Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Brave Face (...That I Kinda Sorta Maybe Get a Little More Now)

Thank you so much for your comments on my last post. I haven't been around to any blogs lately, but, really, still, thank you.

A little more to say today. Actually from yesterday already two days ago when I started writing this and much of it thoughts from last week. Just some reflections, then, I guess, for me, mostly, and you, too, if you care to wander around in my mind. This, too will be rambly. If you like that kind of thing, read on. If not, check back later, maybe.

I'm sitting at my desk at school where everything continues to be life as usual, at least on the surface. Last week I found it exhausting and almost impossible to stand up in front of a bunch of junior high kids and teach classes as if nothing was happening. I felt sort of like a whiny brat on the inside that everyone else seemed to be more easily able to go about the school day like normal. I didn't mean to. It's just that when it started snowing as if it was mid-winter (we rarely get snow here, even in winter), I had to hide the fact that my eyes were welling up knowing that people in the north had no heat. This on top of That, I thought. Salt in the wound. I didn't want to be all depressive and weird, but it was all I could think about. I'll be honest, I still think more about it every time I turn on a light, bump up the heat, put on warmer clothes or dump the last swallow of the glass of water I didn't want. The day it snowed, everyone around me appeared to just delight in watching the snow fall, the way we would have back in January, back when pretty much everyone in Japan had some access to warming basics for winter.

Part of it, despite what a friend who often knows everything tried to tell me, is that all of the teachers I teach with told me that they do not know anyone in the affected areas. I do think it makes a difference in terms of spinning your mind in circles trying to find out information about particular people and thinking of something, anything that you can do to help them as opposed to still being generally heartbroken for the whole set of people affected by this tragedy but without names of individuals on your mind.

Maybe my friend is right that I'm full of shit. Don't care, really. I just know that it was super difficult for me to walk into a classroom and teach when I knew that my friend and sons were safe but didn't know if they were cold or hungry and whether they'd want to come down to where I am for any period of time, when I knew that their husband/father was on his way but didn't know how the heck he'd get up there with no airport, trains not operating and gas scarce and wanting to be available if I could somehow be of help (he has good friends up that way and even more determination, but still, if I could help in any way, I kept saying...). It bothered me that other JETs were still missing (as I write this, one was first reported safe, then missing, and later found to have not made it; another still remains missing), and I kept checking to see if they were OK. I didn't know them, but I imagined how scary it would have been to not only go through such a thing but to also go through it so far from family and possibly with a language barrier. Of course I mourned for everyone's losses. They are no less tragic. Please don't misunderstand when I say that it's just that I felt a kind of connection to these names of others I'd never met but who were here doing the same thing I am. It just hit closer to home, is all, I guess. I cannot explain it further. I hope that makes some sense.

In any case, I wanted to blissfully focus on other things, but it was hard not to think of folks who didn't have the luxury of looking away and tuning it out for awhile. The teachers around me handled it like pros and didn't seem to flinch. The other part of why maybe I struggled to act normal, aside from my belief that my knowing someone made it a little more difficult to focus on other stuff, is that my co-workers know much more than I do about how to gaman and gambaru as a means of dealing with Very Bad Things. They have been learning this forever. Japanese culture has taught them this throughout their lives. I don't know for sure, but I think maybe this made it look like they were contentedly engrossed in the "life as normal" work routine.

Described better than I can here, it goes like this:
Doing One’s Best (Ganbaru)
There are two main concepts of achievement orientation that can be observed almost everywhere in Japan. The most important concept is ganbaru. Ganbaru translates as doing one’s best or never giving up, but it is a bit more involved than this. It also means to finish a task and to never stop until a goal is achieved. Ganbaru is an active process, meaning that one has to try as hard as possible to reach a certain goal. There are many hurdles and examinations in every Japanese person’s life, and to try to overcome these obstacles (even if not successful) is a most important task. People following ganbaru try to achieve a goal or fulfill a difficult task even if it might be very painful. In Japanese society it is considered a weakness to give up a plan or to look for an easier option. Trying as hard as one can (e.g., working very hard to get into a good company or university) is seen as a virtue.
Endurance (Gaman)
The second concept that is worth discussing is gaman. Gaman refers to the ability to withstand and bear something unpleasant that cannot be changed right away and that one has no control over. Going to work on a very crowded Tokyo train during rush hour is a situation where people usually gaman. But gaman can also be seen at the workplace, where people keep working even if they would rather not stay as long as their boss. 
Ganbaru and gaman differ from each other. Where ganbaru is an active process and requires people to do something to achieve their goals, gaman is passive and focuses more on enduring and not complaining. However, both concepts are the major reason for Japan’s successful development after World War II. Even today, working hard and trying one’s best are viewed as good attributes, and a good employee is a person who is trying to dedicate as much time and energy to the firm as possible. Ganbaru is the reason for the unbelievable motivation that many Japanese show when it comes to work.
Believe me, neither of these words were new to me. Anyone who has been here more than 5 minutes has heard or been told or told someone to "ganbatte" or "ganbare," conjugations of gambaru which both translate roughly to "good luck" or "hang in there," depending on the situation. 

