28 June 2006

Cafe Break

Suddenly, I have a lot to say. Everything I've been observing in Japan and everything going on in my own life is suddenly coming together. I feel like I'm seeing things I didn't see before. It's enough to keep a girl in a coffee shop for at least a few days straight.

Of all the things I struggled with in Japan, by far the most confusing, sensitive, and shrouded topic is love. I'm still trying to understand it but I am beginning to get the hang of things. Much more on that later.

For now, here's a list of things I NEVER BELIEVED I WOULD BELIEVE OR DO before I came to this country:

  • try, much less enjoy and repeatedly attend, a public bath. I never, ever would have considered even the possibility of doing this before Japan.
  • want to eat sticky white rice and gooey fermented soybeans for breakfast
  • spend 3 dollars on one peach
  • teach (Hah! Believe it or not! But sometimes I REALLY love it)
  • see any value or merit in an arranged marriage. Now I think I GET it, and simply understanding those values is scary.
  • prefer to sit on the floor
  • dream in broken Japanese with an albeit very limited vocabulary
  • meditate in a temple under the rule of a man with a giant stick
  • be so fascinated by bugs and plants I've never seen before
Really, though, the most shocking one is the first one on the list. Right? Would you ever imagine you could feel comfortable bathing and lounging around totally naked in front of 80 other people who are also completely naked? But trust me -- writing it and reading it sounds MUCH more awkward than it actually feels.

Also, I want to revisit two old posts and re-think the way I see Japan in light of my own views. Or perhaps, the way I see myself in light of Japan. Everything is basically summarized by this poem (so the second post will come later):

By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing
And he swears his passion is
Infinite, undying --
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

--Dorothy Parker

And don't give me any of that boo hoo, isn't she cynical. The truth is I am quite the romantic. It's just that my timeline is different. I don't believe in anything fiery lasting. That doesn't mean it wasn't beautiful and completely real. But in order to keep the whole universe going, everything with energy has a life span. If you burn brighter then most likely you will burn out faster, simple as that. I mean this about all things, like when my brother and I stood in my bedroom, doubled over in hysterics because of the crazy way our dog was running circles on my bed. I never thought an animal could bring so much pure joy into a home. And when I stepped back from that picture and looked at my brother with tears in our eyes from laughing so hard, my insides felt a little reverent, because I thought, "Anything this amazing is not going to last. This little thing is going to use up her energy and leave us sooner than we want." And sadly, that is what happened. I was overcome with grief when she prematurely passed away, but I couldn't ignore the fact that I had sensed it would be that way all along.

Yet you don't have to stop there and be cynical. You have to see everything in terms of your own big picture. It's not cynical to say that the most beautiful things have the shortest life spans. (In fact, it's very Japanese. It's why the cherry blossoms, which last only about one week, are so loved and celebrated.) Instead, you have to look at the good things and tell youself, "Look what I got to experience. Look what happened in my lifetime. Look how lucky I am to have had that at one point."

It doesn't MATTER that it's gone, because you HAD it. In reality you can't own or control or keep or protect anything. So when people ask themselves, or ask others, "What happened? Where did it go wrong? How did you lose it? Why did it stop? What screwed it up??," and they struggle to understand why they couldn't hold on to something, the real question should be, "Why on earth did you think it would last?"

And that, my friends, is very romantic.

Blurring That Line

You know, the one between fate and chance. I shuffle between the two, usually clinging to the fence and declaring the events in my life "a lax version of destiny" or "a major version of coincidence." By now my arms are getting tired because I find myself once again holding fast to that line.

My mother told me about a dream my grandmother had right after I was born. I was only a few days old, but in the dream, my grandmother phoned my house asking to speak with me. "Oh, I'm sorry," my mom replied. "She's in the south of France."

And then we would all laugh like it was the wackiest thought to ever enter a grandmother's brain just days after her granddaughter was born.

