Then and now: Things I’ve learned in moving to another country

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It’s May. Damn.

It’s actually the end of May and I’m realizing that I haven’t posted on here in some time.

The last time you heard from me, I was talking something bout buying gifts for your travel-minded family member or distant friend. Wowzers!

Anyway…In case you’ve been wondering, I’ve been busy getting my life together and preparing to move to another country. Yes, you read right! We’re moving away from Japan to Ethiopia! (No worries, I’ll probably back date a post or two about that dark and desolate time in my life later on)

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There is pee in my boot.

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This past week, I went on a field trip with the grade 11 students from my school. We went to Gunma Prefecture to do some outdoorsy stuff and be at one with nature. Now, I am not the most outdoorsy type of person so I had my reservations initially, but it ended up being really awesome.

The camp is about 3 hours outside of Tokyo, so I put on my headphones and got some work done on the ride with about 35 talkative girls. No biggie. The scenery was amazing on the way up and you could just smell that mountain air once we arrived. We dropped our bags and put on our swim suits to get ready to go rafting not moments after we stepped off the bus. I had been rafting before, so it wasn’t that big of a deal.

They suit us up in uncomfortable wet suits, life vests, and helmets and we head off to the river. They put all the teachers in the “cool raft” and we are given brief instructions on how not to die while in the raft. It was comforting. We set off and did pretty well. The scenery was amazing and I often found myself looking around, rather than looking at what was ahead of me. The river was at a 1 or 2 grade, so it wasn’t that bad and often we could get out to swim in the water. At one point, we all docked and jumped off a big rock. It was really incredible out there.

So, fast forward to day 2 where we were to go canyoning. For anyone who doesn’t know what canyoning is, it’s basically you are wading through a rocky river and sliding down waterfalls. Not sure why it’s called canyoning rather than waterfalling, but whatevs. We did that. I even did the ones where I was upside down getting tossed over (I have this thing about doing anything that requires me to go head first). I was proud of myself.

On this day, we had to wear more gear than we did the first day because we would be in the water most of the time and the water is colder up in the mountains. We were given socks, and extra jacket, and gloves to wear. And the water was COLD! We were also told to go pee before we put on our wetsuits because “the wetsuits are not toilets”. So I did and instructed the girls to go as well. All was well until about halfway through the course.

I’m sitting there waiting my turn and after one of the jumps or whatever, my body is like “Um…we gotta pee! All this cold water isn’t working well with out ability to hold our bladder.”

And I’m like “Um…ya’ll gonna need to hold it because I can’t go pee in this thing.”

And they were all “Right.”

So about halfway during the course I did one of the slides or jumps and my body said “fuck that” and just started to pee. I was trying to remain calm as the stream just continued to fill up my suit, but my face was like “ohshitohshitohshit” and I just had to go with it because it was a little too late at this point. I figure, it’s a wetsuit, maybe if I linger in the water a bit, it will flush all of it out some kinda way.

Nope.

It’s a wetsuit, doing what wetsuits do. So my bodily fluids just hung around and I had to open up a leg so that it could move elsewhere. I figure I could get it out some kinda way and just keep jumping and eventually it all would flush out. “Ain’t no way I’m getting back on that bus smelling like pee”, I kept repeating to myself in a panic.

So we’re moving along and I’m trying to stay in the pools of water as long as possible to get some of the pee out and all of a sudden, I feel this flush of warm liquid around my left foot as we’re walking.

Yep. There’s pee in my boot.

Despite my best efforts, the pee did not filter out of the wet suit as I had hoped. But rather, found its way into my left boot and settled. It was funny, walking with one cold foot and one warm one, slushing my way up the creek. Conveniently putting my foot into puddles to try to dilute the solution before heading back up the hill to the bus. It was quite comical.

Thankful for the open windows on the bus, my anxiety decreased when I realized that I might not be sniffed out. After we got back to camp, I tucked into separate shower area from the girls to strip off my suit and quickly chucked it into the wash area to avoid anyone else smelling me out.

