“Are You Sure?” or the question I’ve come to despise

“Are you sure that’s what you want to do?” is a question I’ve come to despise.

I’m at a crossroads in my life, a season full of decision making regarding what I want my life to look like, and I think I’ve come up with an answer. Along the way an awful lot of people have asked me if I’m sure about my decision. The honest answer is, no, I’m not sure, which I usually coat in a healthy dose of optimism and communication of solid intentions. Often – not always, but often – people counter with the kinds of probing questions meant to help me realize that I’m on the wrong path and should really change course and pursue something else. Subsequently, I leave the conversation discouraged. Whomever I was talking to has attempted to cultivate seeds of doubt. They have no alternate path they think I should pursue, but my subtle hesitation encourages them to dissuade me from this one.

Why, you might ask, am I not more confident, more certain, more sure? Well, because being “sure” of something hasn’t proved to be any sort of a guarantee.
What I haven’t been sure of has sometimes worked out:
1. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to attend the college that became my alma mater. It wasn’t my first choice, but it was the place I felt like God wanted me to go, so I went.
2. I wasn’t sure about my major, and the night before second semester of my junior year I nearly changed it.
3. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to grad school, in fact I was sure I was supposed to go to grad school long before I was sure what I was supposed to major in.
If I’m quite forthright, I’m still not “sure” of any of those decisions. Maybe there was a different college that would have been better for me? Maybe I should have switched my major? Maybe I shouldn’t have gone to grad school, or I should have majored in something else? But if there is one thing I’m sure of, second guessing those decisions at this stage in my life is an exercise in futility, and in the end I don’t regret any of them.

That which I have been sure of has sometimes been wrong:
1. Looking at my syllabuses that first week of class, I was sure I would flunk out of eighth grade. It case it isn’t obvious, I didn’t flunk eighth grade.
2. In grad school I passed up TESOL certification because I was sure I didn’t want to teach English as a second language. Fast forward eight years and I’d opted to extend a contract doing just that.
3. I was sure that short of developing a terminal illness I would never move in with my parents, but when push came to shove and a housing situation got nasty, their hospitality became the best option.

Being “sure” and being “unsure” has often gotten me nowhere.

Right now there is one thing I’m sure of: I can’t stand still. Pursuing no goal would be mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and financially unhealthy. I’m not sure the path I’m taking is the right one, but I’m sure I need to take some path, and I’m sure of all the paths branching from this crossroads that it is the one I want to try.


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10 ways living in Japan makes you talk like a weirdo

Very, very true!

Ampers & Ampers

1. You can’t stop using useful Japanese words.


2. Everything is natsukashii.


3. You forget what words aren’t English.

J34. You simply forget English words.


5. You use Japanese particles in your sentences.


6. You use Japanese English.


7. You talk to yourself in Japanese.


8. Your answers become more vague.


9. You make lame bilingual puns.


10. And lastly, you can’t help yourself.


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The Top Ten Ways M*A*S*H* Is Similar To Being An Ex-Pat

When a person returns to her home country – for vacation, for furlough, or permanently – tales of the land she just left will creep into her conversation. Sometimes we’re homesick for our adopted home. Frequently most of the stories from the past few years of our lives involve our adopted home in some manner. More likely than not, we wish there was someone who knew what we were talking about. When relief comes, it doesn’t necessarily arrive in someone who was in the same country or who spoke the same language. A taste of “home” comes when we meet someone who knows what it is like to navigate life cross-culturally. If we don’t have someone like that right in front of us, reading a book or watching a movie can have the same effect.

I’ve been back just shy of three months now. I’m staying with my parents in a very rural area. They travel a lot but they’ve never LIVED outside of the country. In every other way my family is providing the support I need. For the emotional debriefing I do through reminiscing shared experiences, I have M*A*S*H*. Yes, that’s right, the television show that was on in the 1970s. My Dad watches it twice a day, Monday through Friday, and there are so many ways in which I resonate with that mobile medical unit.

