28 April 2006

But Here I Am

Inspiration for this post has been "lifted" without permission from Adam Hollowell. Hopefully, however, I have not directly copied any of his passages. No one has offered me half a million dollars for my blog yet, but this also means nobody is ordering me to pull my writing off the net.

I'm sitting here barefoot in a Sunshine Will t-shirt, nursing a sinus infection, "Son of a Sailor" by Jimmy Buffet playing on my iPod, knees and feet tucked under me saza style, cool tatami reeds lightly biting my shins, a bowl of sticky rice and baked pork in one hand, chopsticks in the other, the smell of pan-warmed soy sauce and sugar tapping my nose...and I ask myself with a laugh, what events in my life led me to this place?

I remember a few years ago in a Seattle bookstore, I saw a book called "Everything Zen." Japanese architecture, Japanese religion, Japanese tea ceremony, Japanese gardens. I have no idea why, but I was riveted and had to own this book. I didn't have any previous interest in Japan. But the book spoke to me. The copy was tattered but I couldn't even wait for the store to order a fresh one. I bought the tattered copy. At the time I had no idea that I would one day live in Japan.

Last week I was sitting on the floor of a restaurant with Meegan, cooking Japanese pancakes. Eggs are included, but instead of butter and sugar, you add cabbage, pickled ginger, beef, tiny pieces of squid. "No, like this," I said bossily, instructing my friend to sprinkle on the seaweed after she painted on the sauce.

Today I stood in front of 42 Japanese students, waving a blank bingo card in their faces, telling them in Japanese, "Anywhere is okay. Please choose any box and write the words in whatever order you choose." The words, of course, being English ones. I stepped back for a second, staring at their Playboy pencil cases and striped bow ties and stern expressions, and asked myself with a laugh, "What events in my life led me to this?"

I sat there at my desk, hunkered over a bowl of tempura and white rice, Japanese words and school uniforms and test papers floating around my head...and as I bit into a piece of vegetable tempura I realized it was one of my favorite foods from childhood: fried okra. I grew up in the American south. But I was staring out the window at Mt. Fuji, eating the same food. I traveled this far to come back to the same food. And I wondered, are we really that different? That time I stole fried okra from my brother's dish when he wasn't looking, 15 years ago...there could have been a sneaky sister in Japan doing the same thing to her younger brother.

So how did the events in my life lead me here? It's one of those beautiful questions I don't actually want to answer. I feel like I forged my own path, yet at the same time, I never saw this coming. Two years ago I just never would have dreamed this. France, maybe. Asia? No. Yet here I am. I can't imagine my life now without this experience, and I am already realizing how much I'm truly going to miss this place. I'm not Japanese, but there was a seed inside of me I didn't know about. This place sprinkled that seed with water, and now whatever is growing will never be cut back. Like kudzu. That beautiful, winding, all-consuming vine of my childhood--a part of my happiest, earliest memories--it came from Japan.

Mom and Dad...

are in Japan!!!!! I leave for Tokyo tomorrow, and will spend the next week celebrating Japan's Golden Week by traveling, talking, and eating Japanese food with my parents. I'm so excited to see them. B I wish you were here too.

24 April 2006

True Evil

I'm sick. I left work an hour early, came home and went straight to bed, then woke up long enough to take a pill and eat a piece of bread. I felt like I'd stuffed myself.

Then I decided to reach out beyond my sick bed and type a quick post. I walked to school this morning, because when I get sick, I like to deny it for as long as possible. I believe that if I tell my body everything is fine, the problem will go away. I always do this yet always to no avail. So I walked but still felt awful after the breeze and sunshine. But sickness is not the "true evil" to which I refer.

The true evil was the bugs zooming around my head this morning. Things literally happen overnight in Japan. You sleep, and boom, typhoon season. You sleep, and boom, your apartment turns into a refrigerator. You sleep, and boom, cherry blossoms are everywhere. You sleep, and boom, the spawns of wasps and Darth Vader form clouds on the sidewalks you have no choice but to cross on your way to work. These bugs were everywhere this morning, yet I've never seen them any other day of my 8 months in Japan. None of them stung me but every time I walked through a cloud of black I prayed. The weirdest part about these solid black wasps was that they weren't shiny. They weren't hairy, but their black bodies were distinctly dull. For some reason this really disturbed me. Bugs with matte-black exoskeletons are much more frightening than bugs with shiny skins.

