A Dream Come True

We arrived in Japan over two years ago. Our lives tick by here, and my Japanese continues to flail. About once a month I get myself tangled in some sort of situation where I break down in tears. But I swear I am not a babbling idiot in my own language! I want to (but am unable to) shout. I can’t use good manners, I can’t really ask anyone about themselves or their lives, I can’t start conversations, and I often answer questions like this:

  Lady at the gym: “I’m going to the class upstairs. Will I see you at the onsen afterwards?”
  Me: “I like to run.”
  Lady at the gym: “Oh, good for you!”

I find myself on the receiving end of a blank stare, as a store clerk, neighbor, or coworker tries to figure out what I am trying to say.

  My brain: I am looking for soy sauce. Please can you help me find it?
  My mouth: “I found soy sauce! Thank you!”
  Store clerk: [stares]
  Me: [leaves store with no soy sauce]

  My brain: Neighbor, will you please come over for a barbeque?
  My mouth: “I own a grill. Come.”
  Neighbor: [stares]
  Me: [wonders if we need more soy sauce in case they show up for the party]

Some people say that when you are really able to speak a language, you start to dream in that language. Last night I had a very vivid dream. I’ll spare you the boredom of suffering another human’s dream except to say that I was running from a very dangerous man. Not wanting to run into an empty house alone, I ran to my neighbor, who was getting in his car to leave. It went down like this:

  Dream brain: Please can you wait a few minutes? I need your help!
  Dream mouth: I will wait a few minutes. I can help you.
  Dream neighbor: I don’t need help. Goodbye!
  Me: [and now I will be killed by a stranger]

I woke with a start. I dreamed in Japanese!!

  My brain: My horrible Japanese is coming out in my dreams.
  My mouth: My Japanese is a dream come true!

I guess I’ll take what I can get.

Elephant(s) in the Room

I am going to admit something that is very embarrassing for me: this weekend was lonely.

Let me explain: feeling lonely feels like a failure. I’m a pretty outgoing person, who has learned that the best way to make friends is to be the one to say hello first. If I show up at a new place and feel lonely, I am clearly not charming the population the way I hoped. But this lonely feeling wasn’t the feeling of being at home, with no invitation to the proverbial ball. It happened when we were out, exploring and adventuring and surrounded by crowds of people everywhere we went.

Do you remember a time you felt lonely in a busy place? That feeling, maybe, of being a college freshman and going to your first party. In the age before smartphones, you showed up to the party together with a crowd of fellow freshman, giggling-yet-nervous, and stuck to each other like a pile of burrs, each desperate not to be left alone, because being alone was like a social kiss of death. Once at the party, of course, you became separated from this group as you spread out to pour a drink of fire-tasting red juice or water-tasting light beer, or to find the line for the ladies’ room. You clutched that red Solo cup and looked around the room, heart knocking, knowing it was so obvious that you were alone, wondering what to do, who to talk to, where to go to to blend into the wall or furniture. You wanted to look busy so that you didn’t look alone, and maybe you found a poster on the wall next to you. That poster, that life-preserver of a poster, made you feel a little less alone for a moment, because reading it gave you a purpose, instead of just standing there, looking around at all the strangers around you as they talked danced laughed.

Sometimes, being in Japan, I am very lonely in a busy place. We live in a city (around two million people), and so when we leave the house we are rarely alone. Sapporo is full of wonderful parks and activities for kids, so we spend much of our weekends outside exploring these gems. Parks here are beyond the typical playground: some have giant yoga balls for kids to roll up and down hills, pogo sticks, giant slides, bikes to borrow, woodworking shops where kids can use hammers, nails, and wood to build, water play areas, and more. Many homes in Japan are small, and almost no one has a yard. Therefore, everyone needs a good place to get their kids outside on the weekend, and parks are full of families. These families are, almost without exception, Japanese.

Um, obviously, right? I live in Japan. Of course these places are filled with Japanese families. What I have come to learn is that up here in Sapporo, foreigners are pretty rare. There are tourists, to be sure, but most of them can be found in the museums and tourist streets downtown, or at the ski resorts that ring the city. Very few foreigners live in this city, and therefore very few foreign families wind up spending their weekend hours at the parks or playgrounds accessible only to car traffic.

What that means is that we are somewhat of a spectacle. In a land of petite, dark-haired women, I’m 5’11”, with curly blond(ish) hair. When I show up at a restaurant, a park, an onsen (hot spring), or even a Starbucks, with my two blond children in tow, we are the elephant(s) in the room. Children and adults alike turn to look at us, sometimes smiling and nodding our way, sometimes staring open-mouthed. Sometimes they cast furtive glances to check us out. I imagine these people are judging us, noticing all the ways we are breaking the strict social customs of Japan. I imagine that if I strike up a conversation, they will not have the patience to survive my slow and simple Japanese language ability.

