Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Friday, February 27, 2015

Gratitude List

“When I was young, I had to choose between the life of being and the life of doing. And I leapt at the latter like a trout to a fly. But each deed you do, each act, binds you to itself and to its consequences, and makes you act again and yet again. Then very seldom do you come upon a space, a time like this, between act and act, when you may stop and simply be. Or wonder who, after all, you are.” 

Ursula K. Le Guin
 The Farthest Shore


The first time I heard someone suggest that I might consider cultivating an "Attitude of Gratitude", I wanted to smack the person upside the head.  How condescending, I thought.  How utterly idiotic.  Who did this person think he was to offer me smug platitudes in response to my suffering?

It took a few years and a lot more suffering on my part (much of it self-inflicted) before I was willing to entertain the idea that maybe, just maybe, he was on to something.  My modus operandi was, for far too long, to look at all that was going wrong in my life, put all my intellectual energy into finding solutions, and then trying to fix everything - to my satisfaction, of course.

For somebody who thought she was so smart, I turned out to be dumb as a post.  Where did I get the idea that the world was supposed to arrange itself to suit me?  Over-thinking and over-reacting were strategies I applied over and over again, and it was always a great shock to me when things just didn't work out quite the way I wanted them to.

I still find myself doing this but these days I have better tools to deal with it.  One of them is that damn "Attitude of Gratitude."

There is a very simple exercise that I was taught to get started and it's called the Gratitude List. (I know that some of you are already very familiar with it.)   Instead of mulling over your problems and leaping into action to fix all that is going wrong, find a quiet place and think about what is going right in your little corner of the world - things for which, once you consider them for two seconds, you are genuinely grateful for.  Then write a few of them down and send them to a friend.  Do this daily and after awhile you just might feel better.  I know I do.

Why does it work for me?  I have no idea.  It's one of those things that I was asked to try, and after literally laughing in the face of the person who proposed it, I gave in and was pleasantly surprised by the results.

It sure doesn't fix anything but I find that by acknowledging the good, the bad loses some of its power over me.  I think that once you've armed yourself with a more balanced perspective,  it is much harder for your head to lead you into dark places during the day.

My gratitude list changes every day and sometimes it's a real struggle to find the space between acts, between thoughts, and find the flashlight or the bright candle in the dark neighborhood that is my head.  Ah, how quickly I forget because there are two blazingly obvious things that are always shining bright right there in front of me.

The first is that I am still sober after nearly 4 yours in recovery.  Here I am in Japan going to cocktails and dinners where the alcohol flows freely and glasses of wine magically appear in front of me and  I have no desire to drink. That's a frigging miracle right there.  I feel no sense of triumph or personal accomplishment over this, just boundless gratitude for the gift of sobriety and the worldwide community that supports me.  (If you are interested in knowing more about that, send me an email.)

The second is relatively good health.  Two years ago I had no hair and no fingernails and I tipped the scales at 54 kilos.  I was stuck in my apartment in Versailles and could hardly walk from my bed to the couch.  When I wasn't being poisoned by chemo, I was being radiated under a particle accelerator. (And am I worried about radiation exposure from Fukushima?  Nope.  For me that ship has already sailed.)  Today I'm living in yet another country, walking the city, trying to speak a new language, enjoying my new rice cooker and my high-tech bathtub.  Do I still feel lost and a bit lonely in this new place?  Do I grumble about the pills and the PET scans?  You bet. But the fact I'm still here at all and can walk, talk and travel is another miracle for which a moment or two of gratitude every single day seems entirely appropriate.

Now that I've written out my grat list for the day and have adjusted my attitude (instead of trying to adjust the world to my tastes and inclinations), I'm going to take a bath and make some biscuits.

Bon weekend!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Don't Tell Me About Your Problems Living Abroad

I met a young newly-arrived American student in France a couple of years ago and she reported having this conversation with her family back in the US:

"Uh, I'm not doing so well here. I...."

"Sweetheart, you are living in Paris, for heaven's sake.  What kind of problems could you possibly be having?  Don't you know how lucky you are?  Please..."

I was reminded of that conversation when I read a reader review that described Rebecca Otawa's book about living in Japan as "whiny."  Huh?

Oh, those ungrateful expats and their First World problems.

I thought that this was one to talk about because there is an empathy gap here you could drive an 18 wheeler truck through with space to spare.

Folks, the "firing line of life" does not suspend itself when a person buys a plane ticket and lands on a distant shore.   Just about anything bad that could happen to a person in their home country can and does happen abroad.  Nobody is inoculated against depression, substance abuse, serious illness, or  marital problems just because he is 6,000 kilometers from home.  On the contrary, all these things can be made so much worse when a person doesn't speak the language well or know the country well enough to find the resources he or she may have taken for granted back in the home country.

