Monthly Archives: January 2014

Yoga

My junior high decided that once a week for a series of weeks the seventh and eighth graders would join the local sixth graders for an activity. They make crafts or cook or learn to play a traditional Japanese instrument, and they do the same activity every week. I don’t know what the point of it is in the Japanese mind, but in my mind it forms a bonding opportunity with next year’s seventh graders and provides a few hours of alternate education, with a kind of Montessori vibe. 

The hierarchy system in Japan dictates that decisions are often made for me, with a quick check to see if I have any objections. This year it was decided that I would go to yoga lessons. If someone had bothered to ask my first choice, yoga would not have been it, as I have a minor issue with the potential spiritual undercurrents that any given leader may introduce and a major issues with flexibility. With the spirituality I decided I could spend most of the two hours praying and inviting the presence of God into the room, thus countering any other spiritual entities who might try to show up. There isn’t much I can do about the flexibility, however. 

My completely amateur and non-academic assessment of people’s flexibility is that people seem to fit into four categories: athletically flexible, flexible, athletically unflexible, and unflexible. 

A. Athletically flexible people are those whose sport calls for them to be able to bend into various shapes, so they spend a good chunk of their day stretching: gymnasts, dancers, divers, figure skaters etc. I honestly believe some other people fit into this category too. Kickers on football teams, for example. And others who practice sports not requiring flexibility but who themselves prize it and therefore craft it. 

B. Flexible people – you know, the people who don’t seem to stretch on a regular basis but just seem to be really flexible. Not like a contortionist, but flexible. I don’t know how they do it, but they do.

C. Athletically inflexible – these are people who have spent a great deal of time building up muscle for one or more sports but who did little or minimal stretching. Because there is a mental correlation many people have between flexibility and athleticism, these people become the brunts of jokes when others realize that these great athletes are worse than many nonathletic people when it comes to basic flexibility. 

D. Inflexible people – I’ve met some who just can’t bend hardly at all. I’d describe it more, but on the rare occasions when I meet them it seems rude to stare so I look away before I can craft an accurate mental assessment of exactly how far they can bend.

I happen to fit in category C. Nevermind that I haven’t run in a month, I have permanent thunder thighs from decades of serious running (and I’m awfully proud of them, by the way). Now, there are specific spots in which I am still more flexible than average, areas where I worked the muscles over the years for one reason or another. For example, psychosomatic back pain as a teenager meant that I did a lot of lower back stretches. Consequently while I still fall short of a gymnast, my chiropractor’s assistant used to accuse me of showing off when she measured my flexibility on a monthly basis. And because the Achilles heel really is the Achilles heel of runners, I’ve worked that thing out so much I need to stand on a step to get the angle necessary for a good stretch. Furthermore, a consistently itchy back as a kid really means I don’t have that one spot on my back I can’t reach. One way or another, my right arm can reach every inch of skin on my back. My left arm is a different story. But most people don’t ask to see if I can itch my back or stretch into a back bend. Most people just notice that I can’t get even close to touching my toes. 

What does this mean? Well, it means that I’m the person in the circle who looks EXACTLY like that one comedy you once saw where someone is groaning and grunting and can’t get past mid-shin in the toe-touch. The saving grace – sort of – is that one of the P.E. teachers was in the room too. She was worse than me, though she also didn’t try as hard, demurely shaking her head and giving a small smile when urged to try harder. Sometimes I still am that kid who makes a joke out of everything. Other times, like at yoga, I just am the joke. 

Naturally, the whole session is in Japanese. Every once in awhile I catch a word I know: “Left,” “Sri Lanka,” “Ceylon,” “difficult,” but most of the time I just watch to figure out what I’m supposed to do.  Sometimes I think I understand, but I wonder if it could possibly be right. Yesterday I heard, “Now [something, something, something] baby, [something] mother [something, something]” and we all assume the fetal position and rock back and forth. Then we were supposed to kick our legs around in the air. I tensed my torso and mimicked the indignant flailing of a baby that has been put down for a nap against its will. The three seventh grade girls next to me pealed into laughter.

But last week was far funnier. As the leader tried her best to speak in soothing tones, I was sure I heard her say, “No birthday cake arimasu.” That would translate, “There is no birthday cake,” though if I WERE to try to translate, “There is no birthday cake” into Japanese, it would be closer to, “Birthday cake arimasen” or “Birthday cake nai.” What she was trying to say in Japanese, I’ll never know, but for the next two hours, at some of the quietest moments I would think to myself in a soothing voice, “There is no birthday cake” and burst into giggles that I managed to stifle into silence, but which still rippled up and down my torso.

After yoga I asked the five sixth grade boys what their names were. They’ll be my students in April, I might as well learn their names now. I already knew Takumi, for he was in my group at the English program we did last October. Of the other four, two of them were named “Yu.” “‘Yu’ and ‘Yu’?” I verified in Japanese. Takumi grinned and said very clearly in English, “Double Yu.” 

Yes, that’s right, the pun is alive and well in Japan.

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The Linguistics of Cuss Words

On Fridays my junior high’s academic schedule is a little more laid back than the rest of the week, meaning there is time at the end of the day to visit the table tennis club before my driver arrives. A couple Fridays ago I chatted with the seventh grade girls who were there, then borrowed a paddle and began volleying with Misaki. After a little while Chihiro and Mao made their way over from the other table. They had a question about English: how does one spell “oh my God” and what does it mean? 

