A New Day

Dear Everybody,

I am not sure if anyone checks my blog anymore. I certainly would not blame anyone for not checking this blog recently, given that it has been more than a year since my last post. I got pretty frustrated with my blog–I wasn’t sure how to proceed with the content; I became overwhelmed trying to think of daily content, and frustrated with my lack of Japanese skills. Further, worse, I have been deeply struggling with my faith as well.

But much has happened since my last post. Over the last year I have applied to a job in Japan, interviewed for the job, took the JLPT N3 (I suspect I failed the exam, but it was a great experience), and… I was accepted for the job.

I will be returning to Japan in just a few short months. I will be in Japan again in March of 2015, working for a university in the Chiba area.

Really, in many ways this is a dream job. I am excited, yet confused, because my heart is full of many conflicting emotions. My faith, too, is still… knotted and twisted and uncertain. However, this job is a real answer to prayer.

I hope, wherever I am, I can serve God well. I hope I can serve Him in Japan in the coming year. Please pray for me. And, Happy New Year! May your year be to His glory.

ND

This year I jumped out of an airplane for the first time. Later this year I will be jumping into a new job. I hope I can do my best!

This year I jumped out of an airplane for the first time. Later this year I will be jumping into a new job. I hope I can do my best!

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Japan Memoir Chapter Four, Part Two

(Some names have been changed.)

That Sunday the Tanabatas came and picked us up in their white car, a carriage which would quickly become very familiar. We sat in the back with Kanako who, though quiet, didn’t seem too perturbed to have to share the back seat with two tall Americans who happened to be her teachers. We headed to church, and Heidi talked with the Tanabatas in her cheerful, loving way. Somehow she could talk to them in English and they could understand, but whenever I tried to say anything, it took but a few moments before they would turn to Heidi, who would translate by rephrasing what I had just said, at which point Tanabata-san would nod, understanding perfectly. I looked on, bewildered as to what I was doing wrong.

I was very nervous entering the Shin-Shimonoseki church, where we doffed our shoes in the genkan and pushed our socked feet into slippers—the proper inside footwear. The church slippers, though, are designed to fit Japanese feet, which they do quite well. I, however, do not possess Japanese feet. Thus, I wedged my elephantine American perambulators into the minuscule footwear, my heels sticking off the backs, and trod uncomfortably into the sanctuary, the slippers shifting about underneath my weight.

The church was small, the outside resembling a quaint country church, and the inside housing some twenty church members. People smiled at me, but few approached, although the pastor, a man named Kawaguchi, introduced himself as I limped about on the slippers, and I was handed a translation of his sermon rendered in English, for which I thanked him before sitting down.

I didn’t get to sit with Heidi; she played the piano, while Mrs. Tanabata and Kanako sang along to help lead worship. I sat alone, trying to follow the songs, which were mostly familiar but sung in Japanese. I had been told I could sing in English, and encouraged to belt out the music however I felt comfortable. Yet to sing in English seemed inharmonious with the Japanese words, as if I was singing an entirely different song while the congregation trilled away in their native tongue. I didn’t know the Japanese lyrics, but they were projected on a screen, and most were written in hiragana, which I had already studied, so I could sort of read it. I followed along as best I could, stumbling over the syllables, pausing frequently as I tried to decipher the next character. It wasn’t very worshipful, never mind reverential, but I wanted badly to praise in Japanese, not just because everyone else was doing it like some sort of international peer pressure system, but because I loved the sound of the language itself. Trying to concentrate on the words, I quickly found myself exhausted from straining to understand.

After a lull in the music, suddenly the announcer, the pastor’s wife, looked at me and said something, to which I likely gave an expression akin to a fifth grader when confronted with an equation in quantum physics. Heidi quickly explained that they were asking me to read the Bible verse that the pastor would be speaking on, flipping pages quickly through her Bible to assist me. The worship leader lady looked at me with kind expectation. Finally I found the words, and my tongue, and I read, self-consciously, slowly, but I’ve no idea now what verse it was. I wonder if I knew at the time.

