few)

Also, hello again. Perhaps I’ll only be updating once a month like last year? Ugh, sorry. Work’s been busy, but really it’s just a combination of writer’s block and a lot of free time spent preparing for the job hunt (writing resumes, reading LOTS of job hunting books, reviewing interview strategies, and what not). The job hunt? Well, it’s going okay. There are a few prospects that I’m looking into right now, and one dream job that may or may not be opening up for me. But I can’t really talk about that, plus none of it is definite so I have to keep looking as if I have no options. I’m cautiously optimistic about getting a nice job in Iwate, for now.

And the writer’s block? That’s been happening for the past two years, honestly. And since “writer” is not actually something I consider my “identity,” I’ve just had no impetus to change that. It’s a weird thing, writing a blog for 7 years and not considering yourself a “writer.” But we humans are weird things! I read a nice essay on Medium by Emily Gould where she gave up the internet for a while – “It was miraculous, I wanted to shout into the wind, how much space opened up in your brain when you stopped filling it with a steady stream of other people’s thoughts!” Maybe I should stop reading so many blogs and watching Game Grumps, and actually experience more things in my life, and then I’d actually have stuff to write about.

By the way, the last entry: It’s so strange, because two months out I feel completely myself and fulfilled by living in Japan. This is the right choice, I feel it with every inch of my body. I guess I’m just going to have to deal with my weird feelings about being home when I go home – but now I know that it’s all really on me, so I have the power to fix it. I’m sure I’ll have a lot of uncomfortable feelings this year as it will certainly be a “transition” year for me, so uh. This blog has always been helpful for my emo baggage, so here’s hoping I post just a little bit more!

one place or the other

oneside04

I felt like I was in limbo.

“Where are you from?”

“What are you doing here?”

“Your Japanese is great!”

Five years of doing something, and now I was yearning for the next step. I’ve been yearning for the next step for… quite some time. It feels like I’m the sidewalk underneath layers of ice and snow, waiting for the sun to melt it all away. Little things crack away at me, like I suddenly can’t deal with what’s been my reality for years. I’m faced with a constant wavering between being burnt out and being terrified of change.

It’s charming, being a human.

My relationship? That part was amazing. It was smiles and giggles and honesty and warm arms and talks of the future and real, scary, intense intimacy that shook me down and left me breathless. This was real. This was it. He was the brightest beacon in my entire life. When I was with him, I wasn’t the foreigner. I was Amanda.

It was with everyone else that I felt like a specimen to be examined.

Not true. Not fair. I have many friends who treat me like me. But many of those friends are in Tokyo, or in China, or on the coast, or in America, or just busy in their own lives, which they have every right to be. And I’ve been too busy too – but I’m down to just a few people readily available who are accessible to my true self. I felt like that peach I was talking about: sweet and friendly to everyone, feeling like no one was seeing the shriveled-up core.

Take a bite, I dared every passer by. At some point that I couldn’t remember, I had built a wall to keep new connections from forming. Maybe it was when I met Satoru, because I wanted to concentrate on him, and us. Or maybe it was when X left, and R left, and I-san left. Or maybe it was even when all those boys headed off to the coast. All I know is I forged all of these deep connections my first year here and I don’t remember how I did it anymore.

There’s just so few people who can understand.

I wanted more fervently to go home for a break than I had in my entire life.

***

oneside01

I arrived in New Jersey on the 20th, my mother, my sister, and my grandmother waiting to pick me up. My grandmother, short and almost hunched over, gave me a tight hug. Her face was rosy, and her eyes were bright. Lively. I breathed a sigh of relief. She seemed so much better than when I saw her last – and she was living at home now, so my visit wouldn’t have to be punctuated my long drives to a senior living facility. Once we got home and ate some pizza, my sister and her boyfriend left for their shared apartment, and Mom and I were getting ready for bed.

I budged open the back door to let my old, lumbering dog out, something I have done so many times in my life that I can time it down to the minute. The screech of the old sliding door felt like home. Sleepily I stood in the frame to watch her limp down the steps of the deck. Suddenly, I saw a flash of red light on the roads through the trees, and heard some blaring sirens in the distance. My mother and I both looked at each other, knowing what it meant.

“Santa Claus! It’s Santa Claus!”

