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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Mushi-Mushi Land

Back during the economic boom of the 1990s, a local man decided to set up a theme park revolving around the stag beetles and rhinoceros beetles so common in the area. On March 11, 2011 Fukushima prefecture and Miyagi prefecture experienced large tsunamis as a result of a 9.0 earthquake centered not too far off the coast of Japan. One of the things damaged was a nuclear power plant about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away from the park. Because of the contamination, the park was shut down.

For more information on the park and its history, read

Recently, some colleagues and I went exploring. Here is what the park looks like now.

This first picture is from just outside the park, 1 kilometer (half a mile) away, to be exact. The character on the sign is the park’s official mascot. It is, you guessed it, a cartoonized version of a rhinoceros beetle.

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Inside the neglected park is run down. There is rust on the equipment. The weeds and grass have overtaken a good chunk of the area. It’s empty, and I was a little shocked at how run down a place can get so quickly.

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This next picture shows a bit of the former glory, what it used to look like. If you look at it the right way, you can make out the praying mantis structure of this playground set:

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Outside the park are big black plastic bags full of contaminated soil. The area is now officially safe, but even though no new radiation is coming, the contaminated items still needed to be removed. In this case, that means bags that sit by the highway until someone figures out what to do with them.

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Yet despite everything, the view from the top of the mountain is still amazing, a reminder of why a park was built there and the beauty of the area that the owner wanted to showcase. It reminds me of a scene in Evan Almighty when God pulls Evan aside and shows him the valley as he created it. In the same way, I look at this and see what it is this place was meant to be.

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Local Mascots

Japan loves cute things. Hello Kitty? Yeah, that’s Japanese. Cute cartoon characters, both imported and homegrown, are really popular over here. Japan loves cute, and their term for cute – kawaii – is high praise. But because kawaii is so popular, it is sometimes applied to multiple things.

One of the things it is applied to is depictions of devils. Here, for example, is a local icon. There are actually three of these located in the area. This one is in the train station. It’s title is “Oningyousama” which roughly translated means, “Mr. Doll.”

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Personally, I find the thing to be downright creepy, like a gargoyle or something.

Mascots are huge in Japan. Not just for sports teams. Cities and prefectures have their own mascots as well. A few decades ago a nearby town decided to build a tourist area around the stag beetles that are so common in this area. Not only did they build a park to see the beetles, but a hotel and a set of roller coasters as well. And, of course, they came up with a cute mascot: a giant stag beetle.

Last weekend I went and cheered at a local road race. To my utter surprise, the mascot was there, running the 3 kilometer race. How that person managed to go the whole way in such a gangly costume I’ll never know. But there it was, running along. Smiling, as always.

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Just Your Abnormal Friday

Today was a normal Friday. Or not. It depends upon how you look at it. All of the “normal” things happened: I went to work, helped teach some students, ate lunch, etc. But this day was still special because of the oddball things that happened. Here are three that stick out:

1. I ate an apple.

Japan has apples. Northern Japan is especially known for its apples. And the province I’m from, Fukushima, is known as one of the top apple areas in the country. Therefore, when I pulled out an apple as part of my lunch, you might think it wouldn’t have phased them. But it did. Here apples are only eaten once they have been peeled and neatly sliced. I opted for American style and bit into the red orb. Not only was this less prep work, not only did this mean I didn’t have my apple turning brown in my lunchbox, but it also meant I retained a lot of the nutrition is in the peel.

I knew my method of eating the apple would shock the students. What I didn’t anticipate was HOW shocked they would be. Instead of gaping and staring, they ignored me. They avoided looking at me. It was the same attitude people get when they are being shamed into social conformity. All because of an apple and the way I ate it.

2. We were given forewarning of a typhoon day on Tuesday. 

Typhoon Vongfong is heading straight for Japan. If its course continues on the current trajectory, it will reach here on Tuesday. An announcement was made to the students that if school was canceled on Tuesday, the Board of Education would make a decision by noon on Monday.