Funny enough, this isn’t the first time I’ve lost control of my bladder. I mean, my son was huge, weighing at almost 9 lbs, so they tell me this is expected, right? But this was the first time it’s happened in a massive amount and with a group of people for which I could be forever ridiculed. Teenagers are harsh, yo.

Pee incident aside, the trip was really fun. I was able to chaperone and participate without having to really do anything. I challenged myself in ways I never would have without the security and encouragement that the staff at Canyons gave. The guides were amazing and really took care of us. I definitely am going to try and get the boy back here and have some fun in nature.

If you’re ever in Japan and have some time on your hands, look them up. It’s really a great place to experience and the staff are super helpful and have the greatest sense of humor. I think had they known I wet myself, they would have found a way to make it funny and a little less embarrassing. Maybe.

But I couldn’t take that chance.

Just for kicks and giggles, here is a video montage of the canyoning 🙂

Have any of you had any embarrassing incidents like this? How did you recover or save yourself from complete humiliation? Let me know in the comments!

5 things you need to know before traveling to Tokyo.

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I’ve been living in Tokyo for a year now and it’s a beautiful and exciting place to visit. I’m often asked a lot of questions from people interested in visiting and I thought I’d put together a few things that I think are important to know before coming to visit.

Here they are…

There are no public trash cans. Or very few, rather. There are bins that collect bottles and cans near vending machines and sometimes outside of conbinis (convenience stores). But don’t bank on these being everywhere. It’s not uncommon to have bags of trash in your book bag because there is nowhere to put it. Sometimes it’s left for days because I forget it’s in there.

Remember: Suica or Pasmo. Tokyo hosts one of the most efficient and reliable mass transit systems in the world. And with 13 million residents, traffic can be insane and frustrating. Therefore it’s best to buy a Suica or Pasmo when you get here. Not only can you use it on the 158 number of trains and regional lines and 41 bus routes, you can also use it at convenience stores to buy food and beer and at some vending machines. You can even use them when you miss the last train and have to take a taxi home. (But I wouldn’t recommend this) It’s a convenient way to reach all corners of the city and cuts down on the hassle of buying tickets and guessing the fare.

Also to note: The trains trains will be crowded. People will squeeze in as much as possible. No way around it during certain times of day. It’s all part of the experience.

Do not take a taxi if you can avoid it. Simply put: Taxis in Tokyo are expensive. The flag rate is 730 yen for the first two kilometers and rapidly increases from there. It’s also important to note that rates increase between 11pm and 5am. This is important to remember if you happen to miss the last train home.

Trains and busses usually stop from midnight to 5am, so if you end up at a random bar in Rippongi and your hotel is in Omotesando, you might end up paying close to 100 bucks to get back to your hotel. Just avoid it if you can. Pay attention to the last train information or plan to make it an all-nighter. It’s Tokyo, so it’s pretty easy to do if you’re a rockstar.

Never leave tips. I know in a lot of parts of the world, tips are considered customary. However here in Japan, they can be interpreted as an insult. Something about pride and whatnot. Just remember, most of the things you pay for not only include the service charge, but also the taxes. Expect to get your change back when paying at a bar or restaurant and remember to take it with you. You will get chased down and they will insist you take it back. And speaking of restaurants…

No, the service is not bad. With restaurants in Japan, you have to flag them down to order. Someone will seat you, bring you water, and even might ask for your drink order. But when it’s time to order, you will need to flag them down with a polite sumimasen and someone will rush over to take your order.

It’s also important to know that they may not come back to check on you unless your plate is empty. Unlike in the States, where they come back every 5-10 minutes to see if everything is okay. I think it might be that they just want you to enjoy your meal without constant pestering and they figure if you wanted them, you will let them know. It took some time for me to get used to this as well. No worries.

