In the new year, I am trying not to lose Japanese. I spent so many years of my young life studying this impossible language, and it would be a great shame to forget it entirely.
I have been plowing through kanji flashcards on Memrise. I vacillate between feeling super-proud of myself for not having forgotten everything and super-frustrated because I have forgotten most of it. I console myself, weakly, with the knowledge that Japanese is often called the hardest language for English speakers to learn.
The frustrations are rife. For instance: I’m re-reading War and Peace now, and a good deal of the social dialogue is in French (preserved by the translators, with footnotes providing the English). I have spent about 3 months of my life studying basic French grammar and vocabulary and I can more or less read and comprehend an entire paragraph in French (but don’t ask me to translate any spoken French).
In contrast, I have spent 15 years, off and on, studying Japanese, and I can’t read more than a few sentences in a simple Japanese news story. (A simple explanation for this is that I can remember only about 200 out of the 2,500 requisite kanji. I literally cannot read most of the words yet.)
But I have been thinking about the pleasures of incomprehension.
I have been watching a Japanese reality TV show for a bit at night, while preparing dinner. Even though I understand about 5% of the dialogue, I am resting in unknowing. I can find some happiness in letting the vaguely familiar sounds wash over me. Just hearing it spoken in everyday conversation (albeit between flirtatious twentysomethings in a Tokyo mansion, Real World style) is beneficial. I put on the Japanese short stories CD that I have had in my car for three years. I am still totally lost in the plots, and I couldn’t tell you anything about the stories aside from a few nouns and key actors, but I am learning to be OK with this lack of knowledge.
You have to start somewhere… even if “somewhere” is building on 15 years’ of forgotten knowledge.
The second week of my home stay in Tokyo, in 2008, my host mother, Keiko, greeted me at the breakfast table with a large book. “Abby-san,” she said, “this is a book you should look at. It is important for you to see.” As I took it, I saw that it was a Japanese photographic history of Hiroshima, with horrific photographs and stories of the aftermath of the atomic bomb. I didn’t know what to say to her, except to bow slightly and say thank you and promise that I would read it.
My heart broke a little that she seemed to think that I had never seen these photos before or that I was unaware of what had happened in Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. The next morning, I told her thank you again for the book and said, gently, that we had seen some of these photos in history class in school. She raised her eyebrows slightly, in mild surprise, and then said, “Never forget them, Abby-san.” On this 70th anniversary of that evil day, I haven’t.
Never liked gyms. Never have, never will. I’ve also never enjoyed exercising and thus stand out starkly from the rest of my extremely athletic, active, crazy family.
I’ve been thinking about this lately, and thinking more seriously about how I’d rather exercise like a Japanese woman than an American woman. It appeals to the gym-phobe in me.
My love of Japan spurs a lot of my thinking, subtle or no, and I’d like to think that I could follow the Japanese woman’s pattern for healthy living. Japanese women are famous for being the population segment that has the longest lifespan in the world, and Japan boasts the lowest obesity rate in the developed world (3%, versus a whopping 32% for the United States). Japanese women, like French women, don’t get fat and don’t (really) go to gyms.
I went running a few times when I lived in Tokyo, and my host parents thought this was extremely strange. “Abby-san, why would you do that?” Keiko, my host mother, asked me, when I said I was going to go for a run. “To stay healthy,” I told her. She just furrowed her eyebrows in suspicion. Simply, people in Japan aren’t obsessed with exercising and going to gyms because they don’t have to be; rather, their overall lifestyles provide them with better health benefits than the purported health benefits of American exercise culture. Let’s consider the lifespans and overall obesity rates of Americans versus the Japanese. Clearly, we’re doing something wrong.
My perception is that many Americans get trapped in this vicious cycle: going to the gym, fueled by guilt, and then after a vigorous cardio session, they eat a ton because they feel like they “deserve it” — and thus effectively undoing all of the work they just did. And then the guilt/gym cycle starts all over again, progressing nowhere and leading to a very unhealthy mind/body relationship. At least, that’s how I, the anti-gym lady, perceive it.
