Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Home Sweet Home

After two years of teaching and missionary work in Japan and exciting adventures there as well as in China, India, South Korea, Singapore, and Thailand, it’s good to be home! But life in the U.S. has taken some readjustment. When I landed in Minneapolis, I ordered mouth-watering pot roast, but I couldn’t eat it! After consuming mostly rice, fish, and seaweed for so long, American meat seemed too greasy and dessert too sweet. I’m still confused when someone addresses me as “ya’ll” when I’m by myself, and sometimes answer the phone “moshi moshi” only to hear stunned silence. But the benefits of old friends, family, and Oklahoma food (now that I’m used to it again) far outweigh the frustrations of trying to remember certain English phrases and how to drive a car.

I’ve had several pleasant surprises since returning. Tulsa, my hometown, seems more “green friendly,” with added recycling programs, oil made partly from plants, and some homes with solar paneling. The price of gas hasn’t gone up as much as I feared and the economy seems to be improving (though not enough to help me get a job).

One thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to stay in touch with other cultures and keep teaching, even if just as a volunteer. So I went to a missions luncheon at Christ Presbyterian and announced that I wanted to help. Immediately afterward, a small woman from India ran up to me, speaking so fast I barely understood her. She said there were some refugees in Tulsa, Oklahoma who just lost their instructor and they desperately needed a new one. It didn’t take me long to say yes, and the following week I found myself before a handful of Burmese teaching them how to introduce themselves in English.

Here they are:



From the left: Tung Pi, Nelly, me, Lulu, and John.

Over the past few months, I’ve had the privilege to get to know many of these gentle people and their amazing stories. They are all Christians, many from the Zomi or Chin tribe in Myanmar (former Burma), escaping genocide from the corrupt military government. The dominant Buddhist and ethnic group has decided the country must be “purified” of all minorities. Some of the refugees were smuggled into Thailand in crates. Many died during the passage. A few told me their entire family was shot before their eyes. One man described how he tried to sneak Bibles across the boarder into India, was caught, and nearly beaten to death by a soldier.

There are about 2,000 Burmese refugees in Tulsa, and more coming. “Why here?” I asked them. They said Chingdo Kham, a Burmese doctor, paved the way and helped with their United Nations refugee status VISAs. Also, since they are Christian, they wanted to come to the Bible Belt to study scripture. I’m so thankful God called me back to the United States to help these people begin their new lives in a safe, free country. Many of them work at the Aaon factory making air conditioners. Others are still looking for jobs. Every Monday and Tuesday we study English and the Bible together.

Besides volunteering to teach English, I also tutor Japanese. I’m always looking for more pupils. If you are interested in learning Japanese, you can call me at 918-272-1433, or email laurapopp@ymail.com. I even do lessons over skype!

So people are asking me, do you plan on staying in Tulsa? Well, for now. I’m taking a class called “Perspectives in World Missions” starting tomorrow that will run until May. After that, who knows? Honestly, I would like to get involved in world missions, particularly children. I feel called in many ways to return to Malawi, Africa, where I worked before to work with Ministry of Hope or a similar organization there to help AIDs orphans.

Prayers: Please pray for the Burmese refugees coming to Tulsa, that they will adjust well to their new life. Please pray for those who are still coming to arrive safely and that the persecution and genocide in Myanmar will stop. Finally, please pray for God’s guidance in my life and that all the pieces will fall in place!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

My final week in Japan

Following our three-week escapade in Thailand, Mom and I returned to Japan in the middle of August to finish some business and final sightseeing. The girl who’s taking over for me as native English teacher at the school, Thapelo, graciously allowed Mom and me to stay with her.

