Thursday, December 27, 2007

Merri Kurisumasu and a Happy New Year!

Hello Everyone,
Whew. A lot has happened to our family over the past few months. We made a trip back to Oklahoma during Thanksgiving to see the folks, experienced Tokyo Disney and had our first dinner with a Japanese couple in their home. Oh yeah, Christmas happened in all this activity. We had a quiet one at home--nice but a little boring since a few of us were sick. Santa managed to duck the contagion and leave some nice presents for the girls, who were up at 5:00 AM despite stern warnings to not rise before daylight. Lily, rightfully fearing for her life, climbed into bed with Claire instead of with us and commenced giggling and singing Christmas carols. The parental unit, too weak and fatigued to fight natural forces, capitulated at 5:45 AM.

A couple of days before Christmas, we decided to visit Tokyo Disney with some friends we met through the girls' swim team. We were forewarned by two travel agencies that it would be "velly busy" but we remained hopeful that it wouldn't be too bad. And it actually wasn't until 3:00 PM when the entire population of Tokyo and its 0.9 children descended on the park. By 5:00 you literally couldn't move in the shops, where everyone had run to take shelter from the pelting, freezing rain. It may sound like a less than desirable time but...we Cokers always make the best of a fiasco. I must say, you have not lived until you have seen the Country Bears belt out Jingle Bells in Japanese or had Peter Pan fly by you saying "Konnichiwa!"

Furthermore, we were scolded twice for park infractions--"No chew gum! No picture making!" (These were actually handed to our friends on little strips of paper. An awesome souvenir--almost as good as my speeding ticket I got on the Autobahn in 1990.) Being the only two western families in the park, I felt like we might have been unfairly targeted. But no. In fact, not a single other person was chewing gum or taking pictures at inappropriate times...i.e. as the roller coaster was starting to go. I mean, really, if you can't get the terror caught on film, what's the point? After that, we were afraid to eat the beef jerky we brought as a snack in our backpacks. We were left wondering whether someone would whip out a snippy slip of paper with, "No! No Beef Jerky Chewing in Park!" But alas, all was not in vain--although I was never so glad to see a hotel bar, Lily declared the trip "the best Christmas present, EVER!!!"

Of course, it goes without saying that the Japanese were all amazingly courteous and hospitable even when handing us decrees against our Americaness. Unlike their American Disney counterparts, the Japanese park-folk smiled and seemed enthusiastic about their jobs. One time, we were entering the Wild Kingdom Animal Park at Disney in Florida and the parking attendant muttered, "Have a wild day" in the same dead-pan tone as a 57-year-old Eeyore on prozac. On the contrary, the Japanese ride attendents looked like they had been waiting their whole lives for the chance to tell you that all hands and feet should remain in the car at all times. At least that's what I assume they were saying. Perhaps they were warning the locals about the stupid, gum-chewing, inappropriate-picture-making foreigners in the last car. Man...It's hard out there for a gaijin.

As well as all these festivities, I hosted a Christmas party for the senior citizens group I teach English to every Tuesday. They are a joy. Having reached the age where they no longer have to conform, they let it all hang out. We talk about everything, from religion in America to how to deal with a wife who no longer wants to cook and clean in her retirement. They all came over to our apartment for a Christmas reception and drank the heck out of spiced cider and demolished a pumpkin pie. They loved it. One of the students, a gentleman who travels quite often, invited Tim and I and the girls to his house to have dinner with his wife. Before we ate, he gave us a tour of a local Shinto shrine and Buddhist Temple because I had mentioned that I didn't know the difference between the two. They love to host americans because they had been so well received in their travels in the U.S. (George Bush, take note--Travel is the best kind of diplomacy). We had a lovely Teppanyaki dinner and some delicious homemade plum wine. The girls even tried pickled octopus. I was never so proud of them--not only did they did they sit through 4 hours of adult talk without getting fidgety, but they looked like pickled octopus was just the most tasty delicacy in the free world. ("I thought I was going to puke," admitted Claire on the ride home.)

I emailed our host a thank you several days later and stated that I hoped we could get together again very soon. He replied that he and his wife "also want to have private good time in next year." Goodness. I hope something was lost in translation.

Hope you all enjoyed a peaceful Christmas and that you'll have a fortunate and fulfilling New Year. We miss you all and hope to hear from you soon.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Planet Tokyo

Hello Everyone,
It's been awhile since the last update and much has happened to us in the interim. I started teaching english at a preschool/day care once every other week. It's a schlep up towards Tokyo but the commute has forced me to "figure out" the rail system here. Mostly, I guess which train I should go on, get on, and then ask a friendly looking person (by means of charades) if that train is going to my stop. I oftentimes get a worried look and then a furious shaking of head, followed by frantic pointing. I have done it so often that all I have to do is get on the train and the locals just start frantically pointing...

