I think all Americans have at least one extremely unpleasant memory of splitting the check at a restaurant with friends. Let’s face it: in the states, when you go out with a group of friends and the check comes at a restaurant, it ain’t a pretty sight. You whip out a pen and a calculator, ready for the math to begin. You beg the server to swipe six separate cards, since no one ever brings cash anymore. You start fighting over who should pay for the appetizer, based on bites taken.
While Venmo and other money transferring apps have alleviated some of the headache, there is no denying one fact about splitting the bill in America:read more
It’s a question that all expats ask themselves sometime or another:
Am I in a foreign country because I really like it here, or am I using this culture as a form of escape from a deep-rooted problem at home?
I kept asking myself this after reading “Six Foot Bonsai,” an autobiography I read for a book club. It’s the story of a white woman from Michigan who is, to an unhealthy degree, utterly Japan obsessed. After marrying an abusive Japanese man and giving birth to two half-children (who are subsequently abused), she explains how her fixation on Japan essentially ruined her life.
“Japan was my drug of choice,” she wrote. “And I couldn’t get enough of it.”
This line had me thinking:
Were My Years in China and Japan a Form of Escapism? Was Japan My Drug of Choice?
I grew up half-Asian in a small coal mining town in Utah, so to say I was isolated and outcasted is an understatement. One medium that got me through the pain of adolescence was –yes, I must admit–Japanese anime and manga. This is the usual ‘gateway drug’ that gets most young tweens and teens sucked into the world of Japan.
Unlike my peers, however, I fell deep for Japan. Although I found out about Japan through anime and manga, learning the language and getting a minor in Japanese studies made me realize that I loved much more than anime–I loved Japan’s literature, art, culture and people. After my first exchange trip to Japan, I had fallen off the deep end and there was no going back.
And when I first moved to Japan, the “high” was amazing. The bullet trains, the clean streets, the polite locals, the untouched nature, samurai castles and sliding doors and kimonos–oh man, it was everything I wanted and more.
But Pretty Soon, the High Wore Off
I’m half-Asian, but most people think I’m 100% white. As most expats like to point out, being white (or non-Asian) anywhere in Asia elicits unwanted attention. People stare. They point. They treat you special. Shower you with praise. Immediately approach you to be their new, foreign friend.
Some expats relish in the attention. Others find it uncomfortable.
I was the latter.
Unlike other foreigners who got a ‘high’ from being the gaijin-center-of-attention, I loathed it. I just wanted to fit in.
But no matter how hard I studied Japanese and perfectly executed their customs, the Japanese never let me in. In their eyes, I would forever be a gaijin. An outsider. A foreigner.
I was distraught.
On top of that, I saw cracks in my perfect world that was Japan. I noticed people around me suffering from extreme bouts of loneliness. I saw emotional suppression brought on by a repressive society. My coworkers and friends were overworked and exhausted. My Japanese girlfriends turned a blind eye to their cheating husbands.
I wanted to be Japanese and fit in, but my core Western values found it hard to accept the above. I would never be able to tolerate a cheating husband. I found it hard to do staged overtime work for the sake of it. No matter how hard I tried to convince myself that this was Japan and I had to adapt to their ways, I could in no way persuade myself that I should change my core values for the sake of living in Japan.
After two years in Japan I realized that I couldn’t stay there for the rest of my life–so I went to China.
Again, Was I Running Away From the Real World? Did China Mask My Problems?
From the moment I stepped foot in China, I knew this place was better suited for me than Japan. It may sound odd, but after living in Japan it was utterly refreshing to be chewed out by someone on the street. To see such open display of emotion–even anger or frustration–was liberating. People screamed at me and I could scream back. The openness of Chinese society felt like a reassuring hug. I melted into Shanghai and it became the metropolitan life this small-town-Utah girl always dreamed of.
As I lived in China, switching between studying Chinese and working in various companies, I would talk to my friends in the US and hear about their mundane, yet stressful lives. Going to pharmacy school. Working the same job for four years and trying to get a promotion. Trying to pass the LSAT (law certification in US).
In my own way I was moving on with my life, but a part of me also thought:
Am I hiding in China while the real world goes on?
Long-time readers of my blog will know that when I returned to the USA after living in Asia, I had it rough. I had to play catch-up. It wasn’t easy, and there were times I wanted to hop on a plane and go straight back to China.
Yet despite all the ‘pain’ living abroad brought me, I often asked myself if I would do it all over again. Would I get on that plane to Japan at 22 years old again if I knew what I know now? Or would I stay in the US to build up my career?
Without hesitation, I always choose to get on that plane.
And it’s because China and Japan were not my drug–they are an integral part of who I amread more
Whenever I travel somewhere new, especially a city, I always find myself asking the same question:
Could I actually live here–or better yet–settle down here?
In Utah’s middle schools, I was brainwashed–erm, I mean, taught, that when the Mormon Pioneers hauled their wagons to Salt Lake City and first set their sights on the blue skies and the Great Salt Lake, they cried:
“This is the Place.”
Thus, Utah became the home of the Mormon Pioneers…. and Salt Lake now has a (ridiculously) named “This is the Place” museum.
But that slogan–tagline–whatever you want to call it, really stuck with me. I thought that someday, somewhere, just like those Mormon Pioneers supposedly did, I would finally end up somewhere and say:
“This is the Place.”
When I was younger I thought that, after traveling the world and living in a handful of cities, I would eventually find out where that certain somewhere was. I had a guess it would be Japan. Maybe somewhere in Asia. Being from a small town, I thought living in an exciting, metropolitan city like New York or Paris would suit me.
But Even After Traveling the World, I Still Can’t Figure Out Where to Settle Down
It seemed like that, no matter where I went, I was able to pick out some quirk or cultural aspect of the location that just didn’t fit my future needs.
Minnesota was nice, but insular and…. flat. Not to mention it gets -20 F (-6 C) in winter.
