27 July, 2008

american laze

And so I am home, home, beautifully home.

Isn't it funny how easily one falls back into the rhythm of ordinary life? Magically evading jet lag, I have slipped back into the lazy harmony of the summer I left: a cup of tea for breakfast, sitting at the counter and watching the cars pass, lounging in our bedroom with my sisters, the fans whirring, the conversation fading in and out, punctuated by bursts of laughter, and all is still, soft blue, and sunlight. A happy heart.

Fell in love with a Stravinsky song today. I credit my parents for cultivating this love of classical music in me as a child, and Catherine for rekindling it last year. We used to always play it at home, mainly because Dad loved it and it always lulled Kelsey into a state of transfixion that led to the creation of her nickname, "The Potted Plant." Dad used to play a game with us when we listened, in which we would try to identify all of the instruments being played at that moment.

In the service this morning, I was reminded of this little truth: God spares His own (in re Malachi 3:17). It was so refreshing to be reminded of this by someone else, to pray corporately. How good it felt to pray with others and how long it has been since I have been able to do that! And yet it was almost good, this absence from it, because I was startled by it this morning--astonished by that onrush of collective emotion that strikes my heart to hear others praying; it was suddenly made new again, as if I was experiencing it for the first time.

Almost finished with The Years now. Will move onto The Metamorphosis next, maybe for just a day or two. And then I'll start Babbitt, which I've been saving all summer. Hope it's worth it.

In my circle of friends, saying anything positive about America is shameful. We pass our days passing judgment on the state of the American church, American politics, American foreign policy, American food life, American values, American education. However, I would like to step out of this circle temporarily and admit, freely and for once unashamedly, that living in Japan for a summer made me grateful for America in a way that I haven't been before. I love the creative, pioneering American spirit (which is not nurtured in Japan; on the contrary, it is suppressed very early on in a child's education). I love the American landscape and wide open spaces. I love American music and even American TV. And I love American pizza. Gosh, I love a good, greasy American pizza.

Excited to see everyone again in a few weeks. I have a feeling this is going to be, in the words of VH1, the Best Year Ever.

22 July, 2008

a traveller's sayonara

My last week in Japan! Despite all of the moments of mental misery, these two months have gone by quickly. I am flying out of Narita on Friday afternoon and will arrive at RDU sometime that evening, after having crossed enough date lines to make my mind spin. But I don't mind. At this point, I'd swim home. Still, I survived and I learned so much--not just about the Japanese language, but about God, silence, the Japanese people and their way of life, and myself, essentially. And these are lessons that I wouldn't trade, not even for a long summer at home in my own bed. Perseverance, character; and character, hope, and all that sort of thing, you know?

Diane and I had a marvelous time in Nikko this weekend. Even though it was our compromise for not being able to go to Kyoto, I think Nikko may have been the better place to go. Our hostel was right across the street from the biggest lake in Japan and it was pristine, calm, utterly gorgeous. (You'll have to see the photos for proof; they're up on Flickr.) We hiked all day long (seriously. I think we walked a total of ten miles in a mere two days. We walked and climbed everywhere, because no matter how expensive the buses or trains are, your legs are always free. Up mountains, down mountains, around lakes. You name it; we walked there).

We basked in and around the glory of the lake (Chuzenjiko), trekked up rivers, saw waterfalls, rice fields, the beauty of the Japanese countryside, which is, in my opinion, far superior to the muscular, jarring roar of Tokyo. As Saul Bellow writes in the book I just finished (More Die of Heartbreak): "Tokyo and Osaka are villes fourmillantes, they swarm. Any door you pull releases hundreds of people. You can’t open a closet without finding somebody sitting in it. Lift a manhole cover and they come streaming out. " Nikko was, mercifully, nothing of the sort. We spent three hours trekking around the lake and, to our astonishment and delight, didn't see a soul.

We had no agenda, no places to be at any certain time, and most of all, no homework to finish and no grammar to memorize. It was precisely the rest that we needed and I am infinitely grateful for it. We dipped our feet in the lake at sunset, read books and ate lunch on rocks in a river, watched a child-eating crow carry away our garbage, survived sleeping in a room with five strange men (one who snored like a chainsaw at two in the morning), took photos, enjoyed the strange looks we received because of Diane's old man pants (a story which I'll probably recount in one of the photo captions).

Diane was patient with me, even when I got irritable and stubborn--("Look! We'll just go down this mountain and I'm sure the waterfall is on the other side!" "No. Diane. I am not walking. Any. Further. There is not a trail there and even if there was, the waterfall is not up this mountain. It's down there." She would just shrug and hop down from a ledge, quite nimbly considering the crotch of her pants was between her knees. But even though I was grumpy, I would still like to add that I was right...) I think traveling brings out one’s true personality; it uncovers what you have sitting in the bottom of your heart, both the ugly and the good. This has been an interesting (and occasionally frightening) thing to learn.

