Monthly Archives: May 2015

A Few Legos Short of a Castle

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Sometimes, I wish life came with an instruction manual and not one made by IKEA either. It would love to see that I’ve arrived at Step 6, and my life should look something like Figure 9.2. And then when I get to the end of the book, I could see how everything has been built perfectly. I see some people seem to have it together as if they own their own life manual. Unfortunately, I think I came with a Lego instruction guide at birth. I look like all of my pieces are fit together just right, but in reality, I’m missing a few pieces here and there. (I’m just really good at jamming parts together.) My foundation is a health hazard in the making.

But if life did come with instructions, I probably wouldn’t have stories about how a boyfriend dislocated both of my knees at once or how cayenne is not similar in any way, shape, or form to cumin. I may be jamming pieces of my Lego castle together, forcing it to look like the picture, but my castle has something others don’t: character. And a horse in the scorpion pit. (Okay, sometimes I’m not good at jamming the RIGHT pieces together.)

One fundamental part of life I have never quite mastered is art of the greeting. Sometimes I smile too much and seem “fake.” Sometimes I don’t say enough and seem like a fuddy-duddy. I want people to remember me, but I don’t want to annoy them. I want them to think I’m kind, but I don’t want to seem as if I’m flirting. I want to be unique without being weird. It’s a very difficult thing to emit your entire essence in a few brief exchanges.

Unfortunately for you, my dear reader, I don’t have any advice on what to do about that. (If you have any advice, I’d appreciate it!) I haven’t learned any profound lessons nor have I mastered the art of the “hello.” In Japan, I’m learning all new ways of greeting someone, and I’m afraid that when I return to the US, my greetings will be more awkward than ever as I combine Western and Eastern cultures.

But fortunately, I have learned that you should never under any circumstance feed an awkward situation with a burst of spontaneity.

My senior year of high school was when I began to blossom for the first time. Prior to that year I rarely went out with friends. (Honestly, I’m still not much of a social butterfly.) But my senior year, I can proudly say that I possessed something resembling a social life. My first day, I owned the school. Everyone was beneath me at last, and I had taken my place as master of the universe (or at least my dinky Arkansas high school). I had just one more year…

I congregated with my friends inside the classroom of our favorite history teacher so we could pray over the day as we always did. We chatted about our summers and mourned the end of our sleep, and then I noticed a new face in the crowd. Someone new in the group. I had been the new kid last year. Having found my place with my group of friends, I knew I had to be the one to welcome anyone who had wandered into our midst.

He blended in with the rest of us in our drab school polos and khakis. As he shuffled between the exit and the corner away from the rambunctious crowd, I caught him. Introducing myself, I decided to ease him into conversation with idle chatter about the weather, summer, and life in general. I expected a dip of the head, a shy hello, or at the very least a smile. Instead his eyes practically glazed over with confusion as I spoke, my speech quickly moving from light conversation to rapid fire questions.

This kid wouldn’t talk back. I couldn’t even get a name out of him.

I started to sweat. I talked faster and faster. I repeated my name. I spoke louder. I asked him more about himself. Still nothing. In a panic, my fight or flight instinct told me I had to break the silence, or I was going to lose a potential friend. And what is the best way to break the ice? Make someone laugh of course! Any normal person would have told a joke, but me? No. I have to go above and beyond. Prior to my senior year, most of my social interaction occurred through the internet and with my cats. Yes. Cats. And what makes cats happy?

Yes. I petted him. Right then and there. I assaulted his “fluffy” black hair and continued to go on and on about it. I watched his eyes widen twice the size of his face, his body stiffen, his lips curl into something akin to a voiceless scream.

I will never forget that look of horror on his face.

Thankfully, we ended up circling up for the morning prayer, and I sneaked off to another spot to avoid standing next to him.

And that, my dear readers, is how I met the Chinese exchange student.

Thankfully, I did manage to show him that I’m not a hair tousling freak after all.

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11 Ways To Defenestrate the Down-in-the-Dumps

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NOTE: I’ve never used the word defenestrate in a sentence before. Please correct me if I’m wrong. I just want to be creative!!!!