Dallas is not a bad place at all; but again, the sprawl and reliance on a car is something I would like to avoid. Traffic here is also gnarly. And the lack of nature and greenery gets me down.
Portland is by far my favorite pick of the bunch in terms of US cities, but the job market is flat. It’s housewife or nothing in Portland.
Salt Lake City, my home, would be great because my family and friends still live there–but again, the job market is nil for me. Plus, the car thing. Ugh.
And this is where you’re probably thinking:
Jeez Mary, nitpicky enough?
When I was mentally analyzing why I could never settle down in Dallas and all the above locations, it dawned on me:
Maybe the Problem Isn’t the Place–Maybe it’s Me?
I once asked my classmate, a 55 year old lawyer turned grad student and mother of two teenagers, when she knew that she wanted to become a mother.
“Did you wake up one day and think: Wow. I feel it. I really want a baby.”
“What? Really?? Doesn’t that urge for motherhood kick in eventually?”
“I was 35 and it didn’t kick in Mary,” she told me with a smile. “You just gotta make it happen.”
…. which made me think….
….maybe that same logic applies to settling down as well.
Maybe instead of over-analyze what is the best place and why, perhaps it’s just better to put your foot down and adapt. Maybe no one knows where they’re actually going to settle down, but sooner or later they end up making a conscious choice.
Stay here, or keep moving.
My husband and I are agonizing over where we should settle down. Where we put our bags down and say “this is the place.” Because after all of our moving, we’re exhausted.
After traveling the world for years upon years, I’m ready to put some roots down (for a while, at least). I want to decorate a home. I want to enjoy my neighborhood. I want some familiar faces and stability in my life.
I’m still hoping that someway, somehow, I’ll arrive to that special place one day–look around–and think:
This is the place.
How did you decide where you were going to settle down? Or have you thought about where you’ll settle down?read more
As I get older, I start caring less and less about birthdays–but I still loathe to spend them alone. Luckily, my husband always spoils me on my birthday with a nice dinner, a just-what-I-need present or a surprise vacation.
However, I must admit, the most memorable birthday I’ve ever had happened before his time.
This is the story of the best birthday I ever had–in Shanghai.
How I Turned 28 in Shanghai
“I hate to sound demanding,” I said to my Chinese-Italian friend, Leona. “But I really need to do something on my birthday. Can we get our friends together and have a quick dinner or something?”
“Oh my god, Mary!” Leona yelled at me in a thick Italian accent. ” You think so lowly of us! You don’t need to ask!”
Although Leona was Chinese on the outside, she was all Italian on the inside. She slammed her hand on the coffee table and chastised me for even thinking that I needed to plan my own birthday.
“Ok,” I laughed. “Just wanted to play it safe. And don’t worry about doing anything big, we can just get the friends together and have a dinner.”
“Yeah, of course.” Z said from across the coffee table, calm and collected as ever. “We’re all busy with work, since your birthday is on a Thursday. Just leave it to us, we’ll figure out dinner.”
I invited all my close friends (about 13) who promised to come to my birthday dinner. Z told me the day before that she booked an Indian restaurant in Tian Zi Fang. I was excited.
The morning of my birthday seemed to be going well. Takada-san gave me an amazing present. My coworkers all wished me happy birthday in Chinese or Japanese. The day was off to a great start.
Yet as the day wore on, my birthday seemed to be falling apart.
“I’m slammed with work Mary,” Taguchi told me at lunch time. “I don’t think I can make it to your dinner, I’m so sorry.”
“Oh my god, one of my students insisted he meet me at 6:00 pm tonight… I’ll try to make it to the dinner, but I can’t promise anything!” Alan texted me in the afternoon. “I’m sorry Mary, let’s make up for it this weekend!”
“Please don’t hate me,” Chen called me. “We have a big project due and if I don’t stay with the team they will kill me. I can meet you after dinner for a drink?”
My birthday dinner of 13 dwindled down to four: J, Z, Leona and myself. I told myself that I should be grateful to have so many friends who were even willing to go. That, even on this very busy and cold Thursday evening in February, I had at least three dear friends by my side to wish in the big 2-8. I shook my head and told myself that life doesn’t stop for my birthday and I had to deal with the cards I was dealt. I had to be positive.
Yet when the four of us sat down at our big empty table for thirteen, I have to admit that it was hard to stave off that feeling of disappointment. I tried my best to smile and be positive for the three girls who sacrificed so much to actually come to my birthday dinner–but it was hard. It would have been nice to have everyone get together.
“Don’t be down, Mary” Z gave me a hug. “How about we go get a drink? I think Alan said he can join us in a bit.”
“Ok,” I sighed. “I’m sorry girls! I’m really happy you’re here. I mean it. I think a cocktail will do the trick.”
“That’s the spirit,” Leona laughed. “We need you drunk on your 28th birthday!”
I didn’t really care where we went, so J suggested a new bar she tried the week before in Tian Zi Fang, since it was nearby. I never heard of the place, but I shrugged my shoulders and said anywhere would do. Close and convenient seemed fitting.
“This bar is in a huge attic,” J said. “It’s super cool.”
We climbed the stairs of a lao fang zi (antique home) turned bar and found our way to the entrance of The Bell Bar. I opened the door.
And I had never been so surprised in my life.
About 20 people–all of my friends and acquaintances in Shanghai–were crowded around the room wearing a red piece of clothing and sporting a short, bob-style black wig. It was the signature Mary look in Shanghai–and the reason I’m the Ruby Ronin.
In other words: there were twenty Marys in the room, with a birthday cake, screaming happy birthday as I entered the room.
I started to cry. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I looked to see Alan wearing a black wig with a red button up shirt; Taguchi in a black wig with matching red dress, Chen in a black wig with a red coat—even one of the senior designers from my company was there, donning a black wig and red cape. It was unreal.
“Surprise!” Taguchi ran up to me and embraced me in a hug, laughing. “So just how shocked are you!?”