With no particular prompting, this memory came back to me long after it had faded from conversation and my short-term memory. So I ask you, is it fate? Coincidence? Or is my grandmother hiding some special powers? (Read "What's Next" for an update if you're confused.)

I shouldn't let this go to waste! Manana, when I was born, did you ever dream about where I'd settle? Or who I'd marry ?

27 June 2006

Sing Us a Song

In 10th grade I was thrilled to land a role in a musical production of Sleeping Beauty. I was the queen, which meant I had a lot of speaking parts, but mainly, I had to sing. Where this came from, I have no idea. After the show my brother told me his friend leaned over to him and said, "I didn't know your sister could sing," to which my brother replied, "I didn't either."

That's because really, I can't. I lucked out with that part and did a good job because it didn't require much of a range. I'm a pretty good actress, but in general I am not a singer. So you can imagine the sharp increase in my blood pressure when a teacher said to me at 8am this morning,

"On Friday I would like you to give a farewell speech to the students, and I would like you to sing Sakura. If you sing it I think students will be very impressed."

Sakura is a traditional Japanese song with a very haunting melody. I learned how to play the intro on a Japanese harp, but I wanted to learn the words so I could sing it when I left Japan. (So I could sing it to myself.) The teacher was happy to write down all the lyrics and sing it with me a couple times so I'd get the hang of things. Sakura's mysterious, lullaby-esque melody forces me to duck my chin in a most unflattering way just to produce some of the sounds. Basically, I can't sing it. So I was quite surprised by the request.

Belting out maternal concern to Sleeping Beauty in front of 1,000 people I can't see due to spotlights is VERY different from eeking out a delicate Japanese melody solo in the intimacy of a classroom. No, no, no. I'll do the speech, but as for the song, I refused in the nicest but firmest way possible.

The teacher was very disappointed, but if I had agreed, I'm sure her disappointment would have been greater. :) Sometimes it's best to quit while you're ahead.

25 June 2006

What's Next

To all the people who have asked, and to all those who have wondered but have not asked for fear of stressing a girl out, thank you for caring. Now I can finally share my plans for after Japan. (I want to maintain the blog, though I might change the title...details to come later.)

I leave Japan at the end of July and will return home. (Yay home!) From there I plan to see lots of people I have missed during my year in Japan, write about Japan, rest and ward off reverse culture shock, exercise, and work to save some money. In September, I'll move to France in pursuit of my dream job. Remember in February I quoted my friend Doug, who said, "It's time to chase my dreams somewhere else"? Well, I was lucky enough to have that chance. I'll be attending The Fragrance Academy (at Groupe ISIPCA) outside of Paris to study perfume -- how to make it, modern industry, advertising, chemical regulations, etc. -- in short, everything you can think of related to the production of fragrance.

So, how did I get here? I studied French, I didn't let go when people said it was frivolous, I went to France for access to perfume factories and other sources of information, I read and read and read, and I applied to the school from Japan. (Thank you to family and friends for all your support!) Maybe you are wondering "Why?" but the simplest answer is, "Because." How can you really explain why you love someone? It's the same feeling. I can talk about the comfort I feel even now when I smell perfume my mom wore 18 years ago; the first bottle my grandmother ever gave me; how it's such a romantic blend of science and technology and art and nature and beauty and history and the modern world; how when I baby-sat I deliberately wore the same perfume every time so the child would feel like he knew me; how I find neuroscience and our not-yet-understood sense of smell so fascinating that it makes my heart rate increase; how when I've changed or learned something important, I have to change perfumes because all the memories associated with one scent just don't feel like the right 'me' anymore; I can talk about how I get excited when I know who was in a room before I was; how dogs can "sniff out" cancer; how of all the senses, olfaction is the most instantaneous, the most entangled with learning and memory and identity, the most heart-wrenching, the most crucial to our evolution and survival as a species, the most mysterious. So, why do I want to study variations of a liquid mix of chemicals that is the most marked-up commodity on the market?


