Monthly Archives: June 2014


About a year ago I read a blog post about how living overseas is, by definition, stressful. Even in the best of times it isn’t easy. You can read it here:

People who have never lived overseas don’t get that. They don’t realize the perpetually high level of stress I live at. When I tried to explain it to the school nurse, she looked surprised. “You sometimes feel lonely? Really?” Well, yeah! But it isn’t just that. It’s everything else too.

Stress like the following:

1. Last Friday doughnuts were served in the school lunch. This only happens once a year. I love these egg doughnuts, but that doesn’t mean I know how to eat them. I glanced at a student sitting a few seats to my left. She neatly sliced and ate her doughnut with her chopsticks. I began to do likewise. The girl sitting to my right looked at my plate, looked at my face, then very deliberately picked up her doughnut with her fingers, broke it, and brought it to her mouth. Her gaze was fixed on me. It was clear she expected me to follow her actions. Later that day I went out to eat with my coworkers. There was a preset menu, so we were all served the same items. One of the items was a fish, sans head and tail. I ate the outside and left the bones on my plate. A teacher on my right asked, “Don’t you eat the bones?” I pointed out that the teacher across from me had left bones on her plate. “It’s okay either way,” the first teacher replied. Uh huh. 

It sounds minor and it is. But it adds a certain amount of stress. I’ve learned a lot of Japanese table manners since coming, but I still get “the look.” I still have to pay attention to what those near me are doing. I can’t just zone while eating, or just enjoy myself and focus on the conversation. I always, always, always have to be aware of what I am doing.

2. I spend an hour or more a day studying Japanese. But I’m not fluent yet. It takes work to read. So sometimes, I don’t. In the grocery store I am, in many ways, illiterate. I pick items based on pictures, or memory of package design of something I liked before. I buy a lot of tofu, salmon, eggs, vegetables, and fruit because I don’t have to read more than the prices to navigate those sections. There is one brand of flour I buy, one brand of sugar, one brand of milk. 

3. You know that awkward feeling when you realize something in the room atmosphere has shifted and you figured it out ten seconds later than everyone else? That happens several times a week here. I don’t pick up the verbal cues so it is the tones and the silences that give more away than anything else. 

And that is just the basic stress. The stress that, no matter what else is going well, is always there. 

The upside to this stress is that it means I have an immediate connection with other ex-pats. In the states I’m that awkward person that doesn’t know how to start a conversation with a stranger. I don’t do small talk well, and most of the time it makes me uncomfortable. Overseas, however, that all dissipates. I bond immediately with people who have that stressed ex-pat look. Not the ones with the “Isn’t it a rush to live overseas?” glow. But the ones whose faces read, “Even when I love the people around me and am grateful for my job, sometimes I just want to sit down and cry my eyes out.”


That is the context. The background my daily life here. Why am I giving it to you now? Because this week has been worse. 

My group of ex-pat coworkers has been hammering out some team conflict for the past three weeks or so. It’s actually a really good sign, because all of this stuff was there last year but we shoved it under the rug. Now we are actually healthy enough as a team to deal with it. But it has been wearing, wearing to the point where I think we all need a two week break from the conflict resolution. 

Then came an email from my dad. I don’t have all the details yet, but at a family reunion last weekend some of the issues we have as a family started to bubble up. Just like the situation with my coworkers, this is stuff that genuinely has to be handled. But trying to handle both of these are the same time is wearing me thin. 

I find myself trying to pretend it doesn’t affect me. But my body betrays me. My shoulders are tense. Yesterday I felt like I had to work out, even though it was raining and it completely distresses the Japanese to see me running in the rain. I made it three miles before I was busted by the school nurse from one of my elementary schools. I went home, took a shower, and began eating chocolate. As strange as it sounds, I felt like God told me to eat some chocolate. Like I was supposed to acknowledge my weakness and accept the chocolate chemical high for the stress reliever that it was. I’m also tired, way more tired than I should be. I shouldn’t feel the need for this much sleep. And I shouldn’t have chest pains after I walk up a flight of stairs. 

In the middle of this, I am grateful for three things:

1. These have been stressful weeks, but they are actually better than the weeks I had when I first realized the dysfunction. Last year when I saw my coworkers and I weren’t harmonizing, I felt overwhelmed with grief. Ditto for the months I spent in college trying to sort out my family issues. I dealt with all of the emotions from both situations months, if not years, ago. So now I empathize with those who are hurting and rationally try to pick up the pieces. I hurt, but it’s not the same.

2. I receive about three packages a year here. I don’t have a steady stream of care packages showing up at my door. Yesterday I received two. Both belated birthday gifts. Both perfectly timed. In the middle of instability in multiple sectors of my life, I needed two of my friends to wrap their arms around me from a distance. 

3. I’m grateful for my relationship with God. What I want more than anything right now is to have a person who loves me unconditionally wrap his arms around me and just hold me. To give me strength by his sheer presence. To let me know by his love that everything will be okay. And in the gap of a human to do that, I’m not above visualizing Jesus doing that for me. He is exactly what I need. 


