Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Camping and Barbequing in Japan!

My apologies that this is so late! My computer died so I haven`t been able to download any pictures, so I had to wait until the I got some from the school photographer (the computer teacher). Sorry!

Last weekend was my birthday! Part of me wanted to stay in Nabari and celebrate with my church and friends, but months before I had paid to go on a camping trip with some other English teachers, and totally forgot that this weekend was my birthday! So I decided to go and celebrate with my friends next weekend. We went to Owase in the South of Mie Prefecture, planning to swim and hike and have a great time. But, alas, it rained ALL weekend, so we were stuck in the cabins. (I shared one with a Canadian girl named Erica and her Japanese boyfriend Yoshi.) I spent most of Saturday reading Eragon, though in the afternoon I got literal cabin fever and decided to take a walk in the rain. I must admit, the mountains were beautiful through all the mist, and everything was so GREEN! Once I finally get my computer fixed, I`ll download some pictures.

I don`t feel like the weekend was wasted because of the rain though, as it rained in Nabari too and would have canceled any plans I made with my friends. And Saturday evening we had a delicious barbeque, though it was the Japanese sort that lasts about two hours, just cooking, eating, and cleaning up, rather than the American kind that can last all day with games of frizzbe, potato sack racing, watermelon seed spitting contests, and just generally being stupid and American. One guy tried to lead us in some good ol` raucous singing, but our Japanese neighbors politely asked us to shut up after two songs. I can`t really blame them. If the Japanese are going to party, they do it inside in a privately rented room at a hotel, bar, club, or restaurant, with appropriate karaoke machine, not live instruments, whereas just a few decades ago in America, to have a party without live instruments was considered very low-class (and ironically, some people still think that). I find it humorous how each culture and time has their idea of how to “party appropriately.” To the Japanese, outside is supposed to be peaceful and quiet. So basically the whole concept of “inside” and “outside” voices doesn’t really translate cross-culturally.

I totally missed the memo that we were supposed to bring our own meat and vegetables to grill (though that makes perfect sense and it was dumb of me to assume otherwise), but thankfully Jonathan from my town brought extras for everyone and we just paid him. Yeah, thanks Jonathan! Then everyone surprised me at the end of the barbeque by singing me Happy Birthday and giving me a strawberry ice cream shortcake bar! Awesome, thanks guys! And then we had a mini-dance party in the all-girls cabin. I may stink at dancing, but I love it, especially when there are no guys around and I can just have fun.

Sunday I got back to Nabari about 1:00 and spent the day hanging out with my church family (watching a documentary about the historical inaccuracies of the Di Vinci Code: rather interesting) and goofing off in my apartment. Goofing off to me is reading, watching movies and playing video games. So all in all, it was a good birthday. Next weekend I`m going to Nagashima Spaland to celebrate with my friends! Yeah! Hmm, I have so many fireworks I have to get rid of. I got them as a present from my cell phone company when I signed on last year…weird, huh? I wonder when I can use them…

Monday June 28th, I taught a two hour English class for parents and teachers at my high school. I was totally stressed about it. I had written three different sets of lesson plans and the other English teachers rejected all of them, despite the fact that I kept asking over and over “what do you want” and I tried to cater to their vague answers like “we would like to bake something American” and “not too hard, we just want to have fun…” Originally I started with a sort of “hello” lesson, a very basic conversation builder designed, by the end of the class, to have them saying their name, where they were from, what their hobby was, and where they worked. No, too hard. So then I worked out a baking lesson with some fun games to fill the other hour, games like telephone, guess the English word, English shiritori (where you have to start a new word based on the last letter of the previous word: ant, the, egg, green, etc). No, too hard.

“Tell me exactly what you want me to do,” I insisted.

This made them very uncomfortable. “Well, we just want you to talk about America. It is the Fourth of July coming.”

“For two hours? You want me to lecture about America for two hours!”

“Well,” they replied sheepishly. “Technically it would only be one hour, since we would do translation for you.”

They totally missed the point. It wasn`t the workload that bothered me. It was the BORINGness of it. Who wants to sit in a room with a native speaker and listen to her gab for two hours with a translation? They can look up lecture on American history on the internet! They can read a book about America! But when are they going to have two hours with an actual American? I asked about the demographics of the class, entirely housewives and female teachers, and I figured, like the English teacher`s original idea, what these ladies probably want is just to relax and have fun with a foreigner. So, I made yet another set of lesson plans, this one baking red, white, and blue cupcakes, me presenting about America in a colorful, fun manner introducing easy vocabulary for just five minutes, some very simple American games requiring no English, and “cultural pictures” from my childhood including stuff like Halloween, Christmas, Easter, and school. The teachers still seemed a little skeptical, but after much deliberation, tweaking, debating about the room and materials, we finally came to a compromise that made everyone, believe it or not, not just satisfied, but happy. I even got to test the recipe beforehand during school and shared the delicious results with my Thursday night English class at the church!

