A loss is not a waste of time

Next month, I will be taking the N2 level of the Japanese Language Placement Test (JLPT). My renewed interest in Japanese prompted me to sign up a couple months ago. I certainly understand more now than I did during my disastrous attempt 2.5 years ago, during which I was woefully unprepared. Still, I don’t feel certain that I will pass the exam this time either. It’s not an issue of insecurity that makes me say this. This semester I have returned to work fully in person for the first time in 3 years, and it wasn’t the simple readjustment I assumed it would be. There’s also a lot to manage in terms of classes, committee work, administrative duties, and making sure not to neglect the activities and practices that nourish me. I have not spent as much time as I would have liked–nowhere near the amount of time I’ve read is required–preparing for the JLPT. It seems settled that I will walk into an exam I know I will not pass. I have not even sat down for the exam and I already feel like a failure.

I could just skip the exam.

What a waste of 5,000 yen (around $50 USD) though. More than that, there’s no way I would be able to enjoy that Sunday in peace, knowing that I should be facing what I signed up for.

There’s a few weeks left and I’ve intentionally blocked out pockets of time to study for the JLPT (along with just increasing my overall Japanese comprehension). Passing is possible and of course I certainly hope for that. But perhaps the preparation will prove to be insufficient and I won’t pass. If the latter happens, does that mean it was a waste of time and money? Winning is great, but there’s greatness in losing too. Specifically losing after having done my best and then reassessing what to do better next time. That’s certainly better than giving up or running away.

What I’ve learned during the times I have managed to study can always be built upon and strengthened for another attempt. As for now, I will do what I can with the remaining time and do my best on exam day. My previous attempt was not good, but I still learned from that experience and am going again into the exam better informed. Regardless of the result this time around, I know I will gain insight I did not have before.

Winning is not guaranteed, so we will all face a loss at some point. However, there are lessons to be learned and insights to be gained when we do.

There’s always something new to see

I’ve lived in the same suburban town here in Japan for over 3 years. So, I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that I’ve been in and out of its main train station hundreds of times. Yesterday, I went for an evening walk and short stop in the supermarket. When I was heading back to the station, I noticed a man holding up his phone and aiming it at the left side of the entrance. The train station has an east and west exit, and for the east exit alone, which I was heading towards, there are about 5 different paths you can use to enter it. The path that I happened to be using drew my attention to the same thing that had held the man’s attention: a small and lit-up rectangular sign with the name of the station written in thin and wispy black brush strokes. I’ve used this path before but just passed right by without noticing this sign.

There’s nothing wrong with seeking out new adventures in new places, but one of the things I’ve learned during this pandemic is that new experiences also wait for you in the ordinary, in the oh-it’s-just-this, in the meh, in the rinse-and-repeat, in the there’s-nothing-to-do around-here. Are we willing to be open to discovering those experiences though? Slow down your pace. Slow down your mind. Dare the everyday to surprise you and show you what it has for you. For me, I often find that those little surprises are like whispers from God reminding me to exchange the hamster wheel for a gondola.

And yes, I also took a picture of the sign!

My interest is enough (Part 1)

My history with Japanese spans almost 2 decades, yet I still would not say that I am fluent. I took Japanese classes in high school, college, and graduate school. I majored in Japanese Studies. I did a summer homestay in Shizuoka. I took part in Japanese cultural events in my hometown. I’ve lived and worked in Japan for 3 years.

And yet…

Fluency has eluded me.

No, that’s not correct.

I have eluded fluency.

I recall the questions and doubts about why I am studying Japanese: how would I make a career out of this; why I didn’t choose a degree that is more “stable”; why I didn’t choose a language that is “more global”; why I didn’t choose a country that’s “not so far away”. Those whys surrounded me and became my whys, pulling me back from being all in with studying Japanese. Obligations and the hum of daily life also changed it from a fun language to a city hall paperwork/phone calls with utility companies/new work procedures language. On the one hand, I hesitated to fully immerse myself in Japanese because of the inner pressure to “prove the point” of all of this, while on the other hand I got frustrated with myself for not knowing enough Japanese as a result. It’s a vicious cycle that has stagnated my growth.

This year, I’ve been rekindling my relationship with Japanese, thinking back to: the reckless abandon with which I blurted out phrases I picked up from anime; the Japanese CDs, textbooks, dictionaries, and travel books that were my constant companions; my childhood bedroom filled with an array of items that had some connection to Japan. I partially cringe but also feel fondness for those times when I was unhindered by “what made sense” and was fueled solely by my interest.

I’ve had and continue to have rich and wonderful experiences, all because of a spark from childhood in a country I have no known ancestral connection to. That is the point. This is the purpose. It has been working well for me, so why should I shrink from that? It’s time to fully go for it. No more doubts, no more justifying for others, no more comparing.

My interest was enough and will continue to be enough.

