Coming to America Pandemic Edition: Hard Landing

I have struggled to write this post, to describe what it is like to come back to the US after four years in Malawi. I think of what some might say — I mean, I am American, how hard can it be to come back my home country? Two decades ago, as I prepared to return to the US after three years in Japan, I expressed concerns about the transition to a person who knew me well. After all, I had lived in a small town in rural Japan with one restaurant and few people who spoke English for a significant period of time. The national news in Japan would lead with stories like the cherry blossom forecast or the mating of two rare cranes. The news for Washington, DC, alone would lead with a shooting or a traffic accident. My friend told me it was silly to worry, that I had been “brainwashed” to think otherwise.

I had not been brainwashed, of course. Instead, I was preparing myself for the inevitable culture shock of returning home, to a place that would seem familiar, but not quite. That would seem strange in unexpected ways. Where I would not quite fit in.

Reverse culture shock is not something new for me.  In early 1995, I struggled with the disparities after returning from seven months study abroad in Beijing.  The China of the early 1990s, even in the capital, was not the China of today.  There was one phone on our dormitory hall. In winter, we filled our large thermoses with hot water heated in the coal fired oven located in the shed across from our dorm. I bought my yogurt in little glass bottles from a small store near campus. It came in three flavors: plain, strawberry, and pineapple. I would ride with two of the glass bottles clinking in the basket of an old bicycle to class. I stood out with my blonde hair. People stared at me. If I stopped to buy something, at least ten Chinese stopped to watch me buy that something. I had random people pet my pale freckled arm – usually without asking. Once a proprietress of a small shop suddenly leapt over her glass counter to grab my hair. She had not looked like a person with the reflexes and speed of a panther, but I had been wrong. Back in the US, I found myself often standing stock still in front of certain sections of the supermarket paralyzed by choice or simply wandering the aisles for an hour or so but leaving with nothing.  I became invisible – not a single person seemed to notice me at all. For months on end, I also refused to get my hair cut because the prices in the US were so much higher than in Beijing, where I not only would get a decent cut but also a marvelous 30-minute head and neck massage.  American salons could not compete.  And it pissed me off for a few months.

But later I either spent less time in the U.S. between my overseas gigs – a direct transfer from South Korea to the Philippines, only three months between the Philippines and Japan, or following my three years in rural Japan I opted to spend a year of backpacking around the world before grad school in California, to lessen the shock – or maybe the cities I found myself in overseas were increasingly developed so that the “shock” between them and the US lessened? Or maybe I just grew more accustomed to the differences?

But this time it was different.  Not only had we spent the past four years living in one of the world’s poorest countries in southern Africa, but also with the COVID pandemic we had not visited the US in two years.  We had not traveled off the African continent in a year and a half, with the vast majority of the time spent not only in Malawi, but just in and around our home in Lilongwe. 

After a month of home leave in Florida, during which we had no real schedule and, despite some paperwork and medical appointments, was largely unstructured and restful, it was time to settle in some. Once we arrived in Arlington, Virginia, to check into our State Department provided housing for my training though, things changed. And some of those things that had seemed so spectacular in the initial weeks began to feel less so. I boiled down the adjustment to a few key categories.

Drastic Differences

No surprise here, but the level of development in Malawi is far lower than that of the US. In Arlington, we moved into our apartment in a 21-story building surrounded by buildings of a similar size. In Malawi, the tallest building in the country, the Walmont Hotel in Lilongwe, stood at 12 stories. The country might boast a few other similarly sized buildings at perhaps six or eight or 10 stories, but they are few and far between. Where they stand, they stand out. Four lane or even six lane roads are the norm in the US; I can see the junction of two just from my apartment window. Yet, in Malawi these are rare. When after taking nearly the entire four years we were in Lilongwe, the Malawian government at last completed the Area 18 interchange and “dual carriageway,” it was the first overpass and cloverleaf roadway in the entire country. Though the country’s second city Blantyre and third city Mzuzu also have one or two roads that are more than one lane, these cover short distances. The Area 18 project stretched only 4.6 kilometers, just short of three miles! And the developmental differences are everywhere. From sidewalks to streetlights, what may be ubiquitous in the US is often rare in Malawi.

Something as simple as drinking water for example. Many Americans take it for granted they will turn on their taps and clean, potable water will spew forth. Though some may dislike the taste and will opt to further filter or flavor their water, one can just drink it straight from the tap. This is not the case in many places in the developing world. And emergency services! We might complain about how long it takes for an ambulance to arrive (and I realize that what community you are calling from in the US may certainly impact when, and maybe if, one comes), but generally they come. Moving into our apartment, C and I immediately found ourselves irritated by the regular sounds of ambulance, police, and fire vehicles. We seemed to be surrounded by emergencies day and night. But the issue for Lilongwe was not that there were not emergencies, of course not, but rather that the emergency services had limited capacity and resources. I read, for example, there only four fire stations in the whole of Malawi. FOUR for a country of 19 million. Arlington County in Virginia has nine fire stations and nine fire engines for a quarter of a million people. There might be seven fire engines in the entirety of Lilongwe – urban and rural areas – and at any given time, maybe half of them are working. The same can be said for ambulances and the police. Once I realized this, I was no longer irritated at the sound of the sirens. I am grateful they are there.

Spoiled for Choice

There is so much choice in America. Take apples. Do you want Gala? Red Delicious? Fuji? Honeycrisp? Golden Delicious? Or maybe Granny Smith? Do you want to pick them out yourself or buy pre-bagged? How about regular or organic? Or maybe you are looking for yogurt. Which brand do you want? Yoplait? Chobani? Fage? Stonyfield? Or Danone? Will you want Greek style? Are you in search of the regular flavors like strawberry, vanilla, coconut, raspberry or perhaps something with more pizzazz like key lime pie, strawberry cheesecake, or piña colada? Full fat, low fat, or fat free? Pre-mixed, fruit at the bottom, or perhaps with a side of granola? It is not as if Malawi had no choice – there were a few types of apples, there were yogurt options. But no where near the dizzying choices facing one every day in an American supermarket. And then which supermarket? And how will you get your groceries – will you go to the supermarket yourself or have it delivered? And if delivered, by whom?

And it is not just the supermarkets. There are the transportation options: personal car, taxi, subway, bus, bicycle, scooter, or a ride hailing company – and even in this last category one must decide if Uber of Lyft is more your speed. There are so many cuisine options and restaurants serving those cuisines. Or services delivering the restaurant foods to you.

And it feels ridiculous to write all this out. Americans know they have access to these options. And I AM AMERICAN. Yet it feels so bewildering. Indulgent. At times even indecent that we have so much available to us.

Loss of Identity / Fear of Missing Out

This feeling may be harder to explain. I am currently being paid to be in long-term training. Taking functional and then language training for my next assignment is my full time, paid, job. I am even provided housing, nice housing, in fact (see photo of apartment building above). This is a really, really, really nice perk of the job. It is also important to help me to prepare to do my job well.

But boy did I start to miss my old job. For four years I was the political officer at the US Embassy in Malawi. And politically, it was an exciting four years: campaigns and campaign machinations, a national election, demonstrations, a constitutional court case that overturned the presidential election, an unsurprising appeal, then a landmark Supreme Court decision upholding the lower court’s ruling, more campaigning, more machinations, a historic election, and the Economist naming Malawi the 2020 Country of the Year. I had a front seat to history and these elections were only a small part of the work. Work that was challenging, with wins and losses, but largely satisfying. And then suddenly, I am no longer the political officer; I am just a student.

This feeling was further augmented with the sudden and very dramatic US departure from Afghanistan. A colleague I served with in China posted her status to friends and family as she and others departed the Embassy in Kabul and then the airport as the Taliban took control. Another I served with in Mexico headed to Kabul for the final airport evacuations. Other friends and colleagues volunteered to provide support at Dulles Airport and Fort Lee in Virginia, and in Washington or in locations such as Abu Dhabi and Doha. I know there will be analyses and commentary on the handling of Afghanistan for years and decades to come, but the work of those I know was nothing short of extraordinary in incredibly trying times. I am very proud of them. And I know 100% that nothing associated with Afghanistan is about me. And yet, it felt incredibly odd, even wrong, to sit on the sidelines.

Then a few weeks later the military staged a coup in Guinea, my next assignment. I could close my eyes and understand how my colleagues there were jumping into action. But I had no involvement; I am not yet there and I had classes to attend.

There has also been an opening in some places, a return to travel. I see friends back in Malawi heading out on safari or to Victoria Falls in neighboring Zambia. Other friends, having arrived in Cambodia for their new tour a few months before, visited Angkor Wat. A friend in Egypt visited the pyramids around Cairo and then headed down the Nile to Luxor. Others when to Italy or the Maldives.

I really miss travel. Deeply. I miss the trips that we were to take that were cancelled. The trips I had yet to put into action that could not happen. And while in training at the Foreign Service Institute, the policy is that students cannot take annual leave for time off, so there will be no travel during our time here.

It is not just a “Fear of Missing Out” (or FOMO). I AM missing out. My identity as a political officer and a traveler are currently on hold.

COVID-19 Effects

Honestly, I am not quite ready to travel again. With C yet unvaccinated and rules for who can go where and what they need to test for or prove beforehand change regularly, even travel planning does not yet again give me the joy it once did. Our home leave was spent in Jacksonville, Florida, when the city became the epicenter of the surge in the Delta variant. C started school in northern Virginia in this climate. I am grateful my daughter can attend school in person, but the daily survey sent to us by text and email is a stark and regular reminder that the pandemic is still very much here. As the US deaths from COVID-19 approached 600,000 a friend of mine in Michigan reached out with a request: a friend of a friend wanted a flag placed in memory of a loved one in an art installation on the Washington Mall. Would I be able to assist? An hour later I found myself kneeling in the grass on the Mall surrounded by the sight and sounds of hundreds of thousands of white flags as I placed one more into the soft ground.

And normally when returning to the US for training, one would run into friends and colleagues in the cafeteria and halls of the Foreign Service Institute. But with training still virtual I am not running into anyone. For an introvert, it is somewhat freeing. But it is also continuing the isolation.

I do not mean all or even any of this is negative; it just is. There has been reverse culture shock. It has been a harder transition than past ones. It is taking time to readjust. I do miss the responsibilities of my old job. But I am still a diplomat. I am still a mom. Instead of an expat, I am now a resident of the US; I am now a student. I am getting used to doing other things. There are so many great things about being home. And by the time I start feeling pretty comfortable, it will be time to make another move.

Coming to America Pandemic Edition: Home Leave

We had made it to the U.S. from Malawi in the time of COVID. Whew! And now we could begin our congressionally-mandated period of readjustment, reacquaintance, and relaxation in the U.S. known as Home Leave. Unlike Home Leaves past, where we traveled from place to place to place, we would spend the majority of this one in one location, Florida, where, for the first time ever, I own property. Do not get me wrong, I had initially intended another whirlwind Home Leave journey that would take us to multiple U.S. states and experiences on the bucket list, but a combination of timing, getting older (which I hate admitting), bringing our Malawian nanny, and COVID, led me to make some adjustments. Though it was far and away due to the pandemic, and I will admit a continued sense of identity loss with reduced travel, there was something satisfying about slowing down and staying put, familiarizing ourselves with our new U.S. home town, and introducing America to a newcomer.

After successfully emerging from the security and immigration at Dulles Airport, we were met by my sister and then our transport driver, who whisked myself, the nanny, my daughter, the cat, and our odd collection of baggage, off to a nearby car rental. There we were met by my aunt, who took some of our luggage off our hands, and then we were on the road to Florida.

Yes, I had decided to drive to Florida. Sure, we could have flown, but there were all sorts of reasons that made me not want to deal with the 8 1/2 hour layover and boarding another flight. I can distill it down to my deep desire to be on the road and (seemingly) more in control.

