The Long Goodbye

Brandon Lee is buried near my hometown. Inscribed on his grave is prose that I have returned to again and again, whenever I face an ending.

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five time more. Perhaps not even that. How many times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” Paul Bowles

Perhaps this seems morbid. But I think, on some level, the fear of change almost always boils down to a fear- or at the very least, an acknowledgement- of death. We make the best with the time we have, because we do not know how much of it we have. Living well requires both ignoring the inevitable and acknowledging it.

I left Tokyo last week after a wonderful year. I spent months agonizing over whether it was the right decision, whether it was best to pull up roots and leave or stay and let them grow.

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This year, I watched the sunrise from the top of a mountain and swam on the other side of the same ocean I grew up next to. Less poetically, I negotiated rental agreements, scolded children, paid taxes, and navigated new cities in a language I barely understood.

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sunrise from Fujisan

Walking the streets home from work, it was strange knowing the number of times I would walk through a train station or pass by a certain shop on my way home. It should feel limitless, but I knew the ending was fast approaching.

In many ways, it seems premature. I still have so many unanswered questions about my time in Japan. How do you wear a face mask without fogging up your glasses? How does my neighborhood support an average of 4.8 hair salons per block? (seriously, some of them must be a front for something, that isn’t economically feasible.) Why does everyone use a book cover?

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I’m grateful for the time I have enjoyed here and the people I have met. The day before I left, at my going away shindig, my roommates and friends surprised me with a photo album they had all contributed to. My contribution to the party was trying to make takoyaki while ugly-sobbing.

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I had an incredible year. I met wonderful people. It’s hard to define the meaning behind that, and the courage that comes from being able to find community and meaning across the world. The beautiful thing is how ordinary it is.

“While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not ht only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. still there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.” Jhumpa Lahiri, The Third and Final Continent

I write this wide awake late at night, my body still in sync with the time of a different country. Outside, I can see a crisp and clear full moon.

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“But what’s wrong with quail?”

I try to help prepare the lunches at one of my schools, and this Thursday, I was helping to dish out a steaming cooked meal when I glanced. Orange chicken?

What a lucky day! I am a fan of the way my schools make fried chicken. I asked the other teachers casually what it was, and the response sounded a little bit like (I was only half paying attention as I passed out bowls) “quail.”

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One of the teachers gave me a moderately concerned look. “Can you eat quail?”

This is one of my favorite schools to teach at, because they tolerate, even encourage my broken Japanese language skills. I’ve been slacking off on my studies lately, but I enjoy practicing around the office, and they’ve been kind enough to humor me. As a result, I try to be enthusiastic about everything. I was a little taken aback. I didn’t think I had ever given them reason to think I was a a picky eater. Even when we eat my least favorite school lunch, sakana- tiny whole fried or grilled fish, heads and all.

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Pictured here. I seriously hate it, but I swallow it with a smile in front of the kids. I have the number of bites down to a science. Not my photo.

I’ve always made an attempt to seem enthusiastic about everything we eat at school. First, because it’s delicious,  and secondly because picky eating is just not a thing here. Students have told me (I generally eat lunch in the classroom with the students) that they hate a food, while they are chewing on it. Everyone eats the same thing for lunch together, family style, every day. Occasionally one or two younger kids will get finicky but for the most part, it’s the least picky I’ve ever seen children be about their diet. I now feel badly for my brief stage as a child when I refused to eat anything except lima beans and cheese.

So. I wasn’t sure why this would cause concern. They realized my misunderstanding. “Not Quail. it lives in the sea.”

Oh. Oh. 

Whale.

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Zoom, Enhance.

Oh. huh.

Well then. I can understand their concern for my stomach. I don’t think whale meat is even sold in the United States, outside of a handful of Native American reservations. The United States doesn’t have a consistent party line on anything- it’s kind of our thing to disagree, really- but one of the few things I think most people agree on is that killing whales= bad. Perhaps even The Worst, except for nuking them.

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Considered a fringe opinion.