I find this notion that expats should not talk about the darker side of life abroad a little wacky.  If the American student cited above had called her parents from some city within the US to talk about her struggles, would anyone expect them to reply: "Sweetheart, you are living in Sacramento, for heaven's sakes.  What kind of problems could you possibly be having?"

So a person can have real problems in Peoria, but he's not allowed to have them in Paris (or Kyoto or Sao Paulo)?   That's just horse manure, mes amis.

On the contrary, my experience has been that many expats are very reticent, even ashamed, to talk about their problems living abroad.  A woman married to a European who is supposedly living some sort of fairy tale life (and her friends and family at home are living it vicariously through her) has one hell of a time admitting that the marriage isn't going particularly well or that her children are embarrassed by their foreign mother and her funny accent and they make fun of her in public.  Since when is she not allowed to say how much all this hurts just because she's living in, say, Vienna?

Do people living abroad sometimes go over the top with the complaining and fail to cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude?  Absolutely.  Because they are human beings, not saints.  To expect otherwise is to hold them to some impossible standard solely because of an accident of geography.

And to be brutally honest here, I've noticed a fair amount of complaining from my compatriots back in the homeland over the years.

So here's a proposition for you, my fellow citizens back in the good old US of A.  I promise to sit through yet another whine-fest about the evil Republicans (or nefarious Democrats) and how all of this has personally affected you if you return the favor and really listen to a few honest words about what's going on where I am.

Deal?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

At Home in Japan: A Foreign Woman's Journey of Discovery

"The question "Who am I?" really asks, "Where do I belong or fit?" We get the sense of that "direction" -- the sense of moving toward the place where we fit, or of shaping the place toward which we are moving so that it will fit us -- from hearing how others have handled or are attempting to handle similar (but never exactly the same) situations. We learn by listening to their stories, by hearing how they came (or failed) to belong or fit.”

Ernest Kuntz

Underlying my search for good expat/migrant autobiographies are my own identity issues which come up at the most inconvenient moments.  20 years of living outside my home country has not silenced the committee in my head that seems to want to provoke me into a constant examination of identity. 

There is no such thing as the unchanging self. If I had never left Seattle, USA I would still be a very different person today - a person bearing little or no resemblance to the callow youth I was at 20.

That is the road never travelled. The path I took instead led me a distant shore - across the ocean to a world with a new language and culture, and a life that is very different (but not better) than the one I might have lived if I had stayed in the world where I was born.

I am hardly the first woman to do this and that is important to acknowledge. On the darkest days when we (the foreigners) feel alone, lost, or depressed it's tempting to think that one's personal expat/migration experience is unique and special and no one could possibly understand how we feel. Granted, it is unique in the sense that we are individuals and live out our life experiences differently in different places.

However, there are commonalities and I think one of them is that we have all gone through the process of integration/assimilation which leads us to some uncomfortable questions about who we are and how we fit (or don't) where we have landed.  Culture is a powerful force and when we walk into a new one we are changed in ways that can both exhilarate and terrify us.  We often grieve for what we were and for what we might have been, even as we are expressing to the people around us our deep contentment and happiness at being in this country at this time.

There is no sure-fire method for working through those feelings which can linger for a lifetime, but in a good, honest examination of a life lived abroad we do find things we can identify with, things that resonate with us.

I found a lot to identify with in At Home in Japan: A Foreign Woman's Journey of Discovery by Rebecca Otowa.  Yes, there are many differences:  she went to Japan, I went to France;  I was graduating from high school when she was having her first child in Kyoto;  she lives in a rural area and I ended up in a big city;  she came to Japan via Australia and I went straight from Seattle to Suresnes.