So Nikko was grand. I would go again and take you with me.

Yesterday I had fried octopus balls for lunch.

After two months in Japan, I think my English skills have deteriorated considerably, so forgive me if my writing isn't entirely coherent. I imagine I'll need some time back home to re-acquire the ability for creating clear English composition.

Haven't the words to describe my eagerness to see all of your beautiful faces. I am homeward bound!

14 July, 2008

all is calm, all is bright

I stood in the middle of the dark street, hot and flushed after my two-mile run, and looked up at the slightly obscured moon. The clouds had created a halo around it. Pausing there in the road, I found a childish and yet wholly soothing sense of security from these lines that floated to the surface of my thoughts:

I see the moon and the moon sees me
God sees the moon and God sees me

I must have stood there for ten minutes or more, breathing, praying, thinking. The neighbor girl was practicing "Silent Night" on the piano and I smiled, thinking how appropriate the song seemed at that moment. She played hesitantly and yet with the jaunty flourish of an amateur pianist that somehow can make a simple song sound pretty. I was happy to be standing there, sweaty and tired, alone in the middle of the road in a Japanese neighborhood. Just watching the moon. Because the moon--it does not change. No matter how far away from home I might be, the moon is the same.

You hem me in, behind and before...

11 July, 2008

wearing down

The days here pass in a curious succession, alternating between incredibly long (like yesterday) and ridiculously fast (like today). It's hard to believe I have only 14 days left here, although I will admit I am rather ready to come home. Everyone on our program is feeling the same way at this point. I don't think any of us were prepared for just how intense and exhausting it would be to take a full year of advanced Japanese in a mere two months. All that to say, we are very much looking forward to being in Narita Airport on July 25.

There have been sad days, but there have been good ones, too. Wednesday was a sad day, and the sticky gray fog only compounded my gloomy mood. As soon as I got to class I was already on the brink of tears, but managed to suppress them all day long... until dinner. (Dinner is my one part of the day where I get to have genuine conversations with my host mom. It's probably my favorite part of my week, and also the space in which I think my Japanese improves the most.) During a pause at dinner, holding my little rice bowl with a slightly shaking hand, I tried to eke out an apology of sorts: "Watashi wa... warui hosuto-musume ga itte moushi wake de wa arimasen... mainichi, benkyoushiteiru bakari... jikan ga nai kara, isshoni hanashimasen..." and the tears came, silently, without much fanfare, and dripped onto my plate of somen. (Translation, in quite broken Japanese: I am sorry that I've been such a bad host daughter. Every day, I'm always studying, and since I don't have any time, we don't get to talk together.) I think I totally alarmed her, for she looked up with a startled face and then launched into a fifteen-minute homily in Japanese about how I was absolutely fine, how they loved having me, how I shouldn't worry about anything, &c. Really, I just needed to cry, and so it felt good just to do that.

Still, today has been exciting and tear-free. This afternoon, we mixed our class with a class of Japanese students who are taking English to do presentations on our cultures. The Japanese students presented in English and we presented in Japanese. I teamed up with Rebecca and we attempted to tackle a survey of religion in America in a mere five minutes. Despite our limited amount of time and preparation, I think we did a fairly good job. The students who heard our presentation seemed especially surprised to find out the real meaning behind Christmas and Easter, which Rebecca did a fabulous job explaining. Finally getting the chance to interact with Japanese students--to have to use what you know of the language in real time, instead of in a stifled classroom environment--is always energizing to me.

Next weekend Diane and I are taking day-trip to Nikko to see the lavish shrine, famous waterfalls, and monkeys! Very excited. Hope that our hostel won't be as sketchy as it looks and that our trip will be the rest that we have earned.

03 July, 2008

guyasumi: fragmentary communication

On my morning train, I always see the same little girl. She is probably nine or ten and she usually wears a pink hat each day. Like all Japanese children, she is incredibly cute. In the past, when we happen to be riding in the same car, she looks at me with a shy smile and makes a deep bow. I smile back and bow too. I hadn't seen her for a week, maybe, but yesterday morning we were in the same car and she actually sat beside me. When she walked over, we exchanged smiles of recognition. She sat quietly beside me as I read W. Somerset Maugham, but now I'm regretting that I didn't speak with her; talking to her would be infinitely more rewarding than Maugham, who I'm finding rather tiresome now anyway. As she got off the train, she stood and with a bashful wave, turned back to me and said, "Bye!" (In English.) I smiled and waved and said it back, feeling all the more resolved to talk with her next time we meet. The little things mean so much to me here; just that one word and smile from her made my entire day.

