Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Dear Friends and Family

It's not that I don't want to post and keep you all up to date or tell you stories about my life here in Japan...I really do, and I miss my blog very much. However, no time to post these days because of work and grad school. This blog has had to take a backseat, among many other things, so please bear with me for a while longer. I am nearly half way through the program now!

Monday, April 11, 2011

An AQ Sakura Experience

My friend, Vicky, aptly refers to our lives now as BQ and AQ. Before Quake and After Quake. It shows just how much our lives changed in an instant on March 11, 2011. One month later, it was Cherry Blossom Viewing time, and people who desired to go out and drink while reveling in the beauty of the cherry blossoms above while enjoying the warmer spring weather and hanging out with friends and family worried about "jishuku". Jishuku means "self-restraint." It expresses a feeling to not show too much enjoyment out of respect for victims of the earthquake and tsunami. At the same time, people argued that we should support the economy and buy sake and food and celebrate as usual under the cherry blossoms. I was of the latter group.

This is not a cherry tree we are sitting under, but it was the only tree left in the park without a family. I think it was the only tree that blooms at the same time as the cherry blossoms, but since it is not a cherry tree, it stood alone. We sat there and enjoyed our little viewing party

 Earthquake and liquifaction damage in our local park. I mentioned this before, but this was originally an evacuation zone for everyone in our neighborhood. Not anymore.

 Papa...pppppp....ppppp. Luka's joke is to say Papa name and then make two farting noises. It's really funny.
 My name is Luka.
 And I am too cool for school.
 We took the long way home in order to view the blossoms, and meanwhile, Yusuke's mom started planning for next year. She wants to do it up with a BBQ in the park and she had decided to invite Auntie Nanako so it will be a like a real party with lots of beer.

The song Sukiyaki is being used as an inspirational song in these hard AQ times. I think Suntory had several celebrities get together and record it, We are the World-style. I have known this song since my days as an exchange student in high school as it is quite famous, and even people in the USA know of it. It was written in 1961, performed by Kyu Sakamoto and is called Sukiyaki only because that was a recognizable word for Americans. It is actually called Ue o Muite Arukoo (I look to the sky when I walk).

I learned to play this song on the piano long ago and still have the sheet music. I dug it out so I could teach the words and melody to Ailin. She is learning to sing it now (along with all the songs in her Glee repertoire). This song has new meaning to me now. I don't think I really understood it before.

In this song, he is talking about spring, and in Japan, spring is synonymous with cherry blossoms. He has just experienced loss. It could be a loss of a loved one, but here, cherry blossom season and spring is a time for endings and new beginnings. Graduations followed by entrance ceremonies. Job transfers followed by welcome parties to new branches. It is a time of sadness and good-byes, but quickly followed by a time of fresh starts and newness.

In the wake of AQ, we are all filled with extreme sadness, and we cannot help but look up at the cherry blossoms in a new light. They bring hope. They bring something new. But, they carry the memories of our old lives.

This song says something else that is very revealing about Japanese culture. "I look up at the sky so that you won't see the tears in my eyes." Yes, that is true. People try to avoid speaking explicitly about their feelings and the sadness they are experiencing. They want to appear strong, hopeful, resigned. They don't want you to worry about them. When they are alone or you are not looking, they cry and the tears fall.

Sukiyaki Lyrics (by Rokusuke Ei)

