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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Worlds Collide Under Purple Skies

It's amazing to me how often my Japanese world collides with my American world.  Two years ago, I happened to be on vacation in New Orleans.  I was sitting by a rooftop pool at my hotel and wanted to order a drink.  I walked up to the bar, waiting for the bartender to notice me.  An African American waitress came up with her order for him and while she was waiting they somehow got on the topic of manga.  She said there was one she loved and read all the time.   I think it was One Piece.  He was shocked that she knew it.  She was shocked that he knew it.  Then I chimed in that I was studying  Japanese.  It turns out that they both were also studying Japanese.  The three of us broke out laughing at the bizarre coincidence.

Last night, at a different bar in Santa Monica California, I sat eating a Poblano Chili Steak with a glass of California cabernet before heading to a movie.   I don't usually like to sit at bars, but when I walked into the restaurant, there was a  woman seated on the side of the bar, hunched over a journal.  She had a trappers' fur hat on with a dress and boots.  She seemed like a rebel and that made me feel comfortable.

The bar now felt like a safety zone and I wouldn't feel foolish writing there myself.  I had just purchased a new journal at the Barnes and Noble bookstore down the street.  I sat, ordered, wrote, ate.  On my other side, another young woman sat down and hurriedly texted on her iphone while eating her happy hour dinner.  I thought we looked a bit formidable, the three of us.  There wouldn't be a man coming to interrupt our busyness, that was clear.

Finally I leaned over to the woman in the hat and asked her if she was a writer.  She looked up and smiled with giant topaz eyes lined in kohl and said, "Oh. Yes.  I'm a song writer."  She said she liked my red, burnished leather journal, it was pretty.  "Thanks, I just got it. Brand new."  "Oh me too!" and she flashed the cover of hers to me, the iconic Audrey Hepburn Breakfast at Tiffany's photo.  "I love my journals.  When I'm done, I line them up facing out like this," she demonstrated in the air with Audrey's lovely face floating high in front of us. We talked about The Artist's Way (a famous book that teaches the reader how to overcome writers' block and how to connect with one's artistic gifts) and how much it meant to her, how she started the process of Morning Pages (the suggested practice of writing three pages every morning) and how she just keeps writing, and writing and writing, morning noon and night! Although it's been years since I worked the Artists Way program, I still remember that feeling of surging optimism and confidence those exercises gave me.

She asked me what kind of writing I did and I told her I'm a travel writer.  "Do you have a Blog?" she asked.  ( Funny how my generation still doesn't ask that right up front.   It might come up later in conversation, but not one of the first things.)  She wanted to check it out.  I told her I'm also currently working on a book about my travels in Japan.  She nodded quickly and a huge smile lit up her face.  "My album, Purple Skies, is now #7 on iTunes Japan!"

Worlds collide indeed.  

Her name is Michelle Shaprow.  We exchanged email addresses and I had to run off to see my movie, but we promised to check out each other's work.  Today I spent the morning listening to a few of the songs off the album.  Jazzy and soulful, but with the brightness of youth in her voice,  it appears Michelle Shaprow's  Morning Pages have been more than somewhat successful.

Sometimes you just know you're on the right track in your life because the Universe makes arrangements behind your back, then hides little gifts for you to find that make you smile, look up at the sky and say, "Thanks.  I get it!"  Who knew that I would be writing in a bar in Santa Monica with one of Japan's favorite new American vocalists?

Have a listen to one of my favorites off the album titled Back Down to Earth:

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Little Efforts Like These...

January in Los Angeles.
The Japan Foundation Building on Wilshire Boulevard.
Saturday was a big "Re-live Japan" day for me.   There is a wonderful group here in Los Angeles called "The Japan Foundation."  Their purpose is to share the Japanese culture with people of other cultures and they have many events during each month.  Last Saturday they had a "Tea Time and Conversation" class.

I arrived a little late.  The Japan Foundation is off of Wilshire Boulevard, in an area of LA called 'The Miracle Mile," on Wilshire Boulevard.  The office was brand new and a little hard to find in the tall glass corporate tower.  The new office has a beautiful lending library, two large classrooms and a gift shop. Two women wearing short yukkata style jackets greeted me with a bow as I entered and then rushed me into the classroom, each woman holding one of my elbows and guiding me in a hurry with quick little steps.

