Video: Japanese Apartment Tour

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Time for a long overdue tour of our apartment!

We’ve been here for four years now, and we’ve never actually shown you where we live!  The girls were at Japanese Grandma’s house all weekend, so I took the opportunity to throw together a quick video of our apartment.  It’s not super clean (because waiting for the day my apartment is clean is the reason why we’ve gone four years without a tour!), and there’s background noise from the fans (because why is summer so hot?), but it’s a tour!  Hope you guys enjoy seeing exactly how we live here!

Suddenly Our Kids Are Bilingual

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I first noticed it when Madeleine started sassing me in Japanese.

I think I’d asked her to do something, like put her clothes away.  「え〜!やりたくない!」Ehhhh!  Yaritakunai!  Basically: “Whaaaat!  I don’t want to!”

First of all, I can understand you.  Second of all, where did you get that attitude?  Third of all, when did you learn Japanese??

In the weeks since then, and with the kids home together all day for vacation, I’ve realized that they speak Japanese constantly.  I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that they’re using Japanese 50% of the time – even here at home, in their room, playing just themselves.  They flow seamlessly from one language to another, sometimes even within the same sentence.  They speak to me in Japanese, and I respond in English, and it’s totally natural to them.

I’ve read about people whose personalities change depending on what language they’re speaking.  There was a man whose family was Hungarian, and when he spoke Hungarian, he was a cold, stern father, but when he spoke English, he was warmer and more loving toward his children.

Interesting to me that when the girls want something from me, they switch over to Japanese to ask for it.  I wonder why.

A couple weeks ago, Cambria had to give a statement to the police about an incident that happened at the park, and she did it.  She told the policewoman clearly and in detail what had happened, without help from someone else.  It’s such a comfort to me to know that my kids could talk their way through a difficult situation if the need ever arises.  (These are the weird milestones expat moms have.  I still remember the day I realized that I could call 911 if I needed to.  Huge relief.)

The girls’ Japanese grandmother, who doesn’t speak any English, invited them to sleep over on Saturday night.  Madeleine has some hesitation toward it, but finally decided that she wants to go, but with conditions.  (Namely, a night light and the dogs sleeping in a different room.)  On Sunday I asked Madeleine if she’d like to tell Japanese Grandma that she decided to go, and not only did she tell her that, but she explained her terms and conditions to her in Japanese.

So how did we do it?  My irritating, useless-to-you answer is: We didn’t.  But I can tell you how the girls did it.

They moved to Japan.  We’ve lived in Japan for a total five years now.  Cambria was 1 when she first came.  Madeleine was born here.  (At this point in the math, remember that we had a gap year after our first year here.)  This time around, Cambria has been here from age 3-7, and Madeleine from age 1-5.  You can’t get much better timing than that when it comes to learning a language.  Living in the culture where a language is spoken is irreplaceable in learning it.  (My brother in law knows something like 7 languages, but bemoans the fact that he can’t naturally practice them daily.)  Literally every aspect of their life, aside from their interaction with me, is Japanese.  The learning nature of kids, without the holds that adults sometimes put on themselves, makes this fertile ground for picking up a second language naturally.

They went to Japanese kindergarten.  Putting the girls in even just one year of youchien shot their language abilities up exponentially.  I 100% believe the adage that the playground is the best classroom.  I couldn’t tell you the mechanics of how they picked up the language, but before my eyes, without my doing anything, the girls were learning new words every day.  I know it wasn’t specific instruction from the teachers; with 15 other kids in class, there just wasn’t time for language study.  And yet, they learned it.

They play with Japanese friends every day.  One of the first phrases Cambria learned was 「一緒に遊ぼう?」 Isshoni asobou?  “Want to play together?”  Such a simple phrase opened the door wide to interaction in Japanese.  It progressed to “Let’s play tag,” to “Let’s play house.  You’re the mama and I’m the baby,” to a whole world of kid-conversation.  Every single day they are spending hours in casual Japanese conversation.

Cambria takes Japanese lessons once a week.  When Cambria graduated from youchien, it was important to us to give her opportunity to continue using Japanese regularly.  (At the time, we weren’t quite at the point of letting them go to the park on their own.)  We looked into extra-curricular activities, but nothing really fit what we were looking for as far as regularity and verbal interaction.  Finally, in an Aha! moment, I realized that the perfect resource lives right up the road from me: Ikko!  She loves my kids but isn’t afraid to correct them.  (I worried that other teachers might be clouded by the kawaii gaijin factor.  The same factor that makes them all tell us how amazing our Japanese is when we say a simple “konnichiwa.”  Ikko is close enough to us to be honest.)  And when I offered a competitive rate, she laughingly told me I was offering her way too much, and knocked it way down.  She’s helped Cambria to hone a lot of her grammar and conjugation, and to expand her vocabulary.  It’s been incredibly beneficial in taking her Japanese to the next level, and everyone who converses with Cambria is amazed at how well she speaks it.