Nowadays, thanks to my iPhone, I don’t need to find a poster– I can look busy at any time. Instead of reading and rereading a poster tacked to the wall, I can text a friend, play a move in Words With Friends, or dive into a book on my Kindle. When I feel my heart knocking at the thought of trying to say hello, when I smile at a mom near me and then flush with fear that she will speak to me, I can just dive into my phone to relieve the anxiety. There is a socially acceptable way of hiding in plain sight, and I cling to it like a security blanket.

Yesterday we ventured to the local indoor water park. Pools, giant slides, waterfalls: it was paradise. The three of us, alone together in a sea of strangers, played, chased, swam, splashed and laughed. Until my daughter piped up, “Mommy, I want to make a friend.” She is six, and her Japanese language skills include “hello”, “thank you”, and “pink”. Not exactly the required vocabulary to make herself a new friend. “Please,” she begged me, “Please come help me talk to someone!”

And there I was, standing waist-deep in water, clutching my virtual Solo cup and looking at the strangers around us as they laughed, splashed, and played. How could I tell my daughter that it was impossible? How could I tell her that we should just blend into the background and try to look busy? So, I looked down at her. “Okay. Let’s do it.”

We approached a child who was playing alone. My heart knocked. “Want to play tag?” I asked in Japanese. His eyebrows furrowed. My ears flushed.

“Huh?” he asked.

“Tag,” I repeated, kicking myself for forgetting the Japanese name for the game. My daughter and I mimed tagging someone, running away, and being chased.

“Oh!” he exclaimed in Japanese. “You mean onigokko?” He smiled a big smile. “Yes! You’re it!”

I threw down that Solo cup and we were off, my daughters and I, chasing and splashing and playing in this pool full of strangers, but no longer alone.

red solo cup

Cats and goats make people do dumb things

Japanese Petting Zoo: Japan Loves Cats Part II

Have you ever been to a petting zoo? Petting zoos are awesome, right? You get to go and touch some kind of animal that you normally don’t see on the street. Like a baby pig (awww!!!) or a sheep (soooo cute!) or a goat (wait, why is it’s hair so coarse and ugly?). And probably, every time you go there, some farmer is like, “These idiots want to pay $10 per person to touch this ugly animal?! Bwa ha haaaa!” [Cash register sound] as said farmer deposits the money into the bank.

Well, in Japan people care a lot about gross germs (in that, they are bad) and probably don’t want to touch yucky farm animals the same way American suburbanites do. But as mentioned in Japan Loves Cats: Part I, Japanese people love cats. A lot.


So much they get their own subway handles.


So much that grown people wear clothes like this.


Have you heard of a cat café? At this point, you probably have, since they are becoming popular worldwide. But, let it be known the trend started in Japan. (Well, I mean, by way of Taiwan, where it was invented. But Japan made it a craze.) After hearing all the Japanese cat café hype, I figured we had to come check it out. That was back in August. We happened upon a cat café one day as we were wandering Tokyo and figured, Why not? The answer to that is, “Because this is Japan and you don’t just pop into a cat café on a holiday in the middle of the day.” The wait list (let me repeat, so that sinks in: WAIT LIST. FOR A CAT CAFÉ.) was 30-45 minutes. A 30-45 minute wait list to pay money to play with cats. We bailed.

But this week is fall break, a gaping hole in the normalcy of life during which a desperate parent like myself considers things like “a full day at the new Legoland” or “visit a cat café”. Legoland sounds like a crazy far, crazy expensive, crazy crowded nightmare of a day, so I chose the cat café option.

When I mentioned our plan, my brother and sister-in-law kindly pointed out that if we wanted to pet cats we could simply go to basically any Middle Eastern country and hang out ANYWHERE for about 5 minutes, and have cats swarming us. In fact, we might actually get sick of cats. But that seemed ridiculous so I stuck with my plan of paying money to play with cats.

We started the day by hopping on the train towards Tokyo: me, a friend, and six children under nine. We are American, therefore we are loud. We blended into the Tokyo subway scene like a herd of elephants.

