Monday, May 31, 2010

Kobe zoo and harbor cruise

Wow, what a weekend! But first I want to share a picture back from Himeji. I just found it! It`s of cities built up on hills out of the surrounding evergreen forest. This is what I call “the floating city islands of Himeji.” They look like of sci-fi-ish.

Here`s riding up the gondola:

Saturday I went to Kobe with my friend Kayoko. (You might have noticed I like zoos!) I really enjoy seeing different kinds of animals; even the same animals in different environments can act very differently, and this time was no exception! Even though my hometown zoo has African penguins, these penguins seemed much more “group oriented.” How Japanese of them! They often moved in unison, almost like a synchronized dance. It was really funny to see!

And even though I had seen panda at the Beijing zoo, these Panda didn`t have any glass separating them from the viewers and they had a funny way of sitting in big tires. It was so cute!

And I think this was my first time to see koala. It`s kind of rare to see them not in a tree, so here`s two pictures of them posing on the ground:

One of my very favorite animals is the Asian river otter. They`re so playful and mischievous! These fellows were funny because whenever they got out of the water, they dried themselves off on the burlap sacks lying around, then dived back in, then got out and dried themselves off again! Here`s a video of them drying themselves and chasing each other:

And of course, the baby orangutan! I`ve never seen a baby one before:

Here`s a snow leopard. When we got there, the two of them were fight-playing, jumping on top of each other from the rocks. That was fun to see.

I think the highlight of this particular zoo was an animal I had never even heard of before. Check this guy out, he`s a binturong or bearcat from Southeast Asia:

Doesn`t he look just plain evil? Like something from The Princess Bride or some other fairytale. I think it`s the black eyes. Admittedly, this is a picture from Wikipedia. The bars in front of their cage didn`t allow me to get a good one.

After the zoo, we went to Kobe Harborland. We grabbed some dinner at a cheap restaurant but unfortunately Kayoko started feeling sick and me too a little bit, so we took an hour or two to rest. We had to miss the free concert, but fortunately we were feeling good enough to take the evening cruise around the harbor, which was the whole reason we went. It was quite lovely on the top deck though a little chilly. Here`s Kayoko and me on the ship:

Here`s a picture of the big Kobe ferris wheel:

And here`s the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world. You can`t see it very well from here: I was hoping we`d get closer but I guess there`s a lot of sea traffic there so this is as close as we got.

Anyway, it was a very pleasant day, so if you find yourself in Kobe, the zoo and the Concerto cruise are two really fun things to do! A slight warning, though. If you plan on getting lunch or dinner on the boat, it`s VERY expensive, no less than $50. It`s some of the best Cantonese (Southern Chinese) food in Japan though, and a buffet, so if it`s worth it to you, go for it. In my opinion, however, who wants to waste time on an hour and a half cruise eating? There are plenty of cheap restaurants in the area. But plan to take more than just a light sweater, because if you just buy the cruise ticket without a meal, you`re limited to the outside of the ship and the chilly lobby. If you get seasick easily (like me), it`s best to stay on the upper deck with the wind blowing in your face.

I must confess, however, I probably stayed out too late. I got a soar throat about halfway through Saturday and by Sunday morning it had turned into a full-blown cold, so I had to stay home from church. Monday I had to go to work regardless of the fact that I felt like I was going to faint and teach two classes. Oh, well, something happens when I have to teach. No matter how bad I feel, unless the kids are really bad and push me beyond tolerance, I can always “turn on the genki” for class. Genki means healthy and energetic.

So what`s an example of being pushed beyond tolerance? Last Wednesday I was teaching ESS club and we were playing a game, reviewing the parts of the body. We got to the word “teeth.” All the students said “teese.” So we all laughed and I asked them to repeat after me. No one did. No matter how many times I asked them to repeat, in English and in Japanese, they refused to make the TH sound. I actually grabbed my tongue and pulled it between my teeth and asked them in Japanese to do as I did. Nobody would. Now in Chinese culture I can understand. The tongue between the teeth can have bad connotations, but in Japanese there is no such meaning. I tried to encourage them in every way I knew how, telling them not to be shy and that it`s OK to make mistakes, but they just kept giggling and telling me in Japanese that they wouldn`t do it. So I moved on to other things and they still refused to repeat after me. In fact, they simply refused to speak English at all, and answered all my questions in Japanese, even when I gave them the English answer, spelling it out for them on the board. I got so frustrated that I gave them the “how on Earth to you expect to learn English if you refuse to speak it?” lecture. They just smiled at me. I wonder if they even understood that I was upset with them. One of the girls translated what I said very accurately, but the other kids just kept smiling at me and even laughed, as if it were funny. Honestly, I was probably a little too angry and that`s what they found funny. I really hated it when teachers talked that way to me, so I probably should have just smiled back at them and given up. If a student simply refuses to participate, it`s not my fault if they fail. That`s the Japanese way, and the other teachers keep telling me, “when in Japan, do as the Japanese do.”