So that’s how they did it.  I know that’s not necessarily beneficial to anyone who’s trying to learn a foreign language in their own country, but I’d love to see how one could adapt our methods to apply in that situation.  What do you think?

5 Things To Send Your Friends Overseas

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Some of the best days as an expat are the ones when something from home arrives on our doorstep.  I mean first of all, who doesn’t like gifts?  Something delicious that I didn’t have to pay for?  Tell me you’re not all over that.  No matter how used to Japan we get, no matter how little we crave American goodies anymore, if you send us a box of Oreos you know they’re gonna be gone in a day.  (Oreos are the common denominator weakness in this house.  Leslie can keep the Dubble Bubble.  I get the Ghirardelli. The girls can have the candy.  But Oreos trump all for everyone.)

Every so often Les and I try to commit to memory the things we want to remember (about living abroad) when we move back to the States, so that we can bless some other expat family with understanding ears, applicable words, meaningful gifts from home.  We’ve been on the receiving end of some of the most thoughtful care packages, and thought we’d share with you some of the things that had the biggest impact on us.  If you’ve ever wondered what would really make an expat’s day, maybe this will give you some ideas!

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Comfort foods.  Some days you just really miss the taste of home.  Noodles and rice are fabulous, but there are days where you just need Mama’s drowning-in-butter grits to take you away.  Having things on hand when you desperately need an America Day (or whatever their home country is) is a huge blessing.  The top things we personally requested from home were a random selection of beans (red and navy), cornmeal, stuffing, Luzianne tea bags (for sweet tea), and the aforementioned grits.  (Let’s talk sometime about how moving to Japan brought out the previously unexposed Southerner in me.)  Find out what their comfort foods are and send over a couple bags!

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Toiletries.  When I first moved to Japan, I honestly couldn’t have told you if it was a first world or third world country.  No idea.  So I bought like 10 bars of deodorant and 5 economy size bottles of contact solution to go with the 8 boxes of contacts I ordered.  I’ve managed to both find the contact solution at the drugstore and order contacts by now, but here’s a fun fact: Japanese people don’t sweat.  I’m almost serious!  No one I know wears deodorant regularly because they don’t need it!  (And trust me, I’ve asked in horrified disbelief!)  Um, ask anyone on my high school field hockey team how well that would work for me.  (Actually please don’t.)  Summers in Japan are akin to summers in the southeast United States, and we don’t have central air.  It ain’t happening.  There are some toiletries we just can’t find here.  And some that are just nice cherries on top if someone sends them to us.  (Leslie loves a certain brand of shampoo, so that’s always on his list.)  Even if they’re not necessary, having something that you know works is easy on the mind.

Things they order.  Maybe you can’t afford to buy and send a care package.  I’ll tell you right now: having someone available just to pack things up and take them to the post office is invaluable.  If you don’t have the money, but you do have the time, offer to be a middle man.  Let your friend send orders to your house and PayPal you for shipping expenses.  Keep a cardboard box in your basement, and send it when it’s full.  Our parents have been incredible in this regard, but not everyone has that luxury.  Invaluable.

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Seasonal goods.  Holidays, guys.  Man, they can be hard overseas.  Did you know that no one gets Christmas off in Japan?  Or that when we hosted a Thanksgiving dinner, no one even showed up until 6:30 because they all had to get home from work and school first?  That the only thing people know about Independence Day is that that’s when Will Smith punched an alien in the face?  Obviously this is to be expected; Japan is an entirely different country and culture than our own.  But when you’re used to the cozy feeling of the holiday season, and everyone else around you is just doing what they do every other day of the year, you start to feel helpless in capturing the spirit.  Enter seasonal goodies from home.  Food doesn’t make everything better, but it makes a lot of things better.  Some of the best things we’ve received were Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte Via (pumpkin spice lattes are nowhere to be found in Japan!  Sacrilege!), candy canes, Swiss Miss hot chocolate, candy corn, stuffing, and autumn/winter Yankee Candles.  Just little things that we always took for granted in the States, but that become hugely nostalgic overseas.

