Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The End of Further Adoption Aspirations (For Now, At Least)

So this happened.
Hello people of the internet, I have a confession to make. It turns out that no matter how difficult it may be to secure condoms, making your stash last longer by assuming some days are "safe" is, in fact, unsafe, irrespective of smart phone apps and scrupulous charting.  In other words, I am pregnant.

Although we never wanted Tiger to be an only child, this isn't exactly what we had in mind. Although it does not necessarily disqualify us from ever adopting again, it will make it a lot harder and restrict our options. Many agencies and some CGCs will not accept applications from couples with biological children at all. Others require that biological children be a minimum age before they will accept applications. On top of all that, what modest savings we did have in the bank ear-marked towards further familial expansion are now having to be redirected to the insanely expensive business of preparing for a newborn. Even though everything it is safe to do so is being purchased second hand and plans to cloth diaper and breastfeed should cut down on costs, honestly, it's still a struggle. Especially factoring in my lost income.

It's going to be a long time before we can look at adopting again, and that means Tiger won't have a sibling near his age for some of the years when it is most fun to have a partner in crime. He's thrilled to bits at the idea of being a big brother, but I've been feeling an extraordinary amount of guilt. There are three orphanages within short driving distance of our home. It's entirely irrational to think about it in these terms because I know few of the children are available for adoption and furthermore our local CGC has remained adamant that they want us to proceed through ISSJ for future adoptions because they aren't confident in handling the international aspects themselves, and we couldn't have afforded that immediately even without the baby~ in other words, there was no imminent prospect of adoption anyway. But still. We can afford financially and emotionally to raise a limited number of children, and creating one who didn't previously exist reduces by one the number of already existing and waiting children who we can parent. Please understand that I am talking about how I feel here and what our plans were as parents, not in any way criticising others' choices or attitudes. Adoption is a complex issue and I certainly don't see it as some sort of overarching moral imperative, but for us, in our situation, we felt that parenting by adoption was the ethical choice and I rarely fail to live up to a decision I make on ethical grounds.

This is my mea culpa.

Now it's done, the next post will be a funny story about my dogs, promise!
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Tuesday, 16 December 2014

"Back Then."

One of my undergraduate students, during a class discussion in which I had talked about the fringe nature of anime fandom when I was a student, opened his statement with "I don't know what things were like back then, but..."

Back then.

Back in your day.

Days of yore.

I'm 30 years old guys. 30. I know it seems old when you're 20, but does it really deserve a "back then"? f(^_^;
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Friday, 14 November 2014

Look at me, watch me, see me (Flashback Friday)

Winner of an children's poetry contest, written by a first-grader:
Hey, mum...
Don't look at your smart-phone
Look at me

The thing kids in orphanages said to us most often wasn’t “play with me” or “carry me” but “look at me, watch me.” Whenever we went to play there would be a cluster of children around us all the time, calling out “watch me do handstands!” “Look at me run to that tree!” At school they would be in a class of 30 to 40. They’d come home to an institution where again, they’d be one of 50, 60, even 100. What they wanted most from us was our undivided attention, our focus on them and them alone, even for a few minutes. Look at me, watch me, see me. Tiger’s orphanage had kept a photo album for him, and when he first came to live with us he loved pointing to group photographs and asking me to guess which one was him. It blew his mind that I could identify him as a five year old in his kindergarten class photo or that I recognised him in his baby pictures. How did I know it was him? He would ask me to do it again, over and over. Look at me, watch me, see me.

 In my first year as an ALT I taught a 4th grade elementary class and noticed a gregarious boy with shocking bleached-blond hair who had a gift for languages and was generally charming and hilarious. The home room teacher was going out of her way to be nice to him, and I had been at that school for nearly a year but had never seen him before, so I assumed he was a new transfer student. He was barefoot; maybe he’d brought the wrong shoes for the new school and taken them off in embarrassment, I thought. I asked about him after the class finished. “Oh no, he’s been here since kindergarten” the teacher told me. “He is often absent though. He has many younger siblings and they’re abused, so he stays at home to look after them.” I stared at her, blankly. What did she mean, they were abused? If the school knew about abuse and had for years, why had nothing been done? A few months later the boy, I’ll call him Shouma, moved up into 5th grade, meaning I saw him more often (5th and 6th graders have more English lessons). He was the kind of boy every Shonen Jump manga features; always smiling, throwing his head back to laugh in an exaggerated “HAHA”, holding his rice bowl to his face and shoveling food in so fast you feared he’d choke then demanding seconds with his mouth still full. He loved to make everyone laugh, and he was universally liked, but close to no one in particular. I asked him once about his lack of shoes, and he told me that it was painful to wear them. He pointed cheerfully to cigarette burns on his feet before running off to play. 