On the emotional level, GUILT is the main thing that plagues me about gyms and the American fitness mindset. We children of Puritans like to nurture our guilt about everything, especially our bodies and the food we eat. I’m sick of hearing women (and it is mostly women) obsess about calories, about how they haven’t been to the gym enough, about how they don’t have time to talk or share a glass of wine because they have to go running or else. I want to avoid all of that.
I’m not a fan of vicious cycles, guilt, or neon sports bras. But I am a fan of the Japanese model of healthy living, which effectively bypasses all of this.
So this is what I’ve been thinking about lately, these general aspects of the active Japanese lifestyle that I’m trying to be mindful of:
*Caveat: None of this is NEWS to any of you. I know all of you know all of this already, but it’s more for my benefit, to hash out in words.
Walk everywhere. Or bike. This is obviously more difficult in the United States, particularly if you don’t live in a public transit–friendly metropolis, but it is often more possible than I think it is. We are lucky to live near downtown, both of our offices, AND have two psycho dogs who want walks all the time. When we bought our house, living in a walkable area was important for us, and I’m daily thankful we resisted the temptation of a bigger, cheaper house in the country for a smaller, more expensive one in the city.
Don’t sit down for too long. Thanks to my standing desk contraption, which still gets a lot of weird looks and comments at my office, I’m standing for 8 hours a day instead of sitting for 8 hours a day. Everyone has already read all of those terrifying articles about how sitting is killing us, etc., etc., I don’t have to rehash that here.
Eat a mostly vegetarian (or pescetarian) diet. There are a ton of reasons why we should all be eating far more plants and far fewer animals, be it your health (fascinated by this Atlantic article about vegetarians’ low blood pressure), the environment, or animal ethics. Guion and I have been trying to be vegetarian (or sparingly pescetarian) five or six days of the week; we leave the other days as “flex” days, in case we were invited to someone’s home for dinner or going out on a date. The Japanese eat meat in small portions, mainly because it is expensive there, and there is no natural land to farm it themselves, so the vast majority of meat has to be imported. So there’s a ton of fish, rice, and dark greens in the Japanese diet, with sparing amounts of animal flesh.
Small, appropriate portions. Dining in Japan really throws US portion sizes into terrifying relief. The most striking comparison I recall is the size of a meal at a Japanese McDonald’s versus a US McDonald’s. Upon receiving his Big Mac in Harajuku, one of my fellow American students exclaimed, “What is this, a kid’s meal?” because it was so small. Okinawans, who live longer than anyone else, also follow this rather mystical Confucian principle of hara hachi bu, which essentially means, “eat until you are 80% full.” How these sage Okinawans have such accurate internal hunger gauges, I don’t know, but the general principle is still present. Don’t stuff yourself. I also have a bad habit of putting more on my plate than I tend to eat; my eyes are always bigger than my stomach, and so I often end up wasting a lot of food.
Lay off the sugar. Sugar is extremely sparing in the Japanese diet, which is likely another reason why they aren’t fat and live a lot longer than us. One of the sweetest things I tasted in Japan was anko (red bean paste), which is used in traditional desserts. The sweetness is so subtle that most Americans would not even classify it as sweet. But it’s the perfect amount of sweetness — just a pleasant hint. I’ll always remember eating brownies with Mayumi, one of the Japanese teachers who lived with us when we were growing up. We were all cutting off palm-sized bricks of brownies to chow down on after dinner. Mayumi ate a brownie that was about the size of a large postage stamp and immediately exclaimed, “Oh, my! Too sweet! Too sweet!” And that was all the brownie she could take.
But indulge, on occasion, without feeling guilt. I’ve never believed that healthy living means you have to forgo all of the good stuff. And neither do the Japanese. As you can see from my university friends in Tokyo, lapping up frappuccinos at a Starbucks knockoff:
Along with my lifelong exposure to Japanese culture, my mother has always reinforced these principles. Make good choices, she always told us. You don’t ever have to diet. You don’t have to go to the gym every day. Just make good choices.
