Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bittersweet Endings, Delicious Beginnings

Bittersweet. Both sweet and bitter, bitter and sweet, as the song goes. This little vocabulary gem has been creeping into my English lessons lately. I've been making final visits to each of my 15 classes here at Sakai Junior High, telling each of my 452 students that my time at their school is coming to an end, and undertaking the almost-impossible task of explaining how I'm feeling in broken English and even more broken Japanese.

So how, exactly, am I feeling? Even given the luxury of my native tongue, it's hard to put into words. Bittersweet gets close, but isn't quite intense enough.

Yes, leaving is bitter. Very bitter. Right now, I'm in the throes of a series of long, sad, drawn-out goodbyes. I'm pulling off the proverbial Band-Aid very slowly, and it is painful. My heart breaks each time I have to tell one of my classes that this is our final meeting, each time I have to hug a Japanese friend for the last time, each time I have to attend a sayonara party for a fellow JET-turned-ad-hoc-family-member, realizing that just days from now, we'll be scattered across the world all over again.

I don't know when/if I will come back to Japan. If I do, it probably won't be for a long, long time. It's the finality of everything that hurts the most.

But, yes, what I have to look forward to in the future is sweet. Very sweet. On Sunday, I'll be back in Chicago, surrounded by my family and old friends and size 8 shoes and pizza that doesn't involve corn or mayonnaise. And then, very soon after that, I'll be off to begin a new adventure in Mexico, starting what might just be my dream job. (I'll be firing up a new blog, titled GRINGA CULICHI, to share my exploits south of the Rio Grande. Stay tuned.)

So, for lack of a better word, I'd describe it all as bittersweet. But I think my feelings are being intensified by the outpouring of support I've gotten here in Japan. People who don't even share my language are telling me, in their own wordless ways, that I will be missed, I will be remembered, and that they support me wholeheartedly in my move to Mexico, a far-away country that they know little about, other than it's hot and people eat lots of tacos there.

And my tear ducts have opened and flowed freely in each of these instances, like when my little host sister finally addressed me as "おねさん" (older sister) on a goodbye card she shyly gave me this weekend. Or when my students encouraged me with "fight-o!" and "go for it!" when I told them about my new job. Or when my 75-year-old friend and student, Nagata-san, proposed a toast to my health and success in Mexico during a farewell party last week. Or when my students add to the stack of carefully-written goodbye letters accumulating on my desk at school.

A wise man named Dr. Seuss once said, "Don't be sad it's ending, be glad it happened." These words have become my personal mantra over the past few weeks. They're what I repeat in my head, trying to comfort myself as I fight back tears when faced with yet another goodbye. And they're running through my head right now as I prepare to push the "publish" button, thus officially wrapping my little MUY OISHII blog that has so faithfully carried me through my time here in Japan. Thank you, friends and family -- and, yes, thank you mystery readers -- for joining me on this crazy beautiful adventure.

It's sometimes bittersweet, but life, above all, is MUY OISHII (very delicious).

Please visit my new blog at http://www.gringaculichi.blogspot.com/.
Favor de visitar mi blog nuevo en http://www.gringaculichi.blogspot.com/.
わたしの あたらしい ブルオグ わ http://www.gringaculichi.blogspot.com/.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Grandmas are Universal

A year ago, if you'd asked me what I expected to take away from my time in Japan, my answer would have involved something about better understanding cultural differences: the Japanese language versus English, chopsticks versus the knife-n-fork, "r" versus "l," collectivism versus individualism, bowing versus hugging, squat toilets versus sit-down toilets, blah, blah, blah.

But a year later, I find that I'm more impressed by cultural universals, such as the ability of strangers anywhere to be unbelievably kind or unbelievably mean to each other. Or the fact that, around the world, or at least in Japan and the USA, mothers seem to cry at school graduations. Or the human tendency to talk about the weather when filling awkward silences(e.g. "あついですね" and "さむいですね"). 

