Brenda in Japan

Hailing from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Brenda McKinney is an American living and working in the Kansai region of Japan. This is an account of her life and adventures among the fine people of Nihon.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Thank you and Sayonara!

This will be my last post. It's amazing to think that three years have gone by since I first decided to take up this blogging thing. It started as an attempt to keep up with friends and family (vs email) and to provide them with a glimpse into my experiences abroad, but in many ways, it's become an intimate setting for me to record three of the most amazing years of my life. It may have come off as boring to some in Japan (ah hem - not to name any names), but maybe that's also a sign of how normal these events were to us? Looking back now - and as I start the next chapter of my life - it's hard to not start by reflecting on how I've grown and changed in so many ways since I left Minnesota. Someone recently said to me that coming back must be a much bigger deal than leaving in many ways. You know what, I think they are right... it really is.

So what did these three years mean to me? I'm not sure I can express all of it here in one post, but I will say this. Personally, I believe the goal in going to any foreign place is to leave with it feeling less foreign. Or preferably not foreign at all (dare I even venture to say familiar?). So much can be learned from the world around us and taking the time to understand the differences that make people, well, people also helps us to understand ourselves. I left Japan this summer confident in the fact that I had fulfilled this aim, but moreso, knowing that this place will forever be a more intimate location to me and that I will undoubtably be back.

Three Years
Somewhere in the middle of my time abroad (this time)... I think I grew up, really feeling like an adult for the first time. The lifestyle in Japan, especially living alone for three years, shaped this experience and affected the transition in many ways. Living on two major train lines in the cultural heart of the country afforded me the luxury of being able to jump on a train (to wherever I wanted to go) whenever I wanted. Nobody to report to and an expat community of like-minded, travel-fixated individuals that not only understood and accepted this, but also encouraged it. There are cons to this situation, such as being thousands of miles away from many people you love, but the freedom of going through my mid-20s with such an independent status has been huge for me. Liberating. There were other life experiences over the past three years that also happen to people everywhere, but really characterize part of my Japanese life or experience and also greatly contributed to how I see this time and myself. My first real, grown-up break up, for example. And then finding love when I didn't expect it. Acquiring new friends that became as close as old ones (especially when you are so far away from home and know you're on a contract for X amount of time). Even my job, which got a little repetative toward the end, offered me a source of community and substitute for a support network, when mine was thousands of miles away. And little things.... like new lectures worked into my curriculum at school, weird new foods in Ito and using new vocabulary in (otherwise really normal) situations... made the nuances of (almost) everyday an adventure.
As I mentioned earlier, living in Kansai (and my Japanese vacation schedule) also gave me the opportunity to travel the entire country and explore the Pacific. India, Nepal, Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand (twice!), New Zealand and Australia are among the other places I have seen, felt and roamed through as part of this Japan adventure, reshaping my perspective of Asia in general, of (my second home-away-from-home in) Japan, and - of course - of my own culture.

Memories & Moments - A Hodepodge of things I will/do miss... and will remember:
First and foremost: PEOPLE. There are so many amazing people that I miss dearly already and also those who taught me some important lessons that I am pretty grateful for. I can't list all of the names and stories and - in fairness - I don't think making a list can totally capture what all of them mean to me, anyways.

And my reason for being in Japan(legally at least)... work. My coworkers, who include some of the kindest souls I have ever encountered. To name a few... Nozaki Sensei (my twin), Mori Sensei (my coach), Mr. Hayashi (my mentor - knows the system), Miyake Sensei (my Japanese mom - she reminded me of my mom in some ways and was so helpful), Tsutsumi Sensei (also like a mom - or a big sister), Satoshi (who helped me when I was fresh and confused), Onishi Sensei, Moriguchi Sensei, Asai Sensei (one of the sweetest people I have ever met!), Ume-chan (who I always wished I could have deeper convos with... if my Japanese was better), Okamoto Sensei, Yamamoto Sensei (the Boss), Hattoji-kocho (who reminded me of a movie star and would try to teach me characters and talk to me for an hour in Japanese when I understood 7%), Kocho Sensei (who was just a really nice and funny guy), my first Kyoto Sensei (who was a huge Twins fan & sort of took on the role of my Japanese dad when I was first adjusting), "the Grudge" (who at least kept things interesting & gave me some stories), Shima Sensei/Angelina (who was so funny - and sarcastic!!), Arai Sensei (who always teased me and stole my Reeses, but was so much fun), Tanaka Sensei (who scared me when he was mad, but I still think is one of the coolest and most sincere men I've ever met), Nomura Sensei... even Mondays with internet news & AJ. I could go on, but there are too many stories and people that shaped my professional identity in Japan and made it fun.