On the fourteenth we met my host mother Kazuko (from the weekend I spent in Komono) at the Nagoya night zoo around 2:30. Mom was starved from not eating much on the plane or for breakfast that morning, but we couldn’t find an open restaurant! The famous sky tower cafĂ© only served “tea” in the afternoon, and they said there were no other restaurants in the zoo. We were afraid we’d have to leave the zoo and come back, but fortunately we found some snacks like popcorn and chicken on a stick to hold Mom over until the super buffet in the evening. Man, that was good, but expensive! Japanese buffets, called “Vikingu,” after the original Viking themed buffet in Tokyo, are upwards of $30 per person! But we had a gorgeous view of most of downtown Nagoya as we ate, including the harbor and lit-up Ferris wheel.

Here are some pictures from the zoo. Me with Kazuko in the cactus room:



The cactus room itself (the roots look cool to me):



And a Mickey mouse flower:



The arboretums were very nice, though Mom was annoyed by the Japanese pop music playing on the nearby stage with Japanese girls prancing around with their chests and rears sticking out (not really dancing). You get used to that after awhile. If you ask them about it, they say it’s “cute.” Disturbing…

It was interesting getting to see all the animals out at night, (I’m not talking about the girls now), but it was too dark to get good pictures. We left about 7:30, since it takes about two and a half hours to get from there back to my apartment.

Monday morning we went over the my friend Kae’s house to do laundry and for me to apply online for a job at Tulsa Community College teaching English as a Second Language. (The application was due the next day and it was my first chance to get to a computer after leaving for Thailand.) We invited Kae to come with us to Akame Taki 48 waterfalls the next day, and she accepted. (I couldn’t leave Japan without seeing my favorite place one last time.)

Here are some pictures:









Rice fields on the car ride back:



Wednesday, Mom and I took the four-hour train journey to the world-famous Kumano hanabi takai, one of the largest fireworks displays in all Japan. (I had to get train reservations a month in advance, and even then only the earliest train out was available.) On the way we had to change trains in Matsusaka, where Mom wanted to sample the famous Matsusaka beef. It came in a cow-head container that mooed at us when we opened it! Underneath the lid we found about a pound of rice, some pickled radish, and two tablespoons of beef. We kept the container as a souvenir.

We got into Kumano about 2:00 and the fireworks didn’t start until 7:00, so we decided to spend the first few hours on the gorgeous Kumano beach. Only most of it was blocked off for the fireworks! We spent an hour winding our way through the streets until we ran into a pair of Japanese girls.

“Excuse me,” I asked them in Japanese. “Do you know how to get to the beach?”

“We’re going there too,” one said. “Why don’t you come with us?”

“By the way, where are you from?” the other asked.

“Nabari city in Mie,” I replied, thinking they had probably never heard of it.

“Oh, we’re from Iga!” they exclaimed, which is just the next town over. “Come meet our friends!”

Much to my surprise, several of my students and my students' parents were there! They gave us water and offered to watch our stuff while we went swimming. How nice!

Here’s a view of the beautiful beach:



Just before the fireworks we followed the huge crowd back to the display beach, where we found the other JETs who had staked out one of the best spots with a big blue tarp. We spent the next two hours in total awe as over 10,000 explosions lit up the night sky. Here are some videos. Please ignore the rude language of the other JETs. Some of them were very drunk by this time.

video

video

Spectacular, huh? There were other even better ones, like fireworks that turned into mushrooms and flowers and umbrellas, but my camera battery ran dead.

We spent the night with my writer buddy Melissa, who has a huge house (by Japanese standards) and a very cute cat. The next morning she took us to breakfast overlooking lion rock. Here’s Mom and me in front of it:



Then Melissa drove us to onigajo, demon castle rock. Here’s me inside the “castle:”



Melissa had stuff to do after that, and Mom and I were at a loss for what to do. (I should have planned better.) We ended up walking to the rundown train station, which exhausted us, and when we got there, we weren’t even sure it was a train station. It was just a platform, like something you might see in an old Wild West movie. There was no place to buy a ticket. We saw a man standing on the platform, so I asked him in Japanese, “Is this a train station?”

He muttered something in a dialect I couldn’t understand.

“Sorry, slowly please?” I asked.

He muttered something else, chewing on his cigarette.

