Morning Missiles & Business as Usual

I had been in the throes of an early morning dream when a strange jingle erupted from my phone, which had somehow wound up under my pillow. Groggy and bleary-eyed in a state of half-sleep, I picked up my phone to turn off what I thought must have been an alarm I accidentally set. Just as I was hitting the home button, the words “Emergency Alert” registered.

It took a moment for them to actually punch through my brain-fog, by which time I had already cleared the alert from my screen without actually reading it. Despite owning multiple devices, I am somewhat technologically challenged and didn’t realize I could pull up the notification again with just a swipe of my thumb. Normally I would be embarrassed by that, but I just blame it on my momentary panic.  I texted a friend, who I knew would have seen it, to get the low down.

Our not-so-friendly neighbor, North Korea, had launched a missile towards Japan. I don’t own a TV, but a screenshot sent by my friend confirmed that our prefecture was in the predicted “Target Zone”.

Amidst a storm of facebook messages among the other foreign teachers in my city, the adrenaline was going strong. I got out of bed and thought to myself, “Well, if it’s gonna strike here, there’s not much I can do. But I guess first-things-first, I should probably put some clothes on?”

So as I’m skirting around the apartment trying to remember what constitutes proper clothing, I was making a mental checklist of all the things I should throw into a bag in case I needed to evacuate. Where would I evacuate to, anyway? The closest “evacuation spot” is the school, which is across the street, but are there underground shelters for these events? Somewhere in there I sent a message to my friend and former coworker, who is Japanese, on the hope that she would have some wisdom to bestow upon me in this situation. She called me back, and while it turned out she was equally as concerned and confused, it was calming to talk to another person in that moment.

Then another alert came in, stating that the missile had passed over Japan. As quickly as the threat had materialized, it faded. I just kind of stood in my apartment for a minute processing the information. Then, thoroughly awake, I got ready for work and then sad on my couch for a while because it was an hour earlier than usual.

Of course, none of this is incredibly surprising. NK has been testing missiles and talking sh*t for a long time. Long before I came to Japan, heck, before I was even alive! For all the hot air the NK government blows around, I doubt it’s in  their best interests to go attacking anyone. But that doesn’t change the fact that “Hey, a missile has been launched at you, please seek shelter” are quite startling words to read first thing in the morning. On the bright side, I didn’t need to brew any coffee.

Despite the interesting start, the day has continued as usual. I taught some classes, ate curry for lunch, and am about to join the kids for souji. I’ll go grocery shopping after school, and might even get my lazy butt to the gym. In a nearby distant land, someone may be throwing a tantrum and making threats. Here, life goes on. Though I think I’ll finally put that emergency go-bag together as soon as I get home…just in case.

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Remodeling

The school where I teach every day is 70 years old, and it shows. The outside is looking worse for wear, the aged facade blotched with grime. The concrete walls are marbled by cracks resealed, reminders of large earthquakes in years past. Dust rolls like tumbleweeds through the halls, even after daily cleaning time. The place is so drafty that you might as well hold class outside, it wouldn’t make much difference.

The upside is that the classrooms and halls are full of natural light and a killer view of the mountains. I think back to the serious lack of windows and nasty fluorescent lights in my middle and high schools back in the States…I’d rather freeze/sweat to death in the sunlight than experience that again.

For the past two weeks, we’ve been enduring the constant interruption of drilling, hammering, and noisy workers meandering up and down the halls during class. After 60 years, our school is finally getting it’s first upgrade. The bathrooms are being remodeled.

Being the old school that it is, we of course have been stuck with the good old squatty-potties thus far. Although I have grown accustomed to them over the years, they are no more pleasant an experience, only a practice in tolerance.

But when I arrived at school this morning, among the pile of papers on my desk was an outline of what the new bathrooms will look like, and within that outline I saw it; the smooth lid, the fancy control panel on the side…one of Japan’s greatest modern technological gifts to the world, the washlette. Three settings for bum-washing and water temperature, heated seats, self-cleaning systems…all those bells and whistles are great, but simply having somewhere to park your bum is the greatest gift of all.

I have never been so excited about taking a dump my life.

 

 

 

Graduation Day

The 3rd year students graduated on Monday. The ceremony was three hours of continuous sitting, standing, and bowing. There were long speeches by some supposedly important people whom I have never seen before in my life, and one very emotional speech by one of my favorite graduates. I shed quite a few tears, especially when the 1st/2nd years and the 3rd years sang a goodbye song to each other. And then again as all of us teachers lined up on either side of the aisle to applaud as the students made their final exit from the gym.

Afterwards, the graduates have one last homeroom session, during which I retreated to the warmth of the teacher’s room to enjoy a cup of celebratory sakura tea. The cherry blossoms are preserved in salt, so it tastes less like what you imagine of “tea” and more like…well, salty flowers. But it wasn’t bad at all. The flavor is actually quite comforting, especially when you’re all broken up about your favorite students leaving you for the great wide world of high school.

