Category Archives: Culture shock

Happy Days

I have some good news.  Last week my son proposed to his girlfriend, and she said yes.  Not that there was any doubt.  It’s just the latest positive development in his life.

The reason I ever launched this blog was because, five years ago, he was in prison. In addition to the predictable emotions like despair, I felt relief that I now would know where his was, and deep shame.  Counterintuitively, it made sense for me to write about it for all the world to read.

He entered prison a drug addled, bloated, overweight, broke, middle-aged chronic alcoholic.  This was just the latest in a 20-year string of bouts with unemployment, homelessness, crime, and broken relationships.

It would have been easy for him to use drugs and alcohol inside, but Vince chose to be sober in prison.  He also started writing alternate posts for this blog.  They were heart breaking, hilarious, and articulate.

He made it through an intensive “boot camp” program, where he worked on self-discipline, attitudes, and thinking processes.  He also started running, something he hated but continues to this day.

He came home a little over four years ago and moved in with me.  That was rough.  He dated a woman but it didn’t work out.  He got a job in a laminating factory and moved in with a couple guys who were also trying—some successfully and some not—to stay sober.  He started his own blog.  He bought my beloved old Mini Cooper from me.  He dated another woman but it didn’t work out.

Two years ago, he was offered a cook job at a country club on Lake Minnetonka.  That’s where he laid eyes on Amanda for the first time, and it was love at first sight.  He moved in with Amanda and her two young daughters.  From the start, he has been all-in on parenting.  He can now put “expert in potty training” on his resume.

One year ago he bought a house in the tiny town of Silver Lake. He traded the Mini for a minivan.  He worked with me to publish the first year of this blog as a book.  He applied for better jobs, and in the end was offered a great promotion at the country club.

The girls’ father is under a two-year no-contact order.  Vince has supported Amanda as she has courageously fought to finalize her divorce, custody, and child support arrangements.  Last month Vince and Amanda were awarded full custody.  The three-year-old calls him daddy.

In court, Vince made a statement to the girls’ father—that if and when he gets his act together, Vince and Amanda will work with him to welcome him back into the girls’ lives.  The guy thanked him.  I was very proud of Vince.  A lot of men wouldn’t have done that.

Here they are, at the country club where Amanda works, after the big proposal.

In June he’ll mark his five-year sobriety anniversary.  They’ll be hitched in August.

All of this is to say that very few situations are ever hopeless.  Similar to my own story, it didn’t happen overnight and it took a combination of working hard as hell and letting go.  Vince has plugged away, working his program, trying new things, taking risks, sometimes failing, but mostly moving forward.

In three weeks I’ll be in Japan.  I still feel way behind on the planning.  I created a Google docs spreadsheet to try to keep track of it all and it looks a mess.  I’ve got six out of eight accommodations booked.  I’ve got my JR Rail Pass in hand.  I’m finally able to retain some place names from one day to the next.

Progress, not perfection.  One of the AA slogans that is good to keep in mind whether one is an addict or not.

Last night as I was reading about Japanese baths again (I worry about the baths and the shared bathrooms), I was struck by how many iconic cultural traditions Japan has given to the world: origami, sumo, haiku, sushi, manga, anime, samurai, geisha, bonsai, and Zen.  There are probably more.  Is there another country that has created or adapted so many traditions that are recognized worldwide?

Circles

In one month I’ll be in Japan.  My plans are progressing.  I have been assured that my  investment of over $550 in a Japan Rail Pass will more than pay for itself.  I’ve booked accommodations in five locations and have two more to go.  I’ve downloaded apps like a free wifi finder, a Tokyo subway route finder, an offline map of Tokyo that turns out to be only in Japanese, and Google Translate.  I will test this last one out with my sister in law before using it on the street, just to make sure it doesn’t translate, “Where is the sub-way?” as “Where is the worst route?” or some such.

My aunt’s funeral took place last week.

The young priest at the small-town parish had alienated himself from the townspeople and congregants by firing the choir directors because they were openly gay.

Why couldn’t they stay closeted, like him and his “assistant,” Lance?