“Oh my god,” I shook my head and wiped the tears away. “You got me. You got me good.”
“You should have seen how disappointed she was,” Z emerged from behind me, now donning a red dress with a black wig, “I shoulda took a photo of her sad face at dinner, haha!”
“Come over here, I made you a cream puff cake!” my Italian friend Mark cried from across the room. “You gotta make a wish!”
They lit the candles. Everyone began to sing Happy Birthday in four languages: English, Chinese, Japanese and Italian. As they sang, I looked around the room with such love, joy and appreciation. It’s moments like these that make you realize just how wonderful it is to have people in your life. To love others, and be loved in return.
When I blew out the candles, I didn’t wish for much. All I wished for was the happiness of my friends and that someway, somehow, even after I left Shanghai–we could still have moments like this in the future.
“This was all Taguchi’s idea,” J said to me afterwards over champagne and cream puffs. “Of course, we all wanted to do something for you. But she thought up of this surprise party, prepared all the wigs, and coordinated the effort to actually make it happen.”
Later that night, half-drunk on champagne and happiness, I hugged Taguchi in tears and told her it was a birthday I will never forget. Being Japanese, she often didn’t show her true emotions–but that night, she hugged me back with tears in her eyes. She didn’t say anything. It was the first time I saw her cry.
The second time I saw her cry was one year later at my farewell party. Again, half-drunk on champagne and the atmosphere of a Shanghai life we would never forget, we embraced each other in tears. Even then, she didn’t say anything. But she didn’t need to.
We promised to see each other again.
And we did.
Four years later, she flew all the way from Japan just to be in my wedding as a bridesmaid.
And I mean, come on, after planning such a heartfelt birthday bash…. her bridesmaid spot was totally secured.
Four years later, even though my Shanghai gang has scattered across all continents (literally), they still manage to text me on my birthday.
This year I may not be surrounded by Mary-look-a-likes, but I’ll have my husband with me in Texas–and that’s all I need.
Wishing everyone a Happy February 21–as well as a Happy Year of the Dog!
Today, I found a memoir-like post hidden away in the depths of my hard drive. I thought this little piece perfectly conveyed what it was like to teach on the JET Program, as well as introduced some unforgettable characters all JETs are bound to meet on the journey. It’s a long post, but if you can slog through it, it perfectly summarizes my unforgettable experience working with my Japanese English Teacher (JTE).
“You have to meet Uchida-sensei,” all of the staff at the school told me repeatedly. “He’s going to be one of the English teachers you work with. Plus, I think he’s about the same age as you.”
The last sentence was always said with a wink. The whole school, faculty and students included, were hellbent on bringing myself and this Uchida person together. Although I had yet to meet him, I could already feel butterflies in my stomach. Not only was he the only teacher in the town my age—he was male, and he lived next door. Although I wanted a friend more than a relationship, I couldn’t deny the very slim potential that perhaps maybe, just maybe, we’d click.
All of those dreams went out the window when I saw him walk into the office.
“Oh Uchida-sensei,” the secretary shuffled to him. “Mary-sensei from America is here, she’ll be your assistant language teacher (ALT).”
He was on crutches. His foot was bandaged. He wore a tracksuit, which I quickly learned was regular attire for Japanese school teachers aside from the standard suit. He had long, flat hair in a conservative cut. For a Japanese man he was freakishly tall and stood a full 6”2’, towering over the other miniature Japanese faculty and students like a friendly giant trying to fit in.
We smiled and exchanged a handshake. I found out his desk was directly across from mine. He told me he was from Sado Island, one of the most remote places in Japan. He was a fresh graduate like myself with a bachelors degree in German under his belt. Although teaching German was his ultimate goal, he remarked, toward the end of university he decided to become an English teacher. I smiled and complimented his English—it was actually pretty damn good.
Later I learned that Uchida was a strange character no one really understood. He was using a crutch because he ran barefoot on black, hot tar to chase his student, which literally burned the skin off his feet. At his welcoming party he shamed the principal by drinking too much and hurling on the train, repeatedly, in front of the entire faculty.
To me, Uchida felt like a clumsy Japanese person trying to fit into a strange society that seemed to naturally reject his somewhat naturally obtuse and eccentric personality. Much like his height and size, Japan and the education system had a hard time figuring out where he belonged.
Yet he tried so hard, so endearingly hard, that I knew someday he would become an excellent teacher—the stuff stories are made of. He was soft and forgiving, a pure and natural soul from the depths of the Japanese countryside that made him lovable, yet full of fault in his untouched naiveté. Although he didn’t always fit the mold that the Japanese school wanted, his determination and persistence is what kept him going—and was what drew my respect.
Uchida’s desk was directly across from mine. In Japan, there are no cubicles or walled offices—everyone is on one team, out in the open, exposed at their desks.
Although we were working at a Junior High School, there were moments where Uchida and I acted more like adolescent teenagers than teachers. Sometimes we’d accidentally lock eyes when looking up from our desk work, to which we’d quickly break our gaze and stare the other way. At first Uchida used to give me a ride to work (since he was my neighbor), but the cat calls and taunts we got from the students on arrival at the school felt like some sort of walk of shame in which our non-existent relationship was exposed.
“When are you two going to get married?” the class clowns would shout.
While I smiled and tried to joke about my Uchida love affair, he turned beet red and shuffled to the teacher’s room as quickly as possible.
Out of respect for Uchida, and to clamp down on any sort of suspicion that we were dating, I gradually refused his noble gesture of driving me to work and walked instead.
I can never forget my first class with Uchida, because it was that bad.
I knew nothing about teaching—and neither did Uchida. We were both teaching virgins, and when we were thrown in front of 40 adolescent junior high students, we were at their complete and utter mercy.
