Monday, March 1, 2010

Graduation and the Japanese medical system

Great news! Out of ten thousand entries in the young adult category of the 2010 Breakthrough novel award contest, Treasure Traitor is one of the 1,000 chosen to move onto the second round! Yea! Maybe no more will come of it, but maybe, just maybe something will…

It`s been a pretty good writing week in general. An Honest Assassin is starting to take on a life of its own. I just love it when random, unexpected characters pop up! One of my major concerns with the novel starting out was that it felt “too serious,” kind of akin to the “high fantasy” I`d been reading lately, but that`s not really what I wanted. It takes place in a largely sci-fi universe and in the last book Rena was kind of a snarky, sassy-talking teenager. But in this one she`s older, middle-aged, she`s a lot more experienced and there`s a lot more at stake for her personally and the universe at large (like the survival of several unique species), so I was worried that she would become like an “old fart” without any of the life and spunk she had in the last book.

Enter Takan. Totally crazy, irritating, mischief-making Petrian with a quirky sense of humor and outrageous attitude. I wasn`t even expecting a member of the Petrian race (literally “rock people” from the Latin) to show up in this book; they`re a cave-dwelling race with weird adaptations like huge eyes, slick skin, extra long arms and legs, and suction cups and claws at the tips of their fingers to allow for survival in an underground environment. But most notably, they`re pranksters; wonderful to have as friends, but miserable for enemies. Anyway, this freaky guy brings out the childish side in Rena, both in terms of her snarky sarcasm and general, joking playfulness. He`s really helped soften some of the darker scenes, or at least provide contrast.

And I managed to submit all of my “ready” material to various publishers and agents, so I have eight things (two poems, two short stories, one middle grade novel, one young adult novel, one screenplay and one children`s picture book) out and am just waiting to hear back. Waiting is the hardest part…

Other than that, I spent most of the week trying to figure out how I’m going to go home during “Golden Week,” that is April 29th-May 10, which has a string of four national holidays in a row. I spent hours and hours searching websites and calling travel agents to get the best deals, but when it came down to it the principle at my school dashed apart all my hard work and gave me a very limited time frame with which to return. The price is so expensive I don’t even want to think about it. But it’s the only time I can go home in the next eight months, and since I haven’t seen my family for nine months, I got it worked out. I just either have to get my tickets six months in advance next year or just plan on not coming home that particular week. Christmas is probably a better option.

Tuesday my friend Li and I went down to the local plant nursery and bought some “hana mono” (flower stuff) for my sacura (cherry blossom) tree. It should be blooming in a few weeks. I`m so excited! Here`s a picture of my hyacinth (heeyashinsu in Japanese). It`s my favorite color, plus it makes my whole room smell nice:

Hana is such a pretty word. Maybe I’ll name one of my daughters that. Hmm…but maybe everyone would mispronounce it and call her “Hannah.” Then she’d always have to be correcting them and explaining it’s Japanese and she might not like that. Oh, well, it was a thought.

Yea for spring finally coming! I can actually ride my bike to school without having to wear three layers of clothes. Winter in Japan was really hard this year. I didn`t really know how to handle it and certainly wasn`t ready. But for next year, I have a “winter plan.” It involves a large stock of kerosene for my kerosene heater, special sealant for my rice paper and glass walls, warm patches (chemical patches the Japanese place under their clothes to increase blood circulation and thus stay warm and prevent frost bite), lots of flowers from the flower shop down the road, a “happy light” (blue light) instead of those stupid florescent flicker things, thermal gloves and several layers of thermal underwear. With these implements in place, I think I will fair a lot better.

By the way, I found out the reason my frostbite hasn`t totally disappeared yet is because it actually caused some inflammation in my joints, especially the smallest finger on my right hand where I tore the ligament back in September. The doctor gave me some finger exercises to do that should take down the inflammation.

Wednesday I spent most of the day helping my supervisor record the English exam for the first year students. They wanted my voice, a native speaker`s voice, on the recording. I was happy to see most of my dialogues there; apparently the teachers thought they were important enough to include on the test. They`ve started to respect my opinion a little more, since I was right so many times about the entrance exams. They often come up to me several times a day to check if they`ve written something correctly, and no offense, usually they`re wrong and I have to correct them. Usually it`s little things, like one of the teachers told me, “You must be surprised” when referring to an event that would happen in the future, and I had to explain this is only a phrase we use when exclaiming about something that happened in the past. Otherwise it sounds like a command: “Be surprised” and that`s just weird.