This little adventure was all my idea, and my friend, who was totally game for the fun (fun-slash-idiocy), is also new to the area. Basically this was a blind-leading-the-blind situation. Long story short, after accidentally leaving the subway from the wrong exit (which amounts to directional suicide), I used Google Maps to locate the café. We arrived with no problem and headed inside, despite my inner voice whispering, “This place looks different than the last time.” Once inside, a lovely employee welcomed us and asked our ages. Because I assumed this was to offer the smaller people free admission, I listed them all off: “Four, five, six, six, seven, nine.” “Oh,” she replied, “Sorry. Only 13 and over. But there is a cat café down the street that welcomes children.”

  1. There are two cat cafes one block from each other.
  2. There is a cat café that is ONLY FOR ADULTS.

Being an ignorant foreigner, I assumed all cat cafes were built and purposed for children. Who else would care at all for cats so much they would pay to go visit them?!

Our elephant herd trouped down the street to the next café. Where we were greeted with a sign saying that they would not open until noon due to a special event. That meant we had an hour and a half to kill: two adults and six kinds under nine in the big city.


Why do you have to ruin me, cat people??

Fortunately, this is Japan. So we bought some tomato-flavored stick crackers and took a short walk to visit a super-famous gorgeous shrine that is about a million years old. In Japan, it is very easy to find convenience stores with delicious and unfamiliar snack food products, and also beautiful old shrines in every neighborhood. It’s like being in Portland and finding microbreweries and vegan mini malls.img_2482


I got to carry on with my kimono-stalking.

After a quick visit to the temple, we tromped back to the café and up to the second floor, just in time for opening. Being the first people in the door, we raised the noise level quite a bit. Have you ever traveled with six kids?! Pretty sure six kids raise the noise level wherever they go.

We were read the rules, verbally agreed to follow them (clearly not an American café, where fear of litigation means we need to physically sign everything), and locked our belongings in the lockers provided.

For only 200円($2) per person per TEN MINUTES, you can pet and hang with the slew of cats. Keep in mind, this is $2 per PERSON per 10 minutes. And they docked us time for shoe-removal. AND we were 8 people.

The cats were beautiful. The softest, prettiest, most inbred cats you’ve ever seen. They all seemed so low-key, in fact, that I couldn’t help but feel they were either Stepford Cats or else seriously drugged. One of them looked longingly out the window, plotting his escape, but then slowly hung his head and sprawled out to be petted. We were only too happy to oblige. (It occurs to me that maybe every cat I’ve ever met seemed seriously drugged. Maybe that’s a cat thing.)img_2538


Cat cafe decor.



Please let me out. Do you not see me trapped up here?!

We petted cats and tried to engage them with cat toys (with medium success). And then, at exactly 19 minutes, I hustled everyone out for fear of being charged for another 10-minute block. I’m guessing the children would have stayed all day, or at the very least another 20 minutes (which, as the parent of a kid on fall break, feels like eternity), without complaining.

As we sanitized our hands and walked out the door, I could hear the owner of the cat cafe owners saying to each other, “These idiots want to pay $10 per person to touch cats?! Bwa ha haaaa!” [Cash register sound] as they deposited our money into the bank.

I guess Japan and America are kind of alike, after all.


Nothing says Japanese cat parade like bagpipes

Japan Loves Cats: Part I

Japan loves all things cute. Especially cats. You probably already knew that, even if you never really thought about it. But c’mon, who is the world’s most famous cat?! Hello Kitty, obviously. (At least, it was before the onset of viral video. But I would argue Kitty-chan is still more popular than Grumpy Cat.)

But Hello Kitty is only the tip of the fur-lined iceberg. Cats are believed to bring wealth and fortune, so there are cat statues near temples, tiny cat statues welcoming you to many shops, and Japan even boasts its own Cat Island, which has a human population of 100 and a cat population of somewhere around 600.

There are stray cats roaming the cemetery across the street from our house, and cat cafes abound throughout the country (more on that in Part II, coming soon).

So when my husband asked if we wanted to attend the annual cat parade in Tokyo this weekend, it took me less than a heartbeat to jump on board, despite knowing nothing about the parade. Would it be little leashed cats parading through the streets? Cat parade floats? Or maybe humans dressed as cats? My kids were rooting for option one; their voices reach a pitch above the normal range of audible sound when they see a cat around the neighborhood, and they were hoping they would see some live cats and maybe even get to pet a few. But as for me, I was rooting for option three, because no one can do cos-play and freaky dress up like the Japanese.

The gray skies and semi-constant rain had us wondering if the parade would even happen (we all know how cats feel about getting wet), but we roped in our adventurous friend, made some quick paper cat masks, and hopped on the train up towards Tokyo.

Nothing says Japanese cat parade like bagpipes

Should we follow these guys? Of course we should.

