Tag Archives: ex-pat problems

The Same Security Blankets As Before

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Experiencing Illiteracy

I am naturally drawn to challenges, an attitude which helps when living in a culture different than the one in which I was raised. Sometimes it is a game to figure out what the person is saying or what the ingredients in this food are. Making the world into a fun game is one of the best attitudes an ex-pat can adapt, so I try to keep it my baseline.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t see the flip side. Sometimes I wish I just knew what was going on! That desire is what keeps me studying the language. The more I study, the more I understand. The frustration, therefore, is healthy too.

Meanwhile, I learn empathy. As I struggled through an alphabet completely unlike the ABCs that English, German, and Spanish had shared, as I hesitantly sounded out syllables and hoped both that I could actually remember the correct sound as well as that I would win this real world game of Mad Gabs, I began to empathize with adults who can’t read, or who struggle to read. I’ve gotten really good at guessing, but sometimes I make mistakes, and when those mistakes bite me, I think of people who can’t read in ANY language. 

In the grocery store I’ve begun to realize how much I rely on the colors, fonts, and pictures of packaging. This is what the sugar looks like:

Making a point 005

This is the part that tells me it is sugar:

Making a point 006

And this is the thing I actually look at:

Making a point 007

Here is the flour I buy:

Making a point 008

These words indicate that it is flour:

Making a point 009

but all I’m looking at are the yellow flowers and red and white pictures. 

Not having those familiar sights can cause minor panic. A couple of months ago I needed to buy more toilet paper. I headed to the same drug store I always purchase it at and bee lined towards the paper goods aisle. I found the section and looked around. Here was the toilet paper, but where was the packaging with the red flowers? I’d calculated it was the cheapest stuff. Where was it? WHERE WAS IT? I thought about hunting down an employee and hysterically asking them, “Where are the red flowers?” which is about as much relevant Japanese as I could muster, and it still wouldn’t be enough. I took a breath, looked around, and bought different toilet paper. I don’t know if the brand went out of business or just changed their look, but in that moment I thought of the refugees who live in my area of Chicago and how much updated looks on products probably affect them. 

None of this sounds normal. And I get that. I don’t think I can ever adequately explain it to most of my friends. I entered a club when I moved over here, a club of people who know what it is like to be confused in the grocery store, who know what it is like to cling to a brand because it is all they have energy to decipher, and who know just a piece of what it is like to be illiterate. 

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Stress

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: http://www.lauraleighparker.com/2012/03/stress-missionary/

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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Strange Bedfellows

People say that when you live in a foreign country you change. It’s true. Naturally you pick up some of the culture of the inhabitants, your food and clothing preferences change, and you are stretched by having cross cultural interactions. 

But there are other ways you change that people don’t always tell you about. You change to accommodate what is available to you from your own country within the limitations of the local environment. 

Let me explain with the following examples, brought to you by the letter “M“:

A. Milk – I love milk. I am a die hard skim milk drinker. Through and through. And in the states, while I will occasionally drink 1%, given the choice between 2% and another beverage, I’ll pick the other beverage. Or go without. Whole milk is entirely out of the question. I don’t like the fatty taste or the way my stomach feels after drinking enormous quantities of fatty milk. It isn’t the lactose, as I will drink a quart of skim milk without flinching. It really is the fat. 

But I can’t find skim milk in Japan. At least not in my rural area. I can’t even find 1%. There is exactly one brand which carries 2% milk, and that is the only one I will buy. Early on, I had to face a decision: drink 2% or don’t drink milk at all. It wasn’t a hard decision. What’s more, the milk that shows up in school lunch is whole milk. At first it was strange to drink that cup a day. But I built up a tolerance to it. 

One of the local junior highs often sends milk home with my coworkers. My coworkers have more than they want to drink, so they offer it to me. I could turn up my nose at it, seeing as the fat content is higher than I prefer. Or I could accept it gladly. See, milk here is 188 yen a liter. That’s about $8 a gallon, for my U.S. readers. So if someone offers me six cups of milk (1.2 liters), I’m not about to turn up my nose at it, especially because that is one of the first items I run out of, so the milk is not only free but saves me trips to the grocery store. 

B. Music – Karaoke is big in Japan. In fact, the Japanese invented karaoke. In the states I didn’t go because most of my mental database is of the genre labeled “Christian.” While I appreciate a good melody, it is the lyrics that are most important to me. Songs have a way of solidifying their message in my brain, so I am careful about what I choose to sing. An awful lot of songs are about love, usually either the whirlwind of a fresh romance or the sorrow of unrequited love. I don’t seek out a lot of those songs. I don’t need the former reminding me of what I don’t have right now, and I don’t need the latter reminding me of where I have been in the past. 

Then came Japan and karaoke. I wanted to be able to engage with the culture, but I can’t read fast enough to keep up with the Japanese lyrics. Every karaoke selection I’ve seen has a large section of English songs. But they aren’t ones I inherently know. Living here has been a crash course in American pop songs. I’ve become familiar with the most popular songs from P!nk, Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, Plain White T’s, the Fray, and others. In fact, I’ve intentionally youtubed a lot of these songs so that I am ready for karaoke. 