Part of the problem has always been that the kids don`t really see me as a teacher. Some, though not all, call me “Laura chan” meaning “cute Laura” instead of “Laura sensei.” When I`m alone with the kids, they simply refuse to listen to me, even when I speak Japanese. It`s like I`m not a real teacher, so they don`t have to do what I say. And in their regular English classes, they don`t have to speak English, so they don`t see why they should have to speak English in mine, even simple things like “please” and “thank you.”

What I find interesting is that 50 years ago, Japan started hiring native English speakers by droves to help improve their country`s English. In the last fifty years, has there been any improvement in the country`s overall English ability? Nope. The only people who speak English are the English teachers (and even some of them can`t) and those who have studied or worked abroad in an English-speaking country. I think there are several reasons for this:

1.) English education in Japan begins too late, in 7th grade when the students are 12 or 13. Studies show that in order for a child to really master a language like a native speaker, they must start no later than age 10. That is when the language acquisition part of the brain starts to close. In order to master a language without any trace of an accident, acquisition must begin no later than 5. So preferably the target language is begun in preschool or kindergarten.

2.) English speaking instruction does not occur on a daily basis. In order to truly gain a new language, students must be exposed to it every day. Guess how often I have class with them? Maybe once a week. To be sure, they have regular English class two or three times a week besides, but there is very little speaking involved in these classes.

3.) This sort of goes along with the last one: Speaking. Homework should be reading and writing based. In class should be almost entirely listening and speaking. Students can study reading and writing on their own and tests ensure that they are mastering these skills. Listening and speaking, however, are very difficult to do on one`s own, especially speaking. In addition, students should be given more tapes and CDs to listen to. I`m not talking listening “exercises.” I mean conversation CDs like Pimsleur where they listen and participate in native conversations about everyday situations like going to the doctor, shopping at the grocery store, asking for directions, weather forecasts, etc. USEFUL stuff.

4.) One of the things I hate about the textbook (especially the new one we got this year) is I often find myself asking, “When are the kids ever going to use this stuff?” One lesson is about the American Revolution. Very interesting cultural information, but the vocabulary is pointless compared to more basic things like “where is the doctor`s office?” and “I have a sprained ankle.” The teachers ask me why I don`t like to use the textbook. THAT`S why.

5.) Classes are too big. In order to facilitate better speaking, classes should be limited to 20 students. The average class has thirty. Kids are too embarrassed to speak in class. This is not a problem unique to the Japanese education system (I remember kids refusing to speak Spanish in my Spanish classes), but is certainly worse in Japan than with any other country I have been exposed to (and I`ve taught students from just about every country.) They are simply not encouraged from a young age to speak in class at all, Japanese or English. To be honest, because the classes are so big, most students simply sit back and do nothing. It`s not just in English class. Every single class I`ve ever sat in on, most of the students are totally ignoring the teacher. They`re lost in the sea of bodies.

6.) All classes in Japan are lecture based. Studies show this is the worst way to learn. Students only retain about 10% of the information. Interactive classes produce the best results, with students retaining at least 30% of the information on the first time. The reason so few teachers use this method is because it is much more difficult and requires more preparation. Activities are a lot harder to plan and coordinate than simply talking your head off (or reading from the textbook, as I`ve observed a lot of teachers do in both Japan and the United States). Fortunately, Japan is slowly making the transition from lecture method to interactive method. But the underlying problem remains the large class sizes. You can`t have effective interaction with thirty kids. It would collapse into chaos.

7.) Students are not taught how to study on their own. Nearly every Japanese person I have talked to about my education is shocked that I never went to cram school. “How did you ever graduate from college?” they ask. “How did you even pass the college entrance exams?” Now I know Japanese has this reputation for having outrageously difficult entrance exams, and that`s true in part, but I actually took one just for the fun of it (an English one) and it really wasn`t that odd. The questions were all straight-forward; no tricks or overly-picky requirements. The English exams I used to teach to get into an American university are much more difficult and confusing. When I tell Japanese people that I simply studied on my own for exams, four hours every day after school, they are shocked. That`s not really unique; most of my friends studied a lot after school and none of us went to cram school and we all got into college and graduated near the top of our classes. Yes, it is possible to get kids to study on their own and not have to pay outrageous fees for cram school or a tutor. You just have to instill it in them at an early age. The problem is they start going to cram school when they`re itty bitty, so they never learn to study on there own. I have this problem with my kids all the time. They simply can`t do anything in English unless I read it to them. The instructions are already written out for them! They just say “wakarahen, wakarahen” until I come over and simply read the problem. They won`t even look at the paper until I come over and help them!