Best time to go. For the most part, you can visit Tokyo any time of the year. My recommendation is to come during Sakura season (mid-late March through early April). This is the best time to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom, participate in a hanami party, and eat all the wonderful food and drinks that are sakura themed and flavored. It’s my favorite time of year here and the weather is really amazing. The summers are horrid and humid and frankly, unbearable. The winters are mild, but makes for really bad sight-seeing if you’re looking for outdoor activities. I would absolutely avoid Tokyo during typhoon season, which is end of August until early October. If it gets really bad, everything closes to avoid damage and injury. Don’t let a typhoon, or even really bad humidity, ruin your vacation. Come during the spring or fall for the best weather.

Plan ahead and do you research. I would never suggest someone coming here and winging it. I can’t even really do weekend activities without some kind of plan. Between navigating the transportation to beating the crowds, you really need to know what you’re doing and where. And also search where things are. Tokyo has a lot of nooks and crannies to discover and although it’s fun getting lost in a new city, getting lost here is a whole nother beast. I would say, make room for impulsivity. You can definitely end up in a random bar in Shibuya and find yourself in a middle of a karaoke battle with locals or smack dab in the middle of a Brazilian festival in Asakusa. It happens. Embrace it, but do plan ahead just in case. You can lose a couple of days if you get lost in Shinjuku station. Seriously.

Tokyo is a vast land of tradition, fashion, food, and entertainment. You can find almost anything under the sun to do and experience while you are here, but it’s not one of those places you can just stumble through. Because of its deep roots in traditions, there are things you should know before coming, to avoid being a stereotypical gaijin or foreigner.

Respect the customs, enjoy the history, and interact with the people. Tokyo is an amazing place and I hope you enjoy your experience if you ever find yourself here.

(and yes, I know those were more than 5 things. I’m a rebel and I do what I want)

 

I have a thing for coffee shops. 

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Seriously. It’s almost an addiction at this point. And I’ve only become a connoisseur of coffee for the last few years, so this has been developing over a short time. Before, I would generally just go for Starbucks, but as they say: once you know better, you do better.

The ambiance, the decor and of course, anything coffee and coffee snack related. The mix of casual and comfort, but each place I go has been able to develop its own autonomy in this buddying culture. But what I have come to love most is the feeling of being in a creative space that I can never imagine curating in my own home. Somehow it just allows me to just flow and be in my element and get things done without the need to make drinks, do dishes, or create a dope ass playlist.

So, while leaving the final concert for the boy’s school we went to lunch at an amazing Indian spot and passed this coffee shop on the way home. The sign was attractive, so we decided to pop in for a moment to see what was up.


Man! We walk in and “After the Love is Gone” by Earth Wind and Fire is playing on the sound system, books are EVERYWHERE and nostalgic memorabilia are in every nook and cranny of this place. From Star Wars to The Beatles to Polaroid cameras. They even have vintage children’s games and books all over the place. The owner is chill and brings us over a menu written on wax paper and serves us animal crackers with our drinks.


The boy and I were in awe for a good 20 minutes before we were even able to enjoy your drinks.

Now I’m sitting here writing this post rocking out to Jimmy Hendrix playing feeling energized and contemplating moving to this side of town just for the possibility to be within proximity of this place.

Listen, if you are ever in Nakameguro, please come check out Under the Mat. This place is dope and all the books are for sale. I will most likely be taking home a few.

The weekend wanderlust.

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A summary of this week’s victories, lessons and roustabouts.

This weekend we met up with a friend from London who was visiting Tokyo for the week. We decided to explore Odaiba and entertain the children for a few hours. After eating lunch, we found ourselves at Lego Land Discovery Center and spent way too much time there. Afterward we went walking on the dock and found hover boards bubbles. My sense of adventure is halted at the risk of losing my balance and breaking my neck, so I didn’t try it. It was a very long and exhausting day chasing a toddler and a pre-teen behaving like one (because he’s jealous of the attention I was giving this adorable little girl).

In our exploring, I discovered there is a shore area where we can play in the sand and take boat rides. We definitely have to go back some other time and do more than explore headache inducing kiddy lands.

Update on life in Japan.