Ue o muite arukoo I look up when I walk
Namida ga kobore nai yoo ni So the tears won't fall
Omoidasu haru no hi Remembering those happy spring days
Hitoribotchi no yoru But tonight I'm all alone
Ue o muite arukoo I look up when I walk
Nijinda hoshi o kazoete Counting the stars with tearful eyes
Omoidasu natsu no hi Remembering those happy summer days
Hitoribotchi no yoru But tonight I'm all alone
Shiawase wa kumo no ue ni Happiness lies beyond the clouds
Shiawase wa sora no ue ni Happiness lies above the sky
Ue o muite arukoo I look up when I walk
Namida ga kobore nai yoo ni So the tears won't fall
Nakinagara aruku Though my heart is filled with sorrow *
Hitoribotchi no yoru For tonight I'm all alone
(whistling) (whistling)
Omoidasu aki no hi Remembering those happy autumn days
Hitoribotchi no yoru But tonight I'm all alone
Kanashimi wa hoshi no kage ni Sadness hides in the shadow of the stars
Kanashimi wa tsuki no kage ni Sadness lurks in the shadow of the moon
Ue o muite arukoo I look up when I walk
Namida ga kobore nai yoo ni So the tears won't fall
Nakinagara aruku Though my heart is filled with sorrow *
Hitoribotchi no yoru For tonight I'm all alone
(whistling) (whistling) 
* Note that poetic license was used to render the English lyrics.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ailin's Birthday - 2 months Late

I know this is really late, and the state of this birthday party, which took place in mid-February, will tell you that I was busy and that is my excuse! Now, I am finally writing about it.

For her 4th birthday, Ailin wanted a purple purse-shaped cake. What she got was a double-layered, kind-of-purplish cake with candy decorations. Simple enough for you?

I asked that we have the party at our house which meant that I had to do the cooking. Ailin wanted pizza. (That's my girl!) So, I made 12 different kinds of small-size pizzas. Auntie Nanako came to celebrate with us.

Ailin, now a 4-year old lady, tried hard to contain her excitement...and she did. There is a big difference between 3 and 4, I think.

After dinner, but before opening presents, Ailin wanted to wear her princess costume so she could show us her "curtsy" which apparently she had been practicing with Grandma Yuki.

Grandma Yuki knitted this sweater for her.

Mama and Papa gave her an easel with paints. Ailin's dream was to draw a heart with red paint just like she had seen in a picture book.

Ailin got presents from her family in America too. Grandma Holly sent some clothes, including this outfit. Thank you to Auntie Michele for the presents too!

On Valentine's Day, the day before her real birthday, Uncle Karl (Ailin's godfather) met us in Odaiba and we hung out for the day.

We ate lunch and then hung out at the Fuji TV building.

Karl gave her a Lite Bright for her birthday, but on a whim, he decided to have this drawing done of her by one of the mall artists. She actually sat still the entire time, but she got very sleepy. Due to her obsession with princesses, we asked him to give her a princess look.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Big Sister Little Brother

Ailin is turning into quite the big sister. Yes, she has her moments...I mean, she is only human. One can only take so much pestering, snack-stealing, and lap-stealing. But, she is doing well and takes her job of big sister quite seriously.

On a nice day in Ginza of Tokyo, when they close the streets off for pedestrians, the kids were running around scaring pigeons. It was a great day!

At home, on the infamous striped chair which doubles as Papa's parking place for his coat and bag, the kids seem to enjoy playing on the chair and posing for photos on it.

A clock that I ordered from an Etsy store called TammnoonyKids. TammnoonyKids is run by a Swedish woman who lives in Israel. She specializes in making art pieces for children's rooms, including clocks and door signs. The clock in my kids' room broke one day so I thought it would be a nice opportunity to get a more personalized clock. Notice that "Max" is sitting between them! Ailin was really pleased to have this clock especially at a time when she is striving to learn how to tell time.

The first day of a new school year. Luka has moved up to Otter Class; Ailin has moved up to the Seal Class. This is not exactly the kind of first-day-of-school pose that I wanted, but it's funny.

In both of these photos, I can see the resemblance between the two. They look very different, yet certain features of their faces are quite similar.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

March: What I Learned

This has been a hard month, but I learned a lot...at least 31 things. After feeling so depressed this week, I thought it would be good therapy to make a my Word of the Year scrapbook pages based on the earthquake/tsunami disaster.

You can click on the images to make them bigger and read the journaling.