So why was this weird? We don’t get days off of school here for weather. At least, we didn’t in the past. Last winter my town had its first snow day in a decade. We get snow here, but people wrap chains around their tires and push through. Meanwhile, I am given to understand that typhoon days are equally rare, but we had one last October, and again this past Monday. Now we are facing another potential typhoon disruption.

I fully support the decision to have people stay home when the weather is dangerous. The remarkable thing is that these precautions are being taken. Either the weather is getting worse or the schools are getting more cautious.

3. My co-worker recommended that American women hang men’s underwear outside their house.

I was telling the Japanese teacher of English with whom I work that in the U.S. young adults are more likely to live with other single young adults than with their parents. He asked if these are mixed gender apartments and houses. Sometimes they are, I told him, but I’ve only lived with other females. I thought this would be applauded by the Japanese sense of propriety, but to my surprise he told me I should live with men. This is out of concern for my safety, to have a man to protect me and scare off creeps. Then he went on to tell me that some Japanese women who live alone will buy men’s underwear and other clothing and hang it out on their clothes line to make it look like a man lives there.

I think I’ll start by buying mace. But, you know, I guess if I feel threatened to I could start buying men’s underwear and tossing it in my wash…


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そらんぶし (soran bushi)

Yesterday was a really slow day at work. Slow to the point of boring. I only had two classes, and in one of them the students were taking a practice test, which meant that all I did was hand out sheets. Most of the time I stood to the side and calculated how many meals worth of perishable food I have at my apartment to figure out if grocery shopping this week is a wise idea (it isn’t). The second class was slightly more stimulating, but still not mentally exerting. Back at my desk in the teacher’s room there was nothing to grade and no assignments to prep. 

Deprivation provides appreciation, and days like today remind me how grateful I am to have teachers who partner with me. Today was extraordinarily boring, but my first two years this hum drum was par for the course. That most days this year aren’t mind numbingly boring is a gift I don’t take for granted. Furthermore, because of so much experience with boredom at work, I know how to ameliorate it. First of all I study. This year I haven’t studied Japanese as much as I should. Today I reviewed flashcards for an hour and a half. Secondly, I read. Sometimes I forget how much I miss reading. I pulled out Judy Greer’s memoir during lunch, and read a chapter from Naomi Novik’s Throne of Jade while giving my brain a break from studying. Thirdly, I invited myself to other classes. Namely, P.E.

One of the ninth grade classes had P.E. fourth period, so I wandered up to the gym to see what they were doing. Last week I got invited to join them for table tennis. Yesterday the teacher came over and explained that they were learning a traditional Japanese dance called the soran bushi, and I was welcome to join them. I accepted gladly. While my Japanese isn’t good enough to track every command the teacher calls out, there was a video playing which I could glance at when I got lost. What’s more, I had a small background in this dance. Last fall at a different junior high the eighth graders invited me to participate in a dance they were doing as part of a larger skit, and the dance was this same one. The afternoon before the festival six eighth grade girls crowded around me and taught me the basics. Later another teacher sent me a youtube link so I could watch it a couple of times. While I didn’t master it, I was taught the premise: that many of the motions mimic the traditional Japanese method of fishing in honor of that popular vocation. This meant I at least understood why my hands were doing the gestures (pulling a rope, throwing fish over my shoulder, casting out a net) as opposed to aimlessly going through the motions. Yesterday I revisited that dance. 45 minutes doth not a master make, and most parts I still fumble through, but my thighs certainly got a workout, I got to hang out with the students, I learned more about a Japanese art, and I had fun. 

That, I thought, was the end. It was a wonderful experience, but not quite blog material. Until that afternoon. 

Yesterday afternoon we had a pep rally for a sports day coming up soon. All of the pep rallies I’ve been to here are the same: students make a tunnel, the athletes run through it in their uniforms and line up, the principal makes a ten minute speech, each team gets on stage and introduces every member, an all male cheering squad gets on the stage and runs through a dance/cheer with a big old taiko drum, we clap, we bow, and students leave. It’s fun, and I like Japanese pep rallies a lot better than American ones, but I know what is coming. There isn’t any variation. I know what to expect. 