“I don’t think he’s…normal,” Mom whispered to me. “I think you’re wasting your time trying to talk to him.”

But I was determined to communicate. I told him we wanted to go to the longest waterfall on Honshu Island. I finally got out of him that the train would come about 4:15. But when we tried to get on the train, he yelled at us and waved his arms as if it were the wrong train.

“Whatever,” I told Mom. “Let’s just stay on.”

Turns out the guy was right. It would have been the right train, as Melissa had told us, only being after 4:00, the train no longer went to the waterfall. So Mom and I gave up, called Melissa, and told her we were going home to Nabari. We might have stayed another night, but it was just so blasted hot. Kumano is considered the “south” of Japan, and really more subtropical than temperate.

Friday we ran my final errands in Japan, like closing my bank account, closing my cell phone account (which took four hours for some reason) and other such things. Unfortunately, I got kicked out of Thapelo’s apartment (not her fault, the school insisted), but my friend Shino took us in for the night. (She and her boyfriend Daiki are so nice, and they also have a really cute cat.)

Saturday morning we left around 7:00am on the shinkansen (bullet train) for Hiroshima. This requires some explanation. In 1971, a man named Kazuo visited my grandparents in Michigan on a cultural tour with his company, Mazda, to study car manufacturing in the United States. Now, forty years later, he returned the favor to Mom and me. He greeted us at Hiroshima station around 10:00 and took us in a taxi to the quaint little apartment he shares with his wife Hiroko (who speaks no English). We rested a bit, then Kazuo took us to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum, built to commemorate the dropping of the first atomic bomb.

To say it was horrifying would be an immense understatement. Displays revealed charred remains of children’s lunch boxes, torn and burned clothes, and smashed watches, all stopped at 8:15am. Plastic mannequins and photographs showed skin melting from bones, shards of shattered glass slicing through flesh, and curtains permanently stained from nuclear fallout called “black rain.” We stood before the A-Bomb Dome, the former Hiroshima city hall, which was directly under the epicenter of the blast. Because it was made of steel, it was the only building left standing for two miles. Only its shell remained:



On the morning of August 6, 1945, thousands of students were demolishing old buildings to create fire lanes in case of conventional bombing. They had no warning and no idea what hit them. The bomb exploded like a small sun, about 4,500,000 Fahrenheit at the detonation a quarter mile high, and 5,500 to 7,250 degrees on the ground. Survivors who staggered home were so thirsty that many died from drinking the “black rain.” Others died of cancer a few years later. The total deaths were about 200,000, mostly civilians.

Far from blaming the U.S., the museum had an entire section on Japan’s war atrocities, as well as information about current nuclear warfare. Since that day, Hiroshima has dedicated itself to the cause of peace and end of nuclear weapons. Every time a nuclear weapons test is conducted anywhere in the world, the mayor of Hiroshima and many citizens write letters pleading for that country to stop.

Seeing all this of course sparked many conversations about our personal feelings towards that particular historic decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. It’s hard to say how I feel aside from being appalled at the sheer number of lives lost. I honestly think I don’t have the right to judge. War is war. I wasn’t alive then and even if I was could I critique fairly? All I can say is I’m sure glad I wasn’t President Harry Truman in 1945. It’s not like he could stand by and accurately compare numbers of casualties or predict the future. (“Let’s see, if I drop the bomb, this many people will probably die. If I don’t drop the bomb, this many people or more will probably die anyway in the long, drawn out battles and conventional bombings. Will the dropping of this bomb ensure that the war will stay ended, frightening any future war-makers into peace, or will it spur them on to also desire this weapon of massive destruction and power?”) Any statistics or future projections he had were purely guess work. It’s hardly relevant what I think anyway because there’s nothing I can do to change the past even if I wanted to. There is only one true Fair Judge of the Universe, and that’s God. Only He has an accurate depiction of all that has happened, both in reality and in the hearts and minds of men.