Explanations of photos from top left: 1. Makuhari, in front of the Excelsior Cafe and movie theater. Adie and I were standing here just after the first one hit.

2. The sidewalk was splitting before us, people were stranded on the rotary in front of the station and salarymen were walking over the cracks, but mostly everyone just stood frozen in place.

3. Buses were attempting to get into the rotary even though the road had split and buckled up. Water was quickly seeping up onto the pavement.

Bottom left: 1. We returned to the high school soon after, driving while the big aftershocks occurred, and we saw that the sports ground had split and now looked like a river.

2. After a short while, Adie accompanied me to the daycare so I could pick up my kids. I could not take photos at that moment because it was chaotic. Several teachers were outside trying to keep the liquifaction at bay - an impossible task. The intersection had sunk down, and liquid clay was pouring out of various holes in the road and sidewalks. We managed to get across the street but our shoes sunk down into the "quicksand". This quicksand was later shoveled out, the road was fixed, and the mud that remained soon turned to dust as you can see in this photo.

3. The liquifaction at a park near my house. This park's ground has since been completely torn up and new grass has been laid down. This park was originally an evacuation site. Not anymore.

 From top left: 1. We came home to this sight. First, the master bedroom had the most damage. A dresser fell over and all the knicknacks in the room had smashed to the floor. A glass vase filled with sand produced most of the mess.

2. My multi-purpose room had no major damage but several books and knicknacks fell down. Luckily, the computer was safe!

3. A lamp that will now be garbage.

From 2nd row left: 1. My mother-in-law's apartment building and grounds had extensive damage due to cracking and liquifaction. Their parking lot was unusable for two weeks. They had no running water for several days.

2. and 3. A neighborhood shopping area near our house called Inage Pat also had extensive damage, as if it sits on a fault line. The earthquake ripped through the ground like a tornado rips through a town. The light poles sit at a an angle now. The sidewalks are ripped apart and have waves going through them. The restaurants are closed for now. It is a low priority for construction work.

From top left at bottom: 1. After a natural disaster, people have a tendency to hoard. This instant curry aisle stayed empty for days. Rice, bread, eggs, milk and other staples were (and in some cases) difficult to come by and when they did start stocking the shelves, items like this were rationed.

2. Black-out schedules were made to force people to conserve electricity to make up for the losses in Tohoku as well as the troubles at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant. This black-out schedule was posted at our daycare so that parents would know when the black-outs would occur in the daycare area. Areas of town that were especially damaged and require a lot of reconstruction have been left out of the black out schedule.

3. Donations to the Chiba-city government will be transported to the evacuation facilities in the north. They requested items like toilet paper, diapers, adult diapers, sanitary napkins, and wet tissues.

4. The kids and I at the park near our house. I will never look at the park the same way again.

I will never look at anything the same again.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Things We Take for Granted

Back When We Were Happy ... and Oblivious.

Now, in the wake of the Tohoku Quake, looking much older and wiser.
Were we prepared for a big earthquake? No. Did we have a plan A or B? No. Did we have any idea what it would do to reclaimed land? No. Will we get our butts in gear and be ready (or gone) before the next one? Hell yeah!

I am still very saddened about the situation here in Japan, and I can't help but cry when I watch the news and see my people telling their stories, mourning for their lost or dead loved ones, and watching their flattened houses be thrown away like a pile of sticks. I am not supposed to let my children see my cry, but I can't NOT feel emotional when I see this on the news.

I also can't help but feel frustrated at the fast-changing information regarding food, water, radiation, etc. In the background, the aftershocks force us to stay vigilant. I look around and count the few foreigners left, and I smile at them, glad that they decided to stay too.

