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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?”

“No.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

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?”

“Yellow.”

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?”

“Red.”

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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Sometimes Being Me Is Good Enough

This afternoon I felt ancy. I didn’t have any immediate work to complete and for some reason I didn’t want to sit at my desk. A glance at the schedule told me the eighth graders were in P.E. so I mosied up to the gym to watch them. The women and men were playing alternating five minute soccer games. When I arrived the women were playing. One boy, Tatsuya, asked if I wanted to join. I couldn’t tell if he was being serious, so I declined. When the men played I noticed the teacher joined in to even up the teams. The women came back out and this time I counted and noticed the teams were uneven. Quickly asking the P.E. teacher for permission to join in, I asked around to see which boys were wearing sneakers in my shoe size. Tatsuya wore the right size but begged off at first, saying his feet were stinky. After a moment, and a look at my shoes, he let me borrow them. 
I played two rounds with the ladies. Frankly, I’m not very good. My ball handling skills could use a lot of work, I haven’t the foggiest when I am off sides, and both times I attempted a goal I kicked straight to the goalie.
But here is the thing: at the end of the period, walking back to my desk, I realized that for those twenty minutes my imperfections weren’t just okay, they were exactly what was needed.
I’ve often thought of working on my soccer skills. I even bought a soccer ball two years ago but never actually practiced with it. I could kick myself for all of the mistakes I made today. The girls I played with, however, aren’t any better than me. Some of them are probably worse. They didn’t need a Mia Hamm out there dominating the field. They just needed another person on par with their skill level.
Another thing: my shoe size. I accept it as a quirk about the culture in which I’m immersed that my feet are the Japanese equivalent of huge. In America I wear an 8.5. meaning the only time I can’t find shoes are during the 80% off sales when the stock is made up of “huge” and “tiny.” I don’t buy a lot of shoes in Japan. Sneakers are easy because I shop the men’s section. At the bowling alley I know who else wears my size. And a recent conversation with my athletic, manly principal taught me that he and I could trade if need be. Today though, today wearing men’s sizes was perfect. All of the women needed their shoes during the game while the men didn’t. If I shared a size with the women, I would have been playing in my loafers. It wasn’t a miracle I could find shoes that fit from the men on the sidelines. In fact I ASSUMED I would find shoes that fit.
Because sometimes being me isn’t just good enough, it’s perfect.

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Nothing is Wasted

Today I wrote Christmas cards at work. My grandparents live in a retirement community and as people downsize, my grandparents take their odds and ends and distribute them to their grandchildren. I’ve accepted a lot of the blank, mismatched Christmas cards, and this year I realized I have enough to give one to every student at my school. So there I was, writing simple lines that I hope the students will understand.

Suddenly a song lyric passed through my head. “Nothing is wasted.” It’s a song by Jason Gray. “Nothing is wasted,” he sings, “In the hands of our redeemer nothing is wasted.”

I thought for a moment of the people who had originally bought each card. They finished their lists and had one, or two, or a dozen cards left over. “What a waste!” they may have thought. “Why did we buy all of these?” “What a waste!” they may have though again as they or their children downsized into a smaller apartment. “Why did we hang onto these for so many years?”

But it wasn’t a waste. Not ultimately. I’ve found Christmas cards in Japan but they are expensive: at least $1 a piece, usually more. I can’t afford to buy a card for every student. But I did manage to find space in my suitcase for this collection, a collection some might have told me was wasted space. So much waste. But because of this waste, these students are receiving the only Christmas card they may ever get. That could be a trifling. Christmas cards aren’t food or water or clothing. These kids aren’t dying, at least not very quickly. I like to think, however, that there is a point to me giving them. Maybe some kids won’t care. But maybe others will feel more loved because of that Christmas card.

Nothing is wasted. In the hands of our redeemer nothing is wasted. Even as I wrote today, I was filled with gratitude for all of the people along the way who “wasted” time, energy, and effort getting these kids Christmas cards.

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Tipping My Hat to Squanto

I’m sure I heard the story at some point growing up: the Pilgrims arrive in Massachusetts after a long and weary journey. They were aiming for the temperate climate of Virginia but their supplies ran out and they were forced to land at Plymouth Rock. The first winter is rough and many die, but that spring they meet an American Indian named Squanto who speaks English and teaches them how to plant crops and how to survive.

I heard the story again recently and wanted to jump out of my seat with excitement. There was no other settlement within six hundred miles and THEY MET SOMEONE WHO SPOKE ENGLISH. I think this moves, touches, and surprises me because I get how rare that is. For the past three years whenever I’ve met anyone who speaks conversational English, I’ve breathed a sigh of relief. Because English is mandatory for the three years of junior high school, and is often taught once a week in elementary schools, quite a few people in Japan speak basic English. And after a few years here I speak basic Japanese. But that doesn’t mean I don’t start fretting or that I don’t get panicky in certain situations.

Last weekend, for instance, I went down to Tokyo. For some reason that I never actually discerned, Tokyo was packed and I didn’t have a hotel reservation for Sunday night. My train tickets weren’t good until Monday so going back early wasn’t an option. Sunday evening plans to stay with a friend fell through. I called the hotel I’d stayed at Friday, but which had been full Saturday, and to my delight, they had a spot open. But then they began asking me questions that I didn’t understand.

At that moment I happened to be on the outskirts of a crowd of 200 people who had just exited a bilingual church. I looked around. There was an Australian who often translates the sermon. I asked him for help, but he brushed me away, insisting he doesn’t know formal Japanese. He suggested I ask [insert syllables here], but I didn’t recognize the sounds as a name, much less who they identified. I pushed deeper into the crowd and found an American friend, Ann. “I need someone who speaks Japanese,” I told her. She laughed and gestured to the crowd. “But I don’t know who speaks English well enough to understand what I need help doing!” Fortunately, Ann was able to find me bilingual Japanese woman who happily made the phone call for me.

A lot of my life here is a journey of trying to be self-sufficient, often succeeding, and occasionally failing. The safe activities, those I’ve mastered, carry me through a lot. But every once in awhile I get brave, and I branch out: I go to Tokyo unsure of my accommodations, I buy a new food at the supermarket, I take a bus, not quite sure where it will end up. I’m able to do be brave, however, because I have a basic comprehension of the language.

The Pilgrims? They decided to be brave. They went to new lands and arrived hoping to be self-sufficient and massively failing. Squanto’s knowledge of the English language was a gift for them. The fact that he was willing to help them DESPITE the fact that he learned English from his kidnappers puts him up there with Saint Patrick. For both Saint Patrick and Squanto forgave those who kidnapped and enslaved them and reached out to those very peoples to be a gift to them.

This is Thanksgiving weekend. I am thankful for all of those who have come along side of me, for all of those willing to risk and help me, for incredible provision that God sends me, and for men like Squanto who show me what forgiveness looks like.

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A quick history of why Asians wear surgical masks in public

This post confirms a lot of what I have suspected about the origins of mask wearing in this culture. Because, yes, people wear masks as rampantly as the article says they do.

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