Writing is fascinating. I know it isn’t alive, but at the same time I’m breathing life into it. Writing speaks, and its voice is always unique to the writer. One of my professors says breathing life into your characters and your world is the closest someone can get to playing the role of a deity, and he’s right. When I have the strength to move mountains so do my characters. Unfortunately, when I suffer, so do they. I unintentionally destroy everything I’ve worked to build.

Why write about this now? It seems pretty random as I’m sitting in the middle of Japan on the journey of my life. But every once in a while (usually once a semester) I notice that my writing “darkens,” especially for long periods of time when my mood sours (usually as I start to think about my future and what I’m doing with my life). Recently, I noticed my dark writing, but this time in my daily journal, not just my novel writing. I was writing a tragedy (and a sappy, angsty, young adult tragedy at that) without meaning to. And I know that tragic heroes learn their lessons much too late.

Why am I sad? I don’t know. Someone said maybe culture shock is kicking in, or maybe I’m homesick. But I think these sorts of feelings are just natural for me. That doesn’t mean I have to like them.

I read a post on WordPress the other day about 100 things you can do if you’re feeling sad. I remember thinking to myself, “Huh…I should save this. It might come in handy.” Unfortunately, I didn’t think to save it. Now, I certainly don’t have the time to think of 100 things, but here are 11 things I usually do to perk up. (I’m probably going to be doing a few of these later.)

1.) Go on a mini-trip. Anywhere. Go to the super market, the convenience store, the theatre, the mall, the bar, the park. You don’t have to spend money. Just get out. Go alone and think. Go with a friend and forget what you were worried about. It doesn’t matter.

2.) Enjoy an ice cream. Okay…I’m a stress eater, but so far, ice cream seems to be the best cure. I highly recommend Blue Bell’s “I Heart Chocolate.” (Chocolate ice cream with a chocolate frosting ribbon, fudge, brownies, and chocolate hearts filled with chocolate.)

3.) Watch your favorite episode of your favorite TV show. (Mine’s the musical episode of Psych. Unfortunately, Netflix doesn’t exist in Japan yet so….)

4.) Watch a favorite movie in a different language. The dub might just make you laugh. (I’m going to watch Meet the Robinsons in Japanese sometime soon. But I’ve heard that The Incredibles in Spanish is great.)

5.) Listen to your favorite music. (Josh Groban or Rend Collective usually helps. I’m listening to Rend Collective right now actually.)

6.) Go sit somewhere public and people watch. You can go with a friend. Share a smoothie (or an ice cream) and make up stories about the people you see. Turn said stories into a soap opera.

7.) Dress up or wear a favorite outfit. For some people, dressing up is uncomfortable, but when I know I look good, I feel good. Sometimes even wearing a bright color of lipstick brightens my mood.

8.) Do something childish. I’m a kid at heart, but I get too caught up in “adult-ing” sometimes, and it stresses me out. I’d much rather act like a kid than resort to drinking or smoking. So watch a favorite cartoon (like Sailor Moon), read a picture book, play a game with friends (like Human Knot or Sardines). Make fools of each other. Laugh.

9.) Surprise someone with a meal. Sometimes you have to do something for others to get that uplifting you need. Buy a meal for a stranger. Bake cookies for your friend. Make your kids Jello. Who can be sad when you’re watching people eat Jello?

10.) Vent all your frustration with video games. Maybe this isn’t for everyone, but I love video games. Sometimes it helps to go completely berserk in Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed. Other times, it’s better to keep it old school with Mario Kart or Smash Bros.

11.) Take a hot shower, make yourself a warm cup of tea, curl up in your comfiest PJs, cuddle your unicorn pillow pet (cats work too), pick any book you have, and read it until you fall asleep. Wake up the next day knowing that yesterday is over. Today is a new day, and it doesn’t have to tank.

BONUS: Make a list of 10 things you can do to not feel sad anymore. I think I might have just saved my little imaginary realm from any further destruction.

It’s a Trap!

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20150501_122557_Richtone(HDR)NOTE: I would like to point out that this is my fourth or fifth time trying to write this. Each time, I’ve attempted to write my thoughts out, I find out myself writing a completely different post. Here’s hoping this goes smoothly.