No, it’s not some weird Jersey thing; it’s not even a South Jersey-wide thing, as far as I can tell, to welcome Santa Claus five days early on a fire truck. It’s just a special tradition our local municipality gifts us with. Every year, a few days before Christmas, the local fire department dresses a member up as Santa Claus and they drive through every development and neighborhood, sounding off their sirens. I remember when we first moved to the area twenty years ago, and being a first grader, and running outside to see Santa Claus blast past my house.

“Is that really him?” I gasped.

“That’s just his helper,” said Mom.

For a while, we would run outside to jump up and down, waving at the man who played Santa Claus. But then we stopped believing in Santa Claus. The fire department would only come by on a random night, usually when we weren’t home. It became a legend of sorts, in our family: if you’re lucky, you might catch Santa Claus visiting your house on a fire truck.

When we got Lucy, we discovered that she liked Santa Claus a heckova whole lot. In the December of the first year we had her, we were lucky to be home the night that Santa Claus drove by, and as soon as she heard the wail of the sirens she howled like a maniac, waving her tail happily. The blasting sirens seemed to filled her with a joy she couldn’t deal with but to yell it outwards, towards the sky. The dog had never howled before, and never would again.

It had been years since I had seen him – always being at college or in Japan when the truck had rolled by. But now, home for the holidays, there he was. WhooooOOOoooo. There he was! Mom and I grabbed our shoes and our coats and ran outside, Lucy trailing behind us. We stood outside of our house, pricking our ears up for the truck.

“Did he go in the neighborhood yet?” Mom asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

We waited for a while, walking to the end of the block, but he didn’t seem to be coming. Maybe he was hitting our neighborhood tomorrow. Shrugging, we made our way back inside, when the sirens sounded closer. There he was, making his way to us from the other side of the street. Santa Claus!

The truck rambled by, its sirens on full blare, reverberating throughout my body, making it feel alive with vibration. The man dressed as Santa Claus waved to us, and we two grown women, jumped up and down, screaming and waving back. Red and yellow and white lights flickered on and off, illuminating the street and our old, grey-paned house. I felt like I was being lifted off of the street.

There it was, and there it goes. I started to sob, but no one could hear me.

I chased after the truck until it turned the corner, and then I walked slowly back to my mother, wiping my eyes discreetly. ”Lucy, it was Santa Claus,” I said. She didn’t look up, sniffing the grass in the distance, shuffling from one spot to the other.

We still believed, but the dog had outgrown Santa Claus after all.

***

oneside02

I had vowed this time to set in stone all of my plans with friends way in advance, so I didn’t spend my time at home feeling bad that I didn’t get a chance to see such-and-such or so-and-so. Once I go to America I seem to fall into a jetlag-induced lethargy, so I knew I had to do the majority of the planning while still in Japan. So I emailed people, Facebooked them, let them know I’d be around, and please let me know when you’ll be around too? I even finalized a trip to NYC to visit with E, which lay at the end of my trip like the last Lucky Charm in a glorious bowl of cereal.

That’s it. I’m set this year.

But I found a pervasive sense of anxiety descent upon me from the very first night I arrived. I hadn’t done something, surely. I had forgotten someone. But I checked my Facebook again, and then again. No, I hadn’t really. I was going to see everyone, if only for a few hours. I was even going to see my dad. There was nothing to worry about.

But I did. It just…felt like I was missing something. It felt like something was wrong.

Looking over those Facebook profiles of the people who shaped me and supported me during my high school and college years, I thought back on all of those days. About how glorious it is when we catch up on each other’s lives. It’s like trying on a beloved sweater you forgot about in the back of a closet. It just fits. It’s just right.

I was happy to see just how happy they were. Awesome relationships, thrilling jobs, exhilarating life adventures. I had those things as well. We all had things we were still working on, but for the most part, all of us had turned out to be pretty cool people in our own ways.

But…I had missed all that, hadn’t I? I was only just seeing some of this stuff now. I don’t check enough, I admonished myself, staring at the computer in the dark. I don’t do enough.

I’m missing out. I made my choice, and I’ve got a full, happy, settled life. But having a full life on one side of the world doesn’t mean I’m not  missing out on the other side.

I chose to try to belong somewhere else, and with every passing year, I belong here less and less. Is this what it means to be “bicultural”? To stop belonging to your place of origin, knowing you will never quite belong in your adopted home? To only belong with a very small, special subset of people?

When I saw E in New York City, one of only very few people with the same amount of experience in both America and Japan, one of only a very few people who knows what I’m talking about, I hugged her like I was drowning. And it wasn’t just because there were polar vortex-like conditions freezing us through our winter coats.

