Monday, February 27, 2006


I've been thinking about Octavia Butler all day today, since I woke up this morning and read the news of her sudden death. I met Octavia when I was living in California back in 1998. She was charming and fierce and funny and smart and above all else, she told the truth. And on top of that, she told it nicely. When someone tells the truth, it's an event that can easily slip into anger and self-righteousness or condescension. But one night when I went to hear Octavia Butler read from her "Parable of the Sower" and "Parable of the Talents" books, I saw someone tell the truth with such kindness that I'd never seen in that sort of a moment. There were a group of African American women who had come to hear her read. They had not ever read her books and it soon became obvious that they had come because Octavia was a black author who had written books with references to the Bible for their titles. These women were church going ladies, and when Octavia asked the audience for questions, they spent a good amount of time trying to get her to say she was a Christian, or at least spiritual. She *had* to be, in their minds. Octavia chuckled a little at their insistence, the way they tried to tell her what she was as if they knew better, but casually, without any irritation or anger or frustration, told them she was neither Christian nor religious nor even spiritual. She said it all with a kind smile and the ladies who so wanted her to be like them still couldn't help but like her and kept insisting she was at least spiritual whether she realized it herself or not. Some people, after the ladies left, began to verbalize their annoyance with them, but Octavia only continued to talk in a very even manner, smiling, and said they weren't so bad as all that. She had seen troublemakers at these sorts of things and they certainly weren't that. She joked that they'd read her books that they bought and find out just how unChristian she was, and wondered if they'd still want to insist on including her in their group after that. She had a word for everyone and was one of the warmest people I'd ever met. We haven't only just lost a great science fiction writer. We've lost a good person. I hope wherever you are, Octavia, you're smiling and flying high and free.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Tell it like it is

Youngstown politicians have a history of being outspoken, "tell it like it is" sort of people. I wouldn't say they're often the most articulate, and there's obviously a lot of proof that earnest "tell it like it is" politicians can be completely wrong-headed (see current presidency's history) so I think the difference is, I like tell it like it is politicians who have our culture's best interests at heart, not their own. So finding this memo from our senator in Youngstown in an online newspaper from back home gladdened my heart. It will be good to be home again soon, I think.

I love this journal

It reminds me of home.

Seeing Language

I've been thinking a lot about language as I've been writing my second novel, which has a structure that I tried to make feel like the experience I have when I look at those paintings done on Japanese folding screens, which sometimes encompass a vast array of areas in the country, the pictures flowing in and out of each other, then coalescing into their individual narrative image before flowing into the next. Those screens in Japanese are called "byobu" which means "wind wall". I love the names for so many things here. They make more sense in many ways. "Screen". What does that mean? It's just a sound, isn't it? I mean, I can't look at it and see any meaning. I mean literally *see*. Of course it means something because we grew up hearing it over and over until it finally clicked into place and our brains registered its meaning, but there's nothing about it that makes me think visually of what a screen is. This is one thing that happens in Japanese. Words become very visually, palpable things, moreso than in languages that utilize the roman alphabet, in my opinion. I think it's because of kanji, it makes words very detailed visual things that call up pictures in your head and this was recently confirmed for me by a Japanese friend who says she tried to describe the difference between Japanese and English to a Canadian friend and had a hard time. She thinks Japanese is almost like you're displaying language, whereas with English it's such a specific language, utilizing plurals and pronouns all the time, that the listener's processing/imaginative centers are less engaged because English communicates so specifically what the speaker wants to get across, whereas in Japanese there is more responsibility on the listener to understand what the speaker is talking about, you must really engage with what they're saying because there are so many things left out in Japanese, and you have to put them in yourself as a listener. This is yet another reason why so many Westerners trying to learn Japanese have a hard time. We're used to having many details given to us. Here, you have to give more as a listener to engage in conversation. Luckily I was able to get past that stage where it's frustrating because you don't know what a person is trying to say because things are left out, and you're waiting and waiting, and then finally if you make yourself engage with this process more and more, you can start to fill in the information yourself. It was strange when this first started to happen for me because I thought, whoa, I totally knew what that guy was talking about even though I would have used about twice as many details to get the meaning across more specifically. I'm glad I've learned how to say as much with less words, and understand as much, perhaps more even than before, by sticking it out and not giving up on the language. If I hadn't I'd really be missing out on something special.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Owatta! (Finished!)

Finished "The Love We Share Without Knowing" today, my second novel.