In my next post, I plan to include some photos of our area.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Our Decision to NOT leave Japan

The best way, honestly, if you are sick of watching the news or if you don't trust CNN (and you should not trust CNN because they over-dramatize everything - Japan's "earthquake tsunami nuclear catastrophe" is no exception) is to take a look at my facebook page. You will see my own status posts along with my friends in Japan and their messages or status posts, and you can see how people are doing, what their main concerns are, and what kind of information they are passing to each other. Many are linking to good blog articles, informative or interesting news articles, or useful websites. A lot of people are talking about how to get help to the victim shelters up north - where to send money or material donations. Right now, to be quite honest, many of us are very worried about them because there are 10s of thousands of people sitting in those shelters and frankly, there are not enough supplies to go around. They are asking other prefectures to send what they can, however, they are not asking Chiba or Tokyo.

Why? Because, we cannot get much of the same stuff here. If you go to your local stores at certain times of the day, you can sometimes get things like meat, bread, rice, etc. Paper products are also in short supply. What they need in the shelters is mostly food staples and paper products, even sanitary napkins for women and diapers for babies. There was a blizzard there on Friday and into the night. It was cold here too, but no snow. Everyone is trying to conserve energy right now, so we can't use our heaters much at all, or warm our bath water, so no baths, just short, showers. It is not much of a sacrifice when you think about how much people are suffering up north - from loss, shock, cold, etc. Even the businesses are using less electricity or shorter open times so as to conserve! It's amazing how much people down here are cooperating.

Yusuke's relatives in Miyagi, though all accounted for, called us last Thursday and said they are now out of food. They are living in their house still, but there is no where to buy anything. (And, we think we have problems down here....) I think his mom or Yusuke's sister Nanako will try to send something up there, but they are worried that mail trucks cannot get to that area.

So, some friends and family have been asking me if people are leaving in Japan in droves. First of all, please know that most people who are leaving are foreigners. Japanese people don't have anywhere to go abroad, and if they were to run away, they would go west or south of Japan. The foreigners leave for a variety of reasons. I know more than 30 foreigners who have already left and several more who plan to leave soon. Some are AFWJ members, others are JET teachers or English teachers. It is my understanding that they have a variety of reasons for leaving.

Possible Explanations for Leaving Temporarily
1. Some are leaving now because they were already preparing to leave Japan in the near future, and decided that perhaps leaving sooner than planned would be smart. In fact, two of those people were from the Fukushima area. They, in fact, left alone. Their husbands are staying behind with their Japanese parents, at least for now. I think their visas had not come through yet anyway.

2. Most, who leave, have every intention of returning soon, either because they think things will calm down and return to normal in a few weeks or because they have to work. For teachers, we currently don't have classes, so it is easy to take vacation time right now. For people who are housewives or who can do their work from anywhere in the world, it is easy for them to take off. For still others, they were already planning to go on a spring trip somewhere, and the timing just happens to be right now.

3. Other reasons for leaving: People who have small children want to protect them from possible radiation poisoning because even small levels are not good for them. Though Chiba and Tokyo are in the clear now, some are afraid that the wind could change, the weather could change, etc. and then it would be too late. Same thing if they don't get control of that last reactor - if that blows, it would be too late. Panic would ensue and then we would never get out. This is an island country, with not many places to run to, and with such a short supply of gas and a high chance of traffic jams, you truly would be trapped here. But, by Friday, it looked like they were getting control of it and over the weekend, it definitely looked like that. I think that many young people left Japan for now simply because their families back home were screaming at them over the phone to leave and the pressure was getting at them.

4. The after-shocks continue and this is unnerving for many people. We have had a few earthquakes unrelated to the big one. It is psychologically affecting everyone here, putting many on edge. Japan has at least one earthquake per day, somewhere in the country. Usually, they are small, but these days, any size will have people pausing in their conversation and looking around for "hanging objects" that would normally not be moving, such as a light string, to see if there is an earthquake starting. Taking a break from that would be really nice, I think.