The English-translated sermon didn’t prove to be much easier to understand than the music. It was machine-translated, meaning that Pastor Kawaguchi had written the sermon in Japanese, and then someone had run it through a computer program to translate it into English, which resulted in the occasional halfway coherent sentence amidst a marsh of garbled language. With my brain already mostly composed of rice gruel, many of the jumbled English sentences were quite near impenetrable, although I had to admit, all that mental processing necessary in deciphering what the pastor was saying certainly made me look at those old familiar texts in a slightly different light.

As Heidi had warned me in advance, after the church service concluded, there was the time of announcements—which included an announcement of me, introducing me to the congregation. I heard the worship leader say my name with her thick Japanese accent—“Neekorasu Dorisukoru”—and then I had to stand for the congregation’s appraisal and say a few words, wave, bow, and so on. I must have spoken a little Japanese, to which they reacted with pleased surprise—a response I would quickly discover was common, no matter how poor my Japanese might be. I didn’t say much, but after I was done those assembled broke out in applause. I sat down, blushing.

Then it was back into the social maelstrom. People wanted to talk with me, but no matter how slowly or how carefully I spoke, they didn’t understand. Rather, the usual response was for them to look at me with head slightly cocked to one side and a little grin on their faces, maybe pretending to understand but obviously failing to comprehend much. Then Heidi might come over, and they could understand her perfectly, even though she would usually talk in speedier English than I would. I didn’t get what the problem was. I didn’t know how to choose the particular English words that they could understand, or what particular grammatical structures they would be most familiar with. Nor did I understand the way to speak with precise pronunciation and confidence that would facilitate conversation, nor had I deduced the big part that familiarity and friendship can play in communication. I left church that day in a swirl of frustration, reprimanding myself for my failures, wishing that I knew how to do something right.

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Japan Memoir, Chapter Four, Part Two

(Some names have been changed)

On January 9, 2005, I got up to get ready to go to church with Heidi. It wasn’t the church I was used to—the E-Free denomination hadn’t made any impact in Shimonoseki. We didn’t eat breakfast together. But still, the tradition was back as much as it ever could be, and we were both thrilled at the uncommon blessings that the Lord bestowed on us, brother and sister in Christ.

That morning, round about 9:45 am, we stood outside the apartment, near a plumb tree, barren of leaves in the winter, and we waited for our ride. Our church, or rather, at this point, Heidi’s—the one she had chosen to attend after arriving in Japan some six months prior—was popularly referred to as “Shin-Shimonoseki Church,” although that wasn’t it’s official name. The church was not within easy walking distance, located near Shin-Shimonoseki Station, from which the church took its name, and although we could take the train easily enough, some of Heidi’s friends, the Tanabatas, insisted on driving us.

I had met the Tanabatas briefly the previous day, at their house, a cozy little building tucked tightly between their neighbors on the top of a steep, narrow incline road through which their vehicle could barely fit. Parking in the even narrower driveway, which the Tanabatas always did, like most Japanese, by backing up, became an awe-inspiring event for a lousy driver like me. Sitting in the back seat and watching the gate creep up inches away from the rear bumper, it appeared a certainty that we would soon be one rearview mirror, and several inches of paint, lighter. Somehow, though, he made it. Inside the house, I had joined his family for tea and conversation. I hadn’t developed a taste for that popular hot beverage yet, so when they started listing off the flavors of tea, I chose chocolate. I was surprised to discover that chocolate flavoring mixed with tea adds up to a taste resembling earwax, but I politely gulped it down. Though I didn’t appreciate the tea, I did treasure their company, which was warm and kind (instead of hot and bitter) even on that first meeting, even though we could barely talk to one another. Mr. Tanabata, who we usually called “Tanabata-san,” was probably the most talkative, in hesitant, soft English, which he handled with a careful tongue. His wife, Chieko, knew very little English, but was incredibly patient and radiated caring. Their daughter, Kanako, a bespectacled young lady finishing up her first year in high school at Hikari, was one of our students and, being an English major, probably knew the most English, but she wasn’t talking much to me yet. I wasn’t talking much, either. Though I tried to speak slowly, most of the time the Tanabatas couldn’t understand me, and my Japanese was still so terrible that I couldn’t get much beyond “what is your name?” (“Namae wa nan desu ka?”)