Shorts. No shorts ever again, unless I am doing some strenuous physical activity. I can’t look good in them, no matter how hard I try.
Cable-knit sweaters. I can’t even begin to tell you how ugly these make me.
Boxy turtlenecks.À la Lands’ End. You know what I’m talking about. You know they’re bad when not even the models can make them look good. I don’t think I’ve worn one since the late 1990s, though, so I’m fairly safe from repeating this one.
Polo shirts. I have never been preppy enough to pull off a polo. I don’t think people with naturally curly hair are allowed to wear polos?
Capri pants. Do people still wear capris? Are they even called that anymore? (And is a capri higher than an ankle jean? Someone educate me.)
Jean jackets. I’ve never been able to pull off a jean jacket.
If you wear any of these things, I am not passing judgment on you. I have simply come to the point in my young adult life where I have learned that I cannot wear certain things. I need to establish these rules. Because deep down, I think I just want to float around in big, drapey, tent-like garments, the kind that 50-year-old community college art teachers wear. I have to put some limits on myself.
Shaun and Ann-Marie came to stay with us this weekend to celebrate Ann-Marie’s birthday and we had such a wonderful time with them: Great discussions, lots of food, a trip to Carter Mountain (Ann-Marie has a lovely set of photos from the excursion). We’re huge fans of them both and can’t wait to see them again soon.
We also got to see St. Vincent in concert at The Jefferson last night and she was incredible. She made me proud to be a woman. (Stephanie ran into her on the Downtown Mall yesterday. That makes me super-jealous.)
Snax, with handfuls of candy corn, which I unabashedly love:
Liz + Matt Married! A few photos of the wonderful bride and groom. We miss them and want them to come back from Italy soon! [You can totally spot the top of mine and Lulu’s heads in one shot… Score.] (Cramer Photo)
The Invisible Mother. Here’s something creepy for Halloween: The practice of covering up moms with oriental rugs and draperies while photographing children. (Retronaut)
London Apartment: Converted School Gym. This looks like a totally awesome place to live, even if it looks like it’d be impossible to heat in the winter. Maybe they run gym classes to stay warm… (Paper Tastebuds)
Is Your Link Old News? But if I ran everything on Snax through this application, I wouldn’t have any Snax to share… (How About Orange?)
DIY Tutorial: Moving Announcement Bookmarks. So classy! I don’t think I’d have the patience or wherewithal for this project (or any DIY projects, really. Not into that), but it’s great, all the same. (Oh, So Beautiful Paper)
I was struck by a small exchange in an “academic” dog book I recently read, Dog’s Best Friend, by Mark Derr. The author, a writer for The Atlantic Monthly at the time, was visiting a Navajo reservation to study the relationship between Navajo shepherds and their dogs.
Derr told the shepherd that he was from Florida, working in Boston, recently got back from Alaska, and was now in New Mexico to observe him and his dogs. The wizened Navajo shepherd looked at Derr and said, “You travel too much. I have been here all my life,” and extended his hand out over the scraggy, red fields.
That notion–of traveling too much–really struck me as interesting, especially since it’s a phrase I’ve never even considered.
Where I come from, being widely traveled is almost akin to a spiritual virtue. When you’re in college, people especially love to brag about all of the places they’ve been. Discussion of your world travels is the subtlest way to talk about how cool you are without explicitly bragging. I’m guilty of it myself. Someone starts talking about Japan? I am compelled to chime in about the complexities of life in Tokyo, as if I were an expert in Japanese culture and custom after having lived there for a mere three months. This sushi? Ick, it’s nothing like what I had in Asakusa. And so on.
This phenomenon is the worst at college. Guion likes to call it “study abroad syndrome:” Students get back from a summer or a semester of travel and are suddenly incapable of talking about anything else but the food in Paris, the streets of Pamplona, the art in Prague. I totally get it. I’ve done and I still do it, too.
So, here’s the pattern of thought I’ve been working out lately, with regard to the Navajo shepherd’s notion of “traveling too much.”