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Cards and letters.  If you take only one thing away from this post, let this be it.  Especially if the recipient is overseas in some sort of service capacity, knowing that we are remembered is immeasurably meaningful.  I could tell you every letter we’ve received from home, and tell you how it came at just the right time and said just the right thing.  I promise you, your recipient will always have some situation they can apply your encouragement to, and it will be so uplifting to have a physical reminder that they are in your thoughts.  I wish I could adequately express how touching it is to receive mail from people back home.  Living overseas can be very isolating, and knowing that we’re still a part of the community back home… you can’t put a price on it.

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As always, we’re writing from our own experience.  This is absolutely not an exhaustive list, but it’s a start.  (I foresee a “5 more things” post in the future.)  It’s not ordered by preference, either.  Every single thing we’ve ever received, we’ve been grateful for.  We don’t deserve any of it, and the generosity of people we know (and some we don’t know, even) is overwhelming.

A note, though: Japan is a first world country.  What is appropriate to send here is not necessarily appropriate to send everywhere.  Probably the biggest thing you could do is communicate with your loved one and learn about their new culture.  Find out what would be welcomed in their new setting!  And if you can’t send anything… send cards!  [smile]

Tasty Tuesday: Katsudon Recipe

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If tonkatsu is Cambria’s favorite Japanese food (the kid muses about what it would be like if the world was made of tonkatsu), its variation katsudon is mine.  And yet I rarely make it!  I think with 3 kids underfoot and my failings in ever planning dinner ahead of time, by the time I’ve cooked up the tonkatsu, the last thing I want to do is take things a step further.  But the extra step in taking tonkatsu to an array of flavors and textures is so worth it, and honestly, so easy you could do most of it ahead of time!  Cook the broth earlier in the day (or week!) when you have a chance, then just pop it in the fridge until you want it!  Whip up some eggs, and boom, katsudon!

Katsudon

Katsudon

Ingredients

    For tonkatsu
  • 1 pork cutlet per person
  • flour
  • eggs (approximately 1 per every 2 cutlets), beaten
  • panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
  • For donburi
  • 3 C water
  • 1 tsp dried bonito flakes*
  • dried seaweed to taste*
  • 1/4 C soy sauce
  • 1/4 C mirin (sweet cooking sake)
  • 1/4 C cooking sake
  • 1 C sliced onions
  • 1-2 eggs per cutlet, slightly beaten
  • rice, already cooked (enough to fill a bowl for each person)
  • *If you're a weirdo like me and have psychosomatic issues with seafood, try substituting bouillon!

Instructions

    For tonkatsu
  • I've gotta give major props to Japan for this one, as I can buy pre-breaded tonkatsu cutlets both fresh or frozen, making me a tonkatsu saint in my children's eyes. (It's also super helpful on nights when the kids have sports!) BUT rest assured if you don't have this luxury, 'cause you can get fantastic tonkatsu at home!
  • Coat each pork cutlet in flour, then egg, then bread crumbs.
  • Pour oil into a pan so it reaches approximately 1/4-1/2 inch up the side.
  • Fry the cutlets. When the bottom is golden, flip it to cook the second side. The first side will continue to darken as the second side cooks, so don't overdo it! (That said, err on the side of safety and make sure your pork is fully cooked.)
  • Set aside until your broth is ready.
  • For donburi
  • Make a soup stock with 3 cups of water, 1 tsp bonito, and seaweed (or bouillon if you're using that instead). Add 1/4 C each of soy sauce, miring, and sake. Add 1 C sliced onion.
  • Boil these together until onions are just translucent. (~20 minutes)
  • When stock is done, place the fried pork cutlets into the boiling soup. Cover with a lid and cook for ~3 minutes. Then slowly pour the beaten eggs on top of the pork and sauce. Replace the lid and cook until eggs are set, ~2 minutes.
  • To assemble, take a pork cutlet with egg and onion, and place it over a bowl of rice. Pour 2-3 Tbsp of soup over the pork and egg, and enjoy!
http://foreignersathome.com/2016/06/28/tasty-tuesday-katsudon-recipe/

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What To Do When You’re Harboring An Illegal Alien Baby (Or: How To Renew An Expired Visa)

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I’m 2 for 3 with harboring illegal alien babies, guys.  When we lived in Okayama, I was 25 and still of the mindset that, “Meh, things will work out, no matter what I do,” so when it came to deadlines for Madeleine’s official documents after birth, I saw the dates as more of a suggestion than a “Do It By This Date Or Serious Consequences.”  We didn’t stress about her American documents (certificate of birth abroad, passport, and social security number… oh, and you know, citizenship) until after the March 11 disaster, when suddenly it seemed top priority to be able to return to America should the need arise.  In my mind, you needed a passport before you could get a visa, so despite the 30 day limit, it was four months before I did anything about her visa.  (Actually what I did is go to the prefectural office to try to get re-entry permits due to a trip to America.  Turns out you can’t get a re-entry permit if you never had an entry permit to begin with!  The officer forbade me to leave the premises while he made panicked calls to Hiroshima to figure out what to do with this absolutely clueless foreigner who didn’t speak a word of Japanese.)