And as we merged onto I-95, the main artery linking the American east coast from Miami Florida to the Maine-Canadian border, I felt pretty darn happy. Maybe ecstatic. I felt free. This was not the Malawi roadtripping of the past four years. This was not potholes and missing shoulders, it was not narrow two lanes that double as livestock crossings or pass suddenly through small market villages with people and goods spilling right onto the road. It was six beautiful lanes (actual lanes! with visible lines!) of smooth asphalt. Even when it became bumper to bumper traffic that turned our 2 to 1/2 hour drive to Richmond into an exasperating 4 1/2 hours causing me to let loose some expletives I thought I had reserved exclusively for Malawi driving, I was still thrilled to be driving in America.

That first day’s drive took so much longer than anticipated we ended up stopping our first night in Richmond instead of the planned stop around Fayettville, NC. Already exhausted by jet lag and jacked up with drive excitement, I had to call it quits early. The second day we would not make it to Jacksonville either, making our overnight pitstop in Santee, South Carolina. But what this afforded me was the opportunity to wake up, bright eyed and bushy tailed, around 3 AM, and then drive for hours in the dark along the highway. This, too, was an indulgence I could not pursue in Malawi as we were prohibited from driving after dark outside of the three major cities due to unsafe roads and lack of ambulance and police services. But in the U.S. I could glide along those roads in the pre-dawn hours with little other traffic.

C and her nanny JMC enjoy the candy store, the Jacksonville Zoo, and at James Weldon Johnson Park in downtown Jacksonville

My nanny, JMC, a hard-working and eager 20-year-old, who had described her first airplane flight with wide, bright eyes (“I could feel my soul leaving my body!”) gave our highways high marks. She remarked on the sheer number of trees flanking the road. “Amazing!” she called it all. A good reminder of something many Americans take for granted: an extensive and efficient road system.

I view Jacksonville, Florida as more a place to live than a tourist destination. It has its beaches, of course, and museums and other similar attractions found in large U.S. cities, but it does not scream “vacation” to me. That being said, this Home Leave would be the longest we would consecutively spend in the area and I had put together a decently list of activities for our visit. It turned out that even my plans for Florida were wildly ambitious.

After nearly 18 months of limited (frankly, nearly zilch) activities outside our home in Lilongwe and few getaways, we were not used to having options and found it harder to muster the energy for back-to-back pursuits. The luxury of just sitting around a living room other than the one we had in Lilongwe was so very tempting (Okay, we were not just tempted. We totally embraced it). We were not only jet lagged, but exhausted — by the flights, the drive, the last week of departure preparations. In addition to my list of fun things to do, I also had a list of less-fun but necessary things to be done, from medical appointments that could not be taken care of in Malawi to items to buy (both my phone and my computer were on their last legs) and paperwork (insurance and employment authorization applications for the nanny).

We lived it up – with COVID mitigation measures – at St. Augustine and Disney

And there was the pandemic. I guess I had this odd idea that once we left Malawi, we could also leave it behind us. That was, of course, not the case. We had departed Malawi in the middle of a rising third COVID wave only to arrive in Jacksonville, Florida, which had become an epicenter of the U.S.’ Delta wave. This would slow my Home Leave roll too.

But I still managed to get us out and about. In the initial few days, I took us to the Jacksonville Zoo and to the Museum of Science and History (MOSH). I suppose one might wonder why a zoo after four years in Africa? I know some might wonder this as this is exactly what my daughter asked me when I told her I was dragging her there against her will. Because zoos — well good zoos that support animal welfare and research — can be amazing places to see animals that one might not otherwise have the opportunity to see. Animals that even on a four hour game drive in Africa cannot coax into appearing before you. JMC had been to the zoo once when she lived in South Africa as a child, but her only experience seeing animals at a game park in Malawi was when we took her and her sister with us to the Kuti Wildlife Reserve the year before, and though we had a good time, I’ll mention something I didn’t mention then, that the animals were limited in variety and mostly hid from us. I attribute the fun we had to the fact we were with good friends and that it was the first trip we took after the six months ban on leaving the capital in that first half year of the pandemic. Both C and JMH loved the Jacksonville Zoo. They also liked the MOSH, though disdained the history portion (C: “There is too much to read here. This is boring.”) but embraced the pay-to-experience hurricane contraption.

I also took them to St. Augustine to see the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument and eat ice cream while melting in midday 90 degree heat in August in Florida. I like taking C to places of American historic significance, to try to pack in some Americana since she spends so much time outside her homeland. And making her visit a historic place in the height of sweltering summer is, I believe, an American parent-child relationship right of passage. JMH told me that she thought she, an African, would be well-prepared for American summers, but that that day in St. Augustine had proven her wrong.

After our visit to the Zoo and MOSH, I buckled down with my paperwork for about a week and then when I emerged took us all to Disney World. We might be people you would call “Disney people.” We have visited a few parks a few times (for example, here, here, here, and here). C and I wanted our Disney fix and I wanted to give JMC a taste of Disney fun. With COVID, I was a bit concerned. I reduced our planned park time from three days to two – with one day at Magic Kingdom and one at Animal Kingdom – and we kept our masks on all the time at the park, and it worked out for us. Disney was keeping its actual park capacity limits secret, but it was clear as soon as we arrived that levels were still not what they were pre-COVID There were a few rides that were hard to get on but we rode on nearly all we wanted to and had a spectacular time and scored with some really gorgeous weather.

Back in our condo in Jacksonville we slowed down more. I had more paperwork; I joined a gym for the first time in a very, very long time. C and I took walks or drives to capture Pokémon in Pokémon Go, something we could not do in Malawi as my personal phone had not connected to any network away from home. I took them to Sweet Pete’s, a famous candy shop in downtown Jacksonville, for a make-your-own-chocolate-bar and factory tour experience, and then paid beaucoup bucks for giant bags of candy they giddily picked out. We took walks to Target (because it is a destination in and of itself, especially for American devotees who spend a lot of time overseas where there are none) and at Castaway Island Preserve or on the beach, JMC’s first time to see the ocean.

Then suddenly the vacation part of Home Leave was coming to an end. I had opted to spend nearly four weeks in Florida and then an additional two in our State Department provided lodging to get C into school and all of us settled into our new apartment and neighborhood. (PS: the two weeks before my training began were out of my own pocket, but so worth it! The Department only picks up the tab the night before training begins and it is really hard to adjust when starting school and training and life in a new place all at that same time. Oh, that is what we do overseas!)

JMC and C pose at a bus stop in Savannah, GA

I decided I wanted one more shot at an experience sort of like Home Leaves past, so arranged for us to spend two nights in Savannah, Georgia, on our way north to Virginia. I have long wanted to visit Savannah but had never done so and it was sort of on the way… And as the oldest European settlement in Georgia it fit in with a minor theme of our Home Leave (St. Augustine is the oldest European settlement in Florida and New Bern, where we would stay a night with one of my best friends, is the second oldest European settlement in North Carolina).

We kept our Savannah visit COVID compliant. We did not join a hop on hop off bus, we did not take a group tour. What we did was walk. And I will tell you that walking is not only a great way to see a town but a glorious pastime that Americans often take for granted. It was here in Savannah that I realized my 9-year-old daughter did NOT know how to walk in a town. I knew that I would need to discuss the finer points of walking in an urban area with the nanny; a good friend who facilitates the visits of foreigners to the U.S. on exchange programs had told me that one major point he emphasizes is that jaywalking is illegal in America. In Malawi, as in many developing countries, it is a necessity, an artform even. There are few to no sidewalks or crosswalks or traffic lights. Unlike myself, who had grown up learning to look both ways before I crossed a street, C had not. Another missing piece in her informal education. In Savannah she just walked off each curb with a blithe confidence that caused my heart to stop.

So we learned some Georgia history, and American history, and life skills during our walking tours of Savannah. Two days was not enough time to cover any of that in any great detail, but we really enjoyed our stay. Next we moved on to a night in New Bern with one of my best friends and her son, a much needed respite from our drive, and then before I knew it we had arrived in Arlington, Virginia, where we will spend the next 9 1/2 months in training before heading on to my next assignment.

This Home Leave may not have been what I had initially planned and hoped for, but it is the one we got in a pandemic and turned out to be just what we needed.

Coming to America Pandemic Edition: The Final Days and the Journey Back

It has been about six weeks since we departed Malawi. I have needed this time to recuperate from the move and the weeks (months? year?) leading up to it. Undertaking an international move at any time always comes with its challenges and stressors. Add in family members, a nanny, a cat, and a pandemic and things can really leave one mentally, emotionally, and physically drained. Through much of my Home Leave I have cycled through some complex feelings as I try to come to terms that my daughter’s life and mine in Malawi were in the past. I am finally able to write.

The last days in Malawi were hard. Due to some personnel gaps and a definite COVID-19 third wave that impacted Embassy staffing (a return to near 100% telework) and an inability to get temporary staff from Washington to Malawi, I again stepped in to handle some emergency Consular cases on top off completing some final political reports. Having things to work on was important as I was the last of my cohort to PCS (Permanent Change of Station; i.e. move internationally with a change in assignments), and no longer really felt I belonged in Malawi. U.S. colleagues I had spent three years working with had all departed. Others were on leave for 3-4 weeks. COVID has ensured that meeting new people was difficult, if not impossible.

But it was harder for my daughter. As an only child she can generally entertain herself well, but school was out, her best friends had left Malawi for good – heading to their next postings – or vacation, and all but a few suitcases of our things had been packed and shipped. Although there were a few kids around we had COVID tests approaching to allow us to depart Malawi and enter the US and I could not risk opening our very small bubble. I had stayed in Malawi for four years, in part to give her more stability, but those last few weeks I felt like a pretty terrible mom. And in that last week, my independent daughter, who had never, ever, verbalized any interest in a sibling, in fact had said she did NOT want one, asked if during our time back in the US I could adopt her a kid sister. (The answer, for many obvious reasons, was an emphatic NO). This lifestyle comes with some amazing opportunities, but also some pretty hard realities.

And then suddenly it was time to go. We departed on a Wednesday, so we had our COVID tests on Monday, 72 hours before departure. The 24 hour wait seemed interminable. And then the results – Negative for us all! – hit the inbox and I could finally let out some of the breath I had been holding. Wednesday morning was about as boring as one can expect sitting in one’s empty house – that is about to become someone else’s house – eating the last bit of food, doing the last bit of cleaning, until the Motorpool driver arrived to ferry us and all our suitcases to the airport. Luckily (?) I had one last emergency visa to attend to at the Embassy to give me an hour of purpose, and a colleague checked one last political point. I was still needed!

Arrival at the airport, without leaving something behind, was the next phase to relax a little. All our suitcases: check. Child: check. Cat: check. Nanny: check. My sanity…check back for that later.

But the airline had not seated us together despite my going to the city center office a week before to make this specific request. Sigh. After some demanding and groveling, definitely not my finest diplomatic moment, that took at least half an hour and involved several employees and trips to other offices, we managed to get seats close to one another. My nanny, who had never been on a plane before, looked a little scared. My daughter, who did not want to be parted from the nanny, looked sad. Me, I was frustrated and starting to feel quite sure I had left my sanity back at the house, maybe under the bed?, but we had to accept the situation and move forward. Then the COVID test results checks, my handing over Embassy badge and phone to my colleagues (my last tether to my position there), immigration and security, and we made it to the lounge and then boarding the first plane. As we took off, I could let out a bit more of that held breath.

