The wanderings of a thirty-something mid-westerner
I suppose that like most linguists, I was always in love with language. But somewhere in this business of listening to people I found that I had fallen in love with humanity. - William Labov
And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it. - Roald Dahl
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? - Mary Oliver
This morning, when we woke up, Sean complained of a weird burning sensation on his foot and I joked that perhaps it was one of those giant Japanese centipedes that we had heard about as their bites supposedly sting pretty badly. When we got up and pulled back the covers it turns out that it WAS one of those giant centipedes and it was a pretty dramatic and horrifying sight. The insect was about ten inches long and the width of my thumb, including all of its legs. I immediately freaked out and took pictures of it obsessively while Sean sprung into action. He grabbed a dust pan, got it to crawl on it, which was quite a trick because it could move extremely quickly, and then dropped it out of the window.
A picture from Google Images to give you some frame of reference
After we got rid of the centipede, I did some research. It turns out that it's called "Mukade" in Japanese and is known for giving a nasty bite, which hurts worse than a bee sting. Here's the information on Mukade that is given to new JETS (Japanese English Teachers):
Mukade (ムカデ) :
The most commonly spotted of the three bugs that can put you in the hospital in Japan. If you live in a rural (or even semi-rural) area or near a mountain, you may have to deal with a mukade at school or home. These giant centipedes have yellow legs, black abdominal sections, and red heads with oddly appropriate curly horns.
They like to find dark places to hide and have been known to lie waiting in futons and clothing. They’ve also been spotted in sink traps, bathroom drains, and on tree trunks. Folk wisdom is that they come in pairs.
If you are bitten:
While the venom is not fatal, it does cause a lot of pain (likened to an electric shock) and severe, persistent swelling. If you are bitten on a limb, ice it and see a doctor the next day. As with bee stings, some of the stronger 虫刺され medicine is marked for use on mukade bites, so that can hold you over until you see a doctor. If you are bitten on the head, neck, or chest, you should seek medical attention immediately.
If they are in your school, in your apartment, or crashing your picnic:
Mukade are not reviled for their looks alone–they are aggressive, fearless, and distressingly tough. Your best bet is to immobilize it with bug spray or head trauma and then sweep/toss it away. Killing them by squishing, while therapeutic for you, can release pheromones that attract more. It may continue to move even after bisected. Show no mercy, for mukade know none.
I read a bit more and found out that they are extremely territorial creatures and consistently return to the original place where they were found, which is not great news. When I showed the pictures of the Mukade to my private English student later that afternoon, she was shocked and horrified. She lives down the street from me and had never seen one in her life. She, among several others, said that Japanese people believe that they come in pairs and warned me that we should be on the lookout for one more. Also, not the best news.
So far, Sean's fine. The bite on his foot swelled up and hurt a bit, but he still went to frisbee practice today. As for me, I'm totally grossed out and freaked out by possible future giant centipede encounters at night. These alien creatures from the deep woods are the stuff of nightmares. Sweet dreams!
The very first week I was in Japan, some friends introduced me to the neighborhood okonomiyaki restaurant near campus and I was hooked. Okonomiyaki is a Japanese pancake that's not sweet or eaten for breakfast but instead filled with vegetables, egg, and seafood or pork. At a restaurant, you usually grill it yourself on a large griddle and then cover it with mayonnaise, sweet brown sauce, seaweed powder and dried fish flakes. The combination is delicious!
Mixing the veggies, batter and shrimp together
During one of Sean's last visits with his Japanese tutor, she gave him all the ingredients to make okonomiyaki at home and last night we gave it a try. In this version of the recipe, we chopped up cabbage, green onions and shrimp and mixed it with two eggs and the mix in the bag. Then we spread the mix in the pan, waited a bit, flipped it over, and waited a bit more until it was cooked all the way through.
The finished product
A close-up of the savory pancake
Finally, we added mayonnaise and brown sauce on top and sprinkled seaweed and fish flakes for the final touch. Sean and I devoured one entire pancake ourselves and have enough to make one more for lunch tomorrow. Making okonomiyaki at home was fun and easy and it inspired us to bring a few mixes back to Holland for others to try as well.
Ever since Sean started getting involved with temporary/contract jobs in Tokyo for extra cash he started signing me up too whenever I was free so we could go together. He got to know a lot of the administrators pretty well and now we're on a lot of email lists when odd gigs for cash open up. Cue two months ago when I was offered the chance to apply to work with the Japanese Government and new technology for the Olympics for a day. I was invited to apply because they were looking for American females between 25-35 years old who were native English speakers with intermediate Japanese skills. Interestingly, a headshot had to be included. I was immediately intrigued, sent in my CV and was selected as one of the participants. Did I mention that it was five hours of work for about $300? Major score for the savings account.