It’s worth pursuing

We know that flowers in flower shops do not last long, but we buy them anyway. We whisper to them, hoping our messages reach our intended: “I’m sorry”; “You mean so much to me”; “I’m here for you”; “I’d like to treat myself for a change”. We enjoy their vibrant beauty as the light up the bedroom, the living room, the dining room, the dorm room, the everything-in-between rooms. Their petals tickle our noses as we nestle into them. Their long stems curl in the vases. Their roots take hold in the soil of little plastic pots. They see us off and welcome us back, with their still and comforting presence.

They see us when we just roll out of bed, when we are dressed for battle for the day ahead, when we are a mess, when we are animated, and they take it all in. They take it all in in between long drinks of sunshine and sips of water. They give us the benefit of all of this and only ask for a little care and attention from time to time. And over this time their soft petals start to crumple and shrivel up, dropping like snow. Their green stems give way to yellowish-white.

It is time for them to be discarded. There is a brief sadness, but we can move on. We knew going in that this would be temporary, but we were okay with that. We were okay with that because the joy they brought made it worth pursuing anyway. There was purpose, however short-lived. And we are certainly not discouraged from buying flowers again in the future. Why should we view other things in our lives any differently?

Consider your own impact

“You seem to have it all together.”

I’ve been told some version of this by several coworkers. Yet instead of that, my mind is often occupied with comparisons to the other teachers around me and how I *feel* I fall short to them. What I assume are their perceptions of me are actually self-criticisms in their voices. But what about the respect I have for myself and my work? What about the room I give for others to speak openly? What about the time, energy, money, and things I freely give? Have I ever stopped to consider the impact of that?

What about you? Have you ever stopped to consider your own impact? Think back to those nice comments you got that you brushed off. Remember the smile, the sigh of relief, the relaxed shoulders, or the hug that resulted from something you did or said. Choose to believe in those rather than the negative (and often) irrational thoughts swirling around in your head. Do this not just as a January thing, but as a life thing.

Push Through the Discomfort

I’d been wanting to check out the hula dancing class at the gym for weeks, but the time of the class never worked with my schedule. Then a holiday came and I was finally able to check it out. I had not had much exposure to hula dancing before then. All I knew was what I had seen on TV and the little introduction a former teaching assistant had done. When I showed up, I was little dismayed to see all the other ladies in the same long, green, floral skirts they had clearly purchased just for this class. After receiving reassurances I would be welcome with my typical gym attire, I entered the studio.

The teacher greeted me and after making small talk with a couple of the ladies, we got started. Keep my knees bent at all times. Check. Arm swaying. Check. Rapid foot movements…Nope. It quickly dawned on me that this wasn’t one of those classes that you could drop in on from time-to-time: you were expected to practice the moves at home, with new moves added each week. I quite literally spun in circles trying to keep up.

During the brief reviews for each set, I was able to catch a little of what was happening. But overall, it was a difficult 45 minutes. I gained a new respect for hula dancing–it’s certainly not “just hip shaking”. All the moves are intentional and represent something. It’s also quite the workout too. I don’t plan to attend again, because it’s definitely not for complete beginners, but I’m glad I stuck it out for the 45 minutes. Time slowed to a crawl, but I was determined not to walk out of the class.

Discomfort is uncomfortable. I battled the feeling of embarrassment and musings of what others in the class thought of me. But over time my focus shifted to making the best of the moment and assuring myself that this would not last forever. It’s worth it to try something, even if it doesn’t work out. The only way to know if something isn’t for you, though, is to try. That means there is a chance you will experience discomfort. Don’t run away from it. Stay with it and see what you can learn.

Show Up for Yourself

It was a rainy and chilly Monday evening. Despite only being 5 PM, darkness had already settled itself in. These conditions, combined with it being a holiday in Japan the following day, provided enough support for the excuse to just go home. But as I put on my backpack that had the gym clothes and snacks I had already prepared, I knew I couldn’t do that. I normally go to the gym on Wednesday and Saturday mornings because I like to exercise in the morning. The gym is closed on Tuesdays. Also, once in a while, the staff does an ozone cleaning (it’s COVID-related), and this Wednesday was going to be one of those days. This requires the gym to be closed to members. Thursday I had an appointment scheduled. Friday was not an option. So that left Monday. Not the morning because the gym opens at 10 AM and that’s too close to when I have to start work. So that just left the evening.

I thought about just going in on Saturday this week, but decided against it. I had been going to the gym twice a week for the past 2 months, and I wasn’t going to let a holiday and ozone cleaning day being scheduled in the same week get in the way of that. Going to the gym is important to me, so I had to find a way to get it done. I can change up my routine and sacrifice some comfort just this once and go in the evening. Yes, even in the rain (it wasn’t heavy rain). So off to the gym I went. When I got there, I instantly felt better. Seeing a lower number on the scale this week also reinforced that my commitment was yielding results. After I left the gym, I noticed that it had stopped raining. Perhaps God wanted to see just how committed I was to showing up for myself.

This was for me. This was my time to push out everything else and: calm my mind; observe how my body responds to building strength and endurance; engage with people who look different than me but share the same goal of self-improvement. Just because it’s not for work, doesn’t mean that it should be treated as optional or a luxury. I deserve the same amount of consideration and preparation that I give to my job, if not more. The time I invest in taking care of my needs gives me even more fuel to take care of others’ needs.