At the time I couldn’t understand why no one seemed to be doing anything except being extra nice to him. Shouma is part of the reason I initially did the research that led to this post on the situation regarding child abuse and institutionalisation in Japan. Although ALT support has been reduced even from the low level we had when I was on the JET Programme, we did at least have periodic meetings where we could discuss issues with our peers. I raised Shouma at one such meeting, and another ALT told me that she’d been asked by her school to be particularly encouraging of one female student, because “her uncle rapes her but she doesn’t have anywhere else to live”. We sat silently, not knowing how to help each other. For a long time I was simply angry, and felt betrayed by the school. Surely they had some training for this, why was I the only one who seemed to be worrying about him? As I learned more, I began to understand their position a little better. 

There would be relatively little a social worker could do to intervene. If the parents could be persuaded to give up the children voluntarily they would almost certainly have been separated and placed into different care situations. For an older child who has been responsible for keeping younger siblings alive, feeding them and sheltering them from blows with his or her own body, to be separated and have no idea what had become of them would be the cause of intolerable anguish. The most likely outcome for Shouma would be placement in a large orphanage, with all of the attendant issues that come with institutionalisation. I don’t want to suggest that abuse is ever OK, but there is some research to indicate that abused children may fare better than neglected children and even the best large scale orphanages offer little more than benign emotional neglect and at worst are sites of abuse themselves. I don’t know what the school’s reasoning was, but as I did more research I came to feel that perhaps trying to get social services involved would be unhelpful and potentially damaging. I moved from rage at the teachers to rage at the entire system. There are many wonderful individuals who have dedicated their lives to trying to improve the system, but Japan still fundamentally fails its most vulnerable. I watched Shouma whenever I could. When the kids were working quietly at their desks and he no longer felt the centre of attention, his face changed. I saw a different Shouma. He seemed much smaller, somehow. 

When he graduated elementary school I cast my eyes around the auditorium throughout the ceremony, wondering what his parents looked like. Wondering if I had the courage to try and say something to them in my imperfect Japanese, which becomes even worse when I am trying to communicate something emotional. I watched him as everyone gathered outside afterwards for photographs. He parents weren’t there. No one had come to watch him. He kicked off his shoes and walked home alone, his diploma in one hand and his shoes in the other. 

A few weeks later junior high began. The rules are stricter there; he had to dye his hair back to black. He took the opportunity of the new environment to ramp up his class-clown act. I remember one class in particular he’d taken down a wire coat hanger (we use them to hang cleaning rags to dry in the classrooms) and twisted it into the shape of a giant erect penis, which he held in his crotch and complained loudly about how stiff it was. The teacher said “put that down immediately” so Shouma used his other hand to try to bend it downwards, but as soon as he released it, of course it flicked back up again. “I’m trying” he yelled brightly, “but it just won’t stay down”. The entire class was in hysterics and even the teacher had trouble keeping her stern face on. As the year progressed, though, cracks began to show. He was an incredibly clever kid, and the pace in elementary school is so slow you can probably pay attention 10% of the time and keep up if you’re bright. By junior high though, everything accumulates quickly and if you missed the key point last week you’ll find yourself with no idea what is going on in this week’s class. His innate intelligence stopped being enough to carry him through, and he grades dropped badly. His need to be the centre of attention and make everyone laugh became increasingly painful to watch, and as the other kids got used to him he began pushing his behaviour to further and further extremes trying to get reactions.

My desk at the junior high was opposite the school nurse’s, and she would often treat minor complaints there rather than in the infirmary. We saw a lot of Shouma. One morning he came in early, before classes had begun, asking for a dressing for what looked to me like a large burn on his arm. As she patched him up the nurse quizzed him in her kind but firm way: “How did you get hurt like this so early in the morning?” “I fell on the way to school” he answered. “If you fell outside there would be dirt and debris in here, but it’s clean” she chided. “I feel in the corridor, inside school but on my way to class” he amended. “It’s pretty bad” she said, “shall I send someone to clean up the blood in the corridor?” He shifted uncomfortably. “I cleaned it up before I came here” he said, looking at the ground. I listened curiously. I assumed the elementary school would have notified the junior high about his home situation, it’s the kind of information teachers are usually careful to share, but I wasn’t sure. I asked the nurse if she knew he was being abused and she said “oh yes, I know, he lies about all his injuries. But until he tells me for himself there’s nothing I can do except treat the wounds.”