I had no idea how to grasp the attention span of 40 children for one hour. After yelling at the students to shut up and sit down, I was finally able to start some sort of English introduction lesson—which lasted only fifteen minutes. With twenty minutes to spare, Uchida and I had no choice but to tell them to read chapter one of their English textbook in silence—which they didn’t. Instead, the Japanese version of “Uchida and Mary sitting in a tree…” ensued, and we were thoroughly humiliated.
As the classes continued and we began to understand the overall concept of keeping a child entertained via English learning, the Uchida & Mary team was born. Our silly English skits kept the students entertained, and eventually they began to view us as this young and awkward duo that, although difficult to explain why, were meant to teach together.
Uchida and I never stepped over the teacher or friend boundary, but we had a special relationship that was hard to put into words. As time passed we began to smile at each other rather than blush and look away, and gradually we learned more about each other. He loved German and spoke it fluently, but he had never been to Germany—although it was definitely a lifelong dream of his. He soon found out that I was a Japanese major and, though taboo to do in our school, began to speak Japanese to me outside of the classroom. Even today I can vividly remember all of the words he taught me:
“Mary, your Japanese is bacchiri!” he gave me a powerful thumbs up with a smile.
“Bacchiri?” I cocked my head.
“Uh… that means you’re even better than sugoi (amazing)!”
“Hey Uchida-sensei,” I asked during one of our lunch breaks. “How do you say ‘depends on’ in Japanese?”
“That’s a tough one…” he put his hand on his chin in deep concentration. “There’s ‘nani-nani shidai’ and then there’s ‘nani nani ni yoru’… it really depends on the context.”
He took out a piece of paper and began to explain these grammar concepts to me in Japanese.
“Oh I don’t want to bother you,” I smiled and waved his gesture away. “If you’re busy it’s fine, just wanted to ask.”
“Don’t worry Mary,” he smiled back. “This can be considered teaching practice.”
The longer I lived in Niigata, the more I learned about Japanese society and the more I began to withdraw further into myself. Japanese people were absolutely selfless in their actions and poured all of their efforts into upholding a society of rules and honor that literally ruled their lives.
I was baffled the teachers at my school worked until 11 PM every night.
When I discovered that many of my teachers were living alone in temporary apartments five-hours away from their families—and for three years at a time—I was at a loss for words.
In America I was taught that nothing was impossible. That family comes first. That you work to live, not live to work.
Uchida always got stuck driving me to different seminars around the area, mostly because he was the English teacher and thus it fell under his duties to chauffeur the foreigner. Still, those few moments in the car were the only times when Uchida and I were alone and we could talk openly, without the other teaching staff or students listening to our conversations. It was liberating, I could feel, for the both of us.
“You work until midnight every night!?” I shouted, alarmed.
“Yeah, there’s just so much work to do. I work on the weekends, too.”
I worked in the school and I was quite positive there was not that much work to do.
“So every weekend when I see your car gone from the apartment parking lot, you’re just at the school working?” I asked, bewildered.
“Yes, there are so many club activities and tasks to take care of. I’m truly exhausted.”
“You can’t take any vacation?”
I thought about my life in Japan, how utterly lonely it was. Although I befriended many teachers, their lives were so wound up in their work they had little to no free time for themselves—and heaven forbid they spend what precious time they had to accompany me, the foreigner, outside of the classroom. I was frustrated at the whole Japanese concept of life: living so far from family, working so hard and so long, essentially throwing away all joys of your life…
…and for what?
“Why?” I asked, frustration deep in my voice. “Why don’t you take a holiday, why don’t you take a break from your work and get a masters—or go to Germany? Isn’t going to Germany your dream? Just go, even for a month, a few weeks, a year…!! This is your chance, your life! In America I was taught that we can do anything, that life is full of opportunity and if we work hard enough we can achieve our dreams—and that’s exactly what I’m doing here. Japan was my dream, and I’m here! You can do the same!”
My burst of emotion was very un-Japanese and even Uchida looked alarmed. He pulled the car to the side of the road and stopped with a sigh. After a few moments of silence, he turned my way and looked me dead in the eye with a smile.
I’ll never forget the next sentence that came out of his mouth:
“I can’t, Mary.” He spoke softly, sadly. “Unfortunately, I was born Japanese.”
I had nothing to say. I wasn’t mad, or sad, or even surprised at his short, yet concrete statement. It was like all of my frustrations and conflicts were explained with that one sentence and there was no possible way I could counter-argue it.
“As a Japanese person I have duties that are required of me. What I want doesn’t matter now,” he said firmly.
“I’m sorry,” were the only words I could mutter after my immature outburst. I was humiliated—and more than that, I felt guilty. Guilty of understanding so little about this place.
“It’s ok,” he smiled. “Anyway let’s go, we’ll be late for the meeting.”
I was extremely nervous. I hid in the hallway ten minutes prior to the most important class of Uchida’s career. The ministry of education was here to watch and assess his lesson–in other words, see if he was worth keeping as a teacher or not. A horde of government officials stood tall and harsh at the back of our English classroom, clipboards and pen in hand. I could feel my heart pounding.
“Mary,” Uchida found me. “You ok?”
“Yeah,” I took a deep breath. “Are you sure you want me to teach this class with you?
“I’m sorry I wasn’t more honest with you,” I started to ramble in my anxiety. “I should have helped you more with classes in the past, should have told you upfront that I don’t actually have an education degree. I’m sorry if I,” I paused. “If I let you down.”
“Mary, to be honest with you,” Uchida said warmly. “I’m only relaxed in the classroom when you’re there with me. When you’re by my side, I feel at ease.”
It was then I realized it. That he needed me not as a native speaker or even entertainment for the classroom. He actually needed me as a partner, as emotional support, as someone to lean on. Although we were a stupid amateur duo, we were still a team.
“Ok,” I pulled myself together with a smile. “Let’s do this.”
