Author: mariaintokyo

Help! I can’t read!

As a foreigner living in Japan, I’ve had to learn to do many things all over again. Very basic things. Like using a toilet. Taking a bath. I’m not joking.

One challenge I still face every day may surprise you.

In Japan, I can’t read. I’ve learned two phonetic alphabets and hundreds of kanji (the Chinese characters used in written Japanese), but until I’ve mastered the estimated 2,000 kanji needed for daily life (in all of their various combinations), real reading is not going to happen. It is my opinion that this aspect of learning Japanese rivals the worldwide complaints about the difficulties of English. Give me rough, cough, through, bough and dough any day!

As you might imagine, my reading problem has caused a few bumps along the way. Such as the day soon after our arrival when I accidentally made the kids’ chocolate milk with liquid cherry yogurt. I know this mistake is difficult to comprehend, but believe me—there was a distinct lack of cherries anywhere on that carton!

And then there was the sunny, Saturday morning when I bought my 2nd grade son a jumbo-sized can of guava BEER at our neighborhood convenience shop. (Ok, ok, that was pretty bad, but in my defense, who knew beer could even come in fruit flavors!?)

Having lived in Hawaii for several years, my son and I were so happy to see those tall, shiny cans adorned with tropical fruit in the refrigerated case. “Look, honey!” I called, knowing it was my son’s favorite, “look what they have—guava juice!”

I bought each of us an extra large can.

What happened next was another aspect of Japanese culture I had yet to learn about. The young woman behind the counter wasn’t about to point out my error. No way. We obviously didn’t speak her language and the very idea of trying to explain that I was buying an alcoholic beverage for my seven-year-old was probably akin to ritual disembowelment. I mean, as far as she knew, mothers in America might be serving up guava beer to their children with every meal.

Her face registered the subtlest expression of surprise—which I noted but didn’t really question—until a few minutes later when I popped the top of my ice cold guava beer and took a GREAT BIG SIP. Ahhhh. It was just as awful as you might imagine. All because, yep, I can’t read.

Please closely examine the two photos below.






not juice

not juice

Say this with me:   JUICE.   NOT JUICE.  See the difference?

The second photo is an assortment of fruity alcoholic beverages. To the LITERATE consumer (or at the least, to those with a more discerning eye than mine at the time) their labels practically scream with this information:


As in, do not give to children.

Sigh. Yes, that was a long time ago. But despite the occasional (er, frequent) opportunities I still have for embarrassing myself, I wouldn’t trade my little mishaps for the greater adventure of living in this amazing country. But the next time you’re reaching for that unfamiliar beverage at a 7-11, absently scanning through the information on the label with ease, please think of me. Smile quietly as you do, and say to yourself, “I’m not going to accidentally buy my child a can of beer today because—*wistful sigh*—I can READ.”

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Osaru no Jõji (おさるのジョージ)

…otherwise known as Curious George

Do you have a most embarrassing moment? How about one that happened in a public place? I wonder if it compares to mine…one of many, mind you, that are just part of life in another country.

Picture me, middle-aged mom, newly arrived in Japan, spontaneously peeking into the local video rental store for the first time with two young children in tow. You must also remember that beyond basic greetings, I spoke not a bit of Japanese.

unknownWe looked around for the movie they wanted, which happened to be Curious George, but soon realized our challenge: except for the occasional featured film, all the DVD’S were shelved like books at a library, only their spines visible. Remember that ‘speaking-Japanese’ problem I mentioned? Well, reading was even farther off the menu. We thumbed through the shelves for a while hoping to spot the familiar artwork on the cover, but couldn’t find the naughty little monkey anywhere.

Eventually, since my kids were quite determined that we find George, and only George, I ventured up to the counter to torture the young man working there with a game of charades. Some of you are asking why I didn’t simply Google my way out of this problem, look up the title in Japanese and hand the guy my phone? But this was 2006, dear friends, and the ubiquitous iPhone was still a year away (gasp). I was on my own.