After a flurry of emails with specific details on what to wear - "smart business casual" (specifically a black suit, a basic color shirt, scarf and dress shoes with stockings), what to bring (copies of resident card/work permit and my Japanese signature stamp) and when/how to get there, the actual day arrived and today I got up early, put on something other than a T-shirt and yoga pants and headed downtown feeling happy to be doing something different besides staring at a computer all day.
The whole experience was hilariously fascinating and very Japanese. Extremely unsure of what to expect, I quickly learned that I was to be a prop/demo of a foreigner who needs help in a taxi. The actual gig was working at one of the booths during a translation tech fair where each company was trying to win the contract and government endorsement of their translation technology in order to prepare for the upcoming Olympics. My booth was technology that allowed foreign passengers to talk into an iPad to communicate with the driver in either English, Korean or Chinese. We practiced for about 30 minutes before the event started and then for the rest of the day I repeated the same phrases over and over: "How long is it to Tokyo Sky Tree?" "Where can I see cherry blossoms?" and "How much does it cost?" Aside from a few obnoxious comments when members of the audience would ask me questions (in the mic in Japanese) like "How do you like Mr. Trump?" etc. The whole thing was pretty tame.
My supervisor for the day was very excited about his taxi "cosplay" costume (his words) but extremely nervous about all of the demonstrations. He kept buying me waters to "keep my voice working" and said that I was chosen to be a demonstrator because as an English teacher it was assumed that I would speak slowly and clearly. One of the most interesting things was talking to the other foreign demonstrators who were selected; they were easy to find as we all fit the same demographic and were the only foreigners in the room. The girl next to me was from California and was being used as a foreign prop to show translation technology in a hospital. Her first question to me was, "Who's your agent?" After explaining that I had ultimately gotten this job off the internet she was surprised and encouraged me to find my own "agent". She said she and the other foreigners at the event do this kind of thing full-time and it runs the gamut from voice recordings, being a "foreigner" in marketing or ad campaigns or testing new technology.
The other interesting thing was the blatant hierarchy present in the audience made obvious by the color badge everyone was wearing. The room was packed with men in suits and each one wore a different color badge which showed which level of government they were. My taxi driver always got particularly nervous for the ones wearing the purple badges with some sort of gemstone inside as they were cabinet ministers.
I don't know if I'll ever get called back to work but I hope I do! Thus, I've found a new project for post-thesis until I go home and it's definitely time to get an agent.
When planning blocks of time to write my thesis during these last few weeks, I neglected to take into consideration the number of goodbye parties for Sean. We had our first one last weekend with my women's community yoga class. Because he was the only guy invited and also one of two people in the group who was leaving soon he received a lot of attention. We love when we get invited to go out to dinner with a group of Japanese friends because they always know what to order. As Sean put it the other night, "These ladies know how to do things right!" and they certainly did. We had an elaborate spread of all kinds of fish, salads, tofu and vegetables with a variety of dipping sauces. As I'd dip a bit of something into one brown sauce invariably one of the ladies would "tsk" at me and motion for me to dip it into one of the other brown sauces. It didn't matter to me because they were all delicious. Our table was the most raucous in the restaurant as the beer, champagne and wine flowed while hilarity ensued. Japanese farewell parties set the bar high, without a doubt.
I'm headed to yoga class tomorrow night and I'm excited to see these friends again and bring some special treats for tea and snacks afterwards. Sean and I finally finished completely unpacking and organizing and opened a few of our souvenirs from our trip to Tokyo Disneyland. The top selling item at both Disney parks is rice crackers with the shape of Mickey Mouse made out of seaweed. We bought a pack and I can't wait to share them with everyone tomorrow. It doesn't matter if they're tasty or not as long as they're cute!
It's time to resurrect this blog and catch up on the last six weeks of spring break, which were fantastic but also very tiring. Winter quarter finished up around the end of February and then the day after finals, Sean and I flew home to Michigan for some Hope College alumni workshops and also to enjoy two weeks visiting with family and friends. Highlights of the trip home included eating at our favorite restaurants and stocking up on our favorite foods to bring back to Tokyo, Sean hosting the Kit Kat Challenge for his friends, teaching Jon and Susie how to make sushi, enjoying fires in the fireplace at my parents' house, and hanging out one-on-one with friends I haven't seen in about two years. The trip home was fantastic but the jet lag and long plane rides were brutal.
Sean's Kit Kat Challenge - friends worked in teams of two to guess the flavor of 14 Japanese Kit Kats during three challenge rounds. Competition was intense.