***

oneside03

Last year I wrote about how I “never” have fights when I come home for Christmas, and how that sort of bothered me. Well, of course I spoke too soon, because I began bickering with my sister almost immediately after I arrived home. I actually lied last year, because I can’t seem to last a whole trip without screaming at her. I remember worrying that there’s some sort of disconnect between my family and I causing the lack of conflict, which is a laugh. With my sister, all of our fighting is caused by that fundamental disconnect of our personalities. We are just two different people who react in opposite ways to almost everything.

I always go back vowing, “I don’t want to fight with her. What could we have to fight about? It’s always about something stupid, so this year just be the adult you know you are, and drop it.” But I just can’t. There’s something inside of me that she just sets off on a molecular level. It’s not like she’s purposely provoking me, either! We can be totally fine and then she’ll act like I’m the most selfish person in the world for wanting a bite of her meal at a restaurant. “You always do this! Why can’t you just order your own?!” “I just want a stupid little bite; what’s so wrong with that!” So we fight about fucking cakes.  Let’s not even mention the Parfait Incident of 2011.

I don’t want to fight. I want to just be with her without being my worst self. I want a relationship that I just will never have with her. And I’m sure she feels the same, so why can’t we just.. get it together?

But then, how can I ask that when I only see her once a year? How can I ask that when I’ve left her to be the one to visit home once a week, to take Grandma out for lunch, to figure out where our dad will stay when he comes up to visit? I want her to look up to me as a “big sis” when really it’s her that’s doing the stuff that I should be doing. It’s always been that way.

This all culminated in a fight I picked with her while we were out and about when my father was visiting. She was mad that she had to give up her precious vacation time to schlep us around, I was mad that she wasn’t making any effort to act like she loved us or was happy to see us. To her, we were selfish and imposing. To me, she was cold and unfeeling. We were family right? This is what family does, right?

“Why are you making your boyfriend plan all this stuff?” I said.

“Why do I have to do all the work?” she snapped.

“Because he’s your fucking father!” I screamed.

Yep, I screamed obscenities in a Hard Rock Cafe at my sister. I’m a regular ol’ suburban stereotype . And I knew the moment I said it how ridiculous I was – uh, hello? He is also my father? How could I be such a bitch? My dad wasn’t even upset, so why should I take it upon myself to be so self-righteous? This is not what I wanted to say. This was not how I wanted to act.

What I really wanted to say : “Sure, you just saw him a month ago. But what about me? Why can’t you show any enthusiasm for seeing me?”

But…as always, I only have the courage to say these things after the fact.

“You and your mother are really similar,” said my stepfather, “in that you overreact to stuff like that.”

“I’m not like this when I’m in Japan,” I huffed.

It’s true. I don’t get upset like I do here, I don’t get crazy, I don’t feel like screaming my head off (except when a pokey obasan blocks me from getting my choice of milk). I feel like a mature, rational, happy person in Japan, and in America I just don’t. I feel anxious and detached and superior and weird. I feel like I’ve gone back to the reactive, radioactive, unformed me that I left behind. I leaf through old sketchbooks and I feel like that again. And I was a horrible mess of a person in high school. I’ve grown up.

But we all revert back, don’t we? We all go home, in more ways that one.

“I hate when people bring up stuff that happened in high school,” I said to my dad. We were walking around the small town my sister lived in, exploring the shops in the cold December air. “It’s like, that was ten years ago. What do you want me to do?”

“People do that to me too,” he said. “My mom especially. She’ll bring up something I did like fifteen years ago. Mom, I’ve mellowed out. I’m sorry for whatever I did, but I’m not that person anymore.”

What he said rang so true to me. I mean, hell, I’ve been guilty of doing the same thing to him. But we’re not around each other, and he doesn’t live anywhere near his family either. How can our families know we’ve changed unless they’re there to see it?

All they have to go off of is the person we were the last time we saw them. All they have to go off of is the selfish 17-year-old that hated herself so much that she took it out on everyone else.

Well. That’s what 17-year-olds do, after all. But every time I think I’ve said goodbye to her, she’s waiting for me in my old childhood room, her sketches in an old yellowing notebook.

***

oneside05

Talking to a friend at a New Year’s Eve party, she asked me, what do I miss about America when in Japan?

“Baked goods. Real pizza. Sitting around watching Food Network. Being with friends and family. My dog.”