My first day at the preschool/day care was exhilirating and disheartening. I was met at the door, rock star style, by a mob of 8 year olds all shouting, "Nancy Sensei! Nancy Sensei!" (Teacher Nancy, Teacher Nancy!). I teach 7 different age groups starting with the babies (2 year olds). I walked in with my most enthusiastic teacher smile and bag of tricks: Hello, how are you--it's so nice to meet you! I must have had an overly friendly look, like a clown, because three toddlers started howling immediately. Two had to be taken away. One remained and progressed to hiccupping hysterics in a japanese teacher's lap. Two others looked at me like I was the Japanese Preschool Freddy Kruger. Eyes the size of platters, chins was the cutest/saddest thing watching them trying to keep it together while I cheerily sang the ABC song. I am sure they were thinking, "When she gets to Z, she is going to lunge at us."

Each week has gotten better, and thankfully, the little ones are now excited to see me. Their fear-o-meters have adjusted back down to "slight" and no one cries, but a few, just to be safe (you never know when that scary white woman will snap), stay glued to their teacher's side. But at the end of the lesson, they swarm around my ankles, shouting "Bye! Bye!" If I could get away with it, I would steal them all, they are sooooooooo cute.

My sister and brother-in-law came to visit us last month over my birthday and we had a blast in Tokyo. We checked out the Tokyo Edo museum which displays the history of the city of Tokyo (formerly called Edo in feudal Japan). It is a perfect museum for kids because all the displays are large and mostly interactive. Afterwards, we visited the Koppabashi district--the restaurant supply district. There are lots of shops selling cheap dishware and plastic food. Many Japanese restaurants display plastic versions of their dishes outside their establishments, perhaps to lure customers or perhaps to cater to Idiot Foreigners like us. (Oh look honey, we don't have to murder the Japanese language cause they have 3D pictures!) The plastic food looks incredibly real. The ice cream looks like its barely melting. The fried eggs have a slightly greasy look. The noodles look hot and squishy. AMAZING! They are like works of art but are unfortunately very expensive. Lily had to be pried away. However, her enthusiasm did not go unrewarded...Uncle G. bought her a cool chef's hat and she immediately set up shop in her room with a sign on the door: "Golden Cookbook Resterant--YUM! YUM! YUM! Experense Food! Please Take Off Your Shoes!"

That night, L. and G. treated us all to a first-class dinner for my birthday. I haven't had such a wonderful meal since Paris--8 courses! After the meal, the manager took us to the back and introduced us to the sushi chef and then toured us through the kitchen to meet the chef and sous-chefs. All of a sudden, the lights went out and the kitchen staff appeared with a lit dessert--"Hoppy Birtday to yew, Hoppy Birtday to yew, Hooooooppy Birtday dear Nancy-san, Hoppy Birtday to yew." Charming is a word that just doesn't do the experience justice.

P.S. Funny Japanese translation update: Walking past a Japanese CD store the other day, I was informed of a local band's new release called: "Bump of Chicken". Perhaps they meant Goosebumps? Intriguing. I get bumps of chicken just thinking about buying it...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Starting the School Year in Japan

Hello everyone,
Just wanted to update everyone about our start to Fall. I returned to the states for my nephew's wedding which, in the grand tradition of weddings, was a family reunion as well. I had a fabulous time, although there are some of you who enjoyed yourselves more...I won't give up the names of the "revelers"--you know who you are, you drunken sots. What goes on at a reception, stays at the reception. It was truly fun seeing everyone again--I love you all lots!

Anyhoo, the girls and Tim could sadly not attend because school started at the same time in Japan. Both the girls love their teachers and Claire has made a flawless transition to the rigors of middle school (class changes, sticky locker combinations, cliques, etc). Lily was a bit ambivalent about leaving her summer fantasy world for the real one. Before school started, we went to the prerequisite "Open Houses" to check things out. When we got home, Lily sniffed her clothes and screwed up her face as if someone had just passed gas. "Ewwwww", she said disdainfully, "school smell." And then she added, "Mom, if they ever make a candle called 'school'...DON'T BUY IT."

Nonetheless, school smell aside, they both seem to be enjoying it. Lily has been chosen to be on the school council with her BFF. Claire has made friends with a really nice group of girls--I am pleased with her ability to choose quality kids as friends. Both girls are on the swim team, and placed first in some team events and fourth in several individual ones. Lily won two of her heats--I was really proud of her effort. They complain a lot about the 2 hour practices and come home starving. I could throw a pile of garbage on the table for dinner and they would wolf it down and not ask questions later.