And that brings me to my list: The Top Ten Ways M*A*S*H* Is Similar To Being An Ex-Pat

10. A River of Liver and an Ocean of Fish – In Season 3, Episode 11, Hawkeye rants about how they’ve been served the same food – liver and fish – for multiple consecutive days. He creates a minor riot as the entire mess tent begins chanting, “We want something else!”

I may never have thrown a tantrum about it, but I put away more white rice and fish than I cared to in Japan. And 15 months into my stay I made it my goal in life to avoid eating miso soup. For someone else it might be rice and beans. Or that grainy tubular carb I ate in Uganda. But at some point almost all of us want to stand up and yell, “We want something else!”

9. A Book in English Is Like Gold – In Season 6, Episode 6, B.J. Hunnicut receives a mystery novel in the mail. And everyone wants to read it. Not because everyone is into mysteries but just because they want to hold in their hands a book written in English that has nothing to do with medicine or war. “What’s taking you so long?” Hawkeye nags. “I’m savoring it,” Hunnicut replies.

In my 12 person group of ex-pat English teachers, we had a strange assortment of books that had been mailed over or left behind by previous teachers. Yes, we all had easy internet access. But sometimes we just wanted to hold a book in our hands and read. Maybe I was like that more than the others, for I kept the bulk of the library in my apartment. But everyone had at least a few books. It was just nice to know they were there.

8. Strange Bedfellows – The three surgeons at the M*A*S*H* unit share a tent. And they don’t get along. The first half of the series it is Frank who is irritated by Hawkeye and Trapper, and the second half of the series it is Winchester who trades barbs with Hawkeye and Hunnicut. But they don’t have a choice. They work with each other, they eat with each other, and they share a room with each other.

It’s so cliche it’s hardly worth saying, but there is almost certainly someone on your team with whom you don’t particularly gel. And the closer you have to work with them the worse it is. But we deal, because we have to.

7. Sometimes, you just need to go a little crazy – In Season 7, Episode 2, Hawkeye gets sick of the war. I mean really sick of the war. He hops in a jeep and drives to where peace talks are being held. Later, when the MPs show up, Colonel Potter intercedes for Hawkeye, saying that while it was outside of normal army conduct, Hawkeye’s actions boosted morale for everyone at their camp. And, indeed, Hawkeye’s campmates welcome him back with party where everyone has abandoned the olive green of their uniforms and is wearing bright red.

The best times I had in Japan were the ones in which I went a little crazy: when the whole gang stayed up all night at Round 1 (like Chuck E’ Cheese for grownups) for Bryan’s, and two years later for Beau’s, birthday. Or the free Monday between two high pressure weeks when three of us snuck down to Tokyo and went to Disney Sea. A quick trip like that might not seem restful, but that day at Disney refreshed my spirit in a way I desperately needed those next two weeks.

6. Sometimes everyone really is just a little crazy – In Season 6, Episode 4 a psychiatrist happens to be visiting, and Colonel Potter finds a way to urge everyone to pay him a visit. Some, like Major Houlihan, are in denial about the stress they are under. Others know something is wrong, but recognize that the fundamental stress they are under can’t be cured by one therapy session.

The members of the M*A*S*H* unit are under a lot of stress because it’s war. We’re under a lot of stress just by definition of it being cross-cultural living. Not everyone will admit the waves of culture shock that go by. But it is there: affecting our daily lives, pushing buttons, and often blatantly obvious to our teammates even if it isn’t obvious to us.

5. When others leave, a piece of us dies – In Season 3, Episode 24, Lt. Colonel Blake receives his discharge papers and prepares to go home. Everyone is both ecstatic for him as well as sad.

One year after I arrived some of my closest friends on the team returned to the U.S. The next day I had to keep reminding myself that they hadn’t died. Because that is what it felt like.

4. Oh, how we treasure those letters from home – In Season 6, Episode 21 Major Houlihan asks if Captain Hunnicut and Major Winchester have plans for the evening. “I have a letter from [my wife] that I’ve only read twice,” Hunnicut replies.

I threw away a lot of things when I loaded up two suitcases and flew back. But I couldn’t bear to throw away any letters. They were too precious.