“And what do you miss about Japan while you’re here?”

“My boyfriend,” I blurted out, but I had to think some more about what else. It’s not about missing, really. I know I’m going back, and I know I’ll be there for … let’s be honest, the rest of my life.

My bed. My routine. My independence. My life that I’ve created. The “me” that I am while I’m there. That’s what I miss.

And conveyor-belt sushi, while we’re at it.

***

oneside06

The last morning, I got in the car with my too-heavy suitcase at 4am, and we headed to the airport like we always do. The lobby was choked with people, all trying to get out in the small window of Blizzard and Polar Vortex, and I raged at the check-in machine for not recognizing my passport. “This never happens in Japan,” I snapped. Frowns and people with fat pieces of luggage and bulging coats surrounded us on every side. Yet suddenly we were at the security line and I had to leave.

I hugged my mother tightly, tears forming in my eyes. I’m sorry I had to make this a shitty visit. I’m sorry there’s something in me I can’t deal with yet.

I’m sorry.

“Oh honey,” she said warmly. “I’m always so happy to have you here.”

***

I stood in the middle of Detroit airport, other travelers scarce around me. Light poured in the windows, a blinding white, with snow swirling around and in and out of the dark figures of planes and equipment. CNN could be heard on a distant speaker. A few other people were wandering around, a way-station before getting to the next step our journeys.

I had a bit of time to kill before the next portion of my own. I wondered what to do next, my heavy backpack straining at my shoulders. It would be a long time before other passengers would show up, even if they could at all. A dad and his son walked by, looking at the closed stores. There were a few Japanese women to the side, wearing face masks, chatting about this, that, or the other.

What was next? Where was I going?

I remained motionless for a long time, surrounded by white.

hafa adai

saipan01

saipan02

saipan03

saipan04

saipan05

saipan06

Spent the weekend in the USA (lol, Saipan) with my buds~ For the longest time, I never knew that Saipan or Guam were actually part of the United States; it took a Japanese person to let me know how utterly ignorant I am of my own country. The funny thing is, Saipan is almost nothing like what I consider “America,” and the people there, while awesomely nice and hospitable, are more comfortable speaking Japanese than English. Basically, it was a Pacific island nation that I could just show my US Passport and be waved in. Plus, it’s the only area of the US where Chinese can actually enter without going through a convoluted tourist visa process, which is why we picked it. It’s probably the final big trip for GJ, since she goes back to China in April.

It was kind of amazing because there are Japanese, Korean, and Chinese tourists everywhere, and you literally hear just about every different language at every turn. I’ve never been to Hawaii, but for the first time in my life I got to visit an island resort paradise and I loved every second of it!

And I got to scuba dive. There are pictures around here somewhere (I spent an arm and a leg for them, after all) but yeah. How ridiculous is it to breathe underwater!?

What a great start to a new year :)

fruit metaphors for people

art by culturee3

art by culturee3

I’ve been working on an intercultural understanding seminar that I’m giving on Saturday. “Seminar” sounds like I’m about to break out a sports jacket and a pipe, but it’s just to a group of 10 seniors at one of the local tourism volunteer associations. I know what they want to hear: what surprised me about Japan, what do I like about Japan, what’s different about Japan and my country, please confirm that Japan is special in the following ways. I’ve done that seminar about 800 times, so it would be easy for me too, but I’ve had some extra time to work on it so I’ve been researching intercultural sensitivity models and studies. Again, their goal is “to be able to communicate with people of other cultures” which is at once way too broad and way too simple for me to work some of this information in. It’s just interesting to think about.

To be honest, it’s hard for me to think outside of the box with these talks that I give, because I end up talking in circles. What is intercultural communication? I’ve found that it’s never true when we say things like, “He is Japanese so he will act this way in every situation.” Everyone is an individual, and will not necessarily act out their specific cultural scripts. Yet everyone is influenced by the culture that they were raised in, whether they are aware of it or not. In fact, a lot Americans, myself included, get caught in a trap thinking we’re “above” the culture that raised us, and that we are actors acting outside of any cultural framework. Please. “I dominate the conversation with new Japanese acquaintances because they’re taught to be sheeple! It’s not because I was raised to believe that my opinion, even when uninformed, needs to be heard at all times.” What makes it so difficult is that it seems to be so easy to point out influences in another’s culture, while we are almost blind to those in our own.