One day a month ago, my aunt had said to me and my cousin, “I hope you don’t think it’s weird, but I still want to be buried out of the Catholic Church.”  We assured her it wasn’t weird.  She’d been raised in the Catholic milieu of Small St. Paul in the 1930s and 40s.  She attended Catholic schools through high school and worked at a Catholic college.  There was, and still is, plenty of good work being carried out by nuns and Catholic lay people.

But she didn’t want the young priest saying her funeral mass, so my cousins imported a more liberal-minded visiting priest from St. Paul.  Other than calling her by the wrong name, he did a fine job.

You would think that a funeral would be the saddest part of a death, but this was a Catholic funeral, so it was all about Jesus and not my aunt.  Lance played the organ and belted out the hymns like he was in a broadway musical, so at least the music was good.

It’s the little reminders that catch you off guard.  Like seeing her knitting lying abandoned—the baby hat she’ll never finish. She knit baby hats for the local hospital.  I teared up when I came across her glasses, which she wore to read or work on crosswords, two of my own favorite pastimes.

While my aunt was dying—in pain or during moments of indignity she would have hated if she’d been conscious—someone asked, “What’s the point of all this!?” and I thought, “There is no point.  It’s biology, physiology, pathology at work.  It’s “nature, red in tooth and claw.”

And in my mind I start going around in circles like I always do, asking, “What’s the point of life?”

Some people seem to believe that the point is to be productive.  “I’m so busy!” is their refrain, as though that’s something to be proud of.  Others believe the point is to change the world for the better.  But I’ve seen so many well-intentioned do-gooders make things worse.  Is the point to live in the moment and be appreciate whatever is good and beautiful?  That seems a vapid, not productive….  Like I said, circles.

There are infinite details to figure out for the trip.  I need to get my duplex ready for the Chinese couple who are renting it while I’m away. And figure out how will I meet up with my sister in law’s parents to retrieve my nephew when the time comes.  And how do I buy tickets for a baseball game?  My nephew would love that. Must remember to register with the State Department.  Would it be worth going to Yokohama, where my dad was a sailor with the US Navy before I was born?  Should I get travel insurance?  What kind of gift should I bring for the in laws?  Japanese gift giving is fraught with peril.

And what is the deal with the baths?  Are they for health?  To get clean?  To socialize?  To relax?  There are so many types, and so many rules.  This CNN video clip about Japanese baths features Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who quips, “Having to say a prayer before you do something?  Makes me a little nervous.”

What Iffing

Why am I finding it so overwhelming to plan for Japan?  Is it the language barrier?  I’ve traveled in places like Jordan and Palestine where I spoke none of the language except for marhaba (hi), la (no), and yanni (a sentence filler like ya know).

Is it because I will stand out and look different?  No.  I remember standing in a square in El Salvador, all 5’ 3” of me. I was six inches taller and ten shades whiter than everyone else.  I had a great time.

Am I worried about the expense of a month in Japan?  It’s not a cheap destination.  I quit my job in December.  I’m working on contract for my former employer but after June there’s a cliff.  So yes, cost is on my mind but it’s not what’s making my gut churn.

Is it the sheer number of accommodations, train rides, entry tickets, and restaurants that must be found and booked?  Partly, but my Japanese sister in law and Lynn, my British friend who will join me for two weeks, are both working on this plan too.

The closest I can recall to feeling this panicky is planning three weeks in Italy, Malta, and Spain. The what ifs took over.  What if I can’t figure out how to get from the train station to the hotel in the dark and have to sleeping in a park?  What if I can’t figure out how to use the subway and end up on the wrong end of town, and the subway closes and I have to sleep on the floor of the station?  What if I miss the last bus back to Sorrento and have to sleep on a bus bench?

My worst-case scenario always involves sleeping outside, exposed to muggers, rapists, and crooked cops who try to shake me down for bribes. It is always dark, cold, and raining.  There is always an unshaven man in a ratty coat who tries to steal my suitcase.

I think it goes back to my young adulthood of living on the verge of eviction, bounced check fees, and going to food shelves.  But in all my travels, nothing like this has ever happened.  If it did, I would deal with it.  I’m no longer a passive, vulnerable young single mom. So thanks, blog, for helping me analyze my irrational fears!

I am going no matter what, and if I have to sleep in a train station Japan is the place to do it because it is so clean and safe.

Maps, guidebooks, and websites are not particularly helpful in planning a Japan itinerary, unless you enjoy falling down a rabbit hole.