In two years, the classes are supposed to have switched over to total English, no Japanese. I was hired to be part of that transition. The other teachers are doing their best to help, but the students are fighting us tooth and nail. I suppose that`s to be expected. They`re kids. They don`t want to speak English. Why should they? At least, that`s their mentality. What we have to do is change that mentality.

Prayer Requests for this week: I have a cold and it`s really making me miserable. I really need to get better before my Wednesday night and Thursday night classes because those are my favorite but they can be really long and take a lot of energy. I`ve actually run out of ideas for my Wednesday night class because they`re so sharp and we`ve already covered so much…any English teachers out there with some ideas?

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,

L.J. Popp

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Kimono and Ise English Camp

Spring is here at last! The 30 and 40 degree days have finally given way to pleasant 50s and 60s and the rain, while still coming in hordes, is no longer biting but almost (almost) pleasant. I was a little disappointed visiting home two weeks ago to realize I would be missing one of my favorite flower spectaculars, the azalea bushes in Tulsa`s Woodward Park. But when I came back to Japan, in turns out my town Nabari is famous for them too, and they`re right at peak season! There are huge blankets of bushes all along the roads. Here`s a picture of my favorite bush on the way to school:

Flowers bloom at weird times in Japan. The irises finished nearly two months ago, the roses won`t start for a few months, and the azaleas just finished! Some flowers bloom all through the winter and others, like the cherry and plum and peach, only one week at the very most. And a difference of just thirty miles can mean a month difference in blooming times (with the exception of tree flowers).

Boy, I`m tired! Last week was jam packed with editing and quite a bit of stress at work. First of all, they made me work two Saturdays in a row with barely any notice, one right after my trip back from America which was exhausting to say the least. I`ve also been lectured by my supervisor several times that I shouldn`t take off so much time, but I only take off the time that is allotted to me and I always ask permission first. She only tells me after the fact that the other teachers are annoyed at me for taking off so much time. This is the Japanese way. They don`t tell you that what you`re doing upsets them until after you`ve done it, then they get really mad at you. And they never bother to tell you the rules; they just assume you know them, until after you inadvertently break one. If you ask what the rules are, they give very vague answers. Like my supervisor keeps telling me “when in Japan, do as the Japanese do.” They`re even reducing my pay over a mistake they made in the accounting books, time that should have been counted as summer vacation counting as regular time off. They said they can`t fix it, but if it happens again, I`m fired. Sometimes I get so frustrated with certain Japanese people I work with I just want to scream at them! But that, of course, is totally unacceptable. So I just nod and bow with my eyes to the floor, whispering, “sumimasen” over and over until they are satisfied that I am being humble and sorry enough. Any arguing only makes them start the lecture all over again with “American culture may have different values, American culture may allow for laziness, but when in Japan…”

The weekend too was crazy, but fun! Friday evening I stopped by the kintetsu department store to buy some whole wheat bread (called “genmai pan” or literally “whole grain rice bread” even though it`s actually wheat and sold in only one store in my entire town of 90,000 ). I had just got my paycheck and had an unusual hankering to do some clothes shopping, (I haven`t bought clothes in over nine months) and low and behold what should I find but a giant kimono sale on the first floor! Here`s a picture of what a kimono shop looks like:

I was never planning on getting a kimono in Japan because from what I heard from other teachers, a good kimono can cost as much as three months of paychecks, but these were a lot cheaper than that! There was a lady there who helped me put them on and even showed me how! It`s quite complicated, but I think I understand. I got a very beautiful purple kimono (my favorite color!) with four-foot long sleeves, a pink silk under robe and ubi (six-foot bow) and all the ties for a very affordable price! I`m a little embarrassed to say the exact cost; it`s more than I`ve ever spent on a single outfit before, but that`s not saying much since I almost always shop at Salvation Army stores or Walmart. Anyway, you can judge for yourself what it`s worth might be, but in this picture you can`t see the back of the ubi and I`m not wearing the beautiful pink silk under robe, just my white T-Shirt:

I`ll be wearing it to all the winter festivals and school ceremonies. It`s a bit hot for the summer, but that`s what yukata (cotton regular-sleeved kimono) are for! I should be able to get one of those for $50 or less once they go on sale.