I have no idea why. But they looked really evil.

20 April 2006

Earthquake, The Sequel

I don't know about aftershocks, but there are definitely beforeshocks where I live. A day or two ago I was talking to Dan when I felt a small earthquake. It was very short and not very strong, but it was enough to trigger my fear instincts. My whole body was tense and I was ready to run (even though running somewhere solves nothing in an earthquake). Even when they're small, they frighten me. I tend to get dizzy a lot, so maybe I'm more sensitive to a moving ground than most people. Last time I felt an earthquake I blamed it on "just getting dizzy," until my supervisor asked me if I had noticed the earthquake. But the way to test it is by looking up at the light strings. When I was talking to Dan, I looked up at my lamp. And the string was definitely swaying.

Little earthquake, for sure.

Well last night I woke up to a strange noise, a rattling of metal and glass and wood, and fairly violent shaking even though I was horizontal in my bed. This time the instincts kicked in, but I froze. I was alone, it was 2 or 3:30 in the morning (I don't remember), and I was terrified because it was my biggest earthquake yet. At the time I couldn't really tell if I was awake or dreaming about it. But the fear was definitely real. I remember telling myself, "I sleep right under a window, that's not good," and making a mental note of where my shoes and earthquake kit were, in case I needed to leave the building after. And I also remember thinking, "This is how it could happen, earthquakes can happen in the middle of the night like this, when you're not dressed, it's dark and cold outside, and you're very, very alone." And I remember crying a little bit for no reason in particular. Still, I wasn't sure if it was real or not. I was still half asleep. I thought to myself, "When an earthquake happens in the middle of the night, it will be like this." I thought I was dreaming instead of actually experiencing it.

It was scary. Scary enough that everybody at work (experienced earthquake veterans) said it was scary. Yet a lot of teachers (mainly the older men) didn't wake up at all.

You Are (Where You) Eat (It) ?

With about 340 new students and 2 classes to plan and teach entirely on my own, the work has finally returned. And I'm happy about it. Feeling needed, productive, creative, and useful makes me feel GOOD. Spring vacation is nice and all, but feeling purposeless with no kids to teach is not much fun. Now the students are back! And I love them!

I can't stand American Diet Coke. Recent newspaper articles have acknowledged what is fairly obvious: all "global" products are not created equal. Some people were upset when they discovered that the fat content of McDonald's fries varies from country to country. As you globe-trot and see the same golden arches, you assume you're getting the same product. But fries are more likely to kill you in some countries than in others. Because of various regulations, costs, etc., there are disparaties between American fries and FRENCH fries and Dutch fries and Japanese fries. And maybe you think this is "unjust," or at least worthy of newspaper report-age.

But how else can companies succeed on a global scale? They survive by adapting their products *just* enough to suit the preferences of the people without having to change the name of their brand. Did you know Haagen Daaz (sp?) makes "red bean" and "green tea" flavored ice cream? Would you ever find "red bean" ice cream in America? No. In Japan? Yes! So of course McDonald's fries will be a little (or very, according to those fat percentage charts) different depending on where you are eating.

Well so is Diet Coke, and this is the main one I care about. It shows how we could potentially become DIFFERENT PEOPLE based on the overall taste preferences of a country. Consumerism taken to the extreme, you say? I think not, considering how much people can be judged by their food preferences. (It's ridiculous!) Consider this example:

American Diet Coke is terrible. French Diet Coke is quite delicious. Japanese Diet Coke is alright. Now pretend I'm out with a bunch of friends on a picnic, and someone else was in charge of the drinks. Say they brought only Diet Coke. In America, I could be labeled the "picky" one, the "spoiled" one, the "difficult" one, because I would choose to drink nothing over a nutra-sweet-after-tasting gross American Diet Coke. It could also exclude me from the "sorority girl" stereotype because I would prefer REGULAR, calorie-laden Coke to the calorie-free kind. So people could make all these judgments about my personality, without even realizing it, because this idea of me becomes an intangible, unchanging FACT in their minds: LAUREN WILL NOT DRINK DIET COKE, therefore she is X. I find this example amusing, and extreme, but I will have trouble believing anyone who tries to dispute the fact that they make assumptions and judgments about people's personalities based on the foods they eat. What if I told you I never drink beer? What if I said don't like "bitch" drinks? The mere TERM "bitch drink" associates a whole stereotype and personality and gender with a food preference. I'm talking about alcohol but it applies to everything. Read these words and think about the images of people that come to your mind, and the personality traits you automatically assume they have: tofu. steak. lentils. Red Bull. cotton candy. meatloaf. grits. pizza. thin-crust pizza. strawberries. I could build entire people on these single words and I bet you could too.