But there was so much in her experience that sounded familiar:  struggling with the language, fitting in with the community, coping with the very different status of women in the new culture, and working out the relationship with the mother-in-law:
My mother-in-law's teaching task was formidable:  I was not only from another family, but from another country across the world, my ignorance seemingly bottomless.
This description of her wedding brought forth feelings about my own ceremony that I have not examined for over 20 years.  I, too, did what I was told for very similar reasons:
Most of the preparation, except for personal details of hair and costume, went ahead without me, and I did whatever I was told.  Did I really feel that I was getting married?  It was a huge inscrutable Event Extraordinaire, which carried me along on its own momentum, dazed by all the tiny details which formed a hypnotic kaleidoscope of otherness. 
And this passage which perfectly captures that sense I had in the first years in France that I was losing myself and feeling cowed by what I felt was constant criticism:
My own sense of self sank without a trace;  in those early years, the few times I dared to voice my true feelings or opinions, I was scolded as though for some unpardonable rudeness.
After finding so much that I could personally identify with, it was a bit startling to come across something that made me stop and reflect because my first reaction was one of strong disagreement. 
As I was evolving in my expat life, the Japanese people around me looked at me and saw a gaijin - an outsider, one who could never belong.  This is the heartache of the foreigner in Japan, and it makes it a wholly different experience from that of the expat in, say, parts of Europe, or Australia. 
This is one to discuss because while I cannot speak for expats in Australia or other parts of Europe, I do know quite a few in France and I cannot count the number of foreigners I've talked to who feel (rightly or wrongly) that they will never be French no matter how long they live there.  Yes, living in Japan is a very different experience from living in France, and a foreigner of, say, European origin is easy to spot.  However, my sense is that there are other markers of difference besides physical appearance that are just as important (perhaps even more important) in other contexts.  

Otawa is a good writer and her book is organized as a series of well-crafted essays.  Nevertheless, I almost gave up on the book after I had read for about an hour because the first half contained lovely descriptive chapters about her house and life in Japan and that was not at all what I was looking for. 

It was the second half of the book where I found that honest exploration of what happens to an individual's identity when it is transplanted into an unfamiliar culture that made the book a powerful read for me.   And I felt this electric shock of recognition toward the end of the book when I flipped the page and read, "How am I different from what I would have been had I never come here, never elected to spend my life in this foreign land?"

I would not think of depriving you of the pleasure of discovering for yourself her answer to that question.  This is a "mind worth exploring" and I highly recommend this book to you.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Sprituality of Imperfection

Last week I read this one again and found it just as delightful the second time around.  Here is the review that I wrote two years ago.  Enjoy.

 The Spirituality of Imperfection:  Storytelling and the Search for Meaning by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham is a remarkable book. I don't think I've read anything so moving, so powerful, so darn useful in a long time.  The authors offer up the idea that there is a spirituality that is thousands of years old, exists in many forms, and has a common theme:  imperfection.  Not a jaundiced and cynical view of people as incorrigible "sinners" but rather an simple and honest acknowledgement that we are human and flawed:
"To be human is to be imperfect, somehow error-prone.  To be human is to ask unanswerable questions, but to persist in asking them, to be broken and to ache for wholeness, to hurt and to try to find ways to healing through the hurt.  To be human is to embody a paradox, for according to the ancient vision, we are, 'less than the gods, more than the beasts, yet somehow both.'"
Spirituality, as it is presented here, is definitely not religion though there is a link between the two.  All of the world religions have contributed to the search for meaning:  Greek philosophers, the Desert Fathers, saints, mystics, rabbis, Zen teachers, imams and even doctors/psychiatrists like Carl Jung.  

Though their words, images, deeds and stories (especially stories) they teach us in a very indirect way something so true and terribly profound about ourselves and how we might live.  And yet, spirituality and religion are not the same though we have a hard time explaining the difference.  There is a saying, "Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell.  Spirituality is for people who've already been there."  That is a bit unfair and yet there is something to it.  When religion is reduced to doctrine and religious practices become mere habits, it sometimes takes a catastrophic life event to send someone back to the church, synagogue, temple or mosque to start asking deeper questions.

Spirituality is more about the search and not so much about the framework.  That is not to say that the framework is irrelevant but, I believe (and feel free to disagree) that the religious tradition I follow would be a hollow thing indeed in my life if there was not a strong spiritual foundation under it.

Spirituality is also not therapy. Both attempt to heal but in very different ways.  Therapy assumes that we are somehow "sick" and there is something in us that needs to be "fixed" and seeks reasons and techniques to make this happen.  Spirituality agrees that there is something wrong, "with me, with you, with the world," but it says that, "there is nothing wrong with that, because that is the nature of our reality. "

That acknowledgement that we all have a dark side, that there is pain and suffering in life, and that this is simply part of the human condition, is not only objectively true (realism at its finest) but it is also very liberating.  When we no longer seek the impossible goal of perfection (or see ourselves and others as instant improvement projects) something in us that was wound very tightly begins to relax. We can, as this Buddhist teacher put it, "lighten up," and see ways of gently progressing without beating ourselves up for our failure to meet an impossible standard in all circumstances.