This didn’t completely take me aback. For reasons I haven’t yet discovered, taking the Lord’s name in vain is some of the only English students in rural Japan know. They offer it unprompted and unaware of its offensiveness to my faith. Discussion with my teammates has yielded only the theory that some popular comedian or television personality must use it. But we often suspect the students don’t know what it means. Chihiro is one of my brightest students. If she doesn’t know what it means, none of them do. 

The words both “oh” and “my”, have appeared in their lessons already. “Oh, my net!” the character in the textbook exclaims while engaging in a carnival game of scooping goldfish. In this game, which appears at most festivals, the customer purchases a certain number of special nets. Any goldfish he or she manages to scoop up and into a plastic container is theirs to take home. The catch is that the nets disintegrate after about 25 seconds in the water. And of course fish are very skittish things. Nor are they guaranteed to live through the night. Still, as long as one is strategic and isn’t too attached to the pet, it can be quite exciting. 

In other words, the seventh graders around me knew the first part of the sentence and how to spell it, but not the third word. I carefully explained the spelling to them and then translated the word. Then came the tricky part: how to explain the nuances of the word. 

See, in Japanese, they don’t really have swear words. In America we somehow invented some. In other parts of the world they insult people with curses. My Arabic teacher once told us that the worst thing you could say in Arabic was, “May your house be utterly destroyed.” My employer in Amsterdam told me that as a Dutch person he is far more offended by the vernacular of “damning” someone than he is by the words that merit censoring in American films. And a friend once told me that the worst thing one could say to a Japanese person was to tell them to disappear. In Japan, at least, because of this absence of swear words, they don’t seem to have a grid for what the concept is. Once last fall I heard a kid use the “f” word at lunch, but once I strictly told him not to, he said okay. A minute later he asked me in Japanese what the word meant. About a month later I watched a kid raise a certain finger to the turned back of a teacher. In the States I would have hauled him to the principal’s office. Here I gave him the benefit of the doubt and sufficed with a look. Upon realizing I had observed the gesture, he quickly put his hands together in penitence, bowed his head, and said “Sorry, sorry” in English. But he had a grin too, full blown during the gesture and twitching at the corner of his lips during the apology. He wasn’t acting in anger. He literally had no idea of the full meaning behind what he had just done. 

Unfortunately, there really isn’t a good translation for most of the cussing. My default has been to explain that the words are rude, for being rude is a big deal in this culture of honor. The “f” word, I said to the boy at lunch, is the rudest word there is. To my seventh grade table tennis girls I said that many people in the United States use this expression to express frustration, but it is rude towards God, so Christians don’t use it, and as a Christian I don’t use it. I am fully well aware that this is an oversimplification of the issue, but even explaining that much was challenging. The girls didn’t know the word, “Christian,” and I couldn’t remember the Japanese, so I called myself a “church person.” In the end I was able to make Chihiro understand, and she in turn explained it in normal sentences to the other two. 

It isn’t just me that has a hard time translating these words for the Japanese. Once I was watching the movie The Darjeeling Express with some friends, some of whom were Japanese. Therefore, we opted to watch it with Japanese subtitles. At one point a character emits the “f” word in a stand alone capacity, not enveloped by a sentence. I immediately glanced down to see what the words on the screen read for this. ”ダメ” they said. In English letters that is “dame”, with the “da” pronounced to rhyme with “pa” and the “me” pronounced like the fifth month of the year. “Dame.” I knew this word. It simply means “bad.” We use it when students are misbehaving. Once last spring I noticed a student picking all of the beans out of his salad at lunch, and I asked him in Japanese, “Do you like beans?” “Beans are a little bad,” he replied in Japanese. It was that same word. It doesn’t carry anything close to the connotations we have for cuss words in English. 

So, cuss words or curses, which would you rather have? Personally, though I don’t cuss, I believe it is wrong to speak in anger, and I try to avoid those who do, I am rather grateful to be from a country that has ceased to employ full out curses. Recently I’ve been reading a book on the power of blessings. Blessings are all over the Bible, from the patriarchs of Genesis to the salutations of Paul’s epistles. Speaking a blessing over someone carries. I believe this and have committed to speaking blessings over people in my life. But it stands to reason that if words have that amount of power, curses can be terribly destructive. They too are words spoken over someone, a prayer for destruction, woe, and sorrow. I’d rather have cuss words tossed at me than have curses spoken over me. 

How about you? Thoughts?

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A Tale Of A Japanese Geography Test

The Prequel

It all started as a joke a few days before Christmas. Well, in all honesty it started my first year here when I opted to learn the 2200 basic kanji. Kanji, for those unaware, are the Chinese pictographs that Japanese has adopted from Chinese. Japan uses about 2200 of them and throws in two syllabic alphabets to round out the grammar. Occasionally a more obscure kanji will pop up in a name, but for the most part it is just those 2200.

Before I began my time in Japan I sensed that learning of kanji was something I wanted to pursue. The Chinese pictographs have always fascinated me, but I’d never had an excuse to devote the necessary time to learning them. The way I think, the way I pray, the way I hear from God often manifests as pictures and analogies, and the intricate pictures formed by this alphabet were something that appealed to a deep part of both my brain and my heart. I twiddled around with a book for awhile, and then found a program to dive into. Learning the 2200 kanji took me about seven months. I know a person who did it faster, and I know a person who did it slower. But for the most part, I know people who either started and then gave up around 700 or who never even tried. Completing that program is something I am immensely proud of. In some ways I’m more proud of it than my high school, college, or master’s degrees, for I never doubted I could finish those and there were many, many days when I wasn’t sure I could complete this program.