I’ve been fascinated with literature of all kinds ever since I was a little girl. I can’t remember the title of the first story I really fell in love with, but I do remember it was about a fox and his swamp band, and they ran into some trouble with some shady crocodiles. As simple as that story was, I remember thinking about that book for days. I imagined myself as the lead singer of the band, getting captured by crocodiles, and celebrating a victory with my animal friends. (I think Kindergarten Kat even had a crush on Mr. Fox.) At this point, I can’t remember how much of what I’m remembering is the actual plot or what I made up on my own.

For years after, I indulged myself many books, jumping from Nancy Drew to Encyclopedia Brown to Artemis Fowl and anything written by Garth Nix or Brian Jacques or Ted Dekker. I read the classics in high school and fell in love with Charles Dickens and Shakespeare, but something was missing. Sometimes I picked up a book and thought, “Well, that was good, but it could have been better.” I wanted to do better. I wanted to pour my passion for reading onto a page. I don’t remember when I started writing. I feel as if it has always been part of my life, but the oldest primary document I have in my care is an Applebee’s napkin with some scrawling for some sort of character idea. A literary masterpiece? Not at all. It’s hardly passable for fanfiction, but that marks my beginning, maybe a moment in time where I vowed to write at least one great story, not part of a fad but something that would stand the test of time and become a literary masterpiece after I died.

I wanted people to see this world blossoming in my mind. But somehow, I’ve never been able to accurately describe it. It has always been beyond my ability. I have binders filled past their maximum capacity with ideas and sketches and short stories which completely unlock the mysteries of the inner-workings of my mind, but I could never share any of them. They’re not my vision. As I entered college, I found myself writing less and less. The passion still existed. I felt it itching, but many papers, jobs, people, and my own fatigue kept me from writing. My journals remained empty.

But about a week and a half ago, I went on a trip.

“Mitaka?”

I’ve gotten that reaction a lot. During Golden Week, I traveled all over Tokyo in a few short days, but on my first day, I found myself in the Mitaka ward; it certainly wasn’t heavy on tourist traffic. I was just visiting the Ghibli Museum, home of the art of my favorite Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki. (If you haven’t heard of the name, perhaps you’ve heard of some of his work, including Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Howl’s Moving Castle). We arrived two hours early on a bright orange bus called the cat bus. (Sadly, it wasn’t actually like the one from Totoro.)

As we neared the museum itself, the foliage grew bigger, thicker, and greener, and I felt as if I had shrunk to the size of a pixie. The greenery wrapped about a building sunken into the ground, the walls rising out of the depths into the clouds. Gazing down from above, a metal guardian eyed the spectators with cold eyes. Watching from below, eyes etched in glittering stained glass beckoned everyone passing to view their story. I longed to go beyond the metal bars inside, but we still had two hours to kill.

We found ourselves at a crossroads of some sort, many of the paths leading through social areas deeper into the shaded foliage. We glanced at each other, and with that look we decided not to care where we went. We chose a path, and we walked, the promise of a café, zoo, or aquarium beckoning us. We traveled through the park, the canopy overhead protecting us from the sun’s rays, past people riding bikes and school children in green and pink hats. We walked until the world become silent except for the crunch of stones underneath our shoes.

Red peeked through the trees. The wind carried the smell of incense and the pond’s gentle mist toward my face. Nearby a bell rang, summoning spirits to answer a traveler’s prayer. The trees overhead swayed with the breeze, moaning underneath the weight of their age and wisdom. I became vaguely aware of the spell cast upon me; I thought I could fight it, but as I approached the gates of the Benten shrine, any power I had disappeared. My feet wandered through the gates of their own accord, and I swear my heart stopped. I had practically found the gateway to Narnia, an ancient sect of the Templars, a gathering of Ents. I waited, and I waited for Howl to sweep me off my feet, for Princess Mononoke to fly through the trees, or a Laputa to sail through the clouds above the creaking trees.

The Magic

The Magic

Somehow, the magic never wore off. Every tree seemed a bit greener on my trek back. Every step I took hurt my feet a little less. Every breath made me feel more alive, as if I hadn’t really been living for a long time. This place was fantasy I lived in my mind. It breathed with me. It wrapped its spell around me and captured my heart. It imprisoned me, and I know that if I ever want to be free, I have to return. It’s just like that time spent wondering about that fox picture book.