Also, depending on the situation, being told to "ganbatte" has either encouraged me or annoyed me and made me feel in some whiny assed way that whatever concerns I had were not being taken seriously but that I was being told I should shut up and deal with it. You can see how useful "gambatte" can be!

So, here we were, headed to class, the JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) and I, and I felt comfortable enough saying that I was heartbroken, that I had a friend up there with kids and that I didn't know if they were warm and had food and that there were other JETs up there still missing and that generally, I was having a hard time being my usual cheerful and genki (enthusiastic, energetic, lively, happy, healthy all in one) self while knowing what was going with our neighbors to the north.

The JTE said to me the very thing I'd wondered about and didn't know I needed to hear until I did. He said "we all feel the same, but we must ganbaru."

I was relieved to hear him say that they, too, were just doing a great job of pretending on the outside not to be devastated inside. It had been really weird and confusing to me coming from a culture where we are encouraged to express ourselves and our feelings more outwardly. Japan takes the cake on being stoic. Also, to my surprise, instead of feeling stung as if it was the "shut up and deal with it" version of gambaru, for the first time, finally, after all this time, I think I instantly got it in a different way and on a different level than I had before, and I knew that he was right. It's not like we could just sit around feeling our feelings and crying and not teach classes. The students were there. It was our job to teach them.

Whether I felt like it or not inside, I just needed to buck up. For the sake and good of the whole of Japan. Even. Somehow. Kinda. I'm still learning about all this. I feel it differently, but I am not sure I can explain it so well just yet.

There is much work to be done in Japan, starting with finding more of the staggering number of people missing and getting this unsettling nuclear issue handled and sorted and getting sufficient provisions to the hundreds of thousands living in shelters (some still without electricity and heat), and that's before we even get into all the aspects of truly moving forward and rebuilding.

Whether I will ever completely be able to pull off the incredible amount of stoicism I see around me, or whether I would ever really want to change it about myself that I just don't have that cultural training, I think I've come to understand Japan a little differently on the bigger scale of what always puzzled me a bit on the smaller scale. Stuff like how the elementary school kids here often wear shorts on the way to school in winter to toughen them up (I'm never sure if Japan is pulling my leg when people tell me that's the reason). This is how Japan works, and it works for Japan. Japan will put on a brave face and will be OK. It's just what they DO.

Of course, I have much more to say. And, again, maybe I will. Or not. I can't promise. For now, I'm just walking around with a stiff upper lip during the day and going home and finding hopeful stories or charities to support while I cry in my bowl of miso soup for this country that I love and hope that Japan gets well soon. Maybe the teachers at my school are doing the same. Maybe not. Either way, it's really none of my goddamn business, anyway, what they are doing if they don't want to openly tell me. It's weird to even admit that I am this affected when I am nowhere near where anything bad has been going on. I worry that you will think that I am trying to paint myself as a victim of something by even admitting how sad I am for Japan and everyone in the affected areas when I am trying to say the exact opposite. Still, I want to say these things. I want to trust that you might get it and not judge me for being human and putting my feelings on display.

Last thing. I mentioned some ways to help the other day, but I want to really highlight them by listing my favorite ones here. This is not an exhaustive list of the good ones I've seen, just the ones that I personally have supported and would come to mind if a friend asked me. Good thoughts and nice prayers are good, but I can't help but think that good deeds will have a more direct and personal impact. One of these is almost free. In fact, if money is an issue on that one, holler, and I pledge, within reason, to make it free for you. More on that in a sec. Here we go.