Nevertheless, that program ended 11.5 months ago. Since then I haven’t been reviewing the words consistently. I’ve poured my time and energy into learning other aspects of the Japanese language. A lot of the kanji I can’t come up with a meaning for just by looking at, but they are all in there somewhere, and that is relevant to what happened next.

And so it begins

A few days before Christmas I was reviewing the computer flashcards that contain the kanji. That day the word for “lagoon” popped up. I missed it and was dutifully sketching out the character so that I would remember it when it cycled back around in a few minutes. The Japanese English teacher whose desk is next to mine saw me sketching.

 “Are you studying for the prefecture test?”

“Excuse me?”

“That kanji is in one of the names of the Japanese prefectures. After Christmas the students will take a test of all of the prefectures of Japan. Because you are studying that kanji, I thought maybe you were studying for the test too. I was making a joke.”

“That would be fun. Are there any extra materials?”

“I will get some from Hiroko-sensei.”

“Thank you!”

 So a moderately surprised Tami-sensei asked the social studies teacher if there were any extra copies. They both glanced at me. There was a little admiration and a little shock in their eyes. I didn’t care. This sounded like a wonderful challenge.

It also sounded like a win-win-win situation. The past few months I’d been thinking about studying some Japanese geography. Years ago there was a question on Jeopardy!! which asked the contestants to name two of the four islands of Japan. At the time all I could say was, “Okinawa?”, and while that ignorance was permissible back then, I’d feel pretty sheepish if I lived here for three years and still couldn’t name the islands. This challenge was one greater, learning not only the island names but also the prefectures, their capitals, and the regional names (roughly equivalent to learning “mid-west” and “deep south” in the U.S. The difference is that these are official names, and the exact nuances of U.S. regions is a hotbed of contention among American citizens). What’s more, it would be an excellent kanji review. I miss studying kanji, as I find it to be incredibly fun. And even if I could only answer a few questions correctly, because most Japanese people don’t believe non-Japanese can write kanji, ANYTHING I wrote would impress them. It felt like I couldn’t lose.

I studied here and there for a few days, but I opted not to take the materials home with me over Christmas. I’m not in the States all that often and I wanted to enjoy my vacation. What’s more, I knew my brain needed a break from all Japanese, even the fun stuff. Once I got back I had every intention of studying before school started up again, but a sinus infection zapped my energy and I didn’t pull out the paper until the first day of school, Wednesday, January 8th.

Crunch Time, part 1

On Thursday, January 9th I asked when the students’ were taking the test. The eighth graders, I was told, had already taken it that morning. The ninth graders would take it on Friday, and the seventh graders on Tuesday (Monday was a national holiday). To buy myself some time I asked if I could take it the same day as the seventh graders. Then I began studying in earnest.

Japan has 47 prefectures. Plus the capitals, that’s 94. Six regions makes the test an even 100 points. 29 of the prefectures share their name with the capitals. In that respect, this test was easier than learning the 50 states and their capitals because none of those are identical. But, while everyone in the U.S. has grown up hearing the words, “Mississippi” and “Idaho” and “North Dakota” even if they can’t find them on a map, I hadn’t grown up hearing these names. Okay, thorough coverage of WWII in U.S. history courses means I knew Okinawa and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Everyone knows Tokyo, and I live in the Fukushima prefecture. Since coming to Japan I’ve learned a few more names, as Aomori, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, and Sendai are all places I’ve visited. Other names I know because family names often mirror prefecture names. Miyazaki, a famous film maker, shares his name with a province in the south. And Miyagi (Karate Kid, anyone?) is the prefecture just north of me. Recognizing names helped a little, but not entirely. Remember, I wasn’t writing Nara, or even, なら. I was writing 奈良. I could learn the pronunciations, but if I wanted to take the same test the students did, I was going to have to learn the characters.

Two problems immediately presented themselves. The first was that handwriting does not look like typing. I learned kanji from a book with clearly typed strokes in 256 point font. In contrast, I could identify some of the characters neatly penned by the social studies teacher, but not all of them. For this I turned to the Internet. I found one map that listed the prefectures’ names in the English alphabet and a Wikipedia page for Prefectures of Japan that listed the English alphabet names next to the kanji. Between the two of them, I was able to figure out what I should write. The second issue is that I’d forgotten a fair amount of the kanji, or only remembered a general meaning instead of a specific one. I’m not much for memorizing an unconnected series of strokes. Kanji works in my head because each one means something. Once I figured out what the kanji looked like, I had to go back and look a lot of them up.

Why Kanji is Fun: An Interlude

So far I’ve told you the challenges I’ve faced in this process. What I haven’t explained is how much I enjoyed this process. This wasn’t just about personal enrichment; it was downright fun!