Uchida passed his test. He became a homeroom teacher. As the days drew on, Uchida began to receive more responsibilities and I somehow started to resemble an English teacher. During my final year at the school Uchida watched over his class like a father watches his own children. I befriended all of the students in the school and mentored children who were being bullied or suffered from domestic issues. Uchida and I finally laid down the foundations to teaching English, and our once haphazard classes were now stable, firm, and smooth.
“Will you sing with me at the English talent show?” Uchida asked me out of the blue. “I’m terrible at singing and I don’t want to do it alone.”
“Sure, that helps me out too,” I laughed. “What song?”
“A Whole New World.”
I flushed red.
Although our student’s never let us live it down, Uchida and I sang Whole New World together in front of the entire school. I’m sure few foreign teachers can put that on their resume.
On the last day of my two-year career at the junior high school, I gave a speech to my students in English and Japanese. I diligently hid the fact that I spoke Japanese from my students for two years, and when they heard me speak fluent Japanese at the podium many of them were in shock.
I choked back the tears during my speech. I could see my favorite students crying. It was an assault of emotions.
After the assembly I ran to the teacher’s break room to get a grip. I took deep, long breaths. I looked out the window to the empty school grounds, to the hot and humid blue skies of June.
“Mary,” Mrs. H, the other English teacher, came in with Uchida trailing behind and held a neatly wrapped package. “Uchida and I put some money together and got this for you.”
I carefully unwrapped the package to find an expensive, brand name travel sachel. It was in a color I often wore to work: red.
At that moment, it became too much for me. The break room was now a cloister of memories. The secretary teaching me how to make fried eggplant in the break room kitchen. The vice-principal and I nursing a cup of coffee to recover from the hangover from the previous night’s drinking party. Catching Uchida taking a nap in the lounge chair after lunch. I could hear my students laughing, the teachers shuffling around in their everyday routine to arrange classes, and the echoing halls of a school that had seen generations of students come and go. It was almost as if the school was bidding me farewell.
I began to sob. I apologized for crying in Japanese and Mrs. H told me it was ok. When I looked up I saw her crying. She was hard and stern, like a drill sergeant, so seeing her cry on my behalf was so out of character I was forever moved by the moment.
I looked up to Uchida. He looked lost, bewildered, like a deer in the headlights. He was the kind of person who never did the right thing at the right time. In his eyes I could see his emotions conflict with words to say, or not to say. Like we did two years ago, I broke the gaze in humiliation, tears in my eyes, and I let Mrs. H hold me as I cried. Uchida left the room.
Many people often ask me what the most difficult part of teaching in Japan was. The JET Program had a mandatory, two day orientation to teach us about the long, English teaching road ahead. They rattled on and on about isolation, language barriers, and cultural clashes.
Yet they forgot the most important thing of all:
Actually instructing us on how to teach English.
The most difficult part of JET for me was standing in front of 40 middle school students and entertaining educating them for one hour. I was a journalism and Japanese major–I knew absolutely nothing about education.
I’ll never forget my first day of class. I walked in, smiled, spoke very slow English and introduced myself. I put up laminated photos of Utah. I showed them a map of the United States and pointed to my home state. I said we would do a quiz game about my self introduction.
“Ok, so where am I from?”
The whole class was silent. No one raised their hand. My palms started to sweat and my heart raced. I didn’t know what to do. The Japanese teacher instructing alongside me was also a 22-year-old fresh graduate, and we were like deer in headlights. Our faces paled, the students lost their concentration, and we scrambled to keep them from talking with one another.
Later I learned a. Japanese students cannot comprehend even the most basic English and b. they do not raise their hands and answer questions like in the U.S., even if called upon.
Those first few months, going up to teach felt like a march up to the firing squad.
Sure, culture shock was hard. Loneliness, isolation–it was tough. But damn, teaching stressed me out. My teaching days usually involved English curriculum from a rigid Japanese textbook written post WWII in a classroom where I had to obey Japanese instructors who forbade me from speaking Japanese. It was tough to both pull off a successful English class while keeping the attention of my students.
But during the holidays, I took full control. We played Halloween English games the last week of October, Thanksgiving trivia in November, and my personal favorite–Christmas lessons in December.
I’ll never forget my first Christmas lesson in Japan.
After pleading with the principal and the Japanese English teachers, my middle school finally allowed me to give candy to students at the end of my Christmas lesson.
“On one condition,” Sato-Sensei, the 45-year-old Japanese head English teacher, said as he eyed me with a cold stare.
I gulped. “Yes? What condition?”
“You have to do my Christmas lesson exactly the way I want it.”
I sighed a breath of relief, since that’s exactly what I do anyway, “of course Sato-Sensei. What do you want to teach?”
“I thought we could listen to ‘All I Want For Christmas’ by Mariah Carey and the students can do an exercise where they fill in the blanks for the lyrics.”
Thank god, I thought in my head–that’s the easiest lesson ever! I don’t even have to talk!
“Sure thing Sato-sensei, let me get the fill-in-the-blank worksheet ready.”
Donning my Santa hat and wearing my famous red coat, I marched into my first class with a Santa bag full of candy in one hand and a stack of worksheets in the other.
I opened the classroom door to my female students shouting “メアリー先生、可愛い！！” (Mary-sensei, you’re so cute!! Kawaii!) and my male students cheering, “それはチョコなの！？やった！！！” (Is that candy!? YES!!!)
I smiled and waved to my students, but turned a suspicious eye to Sato-Sensei sitting at the front with a guitar slung over his shoulder.
“Pass out the worksheets, Mary-sensei” he said to me with a smile. “And make sure to keep one for yourself.”
I already knew something was wrong. Sato-sensei never smiled. Ever.
“Today class, we have a very special surprise for you,” Sato-sensei explained to the students in Japanese. “Mary has two presents for you… one is candy, obviously, but the other one is a surprise.”
Oh god. He slung his guitar to performance position and started to strum a few chords.
“You know the song ‘All I Want For Christmas,’ right Mary-sensei?” Sato-sensei whispered to me.