I'm a little scared. I'm incredibly excited. I have many mixed emotions regarding being away (from the US) for another year. I'm so excited to live in France another time and brush up my French and get to know life there again. I regret that everybody I love can't be in the same place. I'm sad to leave friends in Japan because I know in France they are much more difficult to come by. Japanese culture extended vines of friendship that rooted somewhere in me to make me feel warm and safe and secure. France is not like that. But I do have some connections there, including a friend my age from Duke, a kind host family, a fantastic friend from my internship who married and settled in Paris, a fabulous conductor who is often in the area...so I won't be unaccounted for.

Let's not forget the most important part. I'm going to France for a year to spend 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, studying something I thought was too ephemeral and romantic to be within reach as a career. Because I'm trying to grasp that doesn't mean that I will miss you any less.

It also doesn't mean that I'll stop writing. So stay tuned. :)

23 June 2006


Even if things are going so badly, by keeping your eyes and heart open, you will be reminded of the ways things can go so well. If you stay receptive, you will receive. And eventually you can find the courage to give back.

I had to teach my students that "taco" in English and Spanish is different from taco in Japanese (here it means "octopus.") One taco I like, the other taco not so much. After class, a teacher asked me, "What food from America do you miss the most?" Without hesitation, I answered, "Mexican." (Luckily, there is delicious and affordable Indian food not too far away.) Then this morning, the teacher swung over to my desk with a big yellow box. It was a taco kit--not of the seafood variety--complete with corn tortillas, sauce, and spices. "For ME?" I asked, wide-eyed. He just smiled and walked away.

In my senior English class, students have to write and present short speeches. I always encourage them to be creative and dare to be the nail that sticks out, because I promise that they won't be hammered down in my class.** One student spoke about why he wanted to be like a bean sprout. This was daring because the Japanese word for bean sprout has the diminuitive -ko added to the end. Ko means "child," and is unfortunately common in female names. But anyway, the student said that because of the bean sprout's name and size, it is easily made fun of and overlooked. It's a shrimp of a vegetable. But, he said, when cooked in stir-fry with other vegetables, it's the only one that remains crisp. It remains strong and true to its original form, despite the heat and the blending with other ingredients. Though it may rank low in the vegetable world, the student said he wanted to be "a bean sprout person," and stay strong. His 2-minute speech lifted me.

Today, it wasn't easy for me to face a class of 42 freshman, all expecting their young teacher to dish out educational entertainment for an hour. As class began I turned my back to write on the board, and when I returned to face the class, something caught my eye and made me stop mid-sentence. Suddenly perched on my desk were 15 TINY origami frogs, each colored differently, each gazing up at me with its own quirky, endearing, penciled-on smile. They were innocent, joyful little creatures, happy for no reason at all. I couldn't hide my delight, or my surprise at my own sudden happiness. For a second everything faded away and I felt nothing but joy as a boy in the front row gingerly pushed them forward as a gift. I was so touched in that moment that I burst into Japanese, much to the delight of my students, who have only heard me speak English. "How cute!" I laughed. "Are those really for me? Thank you so much!!" I can't look at them without smiling, just because.

And then somehow I realized, the way to give back to people who give you so much, is to just be happy to be with them. As Mother Teresa said, "We cannot do great things, only small things with great love." Sometimes people can do great things, but to get you through day-to-day life, the small things make such a huge difference.

18 June 2006


Sorry for the delay, but here are pictures of Nikko, a beautiful little mountain town stuffed with temples that I visited with my parents. It's famous for the 3 "evil" monkeys, that is, "Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil." The bridge was pretty nice, too.

Amateur Origami-er

I'm visiting Mayumi's family next weekend to say goodbye, and I wanted to leave them something a *little* better than a bottle of sake. I don't know how much better this is, but at least it was something that required a few hours of effort. Those folds have to be exact! When it's not up against a white door (for a solid photo background) it will hang freely like a mobile.