So a couple weeks ago, I received a letter from the city telling me that I would no longer be receiving the city child allowance for Boston.  (Every four months, parents/guardians receive a certain amount of money per child in their care.)  I really depend on this allowance, so I dropped everything to try to translate why on earth we were going to lose 1/3 of it.  “Period of stay has expired.”  I rushed to grab the bag of residence cards, and sure enough, his had expired a month ago.  We renewed the rest of the family last summer, but at that time Boston still had time left on his, so we didn’t see the point in spending money for his before we needed to.  (I see the point now!)

Note: This is merely a recollection of our experience.  We absolutely do not guarantee that your experience will be the same.

I jumped on the immigration website and found the Application for Extension of Period of Stay.  Don’t do this.  You will have spent forever filling it all out and they’ll tell you you need two different applications.  (If you’re on time, this is the application you need.)  For supporting documents, I printed a Letter of Guarantee and had Leslie sign it, as well as a letter from our supporting congregation (which we had blessedly saved from last summer when we updated our visas).  I brought all of our official documents (birth certificates, marriage certificate, etc.) as well, but didn’t end up needing them.  I don’t know if they needed the Letter of Guarantee (or if Leslie even qualifies as a guarantor) or letter from our employer, but after forgetting a passport last summer, I didn’t want to take any chances leaving anything behind.

We dropped Madeleine off at Ikko’s house early in the morning and took the 8:30 train from Matsudo to Shinagawa.  From the station we took a taxi, which is nice, but also makes me a little sad to realize that we pay enough public transit fare now that we can actually justify using a taxi.  We jumped into the reception line around 9:20, and it went surprisingly quickly.  Tip: Don’t go on a Monday or Friday.

Reception filled out a short form declaring what we were there for and sent us over to a back corner desk whose sign boasted Business and Employment Inspection Department.  It didn’t sound like what we needed, but apparently it was.  We took a number and sat down to wait.  Once we were called, we handed the man behind the desk our stack of papers and the sheet the receptionist had filled out.  After some more clarification on the situation and some hemming and hawing, he handed us another piece of paper on which to explain why Boston’s period of stay had expired.  (English was fine.)  He asked us to wait while he did something else, and when he came back he handed back our stack of papers, explaining that we needed two different applications, plus payment for both applications.  (We didn’t totally understand what he was telling us to do, and ended taking a lot longer because we went back and forth a couple times.)

What we were supposed to do is get and fill out two Applications for Change of Status of Residence, one for Short Term Stay and one for Dependent Residency, then pay the application fee for both.  This is where they get you.  I’d been marveling at how much easier it seemed to be to resolve Boston’s expired visa than it had been to renew ours the right way last summer and was starting to be tempted to go this route next time for convenience’s sake, but paying double brought it all back to even.

We finally got our packet in order (after I filled out like 8 different papers that we didn’t actually need…  In the age of technology, it’s so easy to forget how long it’s been since you actually wrote something until your hand is cramping up after like 3 lines…) and returned it to the desk to await approval.  Really, the process was very simple, and my only complaint is that there’s no play area for the children on the side of the building we were on.  It’s a hard knock life, y’all.  After a reasonable waiting time, they came out with Boston’s new Resident Card!  We were told to take it to our city office to get our address printed on it and to get him back into the system, and we were done!

When it came to finishing up at the city office, I knew Leslie was too busy with work to do it, so it was up to me.  I considered asking a friend to come and translate, but on my free afternoon, I was feeling a rare bit of confidence and decided to give it a try myself!  (I think good weather had a lot to do with it.  Tell me I’m not the only one who feels she can do anything if there’s a breeze in her hair!)  City office is only a 5 minute drive from home, so it’s not like I’d be losing a whole lot of time if I totally failed.  On my way over, I passed Ikko and told her where I was going, and on the spot she offered to keep Boston for me.  Even better.  It’s so much easier to switch my brain over to technical Japanese without a baby screaming babbling in my ear.