So the teachers had told me time and again that most of the women would not speak a word of English. Imagine my surprise on Monday afternoon when the very first lady to enter is wearing a American flag skirt and blouse and announces that she loves America, it is her favorite country, and her son lived in Oklahoma for five years! In Okmulgee! That`s not very far from Tulsa! We chatted in perfect English for a good ten minutes before the other ladies (nine all together) started arriving. Sure there were a few who were uncomfortable answering questions more advanced than “Where are you from?” but they seemed to be able to understand most of what I said. And then, low and behold, a newspaper reporter showed up, and then the local TV news!

Fortunately, I do have a little theater training, and I was able to turn on the charm and properly improvise. Here`s me starting us off with introductions:

Then we made the cupcakes, followed by the icing. Here`s some pictures of that.

Here you can see the TV news guys in the background:

(Of course the best part is licking the batter of the beaters, right?)

Then we moved into another (cooler) room where I did my little song-and-dance with American history, we played a map game (find the famous American states and cities on the big map), we decorated our cupcakes and ate them, I talked about Oklahoma with all my colorful posters, and finally sang the Oklahoma State song. We had quite a few laughs on camera, and the TV guys interviewed one of my students (the one wearing the America paraphanalia):

Then they turned around and interviewed ME. I was a little nervous about that; I had to speak entirely in Japanese! I hope I didn`t say anything stupid…as far as I recall I just said I loved Japanese people and Japan, that I think it`s a beautiful country and I look forward to another year in Japan. That`s pretty safe, right?

Fortunately the newspaper interviewer spoke perfect English, so I felt a lot more comfortable with her and didn`t explode into a fit of nervous giggles. OK, now I know how my students feel. Being asked to speak English in front of the whole class to them is like me being asked to speak Japanese for a television interview!

Anyway, it was an amazing class. All the ladies said they had a great time and apparently the school was very pleased too because Tuesday morning in staff meeting one of the teachers who participated announced that it went well and thanked me in front of all the other teachers. I think that`s the first time they`ve ever acknowledged me in staff meeting (though honestly I prefer it that way because most of the time they rattle off the announcements so fast I would have no idea what they`re saying about me). I got to tell everyone in that Monday class about my Thursday night English class at the church, lots of ladies seemed interested and the newspaper reporter said she`d print about it too. Maybe it even got on TV! So hopefully this will result in lots of good publicity for my high school and my Thursday class. Yea! (In retrospect, it WAS great publicity. Two ladies from that class have started coming on Thursday nights, plus the paper reporter! Now I have a total of nine poeple in my class!)

Yesterday (Tuesday) Pastor Toshi surprised me by saying he wanted to throw a barbeque in honor of my birthday! Yea! So I went to church at 6:00 and he, Pastor Kumi, their daughter Ayatan, my friend and fellow teacher Kae, and one my students from my Thursday night class all ate delicious yakiniku, yaki-yasai, and yaki-soba! “Yaki” means barbeque, “niku” is meat, “yasai” is vegetables” and “soba” is a type of noodle. “Yakisoba” is always fried noodles mixed with pork and cabbage. Very delicious! Then they sang “Happy Birthday” to me and we had cake! What a wonderful church family I have! Oh, but I should have brought my fireworks! Next time…

Prayer Requests for this Week: That I get my computer and camera fixed soon! I hope it`s not a permanent problem…I have friends coming over tonight to look at it. Prayers of thanksgiving for an amazing birthday! My mom always used to say this to me: “Many happy returns on the day of thy birth. Many seasons of joy be given. May God in His mercy prepare you on Earth for a beautiful birthday in heaven.” It means that when we die, if we believe in Jesus, it`s not really death at all, but a second birth. So when we go to heaven, we`ll be celebrating an extra special birthday with God!

Until next time, keep loving and keep praying,
L.J. Popp

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Crazy Japanese band concerts

It never ceases to amaze me how crazy Japanese people can get! Underneath the surface of their carefully groomed, calm exteriors, are giggle fits, party animals, and even cravings for a good fight waiting to be unleashed!

OK, honestly, a school band concert can only get so crazy. But I was pretty impressed by the level at which they took it. It started off tame enough, very formal with lots of “speeching” (can’t do anything without a few speeches in Japan) and bowing. Here’s their rendition of a pretty standard American march:

Do they sound good or what? Did I mention that these kids don’t have band class? Only "brass band club" which meets after school, on weekends, and school breaks. Percussion has it particularily hard. Not only do they have to know the standard percussion instruments, but at least one of them has to play the harp because the Japanese add it to a lot of songs! They also use the stringed bass on most songs to fill out the tuba sound, and on occasion a cello and piano, so "brass band" isn`t really the best description of a Japanese school band. And every trimester they give a two hour-long concert! That’s in addition to other little performances they do at festivals, school events, and contests. If I ever hear an American band kid complain again I`ll tell them to appreciate how easy they have it! No marching band in Japan, though, unless you count marching down a one kilometer road during a festival.