Getting lost in a different world for the first time in a long time reminded me that my world still exists. It still wants to be told. It still has to be told, and it has helped me start writing again. Magic exists in this world. Miyazaki has certainly created it, and it has consumed Mitaka. And now I hold a piece of that magic.

And some of it followed me home.

Magic

A Few of my Favorite Things: Fairy Tales and Duck Tails

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Mukashi

I apologize for my atrocious handwriting!

I’m not a big fan of roses in general (give me a hydrangea any day), and I’d rather have the whole kitten rather than just its whiskers. Copper kettles, woolen mittens…keep it. Even though I still consider Julie Andrews a kindred spirit, Maria von Trapp’s character in The Sound of Music is not. I have a very odd set of favorite things. If you stick around, you will probably hear a lot about cardigans, cats, sweet potatoes, and the color purple. I have to say that my favorite thing in the world is language.

Call me a word nerd if you will.

My favorite word in the English language is “halcyon.” When used as a noun, it refers to a type of mythological bird that supposedly had the ability to calm storms by flapping its wings. When used as an adjective it means a variety of things such as “peaceful,” “prosperous,” or “joyful.” It sounds archaic and mysterious but reflects all the things that are good in the world—the calm after the storm. In a way, it reflects a happier time in my life.

Perhaps I’m silly to have a favorite word, but I’m sure other people in the world have them, right? The more I study Japanese, the more I find myself drawn to specific aspects of language. I have favorite words, favorite kanji, favorite grammar rules, etc.

My favorite word in the Japanese language starts with a story. I remember sneaking through my living room where my brother sat staring at the TV as usual. But this time, his eyes weren’t glued to Pokemon or Super Mario Galaxy. I saw a bright flash of color and heard familiar music. Ballet. More specifically Swan Lake. He was watching an anime with ballet. I couldn’t question his show choice, because I was too absorbed in the show myself.

I hid myself and watched from afar for a while until I caught the title screen. Princess Tutu. For the next week (or maybe two) I shut myself in my room after school to watch it. And each episode began “Mukashi mukashi…” in the voice of a gentle older woman as she told the story of a duck who wanted to be human. When a mysterious force grants her wish, she’s transformed into an awkwardly clumsy girl who falls in love with a prince only to realize that she plays a much larger role. Something about the combination of beautiful music, innocent love, and magical atmosphere gave me something to look forward to each day.

“Once upon a time…”

I can’t think of those words without thinking of all the fairy tales I’ve ever read. Princess Tutu reminded me that everyone has a story to tell, even a tiny duck. And all those stories can be special. Anyone can be a protagonist.

n a tiny duck. And all those stories can be special. Anyone can be a protagonist.

What to Expect in Japan Part 1: Uhm…Well, Duh!

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The Koinobori hanging up in a children’s park in northern Shinjuku.

Now originally, I wanted to write a single post with all the things one should expect to find in Japan ranging from the obvious to the not so obvious, but as I started writing, I realized I had a lot to say and a lot more to experience on my trip, so why not a write series over the next few months while specific topics were still fresh on my mind?

I have just returned from a three day trip where I and two other American students tried to cram as much of Tokyo into those three days as possible. I have felt my feet crying out for mercy since the first day, but I could not put them out of their misery until I had quenched my thirst for adventure. I have been studying Japanese language and culture in formal classes since my first year of college (about 3 years ago), but no textbook, J-Drama, or anime could have prepared me for an actual trip to Tokyo. (Part of me expected to find at least one ward in ruins from some sort of monster attack, but that was not the case) But as I said, my expectations of Tokyo were almost nothing like the ones I had formed from behind my desk (or preferably in my bed with my comfy purple back pillow) as I read and watched about culture, pop-culture, language, and etiquette.

As I said, I returned yesterday, exhausted after a 10 hour night bus ride with no sleep (because I’ve never been able to sleep in moving vehicles). I felt the same sleep-deprived relief when I finally arrived in Tokyo via night bus a few days prior. The bus driver dumped us near Shinjuku Station and sped off with the rest of the early morning traffic. Naturally, one’s first thoughts of such an amazing place should be something along the lines of, “I can’t believe I’m in Tokyo!” I took one look around and thought, “What now?” And then a few moments later I added, “God have mercy on my soul.” (It isn’t abnormal for me to have melodramatic thoughts; they just usually translate into my shoving my face full of food instead of verbal eloquence.) We had an address for our hotel, our luggage weighing us down, and no idea of how to get where we needed to be. We wandered Shinjuku Station for several hours, and then we wandered northern Shinjuku for a while before we found our hotel. During that time I did indeed shove a McGriddle, hash brown, and cinnamon roll into my mouth.