Getting ready for the Hope College alumni banquet
When we arrived back in Tokyo we had just a few days to recuperate and unpack. I spent a day meeting with the members of my MA thesis committee who reviewed my outline and then Sean and I did a Japanese homestay with a local Japanese family. Even though we live in Japan, it can be quite difficult to actually enter a Japanese home and see how a family lives. Living intimately with a family in a tiny apartment for three days was an interesting experience, to say the least, and I'm glad we gave it a try!
Posing with Miki and Saki (Ryoji, the dad, is taking the picture)
The day after our homestay our first visitor, Becky, a friend from high school, arrived and we immediately headed to Tokyo Disney to spend a few days at the parks. This was our first and only visit to Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea and we had an awesome time. Although Disneyland was fun, my favorite was definitely Disney Sea as the park is unique to Japan and doesn't exist anywhere else in the world! After two jam-packed days at theme parks, we headed back to our apartment and explored neighboring Kamakura one day and Tokyo during the rest of Becky's visit.
Meeting Mickey Mouse - he speaks Japanese!
The day after Becky left for the States, my friend from childhood, Linde, and her husband, Joe, arrived for a visit. After they landed, we hopped on a bullet train to Osaka and spent the next week exploring Osaka and Kyoto. This was my and Sean's first time to Kyoto as well and we enjoyed being tourists and hitting up all of the spots that had been on our list to see since arriving in Japan. Kyoto was busy since it was cherry blossom season and the weather didn't always cooperate, but we had a really good time anyway. Some of the highlights included visiting Fushimi Inari Shrine (red gates), exploring Himeji Castle, strolling through gardens and bamboo forests and catching glimpses of geishas in the evening. It was a magical trip!
Arashiyama bamboo forest - just a few people there that day (photo by Joe)
Kyoto at night (photo by Joe)
Fushimi Inari Shrine (photo by Joe)
Himeji Castle (photo by Joe)
Selfie at the Golden Pavilion
After Joe and Linde returned home, I had a three-day Rotary Peace Fellow training called The Art of Hosting Meaningful Conversations and then spring term began the next day. During this first week of class the cherry blossoms reached their peak and were spectacular even amidst many rainy and chilly days. Sean skipped the flowers in favor of spending the week in Boracay, Philippines at an international ultimate frisbee tournament.
Weeping cherries on a rare sunny day
Puddles of petals
Petals litter the road to campus under the tunnel of cherry trees
Sean with his team in Boracay
As we're heading into the second week of class, I'm trying to stay disciplined in writing my thesis while balancing time with Sean and spending time outside in the beautiful weather. The thesis is due May 15 and Sean leaves May 1 for a month of training and then a backcountry guiding job in Alaska starting in June. I'm still not sure what my summer holds or what we'll be doing/where we'll be next year but we're working on it and I'll keep you posted. Although two years in Japan have been incredible, I'm content with closing out my time here during the next two months and returning home at the end of June. Thanks for following along and Sean and I are looking forward to catching up in person with you this summer.
I think it's obvious to anyone that knows me and Sean as a couple that Sean is extraordinarily tolerant and flexible when it comes to the type of work that he does to earn money. Although English teaching is not his favorite thing, he does it because it's an easy way to get a visa and work while we're abroad together. In addition to English teaching, he's always on the lookout for contract, temporary jobs for extra money to fund frisbee tournaments and camping gear purchases. He's found forums and job postings aimed at foreigners interested in exactly these kind of opportunities and so far the gigs he's found are pretty unique, to put it mildly.
While in Japan, Sean's odd jobs have included everything from being interviewed about his experiences as a foreigner in Japan to editing stories in English and everything in between. He has done a lot of voice recordings for GPS companies and also app developers who are preparing translation material ahead of the 2020 olympics. He's also worked on writing/speaking possible questions for new robots that will be stationed at popular metro stops during the Olympics to help tourists with different problems. One job involved writing essays in English on assigned topics for research by a linguistics foundation studying the difference in grammar and vocabulary of monolinguals and bilinguals.
Burger King's new "Snow Cheese" Whopper - Sean's first meal after the medical testing experience
Sean's most recent gig was medical testing which involved spending five days and four nights in a clinic with nine other caucasian men and ten Japanese men. The study was Phase I of a human trial for a new type of antibody. Before committing, he attended the informational session and we researched the drug in question. It's already been approved in the States, Canada and Europe so he felt fine participating in the study but it was definitely a strange experience. Because the compensation is so incredible (upwards of 3,000 USD), the competition to get into these medical trials in Tokyo is quite competitive for foreigners and Sean watched his diet, alcohol and caffeine intake for weeks so he could (just barely) make the cut.
He was released from the clinic today and was more than happy to go for a run, eat fast food and crack open a beer after days of strict eating requirements and being confined indoors. Sean recently found out that he'll be leading backcountry hiking expeditions in Alaska for the summer, which he's really excited about, but between now and then who knows what job he'll do next?