I'd be lying if I said my students didn't also have a enormous impact on my expereince. They inspired me on so many levels and taught me so many lessons. I was also so lucky to get 2-1 as "my class"! Practicing for the speech contest with Mass, culture festivals, sports days, ESS parties and meetings, decorating the classroom, making lesson plans, creating IS.  Even those OC journals, which were a PAIN to correct (300 every two weeks!) but gave me an outlet to communicate with the kids and an opportunity to get to know some of them well.  

There's mystical Yakushima. Kyoto's temples. Shinsaibashi's lights. The Akashi bridge, which still felt enchanting after hundreds, if not thousands, of times passing it on trains (and by bike, by boat, by bus, by car... and even by airplane). Castles. ONSENS.

Outside of Japan... the flight around Everest was phenonenal. The international elephant races. My first banana-pineapple shake. Camel rides in Rajisthan and Saris at the Taj. Thai massages and missing boats and planes due to them. Feeling the freedom of falling on my first Skydiving experience, with mountains, volcanos, the ocean, the city and farm plots below me was spectacular. Showing up in India and being greeted by cows on the runway. There was that rather frightening New Year's in New Delhi. A rather shocking and exhilarating New Years on the Moon Party Island in Thailand. And the rather low-key New Years in NZ.

Going to visit the Mekong River valley with the students we met on PEPY and learning about all the inspirational programs working to make the world a better place was a priviledge.

Then there's also stuff like AJET. Getting to know people through Saturday meetings at Starbucks and those horrible little dating articles I used to write. Oh, and the Halloween party when the building burnt down! Tokyo Orientation and everything with the national committee over the last year.

I'll remember fondly Akashiyaki and the little shop run by the old Japanese women who didn't speak any English. My bentos from Gruppe, the coffee shop in Takasago that made homemade lunch to go. Meeting my old ladies on Saturday mornings when I was often much too tired from the night before. Late night training runs with Lena. Learning how to really run with Takiko. My very first long run on my own to Akashi and back (especially after a night in Akashi with Kelly). Meeting Kelly at the park in Harimacho for silly or serious chats on the swings. And the day we first found a yukata hanging in her closet and took pictures in the "kimono," so excited by the exoticness of it all. Our group of girlfriends and our secret santa Christmas parties and "meat nights". The Cho.

Other memories... Spending time with the infamous Kazu and the gang at the little izakaya in Mukonoso and cutting through the rice field to return to warm blankets and icy floors. Gossiping about pop culture with Jane. Parties with Daisuke. Pure during our first year. Barbeques. Spontaneous dance parties to spontaneous Youtube playlists. With sometimes suprisingly sponataneous people. Taco Nights. My first cockroach(es).

The adventures with all of my lovely friends that came to visit: Joe & Brianne on the boat to Korea (not to mention that bike ride in the rain, 4am prayers & the hunt for "sweet balls"!), Claire and my "tropical" roadtrip to Shikoku (and getting busted for wearing the wrong shoes on Koyasan - だめ is one of the Japanese words Claire knows best!), running around Kitano with Shinya and Jess, Kiyomizu in the rain at night with Andrea & Andres, the Sapporo Snow Festival with Kristin, Kimonos with Krystal, purikura with Shannon, my first frisbee golf game with Bek & Chris, joking around with punks outside the convenience store in Harimacho with my brother, Sweets Paradise with Caroline...

I'll never forget my first Ghible movie with Ben. Those weekly TV sessions with Tam and Clayton (WWJLD?! and illegal baby). Drinking on the bridge with Tu-chan when he first arrived. Balcony talks with Mibs. Going to the foot doc with Miwa after the marathon, which felt more like a dating show than a treatment visit on several occasions. Mischief at the Re-contracting Conference. Volunteering at the Midyear and Yashiro.  The roof and fire extinguisher at Yashiro! Pulling pranks with the Chelsie cutout and all the IFA events. Language classes in Harimacho, then in Kobe with Caoimhe. And almost setting a boat on fire during the 4th of July fireworks! Or then there's the next 4th of July at the park (still hope there wasn't a camera...). My joint birthday with Kelly at Elephant Cafe. Then my wine birthday at Alberta Alberta the following year with one particular guest in the fountain. Hiking through Rokko. Bus and Shinkansen trips to random places in Japan.