Except yesterday there was a surprise. After the usual cheer, the squad of nine males began dancing the soran bushi. I was flabbergasted. They were good too. At least much better than I expected from a group of ninth graders who I had never before seen dance, who have never had dance lessons, and who aren’t guys lining up for professional auditions. Considering the parameters of this squad, this wasn’t a situation in which the teacher was able to be choosy, and the results were not too shabby. They had clearly had extra practice, as they were dancing much better than the girls I was dancing next to a few hours earlier. Come to think of it, I had noticed that the boys as a group were dancing better than the girls. Those extra practices would account for it. 

I wish I could post videos here of both the pep rally as well as the dance. However privacy dictates I abstain. Instead, I am including a link to the video we watched in class so you can see what the dance is like. Enjoy!

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Maybe I Know More Than I Think: Reflections On 2.5 Years In Japan And Comprehension Of Culture

Back when I was preparing to graduate from college I remember looking back over my time at school and thinking, “Wait, did I learn something?” Please don’t misunderstand me: I loved my time at university. I was diligent with my studies while learning to back off and not push myself to academic perfection I sought in high school. I especially loved my general education classes, and I truly believe I learned an abundance from them. It was my major that I had a harder time with. I chose to study anthropology because I saw a judgmental nature within myself, and I wanted to lose that. I wanted to be more accepting of American culture and lose the ethnocentrism I saw within my heart. And I was successful, at least to a certain extent. I don’t know if I’ve lost all of the pride, but I know I have a lot less of it now than I did when I was 18. I know studying anthropology was a good decision for me. But when it came to explaining what it is that I learned over those 36 credit hours, that was a little bit more difficult. 
Recently I’ve been asking myself a similar question about Japanese culture. I read an article in a recent issue of Smithsonian magazine that taught me about an element of this culture with which I was entirely unfamiliar. (For that article, see here). “Have I learned anything in my time here?” I wondered. 
Then came today. My seventh graders have already learned the grammar to give descriptions in first and second person. Soon they will learn how to describe a third party. My Japanese Teacher of English asked me to put together a series of flashcards with characters the students could describe. I was happy to oblige, and sat down to piece a list together. 
In some ways, I feel like I don’t know anything. The lead singer of any band in Japan could pass me on the street and I wouldn’t have a clue that I brushed by fame. I can’t describe the likes and dislikes of the most popular anime characters, and I don’t know where Dragonball is from. But the longer I looked at the list, the more I realized that it illustrates what I HAVE learned during my time here. I know the names of the bands my students like the most, even if I can’t tell you the songs or the names of the band members. I know that Mickey and Minnie are popular but Goofy and Pluto are not. I know that everyone knows Snoopy and no one knows Charlie Brown. Winnie the Pooh is popular, but Piglet is basically unknown. I know that even a preschooler knows who Santa Claus is, but no one here knows he lives at the North Pole. I can tell you the most popular soccer player from Japan’s world cup team, and I can name the most popular anime characters. I may still feel out of the loop, but I have learned enough to teach well, or at least to come up with a list of characters the students will know.  
It’s something. It isn’t everything, but it is something. 


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This Is How We Do It

All cultures revert to patterns and prescribed ways of doing and acting. Some cultures highly value tradition and some highly value innovation. There are pros and cons to each path.

On graphs that show typical cultural mindsets, Japan and the U.S. often fall on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. One example of this is that the U.S. often embraces a new and unique way of doing something. Whether it is wearing jeans backwards or having pancakes for supper, the person who implements such change is considered “cool” or “innovative” or “pioneering.” Japan, on the other hand, values doing things a certain way because “This is how we do it.” Following you will find three examples of things that don’t quite jive in my brain, but which I accept are part of the culture and won’t change just because they befuddle me. 

1. Last Friday brought new reminders of the way things are done in Japan.  In the morning a group of five visitors came to see the principal. A couple of us scurried off to the kitchenette to prepare six cups of tea. Serving tea to a guest is pretty customary in Japan, especially in business situations, but I’ve also been served complementary tea at a pastry shop and at the jewelry shop I stepped into to have the screws on my glasses tightened. Serving tea at the school isn’t my job, but it was an especially slow morning and the woman whose job it was had stepped out of the building to run some errands. So there we are: the counselor, the interim math teacher, and me. The counselor was frazzled because she couldn’t find six tea cups that matched. 