After this weekend, I have yet another addition to add to the list of universals: it seems that, almost everywhere in the world, grandmothers spoil their grandchildren rotten.

My own childhood is filled with fond memories of trips to my grandparents' house in Southern Illinois. When my sister and I were kids, my parents used to leave us there for a week or so in the summertime, creating a win-win situation: Mom and Dad got some alone time, and Susan and I got spoiled by Grandma. Grandma would buy us the sugar-filled breakfast cereals (Lucky Charms!!) forbidden by Mom at home. Grandma would let us eat pie for lunch and ice cream for dinner. And Grandma's cabinets were always stocked with little treasures to foster our budding creativity: mini craft sets, harmonicas and kazoos for ad-hoc rock bands, and endless stacks of coloring books.

On Saturday, my host family invited me to a sushi dinner -– this time, at Grandma's house. But Japanese Grandma's house in Fukui City might well have been my American Grandma's house in Illinois. Upon walking into her tatami room, I was instantly transported into my own grandmother's living room: the walls were plastered with photographs of smiling grandchildren. Another wall bore framed prints of baby-sized hands and feet. A beam near the door was covered with pencil marks, names, dates, and measurements to mark each of her three grandchildren's growth.

We settled into small talk, until I ran out of Japanese and the Ohsakis ran out of English, and then Japanese Grandma produced a craft set from her treasure cabinet -- just like my own Grandma would have done. We spent the afternoon filing away at make-your-own chopstick sets. And when dinnertime rolled around, Japanese Grandma, just like my Grandma, took great pleasure in offering (forcing) heaps of food to (on) her already-full guests, refusing to take 'no' for an answer. And instead of eating herself, she putzed around in the kitchen -- you guessed it, just like my own Grandma.

"There's cake and watermelon for dessert, so I hope you saved room," she said at the end of the meal, sounding like my Grandma. Already having eaten too much, I groaned along with my host family, sounding a lot like my own family at home.

But I really knew we were at grandma's house when my youngest host sister bounded to the refrigerator, dug through a shelf in the freezer, and happily produced a popsicle. This ostensibly was the "forbidden-at-home" food that grandmas are so good at stocking: the Ohsaki children's version of Susan's and my Lucky Charms. Throughout the evening, I observed each of the three children making multiple trips to the refrigerator, digging through the drawers and emerging from the kitchen, slurping on popsicles.

"How many have you eaten?" I asked another host sister, the middle child.

"Eleven," she replied nonchalantly.

My host mom cringed. My host grandma beamed. It was almost like being at home.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Prepare to be humbled...

I visited the Fukui Prefectural School for the Blind (called "Mougakko" locally) with a group of fellow JETs earlier this week. I volunteered for the visit day expecting to have a pleasant experience, thinking that perhaps I'd help a couple of students practice their English or maybe learn a bit about Braille. But that’s not what happened.

Instead, I was humbled. The students were absolutely brilliant, overwhelmingly kind, and extremely gifted learners. Oh yeah -- and they’re all vision impaired.

While I’ve stumbled over learning basic Japanese for the past year, these Mougakko students have mastered both English and Japanese, along with the Braille systems for both languages, which makes them essentially quadro-lingual. (Is that even a word? I bet the Mougakko kids could tell me.) Perhaps polyglot superstudents is a more appropriate description.

Here's how the day went down: we started with a tour of the school’s massage facilities (many students study massage in addition to the standard curriculum, preparing for future careers as masseuses). Next, we were spectators at a game of “blind volleyball,” which is absolutely grueling when compared to the beach variety (it is played on the floor and involves blocking the ball by listening for it). We then toured facilities for music and art classes, subjects that are apparently these students’ fortes, judging from the amazing ceramics on display and the awesome piano solo from one of the students.

But it was the Braille that blew me away: students demonstrated how they use adapted computers to type in English, Japanese, and Braille, and then gave us old-school, six-keyed Braille typewriters to try it ourselves.