Kurtz and Ketcham do an superb job of explaining all this and so much more.  I find their argument that the organization AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) is a good example of this ancient spiritual tradition (transposed into a modern setting) to be very convincing.  Woven into each chapter are tales from different religious traditions and philosophers.  Spirituality, like many experiences, cannot be described directly or precisely.  It is only through telling stories to each other that we see (in a very indirect manner) a "truth" that speaks to us.   I will let this story from the book serve as an example of what I am rather clumsily trying to say:

Around the end of the 19th century, a tourist from the United States visited the famous Polish rabbi Hafez Hayyim.  He was astonished to see that the rabbi's home was just a simple room filled with books.  The only furniture was a table and a bench.
"Rabbi, where is your furniture?" asked the tourist.
"Where is yours?  replied Hafez.
"Mine?  But I'm only a visitor here."
"So am I," said the rabbi.

Japanese Lesson Plan

One month ago I arrived in Japan with a few phrases and a little vocabulary and that was it.  Today I went out to lunch, asked the waiter for his recommendations, ordered in Japanese, said the equivalent of bon appétit to my lunch date, and thanked the staff for the lovely meal as I left the restaurant.

Progress!  Whenever I kick myself because I can't remember a phrase or I mangle a word so badly that it's incomprehensible, I remind myself that one month ago I was limited to "yes", "no", and "thank you."


Do I have a Grand Plan for learning Japanese?  Not really. Let's call it a flexible framework instead.

For me a flexible framework is one that has a general structure but is open to adjustment and fine-tuning. This means making mistakes, realizing that this isn't the way to go, and moving on without a lot of self-condemnation or regret.  

I have made quite a few course corrections in the past month. I followed recommendations, bought books, spent a lot of time on the Internet  and did other things that didn't  necessarily work for me (but they might work for you, so don't take my experience too seriously).

Here are a few things that didn't help this beginning language learner:

A standard beginner's Japanese textbook.  I'd read a chapter and would get lost and frustrated halfway through.  Worse, the Kindle version did not have links to individual chapters so I had to keep bookmarking sections I wanted to review and that was just irritating.   I won't name the book here but I'll whisper the title in your ear if you stop by the apartment for coffee.

Heisig's Remembering the Kanji.  This one came highly recommended and it looked good (it is certainly complete) but it was too much, too soon for me.  Not to mention that trying to get any kanji into my head before mastering the hiragana was like trying to eat too much of the elephant at once - too much to swallow.  This one has been set aside for the time being.

Jumping from website to website to find vocabulary, phrases and the correct grammar to use in standard situations like restaurants or stores.  There just wasn't enough context to help me remember what I read and my list of favoris grew to a ridiculous length which made it hard to find that one website about ordering drinks.  I've since deleted all of them.

What is helping right now:

A Japanese tutor.  A real live human being who comes to my house twice a week for 3 hours. It's loosely structured around scripts and vocabulary lists.  Once I have the script down, we play with it and she explains the grammar as we go along.  Most importantly, it's a safe place to speak - to try things out, to ask questions and to make mistakes.  This is the first time I've used a language tutor and so far the experience has been outstanding.

JapanesePod101 "Survival Phrases".  This is a really well done series of about 60 short, very digestible Japanese lessons.  It covers useful phrases and vocabulary for a number of common situations like taking a taxi or ordering in a restaurant.  Each session is limited to just a few sentences and they go over them many times very slowly.  I'm enjoying this one a lot.

Dr. Moku. To start learning the hiragana.I went through several sites with different methods and quizzes for learning the simplest writing system.  This is one I decided was best for me.  Nice interface, good pop quizzes, It's still a struggle but I don't mind logging on and working at it every morning, perhaps because there is something almost playful about the site.

One final element - not an obvious one and you won't find it advertised anywhere - that has been making learning Japanese much much easier on me:  the people in Osaka.

Everywhere I go I find patience, understanding, and encouragement.  I have not had one critical remark, nor has any request for help gone unanswered.  I try to speak and they are incredibly patient, waiting until I get as much of the sentence out as I can and then they gently correct or supply the missing word.

Now I'm sure that are impatient people here, and I will undoubtedly inadvertently offend at some point, but so far it has been so pleasant to have one's efforts rewarded.  From my reaction, you might gather (correctly) that this has not been the case elsewhere.  So....

Want people to learn and use your language well?

Be kind.

What a concept.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Learning Another Language at 50

I will turn 50 this year and I can assure you that learning a third language was not what I had in mind as I get close to celebrating five decades on this earth.  And yet, I can't imagine living in a country and not being able to communicate with the people around me.  When I walk out the door of my apartment, the webs of significance make little or no sense to me and I find that very frustrating.

Language is not the only strand in the webs but it is an important one.  It's the one that helps you make sense of all the others.