Coming out of the train station, we followed two men dressed in skin-tight cat costumes toward the sound of bagpipes and drums (because nothing says Japanese cat parade like some Scottish bagpipes). A man in a Totoro cat bus mask directed traffic and pedestrians. A man in drag (and cat make-up) strutted around on 6-inch platform wooden sandals. From tiny babies to grandparents, everyone showed up ready to purr, meow, and parade around the town.

Wearing homemade paper masks is not the most comfortable, and limited the girls from seeing what was happening, so they shoved their masks in their pockets, meaning they were basically just regular-old-kids again. But it didn’t stop many photographers from gathering around them to snap some photos of the little gaijin (foreigners).

Because Japanese love cats and costumes. But because they love all things cute, they love adorable little children just as much.

Where did you find that hat?

My daughter does this thing. She’ll be working on some project (usually related to tiny complicated crafty things that I don’t understand) and at some point she’ll have a problem. Probably some tiny crafty thing doesn’t fit precisely right with some other crafty thing and this is clearly just a sign that the world is coming to an end. And she will actually wail in pain and put her head down on her knees and sob and cry out, “I will NEVER be able to do this! NEVER EVER EVER! It’s impossible!” And I sigh try my best to cheer her up, despite thinking this is not actually the end of the world and she needs to just buck up a bit.

This week we moved to Japan. Japan is a very cool country (more about that another time) and it is pretty and safe and the food here is delicious. But, in Japan they speak Japanese. Which is quite different from English. I am incredibly lucky, because before moving to Japan I was able to spend a year studying Japanese with the diplomats at the State Department language school. I spent five hours a day, five days a week, in a class with only a couple other students. (You can read about my first weeks here and here.) At the end of the nine months, I was able to take the intensive, two-hour oral exam, during which I made a speech about public education in the United States and conversed about the pros and cons of the charter school system. My score reflects my ability to speak a very limited amount of Japanese, but I was pretty proud of myself for doing as well as I did, and I landed in Japan ready to take these language skillz live in the real world.

Day One. Due to jet lag, oppressive heat and humidity, and general exhaustion, we started our adventuring small. My husband took us to the local grocery store to grab a few staples. I had been letting him do all the speaking for the family so far, since his Japanese is much better than mine. But as we shopped (in my case, wandered the aisles and stared blankly at the labels on different mystery products) we naturally split up, and when I looked up at some point and saw a very cool Pikachu visor in front of me, perched on a middle-aged man’s head, Robert was not around to translate for me.

In case you don’t know, Japan is the home of PokemonGo. And Pokemon. And Pikachu, the adorable yellow creature that looks sort of like a mouse-cat hybrid. In fact, on this very day there was a Pikachu festival going on down the street, complete with 1,500 different Pikachus. And here was a man (a grown man—did I mention that?) wearing a cardboard Pikachu visor! A cardboard Pikachu visor that made me think, Wow, my kids would love a visor like that grown man is wearing! It might make them forget the heat and the walking and the grocery shopping and the lack of friends. For one brief and shining moment, they might be happy if they had visors like that! I wonder where he got it?

I was so drawn to this man’s visor, and the prospect of my kids’ momentary happiness, that I didn’t pause. Well, to be precise, I paused a little bit. Because as anyone who has lived in a foreign country knows, you always try to think out the sentence before you say it in a foreign language. So I paused momentarily to remember the word for hat and find and how to conjugate it and make it a question. And I walked up to this nice-looking man and said my perfect sentence in Japanese.

And this man looked right at me, surprised. And I thought, This man is surprised by my perfect Japanese! Get ready, Brain, to understand his answer!

And he said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand.”

In perfect English.

The look of utter sadness and disappointment on my face then prompted him to say, “Oh, your Japanese is very good.” (In perfect English.) Which I translated to mean, “I am very polite so I will tell you something nice to avoid the uncomfortable situation we find ourselves in.”

Things have not improved much since Day One. I have navigated train stations, grocery stores, museum shops, and play areas. I try to use my Japanese here and there, with friendly-looking moms, bus drivers, store clerks, and information desk workers. Sometimes I form grammatically perfect sentences, and am met with perfect English. Sometimes I stutter out a half-sentence and then just fade out, hoping they will use their ninja mind-meld powers to read my brain and understand what I need. Yesterday I asked a grocery store clerk if the nondescript bag I was holding was good for making panko chicken. He proceeded to say “panko” over and over while smiling and nodding (which seemed encouraging), but had the furrowed eyebrows of someone who has just heard the words, “I have a contagious disease!” and just wants to back away without seeming rude.

Sometimes I feel a lot like my daughter must feel when she is in the depths of despair. I will NEVER be able to do this! NEVER EVER EVER! It’s impossible! I want to sob and wail, just like she does.