“Um,” I gulped. “Yes. I know it, but…”
“Great,” he smiled again. Two smiles in a day. This was looking bad.
“Class,” Sato-sensei announced in Japanese. “Mary-sensei is going to sing a Mariah Carey Christmas song for you!”
The classroom erupted in gasps and the famous Japanese noise of, EHHHHH!!! へええええええ！！！！
I was right there with them. I took a step back in disbelief and looked to Sato-sensei in hope that he would say, ‘just kidding’ and play the stereo already. Instead, he just kept on smiling.
My students looked up to me with a twinkle in their eyes. Everyone’s concentration was on me. I felt my heart pounding, my palms sweating, my mind racing. Although I wanted to run out of the classroom crying like a talent-show gone wrong, I knew I couldn’t let my students down. I couldn’t ruin Christmas for my beloved Japanese kids!
I smiled, stepped up to the front of the classroom with a confident hand on my hip, looked back to Sato-Sensei and said: “Ready when you are.”
And holy shit people, I sang ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ acoustic on the fly to a room of 14-year-olds. I even did cheesy gestures and pointed to a few shy boys during the ‘you’ parts at the end of the chorus.
After I finished the song, there was a haunting silence. Followed by applause.
“I didn’t know you could sing like that, Mary-sensei!”
“Sugoi (amazing), Mary-sensei!”
“Can we get candy now?”
I looked back to Sato-sensei and he met my gaze with a smile. This time, it wasn’t mischievous. It was a warm.
“Wasn’t Mary-sensei great everyone!?” Sato-sensei announced. “And so you can finish your fill-in-the-blank worksheet, she’s going to sing five more times!”
This time, I gave him the stare of death. He laughed.
“Just kidding! We’ll have the real Mariah sing to you,” he continued to laugh as he prepped the stereo. I tried my best to hide a scowl.
I sang Mariah Carey five more times to the other classes. All of them enjoyed it, and I’m sure none of them have forgotten their crazy foreign teacher who sang Mariah Carey on that snowy Christmas week.
At my elementary schools I played Christmas games with the little ones, donned my red hat and coat, and gave out candy at the end of my lessons (with cheers of joy from my little ones). In fact, they were so happy they all stampeded me with hugs at the end of class. As they tackled me to the ground in a hug and cried, “we’re going to tickle Mary-Santa-Sensei to death!” I could only think:
I love these kids. I love this town. And I love Christmas.
My time as an English teacher in Japan was almost ten years ago, but I still often think back to those strange, yet memorable holidays I spent in middle-of-nowhere Japan.
Much like last year, I’m spending Christmas with my small family of four in Utah. Although it may seem ‘boring’ compared to my holidays spent abroad, it feels good to curl up in a blanket, drink tea, watch the news with my parents and simply relax (and recover from water poisoning… oh god, it hurts so bad).
From the Ruby Ronin… Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas!
Are you considering a career as a Chinese or Japanese interpreter/translator?
Think again. And think real hard.
The Learning Process
I pulled up my collar. I strutted into the hallway, knockin’ down the door as I busted into my first interpreting class. I pulled up a chair next to the fellow Chinese students like a boss. I gave everyone a chin up, just to let them know that this little lady here could speak and read Mandarin. I just passed HSK Level 6 after only 6 months of study, and although I had lived in China for only two years I could pay my own bills, find an apartment, make friends and date the locals all without a translator. I was the shit.
Then, it happened.
I lost face.
Oh no, I didn’t just lose face… I felt like I had been shot down by multiple rounds of language bullets from the interpreting firing squad.
The instructor played the State of the Union speech by Obama and, he said, you’re not allowed to take notes. After playing the video for five minutes, he called on a Chinese student to immediately interpret said speech into Chinese.
The student interpreted it in perfect Mandarin–all without a stutter.
My jaw dropped to the floor.
The instructor resumed the video and I could feel my hands starting to sweat. If he calls on me, I’m going to crap my pants. I don’t know the word for deficit. I don’t even know how to say recession! Oh god, what’s the Chinese word for FBI??
“Ruo Lan,” the instructor read my Chinese name off the list. “Go ahead.”
I’ll save you the pathetic story of how I completely humiliated myself in front of an army of trained, Chinese assassins interpreters. Five minutes of Obama’s state of the union speech turned into, “Uh, America is great?” followed by my total loss of dignity.
And despite my efforts, I continued to lose face day, after day, after day. This is how I bonded with the other two foreigners in the class, and how we quickly became drinking buddies as we commiserated about our craptastic classroom performance. They both had degrees in Chinese–one even had a Masters in Chinese language, and was shooting for Master Degree number two. Yet we still lost, and lost hard, to the local students.
High-Pressure, Delicate Situations
After dropping out of my Mandarin interpreting program, I was instantly called upon to work as a Japanese interpreter for an advertising agency. You’d think that my traumatizing experience in class would send the message across that, perhaps, I wasn’t meant for this high pressure job–but I took the offer anyway. It was good money at a prestigious company and I was much more confident in my Japanese than Chinese. I’m sure it would be fine.
“Mary,” my CEO told me in Japanese as we faced three other British CEOs at a long conference table. “Tell him he can go to hell.”
Our negotiations to form a fair and stable agreement with our western partners was not going well.
“He thinks that would be disadvantageous for us,” I replied as my CEO’s response. I tried to be diplomatic, but I think my CEO’s expression conveyed his real feelings across the table.
Learning to deal with wild cards (like above) when interpreting was difficult, but by far the most stressful aspect of these long meetings was getting it right. Not forgetting words. Understanding everything.
Basically, think of interpreting as public speaking–but with a wrong answer. As with my case, if I misinterpreted something from my boss or the client, it would not only endanger the relationship between these two parties but also cost my company thousands (or even millions) of dollars.
That’s a lot of responsibility.
Interpreting Work is HARD
Many people think that being “fluent” in a language means becoming an interpreter or translator is a logical next step in terms of career.