But not all. We had the Addis Ababa transit gauntlet still ahead of us. I will note a few lessons learned. One, traveling with a large block of extra passports looks suspicious. Old passports are a record of travel and C and I have quite a few – 12 past passports to be exact. I travel with them in my carry on to keep them safe. Yet, at the exact moment when the security person riffling through my bag found them, it dawned on me how very Jason Bourne (if Jason Bourne was a bungling idiot) this might look. I got an odd look, then a question: What are THESE? But my rushed explanation must have found a sympathetic, or simply tired, ear, and she shrugged and put them back. I dodged a bullet, in the form of having to explain myself in enhanced screening, with that shrug.

Two, do not have your child conduct air travel with light up shoes. In all the hullabaloo of preparations it did not occur to me that my daughter’s sole pair of sneakers – which light up and have a charger – would cause security issues. [Insert face palm emoji] Of course they did. I enjoyed an extra 15 to 20 minutes at security trying to explain the concept of her shoes. They wanted me to light them up to show them, but I had never charged them, did not have the charger, and they had ceased functioning long ago. I explained this to one person, then another, then possibly a third, as they ran the shoes through the security machine repeatedly. At one point I told my daughter it was highly likely we would need to leave them and she would have to travel in her socks. She didn’t love the idea. I didn’t either, but I had passed the point of caring. Then suddenly we were told we could continue with the shoes. We hightailed it away as soon as we could.

Three, traveling with a cat in cabin is getting trickier every year. When I first traveled to China with two cats in cabin, I had developed a system of dumping (gently!) the cats into a pillow case so I could carry them through security while the soft kennel goes through the machine. I have read that cats find this temporary soft prison comforting. And that this method reduced the possibility of a scenario of a freaked out cat, jumping from my arms, possibly bloodying me in the process, and leading to a mad chase through an airport. I have a vivid imagination and can see exactly how that would happen. Now, I less than elegantly shoved my one feline, who had wizened-up to this technique and did not want to participate, into the pillowcase; her black tail swishing angrily out one end as I walked through the metal detector with as much grace as I could muster. For some reason the male security agent thought I had a baby – stuffed into a pillowcase. [Insert a shoulder shrug emoji] He made a cooing sound. But when the kennel came through and I then shoved a furry body back inside, the agents, too, wizened up. They demanded to know what I had just held through security. (I will note here that to my great relief, the security gate was nearly empty — there was no line of angry passengers waiting for my circus to end). This led to some discussion and displaying of the now rather pissed off cat. But I was then asked to walk back through security with the cat in my arms sans pillowcase. My cat, who hates to be held, must have been terrified enough, as she did not move a muscle, while scanning the airport wild eyed. I held her in a death grip, pretty wild eyed myself. Convinced the furry creature I held was indeed feline and not human, and not a security threat, we were allowed to proceed.

Waiting at the boarding gate though, I heard my name announced over the loudspeaker. I thought, perhaps I have been upgraded, and will have to sadly turn it down due to my entourage. But no, the Ethiopian Airlines agent wished to inform me that he had seen I was traveling with an in-cabin pet to the U.S. and unfortunately the U.S. was not allowing any pets to enter. This was false. About two months previously the Center for Disease Control had suddenly announced an ill-timed, ill-coordinated, and ill-planned ban on dogs entering the U.S. from 114 countries. This “ban” (though not a full ban as there are ways, at least for the time being, for pet owners to obtain a waiver with certain, though often difficult to get, information) was for DOGS only. I had a cat. But I had already learned that several other airlines had taken advantage of this CDC action to discontinue pet transport. I was seized with a sudden fear that Ethiopian had decided, that day, to follow suit. But apparently, the Gods of Travel, were again on my side and simply mentioning my pet was a cat led the agent to simply nod and walk away.

We made it on the flight to the U.S. I released a bit more breath. I had one more travel hurdle ahead of me. I was bringing my nanny with me to the U.S. As a single parent, I had struggled in the past to find child care when in the U.S. Although my daughter is now 9, she isn’t quite old enough to be at home alone, and sick days, school holidays that do not match mine, teacher work days, weather-related late starts, early dismissals, or cancellations can wreck havoc on a parent’s work schedule. However, and I am going to oversimply this because it is rather complicated, when a foreigner enters the U.S., Customs and Border Patrol (i.e. Immigration) usually gives a period of stay of up to six months. I needed to ask for the maximum period of stay of a year. For that I would likely have to go to “secondary.”

If you have ever entered the U.S. at an airport or a border, you are greeted by a CBP agent, who has only so long to review your information and ask questions. If additional questions or details are needed, those frontline officers do not have the time to do it, so one gets sent for additional screening or “secondary.” Although I was exhausted by 22 hours of flight time, 28 hours of travel time, all the snafus, and all the stress of preparations, I needed to be on the ball when we landed and presented ourselves the CBP. The first officer was very nice, but had not heard of the type of visa and said we would need to present our case in secondary. I was prepared to do so. What I was not prepared for was the hour wait in the additional screening area. This was not my first time to secondary as during my last Home Leave I had been selected for the honor and when I lived in Ciudad Juarez I was pulled into secondary a few times when re-entering the U.S. from Mexico. But this time, I had asked to go there.

There we waited. And waited. And waited. We saw many many people arrive, but few people leave. CBP seemed understaffed. I am sure some cases were complicated. Though I do not know CBP work first hand, I have certainly utilized CBP information in Consular work and I imagine the kind of information they see on their screens and the questions they need to ask are similar in many aspects to visa interviews. We were all tired. I clutched the pile of paperwork I had prepared to present our case. I watched the clock. C and her nanny, JMC, watched videos together and played word games, but they were bored and confused too.

At last we were called up and again I lucked out. The officer had previously been military stationed abroad with his Foreign Service (diplomat) wife and he knew exactly the kind of visa we had as they had researched it as well. The interview and review of documents did not take long and soon enough we were released with a one year period of stay stamped in the nanny’s passport. (And wouldn’t you know it, as we walked to get our luggage we ran into the first CBP officer just getting off shift and he stopped to ask me how it went. He was genuinely happy for us and said he was glad to learn about this type of visa. I love that kind of full circle stuff).

As we came out the double doors from security and immigration, I let out that last bit of air I had been holding in. We had made it! Hello, USA.

Japan 1997-2000 Part Five: Travels from Little Stick

In July 1997 I arrived in the small coastal town of Kogushi (which translates as “little stick”) to teach English as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. This is the fifth and final in a series of posts about my three years in Kogushi.

When I was in Japan on the JET Program – and it could very much be the same now, I do not know – the vacation days were set by the prefecture. The vast majority of prefectures gave the JET teachers 15 days of vacation, though some lucky JETs got 20 days, and the sad folks in Tottori Prefecture got only 10. Yamaguchi Prefecture, where Kogushi was located and where I taught, gave 15. The thing was, there were far more than 15 days with the school closed. The school year was divided into trimesters with the first beginning the second week of April and ending around July 20, the second starting around September 1 and ending around December 20, and the third beginning around the second week of January and ending the third week of March.

Basically school was closed for 12 weeks of the year. The students were at home; the teachers, who often had been transferred from far away, headed to their home prefectures. I came to love the small fishing village of Kogushi in many ways, but I just could not sit there alone in that apartment, that town, for all but 15 days a year. Part of loving it was being able to leave and then return. The prefecture had another policy — if you traveled within Japan, you did not need to use your 15 days. You didn’t need to tell me twice.

I did travel outside of Japan – a trip to New Zealand, also to Australia, one to Bangladesh, another to Thailand, a two week trip to Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, and a week in Taiwan. But I also made the most of living in such a fascinating country. I traveled all across the country – to three of the four main islands (Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku), and to at least 22 of the 47 prefectures. I went by slow local train and fast (the shinkansen or bullet train). I took overnight ferries (from Kitakyushu to Takushima, Ehime to Osaka, Kitakyushu direct to Osaka, and from Kobe to Kitakyushu). I also twice took long distance buses — but after a bus breakdown followed by being left behind at a rest stop at midnight on the way back from Tokyo (I ran after the bus through the parking lot and luckily one person remembered the foreigner on the bus and the driver stopped – this was memorable!) and having the bus on which I was traveling on a return trip from Tottori getting hit by a truck…I did not find Japanese bus travel as reliable. Sadly, my memories are so faded, but there are some that still stand out.

Okinawa. I wish I remembered more about my trip here. I do not remember how many days I visited or where all I went; I do not even remember visiting Shuri Castle though I have photographic proof that I at least stood in front of it. What I do remember are two incidents. In the first, I took a bus north of the capital of Naha to visit the 18th century historical Nakamura residence. The bus I ended up on was the wrong one or it was not going all the way to the house that day because of the day or the time. By car the trip would take 25 minutes, but by bus over an hour. And when after an hour I realized the bus was not going to the right spot, I was pretty bummed. But I was the only one on the bus and the kindly bus driver decided to take me straight to the site, completely off his route. A backpacker’s hero! In the second instance, I just went to the mall to buy clothes. I figured that with the U.S. military base, there might be more sizes that fit me. Though I was a size small in the US, I felt like Gigantor in Japan. But sadly, I tried on a pair of jeans in size “large” and could not get them over my thighs and found myself stuck in a “one size fits all” shirt. I thought I would have to ask a Japanese sales clerk to come to the dressing room to help me out though I knew that would probably be worse as the women often ran away giggling when I tried to ask questions (a perennial problem in Korea and Japan, at least at that time).

Scenes from my time in Tokyo

Tokyo and its environs. Between my first and second years in Japan, I signed up to take part in a two week Japanese course through the Tokyo YMCA. The YMCA set up a homestay for me with a family in Yokohama. I remember almost nothing from the Japanese course itself — I don’t think it did much for my Japanese — it was more the being in Tokyo, about as far away in Japan from Kogushi as I could get: the opposite side of the country and a megapolis compared to a village. What sticks out the most from that trip was my homestay family — a two parent family, with dedicated working dad, a stay at home mom, two elementary aged kids. What made them so memorable was their keen dedication to Disney. The had annual passes to Tokyo Disneyland, had Disney decor around their home, and they named their two girls after Disney characters. I also remember meeting up with Miyako, a young mother who had befriended me in Kogushi when I entered a local government building seeking information on town recycling. No one could help me, but her husband called her — with her excellent English — to assist. We started to hang out and I even briefly joined her husband’s band. I sang the Beatles songs at a wedding. Miyako was back in Tokyo with her son and we went for a cruise on the Sumida river. Then I visited Senso Temple, Tokyo’s oldest. It is a magnificent temple of bright, colorful red buildings, including a pagoda, and is one of the city’s most significant — though anyone can tell this from reading online. I do not actually remember. What I do recall is demonstrating a high level of patience waiting by the massive red paper lantern at the “Thunder Gate” until there were few people so I could jump in and get a silly photo of me below it.

Hiroshima, Himeji Castle, and Itsukushima Shrine

Osaka to Yamaguchi. One year for Golden Week, a period at the end of April and early May when multiple Japanese holidays (Showa Day to honor the WWII Japanese Emperor on April 29, Constitution Day on May 3, Green Day on May 4, and Children’s/Boy’s Day on May 5) coincide, I decided to take an overnight ferry to Osaka and then work my way back to Yamaguchi. While in Japan I took several overnight ferries — and even twice to/from Korea — and they were rather fun — much less expensive than the bullet train and it saved a night of accommodation. These boats were huge with large sleeping rooms for maybe 50 people complete with roll out tatami mats with blankets (at least in the 2nd class dormitory) and a massive dining room. There was a gentle rocking throughout the journey, though I fared better on these big boats than I have on smaller vessels. I docked in Osaka and spent a night or two there (I had a few trips to Osaka — once for a JET Program second year conference, another time to meet up with my friend CZ who came to visit me in Japan, and then this trip — so they blur together a bit). I recall visiting Nara and feeding the wild deer and running into a Japanese celebrity. Well, its a bit embarrassing, but the “celebrity” was a young, blonde American girl of about 12 who starred in a Japanese kids show. I watched the show regularly because they mixed in English and so I could follow the plot… From Osaka, I took the train west to the town of Himeji in Hyogo province to visit the incomparable Himeji Castle, considered Japan’s best. I wish I remember the castle itself; I don’t even have any photos of the interior, but what I remember is walking the grounds, crossing the moat, and catching a beautiful view of the castle and the streamers of carp flags strewn in celebration of Children’s Day. I headed next to Okayama city, Okayama Prefecture. I had almost forgotten about this stop completely til as I was writing this I had a sudden recollection of biking through some fields and of a very strict hostel. My roommate from my Korea days had been a JET in Okayama and had recommended the Kibi Plain cycling route, which wound past historic sites and rice paddies. My next stop was Hiroshima and then the iconic Itsukushima “floating” shrine before heading home.