On the other hand, I was curious. It was probably my only opportunity to have something I considered unethical, but without me making the conscious choice. Perhaps that absolved me a small amount? Oh, and it’s not like I had a choice: it was this, or no lunch at all. It was also a once in a lifetime opportunity, since the school nutritionist explained to me that they only serve it once in a year to highlight traditional Japanese foods. So, I tried it, feeling like maybe just this once, for a cultural experience, wouldn’t hurt too much.

And it was delicious. Dark purplish red, consistency and taste of a rich cut of steak, but a bit fattier, with a mild tangy hint of salmon. Honest to God it was probably one of the better things I’ve had in my life.

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“I HATE THAT I KNOW THIS”

I taught at three schools whose school menus overlapped. So I had it again on Thursday.

And then on Friday.

A thrice in a lifetime opportunity.

It lead to some interesting conversations, once some of the teachers got over their initial concern for me. And eating it three times meant that I got to ask multiple people at different schools. It’s served once a year in schools to teach children about traditional Japanese foods, but one woman explained to me that she had grown up eating it- for a short period in Japanese history, it was the most affordable meat available. Because it was frequently served at school, a whole generation of Japanese children was raised on it, including the teacher who was explaining this to me. We had a nice conversation about the ethics of food, and where that overlaps with culture. I also got a suspicion of what “time period” she was talking about.

I filled in this conversation with my own Googling. The history of whale hunting in Japan is interesting. It’s been practiced for hundreds of years along the coastline, starting as early as 800 AD, but took on new importance in the last century. During reconstruction after World War II, meat was particularly scarce. Whale meat became one of the most important sources of protein during this time period; General MacArthur ordered that two US Navy tankers be converted to whaling vessels to provide the population with another source of fresh meat. It was used, among other things, in elementary school lunches. The current market is controversial; whale meat has fallen out of fashion, but is still a nostalgic food for many Japanese people, despite the falling whale populations globally.

The intersection of ethics, food, and culture, and the discussion surrounding it, makes me uncomfortable, mostly because it frequently misses the point. I don’t think my eating whale once, or even three times, is going to make too large a dent in the global population, even if many of them are endangered. Whales are extremely intelligent, but so are pigs. Eating whale has a lower carbon footprint than eating beef, but one makes my gut queasy and the other strikes me as completely natural. A guinea pig is a pet in some countries, a dog is a dish in others.I got in an argument with my mother after telling her, my defense being “well, we (Americans, not my family) eat foie gras, and veal: whats the difference?” So much of our morality is influenced by our culture. And that’s frightening, because you want to think that ethics are not arbitrary and that something as powerful as a gut reaction is trustworthy and right.

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I’M SORRY I’M SORRY I’M SORRY

 

 

I am also not a relativist. I think, even accounting for different cultural backgrounds, some things are just innately more correct. I also think that my culture has not influenced me in these decisions, that I have only used objective reasoning and logic to come to my conclusions, void of history and context.

That’s a pretty American way to think, huh?

I guess right now is the exploration of what imprint my culture has left on me, with and without my knowing.

 

Thank You

I’ve been having a bit of a writing slump lately. It’s the kind of thing that builds on itself, like getting too hungry- pretty soon, any topic you think of writing about isn’t ‘big enough’ to break the not-writing streak you have going.

Tomorrow morning, when I wake up, there will be a new family in the White House. I wish them all the best. This isn’t about them.

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This is about the man who is leaving.

I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts for a while about what this man means to me, to my country, and to me personally.

Growing up, many of my friends were first generation Americans. Many of them came from single parent households, or were raised by their grandparents. His challenges felt relatable to me. He felt like a person I could know. He was the America down the street from me, attending the same high school. The cliche of the 2000 election was that Bush was the better candidate to have a beer with, but both of those candidates seemed so separated from any kind of experiences I could understand. Which was why it was so bizarre to see the “anti-American” line of attack that became so popular against Obama. That he wasn’t born here, that he wasn’t like “us,” nevermind who “us” was intended to represent. The dog whistling on experiences that were so recognizable to me, they felt like an attack on people I knew. Were we not good enough to be American?