Point 1: Americans are famously ignorant of other cultures and countries. This is well-documented. American tourists have a bad reputation for a good reason: They’re bumbling and self-important and despise any and everything that’s different from “the American way.” For this reason, we could all do well to travel more. Grace, who has traveled more than anyone I know, is proof of the calm tolerance that comes from the interaction with people very different from yourself. Travel forces you to let go of yourself and your all-encompassing way of life. Travel greatly expands your view of humanity, whether consciously or subconsciously. It changes us.
Point 2: There are still many places around the world that I would love to go to. I want to see all of Asia if I could. I am so eager to go back to Japan, particularly to visit Kyoto and Aomori, as impractical as it is. I have never been to Europe. Ireland, the Netherlands, France, and all of Scandinavia draw my particular interest. And New Zealand is so beautiful I can hardly believe it exists on Earth.
Point 3: That said, I am done with the chic obsession with travel–for myself, at least. This is what I have found about myself while considering the shepherd’s statement. I do not merely want to flit from place to place, visiting for a few days or a few months. I do not want to jump around, getting to know a few people I will never see again, leaving and considering myself having “experienced” that particular culture.
No. I want to LIVE somewhere. I don’t want to just visit places constantly. I’m not into visiting right now; I’d rather be living somewhere. I want to commit to a place. I want to get to know a community so thoroughly that I am daily aware of its habits, secrets, beauties, and blemishes. I want to be content where I am. I am striving to make this a conscious, continual goal: Contentment in current location. I think of that verse in the Psalms that says, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.” To some, this might sound like a suffocating statement–to be boxed in by God? How dreadful! To me, though, it sounds like a beautiful gift: To see where you are as a blessing from God, a pleasant place.
The place and concept of “home” is one that has always been very important to me; it carries some kind of spiritual weight in my life. I was worried about this when I married Guion, to be honest. He’s traveled much more than I have and it has clearly enriched his life to a wonderful degree. He’s spontaneous and he dreams big. He could also live quite happily in an Airstream trailer for years, traveling around the country, playing guitar, making friends on the road (à la David Wilcox). This lifestyle sounds like a cute, claustrophobic version of hell to me, but we are all asked to compromise for those we love, right?
Clearly, my view of the world is not everyone’s. Grace and I were talking about this last weekend and I told her my vision of the perfect life was to live in the same house for a hundred years and wake up every morning with a cup of tea and my husband and my dogs. She visibly shuddered. “Ugh, that sounds like the worst life ever,” she said. “I am going to travel forever; I’m never going to stop.” I believe her; she probably will. But I’ve come to grips with the fact that I’m not that way. I wrote this because I think my perspective is an unusual, unpopular one. To fail to glorify world travel constantly is blasphemy among my generation. But this is what I feel.
I say all of this knowing that we will travel. I want to travel. I get excited just thinking about it. But at the end of the day, I just want to live somewhere. In one place, in one community. For the time being. I think we will stay here indefinitely, striving for contentment, but always open to possibility.
Interiors. I absolutely love all of these rooms and had to resist the strong urge to pin them all myself. (TeenAngster)
Hot Tea Is More Refreshing than Cold Tea. Wow, so interesting. So my Japanese host mom knew what she was doing when she repeatedly gave me piping hot cups of sencha on 103-degree days. (Discovering Tea)
Circles of Influence. A fun graphic showing famous writers who influenced other famous writers. (English Muse)
At Home with Elke. Yes, please, glorious home in Provence! Doesn’t this also look like the setting of one of the recent Anthropologie catalogs? (French by Design)
10 Questions for Ellen Picker. Ellen is a friendly face around town and a great young photographer. The Charlotte asks her a few questions about work and inspiration and includes some beautiful examples of her work. (The Charlotte)
Frida’s Corsets. A sad but interesting detail from the life of Frida Kahlo. (The Paris Review)
Super-Saturated Colors. The juxtaposition of these dabs of color really appealed to me. Paintings by Michelle Armas. (Anne Louise Likes)
A quiet weekend at home was just what we needed. I got to read, work on a lot of copperplate calligraphy, volunteer two mornings at the SPCA, and watch “Mad Men” with my husband. We didn’t have any big plans and that was just what I needed. Now it’s time to gear up for yet another NC wedding this weekend (congrats to Shaun and Ann-Marie!). In the meantime, I will be thinking about all of the daily kindnesses of a quiet house.