Second grade junior high (8th grade) is hard for most kids. Helpfully, in my experience, they all go through puberty at once and get the nasty moody part over and done in the one year. It makes them not very fun to teach, but it does mean they are back to their usual lovely selves by third (9th) grade. Shouma lost something that year. I don’t know how to describe it, really, except that he had always been so bright, and the light seemed to go out. Around that time we were well into our adoption application. Our social worker asked us bluntly “how old are you willing to go?” and hating the idea of having to say no to any child, we settled on 12. I was 28 and in principal in Australia the adoptive parents should be 18 years older than the adoptee, so we were pushing it, but we assumed (erroneously as it turned out) that we’d be waiting for a few years before a placement anyway. Nevertheless, when we said “12” I immediately thought of Shouma. There are children like him all over Japan, and although he wasn’t being placed for adoption I still felt like we’d just said “no” to him. It’s an awful (but necessary, I do understand that) part of the adoption process, listing the children you will say no to. “Yes” I wrote for cerebral palsy. Under autism I wrote “yes if high functioning”. Under Down’s Syndrome I wrote “no” and struggled with myself for days.

A couple of months before the summer holidays in Shouma’s second year of junior high I got a call that we had been matched with a little boy. I was given just a few cursory details over the phone in that initial call. The little boy is now our son, Tiger. But his real name he shares with Shouma, and that shook me profoundly. It was my last term teaching with the JET Programme. On my last day at Shouma’s school he had a fever. He was sitting, slumped on a chair in the infirmary waiting for permission to go home, and missed my farewell class. I wanted to say goodbye but I didn’t want to wake him up. I tried to write him a letter. “I’ll always think of you as the boy with blond hair” I wrote. “You are very special to me. You share a name with my son, and I think about you when I see him.” What else could I say? Like every other adult in his life, for the past four years I had been a bystander to his abuse. I left the letter beside him without waking him up.

I looked at Shouma, I watched him. I saw him, and I did nothing.
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Sunday, 9 November 2014

Sunday Surf

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Linkage for interesting reads~ enjoy!

Adoption and Parenting
It is damaging to tell a child that God called you to adopt her. This sets you up as a God-ordained savior to your child. It tells your child that she needed saving and that God did not choose her family of origin to do that saving. If your child comes from poverty or oppression, the message that God called you, an outsider, to adopt her, says that God didn’t care enough about her family or country to solve its problems so that families could stay alive and stay together. Instead, God played favorites and called you to swoop in and get her out of there, leaving her family and people to suffer while God figures out who to call for the next adoption.
Our stories vary. Some of us are in reunion; some are not. Some of us are birth parents; some are adoptive parents. But all our stories are valid and celebrated by all members of our group. When I need support, I know I can turn to my sisters here.

Adoptee spaces and communities are special places, and yet, many of us want to see our voices emerge in the mainstream media where struggling adoptees can feel validated. Our founder, Amanda, said it best recently in this video clip, “I think we need to flip that script,” as she introduced a new adoptee-focused project, Dear Wonderful You. This anthology of letters from adult adoptees to tween and teen adoptees begins the dialogue where no adoptee should feel alone.

It is time for the #NationalAdoptionMonth tag to include ours. If you tweet, please consider tweeting the adoptee voice once a day, and tag it with #FliptheScript and #NationalAdoptionMonth. Let’s elevate the adoptee voice!
In the horrible situation of these twin girls’ separation, I think the most ethical thing to do would have been to perform the DNA tests as soon as possible instead of waiting six months when they were already settled, and unfortunately one of the families would have had to “make the ultimate sacrifice.” I’m sure this comment will not be well-received, but if we expect first parents to do it, I think we can expect one of these sets of parents could have done it as well, because it was in the best interest of both of the children. Of course the family would still love their daughter, but there were other options.
(I share this link with a note to register my disappointment at her use of the adjective "broken". I guess it means something specific to her she hasn't bothered to define, but it bothers me enormously. Autistic people are not broken.)
Stop apologizing. 
That was the first rule I made when my doctor told me the diagnosis.  No more “I’m sorries”.  I’ve spent the last 5 years apologizing for my son…how horrible is that?!
I’m sorry he isn’t sharing. I’m sorry he didn’t say thank you. I’m sorry he won’t sit still. I’m sorry he’s having trouble waiting in line. I’m sorry he’s being so loud. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
I cringe when I think of the shame I projected onto him in an effort to help him fit better into a mold I had created in my mind of what my quintessential child would most certainly be like. A few weeks after our doctor gave us the news, I felt that mold shatter into a million tiny pieces. And I remember feeling relief.  Screw the mold.

It’s not that Gus doesn’t understand Siri’s not human. He does — intellectually. But like many autistic people I know, Gus feels that inanimate objects, while maybe not possessing souls, are worthy of our consideration. I realized this when he was 8, and I got him an iPod for his birthday. He listened to it only at home, with one exception. It always came with us on our visits to the Apple Store. Finally, I asked why. “So it can visit its friends,” he said.
But after spending many years mourning the two babies she lost, my mother had other advice too: “Tell as many people as you like. Tell them now.”
“If something does go wrong,” she told me, “you’re going to need your friends. You’re not going to want to lie about how you’re feeling to everyone in your life.”