There were 100 entries. 90 of them were composed of two kanji, 9 were of three kanji, and one does not posses a name in kanji, only in the syllabic system. Each of these combinations came together to form a picture in my head that turned into a story. One city’s name translates to “Pine Creek.” Isn’t that lovely? Japan also has “Pine Mountain,” “New Lagoon,” “Big Harbor,” and “Thousand Leaves.” For some of the kanji I utilized stories. Occasionally these were true (“Bird Catch” really is a prefecture where people initially made their living catching birds) and other times they were entirely made up. But the latter were often more fun. “Bear Origin” lends itself to all sorts of tall tales. And “Briar Castle” just begs for a Sleeping Beauty analogy. Occasionally I used prompts that only make sense to me. One prefecture is called, “Loved Beautiful Woman” and the capital, “Pine Mountain” was also the last name of the most attractive and popular teacher at my school last year. Clearly the Loved Beautiful Woman got married to Mr. Pine Mountain. I mean, that only makes sense!

One of my favorite pictures was the one I associated with “Love is Known.” “Love is Known” is a prefecture whose capital translates to, “Name Old Roof.” Well, it just so happens that at my alma mater people have the option to ring a bell in an old tower to announce their engagement. Once or twice I went up to celebrate friends’ engagements and up in the eaves hundreds of couples have scribbled their names on the beams and rafters.

Some names were hard to remember: “Mountain Shape” and “Three Heavy” for instance. For others I made wild presumptions. On the north central side of the main island lies three provinces. The southern one is called “Blessed Well.” The middle one is “Rock River” and has a capital of “Gold Swamp,” while the northern one is “Wealthy Mountain.” In my mind, there is gold in those mountains. That gold started in the north and trickled it’s way down a river full of rocks, got sifted out in a swamp, and finally ended up in a well. I now have an assumption that that part of the island is full of pretentious rich people, but at least I know the prefectural names.

Crunch Time, part 2

Sunday I took a break, but Saturday and Monday I spent significant stretches of time studying. I had a bad cold and didn’t really feel like going anywhere or doing anything anyway. I ran several mock tests throughout the week and watched my score steadily increase. Then it was time for the big rodeo.

Tuesday morning I missed my alarm and woke up at 7, just 15 minutes before I had to be on the bus. At school we had our weekly teachers’ meeting and then I had three classes in a row. It was fourth period before I had a chance to take the test, but I knew I was ready so I just sat down and took it.

Did I answer perfectly? No. I had a couple of those, “I know I know this but I can’t think of it” moments, and one capital I only came up with after some fervent prayer. Tests like this are a rush, which is both exhilarating as well as a detriment to my cognitive function.

A bigger stresser for me was whether or not my handwriting was legible. I scribble kanji all of the time but since no one is required to read it it isn’t inherently legible to a Japanese person. What’s more, I’m used to writing in the 268 point font and now I had to attempt the 14. I deliberately made the strokes, but still, I wondered. I knew I had made that bottom stroke, but would the social studies teacher know? But by the end of the period it was time to turn in my sheet.

The immediate feedback was positive, “Segoi,” the social studies teacher called out as I handed it to her, which roughly translated means, “Cool!”  She beamed at the tiny characters. Well, at least she could read them.

It was lunchtime, so the teacher put my test aside and left to eat with her homeroom. Suspense hung in the air. I immediately checked my master sheet and knew I had missed two of them. But that wasn’t awful.

In the rest time after lunch, when teeth are brushed and students chat in the halls and salesmen visit the teachers’ office peddling yogurt and insurance, the social studies teacher called Tami-sensei over to her desk. It turned out I had missed four. Stupid mistakes, all of them. If I were to retake the test I could probably answer those correctly. But I might make a mistake somewhere else. All in all, I was very happy with my grade. And for some reason – maybe partial credit? – I was given a score of 98.

The 3:59 Mile

One of the contradictions that forms my identity is that I am both extremely open and an intensely private person. I will tell a curious stranger or an interested acquaintance the deepest parts of my heart but I will also keep secrets from even my closest friends. As I left school on Tuesday, I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell anyone. I had accomplished my goal and that was enough. But after thinking about it for a little while, I decided to go ahead and mention it. About 20% of that is because this is something I am really proud of and really excited about and I wanted to share that joy with others. The other 80% is because what I did most people think is impossible.

Years and years ago I read that the reason Japan whips the pants off of the U.S. when it comes to math is because of different mentalities. In the U.S. we think, “Calculus is really difficult and can only be understood by a few very smart people.” In Japan they think, “Calculus is challenging, but everyone except a few especially stupid people can master it.” I think of that analogy all of the time here, only here it relates to kanji. Most native English speakers think it is impossible to read, much less write, any more than a few of the most basic kanji. Earlier in this post I wrote that I know one person who completed the program faster than me and one who completed it slower. I didn’t misspeak. I personally only know two other people who have learned all 2200 kanji. When I first decided to learn kanji I received a lot of backlash from past and present members of my team. Sometimes I was outright told it was a foolish idea. More often I just saw the disapproving looks similar to those one gets while throwing a tantrum in a public place. I embarked on that journey and had very little support along the way. So when it came to this project, I didn’t tell people I was studying. I didn’t need people telling me not to, or making fun of me if I failed. After I succeeded, I wanted to tell them. For one day, for just a few minutes, I wanted to plant a seed within them that maybe the Japanese kanji isn’t an impossibility. If they don’t learn it, okay. But they are making a choice not to learn it, not succumbing to the inevitable.