While translation is a skill that can be honed with practice and hard work, interpreting requires the inherent ability to make split-fast decisions at the drop of a pin. Interpreting is instant word recollection, sentence composition and damage control (which you need if you forget how to say a word/phrase) all balled up into a one second decision making process. It’s not easy.
So no, being fluent (even extremely fluent) in a language does not mean you automatically qualify for interpreter status.
Qualifying for interpreter status means thinking fast on your feet. Real fast.
The Perks of Interpreting
Interpreting is not all doom and gloom. Despite my initial struggles as a Japanese interpreter, as I became more familiar with my industry (and also the specialized words) the clients and staff, I started to thoroughly enjoy my work. Being an interpreter rocks because…
Interpreting is stimulating. Everyday your abilities are tested and there are constant challenges. Basically, you’re never bored. To prep for your interpreting you’re constantly learning new words (and thus new material and information), which actually makes interpreters very well-rounded and knowledgeable people.
J and I were descending one of China’s greatest treasures: the National Park of Zhangjiajie.
Every corner we rounded presented us with a new jaw-dropping landscape of carved sandstone valleys poking through a sea of lush green trees. J and I took a deep breath, inhaled the clean air of the countryside and lost ourselves in the sea of clouds swirling in between the mountains.
That is, until Avicii arrived. You know, the Swedish DJ. The Chinese tourist who came bouncing down the trail behind us was blasting him full volume from his iPhone speaker.
Now, I have nothing against Avicii, but it wasn’t exactly the kind of music I imagine when hiking down one of China’s most treasured valleys. This Chinese tourist didn’t stop his playlist at Avicii–oh no–we heard Calvin Harris, Rihanna, some Selena Gomez and even Justin Bieber.
After 20 minutes, J lost it.
“Excuse me,” she walked up to him and spoke to him in near perfect Chinese.
“Your music is not appropriate for the scenery and it’s causing a disturbance to myself and the other travelers. I think you should shut off that crap and appreciate the beauty of your country around you.”
His jaw dropped.
He shut off his music.
J pierced into his dumbfounded eyes.
He stepped back and cried,
“wow, your Chinese is AMAZING!”
While he totally missed the point, we were able to hike the rest of the mountain without club music. At least, for a little while.
This was only one of many delightful “habits” we faced when hiking with fellow Chinese travelers.
When hiking with Chinese tourists in China, one is bound to put up with enjoy one of these five lovely habits: 1. Shouting and Screaming. Without end.
Chinese people scream and shout on mountains. That’s just how it is. One scream prompts another scream and pretty soon the whole mountain sounds like a banshee.
I’ve lived in China for five years total and I still can’t figure out why they have to shout their lungs out on a mountaintop.
Maybe they get a kick out of the echo it makes. Maybe they feel like they’re on top of the world and want everyone to know it. Maybe they’re tired and want to vent their frustrations.
Either way, it drives me crazy. J and I were greeted to these lovely echoes and screams on almost every trail in Zhangjiajie, and we wondered what would happen if someone ACTUALLY screamed for help on the mountain.
Oh well. 2. Boombox on the Mountain
Chinese people love to blast music on their iphone speakers. J and I did not hike Zhangjiajie in the silent serenity of nature—oh no. We had the Frozen song “let it go” as the OST to one of our treks, Avicii on another (as mentioned above), and of course Taylor Swift and other American pop hits following us on almost every trail.
Whenever I’ve gone hiking in China someone is always bound to be blasting music. If you’re climbing a mountain in China, get ready for some noise. 3. Smoking. Everywhere.
Is it just me, or is China the only place in the world where national parks have multiple designated smoking spots on almost every trail?
I was alarmed at the number of people smoking AND hiking (actually, I was kind of impressed). J and I were constantly waving away the stench of smoke and stepping over cigarette butts that people casually tossed onto the national park grounds.
One man was even smoking ON THE BUS. J stormed up to him and commanded that he immediately stop smoking, or she was going to give him the smack down.
He put out his cigarette. 4. Littering
China has more garbage cans readily available than any other country I’ve been in—yet the littering problem is enormous.
J and I saw a middle-aged Chinese woman throw an empty yogurt bottle into this lake.
Seriously? I know that the previous generation wasn’t trained in social graces, but this is a bit much. I feel like it’s common sense not to poison or litter an area as beautiful as this.
J and I saw so much garbage scattered throughout all of the national parks, our hearts were broken by the end of the journey. I really hope the younger Chinese are more respectful of the environment and learns to preserve these natural treasures for future generations to come. 5. Loud, loud, loud voices
J was paces ahead of me. I couldn’t catch up. I was weaving through the tourists, wondering why J was in such a rush to reach the end of the trail. The nature around us was lush and gorgeous, yet she was on a mad dash to reach the finish line. When I finally sprinted ahead to catch up with her, I asked.
“Are you worried about time?”
“No, sorry Mary,” J sighed.
“I just can’t stand the ayis (old ladies) behind us shouting and blabbering.”
It was then I realized that we were surrounded by screaming (yes, screaming) and shouting middle aged ladies talking about god-knows-what. It was difficult to hear myself think. If I wasn’t surrounded by screaming old ladies, then I was being blasted by the megaphone of a tour guide addressing a herd of tourists. Totally took the tranquility out of nature.
Luckily Zhangjiajie wasn’t too crowded, so our fast pace helped us outrun the tour group where we were able to find (some) peace and quiet. 6. Spitting
Yeah, yeah, I’m sure most of us who have been in China know about the spitting–but I still can’t get used to it.
J had a front row view of an older man swirl a loogie in his mouth, accumulate foam, then hurl the yellow blob onto the floor with a deep throated snort. She almost threw up her lunch in response. 7. Shoving
J and I were about to board the public bus, and like good foreigners we tried to queue.