It would take me years (maybe about 3?) to tell all the stories.

The point is that the moments truly transcend the experience, leaving me ever so grateful that I was lucky enough to be the normal girl who got to experience all of these extraordinary things.

Coming Back
Starting this fall, I will be working on a master's degree in Boston. I am still playing around with starting a new blog (brendainbeantown), but until that happens, I can tell you that things are going well. The culture shock is pretty much gone and I'm happy to have a new place to explore and be back in academia. I drove out with my family a few weeks ago and live in a house with a few other women. Nice campus, fun setting, beautiful town... and I'm eager to see more.

SO... In closing. Thank you to all of you that have followed along -- even during those times when I wrote out of boredom and this thing was frivolous or boring . And thank you to everyone in Japan who made this experience so exciting and fun. I miss you already and look forward to hearing from you.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Milestone in Minnesota (and beyond)

Besides the new zombie bar in town and Obama's health care plan, the local blogosphere and general buzz here in Minnesota has also been focusing a lot on a new decision by the (Lutheran) ELCA that (some) same sex marriages will be recognized. Big news!

Shopping Day

Sitting at my best friend Kristin's house in St. Louis Park right now, showing her how this whole blog thing works :-)

Long day today!  We hit up the Wayzata Church sale at 8am, proceeded to go to some other shops for more sales, lunch with my mom and now movies (Time Traveler!) and pizza. Tired, but lots of fun. Also a bit bad because I bought 3 pairs of shoes... but gotta prepare for the winter, right?!

Ok, time to move onto the "publishing post" section of this lesson ;-)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Unpacking to Pack Again

Unpacking at the moment, so probably a bad time to send an update (still living out of suitcases, but starting to address all the "other" things I didn't send or bring home with me on this most recent move as I prepare to move to Boston in 2 weeks).  Wow.  I don't even know what to say.  I own SO MUCH STUFF.

Started going through all my stuff in storage and I'm slightly shocked (horrified?) by all that I own.  Probably a whole apartment worth of stuff at the farm (kitchen stuff, bed, etc), but just the clothing, sentimental paperwork (souvenirs and brochures from travel and Japan stuff I've brought back in past visits) and other random tidbits (especially jewelry, gifts, boxes, frames...).  Mammoth amount. Out of control. 

I think I need to simplify my life a bit.  I've always been a little bad with transition in the first stages (can you tell? haha), but like moving around and like my space and that lifestyle is just not congruent with the massive amount of material things I own.  I definitely don't need anything right now, which is a good thing, but I am really considering looking into holding a garage sale before I go!!

Alright, back to organizing (just thought I'd comment)!  More later!

All You Need Is...

Binary heard from xkcd. Love it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Home in America. Week 2.

Installment 2 of the transition back to home/America/life as normal (old normal? familiar normal?):

I've come to realize that a lot of the culture shock that's been hitting me is social.  Three years is a long time to be gone and there have been a lot of changes, particularly in the last year or so.  Minnesota culture sort of stays the same in a charming way, but there is a lot of variance to how things used to be.  For one, people are working and are busy now while I'm free (touched on this before, but the concept has permeated further in the last week).  When I've been here before, it's been Busyville central - I was running around and on a limited schedule - but now that I have more time and am home permanently (to a degree)... I'm feeling the difference.  My friends are more settled in their jobs and careers, which is good, but the free time is sort of a mixed blessing in ways.  I'm living at home and am dependent upon my parents for a car (which I have to compete with my college-aged brother for), which adds another layer, especially after 3 years of living alone and being able to hop on a train to go wherever whenever I wanted to. A lot of people have stayed here, but there are also many people that aren't here and I feel that difference, too.  Those that are here have also changed in further ways.  Again, I said this before, but a lot of friends have gotten married or even have kids.  I think this is a wonderful thing, but now the girlfriends I used to talk to a lot or go out with now go home early and hang out with their husbands (formerly the boyfriends we used to chat about) or have to get to bed for work, so they're busier and have different priorities and schedules.  You'd think it'd be similar to before, but it's definitely... different.  