I Miss New Zealand, Queenstown, and Bungee Jumping. It’s a miracle that Grace made it back to us alive. I love the peaceful expression on her face when she is diving down into the depths. And now our little adventurer has started a new one: COLLEGE. Happy first week at UNC, Gracie. (Como Say What?)
New Copperplate Styles. Motivated by my work for a recent wedding job, I’m debuting four new styles with a copperplate nib. (AFP Calligraphy)
We had a beautiful weekend in Charlottesville; the weather was exquisite, as the humidity had fairly retreated and we were left with idyllic warmth. Paul and Christie invited us on their Friday date night and a small group of us went to Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton (a few photos above; more on Flickr). We went to a church potluck and then we hosted a potluck of our own last night. It was all very wonderful.
Win and Tracy were visiting with the purpose of scouting out a place for Win to live in a few weeks. By the grace of God, Win is living in probably the coolest house we’ve ever seen in town: the Massie-Wills historical home, built in 1830. It’s amazing. He is one lucky dude.
Pratt’s Ex Libris Collection. Well, of course I’m posting this (if I haven’t already…) The Pratt Library’s collection of gorgeous book plates. I wish people still used these things. I know I would. (Where the Lovely Things Are)
Weird Writing Habits of Famous Authors. I enjoyed reading about the habitual quirks of some of my all-time favorite writers, including Eudora Welty, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, and T.S. Eliot. (Flavorwire)
Other People’s Houses. A collection of dreamy photographs from the domestic lives of some of today’s most beloved bloggers and photographers. Who doesn’t love a dash of beautiful voyeurism? (Other People’s Houses)
Iceland, Part 10: Blue Lagoon. I know I just keep posting Kris Atomic’s photos of Iceland, but I can’t help it! This place looks so otherworldly. I must go. (Kris Atomic)
Kimono. A collection of gorgeous, modern-looking kimonos from 1920s-1930s Japan. (Anne Louise Likes)
Wasabi Wonder. More from Japan: Ever wanted to know what wasabi looks like in real life, i.e., coming straight out of the ground? Take a look! It’s such a fascinating and weird plant. I bet that friendly-looking farmer just reeks of wasabi all day long. But what a gorgeous place to farm! (Tokyo Photojournalist)
Paper & Kyoto: Shops to Visit. Even more from Japan: Uuugh. This post just confirms what I already ardently believe: That I have to get to Kyoto soon and that the Japanese create the world’s most beautiful stationery and paper products. (Upon a Fold)
Sarah Palin for Newsweek. Noted photographer Emily Shur talks about her casual cover shoot of Sarah Palin for Newsweek. Shur really humanized Palin for me in a way that the “liberal media” have not. It’s an interesting little vignette, at least. (Emily Shur)
Dear Mom. Catching bunnies snuggling together? The best thing ever. Guion, I think you should know that even though I’m obsessed with getting a dog, I’m also still obsessed with getting a bunny. Or three. (Maura Grace)
The Lost Roles of “Arrested Development.” Rainn Wilson as Gob Bluth?? Can you imagine it? I certainly can’t. I love Rainn, but let us all say thanks that we were gifted by the glorious presence of Will Arnett. (The Bluth Company)
If there is anything I have learned in my 23 years of life, it is this: Once you start drinking high-quality tea, you will never go back.
I love tea. I have at least one cup a day, and in the fall and winter, at least two or three. I think my love affair with tea was started by my friendship with Emily, who lived in Ireland and drank strong tea on a daily basis. She introduced me to the joy of a daily cup of black tea and the incomparable usefulness of an electric kettle. There were many days during which we would console each other in our dorm room with our cups of tea.