I took the last seat available at a rectangular table where two gentlemen were already drinking cold iced tea and enjoying senbai (Japanese crackers).  The young woman at the front of the room was saying
あけましておめでとうございますvery slowly (Happy New Year) and the whole class was repeating after her.  It was cute and I felt moved by the effort of such a large group of people learning "my" beloved second language.  I looked around and the tables were full of all types of people.  White, Black, Middle Eastern, East Indian, Hispanic.  There were people in there 60s and people in their 20s.  I was amazed at how many people from all backgrounds were interested in learning Japanese. The melting pot of America, all here in one room repeating "あけましておめでとうございます."

The women and men who ran the program were very attentive to the guests. Every few minutes someone would come by with either hot or cold tea offered, more Japanese crackers, cookies and sweets.  We had a work sheet that had lots of Japanese greetings and "get-to-know-you" questions, lined up in boxes on a page, which we then played as Bingo.  We each shuffled all around the room asking questions and finding out who ate udon noodles on New Years? Who had climbed Mt. Fuji?  Who likes Natto (a stinky fermented soybean delicacy)? Who has ridden a Shinkansen? Who drinks green tea every day?  One young student finally yelled Bingo, just as I had finally found someone who climbed Mt. Fuji.  He won a cup with the Japan Foundation Logo on it, and I could tell that made him very, very happy.

Bill-san and Thomas-san write down their New Year's resolutions 新年の誓い (Shin'nen no chikai)

Montai-san and Emi-san

Karuta.  Not just for children anymore!
I didn't speak Japanese as well as I hoped I would, but I got by.  The class was mostly for beginners, so the three of us (Bill-san, Thomas-san and me) were  there for the fun of it.  Montai-san ended up practicing his English with us and that was fine too.

In the end, each table played a card game  called Karuta.  It's a simple game: cards with colorful pictures are scattered on a table.  Each card has a hirigana kana on it.  One person calls out a description of a picture from a separate  list, and the others are supposed to find that card, based on the first sound of the word.  It's a "hunt the alphabet" and listening game.  It was fun to be seven years old again!

The three of us (and one more man from a different table) played the game for about 25 minutes.  It was quite fun and competitive - the man from the other table was hell bent on winning and so the rest of us got competitive as well.  (I came in second, in case you wondered).

At the end of the day, many of us gathered to ask if there was a possibility of a conversation class for intermediate speakers.  The Japan Foundation staff assured us that it was in the planning stages.  They had so many people show interest lately.  Is Japanese "on trend?"  I wonder...

The nice ladies invited me to stay for a lecture later that afternoon about a therapy robot named Paro, but I couldn't stay.   More about Paro in my next post, but here's a kawaii (cute) picture for now...

Paro, the therapy robot

It felt good to be in an environment of Japanese speakers again, even if most of them were Melting-Pot-Americans, just like me.

My Shin'nen no chikai is: 日本語を上手に話せるようになります。I want to become more skilled at Japanese! Of course!

Me, performing Mochitsuki in Little Tokyo.
Mochitsuki is the Japanese New Year Tradition
of pounding rice to make delicious Mochi.  
With little efforts like these, and a little mochitsuki (餅つき), perhaps my New Years Resolution will come true this time.

あけましておめでとうございます to all!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Miss America

I returned from Japan on Friday, October 26 at 9 am, nine hours before I left. (Time travel.  It's amazing!)  My kids were in school and I had a few hours to acclimate.  I didn't realize how fast Japan would recede once my children arrived home and once I stood balanced on two feet, planted in America again.

I took them out to dinner that evening - the idea of cooking anything was beyond what I could handle - and we went to a local bistro.  I chose a shaved artichoke heart and arugula salad with grilled shrimp and a glass of pinot noir, the same meal I always order at this restaurant.  When it arrived in front of me, I laughed out loud.  "Toto, we're not in Japan anymore!"  My knee jerk reflex to eat like a Californian startled me.  The food so fresh and lush on the plate, the large bowled glass too full of red wine...the glass of ice water with lemon.  These things that seem so everyday, felt new.  And cliche.

The next morning I was craving a Japanese breakfast.  I made dashi, the broth that is the key ingredient of Miso soup, ( I had some kombu and bonito flakes in my pantry from before my trip) and later the soup itself.   Hatcho Miso, of course. We ate it for lunch and my son had two bowls.  My daughter, the shall we say, more discriminate eater, ate half a bowl out of politeness, but didn't want any more.  She prefers the white miso soup, the kind one finds in most restaurants here. But my son ate with gusto and said he could eat it every day.  I told him that many Japanese people have it for breakfast and he was thrilled with the idea of that.

Now, think, for a moment what date I arrived in America.  October 26.  What was coming up in the next 10 days?  Halloween.  The Election.  My son's Flag Football playoffs.  If there was ever an exact moment to land back in America and to be forced to accept and even embrace all that it means to BE an American, this was the moment.