Being in Chiba and its surrounding environs has made me incredibly curious when I see other gaijin ("foreigner," especially Caucasian ones) around here, because they are so rare. I always stare at them and try to discern what on earth they're doing in Japan. It's not terribly uncommon to see gaijin at the more bustling tourist spots in Tokyo, but here in the suburbs, we are very few and far between. Today there was a middle-aged gaijin man on the train, carrying on a conversation with the woman beside him, and I was full of curiosity what he could possibly be doing here. It's funny, too, though; whenever we gaijin pass each other, we always stare at one another (much longer than the Japanese stare at us) as if we were wondering the exact same thing, "What are YOU doing here?"

Played tennis yesterday with Diane and Iku, one of the students here at Kanda. The courts were shimmering with the heat and we sweated ("glistened," Diane insists) tons, but it was great fun. Diane and Iku teamed up against me and we didn't keep score but shouted back and forth the whole time in Japanese and English, laughing at how terrible we were. As we played I was reminded that exercise is tremendously important to keep one mentally and spiritually sound. This is something of a motto for my family. After God and each other, maintaining an active lifestyle is probably the next highest priority. It's one that I never really bought much into until this past year, when I started to realize how very true it was. I'm hoping that the rain will hold off on Friday, for I am trying to organize a Frisbee game (which ought to be very interesting, since Frisbee in Japan is only something you do with dogs).

Nana, my three-year-old host sister, is a bundle of energy and raucous laughter and even though she can be "urusasugiru" (too noisy) sometimes, she's a lot of fun and rather attached to me. Whenever I come home each day, she likes to proclaim it to the entire household, if not the entire neighborhood: "MAMA! MAMA! ABBY-SAN KAETTA! OKAERI! OKAERI!" (Transl. Mom, Mom, Abby's home! Welcome home! Welcome home!) And every night, when I say "Oyasumi nasai" to the family, she gets really excited and and jumps up and down, shouting, "Oyasumi! Goodnight! Oyasumi! Goodnight!" (Interchanging the Japanese and English.) Lately, she gets so worked up that she's blended them into one word: "Guyasumi!" Keiko and I always laugh a lot at this, but she's so delighted to bid me good night that she doesn't even notice.

I have a deep fondness for Risa, the six-year-old girl. She is quiet and sweet and I can't even begin to explain her eyes. When she looks at me, I sense that she is perpetually brimming over with thoughtfulness and sincerity ("seijitsu"--something like a cross between "earnest" and "honest"; I like how the two are mixed in the same word); she understands that I don't understand many things. But we carry on little conversations in our own little way and she teaches me new words every day. (Like "pinwheel" and "balloon" and the name of the tree in the front yard, which I'm afraid I've already forgotten.) She praises my kanji and I praise her kana reading abilities. It's a curious position to be in--I can read more kanji than she can, but she knows infinitely more words than I do. So when she asks me to help her read some instructions for one of her art projects, I can read it (notwithstanding the characters I haven't learned yet, which at this point is still about 5,800) but I can't always understand what it means. But if I can read it out loud, she understands what it means.

And so literacy is a very complicated thing in Japan because of the immense difficulty of their written language. Yet Japan is the country with one of the highest literacy rates in the entire world (98% of the population can read). This is really a remarkable statistic, considering that their written language is arguably the most difficult on earth (even more than Chinese, apparently, which is something I was surprised to learn last week; if you want to know why, ask me and I'll explain it to you; I don't much feel like writing it out here). Elementary school children learn approximately 1,000 kanji and middle schoolers learn another 1,500. By the time you reach high school, you gradually acquire another 1,000 or so. So there are about 3,500 kanji in general usage but over 6,500 in the total language. It's bizarre to be in a society where everyone is very well-educated, but you still can't fully comprehend a newspaper until you're in sixth grade. Most of the time it's just discouraging; I feel like I'll never get there. The newspaper is still mostly confusing black strokes to me. (Although I got really excited yesterday when I could actually read an entire article and understand it. An enormous accomplishment.) Can someone please tell me why I chose the most difficult possible language for an English-speaker to learn? I'm beginning to forget why.

In a semi-related vein, I've been feeling a bit glum lately and almost waver back and forth with this feeling that I want to leave. It's not that I want to leave Japan exactly, but I really want to leave these classes. I don't think I've ever felt so mentally exhausted in my entire life. But being able to play tennis yesterday released a lot of those pent up black clouds and I am feeling a bit more optimistic. Especially since I finished my homework for today and am about to take the train back home, which I think might be my favorite part of the day.