Imagine if you treated someone the way you treat yourself. If that image bothers you, then that means there are one too many promises you have not kept with yourself. Don’t slack on what you need. Stop pushing it off until tomorrow. It’s time to show up for yourself.

Just go for it

This year, Haruki Murakami fans experienced continued disappointment at him being denied the Nobel Prize for Literature yet again. I was reading the comments below The Japan Times’ reporting of this, and found mixed responses concerning whether he was deserving of this award: enthusiastic yeses and emphatic nos, assertions of his brilliance and scoffs that he is overrated.

I recently visited the newly minted library dedicated to his work (The Waseda International House of Literature – The Haruki Murakami Library). Books from his collection lined the walls of the room adjacent to the entrance as well as the center staircase leading down to the study and cafe area. The leader of my writing circle mentioned What I Talk About When I Talk About Running when I told her what I would be doing, so I searched for it and brought it with me to the audio room. Jazz played as I reclaimed the feeling of being engrossed in a book. I did find myself wishing for more floors to explore, but I enjoyed the outing regardless.

Not everyone is a Murakami fan, and yet, I was surrounded by his books translated by translators who signed up for the linguistic grapple. Reservations were fully booked for the next month by people who saw this library as worthwhile to visit. It was built with generous donations of time, money, and energy by people who felt this project was warranted.

Not everyone likes Murakami’s writing, but there are people who do. Enough people to support his career. Enough people to make this building I stood in a reality. As I writer myself, I know not everyone likes my writing. But there are people that like it enough to subscribe and ask for more (thank you!).

I created this website a little over a year ago with the aim of putting my writing out there. To not worry about pleasing everyone and just stand by what I create. I enjoyed writing what I’ve written and I know there are people who will enjoy reading it. So whatever it is you feel that persistent nudge to do, just go for it. Not everyone will like what you produce, and that’s okay. Enough people will.

How much do you want it?

I had an opportunity to apply for a one-week program in Japan organized by my high school, but I allowed fear to get in the way of me going for it. Five years later, as a college junior, I came across a summer study abroad opportunity in Japan. I was aware of other opportunities, but those were either for fall/spring semester, or a whole year, and I wanted to graduate on time. Finally, it seemed like my moment had come. I had been itching to go to Japan since I first became aware of its existence in elementary school.

There was just one problem: the deadline was a few days away, and two letters of recommendation were required with the application. I knew it was poor etiquette and unrealistic to seek letters of recommendation from my professors in such a short time. I was bummed. As a junior going into my senior year the following semester, this was likely my last opportunity to study abroad. I didn’t want to let go of this chance.

Why not ask them to extend the deadline?

It worked with professors for papers, so I decided to give it a shot and send an email. I didn’t get a response, but when I checked the website, the deadline had been pushed to a later date, giving me a little under two weeks. I decided not to question it and thanked God for it. After I refreshed the page (repeatedly) to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, I wasted no time asking my two referees for their recommendations. One of them was not happy with the short notice given, but supported me anyway. I poured all my hopes and passion into the essay and got it done. Additionally, I went to the study abroad office to keep tabs on the progress of my recommendation letters. On the day of the deadline, they told me that they had not received one of the letters. I went to the office of that referee and swallowed my panic as I gently reminded them that the deadline was 5 PM that day. I decided to carry over the recommendation letter to the study abroad office myself.

With everything done, I hoped for the best. Some time later, I did a phone interview with the program director and from there I was accepted. That study abroad program was better than I could have imagined. I stayed with a lovely couple and two of their sons, took classes at a Japanese university, and got to explore 5 prefectures. I still look back fondly on that experience. It was a stressful two weeks to get the materials together for the application, but it was more than worth it. In that moment, I realized just how much wanted it and how willing I was to make it happen.

Just ask

I had gotten an opportunity to teach employees at my local city hall, and I was excited. That excitement changed to concern when I realized that the classes would be held Wednesday evening, the same day as the weekly faculty meeting. I could still attend the meeting, but it would mean that I would have to either leave early and cause a disruption, or make a mad dash after it was over. In order to get to City Hall, I had to take a train and then transfer to a bus. The commute was about 30 minutes. My energy as the teacher affects the class, so I wanted to arrive early to get setup and be in a calm state of mind by the time class started. There was no way I could achieve that by still going to the meeting.

I could have just accepted that I would have to be in a state of hurry every Wednesday evening for the next 2 months. I didn’t want to miss anything that was required by my job. However, this City Hall opportunity was a partnership with my university. That meant I was representing them when I went there. If I didn’t perform well, it would not only make me look bad but the university as well. I decided to use this to approach my boss with a request to skip the meetings for the duration of the partnership. I asked respectfully and laid out the reasons I felt it would be better for me not to be there at all as opposed to the other two options (disrupt or rush out). My boss agreed and approved my request.

In my professional career, I’ve learned that if you ask for something (with respect and good reasons), you are likely to get it. Almost everything I’ve asked for I’ve received, from salary increases, room or schedule changes, and materials. Sure, you might receive a no, but what if they say yes?