16 June 2006

"Delighted" is an Understatement

Besides balmy sunsets and soothing percussion to help you sleep--the sound of rain to me is like massaging warm oil into a brittle soul--the rainy season in Japan brings two more good things: 1) tons of pink flowers, in multiple shades and varieties, and 2) the frogs. I was so happy to have finally heard frogs, I actually clapped with excitement. I couldn't walk with Meegan without stopping to catch at least five of them. Their croaking reminds me of home, and the little ones are so much fun to play with. When Meegan showed me these pictures she had taken the day before, I was so mad that I hadn't brought my own camera. Perhaps it's cliché, but this was not a set-up, and it makes me so happy. And yes, I had to show you four.

No Samurai Swords or Cigarettes, Please

When you're raised in America, spend time in France, and live in Japan for a year, one thing is certain: nobody knows romance like America.

Surprised? French romance might look good in black and white, but film noir will never speak to me like The Notebook. Romance in Japan, from my perspective, has yet to debut. This is a whole other ballgame I have yet to write about seriously or respectfully, a project I plan to tackle soon. But if you try to unlock the doors to what we call "love" in Japan, you can quickly become jaded. Unless, of course, jealous servants to the emperor, suicides, forbidden and unrequited love, or comic book porn fits your ideas of romance.* I prefer the more wholesome American kind, the difficult, innocent, infuriating, passionate, unending, fateful, star-crossed-with-happy-endings kind. I'm not even a big chick-flick fan, but The Notebook stole my heart. Here's why:

Allie: Stay with you? What for? Look at us, we're already fighting!
Noah: Well that's what we do, we fight. You tell me when I'm being an arrogant son of a bitch and I tell you when you're a pain in the ass. Which you are, 99% of the time. I'm not afraid to hurt your feelings. You have like a 2 second rebound rate, then you're back doing the next pain-in-the-ass thing.
Allie: So what?
Noah: So it's not gonna be easy. It's gonna be really hard. We're gonna have to work at this every day, but I want to do that because I want you. I want all of you, for ever, you and me, every day. Will you do something for me, please? Just picture your life for me? 30 years from now, 40 years from now. What's it look like? If it's with him, go. Go! I lost you once, I think I can do it again. If I thought that's what you really wanted. But don't you take the easy way out.

* * *

No samurai or cigarettes. Just two people fighting about how they want to love each other despite everything else. It's enough to sweep a girl off her feet.

* I haven't seen Memoires of a Geisha yet, but I can't wait to watch it and compare it to what I've learned in Japan. Many years ago I liked the book, but I have a feeling the movie will bring a different reaction.


I just want to apologize to people I have hurt or confused with my posts. A few of you have said something to me, but I assume that means at least 10 more people have misunderstood. Please know that I say everything with the best intentions, or if I'm being sarcastic, I assume it's obvious.

13 June 2006

Straw Exit

Today I'm here to tell you about 2 of Japan's less-discussed conveniences: the 7-11, and the juice box.

7-11 and other convenience stores cover every block of Japan. You know you're in the middle of nowhere when you walk for 60 seconds yet see no Family Mart in your field of vision. Unlike American quick-stops, Japanese ones offer a range of healthy and unhealthy foods, spare toiletries, cheap underwear (?), office supplies, wedding and funeral cards, DVDs, beauty products, appropriate and inappropriate magazines, a mini coffee bar, and (my favorite) raw purple octupus tentacles on sticks.

They also offer juice boxes. However, Japan fills these cardboard portables with many things besides fruity sugar water: milk, watered-down yogurt, iced black coffee, sugared coffee, English milk tea, bubble tea, plum wine, rice wine, wine coolers. Silly American, juice boxes are not just for kids!

The most amusing part is that, no matter what's in the box, they all come with straws. On every box there's a little foil circle labeled "Straw Exit." At least, this is the literal translation. Perhaps the Japanese word for "exit" also means "entrance," but for some reason every time I read a juice box that says "Straw Exit," I crack up. Be they convenient, juice boxes are really quite complex.