3. He Knows When You’re Awake – The M*A*S*H* unit lives in tents, so everyone knows everything about everyone. Except they still keep secrets from each other. And their secrets end up being the things they should share, because often they need a shoulder to cry on, or a hug.

Most of my team lived in the same building. We each had our own apartment, but the walls were thin. I could tell when Rachel was skyping with her family. I knew when Esther was awake because I could hear her walking across my ceiling. During the summer, with our windows open, it was worse: I could hear Celeste sneeze from two apartments away, and I’d call out a cheery, “Bless you!” But we didn’t always tell each other the hard stuff. I didn’t tell my teammates the things of my soul and I kept my secrets. Life isn’t a television show, so I don’t know if it was better that way or not.

2. I feel old – Season 7, Episode 4 is made up of a series of interviews. In one poignant scene, Major Houlihan admits, “I feel old. Older than I ever expected to feel.”

Major Houlihan is rarely the character I resonate with in any episode, but in this scene she struck a chord. For though I’m in my early 30s, these past few months I’ve repeatedly mused about how old I feel. It isn’t the type of thing I tell most people because I don’t want to be brushed off with a, “You’re still young!” Chronologically, yes, I am. But my soul feels as if I’m in my 70s, as if I’ve already lived enough for a lifetime.

1. We keep going, even when it is hard, because it is important – the “classics” channel that my father watches, the one which features all of these M*A*S*H* episodes, broadcasts commercials featuring actors who played in those classic sitcoms and dramas. In one Mike Farrell, who plays Captain Hunnicut, recounts that the appeal of M*A*S*H* is that even though most people haven’t been to war, everyone can relate to the feeling of doing something that takes us away from our family and friends and the comforts we would like, and we do it because it’s important.

In the end, it is nice to know someone else gets it. That even if people don’t understand why I chose to teach English in Fukushima prefecture for three years, the people who like M*A*S*H* might get it. And there are enough of those people out there that the show was kept on for eleven seasons. It’s enough.


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The Same Security Blankets As Before

During the three years I spent in Japan I experienced stress. And often my way of coping with some of the stress was to turn to something fun or nostalgic or comforting.

My first year this was Coca-Cola. I have loved cola for years, though I’m not picky about the brand, and this was also a go-to, albeit rare, beverage for me in the states. I rarely found Pepsi or RC or Coke in Fukushima prefecture, so…Coca-Cola! My teammates would make fun of me for drinking it in wine glasses, but to me it made sense. For them wine was a signal that it would be a fun evening and a time to unwind. That is what cola signals to me. Wine glasses happened to be the prettiest glasses any of us owned so that is what I would use.

My second year I still drank Coca-Cola, but I also found myself eating at McDonalds quite a bit. Beef was expensive, as were pickles, and I didn’t use enough ketchup or mustard to have them around. This one sandwich managed to combine all of these flavors. And while “hamburg” is plentiful in Japanese restaurants, it is really more like meatloaf. Meatloaf is great…if you want meatloaf. I didn’t. So I would stop by the McDonalds in the Koriyama train station and that was a bit of escape.

My third year I drank Coca-Cola, albeit not as much, as I had discovered I almost immediately gain weight when I do. I’m not making a universal health claim about soda because I think different bodies react in different ways to different foods. We know it is true of medication, so why wouldn’t it be true of food! I can eat cookies and ice cream and stay the same weight, but if I consume soda of any kind, I almost immediately gain weight. Since my stomach doesn’t react well to sports drinks, I drink soda when I have a stomach bug, and I usually exit the experience weighing more than I did before. McDonalds? Yes, I still ate there. But the novelty had worn off. I started buying beef at home occasionally, and taking a vitamin to make sure my iron levels stayed up. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have stressful days, and those days I dreamed of Tokyo Disney.