Beppu and Sakura-jima

The Kyushu Hot Springs Tour. While in Japan, I came to really love the hot springs or onsen. I had been introduced to the concept while teaching English in Seoul, South Korea, where I lived on the top floor of a four story walk-up. The building, painted a deep purple, and over a shoe store, had terrible plumbing, and the large, cheerless, bathroom, I shared with two roommates was not really up to task. But down the street, just a few blocks away, was a traditional public bathhouse. It was here where I 3-4 times a week (in conjunction with the shower at my gym) came to suds up alongside other neighborhood women. I was quite thrilled when I moved to Kogushi and learned that just one town over was the famous Kawata Onsen. But I was not satisfied to just head over there to fulfill my onsen interests, I started to motorbike around the district and prefecture to other hot springs and to seek them out in other locations. There were indoor onsens and outdoor onsens. Modern onsens and traditional onsens. Obscure onsens and famous onsens. And onsens that offered unique experiences such as varying temperatures, an electric bath (this was quite literally shocking and made me really uncomfortable), and more. I never did get up to Hokkaido or northern Honshu (known as “snow country”) for an au naturel soak surrounded by snow and mischievous monkeys, but I did visit the famous Tamatsukuri Onsen in Shimane prefecture and the Dogo Onsen Honkan in Ehime Prefecture, reportedly Japan’s oldest hot springs resort. Thus, in my third year in Japan, I made it my mission to visit some of Kyushu’s most famous.

I traveled first with my friend Hiroko to Saga Prefecture, where we bathed to our hearts content at the 1000+ year old Takeo Onsen. We then traveled together to Nagasaki to visit the Peace Park commemorating the atomic bombing of the city that ended WWII. Hiroko headed back home while I continued on to Kurokawa Onsen in Kumamoto Prefecture, among the country’s top ten. Further south I visited Kagoshima and Sakurajima for their onsen and I finished up at the famous springs of Beppu in Oita Prefecture. Of this whole trip, my biggest memories are of Kagoshima. Here, I partook of the famous “sand bath,” where women bury you in hot sand warmed by the very active Sakurajima volcano. It seemed innocent enough — undressing and then wrapping oneself in a specially provided robe, following two women with buckets and pails out to the beach, and then have them dig a hole in the sand to get into. And this though is when it got weird. I realized I never liked being buried in sand at the seaside. Heavy enough when it is perfectly dry, when its damp and steaming hot, it was suffocating. Ten minutes in that inferno is supposed to be enough to sweat out all one’s impurities, and I was counting down the seconds. My other big memory was of staying on Sakurajima – literally Cherry Blossom island – which was turned into a peninsula after a 1914 volcanic eruption. I stayed two uncomfortable nights. The hostel was comfy enough, it was the proximity to the smoking mountain that made me leery. But it was after enjoying a soak at the Sakurajima Maguma (I am pretty sure this is Japanese for “magma”) Onsen, with its beautiful view of the ocean from its outdoor bath, that I hitchhiked for the very first time.

Not that I have made it a habit — I’ve done it I think five times in my life? But when I came out of the onsen and realized it would be awhile before a bus came — if at all — and the walk back to the hostel would take an hour at least, the Japanese teenager that stopped to give me a lift was like a godsend. I remember a tape deck, some music we both liked, and the both of us trying to muddle our way through a conversation in broken English and broken Japanese.

Shimonoseki. Travel did not even have to be particularly far afield. There were onsens and the Mara Kannon fertility temple (with its hundreds of large and small stone phalluses) and the five story pagoda in Yamaguchi City to be found in my own prefecture. My favorite place though was the Akama Shrine in Shimonoseki. Dedicated to the child emperor Antoku who was drowned by his grandmother during a major sea battle in the Shimonoseki Strait between warring clans in the year 1185. When in Shimonoseki, I would often stop by here, it commands a beautiful view over the strait and towards the Kanmon bridge linking the islands of Honshu and Kyushu. I took my mom and aunt here when they visited, I went with friends, I glimpsed a wedding there once. But the best time was when I attended the Shimonoseki Kaikyo Festival. I had missed this festival my first two years as it fell during Golden Week, a time I was normally away, but I was low on vacation time and money, so I stayed in Kogushi. I was pretty intent on being miserable stuck in my little town, but friends invited me to attend the festival with them. It recreates the naval battle and the capitulation of the Heike clan to the Minamoto. But the most anticipated part is the walk of the Heike women to the shrine. A bridge is erected for the women, dressed as geisha, and representing different ranks. The higher the rank, the higher the geta or traditional Japanese wooden shoe and the more exaggerated their walk. The finale is when the highest of the women representing the fallen Heike women, dressed in the most gorgeous and elaborate kimono, with her multi inch high geta, slowly, and deliberately walks toward the shrine, the sides of the geta dragging along the path as she makes wide arcs with her feet, puffing out her heavy robes. It is sober and beautiful.

It is interesting to delve deep into my memories to see what survived the decades. I am a huge fan of travel and have been all over the world and yet despite my love of visiting new countries and cultures, there is only so much that I have retained. My three years in the town of Kogushi, Little Stick, have no doubt shaped my life in myriad ways. Just as I am sure my four years in Malawi will forever be a large part of who myself and my daughter are going forward.

Japan 1997-2000 Part Four: The Uslurper and Little Meat

In July 1997 I arrived in the small coastal town of Kogushi (which translates as “little stick”) to teach English as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. This is the fourth in a series of posts about my three years in Kogushi.

Food is an art form in Japan. Like many traditional arts and practices in Japan, such as the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy, food presentation and consumption can be highly formalized, governed by centuries-old techniques and ritual. Traditional Japanese meals focus on awakening all five senses; it is not just how the food tastes or smells – though the combinations of tastes like savory and sour, sweet and bitter, seem heightened – but also its texture, sound, and appearance is also important. Is the food warm or cold? Is it smooth or chewy? Is it served in a smooth ceramic bowl and eaten with freshly broken wooden chopsticks? As you chew, does the crunch reverberate? Do you smack your lips in appreciation? What are the plays of color of the different foods and the plateware in different sizes and shapes on which it is served?

I grew up eating a combination of home cooked American comfort foods and packaged convenience foods. Macaroni and cheese. Pork chop casserole. Baked chicken and mashed potatoes. Beef Pasta a lá Hamburger Helper and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. Our plateware was nothing special and the drinkware a mismatch of plastic and glass, some from yard sales, some from various fast food restaurant promotions. I found the Japanese way of food difficult to grasp.

A few months after arriving in Japan I wrote this little story for myself, called “The Uslurper.”

One day I was working away at my desk. Because it was lunch time, I expected to have a bit of peace and quiet while I worked. Even though most teachers eat their lunch at school, it was a testing period so there were few teachers around. I set about coloring. Then, I heard it. SLURP! The teacher who sat cater-cornered from me, a small, wiry man with whispy white hair, bushy eyebrows, age spots on his face, took a sip from his tea cup I eyed him wearily and went back to work. SLURP. SLURP. Again! I tried to shake off the feeling that was coming over me. Then, he got out his bento box. SLURP. SLURP. SMACK. SMACK. SLURP. SMACK. The hair on the back of my head stood up. SMACK. SLURP. CRUNCH. CRUNCH. SLURP. SLURP. SMACK. CRUNCH. I could feel my nerves tensing for the next onslaught. SMACK. SMACK. Argh! When would it end? My hands clenched. My lips pursued. My shoulders bunched up around my head. I did not know if I could control myself. I wanted to march over and snatch his chopsticks away and snap them in half.

SMACK. SMACK. SMACK. CRUNCH. CRUNCH. CRUNCH. SLURP. SLURP. SLURP. SMACK. CRUNCH. SLURP. I could not work anymore. I looked over and saw him get up and throw away his trash and then move to the sink to rinse out his lunch box. He put away his chopsticks carefully in their case. Thank goodness, it was over! I let out a sigh of relief. I relaxed. He sat down, and in signify a very satisfying meal he let out a loud BELCH and then two more sips, SLURP, SLURP. Then, at last, he was done.

This seemed emblematic to me of the cultural differences associated with food and eating between the U.S. and Japan. In one we are taught to be quiet when chewing our food, to apologize for noise; in the other, the noises of chewing and crunching and belching showed an appreciation for both the food and the audible parts of the eating experience.

I am also, I will admit it, not a particularly adventurous eater. As mentioned before, I grew up on a particular set of American staples, and I rarely strayed from it as a child and only branched out some as a young adult. And here I was in Japan where fish, that I never ate, is a staple and pickled octopus is served on sticks and packed in plastic containers like sweets next to the cash register. Therefore, in my introductory letter to my new school, sent a few weeks before arrival, I told them I was a vegetarian. I didn’t want loads of questions about the limited meat I consumed, so I just took meat out of the equation.

Or so I thought.

Turned out that many people I met just did not know what to do with this information. It seems rather unbelievable, but for a country that embraces Buddhism and has at least a stereotype of embracing nature (because at the same time they are one of the few countries in the world to still hunt whales and eat them) many Japanese could not wrap their head around vegetarianism.

Just a week or so after classes started at the high school in Kogushi, teachers from my school were out and about and we stopped for lunch at a small noodle shop. Like many small shops like this, the menu was all on wooden blocks in Japanese and I knew only a few basic phrases I had learned in six weeks of night classes at a community college in Miami before accepting the job, certainly not enough to figure out the menu or say much of anything. The same older teacher who had been to pick me up at the airport when I arrived at the Yamaguchi-Ube Airport about a month before, the guy who had stood languidly against the wall and showed zero excitement at my arrival, he said he would order for me. I reminded him that I did not eat meat. He said he remembered.

Imagine my surprise as I am eating and I distinctly taste fish. I ask him, “X sensei, is there fish in this dish?” He says no. I taste it again. I most certainly tastes of fish. I ask him again and he gives me an annoyed look, like one might give a child that has asked for something umpteen times, and again says no. I tell him I am sure there is fish in the soup. He looks at me again and says, “you can’t taste it.” Meaning, there IS fish in the soup. And yes, I absolutely could taste it! How presumptuous that he ordered for me and ordered something he knew I had specifically asked not to eat.

While I expect that teacher in part did it to be cheeky, this was just the first of many odd encounters I had regarding meat in Japan.

On another occasion, a few months after arrival, a family in Kogushi invited me, the exotic blonde American English teacher, to dinner. When they heard I did not eat meat they asked me to make a list of all the things that I did eat… This seemed to be quite a long list compared to the one I didn’t (i.e. meat), but I obliged: spaghetti (without meat), pizza (without meat), curry (without meat), ramen (without meat), tempura (vegetables only), etc, etc.