But here’s the thing I didn’t mention. After all that sobbing and wailing and despairing, my daughter always finishes the project. She sniffles, pulls herself together, and gets it done. If I want to follow her example I guess I’ll have to pull it together and just get back out there.

So, to all the Japanese people around the area, see you out there. And thanks in advance for your patience, your politeness, and your perfect English.

MadGab, Japanese style

Today I finished my third full week of Japanese instruction. I now have 62 hours of direct instruction and many hours of study under my belt. I am able to tell someone where I am from, what types of sports (or foods or drinks) I like, and that my husband works at the U.S. Embassy. I can tell you that next year I will move to Yokohama, then to Sapporo. I can tell you that the umbrella (or key or cell phone) right there is not mine.

The past weeks have passed in a blur of words, syllables, confused looks, blank stares, and laughter. Most of each day consists of my classmates and I playing a version of Japanese Mad Gab that is both painful and hilarious. (If you don’t know what Mad Gab is, check it out here.) We are presented with sentences in hiragana and proceed to sound them out, syllable by syllable, slowly. So slowly. “I… lie… lie… kuh… Oh! Like. I… like… pee… sa. Pee… ta? No. Pee… za. Oh! Pizza! I… like… pee…za. I… like… pizza.” Then ten minutes later the same sentence shows up and we repeat the process because we have already forgotten how to read it.

The second week of class we participated in a little mini-exchange. All the Japanese classes were mixed up, and teachers rotated into the different classrooms to practice introductions and basic conversation. I can only imagine this as sheer torture for the instructors, who go from classroom to classroom asking, “What types of foods do you like?” and “Do you like golf?” over and over. At some point, feeling emboldened, I tried to say that my brother also attended the University of Texas in Austin. Because I didn’t know the words for brother, university, or any past tense verb, I think I stuttered out, “Austin’s Texas student is (how do you say brother)?” The teacher’s slack jaw and furrowed brow told me all I needed to know about my ability to create new sentences.

We attended a lecture about Japanese pronunciation that included the definition of a “uvular n”. I can’t get into specifics (because I don’t totally understand them) but think of it like this:

Can you hear the difference between “road” and “load”? Well, a Japanese person can’t. Feeling superior? Don’t. Turns out there are sounds in Japanese that we can’t really hear, either. Or, at least, it is really hard. Hence the need to learn terminology like “uvular n” and other such craziness. And the need for hours of listening practice.

Yesterday we spent two full hours learning how to tell time in Japanese. Yes, they use the same time-telling system as we do. But I now have a whole new appreciation for little people who have to learn to tell time. It is a harrowing journey to learn how to say the words for the hour, the minutes, and a.m./p.m. Let alone expressions like “ten til”. Oh, and you may remember from my last post that some numbers have different names when referring to hours. But not minutes. So, yeah, the two hour time-telling session was not even a drop in the bucket. If you asked me the time right now it would take me a full 30 seconds to give you an answer.

As an end-of-the-day handout our teacher passed us a helpful list of counter words. When I say “counter words” you might be thinking “numbers”, which are words we use for counting. Let me explain to you that counter words are the different terms used to count different objects. For example, different words are used to count people, small animals, long/thin objects, machines, thin/flat objects, or books. When counting minutes, different words are used depending on which number of minute it is (imagine we called them “three minutes, four pinutes, five pinutes, six minutes, etc.). I don’t even know what to think about this.

I have spent the past weeks trying to imagine what our sensee is thinking as we struggle through basic reading and time-telling. As we stutter and misspeak and celebrate tiny successful sentences (spoken 1/10th normal speaking speed) I try to imagine what is going on in her head. I am guessing she drinks heavily at home. Maybe she has a blog that details our complete inadequacy as Japanese students.

Maybe someday, with enough work, I’ll be able to read it.

DC lovin’

Please forgive me while I get a little weepy here. I love DC. Love.

Before you think I’m crazy, I assure you I know that DC is a strange little pocket of our nation. It seems that the only people allowed to live in DC and the closest suburbs are under the age of 29. At least 75% of those people were their high school class president. They wear suits, for goodness sake (which, if you’re coming from Portland, you know is completely strange)! How they pay for the insanely high rents I have no idea, because rent here is no joke and salaries tend to be in price range of “unpaid intern” or “government employee”. Next door to our apartment building is one of the five trendy barre studios within walking distance, which recently posted that their part-time, minimum-wage receptionist job required a headshot with application. Whenever I listen to my local NPR station, I have trouble telling between their reporting on local and national news, which is why I believe this city sometimes forgets there is an entire country out there (of which it is the capitol). Remember Hunger Games? Yes, DC is sort of like District One.

