Monday, January 20, 2014

4-Month Update

This past Wednesday marked my fourth month in Japan, which seems crazy. I’m a third of the way through my first year in Japan!

The biggest event that happened since the last update was Christmas, starting with the last week of classes before Christmas break. Because I am my mother’s daughter, I took the time to make homemade treats for my students and coworkers. I was quite pleased with the way they turned out—my boss said they looked like I bought them—and my students’ excitement was well worth the effort.

That being said, the last week of work before break was a bit rough. All of us—teachers and students alike—were ready for the holiday, so some of the students were quite unruly. In my class of three year-olds, one actually got stuck in her chair and I had to call in another staff member to help. I tried to keep teaching through it, but the other kids were too distracted and it was a bit of a debacle. However, as usual, there were enough good moments to outweigh the bad. One of my young girls spent part of class singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town. She could only sing that one line in English, and the rest was in Japanese, which was adorable. Perhaps the best moment came at the very end of my week when I was talking with the mother of one of my young boys. Her son had given me a homemade Christmas card and an eraser at the Christmas party, which was very sweet in and of itself. When I thanked her for the card, she told me he had gotten a shot at the doctor and had chosen that eraser for me as his treat instead of getting something for himself. It broke my heart in the best way possible, and I’ve been sure to use that eraser during his class every week since.

That night, the school staff went out for our B┼Źnenkai, a traditional end of the year party at which you forget the troubles of the past year and look forward to the new one. We ended up at a place where we cooked our own meat over a fire at the table, ate a delicious rice soup that I can’t remember the name of, and—as seems to be the staple of Japanese social gatherings—drank a lot. We had walked 45 minutes to get there, but we all ended up piling into cabs on the way home. Most of the others chose to stay out when we got back, but I was too exhausted to do anything but go home and sleep it off.

I spent the next day preparing for the best Christmas present I will ever pull off—flying home to surprise my family! I had been laying the groundwork for months, telling them I was going to Cambodia over Christmas with some other teachers, getting them to delay mailing my presents, making a big deal over how much I was regretting not going home now that Christmas was almost here. I was so excited to be pulling this off—and to be going home for Christmas!—that I barely slept that night.

The next day, December 23rd, I left my apartment just before 8 with a suitcase and a smile and got to the airport at 9:40. I actually ran into my neighbor—who was also on his way to the airport—on the train, and it was nice to have somebody bid me goodbye as I left Japan for the first time. I got through security—where I got to keep my shoes ON—and immigration without any problems and was sitting at my gate when the clock hit 10. I changed my money, bought some duty free matcha Omochi to supplement my lack of souvenirs, and settled in for the two hours until boarding. Funny story: because my visa is a single-entry visa, I had to fill out a form saying I intended to come back and get a stamp saying I was out of the country with special re-entry permission. It seriously said that.

I had a direct flight from Nagoya to Detroit, cutting my flights down from three to two, which was a godsend. That flight was so uneventful that the most exciting note I wrote for the whole 11 ½ hours was, “They actually served peanuts!” However, I did keep some notes about the little bits of culture shock I got on the plane, in Detroit, and back at home.

Things that felt weird coming home:
*There were more white people on that flight than I had seen in my entire three months in Japan combined
*Eating Japanese food on the plane without chopsticks (they didn’t give us any)
*Saying thank you to the flight attendants instead of arigato. Later, it took a conscious effort to say excuse me in English. It seems my default settings have changed.
*Taking off my mask in Detroit. I was sick and, following the Japanese custom, I had been wearing a mask. Strike one, America.
*American money looks funny.
*Attractive immigration agent saying, “Welcome back.” It was a nice sentiment accompanied by a very strange mix of emotions.
*Seeing my first snow of the season in Detroit. My note says, I AM IRRATIONALLY EXCITED ABOUT THIS.
*Just throwing things away instead of sorting them for recycling. The first thing I picked up to throw away was a candy bar wrapper, and I mentally told myself, “Burnables,” then had to stop and figure it out when I got to the kitchen and there was only one trash can.