I marched into the office, head held high, and immediately recognized that there was no way I’d be able to decipher which desk I was supposed to go to, so I made my way back to the front of the building to seek Information’s help.  Desk number in hand, I marched for a second time into the office.  I think this was the desk where I gave them the information they needed to print our address on the back of the card.  I’m not totally sure, and the lady walked me through every line, telling me what to write.  Paperwork in hand, I then presented myself to another desk, where I think they do the actual processing.  (Much of my life here is just doing what people tell me to do, moment to moment.)  At the processing desk, after more rote paperwork, they asked for proof of our relationship.  Like a gigantic goofball, I hadn’t even thought to bring it with me.  “We can process him as a roommate,” they helpfully supplied.  “But you won’t get the child allowance.”  That’s the whole reason I’m doing this, I thought.  That and, you know, legality and such.  “What time do you close?” I asked.  “Five o’clock.”  “I’ll be right back!”  So I jetted home and got the papers that honestly, anyone should have thought to bring in the first place.

Once I had the papers in hand, it was a simple process of handing everything over and then just waiting.  I watch sumo on the myriad televisions built into the wall, and about 20 minutes later, they handed me Boston’s official and completed Resident Card plus health insurance card.  Legal!  I inquired as to how to get the child allowance because I am a classless socialist gaijin and was directed upstairs, where child and family services are handled.

Upstairs was just a matter of more paperwork after I explained the situation.  The woman asked if Boston had lived with us the entire time, but other than that it was the same straightforward personal information I’d written three times already downstairs.  “I’ll get the child allowance in June, right?” I asked like the pauper I am.  She answered with something that I think meant yes, but I wasn’t totally clear, and didn’t really want to be the foreigner obsessively fixated on money.  (Well, I didn’t want to be recognized as one, anyway.  I’m an accountant by trade, I can’t help it!)

Finally, with that paperwork complete, I was done!  Boston was legal and back in the system!  They informed me that I’d be receiving the extra little health insurance booklet for kids (which grants them free healthcare) in the mail, and other than that I was all set!  Gaijin win from a gaijin fail!

As of this month: We did get the child allowance, but I’m thinking they subtracted the month that Boston wasn’t legally a resident.  So yay/boo!

Giving Strength As An Inheritance

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This week, after 1 year and 4 months, we moved Boston out of the living room and into the girls’ room.  I’m sure it’s premature to say so (given the failed attempt to do the same at Christmas), but just, in this moment: Hallelujah and amen.  Think of all the things we can do at night now!  We could, like, sit down somewhere comfortable!  Les and I could watch tv together like normal people!  I could fold laundry after taking it off the line instead of throwing it hastily into a pile because the baby needs to go to bed.  I could bring laundry in at my leisure, instead of madly rushing to grab it because I forgot again and Boston’s already half asleep!  First world problems, am I right?

I started wondering what the kids would think when they had their own babies and I told them that they’d slept in the living room for the first years of their lives.  And then I thought about how my mom has always told me about my crib being in the hallway of her own small German apartment.

On Mother’s Day at church, I had a rare moment where the girls had left for the park and Boston was being uncharacteristically still and quiet, giving my brain a chance to really switch over to Japanese and converse with the older members.  Conversation evolved to admiration at my ability to birth and raise my kids in a foreign country, and how hard it must be.  It is hard.  But as I thought about it, I was able to really put words to how I do it.

So often when I face rough times in life, I draw on my mom’s example of strength to find my own power to overcome.  Our lives are comically parallel, I mean even down to giving birth in a foreign country where our kids have no bedroom.  Seeing and admiring who she has become through her experiences gives me so much hope in my own.  And knowing that if I talked to her right now, she could call back on her memories to advise me in mine is such a comforting, strengthening feeling of camaraderie.  Even more than just getting through tough times, knowing how awesome and adventurous she was and is gives me permission to be awesome and adventurous!

I told this all to the group at church, and told them that one of my biggest desires as a mother is to pass this strength on to my own children.  If the life I’m living right now can shine 25 years into their future, man, I couldn’t ask for more.

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Firefly Festival

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I vacillate between a deep loathing of Facebook and an intense love for the community that it gives us.  I like to pretend that when I move back to the States and are near family again, I won’t have need for it and will delete my account, when in reality we all know that I’m all talk about stuff like that.  This week, though, Facebook’s On This Day feature has been showing me posts from when we lived in Okayama, at a point where we’d been there long enough that I was used to everyday life and willing to adventure a little bit without freaking out.