Philosophy and Science
In the event, the new law has left some intersex campaigners unsatisfied. For them, the main issue remains the practice of surgical intervention to definitively assign gender and thus "correct" the apparent mistakes of nature. Intersex activists accuse doctors of interfering with nature, of making arbitrary judgements based on aesthetics or to fit cultural norms, of calling it wrong (in some cases, surgically-corrected "girls" grow up to identify as male, or vice versa) and of indulging in practices equivalent to the genital mutilation widely condemned when performed for religious or tribal reasons. Silvan Agius, for example, writes that "Surgical or hormonal treatment for cosmetic, non-medically necessary reasons must be deferred to an age when intersex people are able to provide their own free, prior and fully informed consent... The right to bodily integrity and self-determination should be ensured and past abuses acknowledged."
his is quite a nice talk by Daphna Joel on male brains and female brains — she’s making the point that there are no such things. There are differential responses by developing brains to the environment that lead to different structures…but because it is a property of interactions between sexual factors and the environment, it’s inappropriate to call the differences simply “male” or “female”.
If you look at the graphs above, you may notice that Muslim Americans are less likely to support individual or state violence against civilians than are other Americans. In fact, as you may recall from the first graph in this post, Indonesian and Pakistani Muslims are more likely than Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, and nonreligious Americans to believe that violence against civilians is never justified. In other words, it appears that Americans are more ready to justify targeting civilians than are many of the world’s Muslims.
Rather, my purpose is to explore how the very concept of religion — the belief in a higher power, in whatever form it may take — is antithetical to liberating nonhumans from the human perception that other species are ours to do with as we please. Of course, some religions are considerably kinder to animals than others, but there is not one that claims nonhuman animals and human animals have an equal claim to personhood or parity. Similarly, the secular community has been slow to acknowledge what a lack of human exceptionalism means to how we treat other animals. When that association is made by atheist luminaries such as Richard Dawkins (see his essay “Gaps in the Mind,” to which I will later refer), they do not follow up with appropriate action such as going vegan or vegetarian, or becoming advocates for nonhuman animals. Thus, a further purpose of this book is to explore the lack of interest in animal concerns within the secular world and to inspire freethinkers to think more seriously about the other animals with whom we share the Earth.

Amy Chavez’s “Women in Japan” series, first offering 5 “powerful reasons” to be a woman (?) in Japan–you know, if your only aspiration is to be a mother and you are in a heterogamous marriage to a man who earns enough and you have no fertility issues.
As for Okinawa, there's also little doubt that Japan's militarization in response to Perry contributed to its impetus to force the weaponless Ryukyu monarchy to accept its annexation to Japan. In that way too, America helped lower the quality of Okinawan life because most Japanese treated the racially mixed people a little like American whites of the time treated American blacks. However, the Battle of Okinawa was incomparably worse for them than anything they'd previously suffered. In the way that combat stress causes so much mental and emotional disorder, those three months of horror that Okinawans spent in the lowest level of battle hell ripped their society, which had been uncommonly healthy by any standard, to shreds in some respects. The beautiful sub-tropical landscape had become, as an Okinawan survivor put it, a vast field of mud, lead, decay and maggots. The tombs of their ancestors, on which their religious life had centered, were among the ninety percent of structures that had been blasted to rubble and dust. Crime and suicide, which had been virtually unknown before the battle, became, and remain, serious problems.
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Monday, 3 November 2014

Ambivalent About Shimura Zoo

Primates as pets~ not OK.

We don't watch a lot of broadcast TV (we have hulu), but one show we have been turning on regularly is Tensai! Shimura Doubutsuen, a variety show about animals hosted by comedian Shimura Ken, probably best known to the internet for this sketch (the show ran from 1987-1993, not sure when the specific clip aired):

 At first I was really against watching Shimura Doubutsuen for a number of ethical reasons, particularly the frequent appearance of Pan-kun the chimp, the featuring of exotic pets and the whole concept of zoos in general. Tiger really wanted to watch it, though, and I believe it is more constructive to watch a show I object to with him and talk about what bothers me as we go rather than banning him from watching something he is interested in. So, we started watching it, and although I have the same concerns now as I did then, I can also see the good the show does in promoting rescue dogs and positive training approaches.

Shimura Ken travels Japan with his rescue-dog Chibi, drawing crowds whenever they go and showing a cute and well-mannered dog with frequent references to his past as a 捨てられた犬, an abandoned dog. The good this must do in promoting awareness of rescues and raising the image and status of rescue dogs is obviously very valuable. Since we have started watching it regularly the show has also been featuring updates on two seriously traumatised nihon-ken who have been rescued and are being rehabilitated by the programme. Having spent their lives confined in a tiny space the two dogs were at first afraid to even come out of their kennel, but on a recent episode one was not only able to take a short walk outdoors but even raised her tail, probably for the first time in her life. I'm not the slightest bit embarressed to say that I cried a little bit during that episode.