Living in Japan for a summer also reinforced my love of good tea. As you probably already know, tea is a way of life in Japan. Knowing how to perform a proper tea ceremony is a serious art (in Japanese, the ceremony is called “the way of tea,” which is awesome). I lived in Japan during the hottest and muggiest months of the summer, but after my sweaty hour-long commute home from school, my host mom would have a piping hot cup of matcha waiting for me. It sounds really unappealing to drink hot tea on a 102-degree day in a house without air conditioning, but I came to enjoy that daily habit of unwinding with a perfect cup of matcha.
I think that’s one of the things that I love most about tea. To me, tea has always been associated with peace, calmness, and winding down. In my mind, coffee is commonly associated with busyness, the Starbucks empire, caffeine addiction, and drinking enough to stay awake. Tea can also serve these purposes, but I do believe that it has a very different gravitas than coffee. Tea is calming, centering. It always reminds me to slow down.
I used to drink whatever tea was cheapest at the grocery store, but those days are long gone. I don’t drink any coffee and so I have learned to justify my expensive tea habits. I’m not a tea expert at all, and true tea aficionados would look down their noses at me, but here’s what I really like lately:
The Republic of Tea, Earl Grey
Earl Grey makes my heart happy, and I’ve finally found a relatively inexpensive brand that I really like. I drink it almost daily. I found it at our local World Market, but I think it’s also available at higher-end grocery stores like Whole Foods or Fresh Market. $10.50 for 50 bags.
Harney & Sons, Paris
We finally got our Whole Foods back in Charlottesville and I was primarily excited about it so I could buy some Harney & Sons Paris tea. I was first introduced to this tea when someone gave it to our family as a gift and I fell in love. I don’t like fruity or herbal teas, but this a delicate black tea with a distinct fruity and vanilla aroma, with some lemon in there too. I feel like I’m on vacation when I drink it. Our Whole Foods doesn’t carry this tea, but Guion was a dear and ordered me their new boxed Paris set, which is $10 for 50 bags (and apparently just sold out!). You can also buy it in fancy silk sachets, $8 for 20 sachets in a beautiful tin.
I’m told this tea is standard fare in the United Kingdom. Once you try PG Tips, all other black teas will taste like water. This is the real deal. Tastes great with milk or cream. Grocery stores in the southeast like Harris Teeter and Kroger will carry it. Usually sold for something like $6 for 40 bags.
Loose leaf or powdered green tea (Chinese or Japanese)
Since I can’t go to Japan to get my green tea anymore, I now rely on the local Asian markets and Angela. (Angela sent me home with a delightful tin of loose leaf Chinese green tea after my visit to D.C.) We have several varieties of loose leaf green tea in our pantry and need to remember to drink them more frequently. The tea pictured above is from Harney & Sons and sold for $9 for a tin.
Darjeeling loose leaf tea
Grace brought back many wonderful presents for all of us from her half-year abroad, including genuine loose-leaf darjeeling tea from the Darjeeling, India, region itself. It would be an understatement to say that I was very excited. Darjeeling is a black tea, but very different from your standard European black teas. Brisk and refreshing. If you’re not as fortunate as I am to have someone bring you back some legit tea from India, Harney & Sons has several varieties of loose leaf darjeeling for sale. The tin shown above sells for $7.25.
I am very lucky to have a husband who is also very fond of tea and also does not drink coffee. We agree on most teas–except for lapsang souchong, which he loves and I can’t stand (it tastes like the smoke of a bonfire in your mouth). Last week, we went to a laidback Chinese tea ceremony at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar, one of our favorite places downtown. We walked away with an expensive but unbelievably wonderful bag of oolong (picked in some remote mountain region of China).
Do you drink tea? If so, what are some of your favorites? And if any of you are more seasoned tea experts, how can you tell when a loose leaf tea has “gone bad” (or when it’s no longer worth drinking)? I don’t know this and I think I should.