On with my original point. If the exact same picnic situation occurred in France, or in Japan, I would gladly drink the Diet Coke. And all those assumptions or stereotypes or images that people might have made about me in America simply would not have been made in France or Japan. So to my friends, I could seem like a different person. Lauren, picky? What are you talking about?

13 April 2006

Anatomy Lesson

"Some people won't dance
if they don't know who's singing.
Why think with your head?
It's your hips that are swinging."


And I'll admit -- I love the James Blunt album.

10 April 2006


(chiru: the verb Japanese people use to describe cherry blossoms falling from the trees)

The only living things that ignore me in this country are the cats. God bless them and their stereotypical kitty style.

The hardest thing about living where I live is the complete and total lack of privacy. I watched "The Big Chill" yesterday and couldn't help but laugh at the line, "I feel like I'm never alone. Didn't they do a study on lab rats who went crazy from lack of privacy?" Yeah, I know why. (And no, I'm not alone when I type most of these blog entries!)

On to the real reason I'm writing:

Nothing in Japan makes me feel instantly transported to my childhood like the baby-pink snapdragons I pass on my walk to work. I see snapdragons and immediately feel 5 years old, and suspect that a cat is hiding in the shrubs somewhere for me to drag out and carry around, and that my brother is behind me in the yard riding a small vehicle with an odd number of wheels. Never have I felt safer in my life...an unexpected illusion in a foreign country. And the owner of the snapdragons doesn't even know that I exist.

Yesterday I walked home through light rain and mist because I wanted to feel refreshed. The smell of greens welcoming the rain almost knocked me out it was so thick. (I love that smell.) And then I realized walking home that day would look totally different to me because of the scents that would reach me through the water in the air. Yesterday the air was a totally different canvas and the paint seemed completely new.

So I was walking along inhaling hard with every breath. I wondered if these Japanese smells would be good combined in perfume. If Angel included chocolate, and tons of perfume contained ambergris, I'm convinced that I could turn natto and mirin and maybe even sticky rice into something attractive.

I was mainly focused on my nose, until I came across a still-life in motion -- frozen but moving, more so a part of nature than the houses and sidewalks surrounding it, yet so isolated and seemingly cut off from the reality in which I was standing. The scene was like a fantasy turned virtual reality and I was on the edge of the fantasy looking in. Everything with this surreal quality that made me think if I tried to touch it, my hand would sweep through trees and plants as if they were holographic projections.

So, instead of pushing my luck, I stood on the edge of the sidewalk, and peered in. For at least 15 minutes I stood motionless, just staring at something so beautiful I felt it was only created for the hope that someone would stop and notice it.

It was a small square park lined with cherry trees still in bloom. The petals, saturated by mist, appeared pinker than usual. I saw no birds, people, or other moving things in the park; only the plants, so the rather large, old cherry trees took over with this frozen, regal quality, so proudly but so quietly displaying their blossoms.

That in itself was not so unusual; I'd been accustomed to the lovely cherry trees for at least a week. What caught my eye this time was the only movement in the whole park: it was snowing.

But not snowing everywhere. Onto me fell only small taps of rain. There was a very distinct line between where it was snowing and where it was not, and this is probably what made me feel like I was looking into a picture instead of living in the reality of it.

It was the snow of big, fat, beautiful flakes, that fell so slowly they seemed to defy gravity, so silently they seemed to defy anything mortal. They fell and decorated the plants like confetti, stuck in place by the dampness of the rain.

These delicate chips of whitish-pink silk kissed the sidewalk and the street pavement and just stuck without melting. Then I looked up past knarled tree trunks, past branches spread widely, asymmetrical but balanced, past the browns and greens into the pink and white clouds of that little sky. The cherry trees were snowing their flowers. That's why nonoe of the flakes dissolved on contact. It wasn't snowing frosted ice; it was raining flower petals in that little fantasy world beneath the trees. I couldn't believe how slowly yet how steadily the petals fell. My sense of time and seasons became confused. It was the 2nd time in my life I'd seen it snow in spring, but the first time I'd seen snow without feeling cold.