The student classical portion was followed by the “OB” band. Apparently our brass band is so popular (it is number two in the prefecture) that parents and alumni just have to have their own too. Unfortunately I couldn`t get any of their songs to download because the videos are too long, but it was more jazz-type stuff, including a medley of Golden Age Broadway songs.

Then after a fifteen minute intermission, the bands combined for a “jazzed up” performance. That’s when things got crazy. Here’s the warm up:

Japanese people and mamba...interesting! But then I suppose they do have their own sort of tropical island culture in Okinawa.

And then add the cute little anime characters fighting on stage to a medley of cartoon music. (For those who don’t know, “anime” is the Japanese word for “animation” and their industry for it is about 10X that of the United States, no joke, probably making up over half of their network programming. I have no idea what this anime is supposed to be; I don’t watch TV).

There must have been about three of four anime songs, but I only recognized one: Sailor Moon. Watching that as a child, I had no idea that Japanese high school girls actually do wear sailor suits to school as a uniform and if they`re really rebellious, dye their hair blond. One more interesting thing about Japan: what was popular when I was a kid is STILL popular now. Nothing ever goes out of fashion. The kids at my school STILL watch Sailor Moon, Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, Transformers, and a thousand other shows that went out of vogue ten years ago in America. Oh, that goes for clothing styles too. It’s not at all uncommon to see a family walking down the street together, the grandmother wearing a dress from the 1960s, the mother wearing a mini-skirt made of snake skin from the 80’s, and the daughter wearing some atrocious mishmash of fishnet leggings, ruffled skirts, feather boa, and gigantic sunglasses. The Japanese honestly have no fashion sense whatsoever. They just throw on whatever they think looks cool (or clashes the most; I haven’t figured out which). Anyway, that Sailor Moon video, though she doesn`t come on until the end:

Can you guess which one is her? That’s right, the blond. Why, oh why, do main characters in Japanese shows or comics or games and just about everything else almost always have blond hair? It’s not like any Japanese people naturally do, and the characters are all very Japanese. But then, why do some characters have blue or pink or purple hair? Honestly, I think it’s a cheat. Japanese animation tends to be very poor quality due to the mass production of it, and therefore they have to use something really big and obvious to make each character stand out and be recognizable (gigantic multi-colored eyes and completely unproportioned body parts help with this too). And how am I such an expert on Japanese animation when I never watch it (except for that one time last week with my host family)? Because Japan is obsessed with cartoon characters. You see them at the grocery store advertising products on wrappers and the mini TV screens, on kids’ and TEACHER’s pencil bags, on postage stamps, on bill boards, on road signs. I’m not exaggerating! In Tokyo and Osaka you can even see adults dressed up as their favorite characters on the weekend! They sell the costumes at my local super market. Despite all it’s austerity in the business world, Japan is waaay too obsessed with cute things. It’s called the “kowai” culture. OK, so it’s fun and I guess it’s how they “break out” of their rigid societal rules, but unfortunately it also leads to a subculture obsessed with pedophilia. Cute is associated with sexy. All the half-dressed models staring out at me from the convenience store’s magazine window either look terrified or are wearing some sort of cute, little school girl uniform with pigtails. The face of a child but a bosom the size of a boat. It’s more than a little disturbing.

On a lighter note, after that they did a Disney medley. Did I mention that they never outgrow Disney either? Every couple I’ve met says it’s their dream to go on a date to Tokyo Disney Land. Disney princesses aren’t just for little girls in Japan. I’ve seen adult teachers with Disney princesses decorating every corner of their desks. And then there’s the odd “Hello Kitty” weddings at Universal Studios, Osaka. Really? You want a cartoon character to marry you? That’s just too much.

Anyway, Japan also has a more traditional strand of cartoons too. (Actually, anime falls in just about every genre imaginable from historical to science fiction to reality TV, though 90% of them have to do with ridiculously cute underdressed high school girls fighting evil monsters and thus getting the tar beaten out of them and the other half of their clothes ripped off. Could this in any feasible way be a healthy obessesion?) OK, so America isn`t any better, especially when you look at popular comics like Sin City and what not. The very nature of animation and cartoon is to produce wild fantasies and distort the human body. But all that aside, this guy is a Samurai fighting ninjas, so it`s supposedly more "traditional" (but I`d bet anything he has a half-dressed female side kick or something). Here’s a video of that band piece, though I have no clue what anime it’s from:

But there is another thing Japanese people get outrageously crazy about other than cartoons. Baseball! Who would have thought? Anyway, here’s the baseball tribute, right smack dab in the middle of the World Cup Soccer tournament, no less. They didn`t miss this fact either and even pointed it out, stating that Japanese baseball beats any sport, any day. (I feel sorry for the soccer club members present.) The Japanese can be very unsubtle when they want to be:

And that’s when my camera ran out of memory. I didn’t get to take a video of the really sweet finale, “Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya tomorrow!” sung half in Japanese and half in English. But here’s a really cool shot of the stage:

So the concert was from 2:00-4:15, a full two hours when you consider the intermission. As we left, all the band kids, in traditional Japanese fashion, stood outside the auditorium and in very practiced intervals shouted in unison at the top of their lungs “Arigato gozaimashta!” Thank you very much!