There was one day when I was at the hospital school where I taught a few classes every other Tuesday. The teachers asked if I might stay for lunch. I asked what they were having and if it had any meat. They went to check. Upon their return they told me that it would be Japanese curry…and that although it had meat in it, it was chopped into small pieces. I failed to see the difference, but it made them happy to report it. And the karate group I joined that seemed to want to influence more than one’s martial art skills, they tried to sneak some little fish into my food. When I pointed out that I saw the small black eyes of the shirasu (しらす), small white parboiled baby sardines, in my rice (i.e. I was wise to their attempts), they shrugged it off, noting, again, their small size. Little meat is apparently just like no meat at all.

Overtime I let good friends in on my secret, that I actually did eat meat on occasion, I just was rather particular about it. In my own time I tried foods on my own and came to have my favorites. One was a wonderful meal of meat and vegetables heated in a stock enjoyed during the winter months called nabe. Introduced to me by my Yutama adult English class, I associated the steamy pots of food then dipped in a sauce of ponzu (a concoction of soy sauce, rice vinegar, rice wine, and citrus juice) and grated daikon (pickled Japanese radish) with gatherings of good friends. I also came to enjoy the Japanese traditional breakfast of rice, miso soup, pickled cucumbers and radish, and a block of chilled silken tofu with green onions and soy sauce (though I left off the fish flakes). Tempura also became a favorite. My favorite tempura being shrimp (shhhh…shrimp is the only seafood I eat) and pumpkin, which seemed a specialty of the restaurants in Kawatana, the town one over from Kogushi. In fact, Kawatana was also famous for being the birthplace of a special dish called kawara soba. Soba are buckwheat noodles a bit thicker than spaghetti. In Kawatana they used cha soba which are the soba also made with tea, giving them a bright green color, and cooked them, along with ingredients like shredded fried egg and meat, atop a kawara, or roof tile. The ubiquitous curved tiles found in Japanese villages are made of clay and hold heat well and the dish is served still sizzling at one’s table. I was not a major fan of kawara soba, but I did enjoy it on the occasional special meal with friends, in the restaurant where it was invented. My favorite Japanese dessert was mochi, a sweet made of glutinous rice with added flavorings or stuffings like red bean paste and then shaped into little decorative balls. Mochi was like ultimate celebration food, traditionally served at holidays like Children’s Day or New Year’s and also often served during the tea ceremony. The sweet mochi perfectly cut the bitterness of the matcha tea.

I am still not an adventurous eater (many persons express great surprise I survived three years in Japan and do not eat fish), but my time in Japan introduced me to a whole new world of tastes and the pleasure derived from consuming good food. I still cannot stand the sound of slurping though.

Japan 1997-2000 Part Three: Activities in Little Stick

In July 1997 I arrived in the small coastal town of Kogushi (which translates as “little stick”) to teach English as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. This is the third in a series of posts about my three years in Kogushi.

When I first arrived in Kogushi, I was a little overwhelmed. After graduating college, where I had kept busy with intramural sports and volunteer work, and living in the metropolitan city of Seoul, Korea where I had lived with and hung out with several American roommates and colleagues, here I was in a small fishing and farming village on the Japanese coast. What was I going to do in my free time?

I had heard of other JET teachers who had taken part in really cool activities. A friend of mine, my roommate when I taught English in Korea, had been a JET for three years. She had studied the Japanese tea ceremony. It sounded really intense; Japanese arts are not something one can generally learn and master in only a short time thus she had to seek some sort of special permission. Another JET I met had joined a Japanese drum group. I was hoping for some activity along these lines to keep me busy and learn more about Japanese culture.

I arrived at the very beginning of August and classes did not start until the 1st of September. I had a week of a forced summer English class at Hibiki High School, my base school, and a weekend English summer camp for middle schoolers and not much else. This left me with a lot of time just hanging out in my poorly air-conditioned (read: quite warm) apartment. Luckily, soon after school started I met Kiyoko, a Japanese teacher from another high school in the area. She spoke English really well and she invited me to join a chorus group that met at Hibiki once a week. I am not the best singer, but this seemed an opportunity to meet some people and learn Japanese.

Front and center at our grand choral finale

That is how I found myself once a week at chorus – singing songs in a language I barely understood, with a chorus instructor who did not speak English, and frantically trying to read the hiragana and katakana symbols in songbooks so I would at least know the pronunciation of the words coming out of my mouth, even if I did not know the meaning. Music is a language that crosses cultures, but the last time I had sung in a chorus had been in middle school and I also struggled with remembering musical symbols and notes. It was quite a challenge. But I showed up week after week. First, it was something to do that was not sitting in my house and teaching English. Second, I will be honest, I really enjoyed it.

In February, we had a concert at a local community center. Though I was probably one of, if not the tallest in the choral group, our conductor wanted me, the gaijin (foreigner), front and center. And there I stood, clutching my song book, hoping that all the practice had paid off, and I could read and sing the songs reasonably well.

After chorus ended I was in search of another activity. I heard about a judo group, but after one introductory lesson in which I saw burly young children being slammed repeatedly into mats, I realized that this might not be the pastime for me. However, I had heard about a karate group with lessons held a town or two over. I do not remember how I was introduced, but soon enough I was given an introduction, bought my gi, the white uniform, and been assigned a young English-speaking woman named Tamami as my translator and mentor.

At first I really enjoyed going to karate. I had taken some Taekwondo in the U.S. in college and also spent nearly a year studying it in South Korea, where I, in a large stadium hall, executed several forms and sparred another aspirant in front of a panel to be awarded my black belt. This felt like a natural extension of that and to learn the Japanese version of this martial art. Though I could not communicate with most of my classmates, I liked the physical and technical aspect of being part of the group; I even went on a trip with them to Osaka and the Ise Grand Shrine. But things got weird after a few months.

There were a lot of rules in the martial arts practice room or dojo. I am a rather silly person who can most certainly laugh at myself. There were times in karate where things did not go quite right and I laughed. Tamami told me, “There is no laughing in the dojo.” I laughed again, incredulous, but was told it was quite true and she pointed to the rules posted on the wall. A pointless exercise as I could not read Japanese, so I had to take her word for it. One time I executed a really good kick and received some praise from the shihan (master) and I did a little victory dance. “No dancing in the dojo,” came Tamami’s quick admonishment. Our workouts started at 7 in the morning. One time, really exhausted, I yawned. “There is no yawning in the dojo.” I brought water to our practices because they were two, two and a half hours long. Once when I took a swig in class I was told, “There is no drinking water in the dojo.” In retort, I said, “Sounds like there is no fun in the dojo.” That did not go over well.

When I politely declined some pumpkin, I was used as an example in class of someone who does not appropriately follow the master. When I kicked my bicycle after getting my foot stuck on the spokes as I prepared to ride home, I was told I was not considerate of my bicycle’s feelings. When I said I did not like fish, they tried to hide small ones in rice they gave me. When I said I meant to travel some of the summer, I was told to submit my schedule for the shihan‘s approval. The shihan ridiculed my punches in class to the amusement of others. And finally, the shihan wrote me a letter, which was delivered by Tamami to me at my apartment, informing me that my picky eating and failure to follow all his rules would mean I would continue to have allergies and harm any future children I might have. Apparently, this was supposed to put me on the straight and narrow. Instead, I quit.

So much for becoming a student of karate.

With my ikebana sensei

I had somehow met a young English-speaking woman named Kaori who invited me to join her in studying the Japanese art of flower arranging or ikebana. Ikebana is one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement, along with kodo for incense appreciation and chado for the tea ceremony. This then was something really Japanese to learn that I hoped would be a little more straightforward, a little less ceremonial than the tea ceremony. So, once a week for a little more than a year, Kaori picked me up to head to the home of her ikebana teacher for an hour-long class. We sat seiza style, with our knees folded under us and buttocks on our feet (for as long as I could stand it anyway though I did try to power through) on a tatami mat in front of a low table called a chabudai on which lay an array of carefully curated flowers, blossoms, branches, and other greenery and the all important pruning shears. We also had a kenzen, a weighted metal circle or square with pins to hold the stems of each item into place, and a container or vase. I bought my own.

The main elements of ikebana are mass, color, and line, so quite different from western flower bouquets which may use color but are often just bundled together. Like chorus and karate, my ikebana sensei teacher spoke no English; Kaori would do some translation for me, but basically, I just took my sensei’s lead. Ikebana is quite stylized, yet I did not have to have an exact reproduction of the sensei’s arrangement; I had some wiggle room. Though if I started getting too creative, I would get a certain look, maybe pursed lips, or a tut-tut to bring me back into line. We would build our arrangement and when we had the sensei’s approval, sketch them in our books. Then we would disassemble, wrap in tissue paper, and then recreate it using our sketches at home. I got a lot of enjoyment from ikebana: a sense of accomplishment when the teacher recommended fewer fixes and beautiful fresh flower designs in my home every week. But over time the satisfaction waned. Kaori had been studying ikebana for about three years and was still considered low intermediate! It was clear I would never progress very far in the eyes of a sensei of the craft. I had enjoyed it while it lasted, but saw little point in continuing.

Some of my Ikebana creations

At this point, I was 0 for 3 in my search for the right hobby for me. I heard about a teacher who taught Japanese dance in Kogushi, but the thought of yet another rigid, ceremonial pursuit did not have me all that excited. And then somehow, I do not remember now, I heard about a jazz dance class.

With my jazz dance teacher before a show

Like my other activities, the teacher and most of the students did not speak English. But in this case, I did not really need anyone to explain anything to me. I had taken ballet, tap, and hula as a child and though was not by any stretch of the imagination a dance prodigy, I had learned to follow steps pretty well. The teacher was very good, talented, and strict but also engaging, and we danced to popular American and British hits. One of our performances was to a popular song by Geri Halliwell in her post-Spice Girl phase.

I loved my dance class. We met twice a week at the Kogushi Community Center. It had a wonderful large high ceiled space with a well-worn wooden floor, excellent for dance, and a stage at one end. One of the best parts was that the work we put in amounted to something; we actually had performances! This was not one of the Japanese activities that one spends years and years and years on with little to show for it, such as Kaori spending three years studying Ikebana and Tamami doing karate for about five years yet was only second belt. With jazz dance, in a matter of six months, we had three shows, two in our Kogushi community center (one for a group of senior citizens on Respect for the Aged Day and another before Christmas) and one other on a bigger stage in another, inland, town. Our teacher somehow managed to book us as an opening act for some minor celebrity. I do not recall if she were a singer or a comedian or a little of both but she was fancy and had big hair and the crowd was pretty excited to see her. And they gave us a pretty nice welcome too. Pretty crazy that I was doing this dance thing in Japan in front of an audience of thousands.

Even after jazz dance finished – and unfortunately with the passage of over two decades I do not remember why it did not continue – I continued to take lessons with that teacher. She had a studio in Ayaragi, just five train stops from Kogushi or a 30-minute ride on my motor scooter. As my time grew shorter in Japan, I went less and less and about a month before departure I told my teacher farewell.

All the activities I took part in during my sojourn in Kogushi offered me glimpses into the complex Japanese culture and an “in” in the little corner I found myself. I made tenuous connections with people that ultimately did not last — due most likely to a combination of my poor language skills, limited attention span, and the relatively short time in the country. That anyone bothered to let me into their circles for even a little while is probably a minor miracle and even in the case of the strange karate cult, I am glad they did. In the end, it was the least Japanese of my activities that gave me the greatest satisfaction and connection.

Japan 1997-2000 Part Two: Teaching in Little Stick

In July 1997 I arrived in the small coastal town of Kogushi (which translates as “little stick”) to teach English as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. This is the second in a series of posts about my three years in Kogushi.