Though I must say, for a nation that had two cities blown to bits by nuclear energy, you'd think they would be far more wary of nuclear power. Why do they keep insisting nuclear reactors are safe, even after the earthquake and meltdown and disaster? Why weren't people evacuated sooner and faster? Why did the government lie? Why are they still selling crops from the affected area? Why hasn't Tokyo electric been sued and put out of business for obviously cutting corners and safety? Stupid, stupid, stupid...

After the museum, we went back to Kazuo’s house for dinner, where our conversation included Hiroko, and transitioned to general feelings toward war and peace. Kazuo and his wife, of course, stated simply and emphatically that everyone should seek world peace above all else, and questioned us (politely) as to why the United States does not do this. This is what I said, in not so many words (and far less articulately, since I was struggling to speak in broken Japanese or have Kazuo with his good but imperfect English at least understand me).

World peace is beautiful to think and talk about, but it gets messy in the real world. This is something Japan does not always understand, for Japan has no military and no one at war with them, essentially because the United States protects them now. (That seems only fair, after all.) But America has many enemies. So we build up troops and weapons to detour war. Does it work? Sometimes it does, sometimes not. The fear, of course, is that the minute we destroy all our weapons and send our troops home, someone will attack us again. Various countries have even sworn that they would. The problem with being the biggest kid on the block is you kind of have to stay the biggest kid on the block because there’s always someone else who will take that spot by blowing you to smithereens if you let them. You’re also expected, from time to time, to protect the littelest kids. If you don’t, people hate you for that. Thus, the biggest kid is always the most hated kid, no matter what he (or she, as the United States is usually personified) does. So perhaps the solution is simply to never let yourself be the biggest kid, to be one of those small, unassuming European countries that rarely anyone picks on. They don’t really need a military these days. But it’s a bit too late for the United States on this issue, perhaps. We’re already big and assuming. To change that, we’d have to break up all the states and destroy our economy, which is also not a smart move.

This all bugs me very much as a Christian, because you honestly wonder what Christ would want the United States to do. Does “turn the other cheek” apply to nations as well as individuals? Should we just trust in God to protect us and become a one hundred percent pacifist nation? Or should we follow the biblical example of Israel and continue as we are, fighting all our enemies and even conquering them? The Bible is not clear on this issue, so again I must defer judgment on all of my country’s military exploits and expenditures. Boy, am I glad I’m not a politician!

Finally, we discussed the only way there ever could be peace on Earth. Mom and I shared our faith in the Prince of Peace. Our hosts were fascinated by the Christian concept that humans are tainted by sin and incapable of complete peace on our own, and that we need Jesus to save us and the Holy Spirit to help us. One day, we told them, there will be peace, but it won’t be on this world, and it won’t be by our doing. At first they thought our faith sounded “just like Buddhism,” but when I explained grace and God becoming human and dying for us, Kazuo nodded, eyes wide. “Yes,” he said, “that is different, and very beautiful.”

The following day was not so weighty. Rain fell torrentially, but didn’t dissuade us from taking the ferry to the famous torii gate and shrine of Miyajima island. It’s ranked one of the top three scenic spots in Japan, and it’s easy to see why!



The 52.5-foot red gate seemed to float in the ocean, shrouded in mist and forested mountains. In ancient times, pilgrims passed their boats through the gate before entering the shrine to “leave the profane and enter the sacred.” The shrine’s main structure is also built on stilts over the water. Wild deer followed us, hoping to nibble our maps or clothes as we enjoyed the gorgeous vistas. We saw some raccoon dogs that belonged to the priests or something, very cute animals that look just like their name, some of them albino. We ended with a lovely aquarium featuring life from the Seto Inland Sea.

Monday we caught the bus for Osaka, saw one of the largest aquariums in the world (the Kaiyukan) and finally got our plane for America on Tuesday, August 23rd. Sadly, my Asian adventure is over. For now…

Prayers Requests: That God direct the next path in my life concerning a job, relationships, writing, and further missions!