Now I should probably start thinking of a different title.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

More Goodbyes

I have one month left to teach. Today I went to Numasato Elementary School, the first elementary school I taught at, where I gave the speech to the hundreds of children in the dusty baseball diamond-like field. Numasato has been and remained my absolute favorite school to teach at time after time. All of the teachers there are so nice, and I feel like I had a real connection with them as colleagues that I don't always feel I have at every school I teach at, including the junior high, where there are too many politics in the English department. I know, at a junior high of all places, but it's true. In any case, at Numasato (and after Numasato, Kimiga--David do you notice the Japanese influenced grammar I used in English sometimes?) is where I really felt like I could come into my own as a teacher here, and also just as a part of the local community. The teachers here were unafraid to speak to try to speak whatever English they possibly could muster when I first arrived and didn't really understand any Japanese unless it was written down, and even then I just didn't have enough vocabulary and grammar to understand a lot. And they were unafraid to hand me the reins to their classrooms when they realized I was understanding them and speaking to the children in Japanese during English class to help them understand what I was teaching. They struck up conversations with me in Japanese and never made me feel weird about speaking their language; when I was at Numasato, I spoke more Japanese than at any other school because they never made it into a big deal that I was suddenly speaking their language, as sometimes happens. It's true that when at other times Japanese people are surprised I can communicate with them that they're not trying to make me feel bad, they're in fact really amazed and think it's great, but the affect is often that I would become self-conscious and not talk as much as I do when I'm in situations like at Numasato, where when I speak Japanese, they made me feel it was as ordinary as turning on a water faucet and water comes flowing out. I'll never be able to thank them enough for making my days at their school for the past year and a half so comfortable and natural.

I taught the sixth grade there today, three seperate classrooms full of them. The head teacher among the sixth grade teachers is also the mother of one of my ninth grade girls at the junior high and we often talk about her daughter's progress in English. She's getting ready to take an English interview test as a part of graduating junior high this year and moving on to high school. Her mother's extremely worried and doesn't think her daughter understands English well enough, gets too nervous. I told her if it were me, I'd be nervous too! She said, but you can speak English! and laughed. So I said if I were a Japanese student I'd be nervous too and she said she thought I'd still speak English good if I were Japanese because I'm a hard studier.

While we watched the sixth graders doing their end of the year interview game I made up for them, she said, "They're having so much fun. That's what's important. When they go to the junior high, it's so serious. They lose interest in learning English when it becomes tests tests tests." I said, "I wish I could teach at elementary schools everyday because it's more fun." We talked about me going to Thailand over winter break and asked if I'd been back home at all during the time I've been here. I said that I hadn't. "Will you go back this spring to visit?" she asked and I said I was going back to live in American again. She was sad at first, then said, "Are you here alone in Japan?" I nodded. "Well then," she said, "it's too bad we won't see you next year, but that's hard, living alone in another country. My sister went to Australia when she was 28 for two years. She called home often and was crying but insisted she'd stay until she could speak English well." I asked if she could. She nodded, "Yes, my sister speaks English now. Very well. Me? I don't understand at all. All I can say is I can't speak English and English is difficult. But my sister is really good. How long have you been here now, Chris san?" she asked. I told her a year a half. "You've fought hard," she said. "You became really good at speaking Japanese and living in Japan. Your family and friends are waiting for you."

After class was over we went back to the teacher's office together and she made me a cup of coffee and after I was finished and preparing to leave she said, "O genki de," a phrase that I like to think is most like, "Be well," or "Godspeed". It's said at partings, when you don't expect to see someone for a long time. I said, "If we are able to meet again," the first half of the way you express a hope in Japanese, and she said, "If we are able to meet again," smiled, nodded, and then I said my last goodbye to the rest of the teachers.

It was a sad drive home, and then another goodbye at my landlord's office, paying my last rent, and the landlord's secretary telling me she hoped I would come back to Japan again one day, and then a forty minute ordeal with the three post office ladies who would not just send my packages home by sea and surface mail as easily as I wanted because they themselves wouldn't do that and had a discussion about it while I looked on until I finally interrupted and said that it didn't matter when my packages arrived in America, there was no hurry, and that settled their argument over which way was best. It was frustrating but amusing.

The closer the time to leave comes, the harder it feels to leave all of my life here behind, to see it shipped off in packages to America and come home to a slightly emptier apartment, to mark my day at Numasato Elementary school off my schedule and know I'll never go there again, or see those children, or talk with those teachers who made me feel at home whenever I was with them, to give up a life that I've come to love, even with all its hassles and hardships. It's harder to leave here than it was to leave home. I don't know what that means.

Last week was my last visit to Hatozaki Elementary, where the wild first graders I wrote about a while back are. The "Come on, baby!" girl is in the back row, last on the right. As wild as they are, I know I'll look at this photo for the rest of my life and be unable to stop myself from smiling or bursting out laughing at the hilarious, happy memories they gave me.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Did I have to learn Japanese to agree with the Buddha?

