Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Foundational Friendship

Yesterday I was blessed by a friend's visit to my home. She lives in Nagoya, 30 kilos away, and made the long drive out to my place in the countryside. She and I have known each other since the very start of my life here in Japan. She was working part-time at the Nagoya YWCA, when I began teaching there back in April of 1982. It turned out that she lived only one subway stop away from mine, and we both attended the same gathering for Christian foreigners in Nagoya, to boot. She had already lived in Japan ten years by the time I came, and was married to the boy from her host family (with whom she lived as a foreign exchange student). Upon sharing our stories we discovered that she was raised in the town nextdoor to my own hometown, back in Illinois! We felt like kindred spirits from the first.

She has been an invaluable help and resource to me in my life here. Initially she answered a miriad of questions I was constantly asking about the Japanese language, culture and way of life. She was a wonderful "big sister" (she's four years my senior). She counseled me when I was unsure about marrying my husband. After I did marry, she and her husband were warm hosts & restaurant dinner companions. This same friend gave birth to her only son the month I conceived my own! So all during my pregnancy and raising my boy she was an experienced advisor and help. I have no doubt whatsoever that God brought us together to be bosom friends for the rest of our lives.

Through the years, we've both had our set of challenges with international marriage, motherhood, teaching English and more recently in combatting disease. Our faith is our one true force for good in all situations, despite the enormous stress that we both encounter in our lives here. We aren't able to meet often, but are so refreshed and blessed whenever we can! And like onions, we continue to reveal inner layers of our most honest hearts so that we can support the other in prayer.

There is an expression in Japanese: kokoro no sasae (emotional support to the heart). This dear old friend is the personification of my heart's sasae, and hers is a foundational friendship, sustaining my life in Japan.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A New Year Has Come

When I was a girl, my parents always got together with a certain group of friends on New Year's Eve, made up of five or six sets of couples. Each couple hosted the gathering in turn, by rotation. They'd have a potluck (the hosts were responsible for the main dish) and a couple of activities were repeated year after year, such as The White Elephant Present Exchange. [For those of you in Japan who have never heard of a while elephant, this refers to a gag gift, made up of silly, unwanted items.] I remember there was one purple and white frog-shaped coin bank that kept getting wrapped up each year and resubmitted into the White Elephant exchange. They'd all hoot with laughter when the new recipient would unwrap it.

Although I didn't have many personal experiences of memorable New Year's Eve parties, my usual routine was to sit in front of the TV, watching old movies and eating mint chocolate chip ice cream, straight from the pack, enjoying the silence of the empty house. I'd watch the countdown in New York, or Chicago, or wherever, and go to bed by 1 or 2 am, when my parents would gradually make it home after their outing.

When I came to Japan, New Year's was all about the annual Singing Competition on TV called "Kohaku" which means Red/White. The colors (which represent the Japanese flag), are assigned to the two teams, made up mainly of women (red) and men (white) professional singers, groups &/or bands. Watching Kohaku is like a national pastime (in fact, 42.1% of the population tuned in on 12/31/08!!). People look at you weirdly if you admit you have no interest in it. Many people go to the local shrine at midnight, to either pray for the new year, burn something from the ending year in the bonfire there, or greet neighbors and drink sake to stay warm in the brisk night air. Most shrines have a huge bell they hit with a large wooden pole (traditionally rung 108 times) beginning at midnight. There aren't any kisses exchanged, like in America. It feels more low-key to me than it did growing up, yet New Year's is very important to the average Japanese person.

This year my husband worked the night shift on New Year's Eve, so I was alone that evening. I was busy watching the catch-up broadcast of the first six episodes of "Dirty, Sexy Money" on cable (I hate the title, but am a fan of Donald Sutherland and Jill Clayburgh), and didn't even notice when the new year tick-tocked in. New Year's Day was also spent alone, as my husband went directly to another job elsewhere and didn't return home until quite late that evening. Talk about low key! It passed in a blink of an eye and a yawning gape of the mouth!

But the one thing I like about New Year's is the feeling of a fresh start. I usually make a resolution or two, which are stirring around in my heart and head by the end of December and are ready to be articulated by January 1st or 2nd! This year was no different and I could readily make my resolution for 2009: to become more savvy on the computer. This was my resolution in 2007, too, and thanks to the help of one particular friend, I did become much more computer able within the first six months of that year. But this year, specifically, I want to figure out how to download music, burn my own personal favorite musical mix CDs, watch videos or movies online, and save data on back-up disks, without someone leading me by the hand in the seat beside me. Surely I am grown up enough to be able to master these simple tasks!

We wish each other a Happy New Year automatically, but I would like 2009 to be a year with less financial collapse and insecurity; a year where America's Iraqi involvement finally ends and the middle East can find tolerance among warring sides; a time of reunion and joy in celebrating my father's life at his memorial service on March 21st, and year in which I begin to feel healthier and stronger physically. If these things happen, it will indeed be a happy new year for me.