As if I wasn’t already emotional enough, we all filed outside to applaud the graduates as they made their way from the school into the parking lot, where about an hour of mingling and photo-taking ensued. I lost count of how many selfies with various bunny, bear, and cat filters were taken that day.

Finally, I hugged the crap out of my self-dubbed “Crazy People”, wished them luck, and said my last goodbyes. Exhausted and emotional, I returned once again to the teacher’s room to eat my special graduation day bento, which wasn’t that great (it was cold), but it was nice to have something different from the daily kyushoku.

Mercifully, I was released after lunch and promptly returned home, where I collapsed on my sofa with a glass of wine and flipped through the yearbook before reuniting with my old friend, Netflix.

This was the second class that I’ve sent off from this school, but the first with whom I had developed a close bond. They were so much fun to teach, and always tried their best. It was quite fulfilling to see them learn and grow, and become comfortable enough to speak with me both in class and casually around school regardless of their English level. I will miss their smiles and shouts of “Happy Friday” echoing through these halls. I’ll always look back on the year(s) I’ve spent with them fondly, and hope that they can do the same.

A few Haiku

I was bored so I wrote some haiku. I find it’s a good way to pass time. Also somewhat meditative in that the challenge of achieving the right amount of syllables takes your mind off things. It’s been years since I’ve written any poetry. Here’s my mediocre attempt…

the school day is done

but it is only Monday

how will I survive?

 

I’m sick of cooking

I hate cleaning the kitchen

I just want to eat

 

winds like icy shards

surrounded by three mountains

there is no escape

 

the weather slowly

begins to warm into spring

but still the wind stings

The Silver Birthday

I recently became a quarter-centurion, and my feelings about that fact are a little conflicted. I’m one of the youngest teachers at my school, as well as among both my Japanese and foreign social circles. I can’t exactly go around lamenting to any of them that I’m beginning to feel the weight of my years! 25 is still young, I know. But it’s not quite as young as I once was.

25
Image by Kurayba on Flickr

When I was 20, I felt young. I was in my second year of college and the world was my oyster. My only real concerns were soaking up as much knowledge as I could during those 4 years of higher education and trying to not eat too much cake while coping with the stress of that academic pressure.

5 years, graduation, a year working part-time jobs to scrape by, and a move across the planet have changed my perception of my age. The years used to seem long and slow. I remember my parents telling me that time passes more quickly the older you get, and I also remember thinking “Pffft! Yeah, right. How long until I can get my driver’s license again?” Now I find myself entering a stage where time slips through my fingers like fine grains of sand. I blink and a year’s gone by. Not to diminish anything that’s happened within that year, because the funny catch is that I can still remember everything, good and bad, and feel the effects of each experience just as clearly as before. But the once mysterious and elusive *future* isn’t so far off any longer. Instead it’s right around the corner.

I find this particularly unsettling because of my current situation – working a job designed to be temporary, a stepping stone into a career, and living in a country that can make it quite hard for a foreign person to settle in with any sort of permanence beyond a few years. To stay in Japan long-term would mean a lot of life changes and sacrifices. For starters, I would have to invest more time, energy, and potentially more money into studying the language. While I can live my life here efficiently and (most of the time) happily, I currently don’t possess the communicative ability to sustain the rest of my life here.

I know I can’t be in this position (assistant language teacher) for my whole life, or even much longer than a few more years. I am chomping at the bit to have more to do, more challenges, more responsibilities, more autonomy. Regardless of whether I stay or go, or which direction I choose to take my career, I need further education and training. My route into the field of teaching has been an unconventional one, thus I have some catching up to do if I want to climb the ladder. To stay in Japan would mean obtaining that education in Japanese. Right now that would be impossible, as I am not even fully literate (damn kanji…).

While career is definitely my current driving force, the future of my personal life is also important. I miss my family in the States, and I don’t want to be so far from them forever. One day I’d like to have a family of my own, and recently the pressures to get moving on that endeavor (both internal and external) have started to pick up. Single and working hard with no “settling down” in sight is fine at 25. But will I still be fine with it at 30? Maybe. But after years of not putting any weight behind that aspect of my life, I can’t help but wonder if maybe I should at least put in a little effort. That train of thought inevitably brings me crashing right back into the fact that, oh yeah, I’m in Japan. Most people in my dating pool are also busy working, and not English speakers. And it doesn’t help much that all I want to do when I’m not at school is vegetate on my couch with Netflix, coffee, and chocolate. I need to work on getting my ass back to the gym on a regular basis before I can dedicate any energy to a romantic life (I find the process of modern dating cringe-worthy).

Returning to the States introduces a whole other blend of challenges; finding a new job, readjusting to American school and work culture, getting a Master’s degree, dealing with missing Japan and the life and relationships I’ve built here. These all may be inevitable, but no less daunting to consider. I worked long and hard to get to Japan, and the thought of moving on and letting it go is not something I’m ready to tackle quite yet.