Thank you very much, band kids! That was probably the best non-professional band concert I’ve ever been to in my life! Normally I would have totally spaced out after an hour, but they made it entertaining for an entire two hours thanks to their creative gimmicks.

Prayer Requests for this week: I’m leaving to go camping this late Friday afternoon and am getting back on early Sunday afternoon! Pray for safety definitely. I hope it doesn’t rain. And Saturday is my birthday. I’m turning 24, wahoo! I think I’m right where I need to be for that age. Another praise I have is that the publisher I was desperately trying to get ahold of finally got back to me and they are reviewing my manuscripts now! Yes! But one of the ladies at the company, Kate Angelella, is on medical leave. I don`t know the details, though at the conference she had mentioned something about surgery, so please pray for her healthy and happy recovery. And now I’m going to get some free ice cream as Baskin Robbins thanks to their birthday club! Double Wahoo!

Until next time, stay genki (energetic and healthy) and keep praying,

Laura Jane Popp (L. J. Popp)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Komono homestay!

Hello, everyone! I just got back from a lovely home stay in Komono town, two hours north of Nabari (my city) by train. I arrived Friday night and met the family: Kazuko the mom, Toshi the dad, and Yuka the twenty-eight year-old daughter. Here`s a picture of us at the ramen restaurant on Sunday night:

They also have another daughter but she`s moved out. One thing I`ve noticed about Japanese families who live in houses is that one of the daughters tends to live at home. In fact, I`ve never been in a Japanese house with a middle-aged or older couple that didn`t have an unmarried but working son or daughter (usually daughter) still living with them. It makes a lot of sense, I guess. Why waste the space and resources? Plus there`s the expectation that she will take care of her parents as they get older. I guess that eases the transition from having to suddenly move in with them when an unexpected accident or crisis happens. There isn’t the same stupid stereotype we have in the U.S, that living with your parents after you`ve grown up somehow makes you a less successful person. The family also shares one car. Why waste resources on more than you need? They simply pick each other up and drop each other off at work and other events, or car pool. Americans are far too obsessed, I think, with individual freedom, when in actuality, if they worked out a system and were willing to make just a little sacrifice, there would be hardly any encroachment on their freedom and they could save a lot of money. Fortunately, things are changing. Last I checked there were lost of plans for more public transportation in America`s future, and more folks are carpooling.

On Friday night the family took me out for yaki niku (Korean Barbeque). It was sooo good! Did I mention the Japanese have a very delicious yogurt soft drink? It`s called Calpis, I think, and healthy. Then they took me out to some oat fields to watch the fireflies. There was one bush just full of them!

Kazuku had to work Saturday morning, so Yuka and I passed the time talking and watching Japanese cartoons. It was amusing to see some of my favorite dubbed childhood shows in the original Japanese, like Dragon Ball Z. It made a lot more sense in Japanese. I realized some of the translations were off, because they were so literal or lacking in cultural context. Like something as simple as “genki” being translated as “healthy” when the main character actually means energetic, excited, ready to tackle the task at hand. There are so many set phrases in Japanese that carry a whole myriad of meanings or double meanings that just can`t be translated in the amount of time it takes for the characters to move their mouths, or in the very least comes out sounding really awkward in English. Now that I actually understand Japanese culture better, I can catch some of the references and they`re not just weird, but funny. Japanese humor is very different from Western, full of it`s own set of character archetypes, scenarios, and even it`s own form of Vaudville-esch slap stick based on old Japanese theater tradition and even Sumo wrestling. It was doubly amusing to note the things I laughed at and the things that Yuka laughed at. They were usually totally different, and when we tried to explain to each other why we were laughing, it was impossible.

Then we went to see a temple that was famous for its hill of 450 Buddha statues. Here`s a picture of the hill:

And here`s Yuka and me at the top:

I kept asking when it was built, who built it, why, and what it was supposed to mean/represent, but both of them said they didn`t know and I can`t find it online. Afterwards we went to the shrine. There were some priests blessing the cars. You know, that’s something Japanese Christians do too, I’ve noticed. It makes sense. The Shinto version was interesting to see, here`s a video:

I asked lots of questions about their clothes, the sticks they waved, and the prayers they chanted, but the only thing they knew was that the sticks were for “purification.” Here`s me beside a priest:

Even he could not explain it to me, in English or in Japanese.