My brother-in-law, one of only a handful of people who knew my plans, picked me up from my final destination, the same airport I had flown out of three months before. Being back, walking that same path I had left in reverse, was a little surreal. I got back the day after a terrible ice storm in Michigan, so the drive back to my house was a winter wonderland of snow and glittering ice everywhere. It was beautiful, but the downed trees and power lines showed that that beauty came with destruction.

Even though I had been traveling for 20 hours by the time I reached my house, I was wide awake with excitement. My brother was the first one to see me through the window, but my mom got to me first when I got in the door. Her excited, “What are you doing here?” as she got to me made the cost, the hours of travel, and the three months of planning totally worth it. My brother was less effusive in his excitement—boys—but I ditched him to eat Christmas cookies in the kitchen and all was well.

The aforementioned ice storm had left thousands upon thousands of people in west Michigan without power, us among them. Because of this, the first few days of my 8 ½ days home actually went quite slowly. Though I was disappointed that the Christmas tree wasn’t lit up and we couldn’t watch our usual Christmas movies, I did get to fulfill my wish of spending Christmas Eve curled up in front of the fireplace (which was pretty much what I did for the first day and a half I was there because Michigan is COLD, especially when there’s no heat). Between running to the coolers in the garage for food and melting snow so we could flush the toilets, I definitely feel like I got the full Michigan experience while I was home. Because of these unexpected delights, Christmas Day was spent at my sister’s house, where there was power. It wasn’t quite the Christmas I envisioned, but it was spent with my family, so it was wonderful nonetheless.

The power came back on the afternoon of December 26th, after which time my visit seemed to fly by. On Saturday, my siblings and I headed to the family Christmas for our dad’s side of the family, which conveniently landed on the only weekend I was home. My stepmom—who was in on my plan—saw me first and smiled as only someone who is in-the-know can. I chose to walk in without any fanfare, and it took a second before the normal greetings changed to, “Wait, I thought you were in Japan.” When my dad got there later, my sister told him there was a surprise waiting for him in the living room. When I jumped out, it took him a minute to realize that I wasn’t supposed to be there. It’s nice to know that I’m such an accepted part of family gatherings that it’s not surprising when I show up, even if it’s a surprise visit from halfway around the world.

After the weekend, my last two days were over in the blink of an eye. On Monday, I went to the library where I had worked for four years and surprised my good friend and former boss. I also woke up the library cat to say hello, and I was very pleased that she seemed to recognize me and licked my hand instead of being angry that I disturbed her. I was able to squeeze in a visit with some friends that night as well, though it all seemed to go too quickly.

My mom broke the news of my surprise visit to my grandparents over the phone, and they and my second cousin made a trip down to see me on Tuesday. My grandpa—who spent some time in Japan when he was in the Air Force—said, “Konnichiwa” as soon as he walked in the door. I was so excited to get to share my pictures and stories with them. It was a very nice visit that felt just like old times, right down to asking my grandma to help with some mending while she was there (sorry, grandma). After they left, New Year’s Eve was spent packing and watching as many Christmas movies as we could fit in. My mom dozed on the couch while I tried valiantly to defy the laws of physics and fit everything in my suitcase. I finished packing in the last 20 minutes of 2013 (though it was strange to realize my Japanese friends were already fourteen hours into the new year). My mom and I watched the ball drop, said, “Happy new year,” and then went to bed. Some things never change.

Wednesday morning dawned far too early. We left the house at 5:50 am, got to the airport an hour before my flight left, and experienced the craziness of holiday travel for the first time. This made saying goodbye much easier since there was no time to linger. I was literally pulling my shoes back on after going through security when I heard the final boarding call for my flight. I got to my seat ten minutes before departure.

My 6 ½ hour layover in Detroit was long and uneventful. I had a brief conversation with an old man who had a thick accent that might have been Eastern European and helped him with his computer. I also had a faint suspicion that many of the Asians around me weren’t Japanese, though I questioned my ability to tell for sure; I was gratified to learn that our plane was continuing on to Guam after Nagoya. I have to admit to swearing under my breath when we boarded and I ended up sitting next to a woman with an infant, but that turned out to the be the least of our problems.