Did I mention I was in another bicycle accident about two weeks ago? Well, I was, and last week Monday I woke up, stretched, and felt my neck “pop” out of place. It really hurt! So one of the teachers at the school gave me the address of a good chiropractor in town, and I had an appointment for Wednesday afternoon. He was absolutely amazing! I had no idea that the Japanese school of chiropracty was so different from the Western school! There`s no “roller machine,” the chiropractor gives you a thirty minute massage first, then gently pulls or pushes the bones back into place, no “cracking.” He even spoke a little English, which helped a lot. We were able to communicate that this was an old injury from a car accident before I left America that I hadn`t been able to fully fix, which my bicycle accident reinjured. He was a little surprised at this. “Didn`t you see a chiropractor in America?”

“Well, yes, but there wasn`t time to finish the treatment and it cost a lot of money.”

He seemed a little surprised at this, but didn`t say anymore. When it was all over, they served me a fresh, hot cup of green tea, and the total price of everything came out to be just 1,000 yen, or about twelve dollars! I was shocked! They were have a special, and I had been referred by a friend, so it was a little cheaper, but the usual price was only 2,000 yen, or about twenty-five dollars! In the U.S., It`s at least quadrouple that! And here`s the really crazy part: insurance didn`t pay for any of it! How on earth does that man and his nurse make a living? He spent almost an hour on me that first time! And the second time on Saturday, again, only 1,000 yen, and about forty minutes! I asked him how many times I would have to see him, and he said only four or five total, as compared to the American ten or more times. And it already feels so much better! Anyway, here`s a picture of the sign outside the chiropractor`s office:

And here`s the sunset I saw on my way home from his office on Wednesday:

And now, a little explanation of how Japanese National Health Insurance DOES work. If you have a full-time job, you have medical insurance. It doesn`t cover dental hygiene, annual exams/checkups, contacts, orthodonics, chiropracty, or any of those other “non-essential” medicines, but those things are so cheap in and of themselves that you don`t really need insurance for them. When I first came to Japan, I was terrified of going to the doctor. Not just because of the language barrier, but I feared it would cost as much as the doctor in the U.S. My mother had a horrible experience at an American hospital where they did nothing for her and still charged thousands of dollars. How much more easily could this happen in a country where the doctor couldn`t understand my symptoms, would smile, prescribe some generic pain killer and charge me several man yen? (several hundred dollars). But then I got swine flu and I had to go. I went twice and got six different kinds of medicine (though I didn`t take all of it). Guess how much it cost? About thirty dollars. I have been to the doctor a total of six times since coming to Japan, and just received a statement of my total year-end expenditures. One hundred fifty-three dollars. And contrary to popular opinion, Japanese doctors are very nice and have excellent bedside manners. They don`t usually speak English, but usually someone at the school office can write a note for me explaining any difficult symptoms or background of the problem. The doctors are patient and if they don`t understand, I can call a friend to translate over the phone if need be. I`m not afraid to go to the doctor anymore; if I fall off my bicycle and break my finger, I go. If I`m sick for more than two days, I go. If I get frost bite or severe pain in my shoulders, I go. That`s the way it`s supposed to work.

American insurance simply doesn’t work. How many times have my parents written the insurance company claim letters and they refused to pay? After pouring all that money into it, they do nothing. Let`s face it, American insurance companies are in it to MAKE MONEY. If they don`t make money, they can`t exist. They`re a business. But guess how much I pay for insurance in Japan? I pay a small, fifteen dollar fee every month for unemployment insurance. I also pay social security, but after two years I can apply for that money and get it all back. Other insurance? Nada. But what happens when I return to America and have no insurance at all? I`ll most likely be doing part time and free lance work. Makes me want to stay in Japan forever and never come back.

Not really; I miss my family so much! But seriously, something needs to be done about the American medical system. Japan`s got it right. It`s not communist, it`s not socialist, it`s just a heck of a lot cheaper. I understand most of that cost comes from doctors having to pay malpractice insurance. Maybe Americans should just stop suing each other so much and making false claims.