And yet, Pan-kun. There are just so many issues that make performing chimpanzees fundamentally unethical (see, and I cringe every time he comes on screen (less often now since he was "retired" after mauling a handler). And the exotic pets. And then there are the things that aren't exactly immoral but are just stupid and annoying, like recurring guest "animal psychic" Heidi Wright and the exaggerated performance of foreignness the three "hafu" hosts of the Japanese dog breed segment put on (follow the nihon ken on facebook though, they are ADORABLE).

Does the good outweigh the bad? If you watch (or purposefully don't watch) the show, please leave a comment and let me know what you think.
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Saturday, 1 November 2014

Comfort, Food and Culture Shock


In Norwegian "appelsin" is orange. My sister was a bit embarrassed by how funny I found that.
My son asked for his third helping of dinner the other night, then asked if I knew why he was eating so much. My first thought was worms, but I kept that to myself and asked why. "食欲の秋!" He replied, "autumn appetite". Apparently I'm not the only one who loses my appetite in the hot sticky summer; Japanese even has a term for the return of one's appetite with the cooler weather (other autumn terms are  読書の秋 and 運動の秋, referring to the desire to read books and exercise... you can guess which one of those most appeals to me). Glorious though it is to be cooking and enjoying yummy food again, it has gotten me thinking about the link between food and comfort, particularly since my parents recently visiting bringing with them a suitcase of comfort foods from home. While these days if you live in a big city in Japan it probably isn't hard to find at least some foods from your home country, when you are in the country side it isn't as simple as driving to Costco. The internet gives us many more options than we would have had in years past, but it is hard to explain the pleasure of your first Arnotts Mint Slice in three years. And, of course, there's the fun of talking about food with people who may appear to share your language but in some ways really don't... just try getting Americans and Brits to agree on what a biscuit is! Kirsty has a great post about it with an interesting political twist at the end (do read the entire post):
It was my first introduction to the fabulously popular international game of  Name That Food. A game which is closely related to the slightly more frustrating past-time of hungry travellers Find That Food.
I’ve spent the last 14 years of my life playing both games in various forms around the world. If the game stretches out for too long it usually ends with me doing an interpretive dance/game of charades while standing in a vegetable stall. Do you know how hard it is to mime an eggplant?
Over the years I’ve enhanced and developed my culinary vocabulary. Capsicum to peppers. Zucchini to corguettes. Spring onion to scallion. Rock melon to cantaloupe. Eggplant to aubergine. Jam to jelly. But there is also the world of the unknown. Right name, wrong food.
In North America I quickly learnt that gravy was not gravy, biscuits were not biscuits and jelly, jam and jello could have me requiring a dark room and a panodol – except there was no panadol. In a cafe in Canada the little travellers searched for the bubbles in the lemonade I’d ordered, “oh this is home-made” I explained, “it’s not fizzy drink, it’s kind of like lemon cordial. I’ll ask what they call lemon fizzy drink.”
“Ma’am, I don’t think we want to go there today do we?” the waitress replied.
Beyond simply missing familiar flavours, though, when you are still struggling with reading Japanese it can be a real challenge just to feed yourself. One friend purchased a can of what he thought were kidney beans and used them to make tacos... they were azuki, incredibly sweat red beans used in deserts. I've many times experienced a particularly awful mix of hunger, helplessness and panic that comes from perusing the menu of the fifth restaurant in a row and realising that here, too, there is nothing vegetarian and my lunch break is almost over. Eryk has a great post on this:
I heard so many stories of newcomers to Japan having breakdowns in the grocery stores, panic attacks from cramped spaces and the true vulnerability that comes from an irrational fear that obtaining food had become impossible. It is a primal place, the grocery store, despite its illusion of order. We are hunting and gathering here, and we have learned to read these aisles the way our ancestors could read flora and fauna. The labels are our environment, the brands and colors marking which mushrooms we can eat, which plants are poisonous. In the grocery store, I was a Canadian Goose set loose on a tropical island. I knew that this was all food, but I had no idea what I could really eat.
For me, culture shock has been the experience of going from being an articulate, self-confident member of society to an incompetent outsider without the ability to express my ideas and feelings fluently. Food has been a big part of that, not because I can't find my favourite flavour of potato chips but because my inability to do something as basic as feed myself unassisted reinforces to me how profoundly my sense of self is challenged by my shift from independence to dependence. Furthermore the "common sense" and ideas about logic I inherent from my home culture often don't make sense in Japan, and the frustration of being unable to communicate something that seems obvious to oneself leads, probably more than anything else, to some of the more hostile thoughts expats experience about Japan. In my case this is often tied to food. In my university days I visited the same cafe several times a week, and always ordered a hot sandwich that contained an omelet, bacon and lettuce. Each time I asked for it without the bacon, and each time I was served by a different staff member we had to go through the same lengthy argument about whether this was possible:

                                      "But it comes with bacon."
                                      "I'll pay the same amount, I just don't want the bacon."
                                      "But it is a bacon sandwich, I can't make it without bacon."
                                      "Look, make it like you always would, but when you get to the bit where
                                        you put the bacon in, just don't."
                                      "I'll have to ask the manager."