It took me about 30 minutes to figure out how to write my own name (which, you may recall, has exactly four letters -- not that difficult). But 14-year-old "K", our Mougakko-student-turned-Braille-sensei, demonstrated infinite patience. He checked my Braille by running his nimble fingers quickly over the sentences I'd attempted to type: "My name is Sara." "I like sushi." "Braille is hard." K even played it cool when suggesting corrections for my error-ridden phrases.

Yessir, K and his pals are truly superstudents. But they were so unassuming, you’d never suspect it. Once you get past the whole I-know-four-languages-and-could-probably-play-piano-at-Carnegie-if-I-wanted-to thing, they’re really just regular kids. This was evident when we went on a tour of Mougakko’s cafeteria and asked students about the food.

“It’s so-so,” they admitted with a grin.

One 17-year-old boy told us about his heartbreaking struggle to ask a female Mougakko student out on a date.

“She said ‘no,’” he sighed. “Girls are weird.”

“Keep trying,” we reassured him. “Girls are complicated.”

So, the next time I whine about not being able to read kanji at the grocery store, the memory of these Mougakko kids will keep my linguistic self-pity in check.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Walking (home) in somebody else’s shoes

My blog entries up to this point have been pretty sunny: I've rambled on and on about the kindness of the people here in Japan. They've gone out of their way to guide me by the hand when I've been lost on the subway. They've invited me into their homes and have cooked me delicious dinners. They've smiled and have tried to help when I've asked stupid questions in broken Japanese.

In short, they've taught me that kindness is universal, that there are nice folks all over the world. But yesterday I unfortunately learned that fear -- the dark underbelly of humanity -- is also universal.

My poor little car, still recovering from the mountainous road trip adventure this weekend, broke down again in the grocery store parking lot yesterday afternoon. The battery is dame (bad), but it just has to hold out for the 18 days I have left here in Japan, so I'm not motivated to shell out the yen required to fix it properly. Instead, I'd purchased a pair of jumper cables after this weekend's adventures in auto repair, so I was prepared to remedy the problem. I just needed to find someone’s car to use for the jump.

Now, this scenario may sound familiar because I had to get my car jumped in the same grocery store parking lot this fall. An extremely kind man went out of his way to help me, and, in doing so, reaffirmed my faith in the goodness of humanity.

So I anticipated that I'd have no problem finding someone willing to help me this time around. But I was wrong.

I sat in my car, turning the key in the ignition, listening to it attempting to but failing to turn over. My car was parked between two other vehicles, with people sitting in them, ostensibly waiting for their respective spouses to finish their grocery shopping. Hearing the distressed sounds my poor car was making, they both looked my way. They must've known that I was having car trouble.

I dug the jumper cables out of the back seat, opened my door, and walked to the car parked on my right. A middle-aged woman was sitting in the driver’s seat. The windows were rolled up, but the car was running. I waved, smiled, bowed a little and mouthed a friendly "sumimasen" (excuse me) while holding up the jumper cables.

She looked at me. I almost didn't recognize her expression because it had been so long since I'd seen it.


She locked her door, put on her seat belt, and drove away, leaving me standing in the parking lot, jumper cables in hand.

I was surprised at her reaction, but somehow unfazed. I walked over to the other car, the car parked on my left, and repeated the procedure. This time, the grandfatherly-looking man sitting in the driver's seat just stared at me blankly through his window. Then, wordlessly, he started up his car and moved it to another parking spot.

I was starting to feel a bit defeated: I was actually scaring people, and couldn’t figure out why. It was 4 o'clock on a sunny afternoon. As I was coming home from work, I actually looked presentable, dressed in slacks and a blouse. This had never happened to me.

After I approached a third person – a woman walking out of the store, bags in hand, who sharply told me that she didn’t have time to help me before hurrying away – I gave up. I was at the breaking point: I threw the jumper cables in the back seat, grabbed my bag, and left my car in the parking lot (a friend helped me jump it later that night). I walked the 15 minutes back to my apartment, my eyes burning with tears of frustration.