In a very tangible way, his winning felt like a true victory for having a stake in this country, in my country. It was both acknowledgement and acceptance of past evils, absent some of the pageantry and lip service that inevitably happens with large cultural acknowledgements. Patriotism has always belonged to the Conservatives in this country- loyalty without criticism, acceptance without understanding. Perhaps some of my memory is in the sharp black and white relief of a teen, but there was very little middle ground. Either you bought the party line, or you didn’t. His election win changed that for me. I could feel pride in a flawed country, based on hope.

Four years ago this month, I set out with a friend and colleague to attend the inauguration. We planned on driving south, and seeing a side of the country we hadn’t had a chance to explore. wp_000353

We drove south, stopping at the Navajo reservation, the Grand Canyon, a Texas Steakhouse (any steakhouse in Texas is a monument by itself,) Beale Street, and a quick stopover in Georgia to grab another coworker before the Civil Rights Museum and the King Center. On the way, I got to see the country I had been very small part of organizing.

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The United States does not frequently feel like a real concept to me. When people ask where I am from, I try to say “America,” not because it is an intrinsic part of my identity, but because I’ve heard too many non-Americans complain about how we divide down endlessly to the state or city level. So this may be the first experience I had of my country as a collective.

 

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Someday I will try to explain to my kids what it felt like, watching him win. It felt like the country changed overnight, in potential if nothing else. That we had lived up to some kind of promise. I always joked that I would someday become one of those little old ladies with a gold framed photo of the president on the mantelpiece. He was a piece of American history. He was my generation’s Kennedy. In some ways, it paved the way for what’s coming tomorrow- people like me got too comfortable, while people who were threatened grew in resentment and anger.

He wasn’t perfect. No president is. But I’m so proud that I got to be an American while he represented us.

 

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Memorable Students

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I work in three schools, averaging 4-5 classes a day. A class has anywhere from 25-35 students. In an average week, I see around 600-800 children, not including substitute teaching.

So, despite teaching the same students for 8 months, I still rely on name tags in class, which makes me feel like a dick. (Something I covered in an earlier blog post)

There are a few students that stick out more clearly than others.

Catgirl: This 5th grader used to greet me by meowing at me whenever I walked in the room or asked her a question. I meowed back at her a few times. I still think of her as the cat girl.

Gorilla: My first student to get a nickname. For a long time, his hobby was sneaking up behind me in the hallway and singing ‘Gangnam Style’ as loudly in my personal space as possible. He has switched this with PPAP now.

Space Pants: When this kid walked into class a few weeks ago in a matching black Star Wars tracksuit, It took me a moment to recognize the emotion I was feeling. It was envy. at 12 years old, he is more hip than I will ever be.

The Ham: Whenever I call on this kid for a gesture game, he puts his heart and soul into it, including reenacting an Herbal Essences commercial for his class. He should have three Oscars by now.

Wonder Twins/ Clark Kent and Superman: Took me an embarrassing amount of time to realize these guys were twins. (One wears glasses, the other doesn’t.) Great students, get competitive in class games with each other. 

The James Deans: I don’t know what these two kids do, but one or the other is basically always in the hall being yelled at by the homeroom teacher. They’re smart, good at English, and enthusiastic in class, but they do try to use their above average English skills to play tricks on me and other students, getting them more yelling time from their teacher, while they just stand there and smirk. Just can’t deal with the man, man.

Crazy Boy: Bless him. Whenever I ask his class how they are that day, I hear one loud voice yell “CRAZY!” He volunteers loudly and first for every activity, usually without any idea of the question I asked or what he is supposed to do, but he’s so damn good-natured it barely matters.

God: Whenever we do first person narratives in class (I like, I have, I need) he responds from the viewpoint of God. God hates homework. God likes video games. He now responds to God in class and tells us about his life as God (“I live in a Shrine.”)

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Most of these are from my 5th and 6th grade classes. For now, I will refrain from sharing my nicknames of the students I dislike (and of course, out of 750 people, there are some I really, realllllly don’t like.)  But one comes from Lord of the Flies.

Christmas Illuminations

Something really big in Tokyo are huge light displays. There are tons all over town, each one trying to outdo the rest. This one held a light show called “The Birth of the Universe,” which I didn’t manage to get a good photo of.

Just a few snapshots of a pretty (and extremely cold!) night.

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