Here`s a picture partway inside the shrine itself (the most inner part is like a holy of holies only the priests can enter; you can take a picture of that):

And a smaller side shrine:

Inside the shrine I asked which Shinto god it was made for but again my host mother didn`t know. She tossed in some money and said a little prayer. I asked her if she really believed in what she was doing and in the god of the shrine. She said, very emphatically, yes. I wanted to say, “how can you possibly believe in the god when you don`t even know who it is?” but I didn`t want to be rude. I already felt rude for not participating in the purification or prayers, but when I said I was Christian they didn`t press me.

Here is a Japanese wedding procession going up to the shrine. Notice the female priest in front, that the bride is wearing white, that her head is partially covered, and she is being guided by a wedding assistant on her right. These is a combination of Shinto and Christian customs. But again when I asked what was what and wherefore, nobody seemed to know anything, unlike the weddings I am used to where the meaning of everything is carefully explained in the programs.

It`s sad that the Japanese are taught to just blindly revere their traditional religions but many have lost all knowledge of what its supposed to mean. It shocks me how some people think that a statue without any story, without any known purpose, can be any more than a pretty rock or at most, a beautiful work of art. Why do they treat it with such reverence if they haven`t a clue why? The simple answer, “because we always have” is no answer at all, and not even true. Obviously, they didn`t “always do it that way” because human beings were here before the statue. People ought to understand why they do what they do. How is it that the Japanese are such seekers after knowledge, such hard working, industrious people, but in this one area of religion they have completely “dropped the ball,” so to speak?

But the same is true for Christianity. I will be very bold and say that a Christian who struggles to understand the Bible and prays with the knowledge of who he or she is praying to is more pleasing to God than a Christian who goes to church without seeking understanding of the rituals performed there and makes no attempt to communicate with God in a meaningful way. God doesn’t want drones. What good is that to Him or to us? Faith apart from Love is nothing, and how can one have love for someone one does not know?

But I think some Japanese people are seeking. There were two new ladies at my English and Evangelism class, brought by their friend, and it was pretty clear from their reactions that they were aware of the evangelism element ahead of time. They didn`t make any indications one way or the other, but they listened without seeming offended and thanked me afterward, saying they would be back next week. That`s a good start!

After the temple and shrine, I got to see the famous local green tea farms. I had no idea they had fans to dry the tea on the bushes before its even harvested! Here’s what a modern Japanese tea farm looks like:

Next Kozuko showed me her hobby, jewelry making with beads, (she gave me a cute bracelet) and then I went to a clothes/books swap at Vanessa’s apartment. She`s a British CIR, or “Coordinator of International Relations” and she`s leaving this year, so she had to get rid of all her things, and so did many other people who are leaving the Japanese Exchange Teaching (JET) Program. Folks who are staying just brought things they didn`t want anymore. I got a lot of really great books and outfits in exchange for stuff I`d already read or that I`d gotten as gifts from Japanese people who, while meaning well, don`t always understand the body proportion differences between Asians and Americans. The leftovers (including most of the stuff I brought) got sent to the needy in Japan and the Philippines, so nothing was wasted!

I think the thing I was most excited about was one of the books I picked up, Twilight. I wanted to see if it`s as awful as everybody says. The writing is pretty amateur, mostly in terms of over-repetition, transitions, character reactions (why did he/she just do that? It was totally out of the boring archetype the author just spent the last fifty pages drilling into our heads but it doesn`t really do anything to make the character more interesting), and some scenes that I just thought, "why was that in there? How is it contributing to the story?" but the overall story and themes are pretty good, even if they`ve been done a hundred times before in adult fiction. Stephenie Meyer really plays up the idea of what makes something evil or forbidden. Sometimes a little too much, but it`s not a theme you see handled in young adult literature a lot. Good and evil are usually taken for granted until you get into purely adult fiction. So I can see why it became so popular. A give her brownie points for tackling so difficult and controversial an issue in her very first novel. The balance she arrives at in the end, where to draw the line between sin and simple cultural misgivings, was very satisfying. I`m not sure the film version captured that.

Anyway, after the swap we went to a really delicious (Japanese) Italian restaurant called Tom Sawyer’s. I call it (Japanese) Italian because there really is a difference between the kind of food served at Italian restaurants run by Japanese and Italian restaurants run by Italians. For example, (Japanese) Italian restaurants feature a lot more Japanese dishes like octopus, omrice, and Japanese noodles but with Italian sauces. Italian restaurants run by Italians are a lot like those in the U.S. like Zios, Olive Garden, and anything besides fast food Italian like Pizza Hut or Mazzios, which are (American) Italian. I try to explain this concept to Japanese people (and others) but many just don`t get it. To most, Japanese is Japanese and Italian is Italian. But North Americans, Chinese, Europeans, I think get it because they do it on purpose instead of intrinsically without thinking. It`s almost a kind of cultural imperialism…maybe. That idea would require an entire paper or even a book to properly analyze the topic and I`m sure it`s already been done before. Anyway, here`s a picture of our little foreigner group at Tom Sawyer`s:

Sunday morning I awoke bright and early to go climbing on Mt. Gozaisho. Only it was raining. So we only got to go a third of the way up the mountain. Still, it was the hardest climb I`ve ever done; they said it was harder than Fuji because it was so steep and the trail was hard to follow. Boy am I glad I did it in a group!
Here`s a picture of our group, a mixture of foreigners and Japanese. I`m standing on top of a pile or rocks. The blond girl sticking out her tongue is from Sydney, Australia:

Here’s the gondola (rope way) through the mist. Pretty cool looking. It would be cool to glide in and out of clouds like that.

Speaking of cool misty stuff, here’s some enshrouded rock formations:

Two people trying to climb up the rock formations; the American is Holly from Colorado:

The pine forest:

A mountain cabin in the woods (that has been destroyed twice by natural disaster in the past few years, but the family just keeps rebuilding. That’s the Japanese for you. Very resilient and stubborn):

And a view of a city nestled between the mountains.

The only downside was that I would have liked to just stop and stare at the scenery more, but I was so busy keeping my eyes focused on the path so I wouldn’t trip over any rocks or branches and keeping up with all the experienced climbers that I barely noticed the beautiful nature around me. They said we finished in about half the time it usually takes. When Mom and I tackle Fuji we`ll have to take it nice and slow so we can enjoy it to the fullest. Getting to the top is only half the fun. The true joy lies in the journey.

We finished at noon and went to a nearby onsen (natural hot spring). It was pretty nice and really helped relax my aching muscles. Then I went to dinner with my host family at a ramen shop. Ramen are Chinese noodles, but as previously established with the Italian restaurant, ramen shops are thoroughly Japanese establishments and you couldn`t find anything like them in China, so they are therefore better categorized as (Chinese) Japanese. For example, the first course was sushi (very good sushi, I might add), followed by Chinese noodles in a Japanese vegetable soup. And to add even more layers, yes, incase you`re wondering, this is the same “ramen” that poor American college students can buy at the dollar store for fifty cents a package, only not quite. That ramen is an example of (American, Japanese) Chinese food because the American version is a disgustingly MSG drenched form of the nice Japanese food, which is a cheap form of the Chinese delicacy. If I`m understanding the progression (or regression) correctly, it was a really fancy “hot pot” food enjoyed by the rich in the winter time of China, was devoured by the Japanese troops who swept through during World War II, taken back to Japan, and the American GIs after World War II picked it up and brought it back to America. Weird how these things evolve.

On a very distracted side note, I`ve always wanted to know why Orsen Scott Card decided to refer to some aliens in his books as “ramen.” I realize it means one who is “friendly but outside the main group” in some Nordic language, but for Pete`s sake, it means a kind of noodle in Chinese, Japanese, and American English, and he has all three of these ethnic groups in his books! Obviously somebody didn`t do their research. Every time I read a sentence with that word in it, I just burst out laughing! Look, we`ve got Chinese noodles landing in spaceships in the middle of town! It`s just a really funny image.

So it was that at the end of a long but fun weekend, I arrived back in Nabari at 8:00pm. That`s when I finally, after six weeks of (more) intensive revisions, sent off two of my novels, Treasure Traitor and Dargon the Human Slayer, to Simon and Shuster Publishing. Now it`s in God`s hands. I`m just going to stop worrying about it and continue enjoying my time in Japan. “There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

Prayer Requests for this Week: Prayer for the two ladies who started coming to my English and Evangelism class last week. May God open their ears and soften their hearts. Prayer for patience as I wait for responses from both them and the publisher. It is always a struggle for me to let go of worry and just trust God. May His perfect will be done, whatever that may be.

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,
L. J. Popp

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Fantasy and Science Fiction: Is there a difference?

Greetings! Unfortunately I was sick all this past week so I didn’t get to follow through on my rescheduled plans to stay with a host family in Komono, but I did have the chance at some rather though-provoking correspondence with my friend Richard in North Carolina about the nature of my writing, the false division between fantasy and science fiction and the future of the “two” genres.

Richard noted a tendency of mine to mix elements of fantasy and science fiction while reading my young adult novel Treasure Traitor and my middle grade book Dargon the Human Slayer. He quoted a philosophy of Orson Scot Card, one of my favorite authors who writes in both genres, that “fantasy has trees, and science fiction has rivets.” I took the liberty of looking up the interview he was referring to and it went on like this, first quoting Card and then giving the interviewer's opinion. " 'That's it, that's all the difference there is, the difference of feel, perception.' He was saying many stories labeled sci-fi were really fantasy-in-a-futuristic-setting, and vice versa.” (Orson Scott Card Interview by Howard Mittelmark, first published in Inside Books, 1989.)