All this going on about getting older, and at the end of the day I still feel very young. Sure, I pay off my bills and student loans every month, I can cook myself dinner, navigate foreign lands with confidence, wrangle classrooms of rowdy adolescents…and still there is some part of me that feels very much like a kid myself. The inner child is still going strong despite all the pressures of adulthood. For every dollar adult-me tucks away in my student loan and dental care funds, child-me squirrels away something for that new camera or that dream vacation to New Zealand. For every hour I lay awake at night worrying about the future, there is an hours’ worth of silly conversations with my students or crazy karaoke with coworkers and friends.

Amid all the confusion, doubt, and insecurity, I enter into my 25th year of life with hope and positivity. If there is one thing I have learned in the last quarter-century, it’s that even the best of plans can be dashed to bits in an instant – but going forth with a level head and a strong heart, things generally tend to turn out alright. Young though I may be, I’ve weathered some storms in my time. And dark as the sky may seem, most clouds are pretty good about having silver linings.

Here’s to my silver birthday! 25 years and counting. 😉

 

 

 

Morning Greetings, Pt.2

(On February 6th)

Me: Hello, everyone!

Class: Hello, Ms. Rachel!

Me: How are you today?

Class: I’m *insert variation of “fine, cold, happy, hungry, sleep, angry, etc.”, and you?*

Me: What’s the date today?

Rogue student: It’s February….SEX!!!

Class: *uproarious laughter*

Me:

…..

….

Ha o Hipparu

My translation/conjugation of the title may be not be entirely correct, but it’s all I know how to say regarding this subject. Ha (歯) is “tooth”, Hipparu (引っ張る) is “to pull”.

The sad saga of my bottom-right-first-molar, Borifimo (say it in your head with a bad Italian accent, like Bellissimo!, but not), began approximately 10 years ago. I was 15 and just had my braces taken off. Poor Borifimo had been imprisoned by that horrible metal band that supports the rest of your braces, which had apparently hidden a cavity for however many years those braces were on.

I had to have a root canal. As a 15 year old I had no idea what a root canal even was. But I endured the pain, got Borifimo fitted with a fancy porcelain crown, and went about my merry teenage life.

10 years, a high-school graduation, college graduation, and a move across the planet later, it was September of 2016 and I was in excruciating pain. The kind where you can’t sleep for 3 nights, and finally end up using a bag of frozen green beans as a pillow because that’s the only thing that helps. I fantasized about ripping Borifimo out myself with a pair of Daiso pliers.

The Japanese dentist I went to told me I’d probably have to get Borifimo taken out, but gave me some antibiotics to calm him down in the meantime while I made a decision. Borifimo shut up for the remainder of the year.

Alas, the pain went away but the problem did not. During my winter vacation in America, my family dentist determined that Borifimo had to be done away with, or I’d likely wind up in a hospital when the infection flared up again. So I bit the bullet and said Sayonara to Borifimo, and returned to Japan in the new year with a gaping hole in my mouth.

Truthfully the space once occupied by dearly departed Borifimo isn’t visible to anyone unless I purposely show it off. But feeling the emptiness and simply just knowing it’s there is distressing. Not to mention trying to take care of it during the healing process, which involves maintaining a mostly soft-foods diet.  Last week’s kyuushoku was more or less inedible…rice, no. Salad with sesame seeds, no. Soup with little pieces of egg that kept finding their way into the hole in my jaw, no. Each day gets little easier, but it’s a largely unpleasant experience.

Possibly the only thing worse than having the tooth extracted is the process of getting it replaced. Not only is it expensive, but it’s quite an involved procedure that could include bone-grafting, little titanium screws that have to fuse with the jaw, and many many months of waiting and healing. Oh, and it’s also time-sensitive, because Borifimo’s neighboring teeth might not be so keen on waiting for a replacement, and might start moving around in there to compensate for their missing comrade.

Image result for missing teeth

Now that the wound is healing nicely, the discomfort has lessened. However, the cultural difference in tooth care and appearance has become ever more apparent to me in the past few weeks. Western standards for what is considered a “nice smile”, at the most basic level, means 1) your teeth are reasonably white and 2)reasonably straight and 3)you have ALL YOUR TEETH. The most obvious problem with my lack thereof is difficulty eating (I really love food, and being restricted from it is probably more painful than actually getting the tooth pulled out). But when presented with the costs of having the tooth replaced, I find my cultural upbringing to play a more prominent role in my decisions than I expected. If I didn’t need Borifimo replaced, I still would replace him. The thought of having a hole there for any longer than the necessary healing time is not only unacceptable, but quite repulsive to me.

On the odd occasion that I have a dream, it usually involves some or all of my teeth crumbling out of my head. Most dream analysis would suggest that this represents a feeling of helplessness or lack of control in life…which, while often accurate in regards to me, is  less believable than the fact that after 10 years of putting up with Borifimo’s drama, the cursed cuspid continues to haunt me in my sleep from beyond the tooth grave.