Saturday morning I got up early to go to an English seminar in Ise, about an hour and a half train ride. It was basically an English conversation camp for first year high-school students. We held it in the retired folks` community center. (Yes, there are so many elderly in Japan compared to the rest of the population that they have their very own community centers.) Here`s a picture of the set-up just before we started. The two English teachers standing up front are “Dan the man” and Annette from Singapore. They organized the event.

We started out with a “you are my destiny” game, pulling on tangled strings to determine what English teacher was paired with what team. Mine was the “kitson” team, named after the British designer company. Some other interesting names were “We love meat,” “one piece” (after the Japanese pirate comic) and “white command” because everyone in the team liked the color white for some reason that eludes me. Here`s a picture of that game, followed by one of my team.

Notice there is only one boy. Each team of five people was like that, pretty typical for any English-speaking event. Speaking English just isn`t cool.

After that we played “fruits basket,” the game where you have to describe a characteristic and everyone with that characteristic has to get up and run to another seat. For example: People who are wearing blue jeans. That was a really great game and I think I`ll use it as a warm up for one of my classes and for English club. Broken telephone was fun too, but you really need at least five people to play that as a competition, seeing who can transfer the most messages from the front to the back of the line with the most accuracy. Sometimes you get a lot of funny mix-ups. “I love pizza” becomes “Aia loves Freeza!” and stilly stuff like that. My team was pretty good at it though and only made a few mistakes. Of course, we only had five people. It gets really crazy when you have to pass it down a line of ten or more.

The second part of the day we wrote, rehearsed, memorized, and performed three-minute skits. At least, they were supposed to be memorized, but my group was the only one that actually attempted to perform it fully memorized. What a disaster that was! Consequently, we got last place. But it was fun! In our scenario, which was chosen for us, we were on a tour and got lost in a jungle in India. How appropriate, since I just got back from India last month, but never got to visit a jungle. So I got my jungle fix! Here`s a picture of our guy declaring that he has a compass:

And here`s our group “walking in circles.” The girl in the yellow jacket is supposed to be a tiger:

And here`s a crazy picture of everyone who participated in the seminar! The blond girl pointing is Charlotte from England. She`s really fun:

Saturday night I got home about 6:30 and was planning to order pizza for the first time and watch a movie with my Pilipino friend Karen. But I was so tired I lay down to take a “short nap” and didn`t wake up until 11:00 that night! By that time it was too late to call her, and I just went back to sleep and slept until 7:00 the next morning! And I was still tired. I don`t know what`s up with that, maybe all the rain.

Sunday morning after some chores, I went to church. We had a glorious Pentacost service. Pastor Toshi brought a DVD from a revival church in Australia so we “wouldn`t be lonely” and we sang with the people on the DVD. Then he gave a sermon about the power of the Holy Spirit to inspire revival and we prayed for revival in Japan.

Prayer requests for this week: For revival in Japan! The population is less than 0.5% Christian and that hasn`t changed in years and years, but there are rumors of stirrings. A recent Gallop poll showed that over 30% of teens are open to learning about Christianity and see it as a positive influence on society. The Japanese suicide rate is the highest of any developed country in the world, twice that of the U.S. and many are so hopeless. They lose themselves in their work and forget all else. Please pray that in God`s way and His time, wonderful change will happen in Japan.

Also, my friend Sam from Bible study asked us to pray for her aunt who is in hospice. She`s not sure if she`s Christian or not, but of course she and her family will need comfort and peace during this time, regardless. Let`s pray that they feel God`s love surrounding them.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My Crazy Trip Home Part II

The first thing I noticed getting off the plane in Chicago was how beautiful the people looked. Not that Japanese people aren`t beautiful, but they all look pretty similar. Americans have such a rainbow of complexion, hair, and eye color, the differing clothing and hats and bags and languages, sizes and everything! America is beautiful because it`s so diverse! And finally landing in Tulsa and hearing my native Oklahoma drawl, I actually fell back into it a bit while I was there. It just sounds so…homey! And all those free open spaces, green fields and flowers and that huge Oklahoma sky as far as you can see. Everything is bigger, wider, taller, cheaper. Of course, the people are all supersized too but that`s not so bad. Gives you something to hug besides skin and bone.