I whole-heartedly agree, and it’s even more true now that it was back in 1989 when he said it. Just think about urban fantasy. Cosmopolitan vampires, the witch that lives next door in a high-rise apartment and works for Google over the internet and by cell phone. No forests there. Also steam punk, which is sort of an alternate history of the Wild West with vampires and demons and asks the question, "what if steam technology was super advanced and we focused on making more of that instead of other types of science? Where would it have taken us?" And as for sci-fi, back in the day it focused on technology, but now more and more you see books and movies like Avatar and District 9 where the technology is just a small side note. The main focus is alien cultures and how they interact with humans, often very blatant analogies of conflicts between human nations on earth. Much of the technology and how it works is simply glossed over, explained as "we don't know" or even given magic-like mystery.

In District 9, for example, the main human character mysteriously transformed into one of the Prawn aliens. There was not even an attempt to explain this except that it had something to do with the magic-like black goo the aliens used as fuel for their spaceship. In Avatar, there was the “network” links between the aliens and their forest. This was given a brief scientific explanation, but was still treated in a mystical, even spiritual way. No attempt was made to scientifically explain the aliens’ goddess, and her existence and power were even acknowledged by one of the main human scientists as she died. I just finished a really cute, funny short story called “Petri Parousia” about the second coming of Christ brought about by science. Another story in the same magazine was about scientists going back in time to study the Paleozoic age. It's a very rural setting with nothing but trees and ocean, without a scrap of technology save the small time machine/boat. In these stories, even Card’s definition of the difference between science fiction and fantasy falls apart. You find stories labeled as science fiction in ancient, rural settings and stories labeled as fantasy in modern, technological settings and everything in between. So as you can see, the edges of sci-fi and fantasy have been blurring for years. I call it "sci-fan," fantasy with scientific or technological elements, or science fiction with fantastical elements.

The truth of the matter is, for most of us, technology is magic. If someone from the 1600s were to appear in your house today and you turned on the light for him, he would exclaim, "Magic!"

"No, science," you'd reply.

"Science? So how's it work?"

An intelligent person would probably mutter something about electricity and filaments and how light can travel around the earth seven times in one second, but anyone besides a high school or college science teacher probably couldn't get much further than that. Even if you asked a scientist who specialized in photons and energy, that person could only tell you so much about how it works until he or she finally have to admit, "I don't know." No one knows where light comes from or why it travels the way it does. It is both a particle and an energy wave and seems to defy nearly all laws of physics. So in a way, even to scientists, it is magic. Even with seemingly simpler forms of technology like a gas stove, most scientific explanations of how they work are about as intelligible to the average Joe as a magical incantation. Mathematical formulas might as well be murmured spells. So it always strikes me as funny that when a character designated as a "scientist" spouts off a bunch of mostly nonsense equations and explanations for why a speculative invention works, we call it science fiction, but when a character designated as a "mage" or "wizard" recites some ancient Elvin chant to do exactly the same thing that the "scientific" invention did, we call it fantasy.

In my middle grade novel, Dargon, I created a dragon society that highly values tradition, but is also technologically advanced. This is very similar to many human cultures, but unfortunately not so for Americans. Think about the Jewish bar mitzvah or the Japanese tea ceremony. It is not at all uncommon in Japan to see a maiko (apprentice geisha) walking down the street in a full kimono, her face painted white and practicing the steps of her traditional fan dance, while holding a cell phone in her other hand. It is not at all strange in China to see elderly people practicing tai-chi at 8:00 in the morning while the town intercom system blasts the day’s latest gossip about elections and the stock market. In India, you may find elephant herders dressed in traditional male saris on their break time, sitting atop their elephants, bartering back and forth on their wireless internet laptops about the price of the latest electronic gadgets. This is the world we live in! The traditional and the modern, side by side. Why shouldn't our literature reflect this?

In Treasure Traitor, I did another thing all together. Instead of having a "pre-industrial society" or a "post-industrial society," I created a society that has tried technology, been there, done that, and it didn't work for them. Because of their traditions and the problems that the technology caused for them, they discarded most of it. Some technology still prevails, but most is considered evil, or at best, a waste of time, energy and resources. This is also not that radical of an idea. What about the Amish, certain sects of Islam, and even other groups totally apart from religion like some Roma (Gypsies)? All of these people practice degrees of limited technological contact. There have been and always will be technophobes in society. But, as with all such groups, they will retain the technology they deem to be not so evil (or rather, just extremely convenient and unable to be lived without). Thus the universe of Treasure Traitor has "shuttles" that can take people from one place to another, even one planet to another instantaneously, but no cars. Cars take fuel, which has to be drilled for or extracted from plants, and on harsh desert worlds, they can't afford those kind of resources on unnecessary luxuries. It also has to do with control. A society where the populace has access to cars and guns is very difficult to control. So by banning such things and enforcing strict adherence to authority in the name of living "simply and godly lives," this government made up of several resource-depleted planets with nearly no cultural, linguistic, and religious connections can be more easily held together. This is what I call a “post-post-industrial society.”