If native English speakers are skeptical, however, Japanese are even worse. They believe that as a white person I can’t write kanji, and scribbling a single one on a chalkboard has repetitively brought genuine exclamations of surprise. The seventh graders at my school knew I was studying because Tami-sensei used the information to try and motivate them. After lunch on Tuesday they eagerly asked what my score was. The presentation of my test sheet to them was met with a few congratulations and more exclamations of dismay. I don’t know what most of their scores were, but a passing grade was 80, and four of them hadn’t passed. I didn’t understand all of the chatter, but I caught enough to understand the gist, which followed the usual refrain: “But, you’re an American, and I’m a Japanese person. How can you do better than me on this test?” It’s a good question, and I don’t have answers for it. Except that I have an advantage over them because I learned all of the kanji last year, and they have yet to do so. And I’m thirty years old and have a couple of degrees. I’ve learned a few things about study skills along the way.

I embraced this challenge because it was something I loved. I could have told no one and been just as delighted. But afterwards I feel like what I did became a minor protest against racism. At the bottom of my heart I hope these people whom I dearly love learn to see me as someone who isn’t stupid, and, more importantly, that they will stop viewing white people as those who can’t master Japanese. It’s a difficult language, but my failures are because I’ve only been studying the language 21 months, not because my biological heritage dictates the endeavors to be impossible.