Human nature, I guess. I do find many Japanese who are attuned to their “Japanese” tendencies, but it’s no wonder when almost every tv show showcases some sort of “only in Japan” attitude or custom. There are so many segments that pit foreigners (all of them) against some weird Japanese food. “Can you eat it?!” a reporter asks a white person breathlessly. “We Japanese are naturally skilled at hospitality.” Oh man. Don’t get me wrong, all cultures have a built-in sense of superiority, which is why it’s only natural that these theatrics stand out so baldly to me (because I’m from America, God’s land, the one and only country in the world).

I get so frustrated when someone says to me, “I’m Japanese and we’re very shy,” or “Japanese culture needs us to write this paperwork whether we like it or not.” You know, this is just the way it is. But I know that it’s not just the way it is. There’s many ways for it to be! Most importantly, my way! (Hah) Or rather, I’ve been lucky enough to live for enough time in both cultures where I can say things don’t have to be this way. I have realized that I’m not tethered to a certain notion of how I have to be, just because I’m an American. Though, unfortunately, I’ve found it excruciatingly hard to do the same thing for “being a woman.” (I don’t need to be beautiful to be worth something! Now excuse me as I buy fancy clothes, put on makeup, watch my weight, etc…)

For a very long time, I maintained that while we have cultural differences, we’re all humans with the same heart and the same fundamental values. WRONG. I mean, sure, we all have our commonalities, but it’s kind of like saying, “I don’t see color” or “Gender doesn’t matter to me.” There are differences in culture, differences that must be recognized and respected. It’s the height of superiority to assume that all people have the same values at heart, especially when those values seem to coincide with your values. You know, the ones you learned spontaneously without any input from your culture.

I think for me, I miscalculated as a student just how ingrained the notion of hierarchy is in Japan. I had no idea just how far it reaches into every day life, and how much it influences people. It’s no coincidence that I’m still here largely in part because it doesn’t (quite) apply to me – I’m outside the hierarchy, for better or for worse, and it gives me a freedom that is frankly intoxicating. But I see how limited some of my friends are by their age, or their gender. But it’s just the natural way of things here. That isn’t to say that it should not change. But it is a fundamental difference between America and Japan that affects everything. When I was student, I was blind to it, partly because I was new, and partly because I couldn’t imagine a system where that could be happening. But it does.

Argh, but it’s so hard not to generalize. You have to generalize to discuss intercultural issues, but I always find myself wanting to add, “But you know, people are individuals, and all that.” (Which is also, bee-tee-dubs, quite an American thing to do) We often use metaphors to describe differences in culture; my favorite being the coconut and the peach. It was originally used for German-American relations, with Germans being coconuts and Americans being peaches. Germans come across as distant and hard to understand at first, like the shell of a coconut, but once you become friends, they are sweet and loyal. Americans are friendly with everyone, yet have a private core that they share only with a few people. Germans come across as cold to Americans, who come across as superficial and flighty to Germans – but really, it’s just a cultural misunderstanding. The funny part is that I’ve heard the coconut being related to France, China, and of course Japan. (Americans always seem to be peaches though.)

But I’ve heard other Americans mention really similar things about people in other regions of the United States. “Midwesterners are really sweet and friendly, but I find it so hard to actually break into their established circles.” “City people are very closed off until you get to know them.” I’m beginning to think this coconut and peach model could be modified to almost any country.

You could also interpret it another way, using different relative relational mobility. A high relational mobility means you can form new relationships and end old ones with relative ease, because people tend to fit in categories in your life (for example, us foreign expats cycle through expat friends quickly because we all come and go. We’re not so much friends as drinking companions). A low mobility means you tend to keep the same relationships throughout your life. Americans can slice their lives into sections: family, friends, professional relationships, acquaintances, the guys you go golfing with. Japanese have soto (outside group), and uchi (inside group). So like, a hard shell and a liquid center. But the inside-outside relationship is quite situational, in that your boss would be part of your in-group when you’re talking to another company, but he would be out of the in-group once you and your colleagues went out for a drink. I will admit that the Japanese tend to stay very friendly with their high school/college classmates and don’t feel the need to make new friends, but there’s plenty of Americans who do the same. Likewise, most of my Japanese friends aren’t that close with their high school tennis club, you know?

But, gah!! Here we go again. The metaphors all break down when you think too hard about it. But how else can we talk about this complex topic in a way we can understand?

Baby steps, I guess. “Americans make friends easily, except the ones that don’t…” “Japanese are shy, except the ones that aren’t…”