Maybe I've changed, too.  I know I have.  I feel older (mature is a better word?) and have all these memories and experiences I'm trying to fit into context and am figuring out how to do it slowly.  Minneapolis (while constant in cultural traits) seems smaller than I remember it (literally).  Very flat.  Very spread out. And not necessarily boring, but the little things that I found exciting before are sort of nostalgic but not necessarily thrilling.  Japan is just very unique, so I guess getting back to normal now feels like the adjustment rather than fitting my home culture into a context that I expect to be foreign.  I think it matters that I'm not making adventures to do the exciting things and trying to relax, so I'm feeling the burn of slowing down a bit.  It probably comes down to the fact that I'm the type of person who likes to be busy and not having something to do (school, works, etc), even with vacation time, gets old after a bit.  I haven't just been sitting around but I guess I like purpose and am ready to have one again soon.

All that and way too much analyzation aside, I guess I haven't only been sitting around.  Had a really great day on Friday.  Met an old coworker and her husband for lunch downtown (realizing the new stadium is well on it's way - huge new complex!?!).  This friend left Minneapolis to work for a retailer based in New York around the time I left for Japan and it was fun catching up and hearing about the coast I'll soon be calling home.  That night, I went to a bachelorette (for the sister of a friend who now lives in NYC, too) and went rode the pedal pub, basically a bar with 5 bikes on each side that you ride around the city.  My butt hurts because I was a little too short and had to reach for the pedals (back to being in the land of tall Scandinavians and Germans!), but it was a really interesting experience and everyone we rode past waved or yelled out, which was pretty cool.  The party ended early, so I drove to meet yet another friend from Norway/CLV in town for a wedding who did the Peace Core and also lives in NYC (yeah, I know... NY day?!).  We met at a pub, where I ran into a group of college friends and some other camp friends.  A lot of catching up and loved seeing them, but that was all in one day alone.  Spent Saturday lunching with a girlfriend from school and then spent Sat night at a friend's house, making Japanese food (enough for 20 people to serve 3!), talking politics, sipping homemade beer (the "Brendawisen"... it was great - my friend Chris is amazing!) and then saw a friend from high school again and went to a wedding reception for even more Norway/camp friends on Sunday night.  Lots going on.

I'm really glad I have so much time at home, but will probably find myself with a handful of errands to do when it's time to move again in 2 weeks.  

Anyways, doing fine and working on getting back into the swing, but I'll check in again soon.  I'll probably a few more posts on this blog before I sign off for good (maybe start a new one for New England?), but until then... Coping. Having fun. Loving the time with family. And definitely grateful for the last 3 years, even if it means I'm not "settled down" (that was a joke from last time if the sarcasm didn't translate)... 

Thursday, August 13, 2009

First Days Back in the US

It's been about a week since I moved back to the states so I thought I should check in.

Minnesota feels very normal in so many ways.  When I arrived, the thing that hit me first was how FLAT it (seriously watched the green farm plots for a good 10 minutes in awe as we were landing and was further awed by what should be a familiar landscape - just devoid of mountainous and smokestack-filled landscapes that I'm used to seeing - driving home) was but otherwise, not too many changes on the surface level.  But as time has gone on, I feel like there have been layers of realization and surprised that develop on a daily basis.

Culture shock is one thing most people are asking about. You get a lot of warnings about reverse culture shock when preparing for an international move (especially coming home after being gone for several years), but to start with, the toughest part of coming back has honestly been the jetlag.  It's taken me a full week to get used to the time difference, but I'm finally sleeping through the night here.  I think I was so focused on visiting people and doing stuff while I was here the last 2 summers that I've been home to visit, that I just pushed through the issues that come with a 14 hour difference (total day/night flip), but this time was a bit rough.  I was up at 4am pretty much every day for the first few days and found myself feeling very tired during the day.  I tried Nodoze (safe sleeping pills from the drug store) after day 2 without sleep, but they didn't help much, and it took about 5 days before I was able to safely take a nap during the day without my body thinking it was bedtime.  Before that, it just felt like doing all-nighters day after day and my body trying (unsuccessfully) to catch up on sleep in between.  I tried to just take it slow and take the first few days off, but even that plan was more of a struggle than I remembered with my family wanting to do things now that I'm BACK, and the process seemed longer than it did when I came back from 6 weeks in Asia in 2004, when I taught in China.