Japanese Geography Test 001

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A Christmas Adventure

This is the tale of how I traveled from my parents’ house in rural New Hampshire to my apartment in rural Japan as I returned from Christmas vacation.
Before I launch into this story I want the reader to understand that this is not a rant or a complaint or a gripe. This is the story of an adventure. I am choosing to type out the specifics for two reasons. 1. I want people to know what I go through to get to America on vacation. I can tell someone I have a 12 hour flight and that the round trip ticket cost $1400, but that is only part of the story. There are still other difficulties, time constraints, and expenses along the way. I choose to visit the United States frequently because relationships are important and leaving Japan helps me keep my sanity, but I make those decisions knowing what the journey often is like, and I want you to see that too. 2. I want to remember how God was faithful to me on this journey, how he never let me down and how he used this opportunity to teach me more about trusting in him and letting him take care of me.
A. Driving to the Airport
The requirement laid out by my bosses was that I be in my apartment by Friday, January 3rd. Because the flight to Japan is 12 hours long and Japan is 14 hours ahead of EST, I had to leave early on the morning of Thursday, January 2nd. I chose a flight at 7 a.m. out of Boston, in part because I would need to be at the airport by 5 a.m. Last year the Boston traffic created a great deal of tension for my mother, as she feared I would miss my flight. An early arrival at the airport would mean she wouldn’t hit traffic on the way into Boston, and so that is the option I chose.
What I could not have foreseen were two aspects that came into play 1. The primary route to the airport closed for three months of construction two days before I left New Hampshire.  2. A major snow storm moved into New England the morning I left. Fortunately, we knew about both of these. That is why we left for the airport at 2:30 a.m.
We pulled out of the driveway as flakes were already beginning to fly. My mother became quite concerned, and I spent the first hour of our journey silently praying. As we grew closer to Boston, questions arose about exactly which detour to take. I kept my mouth shut and kept praying.
By the grace of God we arrived at the airport at 4:45 a.m.
B. Boston Logan 
This was an exceedingly smooth part of the journey. I stood in line, checked my bag, rejoiced aloud that my bag was exactly 50 lbs (I am usually that person standing there taking 5 pounds out of my luggage), got through security, used the bathroom, read The Hobbit while I waited for my flight to board, and finally, boarded. Time passed, but otherwise, it was unremarkable.
C. The First Flight
It is rare to find direct flights from Tokyo to Boston or vice versa, so usually I need to make a connection. Last summer I went through D.C. and missed my flight to Tokyo, stranding me for 24 hours. This time I opted to fly through Chicago. While weather in Chicago is bound to be worse than in the south, I have friends in Chicago which would make being stranded there a thing of joy. And, as my mother pointed out, Chicago knows how to handle snow, while a few inches in the south grinds the world to a halt.
The flight from Boston to Chicago was scheduled to arrive at 8:55. My flight to Tokyo left at 10:45. Not a long layover, but enough. Because of the snow, however, the airplane was sprayed down with an orange slime and then made to wait for a break in the weather. Again, I am not complaining. I would rather be late than dead. This is just how the story went.
The flight got in just around 10. I didn’t know if I would have enough time or not. On my journey to my parents’ house O’Hare had required me to go through customs, recheck my luggage, switch terminals, and go through another security screening. This time around I had 45 minutes. If I had to go through security, it wouldn’t be enough. If there was no security, I could make it.
By the grace of God, the terminals I transferred between did not require an extra screening. I made it off of the plane, asked a worker for directions when I got turned around, found my gate, used the bathroom, and boarding had begun. There was no downtime. It was just one straight shot.
D. The Second Flight
That Thursday not only was there wintry weather in New England, but there was a storm in Chicago too. Again, we boarded, the plane was hosed down with orange slime, we made our way out to the runway, and we waited. I passed the time by chatting with my seatmate who was studying the script for Romeo and Juliet. He lives on a military base near Tokyo and is going to be in a community bilingual production of the play. The conversation distracted me enough that I didn’t notice the plane wasn’t taking off until we pulled in at a gate. We had to wait for the storm to pass. The passengers were offered the chance to get off, but I figured as long as there was a chance the plane was still going to take off, I wanted to see how the hand played out. Meanwhile, the wait wasn’t awful. We were served some snacks and I chain watched tv shows on the screen in the seat in front of me. Finally the weather cleared. Again we were drenched in orange slime and then pulled out to wait our turn on the runways.
At this point, I wasn’t impatient per say, but I was starting to wonder if our flight was going to get canceled. While I wouldn’t mind a day in Chicago, the last time I was scheduled for a flight that canceled because of weather, it was a day and a half before I could get home, and that was with multiple flights between the two cities.  Most airlines only have one flight between Chicago and Tokyo each day. With this many passengers, it could be days before we all made it out. As our airplane pulled away from the gate, I said, “God, I’m going to go to sleep now. I ask that when I wake up we will be in the air.” And God answered my prayer. I woke up half an hour later and we were airborne.  It was 3 p.m. We were four hours behind schedule.
The rest of the flight wasn’t too bad. By the grace of God I had gotten a window seat for both flights, and by the grace of God I was able to sleep a lot on that second flight. Sure, I was sitting up (I try not to recline) and sure, I would have liked it better if I could switch positions more, but I think I got a good 8 hours of sleep in. And when I’m already expecting a 12 hour flight, sitting in my seat for 16 hours isn’t that much worse. Time becomes inconsequential. In some ways it doesn’t exist. Time becomes a marker of how it affects my life in a few hours, not how it affects my life now.
But what would happen in a few hours was of some concern. The original plan was to arrive by 3 p.m. That would have provided plenty of time to get through customs, pick up my bag, go through security, get on the bullet train, switch to a local train, and be back in my apartment by about 8 or 9. But we were four hours behind. How far could I get that night? I had no idea how to find a hotel in Tokyo, and once the airline had dropped me off, I was no longer their responsibility. I know a couple of people in Tokyo, but I don’t know any of them well, and I didn’t have their information with me. “What do I do, God?” I asked. “This is an adventure,” he replied. “Trust me. Let me figure this out.” I got the sense I should try and get as far as possible that night, and to move as quickly as possible towards the trains.
E. Journey through Tokyo
UA 9678 pulled up to the gate at 7 p.m. I waited my turn to get off the plane, but after that was not shy about passing people whenever possible. Apparently 7 p.m. is not a popular time for flights in Tokyo. Every other time I’ve gone through customs there I’ve had to wait 20-45 minutes. This time, I think we were the only plane, and there was only one guy ahead of me in line. Afterwards I headed to the toilet, as I hadn’t voided my bladder since Chicago. As soon as I came out, I saw my suitcase on the luggage carousel. From there, a second customs checkpoint must be passed through. At random I chose the line on the end. Five people were in front of me. Immediately a new line opened up on the end, and I moved lines. Two people in front of me. No, wait, there was an officer opening yet another line. I moved over and became the first person through that line. This didn’t feel random. It felt like God was urging me to hurry and was clearing the way.
Like in most cities, the Tokyo airport is not actually in Tokyo. It’s substantially outside. The most efficient way to get in and out is by taking a train called the skyline. As I went downstairs to buy a ticket it dawned on me that I had never done this part before. There had always been someone else with me to help me figure it out. This time, it was just me. “Okay, God, which way do I go?” My spacial memory is pretty good, so I knew which corner of the airport to stand in, and which screens to stare at, but what to do from there was beyond me. I waited and managed to get the attention of a airport employee who was helping people choose which tickets to buy. To my great delight he spoke English. He asked me where I was going, and I told him I needed to get into Tokyo, then take the bullet train up to Koriyama. He punched the buttons on the screen, Japanese flying past far too quickly for me to read, and then gestured for me to insert the money: $102. I did so. After collecting my change I realized my ticket was for a train at 7:46. I glanced at my watch. It was 7:45. Several Japanese people were running towards a staircase I vaguely recalled as being the correct one. I joined them, ignoring the escalator and just bump, bump, bumping my suitcase down the flight of stairs. The train pulled up, doors opened. A conductor was standing on the platform. I pointed at my ticket, then the train. “Is this okay?” I asked in Japanese. Yes, he said it was, and I piled on.
Now, one of the delightful things about Japan is that there are several services which, for a fee of about $20, will ship your bag from the airport to your home, next day delivery. I had used this service on the way down, but had already decided not to use it on the way back up. And this was a good thing, for if I had used it, even the ten minutes it would have taken me to walk to that section of the airport, fill out the forms, and walk back would have meant I didn’t make that particular train. I don’t know how that would have affected the rest of the trains I took that evening. Maybe I would have been on exactly the same ones. Or maybe I would have ended up in Tokyo the whole night. I don’t know.