“What about these?” I asked. There were six simple white cups that all matched. 

“Those are coffee cups,” she replied.

“Could we use them for tea?” I asked.

“No, they’re coffee cups.”

Okay. Well, I didn’t want to bring it to this, but, 

“In the U.S. we sometimes serve tea with cups that don’t match.”


“Maybe we should just serve them coffee?” The young math teacher has now chimed in. The search for six matching tea cups has proved fruitless. Coffee it is. 

This was all taking place late morning, and the coffee had cooled down. To freshen it up, the counselor added boiling water to the pot. The math teacher set out saucers and packets of cream. I grabbed the sugar sticks. Some were blue and some were pink. I was hoping they wouldn’t care about that minor fact, but just in case, I put all of the blue sticks on one tray and all of the pink sticks on the other tray. 

As there was a good chance I would make a mistake in serving the coffee, I let the counselor and the math teacher go in with the trays. But as I sat pondering what had just happened, I realized it cleared up an incident from seven years ago.

Back in 2007 my family visited my older sister, who was living in this same town in Japan. At the time, she was working at this school. When my family came for a visit, we were all served coffee. I though this was because we were Americans and they assumed we liked coffee better. In fact, none of us drink coffee on a daily basis, and three or four of us downright despise it. Still, I got a few slurps down in order to be polite, but I remember thinking how weak it was. I barely could taste the coffee. Teachers rotate schools at a rapid pace in this district, so I don’t believe any of the faculty present seven years ago still works there today. But the cups may not have changed. And perhaps that is the entire reason that we were served weak coffee one hot August morning seven years ago.

2. Friday at lunch time another difference arose, albeit comparatively minor. While usually a school lunch was provided, because of a crazy schedule, we all brought our own lunch that day. One student had grapes in his lunch. I watched as he systematically began squeezing the pulp into his mouth and neatly laying the skins to the side. This wasn’t a personality quirk. I had heard this is how Japanese eat grapes, but this was the first time I had actually seen it. “You know, in America,” I remarked casually, “we eat the skins. My mother is a dietitian and she always told me the skins are good for me.” The students all looked appropriately amazed. “Here, give me a grape, and I’ll show you.” The boy obliged and I popped it into my mouth. A couple other students wanted to try too. They didn’t make faces or anything. But I can almost guarantee you that they will keep squeezing the pulp out every time they eat grapes. 

3. On Wednesday a student came into the teacher’s room (in Japanese schools the homerooms stay together, teachers revolve in and out, and when teachers aren’t teaching they return to a general teachers’ room). It almost looked like he was wearing makeup. Now, Japan does have makeup for men, but junior highers, male or female, aren’t allowed to wear makeup to school. I thought some more about what was different and realized his lips had a bluish tinge. 

“Have you been swimming?” I asked him. 


Japanese elementary and junior high schools, at least the ones around here, have pools and swimming is part of the P.E. curriculum. The temperature outside was about 23 C (73 Fahrenheit) and it was a cloudy day. I don’t know if the pool is heated or not. But the kid’s lips were blue. 

Now, I completely understand that they probably need to finish up their curriculum and the sudden drop in temperature (we lost about 10 Celsius/20 Fahrenheit degrees in a week) was unexpected. The thing that doesn’t quite work in my brain is that in the hottest part of summer, Japanese people become quite anxious if they see someone going for a run in the rain. Or a walk in the rain without an umbrella. One time some friends and I were hiking, got caught in a downpour, and began biking back. A woman pulled over and insisted we take plastic garbage bags and put them on. We were already soaked. And it was warm out. I just don’t quite get it. And mind you, this rain fear is not new from the radiation. It was present long before 2011. 

There are certain ways things are done. They may or may not make sense to me. But in fairness, most people in the world don’t understand why Americans will remain stopped at a red light when no one else is around. And that is a rule I faithfully followed, even when I recurrently finished a shift at 10:30 p.m. and had to wait on empty streets for the lights to change. We all have our own comprehension of the rules. I understand that, even if I don’t understand the individual customs.


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