As English teachers go in the JET Program, I think I probably had one of the best gigs out there. First, I had my base school, which I lived near and taught at three times a week. Then, I had a second school I visited once a week and two specialty schools that I alternated on the other day of the week. I know some teachers were always at just one school and felt a little bored while others rotated so frequently they never built any bonds with teachers or students, never felt they belonged. I got the best of both worlds.

Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and any other day when my other schools did not need me I could be found at my base school, the wonderfully named 響高校 or Hibiki Koko or Hibiki High School. (Hibiki means “sound” or “echo” in Japanese) Here I had a cubby for my shoes in the entrance hall and a desk in the teachers’ room. Each morning I arrived just before 8 AM and participated in the morning teachers meeting even though it was all in Japanese, a language I barely knew, and no one every told me what was said in the meetings (“participated” is perhaps too strong a word; I was present).

Hibiki seemed at first an odd place — well nearly all of the Japanese schools I worked in seemed different than what my perceptions of Japan had led me to believe. First, I really thought I was going to be teaching English, similar to what I had done in South Korea the year before. But instead I was more like a life sized humanoid tape player. Often I just said English things and the students repeated after me. In August, I had to attend a week-long English “summer camp” at Hibiki – probably one of the least summery and least camp-y experiences that could have been executed – but it was just a preview of how pretty much every English class at Hibiki would go my three years.

Second, I had these preconceived notions of a country on the cutting edge of technology and that this modern viewpoint would be reflected just about everywhere I turned. But in reality, while many Japanese had the newest gadgets in their cars (and even their toilets!), there were many areas of life where tradition reigned supreme. The education system seemed one of them. The schools had a bit of a worn, musty feel. They did not hire cleaning staff. Instead, once every week or two the students were gathered together and, under some teacher supervision, were given brooms, dust pans, dusting rags, and set upon the school cleaning. Have you ever tried to get a group of teenagers to do chores? Or been a teenager asked to do chores with your friends and classmates? You can imagine how great this experiment worked out.

The school also had no air conditioning or heat. In the winter, a large wood burning stove with a metal pipe up to and along the ceiling, was set up in the teacher’s room. I guess I was a bit lucky with the stove placed just five feet from my desk, but still even there I could barely feel the heat. There was no heat anywhere else in the school; the students just had winter uniforms. Thing is, the change between summer and winter uniforms and the appearance and disappearance of the ridiculous heater was dictated entirely by the calendar, and not by actual temperatures. On November 1, winter uniforms on and heater makes it debut; on March 1 they go away.

Another curious aspect about Hibiki was it had only one major sport team: baseball, the most popular sport in Japan. The baseball team met every single day of the week except Sunday for practice. And yet it had only one or two games against another school the entire year! I thought back to my own high school, where a student could play three sports in a school year. For example, soccer in the fall, volleyball in the winter, and track and field in the spring. And they would have multiple opportunities to play against the teams of other schools in the area.

Once a week, on Thursdays, I taught at Hohoku High School. To get there, I took the little train from Kogushi Station north four stations to Takibe, a 30-minute journey, and then walked 20 minutes to the school. I would teach three classes with an enthusiastic Japanese Teacher of English, eat lunch in the teacher’s room, and stay for after school English club. Maybe because I was there only once a week I felt a little more welcome at Hohoku than Hibiki by both students and teachers. The students at Hohoku were more likely to go to a two year trade school or four year university after graduation than the students of Hibiki, so perhaps this made them more keen to learn English? Despite the nearly two hours commuting each time, I overall enjoyed the trip to Takibe, the break in routine. Sometimes I stayed in town later and had a soak in the really nice Takibe Hot Springs resort before heading home.

On Tuesdays, I alternated between two specialty schools. One a hospital school in Kogushi, the other a school for the hearing impaired in a town about 40 minutes south by train. These were my favorite places to teach. First, I found it impressive that these schools incorporated English language training. But second, the students were wonderful, far more positive about overcoming challenges and learning English than the exhausted teens I encountered in the “normal” schools (where many of the kids listed “sleeping” as their hobby), and the teachers super dedicated. I looked forward to Tuesdays each week.

At the hospital school, the kids were either day students who commuted daily from their homes or, if the level of care they needed was higher, they roomed within the hospital. I never really knew what illnesses most of the kids had — some were physical afflictions, some mental — they were just students. At times one or two might be too sick for lessons or even had seizures or episodes in class, but most of the time they were just like other kids, though we usually had WAY more fun in class.

Although I traveled the furthest to the hearing impaired, it was my favorite place to teach. I taught two classes, one with only two middle school boys and one with five primary school children. To help with the pronunciation of English words, the teacher taught me a series of gestures – such as one finger placed on my throat to symbolize a “n” sound, two fingers on the throat to symbolize an “m” and so on. This was different than signing. It just struck me as so extraordinary — not only that the kids were learning English, but also that I was lucky enough to be part of it.

Five months after arriving in Kogushi I received a letter from a woman who had seen a write up of me in the town gazette. After I gave her a call, she offered to pick me up that very day to visit her and her husband at their home in Utama, the next town over. Akiko, a retired school teacher, and her husband Isao, an about to retire school principal, instantly made me feel at home. I stayed at their house for five hours that first meeting, through dinner and discussion. And that evening they asked if I would teach an adult English class with a group at their home. I did not really have all that much going on in my life in small town Kogushi and honestly with only two to three classes a day, I could do all my regular lesson planning at work — and still leave many unstructured hours. Especially given that much of my lesson planning was in vain as I mostly was just called upon to serve as the live native speaker reading text or be present as Exhibit A: English Speaking Foreigner at Hibiki’s English club. I was eager for something else with other people.

I ended up teaching the adults class at Akiko and Isao’s three times a month for two and a half years. I became pretty close with some of the students. Akiko and Isao hosted my mother, aunt, and aunt’s friend at their home for a few days when they visited and my tiny apartment was bursting at the seams. I went sailing with some of them (and I do not sail well). We went for drives, to a firefly festival, to a concert, to karaoke, and when I ended up in the hospital after an emergency appendectomy, they visited me. Teaching at Akiko and Isao’s is probably the best teaching gig I ever had. Though when I started I was just happy to have something else to do with my time and to earn a bit of extra money. (Just noting I arrived in Japan in summer 1997, at the very beginning of the Asian financial crisis. As I was paid in yen, I watched the value of my salary drop 25% from when I arrived to six months later. And my plans of saving loads of money tanked too.)

One day I was invited to do a special class at the local elementary school. I jumped at the chance for something out of my usual routine and to teach a more enthusiastic, less jaded age group. When I arrived at the school I found that a local media outlet arrived to cover this momentous occasion. I decided to do a basic body part lesson and the song “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” but jazzed it up with a little intro and a few more hip movements. It was a huge hit and soon I had invitations pouring in to visit other elementary schools. At the third place I visited, I taught my special version to one class until we got really good and then we were placed on stage in front of the entire school with that class as my back-up dancers. I became a big time celebrity amongst the 5-10 year old set in Kogushi.

One of the students at Akiko and Isao’s adult class, Tomomi, had a daughter in kindergarten. I checked in with my supervisor at Hibiki and received approval to spend a few mornings a week with her class. It made a difference in my life to be with kids who just wanted to play and saw communicating with me in English as something fun. For Christmas I took part in the school pageant as all the kids and I sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” first in Japanese, and then in English, in front of all the parents.

I continued to be approached for special classes to do in my off time. I generally didn’t mind because there was not much to do in Kogushi for a single 20-something woman. There were only one or two small restaurants in town, a few more in the town over associated with the hot springs resort; there was no movie theater, no shopping mall, no local park, no museums, and so on. Teaching at least kept me focused and around other people. As the only “obvious” foreigner in town this was rather my forte. (There were other foreigners, such as Koreans and Filipinos who worked at the Kawatana Hot Springs resort — I referred to these as “stealth” foreigners as they could sort of blend in to the local population; I could not.) Several parents in town approached me about putting together a weekend English class and I did so focused on American activities such as Halloween, Christmas, and Easter. Then the Toyoura Community Center reached out to my supervisor to see if I would do an evening course for adults. I did that one too.

Overall, I enjoyed teaching English for three years in Kogushi. It afforded me a wonderful opportunity to interact with several segments of the local population from elementary to high school, from local teachers to adults from all walks of life.

Japan 1997-2000 Part One: Three Years in Little Stick

Having recently wrapped up a four-year tour in Malawi, I find myself thinking more on the only other place I have lived for three consecutive years as an adult: Kogushi, Japan. This is especially so as my Japanese-speaking SUV not so long ago reminded me of my memories of the wonderful holiday of Setsubun. These are some of my reminiscences from that time.

In July 1997, I boarded a plane in northern Virginia, with a one day stopover in Los Angeles, to head to my English teaching assignment in rural Japan with the Japanese Exchange Teaching (JET) program through the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sports. I very much enjoyed the long flight as I had been bumped – for reasons I cannot recall – to the upper deck business class where I was given chocolate bon-bons and watched movies on a mini VCR player, but I was less keen on the three day Tokyo Orientation. In my journal I wrote that it was a combination of death by presentation, much of which was in the manual I had already poured over cover to cover, and feeling uncomfortable around the other participants, who seemed to have come to Japan for the sole purpose to drink and talk about drinking. I just wanted to get to my new home.

From Tokyo those of us new JET program participants bound for Yamaguchi Prefecture flew to the Yamaguchi-Ube airport. At the small prefectural airport there was a lot of excitement on our arrival. A large group of persons with balloons and a sign cheered loudly over the arrival of one guy in our group. Another woman’s welcome committee gifted her a kimono, which is an incredibly thoughtful (and expensive!) present. One by one the 20 or 30 so other JETs were happily bundled off with their townsfolk until just I stood there. Two men stood across the way. One young, in his 20s, sporting a helmet-like stiff haircut around his round boyish face and wearing a red tracksuit with white shirt, giving him the appearance of an awkward teenager. The other, a handsome lean man in his 50s, stood languidly with an air of just repressed annoyance. He looked at me, said my name, and when I nodded, he said, “you’re with us.”

Not the most auspicious of beginnings.

They took me to eat at a noodle shop in Ube, drove me the one hour to Kogushi, to my new home, and then deposited me unceremoniously in my new apartment. There only message was that they would be back for me the next day to take me to a meeting with the local police. Then they left me.

At the police station, I was confronted with two quintessential small-town cops. Two middle aged men with paunches that sat with languid ease in their chairs as they described to me their duties in Japanese, a language I had had only two weeks of night classes on from the Miami Dade Community Center. I waited patiently for translation. I was told that should an emergency happen at my apartment, they could be there in 10-15 minutes. They said this with great pride, and a touch of ego, clearly intending to instill a sense of confidence in me of their abilities. I was dubious given I could run from my apartment to their little station in five minutes.

Kogushi, is a farming and fishing town of approximately 5,000, that along with four other similar sized towns, hugs an indented portion of coastline located in Yamaguchi prefecture, the western most part of Japan’s main island of Honshu. Kogushi in Japanese is written 小串 or “ko” meaning “little” and “gushi” meaning “skewer” or “spit” like a kabob skewer – you can see the character itself is a stick with two pieces of meat represented by squares. Frankly, I loved this and came to refer to it as “Little Stick.”

My place was a small flat located on the second floor of a compact two story apartment block consisting of only two apartments upstairs, two downstairs. It was located on the corner of the coastal road that led from Shimonoseki, the prefecture’s largest city up to historic Hagi and beyond, and the short road that dead-ended at Hibiki High School, the base school where I taught English. My balcony faced a gas station that was right out of 1950s USA. When cars pulled in a bell would ring and a team of uniformed Japanese staff members would swarm the car cheerfully calling いらっしゃいませ (Irasshaimase) or “Welcome!” Unlike in the US, Japanese gas stations were, at least in 1997-2000, full service. It was charming, except for when I wanted to sleep in on the weekend and that darn chime and swell of excessively happy greetings would grate on my nerves. Just across the coastal road was the Kogushi train station. Trains only stopped at Kogushi about twice an hour from around six in the morning to eight at night. I mostly enjoyed living so close to the station, except in the early morning hours, around five AM, when the train sat idling, awaiting its first passengers.