I'm different here in Japan. But my story is no different from those told to me by friends back in Chicago, who have been harassed by police for no apparent reason, refused help when they've had car trouble, or eyed suspiciously when they're walking through certain neighborhoods at certain hours, just because they look a certain way. The blonde woman in a supermarket parking lot in rural Japan is the Middle Eastern man in the security line at the airport, or the African American talking the CTA through the north side of Chicago on his way home from work, or the Mexican immigrant denied service at a restaurant because “we don’t speak Spanish here,” even though she's speaking perfectly good English, just with a hint of an accent.

So I walked home in their shoes yesterday. I got a small taste of what some folks have to go through every day of their lives. And I'm grateful for the lesson.

Road Trippin'

We had all of the ingredients for your typical American-as-apple-pie road trip: summertime Saturday morning, four good girlfriends, music loaded on the iPod, snacks -- and even the token bout of car trouble.

I digress to tell the back-story here: My car battery died in a tiny one-road village we'd stopped at on one of our many potty breaks. Apparently, the constant uphill climbing on mountain roads was too much for my little Suzuki. (Read: It was rainy and I left the lights on. Doh!) But the four of us were able to pool our individually-lacking Japanese skills and communicate enough to call to get the car jumped. There was also the matter of creating quite a spectacle with the neighborhood kids, who had apparently never seen a broken-down K-car crammed with four giant gaijin women. We shared our raw veggie snack stash with them while we were waiting for the car repair guy to show up. They'd apparently never eaten raw carrots either, and, at first, silently stared at us – and our vegetable offerings – with wide, “you-want-me-to-eat-what?” kind of eyes. But they ended up really digging the ninjin (carrots) and even helped themselves to seconds.

But, this being Japan and all, last weekend's road trip was anything but apple pie.

For starters, our destination was pretty unique: We visited 白川郷 (Shirakawa-gō), a centuries-old UNESCO World Heritage Site tucked away in mountain valley in Gifu prefecture. Shirakawa-gō is a picturesque village of still-inhabited thatched-roof houses, painstakingly constructed against a breathtaking backdrop of towering deep-green pine trees and mountain mist. 'Twas one part Amish community (given the whole stepping-back-in-time factor) and two parts Brothers Grimm (given the whole stepping-into-a-scene-from-a-fairy-tale factor).

Our accommodation was also a bit strange: We slept in a temple-turned-youth-hostel (complete with a 10 p.m. curfew – apparently late-night carousing is not very Zen), run by a very kind Buddhist monk. We tucked into futons spread out on a tatami-covered floor. The earthy smells of tatami, pine and rain (it's still rainy season, y'all), along with the sound of the steady summer shower on the roof, lulled us to sleep. Quite the spiritual experience for a bargain 3000 yen.

Our company was out-of-the-ordinary as well: We caught dinner at a lively local restaurant, complete with Gifu's finest regional fare. Walking into the dining area, where we ladies were greeted with a rowdy “Hellooooooo!” from a table of young Japanese guys, out celebrating their friend's wedding. (In Japan, the bachelor party apparently happens on the night of the wedding. Yeah, we didn’t get it either.) The guys had downed quite a few beers and were quite eager to bust out their English – turns out they'd all met while studying abroad a few years back in California. A couple were actually working as English teachers in real time. But as our 10 o'clock curfew came around, we, being good Cinderellas, excused ourselves from the proverbial “Ball” and headed back to our temple hotel.

I digress again to explain, who, exactly, is “we.” “We” is me, plus three fellow Fukui JETs who happen to be the best pals a gal could ask for. This road trip was our final girl's weekend, a last hurrah before we left the safe, warm blanket that is June and flipped the page to July, the month we will leave Fukui and be scattered all over the world again. When I came to Japan 11 months and 1 week ago, these girls were strangers, but now they are my family-away-from-home, my lifelines, my sanity, and some of my best friends. I will miss them terribly.