I am the kind of person who makes To-Do lists . . . a lot of them: one for the year, current month, current week and current day. It's a bit out of control and sometimes it gets a little too extreme if I let the drive to complete tasks be the only thing that guides how I spend my day. I was reminded of this today as I was running around doing errands and feeling frustrated by the fact that I had to meet with four different people for various reasons. The meetings broke up my day so I didn't have long stretches to work on some upcoming assignments and final papers. Before the day had even started, I looked at my schedule and made another list (like I said, out of control) - a list of activities/commitments I could cut out of next Spring Term in order to be able to work on my thesis uninterrupted.
From 9:00 to 10:30 in the morning I met with Hori-san, my 82-year-old volunteer community Japanese tutor to practice my Japanese. She was waiting for me outside the neighborhood gate and was, as usual, impeccably (and snazzily) dressed complete with dangly earrings and full makeup. We spent the morning together catching up about the last few weeks (I didn't meet with her when my sister-in-law was here) and I slowly attempted to share a few stories from her visit while she patiently and tirelessly corrected my grammar and suggested alternative words and phrases. Whenever I tell how I bungled some form of Japanese culture she laughs and laughs which makes me laugh even harder. It's not really language practice, it's more like inter-generational/inter-cultural therapy.
Fast forward to 3:00 pm and I'm sitting in the library waiting to work with an undergraduate Japanese student through a university program called the Writing Support Desk. I had worked with her the previous week on some research for her final paper in her History of the English Language Class and we picked up right where we left off. With five minutes left, we looked at her research proposal together one last time and I noticed that she tended to use the same words over and over again. After pointing this out I asked her if she knew of any resources easily available to look for synonyms. She didn't so I opened my computer and showed her a popular online thesaurus. After seeing all of the options for similar words in English, the student got so excited she almost fell out of her chair. I'd never seen a Japanese student get so dramatically stoked about something so mundane and it was hilarious. I started laughing and then she started laughing while still managing to eek out, "I've been looking for something like this for years!" It was the strangest and most entertaining interaction I've had with a student for weeks.
About an hour later I met with a professor whose class I'm observing as part of the research for my MA thesis. She's moving to another university to accept a new job from next term and was starting to go through things in her office. She had scheduled a brief meeting with me in order to pass a few things along such as a space heater for my shared office and a stack of books related to my thesis topic. "Merry Christmas" she said to me as I giddily accepted the armload of presents.
From 5:30-6:30 pm I met with Nanako-san, a middle-aged widow who lives in the neighborhood and who I met at yoga class. I meet with Nanako once a week to teach English, but it's usually more of a gabfest and hangout time than verb conjugation practice. Not only that, but it's always obvious that she puts a fair bit of time and energy into preparing for our weekly sessions and this week was no exception. Nanako-san is a very classy lady who not only appreciates the finer things in life but loves to share them as well. When I arrived, she had a hot pot of tea warming over a candle, fancy teacups, a vase of flowers, high end snacks, an envelope of cash to pay me for 'teaching' and the usual stash of small presents like stationary, stickers, candy and chocolate to 'share with Sean'. Lately, Nanako-san has been trying to help me with my fashion sense. For a large part of the class we talked about nail polish - she got some new, fairly wild, nail polish called "chameleon" that changes color depending on body temperature! My meetings with Nanako always span the whole range of human emotion: we laughed over funny stories from the previous weeks, we cried a bit together because her dog of twelve years had just died, and we got excited about her upcoming birthday. At the end of class, we made plans for her to have me over for dinner the next week and then she thrust a hand-me-down peacoat on me saying that it will look better on me than my athletic winter jacket.
Arriving home, my To-Do list mostly naked of crossed out lines and check marks, I felt a stab of panic for unfinished assignments and looming deadlines but also a wash of gratitude. Looking back over my day, the moments that I remembered clearly and enjoyed the most were those spent with people, not the bits of time I cobbled together to 'work on something important and tangible.' When I think back on my two years in Japan I'm not going to dwell on papers that nobody will read but I will remember Hori-san's saintly persistence in improving my Japanese, the delight in finding a new writing resource, the generosity of an incredible academic mentor and the impressive science of chameleon nails.
Don't get me wrong, I still make plenty of To-Do lists, but I'm trying to make more time to experience and appreciate those meaningful moments in life that are not prescribed by an academic syllabus.
According to my Japanese professor, the term 'wanderlust' can best be translated as either 旅行狂 (Ryokō kiyō) which means 'travel enthusiast', 'mad for traveling', or 'travel crazy'. She also suggested 旅行熱 (Ryokō netsu) which means 'travel fever'.