I was planning to meet my mom at baggage claim, but as soon as I stepped out of security I saw her running toward me, arms outstretched. She grabbed me and hugged me tight, tears trickling into my hair; she couldn`t even speak for a moment. The first intelligible words out of her mouth were “You`ve lost weight. Let`s get dinner!” Who could have asked for a better welcome home?

Unfortunately, she had to go with the Owasso high school choir to play the piano for them for a contest in Chicago, the place I had just left! She would be gone until Monday night. But that worked out all right, because I had a writers` conference I had to leave for the next morning in Oklahoma City. So I dropped Mom off at the high school and it was good to see it again, how much it has grown and changed. Not to mention prove to myself that I really can still drive, on backwards American roads no less!

But I wasn`t so confident to think I could drive myself all the way to Oklahoma City at 5:00 in the morning suffering from severe jet lag. Dad was thankful for that, because that gave him some time with me on the way there, and he had to go to OKC anyway to help my brother Tony move from Edmund to Tulsa. Did I tell you he finally got a job at an architecture firm? Thanks for praying!

The conference itself was phenomenal; I learned so much! My favorite sessions were about how to set up a virtual book tour (posting successively on other author`s blogs and literature websites) and “Bleeding, Scabbed, and Scared” a motivational presentation on how to use personal experiences from your life to enliven your writing. The latter was taught by a woman pilot, quite a character and really fun to listen to, but what a life! Some of the things that have happened to her that she`s fictionalized and turned into best-selling stories are simply unbelievable! Here`s a picture of the enthusiastic Southern Bell Christian motivationalist. You would never know she was “Bleeding, Scabbed and Scared.”

But far better than all the wonderful presentations on polishing and marketing were the contacts I made! They had said there was only enough room for me to have an appointment with one publisher, but I sat outside the appointment room for an hour on Friday and an hour on Saturday, and whenever someone didn`t show up or there was a free spot, I took it! That`s how I had one agent ask me for the first fifty pages of my middle grade novel Dargon, another agent ask for a proposal for Treasure Traitor, and a publisher from Simon and Shuster ask to see the full manuscripts of BOTH! I really liked her; she seemed like a really fun person dedicated to developing her authors` careers. I also talked to a travel publisher who asked me for a proposal for a non-fiction travel-essay book on Japan (basically I`d be publishing something like these blogs!) And best of all, a Christian magazine publisher accepted one of my stories on the spot! I had it along with me, gave it to her and she loved it! She also asked me to send more of my stuff! I`m soooooo happyyyyyy! So it was a very good, productive conference. Maybe nothing will come out of any of it, even the acceptance. She still has to get it past the head editor of the magazine. But even if none of these avenues work out, I will not give up, I will just keep writing, just keep fighting, just keep believing! I am a writer and what do writers do? We write, write, write!

Saturday at lunch break I had the wonderful opportunity to have lunch at Panera bread with my brother Tony and his wife Emily. Best of all I got to see my nephew Hayden for the first time! Here`s the little angle laughing:

He is the cutest baby in the entire world. I am willing to fight anyone who wants to contest this fact.

Saturday night was the awards banquet. As I said before, I was disqualified from the contest this year, but I`m through being angry about it. It was nobody`s fault. Next year I will just be sure to email them way before the deadline to make sure they got the entry fee. And a little bird told me I would have won first place in one of the categories, so when I submit it again next year, I`ll have more things to look forward to, that is, unless the Simon and Shuster publisher decides to buy the rights first, in which case, all the better!

So since I knew I wouldn`t be winning any awards this year, I left early with my friend Jason, who came up from Broken Arrow to accompany me and drive me home. On the way back we stopped by the lab where he works and I had a really interesting time seeing all the latest science gadgets used in medical testing these days. It wasn`t at all like I pictured! There were more computers than petri dishes, and it looked more like a regular office, even the school office I work in, than the high school science labs with the shiny counters, pipettes, beakers, Bunsen burners and square lab stations I remember.

Sunday I got up early to have breakfast and go to church at Christ Presbyterian with my friend Lu. We ate a Village Inn, and boy was that a lot of greasy, sugary food. I only ate half of it, but it made me so sick I had to lay down in one of the pews outside the sanctuary. I didn`t realize how heavy American food is and how much trouble my body would have readjusting to it! Fortunately one of the church ladies made me some peppermint tea to settle my stomach and we were able to join the service at the start of the sermon. Afterward I skipped lunch and went to a coffee house with some of my old college friends, but I was a little disappointed at the small turnout. Only three of my friends showed up, and they all left within an hour. Well, I guess everyone is busy with finals and graduation. And Lu stayed with me through the afternoon. He took me around the University of Tulsa campus, showing me the changes, and we studied some Bible together.