Unfortunately on the way back home the next day, we – despite all of our girl-bonding glory -- experienced the dark underbelly of road tripping. The previous night's rainy season shower turned into a full-on typhoon, which made navigating windy mountain roads somewhat daunting in my little blue car. We got lost (of course), wound our way through four different prefectures, ended up in Nagoya, and blew 6000 yen and nearly five hours on toll roads trying to get back in Fukui. Nice.

But I guess that's part of the fun. Typhoons, carrots, cultural heritage sites, temple hostels and drunken J-boys: all the ingredients needed for your typical Japanese road trip.

Taiko Nights

The majority of my Wednesday nights here in Japan have been filled with taiko, a Japanese style of drumming. I haven't mentioned a lot about taiko (only here), mostly because I feel like I'm the weakest link when I go to the class. It's a bit embarrassing to have claimed to be a percussionist for upwards of five years (I was in drum line in junior high and part of high school, and yes, I've been to band camp -- don't judge me) and then to come to Japan and get yelled at for holding my drum sticks wrong. But, as would be expected given the fact that almost everything about Japan is different than what I'm used to, taiko isn't your average drumming experience.

Our sensei is approximately 137 years old, but keeps beat like a metronome, pounding away at his drum for the whole of our 90-minute class without even breaking a sweat. The rest of the students – mostly other foreigners, with a couple of brave Japanese ladies mixed in for good measure – takes constant breaks to apply Band-aids to their hands when the drumming-induced blisters start to form after about 15 minutes of hammering away. We're such rookies.

Sensei alternates between barking at us and complimenting us in Japanese, which we somehow understand, and then invariably yells at me for holding my sticks wrong. I hold them like I'm playing a snare, which requires tight and precise movement from the wrist, instead of like I'm playing a taiko drum, which requires wild, theatric movements of the entire arm. What can I say? It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks. But since sensei is 137 and I'm only 28, he doesn't seem to find that excuse amusing.

We had our last official taiko practice last week, and I brought my camera to document the experience. I'll miss those humbling Wednesday night classes, and my arms will miss the workout – though I doubt my hands will miss all of those blisters.

Dinner with the Small Temples

I had a lovely dinner last week with one of the guys from my Thursday night class. We'll call him "Small Temple-san," because that's how his family name translates to English. Small Temple-san invited me and a fellow JET (you remember “C” from the deflated chocolate mousse incident) to his house, where he, his lovely wife, and his beautiful daughter had prepared an absolutely breathtaking spread of food: soybean salad, smoked salmon bruschetta, mushrooms, shrimp tempura, sashimi -- even a little homemade ume-shu to wash it all down. Yum. Yum. Yum.

Dinner was served at 7 p.m., and the Small Temples begrudgingly admitted that they'd worked on preparing the meal since 3 o'clock that afternoon. The food was absolutely fantastic, but, ironically, it wasn't the highlight of the evening: the Spanish and the pedicure were the best parts.

During our conversation over dinner, the Small Temples learned that I had spent some time studying in Mexico. Their daughter's eyes lit up, and she excused herself from the table and ran into the kitchen to retrieve a packet of Arroz Poblano (Poblano Rice). Turns out that she had visited Mexico herself a few years back, had fallen in love with the food, and had purchased some souvenir rice to prepare in Japan. It was a great plan, except that all of the cooking instructions on this particular package were written in Spanish. She had been waiting two years to make the rice. Could I puh-lease translate the directions into English for her?

I was thrilled to be able to help with her request – it was the first time in eleven months that I felt linguistically helpful instead of like the non-Japanese-speaking burden that I really am.

Apparently feeling indebted for my translation services, Small Temple's daughter dashed off to her bedroom and brought back a pedicure kit. As I ate my dessert, she applied crystals and flower-shaped stickers to my nasty runner's toes, insisting that my feet “didn't smell that bad” as I was giggling with embarrassment. C even got in on the pedicure action, scoring gold nail polish and glitter on the big toe of his right foot.

I left the Small Temples’ house with a full belly, a take-home bottle of moonshine ume-shu, and sparkly toenails. What else could a gal ask for?