Every. Single. Time. Sometimes the staff member would flat out refuse, stating categorically that it was impossible then furiously back-tracking when I pointed out that I had ordered the same thing about a hundred times, so that seemed unlikely. Others tired to intuit what I "really" meant, and would dice the bacon and mix it into the omelet. Others served it on the side. What to me seemed like a simple request that was self-explanatory caused a great deal of stress and confusion to the cafe staff. "Culture shock" is a concept and experience that is widely misunderstood, as Sarah passionately expresses in this post:
 It seems to me that seeking out cultural differences and appreciating them serves no purpose other than to create a comforting distance between the two cultures being compared. It also seems to be something that Japanese people like to do frequently. It's reassuring. It defines the person who is differentiating as being on one side of a divide, while I (the other) reside on the other side. Separate. Isolated. Different. Its a frustrating situation to experience and after constance bombardment, it begins to wear down on your defences. Just as McNeil sad: "When people constantly point out differences, it feels almost like you're isolated, like you're being pushed away." 

Its a little disconcerting when you make a huge gesture like moving across the globe to live in another country so you can work at a school, and your co-workers fail to understand the stress this can take on an individual, refusing to acknowledge the possibility that I could experience periods of high stress, even distress, known as "culture shock," but rather that this "culture shock" is the experience of petty and sometimes offensive cultural differences which can also take the form of cultural stereotypes.
I've written about the same thing, actually, although from a slightly different point of view:
The trope of “she seemed so totally different from me, but then we discovered that we both loved ice-cream, so I guess really we’re the same!” is incredibly frustrating in its trivialisation of difference. An American kid eating a sandwich while a Japanese kid eats an onigiri isn’t emblematic of cultural difference, it’s window dressing. The differences that cause conflicts, misunderstandings and international tensions are differences in world view, different priorities and different ways of assigning responsibility. Bread versus rice is not why the world is more suspicious of post-war Japan than it is of post-war Germany.
One girl had done a short home stay in New Zealand. She related her surprise when her host mother told her to turn the lights out and go to sleep at eleven pm. Thinking that this was a peculiarity of her host family, she checked around the town and discovered that in fact, going to sleep by eleven was normal for thirteen-year-olds. She pointed out in her speech that it would be impossible to complete the daily schedule normal in Japan without staying up until one or two am at least. If one were to unpack this, some really deep-seated and interesting differences in educational systems, the role children play in society and beliefs about health, wellbeing and parenting would emerge.
 Food taps into something behind the rational, a deep place of raw emotions. The comfort of whatever it was your mother fed you when you were a sick child has as much to do with your memories of nurturing and care as with any health benefits of the food itself, whether it be chicken noodle soup, okayu or in my case ladyfinger biscuits. Or perhaps I should say cookies? It stands to reason, then, that the inability to understand the available foods or obtain food that makes sense to you provokes the very opposite of "comfort". If you are newly arrived in a strange land, dear reader, be kind to yourself. It passes. You'll figure it out. What seems strange and unfamiliar now may become your go-to comfort food in a few years! To return to Eryk:
I was recently in Paris, where I don’t speak a word of what they’re talkin’. I didn’t understand why I had to pay 18 euros for a ham sandwich (and not even get the top slice of bread). It was a beautiful city but it was also impenetrably dense with a culture and customs I couldn’t grasp. I knew how to eat brie and baguettes, and did so until I was sick. I spent one day walking around refusing to eat until I found a place that made sense to me, my blood sugar contributing to an internal monologue that would have had me banned from most online forums.
I ended up walking into a Japanese restaurant, where I was greeted with irrashaimase, and I could order the food in a language I understood in a manner I understood and could make small talk with a waitress from Hakodate. I ate a plate of yaki soba in Paris, and made everyone smile when I said gochisou sama deshita.

This post is my contribution to the J-Bloggers' Carnival. Please visit and check out all of the wonderful participants!
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Comfort: J-Bloggers' Carnival #3

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Welcome to the third J-Bloggers' Carnival, and our first autumn edition. The theme this time was "Comfort", and I am delighted to share a wide range of takes on the topic.