Anyway, enough of that rant. Thursday night we had a good English and Evangelism class; we talked about God`s love (for Valentine`s Day lesson Part II) and how that love is not like the fickle love of a person, but eternal and never wavering and unconditional. One of the ladies started sharing stories about love like that she`d seen manifested in other people, noting that most of them were Christian. It was really great to see her, usually a very quiet a shy lady, open up like that.

Friday at school we had practice for graduation. The Japanese school year is based on a tri-mester system. First trimester is from April 1st-mid July. Summer break is about six weeks and exists so the schools don`t have to pay for air conditioning (most schools, including mine, don`t even have an air conditioner). The second trimester is from late August to mid-December, with winter break to celebrate the New Year`s holidays (the biggest holidays in Japan). The third trimester is from early January to early March, with a month in between for spring break. Of course, unlike teachers in America, Japanese teachers don`t get these breaks, except for three days before New Years Day. We do get several national holidays and twenty-five days of “ninque” or paid vacation to use, but these include sick days. It`s kind of silly. If there are no students, why do we have to come to the office? Can`t we grade papers and make lesson plans and such at home? But I`m not really complaining. Honestly, I`m pretty lucky. Mostly on those days with no students, I just have to show up and do nothing (meaning sit at my computer and write my books/blogs). It`s the other teachers that make all kinds of unnecessary work for themselves that I feel sorry for. The Japanese really are a bunch of beaurocrats.

So March 1st is graduation day. It took about as long as the American version, about two hours and forty-five minutes for three hundred students. But the Japanese do it a little differently than westerners; for one thing, there are lots of verbal cues that have to be followed exactly in time. Stand up, sit down, bow, turn, etc. It`s kind of annoying. We had to practice that for nearly two hours! Also, the students don`t actually walk across the stage. Their names are called and they simply stand and bow. Here’s a picture of the parents and students:

Notice the lack of relatives/friends present (they`re in the red chairs). There were more graduating people there than non-graduating people. And most of the parents are mothers; I counted only five fathers. 9:00am on Monday morning is just a dumb time to have a graduation, if you ask me. Most people have to work!

The school song was interesting. I have no idea what the words are or what they mean, except for “Nabari, Nabari, Kikyogaoka no wa re ra.” (We are Nabari Kikyogaoka— that`s the name of the school; Nabari is the name of the town and Kikyogaoka is the section of town.) Anyway, here`s part one and part two videos of the school song:

At the beginning of graduation they played a recording of a song I could only guess to be the Japanese national anthem. I had never heard it before, and only one or two of the older folks sang along. It was an odd, Western-style operatic song in minor, with only a few Asian “hints” in it; it reminded me of an old Italian “unrequited love” aria. It strikes me as ironic that the Japanese play the American national anthem more than their own and even know the words. I’ve heard the American national anthem at least five times since coming to Japan, but this is the first I’ve heard their own athem (if indeed that’s what it was) and it was a recording no less and nobody knew the words!

It also amuses me what some cultures find tacky and other just accept. At the actual graduation, (Monday, that is today at 9:00am) everyone made a big deal about all the teachers dressing up; some even wore full-blown kimonos, which cost about three months wages and are equivalent to a European ball gown. (They got on to me for wearing black slacks and a white dress shirt; apparently I was supposed to wear a business suit). But the kids just wore their regular school uniforms, no robes or anything, and everyone wore really silly slippers because it was in the gym. The Japanese and their slippers! For Pete`s sake, they covered the floor with a tarp, you`re not going to scratch it up! But heaven forbid we ever wear normal shoes on a hardwood floor, so they wear their super fancy kimonos with pokadot or bunny slippers. I wish I had a picture, but nobody wanted me taking a photo of their feet, so, sorry.

Another thing about shoes/feet, Japanese girls walk “pigeon-toed.” I remember reading that in a book about Native Americans just before coming to Japan, and thinking, “nobody does that!” Who wants to bet the Native Americans got it from their Asian ancestors? Anyway, here`s what it looks like:

Admittedly, those are my own feet, because like I said, nobody likes you going around snapping pictures of their feet.