09 June 2006

Couldn't Help It

Outside what I affectionately call "The Kill Bill restaurant," known in Tokyo as "Gonpachi." (It inspired Tarantino during the set-building of some of my favorite movies.) Never mind that the photo is horribly back-lit and blurry -- what a fabulous lunch.

How To

I'm sure you are wondering: what does a young woman, after almost one year of living alone in Japan with the freedoms and joys and responsibilities of paying her own bills, wanting to celebrate a Friday night alone in her own single apartment, working on a self-imposed budget, feeling too tired to cook, eat for dinner? What would make her feel relaxed and shrewd and lazy and satisfied and healthy and indulgent at the same time?

The answer to this question, which could serve you well on a similar night, is:

  • edamame (boiled soy beans, green and popped right out of their skins, yum)
  • imported chips and salsa (my little taste of home)
  • cherry tomatoes and a raw carrot (sweet and crunchy goodness)
  • 2 spoonfuls of peanut butter (must eat slowly for full effect)
  • plum wine with a shot of sparkling water (Japanese, classy)
  • green tea (much later when I'm feeling dehydrated from my 1 serving of alcohol)

Throw in a hot bath, some real peace and quiet, a little self-reflection, some promises to do better, an approaching weekend...and you've got yourself an evening that costs about 10 bucks (including the hot water!) but that will leave you feeling like a million.

01 June 2006

Arthropods of Asia

Lunch break. I grabbed my wallet and skipped out of the locker room, on my way to the 7-11 for a rice ball, iced coffee, and origami paper. (Yes, you can find all this and more at your nearest Japanese convenient store). As I flipped down the stairs, I looked out the huge picture windows, hoping to discern Fujisan through the haze. No such luck. But what I did see made me gasp. One of those I-just-pulled-my-head-up-from-drowning gasps. One of those I-just-felt-the-air-knock-against-every-ribbed-ring-of-my-trachea gasps.

There, calmly and patiently beating the window in a hopeless attempt to escape, was the biggest mother of a hornet (or related insect) I have ever seen. It was literally four inches long and you could see every curve and outline of its segmented body from 20 feet away. Was that thing real? Was it supposed to be real? This wasn't something that actually lived and flew around my head, threatening a venom-induced death with one sideways prick. This was a prototype for a bug in "Honey I Shrunk the Kids." This was something you see in a natural history museum, stuck to the wall with a huge pin behind thick glass below a sign that declares, "ARTHROPODS FROM ASIA" and makes you shrug, "So basically, it's an alien."

Stuck behind glass, he was, but dead and securely glued to the wall, he was not. This guy was alive, he was real, he was right in front of my face, and I had to tell someone. I was so excited. The nearest person was the school gardener at the bottom of the stairs. He was arranging some flowers on a small table. I ran down the stairs and practically tackled him as I pointed frantically at the window. I yelled at the nice gardener man in informal Japanese.


The gardener looked up, eyed the bug without interest, smiled at me politely, turned back to his flowers and said,

"Yes. It's very big."

I stood there, confused.


This time, without looking away from his flowers, the gardener smiled and said,

"Yes. It's very big."

I looked at him, incredulous. He must have seen a million of these things before, and the excitement--had it been there in the first place--must have worn off for him a long time ago.

"We don't have those in America," I repeated dumbly, and headed out the door. I floated to the 7-11, still amazed that bugs like that could exist on the same side of the glass as I.

As you have probably gathered from previous posts, I have a morbid, delightful fascination with bugs. I can't stand them, yet I can't stop talking about them. The first picture I ever drew, ever, was of a dead cicada I found in our driveway. I could never get his wings even and I remember agonizing over drawing them the same shape. But to no avail -- one wing was round and stubby, the other long and elliptical. Mom and Dad saved the picture anyway.

A dead bug does seem like an odd subject for a little girl's first work of art. How fitting that when I first came to Japan, a cicada was the first bug I encountered. As terrifyingly loud as they can be at night, I hope they come out again to yell at me in my tatami room before I leave Japan.