The next day, after the Miso soup lunch, the kids wanted to head to Ahhhs, a local store in LA that at this time of year has two floors of Halloween costumes and decorations.  The Saturday before Halloween, this place rivaled any Tokyo subway station.  Oceans and oceans of people, and in Los Angeles that means every type of person, every color, every height, every shape, every eye color, every attitude, every level of education, every level of manners.  To be surrounded by children and adults like this, one day after arriving from a month of living in a homogenous society, is culture shock indeed.

I almost couldn't breathe, and it wasn't claustrophobia, though it was crowded enough that if I tended towards that, that would be a factor.  It was more that the Great American Melting Pot was too much.  We are too varied.  We are unattractive.  We do things all hibbeldy-jibbeldy. We wear too many colors. We are loud.  We don't care about others' airspace.  We show no manners.  We stand sloppily.  We talk on cell phones and yell across aisles to our friends who need to come over here RIGHT NOW.  There is no uniformity. We are like squawking chickens and multi-color plumed roosters running around a tiny pen, not thinking at all, just making the loudest noise possible and rustling feathers and trying to fly but failing, over and over and over again.

I missed, deeply, the quiet of Japan.

I wanted out of here.  Fast.  I'm not sure now if it was the store I wanted out of, or America itself.

The next week was back to routine.  School lunches, carpool, catching up on bills and the like.  Monday was the first Flag Football game I had ever been to, though my son had been playing it for six weeks.  They were in playoff season and though I have never, ever liked football, I was glad to see my non-sporty son try this, pushing his own comfort zone.

 The first game, I had someone sitting next to me, explaining the game.  I had never had this happen before, only occasionally being at a friends' house during Superbowl.  I guess maybe there were a few times that men would try to tell me what was going on, but whatever was on TV was always happening so fast and I could never see the ball and it just seemed ridiculous to me. The whole thing.  Ridiculous.

But to watch it on the sidelines of a grassy field in Culver City and have my son playing offensive left lineman (is that the right term?) and see his big framed body, something he's always been a bit shy about, suddenly come into all its glory and to see his team of scrawny 8th graders go game after game from being the dark horse to winning in the most glorious last 3 seconds with beautiful arcing throws caught gracefully in the end zone  (this happened three playoff games in a row!)...well, that is enough to turn any cynical, liberal-minded, anti-team sport egghead like myself into a bleacher pounding, double fist-clenched cheering, coach hugging All American Football Fan.

Japan seemed further away now than ever.

And then there was the election.  In case you are reading this in the far future, this is the Presidential election of 2012.  The election between Barack Obama and Darth Vadar.  We really weren't sure, none of us, how this election would go.  And those of us who felt a certain way knew, that if Obama didn't win, life as we knew it would cease to exist.  It was THAT important.  So the days leading up to it were tense and exciting, and yes, one could not help being an American in the most important of ways; caring deeply about ones' country and its future.  And when we won, and Vadar lost, the feeling of loving ones country, one's roots, and the hope that we had for our future was so tremendous and so satisfying that all other loves faded.  All aspirations to be something else, something other than American in every way felt like a whisper instead of a calling and once it turned into a whisper, it was hard to hold onto, hard to listen to it saying ones name, as it did before so loudly.

And so I start the New Year as Miss America, but I am trying to listen to the whisper again,  Japan calling out and capturing me once again.

OK, let me be honest.  It's been two months since my return and I have barely touched a Japanese language book.  Why?  What happens to the drive, the heady desire to push forward to get better and better, to take everything one has learned while away in an immersion program and apply it to one's real life?  And what I learned in Okazaki was that above all things, one must study and practice every day.  Every day.  In whatever form that takes, even if it just means listening to some J-Pop while you're driving carpool.

I'm faced with this as the New Year begins.  Lucky 13.  My Japanese studies are much like my yoga practice.  It comes in waves; I am a zealot about it knowing in my heart, mind and soul that this is something that I MUST do.  For my physical health, but also for my mental health as well. And also, more subtly, because it brings great joy to me.  I yearn to do both every day when I awaken.  But somehow, both yoga and Japanese stand patiently on the sidelines - (picture that! - a lovely kimono clad figure representing Japanese, silently watching, hands folded in front, with that charming "Mona Lisa" smile that Japanese women have mastered, and a resting Yogini in full lotus, peacefully watching without judgement) while I fill my time with handling my grad program, managing all aspects of shelter, food and transportation for my family including all schedules and travel and other silly things like email and Facebook.

How to make it all work?  How to find the balance?  I think that is what I am supposed to learn this year.  Lucky 13.