I thought I would be exempt from actual culture shock this time, or at least only encounter it in small doses, since I've done it before with Norway but it's funny how it hits you in the smallest ways.  Japan is just so different from home, but so normal to me in so many ways and the small situations that come with readjusting to a life without those differences in my day-to-day had definitely caught me off guard a few times.  I went to get my computer fixed at the mall this week and was stunned when the people at Apple (5 employees standing near the door) didn't overtly (and overly) express their profound gratitude to me for stopping in the store.  I waited for it, but they just stood there and didn't even smile when I was obviously leaving with purchases from the store.  I stopped in the Gap for a second to check out what's "in" here and  was halted when I didn't get a face cover to try on clothing in the dressing room or have to take off my shoes (for nice carpeting) in the changing rooms.  I had trouble with my first few showers here because I'm now so used to taking baths, but I find myself wanting to take baths more than showers now (because that's what I had to adjust to in Japan) and was a little uncomfortable getting soap in the water when I did run a bath (or realizing I can't run the bath water in advance and cover the tub so the water stays warm and can be reused because you clean your body and wash your hair before you even get in so it stays fresh).  Finally, on a different occasion, I went out to dinner with two girlfriends from high school and felt uncomfortable taking a sip of my wine when we didn't do a kampei (cheers) beforehand.  Strange.  

While Minnesota feels normal (though not necessarily like a place I LIVE still, like it has in the past), a lot of my friends have gotten married or had babies since I left which has also presented a major lifestyle change.  I'm living with my parents, getting directives on planning my schedule, borrowing a car (my old car, which I now share with my brother - and need to get around because there's no real public transport) and am getting all these questions about my life plans and when I'm going to "settle down" (in Minnesota) to a degree I've never experienced before... when I'm really still in a phase where I want to tell stories from all these cool experiences I've just had.  So yeah, I guess culture shock is hitting.  I do realize that life goes on here, though, and that even though I'm on vacation and just got home, other people's lives have gone on and that people don't necessarily want to hear all of my stories at once (or can't relate to all of them), but it's also a change from the expat community where most people I associate with do travel internationally a lot and have similar lifestyles.  It's something I guess I need to adjust to (because I'm the one who needs to relate to people at home).  It's just a reminder I've been gone a long time and life goes on... maybe has so more than I realized, even though I've tried to keep up with here while I'm gone.  

I have about 2 more weeks in Minnesota before I leave for grad school in Boston and I am looking forward to them and am really, really happy to be here.  It feels nice to be around family and friends.  Hard to believe I was running through rice fields a week ago when I'm napping with the cat now, but both lives have their charm.  I am ready to be here and feel like I left Japan content and at a good time... just adjusting :-P

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Moving On and Moved out

It's been a pretty full on couple of days, but I'm officially moved out and met my successor today.  She seems really nice in person and actually a really excellent fit for my school, which makes me happy.  

It might also be a good thing that the moving (out/on?) process was so enveloped and has been ongoing, because I think it really helped on the emotional front, especially with such a big move.  The new girl moved into my place today and while it was my home in Japan for 3 years here and will always feel like it, I am actually OK with passing it along... maybe it helps that I feel like it's going to a good person, though?  

Or maybe this is what they call true closure ;-P

Monday, July 27, 2009

Mission Packing - Complete.

Somehow I pulled it off and packed up everything in my apartment. The space is really not that big and I had nothing when I came, so not really sure how I managed to take out 22 bags of trash, but the place is looking good.

I finally finished everything around 3am last night (furniture in the kitchen for the floors to be replaced, etc) and have been cleaning most of the day today. I went into Harinan, my visit high school, for the morning since it's my last day, but I had to get back to the apartment to meet a coworker from my normal school who helped me when the gas, electricity, water and tatami people came so I could pay my last bills in cash.

As for packing and getting things home, I thought I was going to make it without sending anything, but after actually putting things into the suitcase, I realized I am better off sending my books and papers home since the book rate is so ridiculously cheap (and I can't really be bothered to cut the pile down further anymore). Other than that, even the shoes are good to go!

Feeling pretty good about this feat right now.  Even though it's a sad goodbye, it's also a happy one in some ways as I'm sad because I've had so much fun here. Getting cheesy, so I think I'll end this here.  But packing is checked off the list!