My apartment was what was called a “1LDK” as it had one bedroom and a living, dining, and kitchen area.  Though honestly the dining and kitchen area were one, in Japan, the spaces are much smaller than in the U.S. and had it just been a “K” the kitchen would have been the size of a closet.  The kitchen floor was an unfortunate burnt orange and golden pattern linoleum and was outfitted with just two hot plates (no oven) a half-size mint green refrigerator; it was a color combination right out of the 1970s.  My toilet and bath were separate – with the bathroom basically being a room encased in plastic.  Upon entrance, the shower was an area around three feet square with a bright blue hard plastic bottom and sides.  The other half was a three-foot-deep square bright blue bath tub with a cover.  A very Japanese design with the intention for family members clean up first with the sitting shower and then soak in the tub – and had I had other family members, we would have all soaked in the same tub water.

The floors of the bedroom (about 8 x 6 feet) and the living room (maybe 10 x 10 feet?) were of tatami, a Japanese flooring of tightly woven straw). I was thrilled to have tatami mats, as it made my home genuinely Japanese. In the bedroom, I had a small plastic single bed frame topped with a futon alongside the balcony side. It was here in this bed one morning in August that I woke to the gentle rocking that signaled a minor earthquake. This also lent authenticity to my arrival in Japan. The whole other side of the room was dedicated to a large closet built into the wall with sliding doors covered in decorated washi paper. There were no rod to hang clothes, just a shelf to fold and stack items. There was also no A/C. When I moved in in August it was quite hot and I could not sleep. Though my place was small, it was still three rooms, and there was only one wall-mounted heating and cooling unit located in the living room. I also discovered in winter that same unit did little to combat the cold that seeped in through the un-insulated walls. When I arrived home in winter I would sit in the living room with my coat still on for a good 30 to 60 minutes before the wall heater provided enough warmth for me to shed my outer layers. Given this situation, I opted to only sleep in my living room – splayed out on top of my futon with the A/C on in summers and in winter, I placed the futon on a heated carpet (cleverly called a ホットカーペット hot-to-kā-pet-to) and slept under an electric blanket lying next to my kotatsu (a low table with a heating element). I thought the reputation of Japan as this super developed country was rather undeserved as I sweat profusely or shivered for warmth in my home or at school. I don’t think I shall ever forget the words for hot (atsui) or cold (samui) in Japanese because it is what the students (and I and the teachers) uttered the most during particular seasons.

Right: I can only recall it snowing once or twice the whole time I was in Kogushi and I immediately grabbed my camera to take a picture of the Shinto shrine in the fall snow. Left: The ridiculous giant heater that showed up in the teacher’s room at Hibiki High School on November 1 and was dismantled on March 31, regardless of the weather. You had to be right next to it to get any warmth. The classrooms had no heat.

The beach was just two blocks from my apartment. There really wasn’t much beach and it was littered with large cement tetrapods. Although designed to stop coastal erosion, which is a good thing (and are a runaway hit in Japan with an estimated 50% of the country’s coast decorated with these things), they are really unsightly. I can remember being annoyed at them from day one. And over time I came to find that Japan just seemed a bit obsessed with using concrete to cover up nature – to hold back the sea, to hold up hills, to cover over all manner of things. And I never once got in the water. But I did enjoy walking through my town and alongside the sea.

A few months into my first year I bought myself a fun little 50 cc motorbike. I wanted to be able to get around a bit quicker and go a bit further than the two times an hour up and down the coast train was going to get me. Mr. Yamamoto, my school supervisor, specifically said I should not get a motorbike, implying that it was really his decision how I lived my life, which made me want to get one all the more (and frankly sealed the deal). I loved tooling around on that thing.

Being an obvious foreigner in small town Japan could be difficult. At the supermarket, I might be just picking out some fruit or standing in line at the cash register as eager parents pushed their children toward me forcing them to sing their ABCs or some other English song. On the train or at the post office or on the street, people wanted to practice their English with me. It was often endearing, but it could also be exhausting. I might be followed on the beach by curious children or shop assistants ran away terrified when I asked them a question. But when I was on my motorbike, my dark-reddish-blond hair peeking out from my under my helmet looked like the dyed hair I saw on the 20-somethings who were seeking to stand out and rebel just a bit. On my motorbike, for just a wee bit, I blended. I was once stopped by a Japanese police officer on a straightaway some kilometers north of the city of Shimonoseki and his shocked gasp of “oh, its a foreigner!” (wah, gaijin desu ne!) is probably one of my absolute favorite memories from Japan. He was so flustered explaining to me that 50 cc motorbikes have a different speed limit from cars that he just waved me off without a ticket.

There were always little things to discover in and around my town. I especially enjoyed visiting onsen or hot springs. One town over from Kogushi is Kawatana Onsen – a somewhat famous hot springs resort town. It was here that kawara soba (green tea flavored buckwheat noodles served on a hot roof tile) was invented. The two attractions did bring tourists to this little part of the San-in coast. Once I tried the Kawatana Onsen (with a group of teachers from my school – which was a little bit awkward — Hi, nice to meet you, I’m new to town, want to go together to the bathhouse and be naked?), I was really taken with onsens. I road around Toyoura-cho (my district) and sometimes further afield on my motorbike bathing in different onsens. And when I traveled around Japan, I often went out of my way to visit an onsen.

As my time grew short in Kogushi, a nice Japanese teacher of English at my school loaned me her really good camera and while walking, riding my bike, or out on my motorbike, I would stop to take pictures of things that stuck out to me as something quintessential Japan or something I would really miss — such as the roof tiles or the vending machines or the shrines. Not all of those photos have survived, but I am glad for those I have.

It’s been harder to write this than I expected; the walk down memory lane a bit more difficult to see through the fog of 21 years. Halfway through writing this, I revisited Kogushi via Google Maps. Imagine my surprise to find my apartment still standing and nearly identical to how it was when I lived there — just a fresh spot of paint on the roof has spiffed it up a bit. The hedges are still there — it was back there, near the staircase to my apartment, when I fell in a manhole. In all the places in Asia I had been with open manholes and darkened streets, it was in the most developed that I fell in. There were two sewer holes there, one slightly smaller than the other, and some service person must have switched the covers by accident and when I stepped on the larger one, then covered by the smaller manhole, it flipped and one of my legs fell painfully in. I was dirty and scratched up, and I limped to my downstairs neighbors’ house to seek help. The couple opened their door but were not welcoming, seemingly terrified that the foreigner from upstairs had sought them out. As they did nothing but stare at me with wide, frightened eyes, I just limped back upstairs to my place and tended to myself.

The bookstore is still next door, the police station still down the street, the exterior of Hibiki High School still looks the same. The gas station that once stood across the street though is gone, replaced by a small parking lot. The mini-mart building still stands but appears boarded up. The supermarket is now a cafe. But otherwise, Kogushi seems to look much the same. The train station looks the same. There is still a hair salon near the station — where once some Japanese women, thrilled to have a gaijin in their salon, tried their best to style my hair but unfamiliar with non-Japanese hair did a rather poor job. The pharmacy is still there across the station square.

Though I do not remember all of my time in Japan as much has faded with the passage of time, my experiences during three years in Kogushi are very much part of who I am today.

Farewell, Malawi

Tomorrow it is wheels up from Malawi after four years. It is very bittersweet. This is the longest I have lived in the same place since I lived with my parents before college; the longest in one place for C as well. But it is time for us to go. I am sure I feel this way in part because this is what any person moving must do — they must steel their heart against the inevitable, accept the change in location, otherwise it would be all the harder. But the pandemic has most certainly played its role as well. Malawi is an amazing place and we have loved the opportunity to put down roots, albeit temporarily, in this country, but it can be a challenging place. The pandemic exposed more of those limitations because we had no outlet. There were few chances to get out and push the reset button.

A long time ago I studied cross cultural psychology. One technique I learned was that when departing from a location to make a list of those things you will and will not miss and those you look and do not look forward to in the new place. So, here we go:

Will Miss

Wildlife

Malawi has been such a great place to really get up close and personal with wildlife. First off, we have been able to go on safari in several national parks. In other countries, safaris might not be open to young children as they are not particularly well known for keeping their cool and being quiet when faced with African animals like lions or giraffes. But in Malawi, there were no age restrictions and we enjoyed game drives in Majete, Nkhotakota, and Liwonde National Parks. Secondly, just being in the neighborhood, we have come across pygmy hedgehogs, a bushbuck, and a genet. And lastly, our yard has been full of wildlife surprises. We have had a few snake encounters – a blind snake, brown house snakes, and a few white-lipped herald snakes (and I convinced my staff not to bludgeon them but to alert me so I could see the snake and tell them to leave it alone) – and lots of geckos and skinks both inside and outside the house.

We have seen hedgehogs and mongooses in the yard too. The first hedgehog I met ran right up to me in the yard and then across my shoe. The one in the photo — I saw in the road as I drove home one afternoon. The poor thing was rolled up in a ball hoping not to be hit and I pulled over, stopped traffic, whipped off my cardigan, and scooped it up to safety. I took it home, made sure it wasn’t injured, and then released it in my car-free yard. The baboon spider (what we in America call tarantulas) first showed up hanging out on my front door (made it a wee bit scary to go in and out of the house) and then one day just ran across my living room floor while I was watching television. Very exciting! But the very best of our wildlife encounters had to be the visit of a rare bat. One day she was just roosting in my carport in broad daylight. I was able to approach and take a few pictures and sent them to the African Bat Conservation team in Malawi. I was told she was likely either a Great Roundleaf Bat – only the second ever recorded in Lilongwe and the first to have been known to roost here – or a Striped Leaf-Nosed Bat – which would be the first-ever recorded in the city. What an extraordinary find! The African Bat Conservation sent out someone right away to photograph and take some measurements — but unfortunately, their most experienced tagger was out of the country due to COVID. C and I named the bat Nutmeg and were so thrilled she made our yard her home – and stayed visible to us – for the better part of three weeks. Through these wildlife encounters, I made up the hashtag #safariinthehood as we did not need to go anywhere at all to experience incredible African fauna.

Our Incredible Yard

I have previously waxed lyrically about our yard, but I must pay homage to it once again because of all it has afforded us. Not only did we get mongoose and tarantulas, but we were also able to grow fruits and vegetables, experience incredible birdlife, and enjoy new pets. Sitting on my konde or screened porch and I can hear the calls of many kinds of birds. I can hear tweets and caws, chirps and cheeps, whistles and trills. On any given day probably 20 types of birds. My favorite birds are the pied crows — a large crow or a small raven with a snowy white breast and collar. A mated couple calls our roof home and when they hop across the corrugated metal it sounds like loud stomps; I call them the pterdactyls then. But the most beautiful is the lilac-breasted roller — we have one who loves to regularly visit. When times have been tough over this pandemic period, a brief walk around the yard, sometimes in meditation, could help restore my spirit. I’ll miss this yard very much.

Travel Around the Country

Malawi is an incredibly beautiful country and I am so grateful that C and I were able to see as much of it as we have. In all, I made it to 22 of the 28 districts. Had it not been for COVID, I would have made it to them all, I know this. If I had to choose, my favorite places were visited were the Tongole Wilderness Lodge in Nkhotakota National Park, the Robin Pope Safari lakeside property of Pumulani, the lush tea plantation of Satemwa in the south, and the island resorts of Blue Zebra and Mumbo Island.