The next sixty seconds went something like this:

me:  scratching my own armpits, saying, “ooh-ooh-ooh” as quietly as possible

clerk:  saying nothing. looking horrified, perplexed and oh, so subtly amused all at the same time

me:  using my hands to pretend a giant yellow hat is now on my head, then returning to armpits —i’m aware that I’m blushing. Other people are staring, but pretending they’re not. I am not fooled.

clerk:  chin now cocked ever so slightly to the left, lips pressed tightly together, expression still unreadable (his thought bubble reads: what in the *%!bakanahito!@* is going on with this lady?)

me:  mumbling apologies, turning in humiliation to go find something else

Ah, (lifting my chin and putting that image firmly behind me) good times….

Actually this little tale has a happy ending. A few minutes later the clerk found me in the store, his desire to be helpful overcoming the strangeness of our exchange. Hesitantly, he mimicked my previous monkey charade, a question hanging at the end of his own, “ooh-ooh-ooh?” I nodded, we both started laughing, and soon my kids and I were heading home with a Curious George—um, I mean おさるのジョージ DVD in a shiny, blue plastic bag.

(Of course, learning how to switch language options on a Japanese DVD player while two impatient children practically vibrate across the tatami mat floor is another story.)

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On Living in Japan (Mishaps and Musings)

I live in the suburbs of Tokyo, the most densely populated urban center on earth. In twenty minutes I can step off a train into a Blade Runner-like cityscape where three-story-high television screens greet me manically from the surrounding buildings. But if I look outside my kitchen window, I can see our small creek, and at night I hear ducks. Ducks are chatty at night, apparently.

As you might imagine, living on the opposite side of the planet from my home in the US has had its challenges. I became a child again, having to be helped (at least at first) with every aspect of my new life. Over the years, I’ve been utterly stumped by simple machines, hopelessly lost more times than I can count, and have been reduced to charades on a regular basis with hapless strangers who become unwitting victims in my failed attempts to communicate.

I now look with new respect on the millions of people who have immigrated to the US, braving our language, our culture, and making a new life. I am not the same person I was eleven years ago before embarking on this journey. I look at the world differently, now, having lived on the other side of it, having experienced another way of life—another pace, flavor, set of values—and a whole slew of comical blunders. I’d like to share some of my experiences from time to time, as the inspiration hits.

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Why am I writing?

My mom used to say, “If Maria doesn’t have something to talk about, she’ll tell you a story.”  Apparently I was a little chatterbox in those days, and I have to smile now when I remember the number of times she’d glance at me and say, “Let’s play the quiet game….”

By the age of twelve, I was writing stories every day. I was famous in my family for my “beginnings.” I didn’t want to write something short and manageable. No, I wanted to write…a novel. It wasn’t long before stacks of spiral notebooks gathered dust in my closet.

Then life happened, as it usually does. I went to college, got married, took various jobs, had kids, and no hint of the writer-me peeked out from the whirlwind of my activities. Years passed and as it turned out, a brief trip to Japan became a turning point for our family.

We eventually moved to Japan long-term with the hope of making a difference among the isolation and loneliness of so many Japanese young people. But in the end, I was the one who succumbed to loneliness and isolation. Our volunteer team was small and my children were young, rowdy and difficult to manage. I found myself home alone with them in a foreign country, struggling with the language, struggling to connect, and losing myself. Years went by and I think, looking back, that I was depressed. I didn’t really tell anyone. I have a strong survival instinct, and an unwavering belief in the power of hopeful perseverance.

One evening I started writing. It began with a spontaneous thought and became this huge, unwieldy project and I loved it. Laundry piled up, dinner was late, but I was happy. I had tapped into something powerful—a simple creative outlet—and it was amazing what this unleashed in me.

Today I’m in a very different place. A good place. The journey I’ve been on personally has been deeply meaningful for me. So much more than a writing project, it has trickled into my marriage, my parenting, my faith, and my own sense of self. It has colored everything.

This is why I am writing.

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