Monday I went back to Oklahoma City with Jason to see the zoo. It wasn`t that great; I prefer the Tulsa zoo, “America`s Favorite Zoo.” But there were some cute animals out. Here`s some:

A red panda lounging:

A giraffe doing the splits:

A crazy laughing chimp:

And a beautiful peacock:

The coolest thing was the cuddle fish, which kept changing colors and bumping up against the glass as if it wanted to get at us. But I didn`t get a good picture of him.

For dinner we went to cheesecake factory. Did you know American cheesecake is soooo much heavier than the Japanese version? But I went easy on it this time; I didn`t feel sick afterwards. The best part of the day was going to Jason’s house to see his pet fennec fox! His name is Cody and he makes the cutest chirping sounds! Here`s Jason holding him:

Check out those huge ears! Here`s Cody climbing on my shoulders. I had a flower in my hair and he pulled it right out and ate it!

Here`s a video of Cody doing a trick! He really likes green beans. He`ll flip for them!

Flippin` fox, Batman, it`s a flipping fox!

After that we watched the movie District 9 on Jason`s awesome home entertainment system. Pretty good, though I really feel it would have been better as a TV miniseries, just because there were so many questions left unanswered, so much unexplored!

Tuesday I was so exhausted from all the excitement of the past few days (plus extreme jet let; we`re talking fourteen hour times difference here, people). So after my eye appointment, I slept until 3:00, then went to see How to Train Your Dragon in 3D with Mom. It was a great movie, with a plot almost exactly opposite to my story Dargon the Human Slayer. This could be good or bad for me. For the next few months, dragons will be very popular, but soon they will be passé. According to my marketing friends, I have to sell Dargon in the next six months or the window of opportunity will be shut for a very long time. Gambate! (Do your best!)

Wednesday Mom and I went to the Tulsa zoo and my friend Lu joined us. Everything`s closer together and just laid out better than the Oklahoma City zoo. (Besides, we have penguins. What can beat that?) Then I went to John Knox church, the place where I grew up, and I played handbells and sang in the choir for the first time in many months! It was great to know I could still do well in music, especially since I want to train as a church music director when I get back to the States for good. For dinner I enjoyed a gigantic steak and ribs dinner at Lone Star Steakhouse. Nothing like good ol` American food!

Thursday I had another doctor`s appointment in the morning, then Grandma and Grandpa Joling (my mom`s parents) arrived all the way from Michigan after lunch. We spent the whole rest of the day talking and catching up. We concluded with Mom`s famous spaghetti dinner and my brother Benjamin and his wife Raina showed up at the end to chat. What a great day!

Friday the whole family came together, my parents and grandparents and brothers and their wives and Hayden and my best friend Heather! Here`s everyone together over an amazing Mom dinner of lasagna, chocolate moose pie and peanut butter pie. My wonderful family!

We played uno and my brothers showed off their latest architecture and computer projects. I wish I had more energy but I was still so out of it I had to take a nap in the middle of the day. Then everyone had to leave early! That was more than a little disappointing. I really only got to see my family for one day! Well, I`ll get to go back for Christmas. Seven days was just way too short, especially with the conference and Mom being away in Chicago for half of it.

At least that made me realize this: America is my home. I know I said the world is my home, but going back made me realize just how much more at home I feel in the place where I was raised. Eventually I want to settle back there, in Tulsa Oklahoma or thereabouts, and marry and have a family close to my parents and brothers. That`s where I belong. I love gallivanting around the globe now, but really, truly, there`s no place like home.

But alas, Saturday morning I left at 4:30am for Japan. The journey back was a lot smoother, and I arrived at my apartment at 7:00pm Sunday night. Only on the train, I realized I`d lost my apartment key! I had to call my friend Li who had my spare and wait for him to come all the way from Kyoto. Then I lost my cell phone on the train! I was so exhausted from the travel and super long day that I just lay down on the steps leading up to my apartment. 8:00 came and Li still hadn`t arrived so I very pathetically and stereotypically started to cry. I just couldn`t help it. I must have looked like a complete idiot to the Japanese walking past me up to their rooms! Luckily, Li came soon after that and I was able to get into my apartment. But can you believe it? The next day I found my key and cell phone in my backpack! They had been there all along, even though I turned out all my bags several times and overturned the entire contents in the train! I even dumped out my suitcase in desperation and riffled through my underwear in front of all those strangers! Isn`t that how it always is?