See, my family lived in Florida when I was in pre-school. We had season passes and would go on weekdays in September, November, and February  when the park was comparatively empty. I’d been back to the park as a teenager when it was crowded and hot, but those early memories still dominate my perception. At first I wasn’t going to go to Tokyo Disney. After all, in Japan I should do Japanese things, right?! I should save Disney for the U.S., right?! Well, Tokyo Disney is unique in its own right, and I could write a blogpost about that. But the significant thing was that by my third year I’d checked a lot of the cool Japanese experiences off of my list. I didn’t do everything – I never did make it to Okinawa or Hokaido – but neither of those are practical for a three-day weekend. By year three I wanted the feeling of home. And Disney stimulated enough nostalgia to be that for a little while.

And then I came back to the U.S.! Here I have all the American food, American television, and American English I want. But, sometimes it doesn’t quite feel like home. Please don’t misunderstand me: I really enjoy being able to talk to my friends on a cell phone and without negotiating time zones. But there are a lot of factors I won’t go into right now that mean life is still stressful and difficult at times.

The stress doesn’t surprise me. What surprises me is that I still turn to those same items: I still yearn for a cola, I still want a hamburger, and when organic chemistry and chores get me down, I start mentally planning trips to Disney. Those coping mechanisms didn’t go away. I can’t explain it, but they are still here.


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Packing List (women) for Fukushima prefecture, Japan

I lived in Japan. I lived in northern Japan. I lived in Fukushima prefecture. I lived in a town on the train line in Fukushima prefecture.

Every sentence I just wrote describes when I spent three years of my life, but each is also very narrow and specific. If someone said to me, “I’m moving to Japan. What do I need to take?” well, that gets complicated. The snow boots I desperately needed for the unplowed winter streets would be foolish in balmy Okinawa. What is readily available and/or socially acceptable in Tokyo is not going to be true in a small city without a McDonalds or a Starbucks. Yet because I lived in a city on the train line, getting to those restaurants was far more doable than it was for the next town over.

I’ve been asked what I would recommend someone to take when they are moving to my area.


1. Take clothes 

Japan is a seat of fashion…if you’re size 4 or smaller and have a boyish figure. I learned to walk by the high end stores because even if I found anything that fit on my size 12 frame, it wouldn’t look good on my hourglass figure. There are some places where clothes will be available. But at first, bring clothes.

Note: Bring layers. In general, Japanese buildings are poorly insulated and poorly heated.

2. Bring a black suit with a white button up shirt for the formal occasions. 

The Japanese are very formal, and there is likely to be some sort of ceremony. The cool mismatched gray suits currently in vogue in the U.S. stick out like a sore thumb there.

3. Stock up on shoes…maybe

Japanese women have tiny feet. My older sister had no trouble finding shoes for her size 6.5 feet. I didn’t inherit quite the same gene. While size 8.5 puts me squarely at normal on the spectrum for U.S. women’s feet, I was Big Foot in Japan. Still, sometimes I found a size I could squeeze into. And when it came to sneakers I could just shop in the men’s department. On the other hand, my poor coworker with size 10.5 feet was in even worse shape. There was exactly one store (Shimamura) that sold shoes in her size. Bonus: remember you’ll need twice as many shoes there because you have to have indoor and outdoor ones.

Note: definitely bring a good pair of snow boots. It will not be a purchase you regret.

4. Be mindful of selected toiletries

a. Deodorant – Do you like U.S. deodorant? Then buy it in the U.S. The Japanese use a spray bottle thing.

b. Foundation…maybe – What is your skin tone? If it isn’t strikingly pale, you’ll want to bring your own foundation. In the homogeneous society of Japan, many cosmetics companies carry exactly one shade of foundation.

c. Tampons – They have them in Japan, but they aren’t the same. I’ll leave it at that.

5. Bring something that reminds you of home. It will just make you happier. For my sister that was her quilt. For me that was as much of my library as I could justify. Take what makes you happy.