Initially, our departure was delayed for a couple minutes to let runners from late connecting fights make it on board. Then the pilots got an error message that would, reportedly, take 10 minutes to fix.

Two hours later, we finally pulled away from the gate and got in line to de-ice. During this delay, someone took pity on us and turned on the in-flight TV so we could have some entertainment. This was good in theory, but it quickly became rage-inducing when the playback was paused for a status update, then paused for the translation to Japanese, then paused for the translation to Tagalog. At 2 ½ hours past takeoff time, still sitting on the tarmac, I realized that we would have been a quarter of the way to Nagoya by then had we taken off as scheduled. Thankfully, we left shortly after that.

The flight was mostly uneventful. Due to my long layover and the delays, I was ready to be off the plane before we even hit the halfway point of the thirteen hour flight. I tried napping a bit (which I don’t recommend) and distracting myself with airplane food (which I REALLY don’t recommend, at least if you’re flying Delta). The baby, however, was amazing. She didn’t cry once, and since I couldn’t be shown up by an infant, I held it together, too.

Once on the ground, I admit I surreptitiously slipped my mask off before quarantine to avoid any problems. I had trouble speaking simple Japanese at immigration and struggled to switch back the language settings in my head. Apparently I succeeded, because when my customs officer asked if I spoke Japanese—in Japanese—I was able to understand him and respond. The only part of his next question that I caught was doko—where—so I took a guess and wound up answering wrong. Bless his heart, he repeated himself in English and I got through with no trouble.

I was officially on autopilot by the time I headed for the access plaza, so the hour-long train ride back to Midori and the walk home from the train station are pretty fuzzy. I do remember being pleasantly surprised at how warm Japan felt after Michigan winter. I also remember resetting the internet for my neighbor as soon as I got home and having his friend shout a thank you through the wall.

My winter wonderland in Michigan

Meanwhile, in Nagoya...

Overall, even considering the lack of power and the travel delays, and even though no one really liked my generous gift of strange Japanese sweets, it was a very good visit that I will never forget. (Incidentally, my waistline will not forget it any time soon either. When one of my students told me he gained 2 kg over the holidays, I wanted to laugh in his face. Amateur.)

A few highlights of the three weeks I’ve been back:
*Apparently, 10:00 on a Saturday night is sweatpants time at my favorite sushi place. I know how my Saturday nights will be spent for the next year
*I went to see Shobo Dezome-shiki (New Year parade of the fire brigades) in Nagoya Port last weekend. A friend saw one in Kanazawa where they were doing acrobatics and had a big choreographed display, but the one in Nagoyako turned out to be disappointingly reserved. There was a lot of talking (which I didn’t understand), a parade featuring the volunteer firefighters from every ward in Nagoya, and a brief rescue demonstration. There was a cool display with the fire hoses at the very end, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

*I went to a Chinese New Year festival later that day in Hisaya-Odori Koen, which was PACKED. I wondered aloud to my friend if this is what the population density in China is like. We ended up only staying for a few minutes, but we caught the end of a spectacular acrobatic dance and got to see the dancers getting ready for the dragon dance.

She is literally en pointe on his shoulder. Insanity.

*After that, we met up with some of my friends and had a second B┼Źnenkai with some Japanese firefighters that no one really knew. It was a very loud, fun night with lots of great food and even better people.
*I had my first experience running into a student outside of class. One of my five year-olds was having dinner with her parents at a place called Tsukushi when I walked in. She walked past my table and I waved, but she looked at me with no recognition. When her dad brought her over later to say hi, she was very shy and just stared at me like she couldn’t figure out what I was doing outside the school. At her class the next night, she was back to her usual hyperactive self, and she kept saying, “Tsukushi? Tsukushi.”

All in all, it has been a great fourth month in (and out of) Japan, and I am so thankful for the amazing memories I’ve made in the last month. I can’t wait to see what happens in the next one!