Paul write about missing the scent of autumn in Japan at

Paul a.k.a Blue Shoe, was an ALT on the JET Program in Hyogo from 2008-2011. For the past five years he's been blogging about both the odd and mundane of life in Japan. Be sure to check out for anecdotes, Japanese study tips, and general Japan-related musings and news.

Jamie  wonders what makes a comfortable life in Japan at

Jamie is a part time seamstress (you can see her designs modeled exclusively on her), full time TV watcher, occasional movie goer, amateur vegetarian chef, part time Master's student and bookworm.  Frequently she gets lost in Japan and when not embarrassed blogs about it at  She lives in Tokyo and is currently planning her wedding.

Chicchai Mitsu shared her daily comforts at

Stacey writes about the pleasures of autumn in Japan at 

Stacey is an Australian, slightly forgetful mother of three boys living in Kobe. On top of working full time, she writes her own blog Can the kids speak Japanese? and for the KA mothers blog. What is KA? Just a bunch of kick-arse foreign mothers living in Japan and coping as well as we can!

While we don't usually associate pregnancy or visiting the doctor with "comfort", Life in Japan With Toddlers shows that in Japan these things can coincide at

My contribution actually looks at discomfort, just because I am contrary! I wrote about the role of food in culture shock.

For more posts of autumny goodness, check out


A huge thank-you to everyone who participated, I hope to see you again for the next carnival!
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Sunday, 5 October 2014

J-Bloggers’ Carnival 3, Autumn Edition: Call for Submissions

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Photo Source (Before text was added)
The theme for the next carnival is “Comfort”, and submissions are welcome from anyone up until November 1st, Japan time. Never participated in a blog carnival before and don’t even know what I’m talking about? No problem! It’s very easy. Just email me a link to your blog post (or even someone else’s post you think fits the theme and I’ll try to get in touch with them). It can be a new post you wrote just for the carnival or something ten years old, it really doesn’t matter. Just add a link in your post to either one link I’ll email you or if you are feeling very community minded you can link individually to each of the carnival participants, then once the carnival is live please read the other contributions and leave a comment for them. The idea is to build connections with other bloggers, get a different perspective, and have some fun! Some of my favourite blogs are ones I first encountered through carnivals I was participating in. The theme is intentionally broad so that you can adapt it to fit your blog’s focus and your own writing style. Plus, comfort is just the first word that springs (ha ha) to  mind when I think of autumn in Japan… kotatsu, gluhwein, a good book and roasted chestnuts.

The previous two carnivals were both in spring, but my original intention was actually to do one each season. I’ve been procrastinating about putting up a third because there hasn’t been a great deal of interest, but on reflection I enjoy it so what the hey, I’ll go ahead and if participation stays low I’ll just include links to some of my favourite relevant blog posts!

So, if you are interested please email me at with “carnival” in the subject line. If you don’t have a blog but want to contribute something I am also very happy to host it here, and I welcome contributions in any format (photo essays, video and multi-media, comics… please don’t feel constrained but my text-heavy style!). I would also appreciate anyone who can sharing this call for submissions to help get the word out and hopefully round up some more participants :)
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Friday, 3 October 2014

The Chair of Gynecological Doom

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I recently had my first ever visit to a Japanese OBGYN, and I found the experience of THE CHAIR* so weird that I wanted to share the story here. Be warned, however, that this post contains words describing "lady bits". If that makes you feel all funny, you should probably stop reading now and never again click on a link that has "gynecological doom" in the title. Pro tip.

So, I needed an ultrasound and I was aware that they are usually done trans-vaginally in Japan, so I was a little psyched out but (I thought) prepared. I was ushered from the general waiting room into the more private inside waiting room, which had pink squishy walls to, I assume, get us feeling all pink-squishy-ready. From time to time a nurse escorted a man through (I assume an expectant father come to see a grainy image of his off-spring), but only after announcing loudly "a MAN is entering the area". I guess the manly presence might ruin all the pink squishy psychological preparation. My turn came and I was told to enter the "internal examination room" and lock the door behind me. It was a small cubical with walls on three sides but instead of a back wall facing the wall with the door, there was a ruched pink curtain. THE CHAIR was facing the door, and I wondered how an examination was going to work in such a tight space. I stripped off my lower half, sat on THE CHAIR and draped a beach towel over my knees. So far, so good. Then THE CHAIR started talking to me in that soothing voice elevators have. "The chair is about to move. Please keep your legs and arms inside the chair and do not try to stand up" she said. The chair swung up into the air then pivoted to face the curtain. "The bottom is about to retract" she said, and the part of the chair I was sitting on dropped away leaving my bum suddenly exposed. THE CHAIR then spread my legs open and, bum hanging free and legs akimbo, propelled me towards and through the pink curtain, up to my waist. Sadly there was no music, but in my head the sound track was something like this:

A nurse on the other side of the curtain asked me to confirm my identity, at which point the complete ridiculousness of the situation overcame me and I burst out laughing. The doctor asked if I would prefer to have the curtain open, to which I responded "yes please", much to the consternation of the nurse who seemed decidedly uncomfortable about putting face-to-vulva as it were. "Foreigners always want to curtain open" the doctor told her, and she shook her head at our foreign strangeness. Behind the curtain was a small office space with some other nurses bustling about doing various things, but perhaps the oddest thing was that the doctor was sitting on a wheeled chair. After a very quick in-out examination he pulled his gloves off and rolled sideways. As the nurse was cleaning me up I heard the doctor already talking to the woman in the next cubical: "This is your baby's head, here's the heart..." and I realised that there may be a whole row of disembodied genitals on bumless chairs poking through ruched pink curtains, waiting for the doctor to roll from one to another. I began to laugh again, as THE CHAIR informed me that we were about to begin moving again. When I got home and told the man person about what had happened he added: "imagine the lab where they design those chairs? Do you think they take turns test-riding them?"

*I think these chairs or similar are used in lots of places (although probably not in conjunction with curtains and voice-overs), but I'd never encountered one in Australia so the whole thing was distinctly strange to me.
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Friday, 26 September 2014

Orientation Meeting for Prospective Adoptive Parents (Flashback Friday)

The gorgeous image is by Brett Davies, taken from here.

This is a post I wrote over a year ago, and it has been sitting in my draft folder because I was worrying about potential invasion of the privacy of the other people I discuss. After a log time thinking about it, I'm confident that it would be impossible to identify any individual mentioned here, so I am publishing it.

It’s interesting how telling people we were adopting opened floodgates of infertility stories. I wonder how many Japanese couples are struggling to conceive while feeling like they are the only ones. One teacher I worked with who had recently had her first child told me that she tried for eight years, another for five. One of my naginata friends and her husband were never able to have a child. I feel like an interloper in this world of private pain and monthly disappointments. I’ve never tried to conceive and have no reason to believe that I couldn’t. We are adopting as our first choice, not as a last resort after all else has failed, but the people around me always assume the latter. Early in our exploration of adoption in Japan we attended an orientation meeting with a private adoption agency. It was a pretty eye opening experience. Our cheerful responses about looking forward to adoption seemed incongruous in the atmosphere of sadness. At the start of the meeting we all introduced ourselves, and the other attendees all discussed the length of time they had been trying to conceive and the fertility treatments they had tried. After the introductions we realised that the majority of couples there were not potential applicants but successful adoptive parents who were there to help with the orientation. In fact, only one other couple was there for the orientation, which was the only meeting in Kyushu that year and was compulsory for applicants with the agency.
After the introductions we watched a video about the agency that outlined their policies, after which we were expected to give 感想, responses or impressions. There seemed to be an expectation that we would object to the policies, for example not being permitted to request a specific kind of child (age, race, sex or ability). We then watched a second video about a couple whose adopted daughter experienced some delays in her physical development, and how they felt about it. Again we were asked for feedback, and again there was a heavy expectation that we would be uncomfortable with the possibility of adopting a child who may be disabled. When we responded that if we conceived a child naturally we would have no control over sex or ability either, there was some surprised murmuring around the room, as though the comparison hadn't occurred to anyone else. I learned later that the government agencies (CGCs) often prefer to keep infants in institutionalised care until they are old enough to access if their development is "normal" before placing them for adoption; a policy that becomes a sort of self-fulfilling-prophesy since it is a well documented fact the institutionalisation in early life causes developmental delays.  After running through the policies in greater detail and also going over the costs, we broke for lunch.

The afternoon session was "small group time", and we sat with a group of parents who had successfully adopted through the agency. Most had brought their children with them, and the kids had a fine time playing together while the adults talked. This ongoing support network was the thing we most liked about the agency, although we later learned some less positive information and are happy that ultimately we did not proceed with them. After telling us about their experiences the "sempai" parents then asked us some questions and encouraged us to ask them anything. In a slightly humorous moment, one gentleman asked us earnestly if we were comfortable with the agency's policy that required us to tell our hypothetical future child s/he was adopted. Trying to keep a straight face I responded that a Japanese child with two white parents would probably not find that to be particularly shocking news. This led to some questions about race; were we really OK with not having a say over the child's race? One woman explained that while she was OK with the rule when it came to disability, she had difficulty agreeing to accept a child of any race. "What if the baby were black?" She asked. "I mean I don't mind, but other people might be so cruel and I really worried about if I could handle that."

In the late afternoon we merged back into a single group and the two prospective adoptive couples were asked, again, to make some comments. We said we'd enjoyed seeing all the children playing together and that this ongoing support was wonderful. The other couple said they had decided to try a few more rounds of fertility treatments before revisiting the idea of adoption.
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