Anyway, I had my bags with me. On the airport express there is a section where people can stow their luggage and lock it up to prevent people from taking it. I put my suitcase and my quite heavy carry on into two of the 3 last remaining slots, chose a combination for the lock, then found my seat and penned the combinations onto my hand.. The scurry through the airport had left me flustered, and I double checked to make sure I had everything: my passport, my skyline tickets, my bullet train tickets, my coat, it was all there. But a feeling of dread came over me.  I wasn’t sure the combinations I’d put on my hand were the correct ones. Returning to the luggage area, I tried them. Neither worked. I switched them. No. Fairly sure of the first two numbers in the four number combination, I began systematically going through all 100 of the combinations. Nothing. Signs in the area clearly stated that in case of lost combinations, luggage could be claimed at the terminal station. One problem: I wasn’t going to the terminal station. Not even close. And I didn’t have time to go all the way out to wherever that was, then back into Tokyo. I wondered if I could just rip the handle off of my suitcase. By the grace of God, again, a conductor was passing by, checking tickets for the people who had purchased standing room only fare. I don’t know if the conductor noticed me trying every combination or if he was alerted by the man with standing fare who had helped me maneuver the bags into position, but the conductor came over and helped. He kindly asked for my passport, then for proof the suitcase was mine. Fortunately, the claim tag with my last name was still attached to the handle. The conductor used his key to open the locks and my baggage was free. Japan is known for its lack of crime, so I went ahead and left my baggage there unlocked for the remainder of the journey.
The skyliner pulled into Tokyo station at 8:51. Only two more bullet trains were heading to Koriyama that night: 8:56 and 9:44. I knew that the 9:44 would arrive too late for me to catch the local train out to my town. I had to do what I could to catch the 8:56.
There are a lot of maybes that enter the picture here. Maybe if I had known to go left to the staircase instead of right when I went off the train, I could have those 10 seconds back. Maybe if I traveled without a suitcase I could have run. Maybe if I were stronger I could have walked up the escalator, carrying my 80 lbs of luggage instead of just riding it. Whatever the case, the Tokyo station is too spread out, and though I was the second one off of the train and I beelined it to the correct track, I missed the 8:56 bullet train by 45 seconds.
In telling the story later, a friend groaned that I had to wait 50 minutes for the next train. But really, it didn’t seem that long. First, I just rested. My arms were getting rubbery from the weight of my baggage, and my body had warmed with the exercise, so despite the cool night air I peeled off my jacket and sweater. The airport employee had been very kind, but $102 actually struck me as too cheap for the a skyliner train plus a bullet train – I thought it closer to $120 – and I wondered if I had accidentally bought a ticket for a local train. Hurrying to catch the 8:56 this hadn’t bothered me, as I had decided to jump on board and straighten everything out later. But now, I wanted to know. I glanced at my watch. It was 9 p.m. I was in Tokyo, and I wasn’t sure what I was doing.  “Okay, God, what now?”
I found a train employee with a pleasant expression and asked if my ticket was for the bullet train. He confirmed it was, but the 9:44 would be on the left of the platform, not the right. The next bullet train on the right side was going to Sendai, which is the correct direction, but would not be making a stop in Koriyama. The train I wanted would be the fourth train on the left side. I thanked him, then pulled out my cell phone and began texting. I had already let two of the team leaders know I was four hours behind schedule and would be hard pressed to make it in that night. I texted them that I wouldn’t make the last train, then asked about the local bus schedule. There are buses that run from Koriyama to my town, but as they are more expensive than the train and take longer than the train, I’ve never bothered to figure out how they work. Rachel got back to me with what I was already pretty sure about, there were no buses running that late.
Koriyama possesses a distinct advantage over Tokyo, and that is that I know the area. Worst case scenario, I could sit up all night at a Denny’s, or a Round One (kind of like Chuck-E-Cheese for grownups), both of which were about a mile from the station. But I also have a friend there. I texted Christine and asked if I could spend the night at her place, and if so, what directions do I give to the taxi? Christine quickly told me I was welcome to stay with her, and insisted I not take a taxi but allow her to pick me up.
While all of this was going on, the kindly train employee popped over every time a train came to make sure I knew, “Not this train,” and then finally, “This is the train.” At last everything was resolved, well, as much as it was going to be, and I got on the 9:44 to Koriyama.
F. What Makes It All Worth It
I boarded the train quickly, sensitive of the fact that I had a rather large suitcase with me. I grabbed a window seat and shoved the bag against the wall. While I was forfeiting leg room, I couldn’t be accused of inconveniencing another passenger. A woman boarded and smiled pleasantly at me. I returned the smile and nodded that she could sit in the aisle seat. A man came and asked if he could sit there, so the woman moved over to the middle seat and gave him the aisle. She kept looking knowingly at me, but with my Japanese skills being weak, and being especially rusty after two weeks away, I was loathe to initiate a conversation. Initiating suggests I could maintain. I can’t.
But, to my surprise, she began the conversation. This is pretty rare among Japanese people, unless they’ve been drinking. She was holding an open can of beer, so clearly she had. We started with the usual questions: how long have I been here, what do I do, how old am I, etc. She decided she liked me and invited me to come see her sometime in Utsunomiya. We exchanged contact information, though I wondered if she would remember any of this in the morning. Then she asked why I had come to Japan. I did my best to explain in Japanese: “I am a Christian. God has hope. Japanese people were sad because of the tsunami and earthquake.” That’s about where started stumbling. I don’t know the verb, “to give” so I said something like, “God Japanese people hope has. A lot of hope. A lot of love. Everyone.” Then I asked if she understood. She said she did, and began petting my shoulder affectionately, which is also a sign of her being tipsy. On the other hand, I wondered how tipsy a person could get from beer. My teammates and I have been known to wonder if some Japanese people don’t pretend to be drunk so they can act with the freedom and affection they want to. As long as this was kind of working, I decided to keep going with it. “Do you go to church?” I tried to ask, but I couldn’t quite remember the syllables for “church.” I knew I was close, but the woman frowned in confusion. “Excuse me,” the man in the aisle seat politely interrupted, “I think the word she is looking for is ‘church.'” “Yes, that’s the word,” I heartily agreed. And he joined the conversation.
To find a Japanese person willing to discuss religion is rare. For someone who hasn’t been drinking to do it is exceedingly rare. This was a moment when my language fail actually became a language win, because it was his point of entry into the conversation. The man told us that he went to church last month because he is exploring religion. He knows about Buddhism and Shintoism, but he doesn’t know about Christianity and he wants to know.  In my heart, I wish I could explain the whole gospel in Japanese the way I’ve been trained to do in English. But I can’t. I don’t know the words yet. Not just the Christian words, but even the basic verbs of everyday language. Moments like these are what keep me going, for I sat there both wishing I knew more and grateful I understood what was being said.
And strange as it may sound, moments like these are what keep me going not only in language learning but in Japan. These are the moments I live for. These are the moments that make every other inconvenience experienced this day completely and totally worth it.
G. A Night in Koriyama
The train pulled in as promised just after 11. Christine said she would come pick me up at Mister Doughnut at midnight, after she had finished karaoke, so I made my way across the street. But Mister Doughnut was closed. I sat down and studied Japanese cards for 15 minutes until I just got cold. Then I called Christine, and she asked if there was someplace else I could wait. Well, the station might still be open. So back I went. The station was closed. I stood there and listened to part of a lecture on The Vikings and tried to stay warm.
Now, in fairness to the world, if I had REALLY wanted to get to my apartment that night, there were plenty of taxis lined up in front of the station. But, taking one back would have been about $100. I had $100 with me, but I didn’t feel like spending it on a taxi.
Christine has a tendency to run late. I know this about her, and usually I don’t mind. But that night I was cold. A few minutes after midnight I silently prayed, “God, please help Christine to come soon!” At that moment my phone rang. It was Christine. She was in one of the cars that had just pulled up in front of the station. Her sister Sarah came and helped me carry my bags and we loaded them into the car.
Back to the church/house we went, and Christine showed me the room where she had laid out a futon for me. What with being in a different time zone and having slept so much on the plane, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to sleep at all, but to my surprise, after some fitful dozing the first hour, I slept soundly until 7 when I was awoken by voices in the kitchen. As it was two or more men speaking, I stayed put, as only one adult male lives in the household. At 7:30 the voices left and Christine texted me that she would be down soon with breakfast. I ate with her and her two children, telling her about the adventures of the day before. She told me that she and Sarah and their kids were going sledding that day and they could drop me off at the train station. They would leave by nine.
H. The End
And so we did. The car left at nine, I was at the station by 9:20, and I took a train back soon after.
As strange as it sounds, the half mile walk from the train station to my apartment was one of the worst parts. My neck muscles ached from the strain the day before, and my arms that had held up so well were tantruming the whole way. Multiple times I had to stop and shift my load, but at that point there was no comfortable position. It was hard to believe that my suitcase hadn’t gained weight the past 40 hours. At the beginning it had felt so light. Now it was a burden to roll it along. At one point while packing my mother offered me a certain item and I declined it. “Mom,” I said, “it’s not that I don’t want that, it’s that during my travel I will already hate myself for every ounce I packed. At this point, I can’t take anything more; there is already too much.” It happens every time. I am incredibly grateful I took back that powdered milk, quick oats, dried fruit, and American candy, for these are hard to come by here. But the ounces weigh upon me: sliding them into the overhead compartment, hauling them through a train station in Tokyo, and dragging them down the street to their final destination.
And so I arrived. It was 10:30 a.m. in Japan on Saturday, and 8:30 p.m. on Friday back in New Hampshire. The journey had taken me 42 hours.