Of course the cherry trees would have been the cherry trees, regardless of my presence or lack thereof. But I stood there like I was watching a performance, a celebration that was put on just for me. I felt like the trees weren't mourning the loss of their blossoms, but instead celebrating the spring...and like the whole display had been silently orchestrated for me -- modest, but at the same time desperate for someone to stop and notice.

I know I've gone on and on...but it was truly one of the most amazingly beautiful and natural things I've ever seen. I felt like the tree was talking to me. And I'm not even a hippie.

People who think you have to camp to truly appreciate nature, who think you have to pitch tents and iodize your water and stay dirty to really know what nature is...those people are only seeing one color in the prism. I don't think people should be expected to dig holes with trowels before others will believe that they love things about the outside.

This morning after walking to work over sakura-lined sidewalks, I had to scrape cakes of cherry blossom petals from my shoes. It's a miracle I didn't slip on all that silk.


In honor of my approaching birthday, I thought it would be fun to share some common Aries traits that I believe are accurate descriptions of me. I can't speak for Jess, but in my opinion, she exhibits these traits too.

Yay for fiery spring babies.

  • Aries has an intuitive fire that burns the astrological signature of "I Am" onto everything she does.
  • Aries will favor danger over boredom because boredom is a risk greater than death!
  • Body language that says, "What you see is what you get." This simple, direct style is an Aries trait, and with Aries you usually know where you stand. This straight shooter practices the dharma of right action, staking his personal actions on his basic integrity. Although human nature is complex, Aries rarely wears a mask, so conflict noticeably twists him in knots.
  • Anxiety, fear, tension, and stress are invitations for Aries courage.
  • It's a rarity to find an Aries that isn't controversial at one point or another.
    While many people may not associate spirituality with the sign of the ram, their spiritedness puts the spirit in spiritual. (um maybe not Jess)
  • Aries has a strong sense of ego self-hood, which is necessary for his important sense of mission. When he breaks new territory for the greater good, the Ram uses his pioneering will for all of us.


And hopefully the baby picture made you laugh...I have no idea how the colander got on top of my head. (Compliments of Tudy! :) )

09 April 2006

Question of the Moment...

(or month, or season, or early 20s...)

How important is it to be important?

Responses welcome.

Overheard in Japan

Late 20s guy to early 20s girl: The truth is, international relationships just don't work. I don't want to marry a girl and then have all conversation be, "Ah, ohashi, sugoi ne?"

Japanese teenagers: Wow, look at that girl. She's really pretty, isn't she. Where is she from? Germany -- she must be German. (to girl, in Japanese): Excuse me, where are you from?
American girl: America.
Japanese teenagers: America? No. Aren't you German?
American girl: No, I'm American.
Japanese teenagers: You don't look American.

Late 20s girl to early 20s girl: I'll sit in Starbucks and talk about sex in a normal voice, because I just assume nobody can understand me. I should probably re-think that one and lower my voice.

Middle-aged Japanese women: Whoa! A foreigner! Look at that foreigner! She's eating a rice cake! That's AMAZING!

Japanese man, late 50s: My wife has no idea how much money we have. She won't know until I die. Before I die, I'll ask the bank to hand over the account statement to my wife, so she'll know. But she won't know until I die.
American girl, early 20s: So she doesn't care?
Japanese man: What?
American girl: She's not interested? She doesn't want to know how much money there is?
Japanese man: Of course not.

Japanese woman, in Japanese: Excuse me, would you like me to take the picture for you, so you three girls can be in the picture together?
American girl: Sure, thanks a lot!
Japanese woman, to her Japanese friends: Wow! That girl just spoke in Japanese!!
Australian girl, to American girl: Uh, they spoke to us in Japanese.

American girl to new coworker: Hey, I recognize you. You play tennis, right?
Japanese guy: Yes, I play tennis.
American girl: Oh that's great! Would you like to play doubles with us sometime?
Japanese guy: Um, I can't.
American girl: Why not?
Japanese guy: Because I will marry in the fall.

02 April 2006

Walking Home from Work

As the seasons change, so does the time -- I am now 13 hours ahead of America's east coast.