Tuesday night, I had my first English tutoring lesson with a really nice older Japanese man. I liked him instantly cause he's cute and sweet. But "like" soon turned to infatuation when I asked him what his hobbies were (the Japanese like to discuss hobbies upon first meeting someone so they can do polite small talk). He replied, "Aaaaaaaaah....I like to drink beer," and then after a long pause, "And I like to sleep." I decided I truly did love him when he said his favorite american food was beer and steak. He finds our sweets too sweet and everything else too salty. So he'll stick with the steak and beer, thank you. I can't believe I am getting paid to talk to him.

Hopefully, I'll be getting some more students soon since I haven't been called much to substitute. I imagine that will pick up soon when the teachers don't feel so bad about calling in sick. It's just a matter of time.

In a strange twist of fate and logic, someone broke into Frank while I was gone. Everything was strewn all over the place but Tim said they took....NOTHING. I guess they didn't want our extra fast food napkins and empty water bottles. Frank may need counseling--violated yet too ugly for anyone to really take advantage of him. The rejection must be devastating.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Moving to Japan, Take II

Dear Friends and Family,

Well, here we are again in the Land of Octopus Balls, except closer to the hustle and bustle of modern life. Although we miss our dear friends and assorted restaurants in Okinawa, we are happy to be near all the exciting offerings of a storied metropolis and ancient civilization--shrines and temples aplenty, the Great Buddha, concerts, museums, Tokyo Disney, charming Kyoto, IKEA and COSTCO! (Ironically, the Octopus Balls are better in Okinawa.)

After surviving 5 weeks in the Navy Lodge (think Ramada Inn, West Texas), we are now installed in our High Rise apartment. Our last digs were similar but this unit is on the eighth floor with an awesome view of the sunset. And it's literally 30 seconds out the door to Lily's school, where I will also be a substitute teacher. But the best feature is that it comes with a REAL LAUNDRY ROOM! No more washer and dryer in the kitchen. At the dinner table, no more, "What did you say, honey? I didn't hear that last part about your day because the spin cycle just started." Plus, we got our real furniture from storage in the states, so no more Midwest City Chic government furniture.

In a stroke of military blind luck that only military people can truly appreciate, the movers broke only half of our stuff, all of which was ugly and replaceable. We went on a crazed spending spree to IKEA and must of looked like people who just wandered out of the desert into a Water Megastore. The price! The selection! Heaven on earth...

Our jolt back to reality was driving our vehicle out of the IKEA, followed by the horror-filled, pitiful stares of the Japanese. Unlike Okinawa, the mainland Japanese take great pride in their vehicles. Every car in the 4 story parking lot was shiny, PRISTINE and brand new. And then there was ours...which we have dubbed "Frank"...short for "Frankenstein". Frank's driver's door is a completely different color than the rest of the car. A painful looking scar runs down the entire length of the passenger side. The back window is held up solely by duct tape.

Our only defense, if we could convey the communication to total Japanese strangers, is...IT WAS FREE. I was waiting for the bus at the lodge on our second day here and a panic stricken woman (she was leaving for the US the next day) stopped me and asked if I wanted a free car. Hell yeah! It runs great and the AC is arctic--what more could you want? Well, we couldn't anticipate that the mainland Japanese people would place such a great deal of value and status in their vehicles. They buy brand new cars every 5 years or so and their old ones go to Okinawa. True junkers like ours, although plentiful in Oki, are practically non-existent in Tokyo metro. If we strapped a mattress to the top, we could be The Tokyo Hillbillies.

We felt vindicated on our return trip to the base. On the local radio station, which plays jazz music, a japanese man was singing a ditty called "Tease Me" set to the tune of a be-boppin swing tune. Except his prononciation came out "Hey, baybeee, tweeze meee." Our self confidence shot up briefly.

But seriously, we are still amazed and humbled by the friendly and courteous people we meet here. We now have the best of both worlds, great people and culture, like in Okinawa, but way more things to see and do. We will keep you up-to-date on our adventures as we have them. Next month we are off to Tokyo to a shrine sale in Harujuku. Can't wait to see the people and antiques at that one. The girls are pros at moving now--they have already met a passle of friends and are part of the local swim team which they are really enjoying. Tim likes the people he works with and I am excited to go to D.C in a couple of weeks for my nephew's wedding. The girls must start school at the same time and can't go, unfortunately.

We have not been in touch with everyone very well over the past year or so. Hopefully, with Tim on shore duty, things will be less hectic and I can talk with more of you, more often. Please drop a line if you get the chance, and if you are ever our way, we will pick you up at the airport in Frank and you, too, will know our shame.