I have just had the strangest experience. I'm doing research on kitsune, fox spirits, for the last chapter of my book, which led me down a path of Buddhist history and thought in Japan that I've not encountered yet, and the oddest thing is, looking at Buddhist thought in Japanese, I mean looking at it written in Japanese, it all makes complete sense. Why does Buddhist thought seem like yet another system of man-made belief to me, full of fallacy even though it has good intentions, when I read about it in English, but when I read about it in Japanese I think, well duh, of course.

This may be the strangest experience I have ever had.


Sunday, February 19, 2006


Why does no one but me find it strange to be shopping in the very mild-mannered grocery store among the very mild-mannered Japanese patrons, listening to very mild-mannered Japanese easy listening on the grocery store system, and suddenly the next song is by Lil' Kim and there is a whole lot of booty being shaken and junk in the trunk being sung about but everyone continues looking at mikan and tofu and natto?

My pants are all baggy on me again. Even the pair that were tight when I bought them are two inches too big on my waist now. This happened last year when I lost a bunch of weight and it's happening again now that I've been going to the gym. Losing weight is expensive. I'm going to have to buy new stuff again soon. Luckily I like shopping. But I think I should hold out a little longer because I'll probably lose a couple more inches in the next month. I've already lost more than that in the past two. It's so odd how the body changes so quickly once you activate it and use it consistently to burn away all the excess. I may try to wait it out till I get back to the States to get new clothes this time, although I do love Japanese fashion.

I think it is wonderful that the hip hop exercise class at the gym is full of everyone from youngsters to oldsters, skinny types to overweight types, all getting their freak on. It makes that movie Shall We Dance seem boring. There should be a hip hop version of that movie now, with little old Japanese men and women wearing headbands and snapping their fingers in each other's faces saying, "hmmph," then wagging their fingers in the air afterwards and dipping into a lunge and twirling back, flashing their fingers in front of their faces and jutting their elbows behind their backs before kicking it forward, backward, forward and then bam, walkitout... walkitout... walkitout my Peeples.

Tofu is the true food of the gods. Who knew???

You recognize you have a problem when you search through your jacket pockets and find coupons for a free hour of karaoke at three different karaoke parlors in your own town and also in the next one over.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Bending Time

One of the simpler and yet harder grammar points of Japanese to grasp and use correctly and also put into practice daily is the way that we would say "I haven't done that yet," or "I haven't seen so and so" today. Or "I've been studying everyday this month." These progressive sorts of sentences can be confusing for an English user of Japanese as a second language because what happens is this:

First you learn the present progressive in Japanese. I am studying, I am eating, I am watching/seeing/looking (they're all the same word in Japanese), I am sleeping, I am writing,drawing (same word again). Or conversely, I am not running, I am not reading, I am not playing, I am not listening.

It's a simple grammar that doesn't match how we seperate ideas in English that are progressive states: For example, we say, I am studying. It means at this moment. But in Japanese you would use this same grammar to say, I have been studying. There's not another code to switch to. So basically if you want to say you've been studying for a period of time, you include the period of time and still use the progressive form within that context. "I have been studying everyday this month" becomes "This month everyday I am studying." Learning this with English time frames for grammar in mind is strange, as many English time concept grammars is odd to Japanese ears when they're learning English. An English learner of Japanese wants there to be a new type of grammar here. But there isn't. You just have to get used to this other kind of way of expressing a state of time. I personally have gotten used to this grammar by thinking about the voice of historical essays in English. You know, those history books and essays that write about history in a more present sort of tense. "At age fifteen, So and So writes his first opera and the community of Vienna falls in love with his work," etc. Hello, isn't this done and over with? But a historian sometimes acquires this present tense voice about the past. Now it's not exactly the same thing in Japanese, but it's close enough that it gave me a way to connect this idea of a continuous state.

So when I go to the elementary school and ask a teacher if last time we did a certain lesson, he or she will invariably say, "We're not doing that," which means, "We haven't done that." Or when I went to the doctor about the mumps, when my doctor asked my coordinator if she's had the mumps before, she said, "I'm not doing them yet," which of course is, "I haven't had them yet." It all starts to make sense after a while is what's so amazing. Because at first it just sounds like it's something a second language learner won't be able to get past. But after a while, if you're immersed especially, you hear the meaning without hearing the oddness to your first language. You begin to hear the second language's meaning without it immediately being corresponded to the first language and compared and contrasted for meaning.