Five years ago, we had one of the most magical, fantastic experiences of my life.

We’d started the day with friends touring udon shops in Takamatsu, probably the most famous area in Japan for udon.  They’ve got lists of the best udon in the region, and people do tours where they try to hit each of the top 10 or so.  (I just googled it.  Apparently they even have udon taxis and udon buses for the express purpose of taking you from one shop to the next!)  We only hit two before taking the kids to さぬきこどもの国, or Sanuki Children’s World, an AMAZING free museum/playhouse built right next to the Takamatsu Airport, where you can watch planes taking off and landing.  Cambria was 2 at the time, and she had the best time exploring all that they had.

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As the afternoon drew to a close, we were all having such a good time with each other that we didn’t want the day end, so our friends suggested checking out a local firefly festival in the mountains that night.  Perfect!  We went back home to freshen up, Les and I daydreaming about a peaceful evening on a picnic blanket, watching the kids play in a field of fireflies.

Our friends picked us up that evening, eight of us piling into the car and nibbling on rice balls as we traveled into the mountains, roads becoming narrower, bumpier, and more windy the further we went.  Arriving at the general location, we realized that this was definitely not the serene, quiet firefly viewing we’d imagined.  The road was packed with cars and pedestrians, and we quickly realized that we ought to park while we had a chance and walk the rest of the way.

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We walked for 15 to 20 minutes up a trail of sorts, until we emerged onto a road lined with food stalls and lanterns.  My first real Japanese festival.  I didn’t know at the time that this is the norm; all I knew was that I had never seen anything so exotic, yet so quaint.  I was awestruck, in love with every sight and sound and smell, the way the lanterns played off the dusk, the stalls lit the path, the smoke wafted tantalizingly over the crowd.

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We followed the path further into the valley, where we found a small stream lined in a crowd 3 people deep.  As we caught glances at the water, we also caught the sounds of children singing in unison.  I asked Kyoko what they were singing, and she told me that fireflies need clean water and fresh air (thus why you have to travel so deep into the countryside to find them in Japan), and that the children were singing to the fireflies, “Come close, there’s clean water here!”  It was like a fairy tale.  It was beautiful.  So magical.

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We all waited for dark, and when the first firefly emerged, the atmosphere intensified.  Where Les and I had expected fields of hundreds of fireflies, we saw literally 10 that night.  Children clambered across fallen logs and rocks in the stream to follow the blinking lights, as adults craned their necks to catch the briefest glimpse before the light went out again.  The feeling of anticipation charged the crowd as cries of “There it is!” rang out along the small brook.  We meandered upstream with the masses for an hour or so, and finally decided to head back up the hill for refreshment before going home.

I don’t know if it’s the natural maturity that comes with age, the experience of having left beloved people and places behind for good more times than we can count, or both, but I’ve noticed that where I used to pine for old times and grieve the fact that I would never return to them, somewhere in the last few years I’ve found the balance of fondness in remembering and gratitude for the opportunities we’ve had.  I think we’ve come to realize that you really can never go back.  We reflect so fondly on that year in Okayama, but are able to recognize that even if we did move back, we would never capture that exact aura that surrounded our time there.  In releasing ourselves from the desire to return to past moments, we find the clarity to appreciate them for what they were while finding contentment where we are.

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We never had a bucket list of things to do in Japan, but we’ve more than achieved anything we could have put on there.  Probably every week, one of us exclaims our gratitude for all that we’ve been able to experience in Japan.  Whether we ever go to another firefly festival or not, our lives were made richer that night in June of 2011.

Video: Kindergarten Q&A with Cambria and Madeleine

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The kindergarten class at The Sage School in Foxboro, Massachusetts, approached us a couple weeks ago to see if we could get together somehow for a brief Q&A session.  They’ve been learning about Japan this year (BRAVO!) and were excited about the prospect of talking to someone who actually lives in Japan.  The kids sent over a fantastic list of questions for our girls to answer, and Cambria and Madeleine had a blast sharing a bit of their lives with an interested audience.