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Japanese Humor

Puns don’t work in Japan. I mean, every once in a while they do, but most of the time they don’t. A lot of jokes in the English speaking world are based on twists in the language. Like this one: 
“What do you call a cow without legs?  Ground beef.”
That riddle is playing with the multiple meanings of the word, “ground.” Or we base the joke on presumption of the definition for a multi-definition word based upon context. As in the following: “A man walked into a bar. He said, ‘ouch.'” For this joke the humor is found in the dual definition of the word, “bar” and the presumption that, based on the fact that it is a common opening line for many jokes, the listener expects the other definition.
A good chunk of the jokes I know don’t work in Japan because they aren’t aware of both definitions of the word. But even when they are, a joke can sometimes fall flat. For example, here is one of my favorite jokes:
“A man is in prison. He digs a hole to escape. The tunnel ends in the middle of a preschool playground. The man emerges from the tunnel and says, ‘I’m free! I’m free!’ A little girl looks at him scornfully and says, ‘So what? I’m four.'”
Recently at a work dinner I told this joke to a Japanese man sitting across from me. He is fluent in English, but after I told the joke, he cocked his head in the way that so many Japanese people do when they are perplexed and said, “Hmm, difficult.” Well, no, it’s really not. I explained to him that “three” sounds like “free”, especially when it is pronounced by small children whose “th” skills are still weak. My New Zealand friend had overheard the joke and turned her head to smile appreciatively, saying it would be especially funny in New Zealand, for in that country they have all but dropped the “th” sound. But no, the Japanese man still didn’t get it. 
Sarcasm, another staple in the American sense of humor, doesn’t work here either. For sarcasm to work a person has to either indicate it via vocal inflection – a tricky thing in a language where the ideal intonation is to sound like the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun – or they have to know something is so obviously not true that it is clearly a joke. And honor is so important in this culture that they can’t make fun of people  who are just that clueless. An American friend of mine watched several seasons of the tv show,  “Friends” dubbed into Japanese to hone his language skills, and he said that Chandler just came across as a jerk. 
The most regretful part of this is that at times people will tell a bad joke and pretend that it is funny because they assume that is American humor. Not a racist, bigoted, or misogynist joke. Just a bad joke. For instance, here is an exchange I had with a student my first year.
Student: You are cute.
Me: Thank you. (I said this cautiously, as something about his tone struck me as insincere).
Student: Usodaru! (Translation: that’s a lie). Joke, joke.
Me: Damedesu. (That’s bad).
Student: American joke desu. (Translation: It’s an American joke)
Me: Hey, don’t call a joke an American joke if it’s not funny! We have way better jokes than that! 
I knew the kid had no idea what I was saying, but I realized that I was way more offended at his slander of American humor than I was at his withdrawal of the compliment. 
This is not to say that the Japanese are humorless. I have still found situational and physical humor to work to a certain extent. 
For example, later at that same work dinner, we were served bread. Really good bread. So we all asked for another roll. The waiter served some of us, then returned to the kitchen to wait for the next batch to come out of the oven. “Choto matte, onegaishimasu,” he said when he got to me. “Please wait a minute.” A few minutes later I mused aloud, “Where is my roll? Oh, right, I’m waiting. I’m ‘matteing.’ Wait, how do I say that in Japanese.” I was told to say, “Machimasu.” “Machimasu, machimasu,” I repeated to stick it in my brain. “Hey, I can use that phrase for all sorts of conversations. Like when people ask me if I have a boyfriend.” At that point I recreated the inevitable conversation. “Boyfriend wa iimasuka?” And I said it in the way people often do, with a tilt of their head and a lilt in their voice that indicates they badly want me to say “yes” and tell them all about this incredibly dreamy guy I’m going out with. “Machimasu,” I said, hunching my shoulders and slightly shaking my head, like the spinster I am. 
To my surprise the Japanese man sitting diagonally to me, whose English is rough at best, cracked up. Something about the situation or the response or my body language resonated and he doubled over with laughter. 
About a week later, I suggested the ninth graders I help teach present skits that illustrated the most recent grammar point. The head teacher agreed and asked me to come up with a sample skit the two of us could do together.
I wanted to emphasize to the students that the skit didn’t have to be long, it just had to use the grammar point. At the same time, they had to have some context for the sentences I was about to say. I went with a person – me – asking where her car is, but because she is drunk the other teacher tells her not to drive. 
To indicate drunkenness, I entered the scene staggering about. While I don’t hang around drunk people, I’ve seen plenty of movies, and I pulled out every comedy chop I had. To my delight, the students immediately picked up on the humor and began chuckling when I entered. 
That is, the first classroom did. The second classroom just stared at me. Tough crowd. 
There is humor in Japan. I’m just still trying to figure out exactly how to execute it. 

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