C. McDonald’s – In the states I shunned McDonald’s. I didn’t like the way it made my stomach felt and there was almost always a healthier alternative. I went years without eating at that franchise.

Then came Japan. I don’t remember when I started frequenting McDonald’s, but now I go there once every couple of months. Sometimes it is because I’m craving beef. Other times it is because I just want something American. The other local U.S. franchises either altered their fare to fit the local taste buds (I’m lookin’ at you, KFC and Subway) or aren’t actually a meal (ahem, Starbucks) or are ridiculously difficult to get to ([cough], Dominos). So, I eat there. When I return to the U.S., I will probably shun McDonald’s again. But for now, I eat it. 

D. Marvel Comics – As a kid I never got into comic books, and being only slightly interested in the movies D.C. comics put out, I didn’t jump on the Marvel band wagon. Until Japan.

It started gradually: I watched The Avengers with some friends. The most frustrating thing to me was the lack of character development. Exactly why did I care about these people? But I realized most other people had seen the movies that came first. “I bet that would have made more sense to me,” I commented to Ashley, “if I had seen Iron Man first. Or Iron Man 2. Or Captain America. Or ThorOr a movie about the Hulk.” Her eyes grew wide. “You haven’t seen any of them?” Nope. 

And so the saga began. We watched all four movies, then went back and rewatched The Avengers. Last year I saw Iron Man 3 on one of my flights between Japan and the U.S. And last weekend I felt like seeing a movie, so I caught Captain America 2

Why? Why this sudden welcoming to Marvel Comics movies? Well, now that I’ve seen them I am following the genre, though clearly not wholeheartedly, else I would have bothered to see Thor 2 last year. It’s because there aren’t a lot of English movies that make it out to rural Japan. Sure we have our own collection of films, I subscribe to Hulu Japan, and there is a video rental store about half a mile away. But sometimes we just want to go see a movie in a theatre. And of those that make it to the nearby city, quite a few are dubbed into Japanese. 

In fact, to see some movies in English, we have to go to the next major city over. Instead of just a half hour, we’re traveling an hour and a quarter.  And even though I saw Captain America 2 while in Tokyo, it was the only movie in English in that cinema. I watch Marvel movies because Marvel movies are some of the only options I have. 

 

So, I am changing. At least for the time I am in Japan. I’m becoming more like the Japanese, but I’m also adapting pieces of American culture I never would have thought I’d adapt. C’est la vie. 

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Can You Speak Japanese?

The other day I was pondering the question, do I know Japanese? I mean, if somebody back in the states asked me, what would I say? 

A little? 

Some? 

Basic?

No?

Most times I lean towards the latter. And it’s not because the Japanese cultural value of false modesty is rubbing off on me. It’s because most of the time I don’t FEEL like I know Japanese. 

When I arrived in this country 25 months ago I thought that, with some hard work, after a few months I would have a pretty decent idea what was going on. I don’t think I ever would have guessed that at this point, a month after I originally planned to leave, I would still be this out of the loop. I still can’t track with most conversations. I can’t follow the baby talk of the preschoolers who ride my bus, the slang of the junior highers I teach, or the thick rural accent and dialectical words of the elderly locals I pass as I walk through town. It’s discouraging! I feel stupid, a lot. 

In my better moments I give myself more credit. Years of Spanish and German meant I was once conversational in both. I didn’t know every word in either language, but I could talk about almost anything I wanted. Just, sometimes I had to take the circular route to get there. If I didn’t know the word for “pregnant” I would say a woman had a baby in her stomach. Not accurate, but it got my point across. 

The thing is, I almost never spoke to native speakers of either language. I never had to deal with rapidity and slang and thick accents. Even at my peak, I couldn’t track movies in either language if they didn’t have subtitles. I was good at both languages, but I was never thrown in the deep end of the pool in the way I am here in Japan. 

Japanese. I’m still not as good at it as Spanish or German. I can often get my point across, but there is still a ton of stuff I can’t say. Every once in awhile, however, I see glimpses that I’m not as incompetent as I think. 

Today, for example. One of the new responsibilities I’ve taken on these past few weeks is doing some translating for my coworkers. Teaching plans for the elementary schools show up and it is my job to decipher them and communicate the information to the people who will be teaching at that school. And I can do it. Right now I’m taking it slowly and double checking by typing it all out into a translator. But I’m learning that most of the time my guess as to what the sentence said was correct. And even the fact that I can type it in is a win. It means that I know at least one pronunciation of a good chunk of the Chinese characters (most of the characters have at least two if not more pronunciations), and for those I don’t know, the method of looking them up is done by knowing components of the character and knowing how the strokes would be made. And I know those. It takes me time, but I can translate these papers. 

Can I speak Japanese? I’m not sure. But I’m getting there. And hopefully someday I’ll give myself the grace to say, “yes”.

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