So when I come to school and a teacher asks what I had for breakfast, I'll say, "I'm not eating breakfast," and they hear that breakfast is something I did not eat and that I am still in the condition of not eating, and scold me accordingly. Or like this morning, Yasuda sensei asked me if I'd seen Kimura sensei as I came in from the parking lot, and I answered I'm not seeing Kimura sensei. This sounds strange to my ears, but Yasuda sensei hears that I haven't seen Kimura sensei and continues on with our conversation as normal, without any hesitation in the disruption of the flow of information at all. And I would know if it sounded strange to him. Believe me, I get "What did you just say?" looks when I say something wrong.

This is amazing to me because in moments like this, it becomes apparent just how created the meaning of our lives is, how there is no one way that the world works, but many ways, so many that time periods are expressed differently in another language and makes time look weird at first but completely understandable after a while. It's a lesson that has practical value not just in speaking Japanese while I'm here, but in how we can change our lives, our cultures, our world, if we would only be more flexible with the ideas we live by, that we believe to be "the way the world is" when in fact it's only the way "your particular world is," and not how it has to be.

Monday, February 13, 2006

In Which Friends Make a Visit and Risk is Played

The other day a couple of friends, Eric and Satoko, who live in nearby Toride, came to visit me and Katie. Eric and Katie work for the same company that places native English speakers into schools and attended the same orientation in Tokyo, along with Jody, and then later introduced me (different company, never trained in Tokyo, umm, never trained). Anyway, we took Eric and Satoko to see the Ushiku Daibutsu, but it was closed. Not that you can't see it still, but we couldn't go inside it and up the elevator and look out all around the Daibutsu at the cemetaries and the surrounding fields and forests and towns. Eric said he could see the Daibutsu from his school in Toride on a clear day. That's pretty far actually. It takes about twenty five minutes or so by train to get to Toride from here. I didn't realize it could be seen that far, but it is the tallest Buddha in the world, and much taller than lots of other statues in general. Anyway, we ended up going to eat ramen and then shopping at Toys R'Us. Well I went into the store next door to Toy R'Us because they were having like a 70% off sale on clothes and I have this addiction to sales, so...everyone else went to Toys R'Us. I also found out our Toys R'Us was the first in Japan, and perhaps the only one in Ibaraki (our prefecture, which is like a state), if I'm remembering Katie's facts correctly. Eric bought a little blue posable toy man which he placed in his blazer pocket. I bought clothes clothes clothes! While I was behind the changing curtain, even though I'd spoken in Japanese with the girl who was helping me, she had gone and got a guy who works there too to come over and say through the curtain, "May I help you?" I answered in Japanese that I was fine, and I heard him turn around and whisper, "He speaks Japanese!" and the girl whispered back in her horrified voice, "I'm so sorry!!" Then a girl at the purchasing counter whispered, "What's the matter?" and the first girl whispered back, "I had him ask the foreigner if he needed help in English, but he speaks Japanese!" Then lots of giggling. I could imagine their hands reaching to cover their mouths while I pulled my shirt over my head. If you giggle here, it is a rule that you should cover your mouth while you do so. Frankly I think it heightens the experience of giggling and plan to continue doing it in America. Maybe I can start a trend. You also have to hunch over a little while you do it. Just a tip.

Afterwards we all went back to my place and watched The Suicide Club, a Japanese movie about well, it's hard to explain, but you should go watch it. Satoko and I discussed some of the English translations in the subtitles and how they had got a couple wrong, and how some they couldn't translate literally because if they did, it wouldn't make sense to English speakers. This is the most difficult thing about learning Japanese for English speakers, and vice versa, learning English for Japanese: it's not enough to simply learn the vocabulary and grammar, you also have to learn the culture, or else you just won't get how it works sometimes.

Anyway Eric is an artist and he has a cool little site where he posts drawings and scribblings and pieces of narrative. You should check it out here.

We also played Risk on Sunday at Beth and Kevin's house. It took four hours or so, a really fast game. Beth and I were a team. We held out to the end, but were crushed by Pete and Erin before we could throw our cards down in the final round and get gazillions of armies to trash their peach colored army with. Next time we won't try to hold Asia for so damned long. You can never hold Asia!

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The World Does Not Play Well With Others

It is quite possible to have your heart broken at the least expected moment, to not realize it's even in a position to be broken.

That in itself is enough to make my head spin with disbelief for a while.

I'm glad I finished that chapter.

That is all.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Approaching Sayonara

Second to last chapter finished. Now on to the end.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Can We Look At Something Without Destroying It?

I have a cold. It sucks.