Three older women literally pushed a mother and two children to the ground to grab the last three seats on the bus. Screaming and shouting ensued, but in the end, the three older women got on the bus and the mother and her two children were left in the dust of the bus that sped away.
Basically, to get anywhere in China, you have to shove. I hate being shoved and I hate shoving, but it’s survival of the fittest here. Very tiring.
As I observed the habits of the local tourists, I had an epiphany:
Chinese people really dislike silence.
China is a society that values 热闹 (re nao), which literally means hot noise. The definition of ‘re nao’ is loud, energetic, vibrant, vivacious… it’s the noise of peopled gathered together, talking enthusiastically, eating, being alive to the fullest. It’s a trait of the Chinese I love, but it’s also a double-edged sword. During the holidays and at parties, being re nao is awesome, good fun–but it can also grate your nerves when you’re looking to relax. Anywhere.
Chinese people scream on mountains, shout at each other, talk in loud voices and constantly eat and snack (and thus litter) because that’s their idea of a good time. Keeping the spirit of “re nao,” even outside of the home, is a natural trait of the Chinese.
It’s been a few years since I’ve lived or traveled in China, and to be honest the seven traits above wore me out on my most recent journey… especially the pushing, shoving, and loud voices. It was hard to find a moment of peace almost anywhere (even in one of China’s most beautiful national parks during low season), and to be honest it was quite exhausting.
So next time you’re traveling in China, mentally prepare yourself for the above. It will happen, but how you handle it is up to you. I suggest learning a few phrases in Chinese (like stop smoking or please be quiet) and do what J did. Many Chinese don’t know what they’re doing is a nuisance to others, and when told to stop they usually do.
Despite the above, traveling Zhangjiajie was totally worth it and, though I was worn to the bone, I have no regrets.
No pain (spitting, shoving, smoking, littering), no gain (gazing upon this).
Have you had any experience with Chinese tourists? Do you have any habits to add to the above?
On my most recent trip to Japan I once again asked myself this question: Is Japan really technologically advanced?
Advanced robotics. Giant mechas. Bullet Trains.
To much of the world, Japan is seen as the world of the future. It’s no surprise the country that invented the Mario Brothers and the hybrid car is known worldwide as the most high-tech.
So when I moved to Japan, I was expecting to walk into the future. I was ready to see what life would be like in a world where technology ruled.
Instead, I felt like I stepped back in time–like, 100 years back in time.
Here are some shocking discoveries I made in Japan that proved that, maybe, it’s not so tech savvy after all.
No Central Heating. Period.
Winters in Japan were cruel, especially where I lived; I mean, it was known as snow country for a reason. We had over two meters (that’s 6.5 feet for you Americans) pile up, and we hit lows such as -15 Fahrenheit (that’s -26 C).
Those were cold, cold days.
Even more so because Japan has no central heating, and housing insulation is slim to none.
At first, I was appalled. It wasn’t just my home, but also public institutions. Instead of have any form of central heating, my workplace often lit gas stoves in the classroom and shut the doors to trap the heat. Many of my students cowered by the stove heater between classes, scrambling for warmth. My students often clutched heating pads known as ‘hokairo’ throughout the day, holding onto it for dear life.
There were times I saw my breath while teaching class.
I mean, that’s a lawsuit waiting to happen in the USA.
And it’s not just in the countryside, either. Many schools and homes in big cities like Tokyo also don’t have proper heating to battle the brutal cold of Japan’s winters.
As I sat shivering on my tatami floor with my rice-paper-thin walls, I often wondered if I was really in the 20th century, because I’m sure the samurais from hundreds of years ago spent winter in a very similar fashion (thin walls and all).
Basically, it was freakin freezin.
2. The Name Stamp
You know in those old kung fu and samurai movies, where they have a long scroll parchment full of calligraphy? And usually the lord or emperor or somebody takes out a big red stamp and pounds it on the parchment for authority, or as a signature?
Believe it or not, Japan still uses these stamps. All the time.
I remember the first time the delivery man came to my home in Japan:
“I’m going to need you to stamp your name here before I can give you the package.”
“You need my what?”
“Stamp? Oh, like… my name stamp?” (they made a name stamp especially for me, because without it I guess you can’t officially sign papers in Japan).
So I dug out my name stamp, he took out his handy-dandy red inkpad from his pocket, and I stamped his document with my seal of approval.
I used that stamp everywhere. I used it to clock in and out of work (heaven forbid we clock in using a computer!). I used it to sign my contract for my mobile plan. I used it to make a bank account.
I used it everywhere–and again, I started to wonder if I was in the 20th century or not.
All foreigners are required to have a name stamp (or hanko, in Japanese) if they plan on living in Japan long term. Without the red stamp, life just aint gonna happen.
3. Buy Stuff Online? What?
When I worked for the Japanese government, one of the most frequently asked questions I got was:
“Can I buy train tickets online?”
The answer is no. You can’t buy train tickets online–and frankly, buying anything online in Japan is a hassle.
Compared to the U.S., online shopping isn’t as prevalent either.
And forget about paying bills online. That’s far too ahead of Japan’s time.
4. Japanese People Don’t Use PCs. Really.
I often noticed that outside of work and school, Japanese people seldom used a computer. In fact, they didn’t even have a proper email address.
Whenever I asked for the e-mail addresses of my Japanese friends, they would just give me the e-mail address of their cell phone service (their SMS handle is like an email address), which baffled me…
..until I realized that they don’t have an e-mail address. At all.
After two months of silence: I’m finally back on U.S. soil.
After suffering through China’s excruciating internet (wow, did it get WAAAY worse in the last two years, and hats off to fellow expats still suffering through it), I am finally able to wordpress and Google photos freely (and thus update this little blog).
I traveled extensively for six weeks throughout China and Japan–and believe me, I have A LOT to write about. I’m very excited to get some posts out in the upcoming days and weeks. It was great to be a nomad traveler again, donning a backpack and whizzing from place to place for days on end.read more