5. The biggest reason that people are leaving the Tokyo metro area may be because of lack of supplies (gas, food, water, etc.) and the blackouts are causing problems like some banks having to close their ATMs during certain hours. Luckily, my bank and ATMs are fine so far. The problem of not being able to get daily living supplies is very hard on us, and not being able to buy and send anything up north makes it that much worse. (But, let me just ask this: if you go to the USA and spend your days over-indulging yourself at Walmart and then come back to Japan in 2 weeks and find that not much has changed, have you really done yourself a service? You'll still have to get used to living with less, and perhaps baking your own bread once in a while!)

6. The stress that it causes for our husbands who have to worry about their wives at home in another city with the kids - there is always the chance that they can't get back home easily. I don't think this is a biggest reason though - most wives have learned to take care of themselves in the absence of husbands, who work a lot anyway.

But then there are many reasons for NOT leaving, and I will list some of them here. My main one, I decided, will be listed as #1.

1. I don't think 2 weeks abroad will change anything. I might get over the earthquake feeling I have every other minute, but at the same time, I'll be forced to talk about what happened, watch it unfold even more on CNN, and then have to prepare to come back here all the while worrying about my husband and his family, my friends, our home, my job, and all the things I was "going to do during spring break before the new school year starts." I'll still have to do all that stuff when I get back.

2. This huge earthquake happened in Tohoku area, which is north of us. Several years ago, you may remember a huge earthquake in Kobe, which is west of Tokyo (it seems south to me, but actually it is west). Another one, soon after I moved here happened in Niigata, a rural prefecture west of Tokyo. The Big Kanto Earthquake (Tokyo and surrounding areas) is predicted to happen sometime within the next 20 years. This earthquake, if it happens, will cause serious devastation to Japan. Because I was standing on the reclaimed land last Friday and saw the liquifaction take place right before my eyes, and then what I experienced when I picked up my kids at daycare (also on reclaimed land) and what happened at my school sports ground where I work only one block away, and on top of that, the ravaged land around my mother-in-laws apartment building, which happens to be in the same vicinity - all these things put together would be enough to scare anyone. BUT, there is more. Isobe, a neighborhood near mine, but bordering the Tokyo Bay, began sinking because of liquifaction and many of the houses began collapsing into their neighboring houses. My friend, Tiffany, had to evacuate her house and is now in a hotel with her kids while their family searches for a new place to live. Disneyland and Disney Sea are closed until further notice, but if you see the liquifaction that took place in their parking lot, you can only imagine what happened inside their parks - they may never recover from this. Nearby, in Urayasu, where several of my students and colleagues live, their houses - though still liveable, suffered a lot of damage too because of liquifaction. This liquifaction is dangerous stuff. I never believed anything about it until 3/11 when I saw what it could do in a matter of minutes. There would be no chance to run away if the epicenter of the earthquake were in fact in Kanto. Our apartment building borders the location where the beach used to be, so in some ways, we are safe and would only need to run across the big highway and up a hill - only after we have climbed down 12 flights of stairs with our dog and two kids and our emergency backpacks...which don't actually exist yet!

My Decision

So, here is what I decided - stay in Japan, get used to living with less - whether that is temporary or permanent - it does not matter to me. I just want to see the North begin to rebuild and help their people as soon as possible, and if I can, I want to do something to help too. But, even MORE THAN THAT, I want to prepare myself and my family for a possible Kanto Earthquake in the future. This means that we need to have some serious talks about whether we should continue living in this area, move further west or south, leave Japan altogether, or move to an apartment on a lower floor. Many options to consider here, but what needs immediate attention, is building proper emergency backpack kits, preparing ourselves in other ways and deciding all that needs to be done. Meanwhile, trying to move on with our lives - bills still need to be paid, kids still need to get ready for their next year of daycare, preparations still need to be made for my next school year, my next grad school class starts officially today - there is a lot to do!