I’ve spent many summers in San Antonio, Texas with my grandmother. I’ve been to Houston and Dallas. When I lived in Arkansas, I made frequent trips to Little Rock on my own. I’ve been lost in Memphis and St. Louis as well. How different could those places be from Tokyo? Seventeen years. That’s how different it is. I’ve been speaking English for 17 more years than I’ve been speaking Japanese. With my luck, I knew things would go wrong.

I got lost.

And more lost.

And so lost that I didn’t think it was even possible to get even more lost.

Finally, I tempted fate and stopped trying to think of whether or not it could get worse. And it still did.

On our final night in Tokyo, my friends and I planned to find a few stores (and try out the world’s first Japanese Taco Bell) in Shibuya. But guess what? We found ourselves in the middle of a Cinco de Mayo festival instead. Instinctively, I bought a watermelon smoothie and churro to hide my panic. After failing to understand the map, we decided to ask for directions. Again. We scanned the crowd at the crosswalk, looking for someone who seemed to know what they were doing. Finally, we spotted a young couple behind us. I sidled over to them and told them we were lost. The young man, Gak, stared us three American girls for a moment before pulling out his phone. I bit my lip as he hmmm-ed over the Google map on his screen.

“We’ll take you there.”

His companion, Mai, giggled and instantly began speaking to me about school, jobs, and the holidays. Amused by my Japanese, a smile never left her face even when I couldn’t convey exactly what I wanted to say. She thought it was particularly adorable that I wanted to buy a yukata for an upcoming festival. Gak even smiled a bit.

We walked for about fifteen minutes, and it ended with my group safely in front of the Oriental Bazaar. Gak sidled back over to Mai, and we thanked our newest guardian angel.

“Have a nice day,” he told us in a quiet voice.

And then I asked him how to say it in Japanese.

“よい一日を!”  (“Yoi-ichinichi wo!”) I called after them.

The duo erupted into laughter and smiles once more.

The day before, I met an American couple in the elevator of Tokyo Tower. We chatted for a moment after realizing we spoke the same language. The young man rolled his eyes a bit and chuckled. “Everything’s in Japanese here. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to order food.” My friend and I looked at each other for a moment trying our hardest not to grin too much, and we told them the words for fried chicken and fish. Our elevator ride ended, and the couple left.

Later that same day, my group settled down in an Alice in Wonderland themed café. We probably frazzled our poor waitress (who told us to call her Alice) with our questions, but we communicated enough to get our food and drinks. Another English-speaking group settled down next to us, and after several loud remarks about wasting money “paying for ambiance” (which is kind of the purpose of a themed café by the way), they fired English question after English question at Alice. When their English didn’t get through to her, they spoke even louder and louder. Alice stared at the group wide-eyed and eventually nodded in response to all of their questions before running off. After a while, another Alice returned in her place to explain about the custom cocktail menu in English.

I did as many “touristy” things as I could during my vacation. I toured a Sanrio store, explored temples, climbed Tokyo Tower, and snacked on freshly made crepes, but I didn’t come to Japan to “pay for ambiance.” I could write all day about the attractions and food and fashion, but experiencing culture is more than tasty fish and ancient temples.

As I sat in Akita Station completely exhausted from 24+ hours without sleep and one grueling night bus ride, I thought about my communication skills. Suddenly, an elder woman approached me and my friend. She told us something, and when we responded in Japanese, her face lit up. The conversation reminded me of some of my family dinners, topics weaving in and out of relevance. Houses, Zambia, my friend’s leg and its likeness to her owl wallet, something about this woman’s father and schooling. We pulled out dictionaries and laughed and winced. We tried. The woman laughed with us and lowered her head in a slight bow as she prepared to leave.

““よい一日を!”  I called after her. If you really, truly want to enjoy Japan, don’t just expect beauty, but expect kindness and patience and good conversations. Expect frustration and smiles and knowledge.