I started learning French (my second language) in the US through language classes in high school and at university.  I was young, eager to learn, and highly motivated.  Not that there weren't moments when I despaired because of my accent - something I have never managed to lose- or because new situations forced me to learn and stretch and that was not always comfortable.  Like, for example, giving a speech in French to 200 people in a huge auditorium with a faulty microphone. (Believe me, that was so not my day and the fact that I remember it so vividly is a good indication of how traumatized I was.)

30 years later the situation is not the same.  What brought me to Japan is not what brought me to France decades ago.  I am motivated and eager to learn Japanese but there is less urgency because I don't have a job to worry about, nor do I have obligations (like a mother-in-law) that would make learning the language quickly a priority.  But what I see as the most important difference is that I'm simply not the same person I was back then.

The common wisdom is that learning languages becomes more difficult as one gets older.  Is it true?  Kenji Hakuta has done a lot of research into the topic of older language learners and from what I recall from his books, the picture is not nearly as bleak as one might think.

Before I go back and dig up the books (and some articles I read long ago)  here are a few things I've noticed since I started formally learning Japanese last week with the help of a tutor.

Successful Language Acquisition in the Past Bodes Well for the Future:  Every time I feel overwhelmed I can remind myself that I was successful at learning a first and then a second language.

"But the first one doesn't count!" you say.  I don't agree.  We don't realize how amazing it is that we learn language at all.  We are hardwired to do it and that's true whether you are 5 days or 50 years old.  Furthermore, we never stop learning language - even our first language.  Think about this:  when you were fifteen, you were surely able to use your first language better than when you were five years old, right?  In ten years you improved which means that you kept learning.  Ditto for when you were 20, 30, 40 years old.

So learning a language is a lifetime endeavour and we never stop learning even if we only concentrate on one language, the very first one.

I learned my second language well past the "critical period."  I was in my late teens when I started French and well into my twenties when I started speaking it on a regular basis. But I learned - sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly and I'm still learning.   I realized the other day that I have spent more years as a francophone than the French children I see in elementary, middle and high school have been alive.

So if we all learn a first language, and many of us learn a second language, clearly we can learn, if we wish, a third language.

Where Age Might Matter:  Accent.  I still have an American accent in French and I'm aware that this holds true for Japanese as well.  Though Japanese is a bit easier than French in this respect since the sounds in Japanese more or less map to ones in English.

Also anything that requires brute memorization is hard for me.  I'm learning the hiragana with flash cards and I'm still struggling.

But this is not just true of language, it's been true for many things.  I just don't have the ability to memorize things quickly these days and I find myself always having to write things down on post-its.  This could be age, a lingering effect of the chemo, the medications I'm taking now, stress or a combination of all these things.

Experience, Self-Awareness and Maturity Are Your Allies:  At 50 I have a few things going for me that I didn't have when I was younger.  For one thing, with age comes power.  A two-year old learning a language can't say to mom (or dad), "You know, I could learn a lot faster if you two could stop mumbling and speak a little more slowly."  A young immigrant who just started a new job is not necessarily in a place where he she feels comfortable asking native speakers to slow the conversation down or repeat themselves in a meeting.

At this point in my life I have no qualms about saying (and making it stick): "I don't understand," "One more time, please," and "Could you speak more slowly?"  My self-worth is not contingent on other people's opinion of my language progress.  Also, I don't have a boss or a parent or a school teacher standing over me with a whip forcing me to submit to the tyranny of their expectations.

Experience learning languages has given me some idea about what works for me and so my Japanese tutor and I put together a lesson format that uses those things that feel natural and easy. I learn best in blocks - so we work with whole sentences and scripts and not so much with grammar. Between my self-knowledge and her experience teaching Japanese professionally to foreigners, we are on the same page and are mutually satisfied with our first week of lessons.

Are there any other third (or fourth) language learners out there?  If so, does any of the above resonate with you?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Signs of Spring

"And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself
Well...How did I get here?"

Talking Heads "Once in a Lifetime"

And the days go by.  Monday I fell ill with the mother of all colds, Tuesday I started Japanese lessons and by Thursday my professor had me making simple, useful, grammatically correct sentences (she is a really fine teacher), and Friday we went to a France/Japan Kansai friendship society dinner.

But the best was yet to come.  Saturday was warm and sunny and staying home was simply out of the question.   So we took the subway to Osaka Castle Park, strolled about and stumbled upon the first signs of spring here in Osaka:  blooming plum trees.  



The plums precede the cherries.  Who knew?  But what a sight it was and I decided on the spot that I prefer the richer tones of the plum blossoms. 



Bon weekend!