But, one thing that came of this disaster is that we became a team. We are in this together and we have to do what needs to be done to protect our children. I will post more later about how we plan to prepare for the future, as I think this is long enough, but please know that we are thankful for your thoughts and prayers. If you feel like you really want to help, donate to Red Cross or Doctors without Borders or any of the other amazing organizations who have come in to Japan to help the people up north. And, please don't worry about us for now. We are doing fine and we will get through this because we learned a lot and became stronger because of it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Exceedingly Inappropriate

Last time I posted, it was the morning of the big Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami. Yusuke would refer to this time as "Back when we were happy."

I have been updating and communicating via Facebook which people have found to be the best way to support and communicate with each other. In fact, just after the earthquake when I began trying to reach my husband by cell phone, I found that the only thing that worked on my iPhone was in fact Facebook (and Twitter for that matter). Since that moment, foreigners as well as Japanese have found it to be the best mode of communication, even though our cell phones do work again.

Despite all that has happened to impact our daily lives and our emotions, I wanted to give an "exceedlingly inappropriate" update to my last two posts. The results of our final exam in our English class which included questions about our Tsumabuki and Oguri presentations.

In the introduction of my presentation, students were asked to fill in the blanks.

"Tsumabuki-kun is Japan's most exceedingly __________ man."

Here is a list of the funniest answers:

cute and cool

Yes, he is.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Japan's Jack of All Trades

And, now for Adie's presentation about Mr Shun Oguri. After you see both presentations, which actor do you like better? That is the question here!


Japan's Most Exceedingly Handsome Actor

Japan's most exceedingly handsome actor is Satoshi Tsumabuki.

For a long time, I could never remember his name and it became a joke in our house that whenever I mentioned him, I would mess up his name, but after years of liking him and paying attention to his career, I finally remember it! It helps to think that in Japanese, his name means "Wife-Husband-Tree".

For our final project in the 1st grade English class (sophomores for those of you not in Japan), we asked the students to pair up and choose a topic for a persuasive speech. Each partner was to prepare a speech, but they had to represent opposite opinions about their topic. For example: Long hair is better than short hair and vice versa; Art classes are an important part of a school curriculum and vice versa; and Passive guys are better than aggressive guys and vice versa.

These topics seem a bit on the shallow side, but they served a higher purpose which was to allow the students to have fun with their topics, research to find evidence without too much of a burden, and to focus more on the presentation skills they had been developing and practicing all year long (eye contact, gestures, posture, visual aid creation, etc.) The newest skill added for this particular project was to prepare an entire speech from intro to conclusion with transitions and sequencers placed in the correct parts of the speech. Their power point presentations would be an important component as well, and in preparing their presentations, they were challenged with the job of creating slides and being able to explain them with the correct "introduce-explain-emphasize" technique that they learned last fall.

So, of course, Adie and I had to give model presentations on several occasions throughout this project so that they could see our process as well as the final result, which was our complete presentations. We presented to them about one week before their own presentation dates, so it gave them plenty of time to practice their own presentations.

One point I would like to make here is how students are evaluated. Of course, we are looking at various criteria, such as their physical skills in presenting as well as their content, evidence, quality of slides, explanation of slides, etc. However, what really stands out to anyone who watches these presentations is the PASSION that the speaker displays throughout the speech!

Yes, PASSION! Whether, real or fake - from the heart or just an act - if the speaker shows passion for his topic, no matter how socially-important or not, the audience will be much more interested.

Our best (and most passionate) speakers were chosen to perform their speeches again for the entire class the next day, so that everyone could see their amazing presentations, and it was a great way to end the year. I think both students and teachers could remember back to how we all felt on the first day of school one year ago when the students were timid and worried about their English, and we teachers were unsure of how much they could understand. On this day, when we all sat back and watch the 9 best speakers (there was one threesome and three pairs), we felt good, and we felt proud and happy for all that we had accomplished this past year.

And, on that note, let me now show you my model presentation about Japan's most exceedingly handsome actor. (Adie's presentation was about her favorite actor, Shun Oguri. I will post her presentation in the next post, just because it is funny to see the opposite points being made. I thought her presentation was kind of "bitchy" but we all got a good laugh out of the whole process!)