But I came home from school and read this article in The Washington Post via Ms. Bond and teared up a little. Maybe it's the cold, or maybe signs of life just make me feel hopeful.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A Bro From The Yo Shouts Out

As many people know, I left my grandparents' little farm to go to college about an hour away in a post-industrial steeltown called Youngstown back when I was still completely unequipped with life skills for living anywhere but in a midwestern farmtown. When I finally got even an hour away, my life completely changed and even though the city was a bit of a timewarp town full of ghosts I felt like I could breathe wider and do some growing up. Which I did. Youngstown will always be the place where the foundation for who I am now was forged, and my roots will always be there, as they are on that little farm too, and now in Japan, because it nourished me at a time in my life when I was growing and needed a place to become who I was becoming. Youngstown isn't on most people's radar as even existing (although I hope to change that a little, as other Ohio writers have done in the past, such as Sherwood Anderson). It's hard to explain the experience of living in a city such as Youngstown, which is the sort of city that, like Flint, Michigan, illustrates how the United States government has failed an entire community, and proved that the American Dream was false advertising from the start. It's been abandoned by everyone except for those who can love something that's dying.

So with this sense of isolated experience in mind, I am always happy to find connections with other people, those I've known or not know until they read one of my stories and also have some connection to Youngstown and contact me about it. Recently an old college friend, Eric, found me online and we were able to swap some emails back and forth for a bit and catch up. And he has his own blog where he posts his own form of craziness and bits of his excellent poetry on occasion. He has a poem in the most recent issue of Wicked Hollow so go buy it, and he's also just posted his thoughts on reading my story "Dead Letters" in the most recent Realms of Fantasy, and well, he just totally appreciated all the little bits in it that I figured another Northeastern Ohioan would resonate with, which made me really happy. Luckily when these bits aren't the resonant point for readers unfamiliar with this type of regional American culture, AKA the Rustbelt, bordering on the Biblebelt, other things are around to be liked. But I really did enjoy reading his thoughts. Which he was always good at (we had a creative writing class together, among others). He's an excellent poet, so search around his blog and site and see what odds and ends turn up for your reading pleasure.

Oh, and "the Yo" in the title of this post stands for Youngstown. Some people used to refer to it that way. Although now I wonder what has gone on to change there since I left. I guess in a few months I'll get to find out when I go home and make a visit.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Kids Say The Darnedest Things (Japan Version)

The seventh graders are learning how to handle a telephone call in which they have to make a plan to do something with someone else in English. Today they begin creating their own skits based on the one in their textbook. Most of the kids make boring skits because they don't want to put the effort into being creative in another language. It's hard, but if they did put the effort into it, I think they'd find how much easier and more fun it is to learn another language when you do it in funny and creative ways. Of course most of their teachers don't encourage this but I tend to do so whenever I see a kid who's leaning towards having fun with an English project rather than just doing the minimum and getting it out of the way. Today's most interesting skit from a seventh grade boy and girl went like this:

(Phone ringing noise)


Hello Mr. Koizumi? This is Mr. Bush.

Oh hi, Mr. Bush. How are you?

I'm fine thank you. And you?

I'm fine too, thank you.

Mr. Koizumi, are you free this Saturday? We're planning a war.

I'm sorry, Mr. Bush, but I'm busy this Saturday.

Oh that's too bad. Well then, see you later.

Ok, see you later. Goodbye!


Friday, February 03, 2006

How Well Do You Really Know Me?

I made a quiz about me. Take it and see how well you know me.

Screw them all!

I'm sick of hearing who has control and who has played what really smart hand in such and such a battle. I want people who give a damn about my country, who are actually concerned about what's going on and not on some damned chess match. I want someone who is willing to ride the truth into the center of the country. Won't someone do that? I look at owls and toads these days and wonder, "Is there a prince in there?"

Karaoke Partner Wanted

Do you like music? Do you sing well? What's your range? Can you sing anything from musicals to country and western to rap or hip hop or indie rock? Do you attend Wiscon or plan to live in a general radius of me when I move back to the United States? Well, then, now that the standards have been established, why don't you send me an application to sing karaoke with me on a regular or part time basis once I'm back. I like all types of music and taking turns is especially important, but also being able to do duets is a crucial point. Can you see yourself singing anything from a Disney "A Whole New World" type of song to "Wonderwall" by Oasis? No? Well I'm sure you're still a good person, but I'm looking for someone more flexible than that. I'm sure you understand.

Send files of karaoke samples for me to sort through. I'll only be home a couple of weeks before I'll be at Wiscon where the Ratbastards notorious Karaoke party will be held, and my karaoke partner here will still be in Japan and who knows when I'll ever get to sing with her again, so practice up and let's do anything from Madonna to Ub40 to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Free your mind, as Neo says, and let's kick it.