Saturday on my way to the chiropractor’s, I stopped by the strawberry greenhouses to do some picking. I was hoping that would be my “adventure” for this weekend, but alas, the picking is not open to the public until late March. So I just bought a container, along with the strawberry jam and mushrooms, and went on my way. Nothing terribly exciting about that, but they were so delicious! Have I mentioned that ALL Japanese fruit and vegetables, without exception, tastes better than the American equivalent? These strawberries were so sweet and juicy; they’re just an explosion of juicy sweetness in your mouth. Of course, all Japanese fruits and vegetables tend to be at least twice as expensive as the American equivalent, so there is a trade off.

Here’s a picture from inside the green houses:

Sunday morning I wasn`t feeling too well, so I stayed home from church. But in the evening I felt better, and my friend Laura Levine recommended I see the movie Slum Dog Millionaire before I go to India. I`d heard a lot about it when I was in film school; the director even visited our university and a conference I attended in Japan, but I never had a chance to see the film. So I called my friend Li who had a copy and he came over and we watched it together. What a movie! That`s going on my top ten list. It’s basically about a young man (Jamal) who grew up in the slums near Deli, then became a contestant in the show “Who wants to be a millionaire.” He knows all the answers because of his horrible childhood. For example, one of the questions was, “In traditional depictions of the Hindu god Rama, what is he holding in his right hand?” Jamal knew the answer because as a kid his Muslim family was attacked by Hindus, and one of them was dressed as the Hindu god Rama. Another question asked “Who invented the revolver?” and he knew because his older brother kicked him out of the house saying, “Listen to the man with the Colt revolver trained on your forehead.”

The genius of the movie was really in the editing; how the shots were interwoven between present, (the man on the show) and the past, (growing up in the slums). Several beautiful metaphors were interwoven throughout the film, like a yellow scarf representing innocence and love, the idea of “blindness,” both physical and metaphorical, and the contrast between fate or karma, a Hindu concept, and God’s predestination (it is written), a Muslim concept. But all of these were really subtle and seemed to happen almost by accident (of course, having heard the director speak I know they weren’t accidents). Also there was absolutely no “telling” in the film. Even though the world Jamal and his brother lived in was completely foreign to me, I didn’t need any explanation as to why they were doing what they were doing or any of that. It depicted a foreign world perfectly while still making it universal and easy to understand. This was accomplished by a form of non-continuity editing I call “smashing.” You take one shot, then you take a different shot that has nothing to do with the first in space and time, and you smash them back to back. This was done in a lot of Soviet film. For example, show the image of people being mowed down by the Tsar’s troops, and juxtapose it with the image of cows being slaughtered. Even though the cow being slaughtered has nothing to do with the Russian revolution, we get the message without having to be “told” anything. These people are being slaughtered like cattle. Pretty powerful stuff.

Fortunately Slum Dog Millionaire was not quite so dramatic as that, but it had a similar feel to it. It’s my dream to be able to do that with my sci-fi universe; create a world and paint a perfect picture in people’s minds without having to “explain” anything. Avatar did that really well, and Orson Scott Card does a pretty descent job of it in most of his books, and definitely C.S. Lewis. Tolkien tops the list in my book, if you ignore all that appendix stuff and the Samaurillian. Someday I hope one of my stories will be a movie that is just as great as Avatar. 3D is always a plus.

And speaking of writing sci-fi, I better get back to that.

Prayer Requests for this week: Praise, that I was able to get my neck and back fixed so easily! Thanks for spring finally coming. Hmm…that’s great, I can’t really think of any challenges except I’m still looking for a way to get Malari medicine. I went to a clinic on Saturday and they spent half an hour explaining to me that it’s illegal, that they can’t prescribe it to me or they could lose their job, etc, etc, etc. (Ug, one thing that drives me crazy about Japanese people is that they’re incapable of just saying “Hi” or “eeay,” yes or no. They just can’t say no to a customer! Don’t EXPLAIN it to me! I can only understand half of what you’re saying anyway! Yes or no, that’s all I want!) Apparently there is a place in Osaka I can get a prescription, but it’s kind of hard to get to and really expensive and they don’t speak English, etc, etc, etc. But by golly I am not getting Malaria, so I am going to get that medicine! I guess, please pray for that.

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,

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