Well, at least I`m safe and sound back in my second home (not quite the same as my American home, but it`ll do). Now it`s time to get busy on the final edits of Treasure Traitor and Dargon. I want to make sure they`re perfect before I send them to the publisher!

Prayer Requests for this week: That I actually grow a brain and stop making these stupid mistakes! Ok, seriously, I need prayer for wisdom and guidance. Also, Pastor Toshi just put an advertisement in the paper for my Thursday night English and Evangelism class, so tonight I should be getting new members! Pray that many people come, that the Holy Spirit gives me the right words to say, and that those old members in the class who have just professed Christ will not get bored with reviewing the basics of the faith. It is my hope that their faith will grow stronger and they can help guide the new folks. And of course, please pray for my writing! I know that someday, in God`s way, I will succeed!

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,

Laura Jane Popp (L. J. Popp)

Monday, May 10, 2010

School Feild Trip and My Crazy Journey Back to America!

Wow, what a whirwind! In the past two weeks I`ve been on a school field trip, attended a conference, visited two zoos, traveled over 20,000 miles, and that`s just for starters! Where to begin?

Let`s start with the school trip to Universal Studios Japan on April 21st. I was along as a “cultural ambassador” to explain about all the American culture, since the theme park is based on American movies. But apart from playing English word games on the bus, nobody really wanted to listen, of course. They just wanted to have fun! So I found myself alone, which I was thankful for because I wasn`t feeling so great. I mostly just wandered and watched the shows. The most interesting one was the statue dance. I didn`t get any good videos, but here`s a picture. Can you tell she`s alive?

Here`s a close up; I bet you can tell now.

Basically a “living statue show” presents men and women dressed and painted to look like metal or plaster sculptures. Sometimes they just stand there and wait for innocent passerby to play tricks on. Other times there`s a story that they follow. In this show, the woman was supposed to be the statue attached to the ship. At noon every day, she comes alive and dances with one of the sailors, but he has to get her back to the front of the boat before the ship sets sail or the magic disappears. Something like that. It`s all pantomime. Pretty interesting.

I spent Saturday being sick, and Sunday went to church with Li to check out the Catholic church he likes. It seems like a good place, which he was relieved to hear. Christian cults and strange doctrines are really common in Asia, and he wanted to make sure this wasn`t one of those churches.

The following Thursday the real craziness began! I didn`t have to catch my flight until noon, so I was planning on not leaving my apartment until 8:30, but I couldn`t sleep past 6:00am, and something told me I better leave early. Boy am I glad I did! Because I had the Osaka Kansai 3-day pass that only works with private railways, I decided to use that instead of my standard Japan railways and bus to get to the airport. And stupid me, I looked up the directions for Osaka airport instead of Osaka Kansai airport! So while I was getting lost on the private trains, I happened to run into another American and asked him for directions to the Osaka airport.

“Oh, my friends and I are just headed there ourselves,” he said. “Where are you going? Tokyo?”

“Well, eventually Oklahoma,” I replied. And then it clicked. Osaka airport is for domestic flights only. I had to go to Osaka Kansai, KIX. How could I be so dumb! I nearly burst into tears but the man pointed in the right direction. I took the Nankai airport express train and got there in another hour.

It was 11:00, exactly one hour before my flight would leave, and I was in a panic. Since I had an international destination, I thought my check in would be closing. I went to my airline, ANA, on the second floor and they told me to go to the fourth floor. I went to the fourth floor and they told me to go back down to the second because my first destination was to Tokyo.

“Oh, but there is no flight going to Tokyo Narita today at noon,” said the check in lady.

I could feel the blood rushing from my face. “What?”

“There`s no such flight.”

That`s when I actually did burst into tears. I had bought my tickets online, and they were unusually expensive. Most likely “I had been had.”

The poor Japanese woman bowed several times. “Don`t panic! I`ll go get help!”

So I stood there waiting, trying to control my emotions for the next ten minutes until she finally ran back. She tried to explain some things in rapid Japanese, but I barely understood a word. Finally she said in English, “OK, go back down to the second floor and they will check you in.”

“Please come with me!” I begged. “I don`t understand what`s going on and I can`t afford for this mix up to go on any longer or I`ll miss my flight!”

She finally agreed and took me back where she explained the situation in Japanese to the attendant. She nodded and almost made me get in back of the line, but I simply pointed to my watch and she let me go in front. They checked in my bag and I headed for the gate number they gave me. It had the right departure time listed, but I noticed the destination sign read “Tokyo Haneda.” My connecting flight to the U.S. was from Tokyo Narita.