Let’s Talk About Earthquakes

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We had an earthquake the other night that was relatively bigger than most that we’ve personally felt here.  And we kind of failed at it.  I was getting ready for bed and didn’t have a shirt on, but my pajama shirt is one of those weird strappy tanks that’s going to be all kind of inappropriate if you don’t get your arms and head into the right holes, so rather than entering my Supermom State Of Calm that I usually summon in emergency situations, I was stuck in an anxious state between my left arm hole and the weird gap in the back.  So there’s that.  In the meantime, all of the theory that we’ve imparted on the girls over the years went out the window in their been-asleep-for-45-minutes state of existence, and suddenly I saw clearly how children end up hiding under their beds in house fires, as the girls completely froze in their beds and refused to budge as Leslie tried to hoist them up.  And then there’s that little bit of Mother Of An Infant insanity that caused me to hesitate outside of Boston’s door, trying to judge the earthquake to see if it was worth waking the sleeping, intensely temperamental baby, or whether it was going to die off as soon as I picked him up.

In the midst of all of this, our phone alarms were shrieking, and the city loudspeakers were blaring warnings.

Needless to say, after we got through the two aftershocks the next morning, all was well in the end.  If you consider slight PTSD among 7 years olds “well.”  (Cambria has run to me at least 6 times in the last two days because she thought she felt another quake.)  (To be honest, I’ve actually called to the kids to come to me at least once because thought I felt one, too.)

Every time we have another earthquake, Les and I try to re-assess our supplies and, total transparency, the clutter in our house.  (I often joke that the pile of shoes in front of our door makes me sleep easy, as there’s no way a robber is making it through the front door without a loud hassle.  Good for home security, not so good for quick escapes in an emergency.)  Seismologists predict another Tōkai earthquake, a major earthquake in the Tokyo area that happens every 100-150 years, to occur really any time in the relatively near future.  It’s something we keep in mind.  Every time we have a larger scale earthquake, we consider the possibility of its being a foreshock to something bigger.  (This occurred before the Tōhoku earthquake.)

Soon after we moved to Matsudo, we asked our general collection of friends in the States for recommendations for emergency rations.  Some friends in the military generously offered to pay the cost of a container of MREs if we paid the shipping, and not two weeks later we had something like 40 meals in a box in our hallway closet.  I chose MREs over other non-perishables for their weight, variety, ability to self-heat, and familiarity.  We could have stocked up on cans, but they’d have been heavy, limited in flavor, and requiring a tool to open.  Cup ramen would have been light and cheap, but requires fresh water and an external heat source.  My dad used to bring MREs when we went hiking, so I knew that each pack would hold an array of different foods from which the kids were bound to find at least something they could eat.  (Emergency situations are not the time to be fighting over what is palatable and what isn’t.)  (In reality though, our kids are fantastic and eat pretty much anything.)  (But still, better safe than sorry.)  The ability to heat with water that doesn’t necessarily have to be clean was a huge plus.  And they’re portable enough that I wouldn’t feel guilty stuffing the kids’ backpacks full of them in an evacuation.

Next to the box of MREs is a box of 2 liter bottles of water.  We’ve got a couple bottles in the back of our car, too.  (Or we used to…  Now that I think about it, I should probably double check on that.)  After the Tōhoku earthquake, stores even in largely unaffected areas ran out of water.  If we can get a head start on that rush, we’re taking it.

There are a lot of things that took me a while to think about storing.  We have no fewer than 30 rolls of toilet paper in our apartment at present.  I think there’s a flashlight in every room, and no shortage of Yankee Candles.  In the winter we keep the girls’ jackets by the door in case a quick escape is necessary.  We’ve all had enough moments of panic in trying to find our pants during an earthquake that we’ve stopped relaxing to that extent at home anymore.  I try to keep at least two extra full packs of diapers in the house, and I’ve saved the cloth diapers I used with the girls.  (I went back and forth so much on which is better in an emergency.  Cloth made sense when I was picturing us camped out next to the river.  In reality I suspect the lack of water is going to get real quick in that situation.  So I keep both.)

Probably the biggest thing that we need to do more of is practice.  We’ve discussed repeatedly with the girls what they need to do in the event of an earthquake, but after they froze the other night, we knew we needed to do more.  We considered that practice drills might be a great benefit to them, so they have the actual experience of coming quickly to me and Leslie, or ducking under the table, or leaving the building.  If their minds are screaming at them to panic, maybe the muscle memory will carry them through to safety.

It’s a far cry from my upbringing, where the only potential disaster is a blizzard (or potentially an invasion from Canada, but given recent political sentiment, I’m pretty sure we’re at approximately 0% risk of them coming over the border).  I’d never actually even felt an earthquake before we moved to Japan, so it’s been a new and wild ride.  And hey, if the big one hits while we’re here, we’re in a prime position to help, with a good story to tell the grandkids.