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Japan Memoir, Chapter Four, Part One

In college, Heidi and I had a Sunday morning routine. We had been good friends for a long time, beginning on our very first day of class at Northwestern. We met in a class called Introduction to Biblical Studies, usually referred to as “Intro to Bib Studs” in college vernacular, which can cause a disturbing mental picture of popular male babies or biker-style baby clothes. She sat next to me and was the one to greet me first with an outstretched arm and her trademark smile; thus our friendship began in religion, so to speak, and in that mode it would continue. Every Sunday morning we would meet for breakfast at the cafeteria—the only morning in which I attended that meal with assiduous consistency—and there we would find some food, a table, and some time to talk about life. Usually we were surrounded by Heidi’s friends and acquaintances; somehow she always seemed to know everybody, and if she didn’t know them at first, she quickly rectified the matter with her friendly manner and sincere interest in who they were.

Together Heidi and I would walk to church—an Evangelical Free church called “New Hope,” which always reminded me of Star Wars—where she embraced the people and they embraced her. During that time, I didn’t trust God much. I had a lot of spiritual and emotional wounds that had sliced me deep, and I wasn’t ready to let them heal. Heidi possessed a vibrant faith, which was probably one of the reasons I enjoyed spending time with her. My own faith was darker, burned, scarred, huddling in a corner, compacted with anger and confusion; I could not give up on faith, I read my Bible and went to church, sang the songs, went to the required Northwestern chapel services two or three times a week, tried to avoid sin as I understood it—but I could never shake the feeling of brokenness and hurt. While Heidi became more and more involved with New Hope, piling church activities onto her already overstuffed schedule, I was more hesitant, attending church and Sunday school as well as some other activities, but keeping my distance, learning people’s names and some small pieces of biographical data but not much else. Certainly I never forged any strong friendships there, like she did.

Much like many things in school, it seemed like those church appointments would be a staple of my week forever. When they ended with our graduation, it was something I really missed, a Sunday tradition whose absence I occasionally felt in a wistful emptiness on Sunday mornings. But cherished traditions must pass, as many of them did with the end of my undergraduate days, and I never expected this one to be resurrected again—at least not for any extended period of time.

Certainly not in Japan. How could that ever happen?

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A good list of reasons why Japan needs more missionaries

I thought this was a powerful description of the need for Christ in Japan

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Japan Memoir, Chapter Three, Part Five

I insisted we visit the toy store before we left SunLive. Not because I collect any toys—I don’t—but I still enjoy looking them over, and I wanted to see what toys were popular in Japan. More specifically, I wanted to look for any Godzilla toys that might be available. I knew my friend Sam back home, a massive Godzilla fan, would be quite envious. The toy store, on the second floor, was not very big, but it had a fair selection of action figures, games, and puzzles, as well as stationary supplies for kids heading off to school. I found the Bandai brand vinyl monster figures very quickly—they weren’t boxed, but rather had little cardboard cards attached to them by a plastic hook from which they dangled. A child could then handle the monsters in the store, see how they moved, and decide if they wanted to nag their parents for a purchase. Most of the monsters in the store were from the Ultraman and Masked Rider television shows, but there were a few Godzilla toys which I picked up and turned over in my eager paws, beaming and grinning, before placing them carefully back.

On the way back to the apartments, I soon found that the steep inclines of Shimonoseki were even tougher on my calves (and arms) when carrying large amounts of food and goods.

Later that day I would meet Peter, the other foreign teacher I would be working with—and by foreign, of course I meant American in this case. We were the foreigners now—or, as the Japanese would say if they were being polite, the gaikokujin. If somewhat less polite, then gaijin. Peter and Heidi would both be shaping my Japanese experience more than anyone else, except God. They would be my teachers, who would be explaining all the bewildering things that I didn’t understand and which they didn’t understand either. Of more import and impact, however, they shared my faith in Jesus Christ. Heidi was my sister, Peter was my brother. And, as is often the case with siblings, they intimidated me.