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I recently wrote an essay for mater mea, the online publication that has featured me to talk about my move to Tokyo. They reached out and asked for a follow up on our life here in Tokyo. It took me a long time to write this, because I was so occupied with adjusting and dealing with things, that I wasn’t able to reflect on all that has happened. That was part of it. The other part was it has taken me this long to actually sit and be still long enough to reflect. I’ve been moving so much and in such an emotional whirlwind, that I hadn’t allowed myself the space to just be still. Partly because I was afraid of what would happen.

So, one day I sat down and wrote this piece. It was published last month, but I wanted to post it here for you, who have been on this journey with me.

***

When I made the decision to move to abroad with my son, I was completely unprepared. Sure I was aware of the culture shock, the challenges I would endure with jet lag and sleep deprivation. I even expected that I would go through extreme withdrawal from Chick-Fil-A. But what I wasn’t prepared for was how moving to this new country would forever alter my relationship with my son.

After being a single mother in the United States for years, being a single mother abroad is an entirely different ball game. You become proficient at making things happen and figuring things out on your own because you have no real choice. But here, not knowing a lick of Japanese, having zero knowledge of the area or the way things work, I was forced to rely on other people to help me with things I was accustomed to doing on my own. I had to learn how to ask for help, and that was hard for me and my ever-so-posturing ego. Being here made me realize that it was okay to do so because I can’t do everything by myself, no matter how much my pride gets in the way.

I’m going to be honest: the last six months have been somewhat of a struggle. I didn’t handle the stress well and it was challenging for both of us to adapt. Because neither of us was ready for what adjusting to Tokyo meant, our relationship took a hit.

To give a little context, Chris went to a progressive school when we lived in Philadelphia. It was a very relaxed environment that nurtured him as an individual and actively sought his feedback to structure his education. The school was pretty aligned to how I have been educating him since birth, so it worked for us both. When we moved to Tokyo, I enrolled him at the school that had a relationship with the school that I would be working. I researched what I could about this school from afar, but it was basically the tuition discount and close proximity that got the vote. But what I didn’t take into account was how the school would fit into our personal pedagogy.

In hindsight, the school couldn’t have been more on the opposite end of the educational spectrum. They were a traditional catholic school, enforced a uniform policy, and had a rigid schedule and homework policy. Some of Chris’ challenges at the school were keeping up with the pace of homework and testing (of which neither of us was a fan), adjusting to wearing a uniform daily, and the school had an issue with his locs. Attempting to abide by the school policy, I braided his hair back to keep it as “neat and kempt” as his then eight-year-old self could maintain on a weekly basis, but it became increasingly clear that there was a personal issue.

In addition to adjusting to this, Chris was showing signs of stress very early on. He was chewing incessantly on anything he could get his hands on, he was wetting the bed, and he was irritable and would basically freak out if anything changed in our schedule without notice. This was challenging – to understand the needs of my child had changed drastically. I’m not so sure I was ready for that. Chris was extremely stressed out, and it took a long time for us to learn how to communicate effectively again and for me to find a way to support him.

After the first week of school, I scheduled a meeting with his teacher to inform her of his challenges and see if we could work collaboratively on a solution. A distressed mother, seeking the help of a fellow parent, I found none. Instead, she took that opportunity to let me know how my child wasn’t measuring up to the “room full of Asians”, as she referred to them. Discussing with me all the educational challenges that I was already aware of, and informed her prior to his arrival, but failed to discuss interventions or solutions. Frustrated, I sought help from the assistant principal and, later, the principal – all with no avail.

After my fifth meeting with the school, it was becoming apparent that I wasn’t going to get anywhere and began to feel helpless and frustrated. Despite my appeals, they insisted that he was happy at school and that there was nothing to help, although I saw another child at home. I knew it was just Chris putting on a mask and keeping it together while at school, but then falling apart at home. It wasn’t until I saw how it was beginning to have an effect on his identity that I decided we needed another school.