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Finally Accepting My Kids’ City Childhood

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My friend Renee wrote recently about city living and lifestyle choices.  Reading it brought to surface thoughts that have been rolling around in my head over the past couple months, and I suddenly wanted to share them.  As I tried to form my reflections into an appropriate, on-topic comment, though, I recognized that it was more of a profession of my own just-barely related realizations than an addition to the conversation at hand.  So Renee, this one’s for you.  (Don’t think I missed the shoutout in your post!)

I think I’ve said before that I grew up in the woods.  Treehouses and lean-to forts and brooks and bee stings and poison ivy and falling into the pond trying to catch a turtle… that’s what made up my childhood.  And for six years, it has killed me that my kids are missing out on that.  I’ve repeated the mantra that they’re gaining a multi-cultural perspective until I couldn’t see straight, but it was always in a detached, theoretical way, like I didn’t totally believe it.  Renee observed that there often seems to be an overwhelming bias toward rural life, and (she didn’t observe this) I have been in the throes of it since we left our massive yard in the foothills of North Carolina in 2010.

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But a month ago, out of nowhere, I was hit with a genuine feeling of gratitude for the situation our kids are in right now.  The girls were heading out to the park when they asked if they could go to their friend’s house and see if she would come too.  And I realized how fortunate we are that in this culture, it’s a given that literally every single day there will be kids playing at the par.  That I don’t have to worry about bothering their friend’s mother by asking every day if she could come out and play because that’s what they do.  That I don’t even have to do anything for them to play with their friends.

For so long I’ve regretted the fact that we don’t have a yard, that if the kids want to play they have to go to the park (which is honestly just a glorified dirt lot).  But since that little seed of realization was planted in my mind, I’ve been able to recognize that dirt lot for the classroom, the social club, the creative nest that it is.IMG_3851

Maybe there’s a little part of me that subscribes to Japan’s idea of learning from, through, and with The Group.  Really I think I just subscribe to learning through play and real life.  As a homeschooling family, the park is a huge resource for the socialization everyone worries about.  Both girls have learned Japanese purely through play.  (Since starting homeschool, Cambria has studied Japanese once a week to hone her grammar and expand her vocabulary.)  They’ve grown beyond the stigma of foreigner and become normal friends.  They both taught themselves to ride a bicycle with training wheels a while back… I’ll never forget the day I went up to meet them and saw Madeleine zooming around like she’d been riding for years!

As Americans, we pride ourselves on our theory of independence.  On the surface, it’s easy to peg Japan as the exact opposite… yet there is a subtle, underlying independence from an age even younger than is found in America.  Kids from the age of 5, even, are allowed to go to the park without their parents.  Within the limits of rules we’ve set for their safety, we allow the girls to do the same.  (I felt much better about this after Ikko explained to me that, in seeming contrast to what I just said about independence, everyone in the neighborhood feels a responsibility to the kids, and thus keeps an eye on all of the kids in the area.)  (Maybe we can call it monitored independence.)

The girls have practiced both folly and wisdom, and have come home to tell me about both.  Being able to loosen the chain a little, to allow them to make social decisions on their own and to face the consequences of those decisions within a safe context… They wouldn’t get that in my backyard.  We set in place strict rules about playing at the park, reinforcing them every so often and telling the girls that we trust them to abide by the rules, and it’s amazed me how consistently they do.  (Like, 100%.)  (Except one time.  Which resulted in a week’s grounding.  Cause and effect, kiddo.)  When they say something mean to a friend or throw sand on someone’s bike, they come home in tears of regret over their decisions.  When they leave the park because their friend has been messing with the police call box, I praise their wisdom in leaving a bad situation, and then we look outside to see that the police have shown up at the park and are questioning kids.  These are lessons that my words cannot teach them.  And they’re learning them far earlier than I, in my lush green backyard, ever knew they could.

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[I know some of you are reeling right now, reading about my kids playing by themselves in a foreign country across the world from America.  First, I completely understand.  If I wasn’t in this context, with the firsthand experience and knowledge that I have by living it, I would feel the exact same way.  (I probably do feel this way about missionaries in other countries!)  Second, though, I’ll ask that you trust that we are absolutely confident in our children’s safety, and we constantly remind them of safety guidelines.  Literally, I can see/hear the park from my apartment.  (Side note: You never realize how often children scream while playing until you’re listening for the scream of your child being kidnapped.  Cambria’s been playing at the park for two years now and I still run to the windows nearly every day to double check.)  I’m way more worried about walking through the mall in America than I am letting my kids play at this park.]