So, yes, DC is nuts. But those of us who tell you things like, “DC is a fetid miserable swamp! I hate it!” are probably only saying that from heat stroke. Now that my brain has shaken off the humidity of the (seriously horrible) summer weather, I am able to sing DC’s praises again.

Almost every time I go for a run I start to cry. It isn’t just the sad state of my fitness level, or the feeling of desperation one can only feel when running through a wall of solid watery air. A four-mile run from my apartment takes me along the Potomac River, with views of the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, before I pass by Arlington National Cemetery and the Marine Corps War Memorial (commonly known as Iwo Jima). I run past people of all shapes and colors, speaking different languages, all doing different kinds of outdoor activities. Yesterday, we took the girls on a short bike ride that passed by the Vietnam War Memorial, the FDR Memorial, the MLK Jr Memorial (where I openly wept while my kids begged for cookies), the WWII Memorial, the African-American History Museum, and a finish at the Washington Monument. Charlotte asked if she could touch it and proceeded to pet the stones for a full minute.We gazed over the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial and I got to explain to her that when MLK gave his I Have a Dream speech, it was right *there*, and that the people filled the grounds to where we were standing. While I choked up over the emotion of history, Charlotte commented on the large number of pigeons on the lawn. Then I pointed out Barack Obama’s actual house and teared up again.

My kids don’t get it, of course. They are interested and curious but they don’t understand the ridiculous awesomeness of this city. DC is a city full of elegant historic monuments, incredible museums that are free and open to all, and most of all a history of important moments. The parks are beautiful (despite the pigeon and goose droppings). There is the chance that at any moment you’ll see the presidential helicopter or motorcade, which is pretty cool even for grown-ups. (I’m not one who gets bent out of shape over a celeb sighting, but every time I hear a helicopter I run to our balcony just in case Obama happens to be flying by.)

Without getting too political here, DC is one of the most spectacular uses of our tax dollars. What other country has a capitol like this? Where else can you visit and see, within a three-mile radius, military, political, and social history, almost entirely for free (except for the cost of novelty t-shirts you may feel compelled to purchase)? The National Zoo (also free!) boasts baby lions (and their parents, which are often heard roaring), baby pandas, and a ropewalk for orangutans which leads them right over the heads of enthralled zoo visitors. Walking around DC, sniffling over the weighty emotion of the graves at Arlington National Cemetery or choking up while reading inspirational quotes by former presidents, I feel like I have been given this amazing gift. And the best part is it is a gift available to anyone. Busloads of tourists from all over the world arrive here to see this place each day. Busloads of American public school students arrive here everyday. And here it is, all at my doorstep each day for a year!

I may not be within the socially approved age-limit of my neighborhood (I may even be more than a decade too old to live here). I am definitely not in the income bracket to afford to live here long-term. But living in DC this year might just turn me into the most patriotic American out there.

We will be here for 11 more months, so please take this chance to come visit us in this great city. We can show you the amazing things this place has to offer. But, if you come, please don’t forget to bring a box of tissues.

Day One: Japanese

Today I actually did Something Official for the first time in six-and-a-half years. I mean, I have done other Things. But for the most part they involved childrearing. Today, I got dressed in clean clothes and brushed my hair and went to my first day of Japanese class at the Foreign Service Institute (or, FSI).

A little background on language study, before I tell you about my day:

FSI is the training facility for the Department of State, where they educate Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) in the finer points of their future jobs. Training for managers, training for brand-new hires, training for consular officers and econ officers and more. But, mostly, training in foreign languages.

The Department of State has realized the importance of having officers who speak and understand the languages of the world. Diplomacy requires good communication, and it is impossible to communicate effectively without a shared language. So, twice each year, FSI welcomes hundreds of language students to begin classes in dozens of world languages including Spanish, French, Mandarin, Russian, Khmer, Hausa, Uzbek, Bulgarian, Tagalog, and Kinyardwanda (to name a few). And, most importantly to me, Japanese.

Now, I’m no Foreign Service Officer. I am what is commonly referred to as an “EFM” (boring acronym for family member who is eligible for Embassy job preference) or “trailing spouse” (semi-derogatory nickname for spouse of an FSO). Both of these designate my second-rate status as a member of this whole FS life. But, I still get some very important perks. And one of the biggest is the chance to receive language training alongside the officers.