6. Pack a small nativity set – Christmas is becoming more and more popular, but I only ever saw one nativity set in Japan…and it was at a British-themed resort. In the U.S. I wasn’t much of a decorator, letting my parents’ house be enough. But over there I needed to be the one stepping up and providing visual reminders of the reason for the season

Don’t bring:

1. Tank tops – modest women in Japan do not show their shoulders.

2. Shampoo, conditioner, or soap – They have good quality products there. Don’t waste the space.


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Top Ten Items to Pack in a Care Package

Hey, guys! I wrote a piece about what to put in an overseas care package over on a website called Velvet Ashes. This is mostly aimed at Americans sending items to other Americans, but I’d love to hear what each of you have wanted to receive if you’ve lived overseas. Go check it out here.

Also, since my blog is aimed towards all things Japan, I should mention what I sent in care packages to the U.S.: sembai (Japanese rice crackers), Melty Kisses (a kind of chocolate sold in December), and flavored kit kats.

What do you guys send in care packages? What was your favorite item to receive in a care package? What did you secretly always wish someone would send you?


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Keep it Simple

I’ve been back in the U.S. for about two months now. There are a couple of big takeaways that I’ve gleaned from my time overseas, concepts I think will stay with me for years. One of them I discovered last week: Living overseas taught me how to communicate with people who don’t speak English fluently.

Last Thursday afternoon I visited the JFK Presidential library. The site is about a mile from the subway/train station, and the library sends a free shuttle to pick up visitors. When I boarded the shuttle, a middle aged Chinese couple boarded as well. They smiled at the driver then pointed to the brochure. “I don’t read Chinese” the driver said to them. I approached and looked at it as well. The words “JFK Presidential Library” were written in English, so I smiled and nodded at the couple, and they took a seat. Then we had a bit of a conversation:

Chinese woman: “Bus. How much?”

I approached the driver. “Excuse me, sir. How much is the bus?”

Driver: “No charge.”

Me (to Chinese woman): “It’s free.”

Chinese woman: “Three?” She held up three fingers.

Me: “Zero,” I said making a oh with my hand. She still looked perplexed. “No money, okay” I replied with a smile.

The bus started driving. On the way to the museum we passed some buildings belonging to U Mass. The woman commented, “Old house.” A few seconds later, “New house.” On the first count she was probably right: it was either a library or the college president’s house or something like that. The second building I was pretty sure was connected to the university. I could have said, “Actually, I think that is a university building.” Instead I chopped it into the simplest, most understandable English I could think of: “School.”

It sounds simple, but it is an acquired skill. Sorting through what English a person likely knows and figuring out how to communicate is important. And even if I don’t speak whatever language the other person does, at least I know how to modify my English to the lowest common denominator

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lying through your pants

The first time I lived overseas I was only there for two months. I wasn’t speaking or learning the local language. Still, I recognized that my English skills had declined in this span of time.

When I moved to Japan, I actively pursued learning the language. But at the same time, I didn’t want to lose my other languages. While the majority of my study revolves around Japanese of some sort, I’ve given a few minutes each day to reviewing German vocabulary and to reading a bit of Spanish. I’ve also set up some English flashcards. The English I’ve been studying is SAT caliber. It isn’t vocab I’d usually pepper into daily speech. Still, it’s been helping. Maybe it’s just been keeping my brain folds wrinkly, but I feel like I’ve forgotten a lot less.

That doesn’t mean some aspects of my speech haven’t taken a nose dive. Idioms and jargon is what seems to be hit the hardest.

And it isn’t just me.

A week ago during a meeting, Coworker A told a sarcastic joke. His deadpan nature meant we couldn’t quite tell if he was serious or not. When it became clear he was pulling our legs, Coworker B accused him:

“You’re lying through your pants.”

A couple of us sat there silently for a few seconds. We had a feeling the expression wasn’t quite right, but we couldn’t remember what the correct one was. The closest I came up with was, “Liar, liar, pants on fire.” Coworker C finally figured it out.

“Oh,” he said, “the expression is ‘You’re lying through your teeth.’ And, ‘Flying by the seat of your pants.;” He wasn’t saying that to correct Coworker B. In fact, I don’t think Coworker B even heard him, as she was still talking to Coworker A. It was more of an awareness on Coworker C’s part, one that extended to a few of us nearby, of trying to remember what in the world that expression was.