I had heard a lot about this Peter character before arriving in Japan. Again and again Heidi had written and spoken of his intelligence, the seemingly endless reserves of knowledge he possessed, or at least his capacity for expounding upon that knowledge and his ideas. Heidi sometimes intimidated me herself; as a student who graduated from Northwestern summa cum laude the same year as I and garnered the highest scholastic achievement available to the student population, as well as with her exuberant, vigorous faith, she projected a sheen of perfection, almost of superiority, which she combated by a humble admission of her faults and an undying generosity and kindness—which made her all the more intimidating to someone like me, ashamed of my penetrating doubts and weaknesses. But that she would be intimidated by Peter, that she would say that Peter could do many of the things she excelled at, but better—that was kind of frightening.

I met Peter over a meal at a place called Mos Burger—my second restaurant meal in Japan, and it’s hard to get much more Americanized than a burger and fries. Together with Heidi, Peter explained much about the job, except that he expounded in paragraphs, almost as if he was reciting from a textbook. He was big, loud, jovial, enthusiastic, and kind, and I smiled a lot and listened even more as my anxiety climbed higher.

In this job, they explained, we were responsible for the lesson plans for all the classes we taught except for first year junior high students, though I would be given no actual training, and the Japanese teachers would give us little assistance in producing said plans. There were textbooks we worked out of, of course, but because the students in our classes were almost without exception of wildly varying skill levels, it was nigh impossible to stick to the books too closely. We would be sharing duties teaching the six combined grades of junior high and high school, which added up to about 17 classes a week. The students were usually quiet, but we had no effective means of disciplining them if they caused trouble. Usually the lesson plans we made would be completed, oh, five minutes before class. But it would all work out, no worries, they said. And Peter would laugh. And I couldn’t believe what sort of a job I had just jumped into.

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Japan Memoir Chapter Three Part Four

Predictably, the seafood section was massive, with many fish on display, from pre-cooked to pre-sliced to the whole critter packaged and fresh and ready for purchase, slick dead eyes gazing through the plastic. Tiny dried fish could also be bought by the bag-full for some crunchy, salty snacking. Along with the hundreds of fish of sundry sizes, there were also shrimp, crabs, squids, and enormous suckered octopus tentacles. I couldn’t help but stare at the severed crimson cephalopod limbs, my eyes wide, poking at the suckers through the plastic with my finger as Heidi looked on, grinning fit to swallow her ears.

            Bread also had its own section, on a stand along with jam, jelly, “peanut whip” (peanut butter was harder to find, and expensive), Nutella, almond butter, and more. The bread itself came in loaves of maybe four to six slices, but each piece of bread was huge, like Texas toast. Wheat bread wasn’t available; most of the bread was white, although there was also rye, and bread with pecans. Rolls, donuts, sandwiches, and other bread snacks were also displayed along with the loaves, along with all the stuff I didn’t recognize, and a bargain bin of slightly older breads and foodstuffs was nearby.

            Heidi made a special point to help me with laundry detergent that day. Soaps were especially confusing because it was difficult to tell which were used for what purposes just from the pictures—one might end up with bleach while trying to purchase normal detergent, for example. Heidi had it figured out, though, and indicated the light blue bottle of clothing detergent she regularly used and, trusting her as knowledgeable in the matter (not being able to discern the matter at all for myself), I added the bottle to my basket.

            Purchasing wasn’t too difficult. The lady at the counter would ask if I had a SunLive card, I would shake my head and say iie, (which means “no”) and then she would proceed to transfer the goods in my gray basket to another gray basket, saying the price of each purchase aloud as she rang it up. Soap, meat, and fish would rate a separate plastic bag; after scanning them in, she would slip them into their own, smaller sacks before arranging them in the basket. I didn’t even need to understand the final price, which she announced aloud, because it was also on a digital readout, and anyway, it’s not like I could make exact change with only two 10,000 yen bills on my person. I handed her one of them, she gave me my change and provided me with the number of plastic grocery bags she figured would be necessary for the purchases I had just made, and I went to the nearby counters and finished bagging my purchases myself.

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