Language classes at FSI are intense. While there, it is an officer’s full-time job to study language. Before going to post, each officer needs to pass a high-stakes language test and there is a lot of pressure to pass that test as soon as possible. Classes are small, usually fewer than six students. 100% attendance is required, and there is no slacking if you want to pass your test. In all, language training is a pretty big deal at a pretty great language academy, and it is a pretty amazing chance for me to learn Japanese before heading to Japan.

Japanese, Day One:

So, I’m all excited and nervous. Here I am, headed to what basically amounts to a real job for the first time in 6.5 years. I know Japanese is probably going to be hard, but I keep hearing things like, “It’s easier than Mandarin!” or “If you speak Spanish already you’ll have no problem!” Even my husband told me, “It’s easier than Spanish because you don’t have to conjugate verbs.” At least, that is what I remember him telling me. I have definitely been using selective hearing lately, to calm my nerves about heading around the world to a country where I will stick out like a sore thumb.

Here I am, Day One, thinking that Japanese is going to be good-challenging, like doing an easy hike or staying awake past 9 p.m. Not bad-challenging, like job hunting or paying taxes. I’m thinking about how I will definitely impress my new friends in Japan when I speak their language next year. I can only describe myself with a Japanese word I learned long ago on the Ultimate Frisbee field: genki (which basically translates to cheerful, energetic or happy-spirited).

As you may have guessed, I am an idiot. Day One, the program directors mentioned at least four times that Japanese is the hardest language taught at FSI. That in order to get a basic level of conversational Japanese I will need 48 weeks of full-time study. That there will be tears in my future. (And the guy who predicted tears is not even someone who knows me. Meaning, he is predicting that the average person will cry. Meaning, I am very likely to cry A LOT.)

But, no matter. I’m still ready for this. It is Day One and my spirit has not yet been crushed (too much). I even won some Pocky for reading a half-sentence that was written phonetically in English. I was high on life (and tea-flavored Pocky). That was 8:30 a.m.

By 3:30 p.m., after five hours of direct instruction by a wonderful sensee, the four of us in my class had learned approximately 20 syllables and five short phrases related to introductions. We also know that Japanese has three different alphabets (I use that term loosely, but I can’t even properly identify the actual name for what these “alphabets” are, so I won’t try). Two of the alphabets have dozens of symbols in them, and the third has thousands and thousands of symbols.


And after five hours we know 20 of them. Only. 20.


Writing in websites, books, and newspapers is a combination of all three alphabets mixed together. Spaces are not used between words. But I’m pretty smart, so I am thinking this article is about the G20 summit. I wonder if I could pass my Japanese reading test?

At some point I stupidly opened my mouth to ask a question about the number four. My pointless question prompted our sensee to teach us that the number four is sometimes said shi, but because shi also means “death” (and is therefore considered bad luck) four is sometimes called yon and when a clock is involved it is called yo. (The word shi also means “poem” so I feel like it should cancel out the bad juju of death and we could just stick with one word after all. Or, couldn’t we just stop using shi for four and just stick with one of the others full-time?) The word for the number nine, ku, also means “suffering”, so now lots of people call it kyu. And we also learned one of the kanji symbols today. This is what it looks like: 日 And it means “day” or “Japan” or “sun”. And maybe some other stuff, but since my brain is totally full of the other 20 symbols I learned today, I have no idea.

As you may imagine, this day was profoundly depressing for me. It was fun and interesting and I even learned some things! But they feel like the tiniest tip of the iceberg, and my dreams of easy language acquisition are officially shot. I can no longer imagine learning enough Japanese to someday make Japanese friends, and instead I picture myself in Sapporo alone, crying over delicious, delicious sushi dinners.

And now I seem to have two choices. I can focus on the suffering (ku), or I can channel my energetic spirit.

Genki desuka? Hai! Genki desu!

Moving? Piece of Cake!

Do you have plans to move soon? No sweat! Moving is a piece of cake. By following these easy steps, you too can have the flawless move you’ve been dreaming of!

  1. Don’t be a hoarder.

This would be an easy move. Especially because it is on wheels.

It helps if you actually have NO things, and you are one of those super-minimalist types who lives in a tiny house. But we all know that is crazy, so I will say that having just a few things is okay, too. I mean, I don’t know for sure, because as it turns out we have way. too. much. stuff.

How I know I have too much stuff? I found the following items as I cleaned out my house:

A puzzle with three missing pieces

6 puzzles pieces that did not match the puzzle with missing pieces

Old notebooks filled with to-do lists. Almost no things checked off as completed.

The Nerf bullets to a gun my husband owned as a child. As for the gun, no idea.

At least 17 broken toys collected at birthday parties in party favor bags.