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What Color Is The Sun?

So my seventh graders are covering a unit in the book which talks about how the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco isn’t golden. From my extensive nannying experience and all of the kids’ books I read to my charges, I know that the official color of the bridge is, “International Orange.” But every year when the teacher asks the students, “What color is the bridge?” they all say, “Red.” I stand there politely and don’t say anything because, well, in Japan it is rude to contradict someone and this isn’t a make it or break it aspect of the English language. This week, however, the teacher turned to me and asked

“What color is the bridge?”

I hesitated a moment. “Orange.”

“Not red?”




This is translated to the students, who all begin exclaiming about how the bridge is clearly red. Then the teacher turns back to me:

“What color is the sun?”

“In the middle of the day? Or at the end of the day?”

“What color is the sun when a child draws it in a picture?”


This is translated back to the students, who gasp. It’s time for me to ask a question:

“What color is the sun when a Japanese child draws it?”


The class was polled. Two girls used to make their suns yellow, one boy made it orange, and the other 16, yeah, they had red suns in their childhood drawings.

And for the first time in my 31 years I understand why “The Land Of The Rising Sun” has a big RED dot in the middle of their flag.


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From Saver to Spender

After almost three years in Japan I am getting ready to leave. For various reason I chose not to renew my contract, and perhaps someday I’ll address those on this blog. Most likely I won’t. They neither make good stories nor are they delightful. Living overseas is wearing, and I am almost worn thin.

What I do want to address is part of the process of exiting. There will be stressful parts to this, but so far I’ve been enjoying some elements, and these are the ones I want to share with you today.

Where I Saved
First of all, I’m a saver. I like saving things – whether money, favors, or gifts – until the right moment. Strategy is such a key part of my functioning that even delight is strategized to maximize enjoyment. Of course, this can backfire too. Sometimes the right moment never arrives. Like that trump card a player holds onto a bit too long, occasionally I find that I have a metaphorical hand full of good cards and need to use them in a hurry.

I’m in that moment now. And, boy, am I enjoying it. Food, candles, and toiletries are being used with a vengeance. That dried fruit that my brother sent me that I was saving for a special occasion? I guess this oatmeal is the batch to eat it in. The vegetables I froze last summer? This is the batch of marinara sauce to add them to. The chocolate bars my friend gave me for Christmas? No point in leaving them around for another day. During down time at work I find myself thinking, “Oh, yeah, I have a jar of lemon curd that I need to eat. Should I have it plain or on pancakes? That can of cherry filling in the back of my cupboard, should I make it into a small pie or eat it with vanilla ice cream?” And the great thing is, there aren’t any wrong answers here.

The candles my sister sent me? Well, they aren’t coming with me, so lighting a candle has become a basic part of my evening routine. And almost every refill of my humidifier receives a sprinkling of the essential oils I bought last summer. My apartment smells GOOD these days.

Quite a few toiletries I use on a regular basis. Others are special occasion items. Those are the ones I’m having to work on. Someone just gave me bubble bath for Christmas. Well, I guess I’m going to be taking a few extra baths over the next few months. A set of moisturizing gloves I bought months ago got pulled out last night. I still think there might have been a better time to use those, but at this point such extraneous items just need to GO.

Where I Spent
While in some areas I am having to rapidly use what I own, in others I am hoping that what is left will last until the moment I leave. The primary thing in this category is clothes and shoes. I’m basically living in two pairs of boots these days. And some of my clothes are getting holes. These items are used for layering, so the holes aren’t seen when I leave the house. Nevertheless, it is still a little odd to look at each and know this is yet another thing I won’t be taking with me. Yes, I could buy replacements. But I can’t guarantee that I would have space for them in the final suitcase. I look at some items and think, “I’d use this in the U.S., but it isn’t worth the fee for extra luggage.” So, I’m making do.

Probably the oddest thing is that, at this exact moment, thriftyness and indulgence are being experienced side by side. My hope is that I will pass this season fully enjoying the latter while not forgetting the discipline of the former.

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