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Mustering Hope

As I type this, I do so knowing that my time in the states is coming to a close. In a day and a half I will begin the journey back. And in some ways that is a difficult pill to swallow. There are no extra activities in January or February. March is marked by saying goodbye to those who leave at the end of the month. There is little action to look forward to.

One day over this break my older sister reacted with surprise when she learned I watch a certain TV show, not because she objects to the show but because she assumes I am busy. I’m really not. If I don’t skype with people in the states more than I do it is because our schedules don’t line up, if I don’t hang out with Japanese friends more than I do it is usually because of their commitments not mine, and if I don’t email more than I do it is because life is weighing me down and I can’t think of any cheerful or amusing news. I spend my downtime at the junior high studying Japanese because I think that is important, but admittedly, one significant incentive is that there is nothing else to do. In the evening I might teach a class or I might have a meeting. Or I might not. There are multiple evenings when I return and spend the next five hours killing time. I try to workout, learn the guitar, do baking projects, work on my writing, etc. Sometimes I watch a movie or a television episode on the aforementioned sites. I don’t actually like watching TV all that much. Two hours a week is more than enough for me. Far more than most would guess I watch TV to keep from being utterly bored.

While there is little I can do to invent activities beyond what I already have, I do enter this next year with a determination to be intentional. The amount of time I have, combined with my tremendous relational capacity, means no one person can really make me excited about 2014. But, determined to find some hope, I sat down and wrote out that to which I could anticipate: interactions with people. I wrote out a list of who and how much they could handle and ways I should be intentional with them. It varies from person to person. Celeste I will continue hanging out with twice a week. My grandmother I can pen a letter to once a month. My friend Rebecca has two little ones and does a lot of volunteer work, but an email once every two months I don’t think will be too much. In all I comprised a list of 17 people with whom I could extend some measure of personal interaction. And that, that is enough. That is something to look forward to. That is enough to give me hope.

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