Maggie's Favorite Ways to Help

  • Second Harvest Japan is a national food bank that collects perfectly good food that would otherwise be wasted, but they are now accepting donations of both items and money for the earthquake affected areas.
  • Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support (Facebook info page and donation page) and is a coalition of three no-kill shelter groups that were in existence before this tragedy, and they are rescuing and reuniting pets in the affected area.
  • Socks for Japan (and here on Facebook, and here in Japanese) or is an effort based in Tochigi to deliver socks with notes of encouragement to those in shelters. The FAQs alone provide interesting insight into why it is often best to donate money instead of goods but also how in this case sending socks is a good and doable thing. Seriously, check out this update post. If nothing else, I promise that you will feel good reading it and seeing how huge of an impact a small gesture can make. I promise. I had already sent a box of socks, but this made me want to send even more. 
  • The Red Cross seems to pretty much be there anytime something bad happens. Back in the States long ago, a friends house burnt down, and they were there to help. That was small scale. You know they are everywhere for the huge scale, too. You can, of course give money. If you are eligible and so inclined, it is free to give blood. If you are in Japan, the blood goes here, I think. If not, it can still be a nice way to give, and I went that route so that I could spend a little more money to support some of these smaller organizations. Win-win-win (me, those needing money, those needing blood).
  • 3000 Letters for Japan was started by a member of the JET program, and it is a letter-writing/picture drawing/cheer sharing project aimed at the elementary and junior high school students in the hard hit area of Miyagi prefecture. If you or people you know want to help in some way that does not cost more than the price of sending letters, this is a great project. I think it would also be great for groups and schools wanting to do something but perhaps not having an abundance of resources. If you do this, please see the guidelines. Keep the message cheerful and the English very simple. These are kids. Some are too young to read, and others have just started learning English. Colorful pictures and drawings go a long way. If you sign the letter, they will probably love it more than I can explain. If you really want to do this, but money is tight enough that you need help with the cost of shipping some letters this way, I will see what I can do to help. Let's don't go crazy, now. I cannot finance heavy boxes of correspondence, but I am happy to help a bit if I can and if you need. Holler.
Still more to say. Maybe later. Considering doing another vlog. It feels easier to talk than to type out the things I want to say. While I'm at it, if you are wondering about some aspect of this whole big mess, I probably can't give you the technical details, but I don't mind sharing my thoughts. Or you can just let me ramble aimlessly. That works, too.

Go hug someone today, OK? Let's spread a whole bunch of love around and cherish people that make us smile and then go make others smile. Peace.


  1. Maggie I just cannot imagine how you feel "being there"
    I know how I feel "being here" My heart aches for all those that have lost everything. Lost loved ones. No heat. worried about the food they eat and the water they drink. no clothes. etc
    The kids...the moms...the dads..grandparents etc. Just so sad to see all the devastation.
    I have watched so much on the news and it just breaks my heart.
    I am going to contact my sons teacher and see if the class can maybe all draw a picture and sign it. And I will get them sent off.
    all I can say is Hang in there Japan will bounce back. Keep on keepin on Im sure life is hard to go on after all that has happened.
    Like you said "Hugs someone" and I will add let them know you love them, Never know when all you have and love can be taken from you.

  2. Being so far away and watching the reports is heartbreaking. Thank you for the list of ways to help.

  3. Oh Maggie ... please never, ever worry about how you sound. Put as much or as little of your heart out here.

    I believe it's just as good for us to read your words and thoughts as it is for you to type them out.

    Everyday I think about you but not as a victim at all. Rather, the deep, deep love and passion you carry — and have carried for as long as I've known you — for Japan. How I've seen you this time around blossom there and the mostly unspoken happiness and joy being in Japan brings you.

    I can't really imagine the cultural differences in coping with tragedy and loss, I really can't. But thank you for writing here when you need to and I'm going to selfishly ask you to continue writing as it feels like a connection and steady voice of a friend from that side of the world.

  4. Never feel bad for having compassion for fellow humans. I've worried for you as well as the rest.

    Thank you for taking time to share with us, Maggie.


  5. Maggie,
    How can I go about having my students write to yours? I have students who are interested in writing notes of encouragement to the youth there suffering. I will also help with postage. Its the one way I can give back as a teacher. Give me some further info and I will send some letters from my kids to yours or another school. Let me know the best way to proceed. Glad to hear your ok.


  6. Thank you, everyone, really.

    Mz Diva, here is the link (also emailing you!)


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