So those are my thoughts on "science fiction versus fantasy." Honestly, I think it's a false segregation created by the marketing departments of traditional publishing houses for the sake of "pigeon holing" their audiences. Heaven forbid we ever have dragons with nuclear ballistic missiles or elves that can dissect an orc, find out how their physiology works, and then come up with a spell to better destroy them. I have news for you. For the most part, fantasy and science fiction have the same readership, plus, it's being done! Right now it's mostly through fan fiction and small press, or things labeled "experimental", but genre blurring is the future of publishing. So let's tear down the wall! No more segregation! Writers of sci-fan, unite!

Of course, I really make things difficult for myself by adding in a third genre. Religion. I just can’t keep away from the subject. Whether I’m writing newspaper articles or travel logs or science fiction and fantasy novels, my Christian faith always comes out. Of course I try to do it in subtle ways. In Treasure Traitor the words “Christian” and “Jesus” never appear in the book, but there are Christian characters even if Renagada, the protagonist, doesn’t know that’s what they are. I have one scene in which a character named “Agape” gives Rena “two pieces of wood crossed in the middle” as a sign of eternal friendship and whispers the words “Xulon Chrio.” “Agape” is Greek for “Christian Love” and “Xulon Chrio” means “the cross of Christ.” Of course, most readers won’t pick up on that. They’ll just think she’s uttering some ancient blessing and giving Rena something to remember her by. That’s fine. You don’t have to understand that or any of the other Christian references in order to enjoy the book. But it’s there for those who care to notice. And you’d be surprised how many people notice. The Treasure Traitor trilogy, as it progresses, gets more and more into the realm of faith, though to try to market it as a “Christian” series wouldn’t work at all because the main character herself never makes a decision one way or the other. Besides, she’s exposed to all kinds of beliefs and religions throughout her adventures and travels. Christianity is just one of them.

However, this has posed problems for me in other ways. You see, the Treasure Traitor trilogy isn’t really the beginning of my overall series. Chronologically, the whole entire series of fifty plus books starts with a trilogy that takes place during the Great Awakening of the 1730s. So its science fiction fantasy Christian Historical! Think C.S. Lewis meets Orsen Scot Card meets Diana Gabaldon. You can see why I didn’t try to sell that one first. Every publisher I’ve mentioned my Great Awakening trilogy to has given me the sucking through teeth “well…I don’t really know anyone who’s looking for that sort of thing…” cringing response. So I’m doing it the Star Wars way, starting in the middle.

So that’s what I’m trying to figure out now: what to write next. My entire series of books is based in the same universe revolving around a massive war between two interplanetary governments, but it’s told in trilogies, and each trilogy can stand on its own. Should I finish the beginning Great Awakening trilogy that I started last year, which tells how Dictator and Empress rose to power? Should I write about the resistance and its clever leader, the changeling child Kyra? Should I finish the Treasure Traitor trilogy even though I haven’t sold the first book yet? What about the traveling rock band from Earth that get’s caught up in the intrigues and politics of the war as neutral outsiders? And how should I write them? Should I take a break from novels for awhile and try a comic book or graphic novel series? I would love to do something like that, but I would need an artist and I haven’t the faintest clue about how to go about organizing, layout, formatting, and other technical details. What about my life long dream to see my series as an hour-long weekly television show like Star Trek? Should I write a pilot episode and if so, where should I start the series? I just don’t know where to go from here! I need guidance…and I suppose lots of prayer. I’m just tired of spending hours and hours writing my stories, polishing and perfecting again and again, with very little results on the publishing end. I guess what I really need is an agent, someone who’s comfortable with multiple genres and mediums and can help me figure out the best way to move my writing career forward.

Prayer requests for this week: I think I covered most of my concerns in the above paragraph. Guidance for my writing. Specifically I will be submitting two of my novels this week to a Simon and Shuster publisher and two agents who requested them, so Lord willing, one of them will accept and all my worries and concerns will be over! I just have to surrender my fears to Him. Even if I don’t make it this time, “All things work together for the good of those who love God.” God has a perfect plan for me and my work. On a more practical level, prayers for health would be nice. It’s rainy season in Japan with allergies, colds and flues in full swing and I just spent the last week flat on my back in bed. I’d rather not repeat that. (My boss actually called me on Friday and told me I couldn’t repeat it, ever, so I really don’t have a choice. The only thing I hate more than being sick is having to go to work when I’m sick.) And on a final note, we have some wonderful outreach plans coming up in the church for movie nights, international parities, and special guest ministers. May God bless our preparations and be glorified through them!

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,

L.J. Popp