While my map of Australia was overwhelming due to the vast distances, the Japan map is so densely packed it requires a magnifying glass.

I had found Frommer’s Easy Guide to Australia helpful; it boiled everything down to 300 pages.  I bought their Easy Guide to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Western Honshu.  Notice it’s not the whole country, just two cities and their region.

This was my attempt to focus in using post-it flags.

This got my attention:

“One difficulty in finding your way around Tokyo is that hardly any streets are named.  Think about what that means: 9 million people living in a metropolis of nameless streets.  To make matters worse, most streets in Tokyo zig-zag—an arrangement apparently left over from olden days, to confuse potential attacking enemies.  Now they confuse Tokyoites and visitors alike.”

And this:

“Tokyo has a unique address system.  A typical address might read 7-10-1 Ginza, Chuo-Ku.  Chuo-ku is the name of the ward.  Wards are further divided into districts, in this case Ginza. Districts are broken down in to chome (numbered subsections), the first number in the series.  The second number refers to a smaller area within the chome—usually an entire block.  Thus, houses on one side of a block will have a different middle number than those on the other side.  The last number refers to the building.”

Lynn wrote, “We’ll have to accept we’ll get lost more than usual.”

I will remind her she said that when we’ve passed the same intersection for the fifth time.

Broken Links

There are a few good things about being present as someone dies.

1) You encounter caring and professional people in the nurses and other caregivers.  It’s easy to feel cynical about everything in the world these days, so interacting with compassionate people who know their stuff was restorative.

2) You get to spend a lot of time with family and friends.  How often do you get to spend days with your relatives?  This may be some people’s worst nightmare, but I enjoyed and found comfort in it.

My cousin Molly, my mom, and I spent an afternoon going through old family photos.  There was this gem:

“Who is he?” I asked my mom.  “He looks like a US Marshall, or maybe a wild west sheriff.”

“He’s a … food … he’s … uh … oh darn it!” said my mom helplessly.  She’s always had learning disabilities but since she had a stroke she has found it more and more difficult to get her words out.  It’s called aphasia.

From her hospital bed, my aunt croaked, “That’s our grandpa, William Dudley.  He’s the one who got the letter from a London solicitor about the Dudley inheritance.”

“The Dudley Inheritance” is family lore that was newsworthy enough to be chronicled in the St. Paul newspaper.  William, a hapless, dirt-poor farmer, received a letter from a London solicitor informing him he had inherited £500,000.  He went to London—no small undertaking—but the story goes that he had to return because World War I broke out.  He would never talk about it later.

“But he returned in 1911,” I said, as I Googled “world war i, dates” on my phone.  “World War I didn’t start until 1914.”

It was probably a scam, and I would love to know more about how it was perpetrated.  In 1911 there was no Internet.  How did the “London solicitors” find William, and why did they target him?  He didn’t have any money to scam.

“After the farm failed, he moved to St. Paul and was a health inspector,” my aunt continued. “That’s when that photo was taken.  It wasn’t much of a job.  He had to live with us.”

“Poor grandpa,” my mom said mournfully. “He died in our house.  He had cancer, and Daddy used to take us out for walks at night to get us away from the sound of his screaming.  He was in agony.  We could still hear his screams a block away.”

I diverted the conversation.  “This is cool!”

It was the naturalization papers of the Ur Dudley, Robert, who immigrated to America in 1854.

“He had ‘to renounce all allegiance to any prince, potentate …’” I read aloud.

“I love that word, potentate,” Molly said.

“… in particular ‘Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.’”

A few days later, I was going through more family papers with my mom.  “Who was John Geisen?” I asked her, handing over a marriage certificate.

“John Geisen … Jacob?  That was Daddy Jake.  No, it was … Joe?  John?  Oh, I don’t know!” she hissed in frustration.  “I can’t remember it all.”

By this time my aunt was still breathing but had spoken her last words.  The last person who knew the answers to the family history questions was gone.

My poor mother.  She’s the last sibling standing.  When I called to relate the funeral details, I had to repeat them over and over. Her abilities are especially strained when she’s tired or stressed.

“My penmanship is terrible now,” she said, exasperated.  “The funeral is at night?”

“No, mom, at eleven in the morning,” I said.

“At night … no, morning … 10 o’clock?”