During a conversation, I asked Chris how he felt about living in Japan. He told me that he liked it here, but he felt that his school wanted to change him. He went on to say that he was okay with the uniform and even how they learn in the school, but he was slowly beginning to feel that the individuality that was celebrated at his previous school was discouraged at this new one. This translated to his eight-year-old brain that he wasn’t liked and accepted for who he is. And as the person who has spent the majority of his life making sure he has a positive self-image despite the messages society sends, this was devastating to hear. I had to make a change.

After months of trial and error, we are on an upswing. I had to transfer him to a new school that could support him better with this transition. The commute to school is longer for him, but he is so much happier and lighter. On the way home from picking him up on his first day, I noticed he was so much more energetic and talkative. It was then I realized that no matter how resilient they can be, no child should have to carry a weight like that. Nor should any of us for that matter.

In all this, I’m learning to change the way I communicate with him. I’m learning to be more patient and remember to breathe when I feel things are out of my control. We are both realizing that this is hard for the both of us, but in Tokyo, we are all we got. So we’re working on being kinder with one another.

Despite the challenges we faced initially, I don’t regret my decision at all. I have realized that moving here, at this stage in his development, was the best decision that I could have made for us. He is living the childhood I always wanted for him. There is a sense of safety in Tokyo that doesn’t exist in the States. We feel no sense of caution when walking home at night or when taking public transit. We don’t flinch or hold our breath when encountering law enforcement. We don’t experience any aggression from the citizens here (maybe the occasional staring contest, but I always win). He has a supportive environment at his school now, and he is freer than he has been in a very long time. As a bonus, because of our location, we can explore Asia significantly cheaper than we could back home. Right now, I am content.

Sure, it is possible that by living here, he is experiencing a false sense of the reality that we may have to face if we go back to the United States. When he is a man, he may never know how to interact with police officers in a way that doesn’t make him seem intimidating or threatening (I don’t know anyone in the States who knows how to do this, actually). He may never learn to keep his hands in plain sight at all times and learn the phrase “If I die in police custody, I did not commit suicide.” I do take all of this into consideration. But you know what? I’m okay with that. Because my only focus as a mother right now is to create an environment where my son can be exactly who he should be at nine years old: a child. And I couldn’t care less on what continent that happens.

Someone tried to feel me up on the train the other day.

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I was on the train headed to Yokohama for a training for work. At one point, I had to transfer to another train. I did so and boarded the crowded train and smooshed in as far as I could. I held on to the bar above my head and prepared for the 20 minute ride until my transfer.

Immediately I noticed a boy standing next to me and he wasn’t holding on to anything and began to stagger as the train moved. The mother in me reached out for his arm and grabbed him. He, in turn, grabbed onto my book bag strap for stability I assumed. We exchanged a nod and I went back to looking at my phone to occupy myself.

As the train continued to move, I began to feel the boy’s hand touch my stomach. I thought he was again trying to maintain his stability and I again offered my hand for support. He just looked at me and grabbed my bag strap again. I went back to my phone. I then felt his hand again on my stomach and move upwards. Shocked, I moved my bag in front of me, still giving him the benefit of the doubt.

But it was when I noticed his hand creeping up my bag, in an attempt to touch my hand, that I realized what was happening. At the next stop, I got off and moved to another car.

Now, this boy couldn’t have been over the age of 10. I initially thought he was special in some way, but it wasn’t until after I made attempts to prevent him from touching me that I realized that all of his actions were intentional. This is the culture in which I live.

Already I have talked with students who have encountered creeps on the train who have tried to feel them up or have done so successfully. There is even a website showing pedophiles how to get away with it on the trains. There is porn glorifying this sexual abuse online and even in convenient stores.

It’s absolutely sickening.

But as a woman, this is the type of thing we deal with, right? We just learn how to accept this form of harassment and avoid slapping the shit out of someone and getting arrested and possibly deported. Because I would then be in the wrong…

I digress.

I just wanted to share my frustration with the awakening that I have found myself in a sexually repressed culture that does nothing to protect women from being sexually abused on public transportation.

*heavy sigh*