Extraordinary Events

As a first-time political officer, Malawi absolutely delivered an unforgettable tour. As the sole political officer, I have had the privilege to cover a whole host of issues from human rights, trafficking in persons, refugees, politics, and more. In the four years I have been in Malawi, I have observed two by-elections and two national elections as an election monitor, was part of the team to manage the first visit of a U.S. First Lady to Malawi, I nominated Malawi’s first-ever State Department-recognized Trafficking in Persons Hero, and helped to bring about the first Mr and Miss Albinism pageant, at which I served as the head judge. The 2019 national elections were challenged leading to a historic — only one other time on the continent — court decision to nullify the results and call for a new election. The new election, which was held peacefully, ushered in the opposition party for the first time in 26 years. I might have received an evening call at home from the White House Communications Agency after the election results were announced. I might have been very excited — though maintained my cool during the call. At the end of 2020, the Economist magazine named Malawi the Country of the Year. And I was here for it.

Extraordinary People

On this tour I have worked with some of the best the State Department has to offer — truly extraordinary officers who serve their country with distinction. And I have had the honor to meet the best and the brightest of Malawi in the course of my duties. I had in my phone contacts a high court judge, high-level Ministry personnel, members of Parliament, important persons at the Malawi Electoral Commission, prominent human rights activists, and more, and when I called, they answered! I met a former President – the second female president on the continent – twice, the wife of the Vice President twice, the previous sitting president once, and the current president, before he became president, on several occasions. But it has been the everyday Malawians (or those living in Malawi), those like I featured in my Faces of Malawi blog posts (here, here, and here), I have met that have really been a big part of this tour.

Will NOT Miss

Massive Stacks of Bills. I do not carry a wallet here in Malawi. Instead, I carry is a fabric coupon organizer so that I have the space to hold more bills flat, not folded. The largest Malawian bill is the 2000 kwacha note, which is the equivalent of $2.47. There have been rumors of a possible 5000 kwacha bill since my arrival, but it never materialized. Malawi is largely still a cash-based society, though I have been able to use my credit card at the supermarkets and mobile cash has recently been introduced, so things are changing. I will be glad to retire my coupon carrier for a while, at least until I arrive in Guinea. In related complaints, the cost of some things is surprisingly the equivalent or even more than in the U.S. One is petrol. Currently, in Malawi, the gas prices are around 900 Malawi Kwacha per liter. That is the equivalent of $4.20 a gallon versus the current average price in the US of $3.17. And the Internet – I have posted before that Malawi has the most expensive Internet data in the world and you most certainly do not get what you pay for.

Driving and Parking. I have heard that traffic in Malawi is mild compared to many other developing cities. It is not so much that there are major traffic jams — I mean there are, but they are due to a limited number of roads. But it is the quality of the driving that really drives me nuts. I have heard, anecdotally, that there are a good number of drivers on the road without valid licenses. Given some of the driving I have seen, I believe it. But the parking too… A former colleague told me that a speciality of Malawi is to always construct buildings with a fraction of the parking needed. For example, the Bingu National Stadium can seat over 40,000 people, but there are maybe 500 parking spaces only. But it’s not just about there not being enough parking, sometimes there is plenty of space, but it’s made worse by some extraordinarily bad parking. There are a few places like the Game complex and the Gateway Mall that appear to be a magnet for those with the worst parking skills. People park a third of the way into another spot or diagonally into spots or in spots that do not exist. Sure, there are people all over the world who are terrible at parking, including the U.S., and its likely that parking will be challenging in Guinea, but I do hope for a respite from the special brand of driving and parking I have encountered here.

Mosquitos, Nets, and Malarone. We have spent four years sleeping under mosquito nets and taking malaria meds. In the rainy season, from approximately November through March, the mosquitos are relentless. Each morning I find myself conducting a bizarre clapping session as I kill one after another. When we head to Guinea we will back to this but I look forward to nearly a year away from it.

Grocery Disappointments. Sigh. It is such a disappointment to order items from the US and have them take four weeks to get to us and then they are crushed or melted. But this is what has happened with probably 50% of my Tostitos (half the bag pulverized) and my gummy vitamins (half of it melted into one solid mass). But even purchases here are subject to a lot of uncertainty. About two weeks ago I bought a container of hummus for $5 and I get home, open it, and find it covered in mold! And cheese, it’s a regular game of what will I get — could it be smooth and delicious or will it taste like stale dirty socks? I would say 8 of the past 10 watermelons I have purchased from the fruit seller have been bad despite the constant assurances that they are selling me the most delicious, red, and juicy fruit possible.

Overall, Malawi has had far more positives than negatives. I do not regret staying for two consecutive tours or staying here through the pandemic. Though COVID and the related travel and life restrictions have definitely made things more difficult but Malawi was our home. Now, we both look forward to some things in America we have missed for some time. My daughter puts string cheese, slurpees, and Taco Bell at the top of her list; I especially look forward to salads, sidewalks, and more of a sense of normalcy — though I do admit I am a bit concerned about the culture shock we will encounter going from a place very much in a third wave of the pandemic to a place where many appear to believe we are past it all.

Farewell, Malawi.

Hello, USA.

Malawi: Winding Down

The countryside around Dedza, central Malawi

We are slipping ever closer to our departure from Malawi; we have less than a month to go though I do not today know exactly how many days are left. I had a date in early August, but realized that due to COVID I could request to depart in July. I then had a very late July date, but then the airline flying that route cancelled the flight. We have new tickets but the already paid for reservation for my cat on that flight has yet to be confirmed for the new itinerary. Therefore things are not quite settled until the cat’s ticket is settled.

The past month has been a bit of a roller coaster. Lots of preparations to wrap things up in the office and at a home. A series of actions to check items off lists. Slowly sorting items into piles of things to sell, to donate, to give away, to put in luggage, into unaccompanied baggage (UAB), and into household effects (HHE). It might seem on the surface to be a rather straightforward process, but it is not. The two of us qualify for 450 pounds of UAB, which will be sent to the U.S. by air. It seems like both a lot but also not very much. We will be in the U.S. for about a year, so we want to be able to take a fair amount with us. Our HHE will be placed into storage in Europe until we arrive in Guinea in the summer of 2022; the shipment will only be authorized after our arrival and can take a few months. Therefore its likely we will not see these items for 15-16 months. If my daughter tells me that I can put something into HHE then I might as well just get rid of it now as she will be a different child 16 months from now.

We have whittled down quite a bit of the pantry and toiletry items. It feels a little odd as Malawi is a consumables Post – a place where we are able to get a extra shipment of foodstuffs and items for personal or household maintenance – and thus we arrived with large stocks of those items. Now we are out of vitamins and down to the last tubes of toothpaste, the last bottles of shampoo, the last bits of so many things.

In the midst of these preparations, Malawi has experienced the lead up to a COVID third wave. The third wave in Africa started in early May. South Africa had been seeing increases particularly with its own variant (the Beta) and the Indian variant (Delta), and as was to be expected it did not take long for it to spill across borders. By early June, the cases in Malawi started to climb just as the county began to administer the second shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Unfortunately, before the end of the month vaccines in Malawi were finished.

I had really hoped that before we departed Malawi we might get in another vacation. We had managed to get out for our holiday in Kenya just before the second wave and we have had a few trips within Malawi after the six-month prohibition against traveling out of Lilongwe at the beginning of the pandemic was lifted. I thought we might get to South Africa and Lesotho to finally complete the trip we had had planned for April 2020, but Ethiopian Airlines refused to honor the flight credits we had and with the COVID numbers going up yet again, it seemed best to remain in Malawi. I started to look into whether we could get in another domestic vacation but we had already done a good job in getting out and about; there were few places left on my bucket list. Many we had already been to twice. Those we wanted to get to were rather far, with still limited facilities due to the pandemic, or cost prohibitive.

Thus I found myself with 11 consecutive days of off just hanging about the house. As if we have not already been hanging around the house for much of the past 18 months. Yet this time, I have the upcoming departure from Malawi, our Permanent Change of Station (PCS), fast approaching so though my inability to scratch my travel itch yet again has done a few things to my psyche, I am also grateful to have had this time to both relax (lots of sleeping in, reading, watching DVDs), manage some final play dates for my daughter, and to do some of that whittling down of things.

Rock Art Paintings at Namzeze

But I could not be content with just that. There was one more place I had hoped to visit. There are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Malawi. One is the Lake Malawi National Park and we have visited there on multiple occasions (such as here, here, and here). The other is the Chongoni Rock Art Area. Scattered across 127 sites in the Chentcherere hills of central Malawi, around Dedza, these are a mix of paintings on rock by BaTwa pygmy hunters of the Stone Age and Chewa agriculturalists of the Iron Age and “feature the richest concentration of rock art in Central Africa.”

The last bit of, um, road?

On a beautiful, clear Sunday morning (after days of overcast days), C and I, with our friends CR and her daughter AR, headed about 100 kilometers south on the M1 to the Dedza Pottery Lodge. We stopped there so CR could pick up an order, we could all use the facilities, and we met our guide Samuel. CR jumped into the backseat with the girls and Samuel took the passenger seat, and we headed back north along a dirt road. We drove around 45 minutes to the turn off to the Namzeze site, which Samuel said was the best as it featured paintings of both the BaTwa and Chewa people. The road then got pretty bad. It was just a track through tall grassland. At times it was okay, but at other times there were some parts where bits of the road was missing, making ridges with fissures deep enough to maybe, if not swallow at least stall my car.

At last we came to an area just above a wooden log bridge. We stopped here as there were significant gaps between the log and it was too much of a challenge with my car (especially one I have already sold!). I was really pleased that although the road was challenging, the signposting was good.

We then walked up the rocky hillside for about 40 minutes or so (I suppose some can certainly hike it faster than two middle aged women of middling activeness with two nine year old girls) until we reached an area with a large covered opening in the rock, a shallow cavern, the Namzeze paintings. There we sat as Samuel gave us a bit of information on the drawings and the people who made them. He said the paintings done in red ochre were made by the BaTwe people, and could be as much as 10,000 years old, and the ones in white clay were made by the Chewa people and are approximately 2,000 years old (though it is not all that clear, even on the UNESCO site, that the paintings are that old). The red paintings, as they are older, are fainter, and of mostly graphic designs (lines, dots, shapes) while the white clay designs are of four-footed animals and birds, which are likely related to ritualistic initiations.

Left: Our guide Samuel surveys the valley from the mouth of the hillside opening; Right: C and AR in front of the rock art

After about 30 minutes at the site we had a more rapid descent to the car. We drove part way back to the Dedza Pottery Factory to drop off Samuel and then headed back to the M1 and Lilongwe. I am glad that we went, that we had one more adventure to see another special aspect of Malawi.

It is such an odd time now. PCS’ing — moving internationally — is hard enough, stressful enough in normal times. During a pandemic puts it at a whole new level. Flight schedules are more limited. Ethiopian once flew daily to and from Lilongwe and now its four times a week. And schedules seem subject to more changes and cancellations than usual. And the testing regimes on top of it. It’s a lot to think about. And it is all mixed up in the complicated feelings of departure from a place where we have spent a significant amount of time and after already a year and a half of a pandemic. Most Embassy families we know are currently on their R&Rs and we are the last family to PCS this summer. C’s best friends leave two weeks before us. Our last few weeks are going to be hard, especially on C. There is unlikely to be another PCS like this. At least I certainly hope not.

We head next to the U.S. where it seems from where we sit that most have returned to a level of normalcy. My sister, a TSA agent at a major U.S. airport, has reported “post-pandemic summer travel,” except that implies an end to a pandemic that is very much still in progress and accelerating again in many parts of the world. I am focused almost entirely on managing our departure; the arrival in the U.S. is a whole other step. I do not know what to expect.