Wait, does Tokyo have two airports like Osaka? I wondered. Not this mix-up again!

I went up to the flight attendant waiting in front of the gate and asked her, in Japanese, where is this flight going?

“Tokyo,” she said.

“Tokyo Narita?”

“Tokyo Haneda.”

Don`t panic, I told myself. Just breathe.

I struggled to tell her I needed to go to Tokyo Narita. In my panic I forgot the construction for“need to go” (just add "nakedebanaranain desu" to the end of the conjugated verb "to go") so I simply cried, “Tokyo Narita hosindes. Watashiwa Tokyo Narita o idimas!” (Want Tokyo Narita; I need Tokyo Narita! probably with totally wrong grammar) and showed her my connecting flight information. Her eyes widened and she looked very worried. She got on the phone and there was more rapid fire Japanese, more running flight attendance, more panic and worry until she finally turned back to me and said I would have to take a bus from Hanata to Narita.

“How long does it take?” I asked.

“About one and a half hours, maybe more.”

My only hope for seeing my family and not loosing $2,145 was to catch the 2:10 bus. But by this time the plane was already running half an hour late (not because of me, but a delay in it`s previous departure). Even if by some miracle I caught that bus, it would give me less than an hour before my plane left. And that was if things ran smooth as silk and I didn`t get lost trying to find the bus station in downtown Tokyo or in the airport or anywhere else. In my experience, this was a 0 to 100 bet. International flight check ins close one hour before departure.

Still, what could I do, turn back? Furious with cheapo air (yes, that`s the name of the company I bought the tickets from, and they were anything but cheap), I boarded the plane. No where on my ticket information did it say I had to change airports like that. The whole way to the Haneda, I panicked, praying constantly that God would somehow make this work. And as soon as those plane doors opened, I shot outside to the bus that would take us to the international terminal. I almost missed the Japanese flight attendant, and would have if she hadn`t grabbed my arm.

“Are you the girl bound for Narita?” she asked in perfect text-book English.


“I am here to guide you.”

What comforting words! I breathed such a sigh of relief I probably lost a pound of air. She led me through baggage claim to the bus station, which was luckily inside the airport itself, and then to the bus. The bus had been delayed by ten minutes, and I caught it at 2:20. With little traffic, we arrived at 3:30, exactly one hour before my flight. And by another miracle, the woman I sat beside happened to also be going on a United airlines flight to the U.S. We spent a pleasant hour on the bus conversing in Japanese, and then she led me where I needed to go.

But when I ran inside the terminal, I nearly despaired again. A colossal line half a kilometer long stretched from the United Airlines check in to the doors of the terminal. And it was moving slowly. Very slowly.

I rushed to the front and tried to petition the attendant. She waved me away. “Must get in back, okaksama (honorable costumer). Must wait turn.”

I have a theory. As we grow up, we don`t shed our past ages. The elderly still have their middle years inside them and one could easily blame mid-life crises on a resurgence of the teenage years. At that moment, as I so embarrassingly and often do under stress, I reverted to my three-year-old self and once more burst into another rather pathetic sobbing spell.

A note to stressed and delayed travelers: the Japanese can`t handle tears. If you want something bad, really bad, just turn on the leaky faucet. Works every time.

“Ok, Ok, go, go!” the woman practically pushed me through the roped barricade. And it`s a good thing too, because at that moment I heard the United attendant shout,

“Last call for United flight to Chicago.”

“That`s meeeee!” I screamed, and sprinted to the counter. I can`t imagine what the calm, patient Japanese people waiting in line must have thought. Crazy gaijin. Always running late. Why can`t they just get a good dose of zen like the rest of us? Of course, they`re one to talk. The Japanese run everywhere they go. Before I came to Japan I thought that was just something people did in video games and anime. Nope. Most of what you see on Japanese TV is true. Minus the gigantic humanoid robots.

So I got to the gate just as they were closing the doors. By yet one more stroke of God`s grace, the plane was late. I thought my panic time was over, only to realize that due to all the delays, I only had a one hour layover time at the Chicago airport where I would have to uncheck and recheck my baggage. And the line at customs was almost as long as the previous check in. But can you believe it? I ran into another American couple in line and they drew me a map exactly where I needed to go. All I had to do was throw my bag on the conveyor belt and run. Once more the flight was delayed, and I made it just in time.

And so it was that after many prayers, tears, and ounces of sweat, I made it to my home in Tulsa, Oklahoma in one piece. You`ll find out what I did when I got there in my next, hopefully “coming soon,” post.