Two random, unimportant notes from a former (three years former) teacher. (Yeah, I carried those on two moves.)

A bunch o’ Pilates DVDs that haven’t been used in four years. (Oh, I’m keeping those. Remember what I said: a few things are okay. As long as they are super-important.)

  1. Move all your things to just one place.

If you are in the Foreign Service you know this is probably impossible. Today, our things are being divided into five piles: Suitcases, DC, Storage, Yokohama, and Tokyo. If you have not followed my first piece of advice then it will be highly stressful to have to divide your things, knowing you will not see most of them for more than a year, and lots of them someday far in the future when you have to PCS to DC (at which time you will wish you had followed #1). If your things are going to more than one place, please read step three.

  1. Buy stock in 3M and/or Ziploc.

If you want to make actual moving day go very smoothly, you will want to do some prep work. You will need to spend at least $3,000 on 3M sticky notes and Ziploc giant plastic bags thingys. Do not try to be thrifty and buy the Dollar Store kind, trust me on this. A big wind will kick up just as you’ve finished labeling the final box and you will have to re-label all the boxes, or at least just play Label Bingo and randomly stick them on boxes. Put like things together in those big ol’ bags, then label them saying where they should go. (Try not to do what I did, which was to find a random objects at the last minute and shove them in the nearest bag. This will not help you later when you unpack.)

Note: I promised that your move would be easy if you followed my instructions. This part might not have sounded “easy”, but if you follow my advice and buy that stock ahead of time, you will soon make a fat profit when the stock soars during PCS season. You will be able to use your profits to take a vacation. Which sounds pretty good after packout. (Note to the note: if you tell your friends to use 3M and Ziploc, that will also help you out with your stock profits.)

I am not being paid by 3M or Ziploc. But if they want to pay me I’m down with that.

  1. Don’t create garbage during any of the days the movers are in your home.

We have all heard the horror story of the movers who pack the garbage can with the kitchen garbage still in it and the nastiness of unpacking such a situation. Use this week as an experiment in a zero-waste lifestyle. According to the Clean Bin Project, you can still enjoy life by drinking Zero Waste Beer. As a corollary to #4, drink your zero-waste beer during packout. You will feel much less stressed. As a corollary to that corollary, if you drink regular wasteful beer, you can expect to see your empty beer bottles on the other side, so be careful.

And finally,

  1. Stop caring.

If you are attached to your lovely items, please do not move. They might get broken. We have had amazing movers for most of our moves. But still, you will find a broken frame, or cream pitcher, or TV. You will read the movers’ inventory and it will say (in English, mind you) “Things from Room” and you will sigh heavily (and have a gulp of that Zero Waste Beer). You may receive couch cushions (but no couch) or a couch (but no cushions). If you really, really care about all of your stuff, try to figure out how to let it go. Then you can go back to #1 and try for an easier time for the next move.

Which, if you live a life like ours, is just around the corner.



They didn’t have a knife. But ten bucks says they could have hooked me up.

**As an aside, we have had one bad move, which was an un-pack in DC. No joke: the company was called Purple Haze Moving and they showed up an asked me for a knife to open the box. I said, “It’s in that box that you can’t open.” He looked at me, blinking, until I went and found a knife at my neighbor’s house. He used the time I was gone to partake in a little more.

All the Bad Words

I have all the bad words for you.

You know who you are. You of the Porsche Cayenne, who EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. cuts in front of the line of cars waiting to enter and pick up their kids. You of the shiny Volvo sedan, who almost hit three preschoolers today in your rush to get off campus first. You, who, when directed by the traffic police at school to wait, swerves around, narrowly missing the póli in order to save 15-18 seconds.

I am just TIRED of you.

I am tired of the entitlement, the lack of rule-following, the belief that you do not have to be a part of the system.

I have all the bad words for you.

I won’t say them out loud, because my kid is in the backseat of my car. (Well, also because I don’t know all the bad words in Spanish, only some of them.) I almost don’t even want to write this, because it is letting you get to me while you clearly do not give a thought to anyone else.

But after spending two years watching you, I am finally done. I am very sad to leave this beautiful country. But I am not sad to leave you. I will be happy to head to Oregon, a land of law-abiding citizens. A place where people stop for pedestrians and even for ukulele-playing unicyclists (who are almost asking to be hit. Seriously.). Where the smug a**holes are driving Nissan Leafs (Leaves?) or doing their house-to-house move only by bicycle-pulled carts.

So adios to you. Thank you for making this difficult month a little easier to bear. And if you ever come visit Oregon, I promise to let you into my lane (as long as you are in a two-person smart car).