“No, eleven o’clock.”

“Oh, Jesus H. Mary!” she exclaimed.

My mother never swears except for the occasional “shit.”  I have no idea what Jesus H. Mary means except that she was at the end of her rope and it provided some comic relief to Molly and me.

Speaking of comic relief, here is my favorite Japanese hotel website so far.

 

I’m afraid it’s hard to read, but I did not book here.  Since one must indicate one’s gender when reserving a Japanese hotel room, I was afraid my reservation might signal an unhealthy interest in the “multifunctional shower heads popular with female guests.”

Tail End of Australia

In real time, in positive news, my son was featured in a nice article in his local paper.

How can I complain about the weather, or anything, when he is doing so well?

Back at Auntie Margaret’s flat, it was time for packing and laundry for the both of us.  But first, Heidi locked herself out.  The laundry room is outside, she didn’t take the key to the building with her, and the door clicked behind her.

The house phone kept ringing and I ignored it. I was busy!  I had to somehow cram all these kangaroo hats and koala candles and goanna t-shirts into my suitcase—what could I jettison?

“Gee, Heidi’s been gone for a while,” I finally noticed.  “She must be waiting in the laundry room while the wash runs its cycle.”

The phone rang again.  “Wait—maybe she’s not …” and I picked up to hear her voice, a bit strained, “Annie, I’ve been out here for 20 minutes, calling over and over!”

I ran down the hall to let her in.  “What a dolt I am!” I apologized.  This was the only time I detected the slightest hint of irritation in Heidi’s demeanor, although she was soon over it, busy packing and repacking for her week to come.  Clothes for work, for driving to the farm, for bunking at her cousin’s, for one night at Auntie Margaret’s.

In the morning, we pushed my now-much-heavier, bulging suitcase up the hill to McMann’s Point station.  At Central Station, we waited on the platform until my train to the airport arrived, then hugged fiercely and waved good-bye as the train rolled away.  Heidi would catch a different train to work.

When I boarded the plane I discovered that miracle all travelers live for—an empty seat next to mine!  I was in the very last row across from the toilet, but I could live with the whooshing noise.  I am short enough that, curling up in the fetal position, I am able to lie down in a two-seat row.

What I hadn’t counted on was the loud talkers who soon congregated in the open space behind my seat.  Even with ear plugs, I could hear them yammering away.  I turned around and asked them to lower their voices.  They did, for a minute.  Some people just can’t help themselves. It was already a long flight, but this was going to make it seem like eternity.  I got up and stood behind the seat myself.  “I thought I’d join you,” I said, smiling like an imbecile.

They quickly dispersed back to their seats.

Home.  Like I’ve written before, I love leaving it and love coming back to it.

It’s satisfying to dump all the clothes I’ve worn over and over for a month into the laundry bag and to take out something fresh.

I look forward to unpacking all the cheap crap I bought and bestowing it on people who have no idea why I thought they needed a wallaby-themed calendar.  Taken out of context, much of what I buy on trips seems lame.  But my nephews appreciated their koala and wombat hats.

And lucky me, I will be going to Japan with these guys in June.

From Woolloomooloo to the Mississippi

My last day in Australia.  This was the weather Woolloomooloo, the area in which the Botanic Gardens are located.  And next to that, the weather in St. Paul today.

I’m sorry to be one of those people who whines about weather.  But every other day I get one of these notices.

There have been six snow emergencies so far this year, and March is the snowiest month in Minnesota, so it ain’t over.

What these notices mean—for those of you who don’t live around here—is that I have to move my car by 9pm, then move it again by 8am the next morning so the plows can clear the roads.

Try moving your car when it’s a foot deep in heavy, wet snow (as opposed to light, fluffy snow) and the wheels are encased in ice.  Yesterday, hacking away at wheel-well ice on my knees, my heavy-duty scraper broke in half.  I sent it flying into a snow bank with a primal scream. I then employed an ice chopper, tears, a shovel, swearing, a hammer, grunts and howls of anguish, and cat litter.  It took 45 minutes and I think I blew out a knee, but I got my car moved.  Thank god I’ve got a manual transmission so I can rock it back and forth.

And I will likely have to do it again in a few days.

People say the snow is pretty.  I know I should try to appreciate it more. These are some photos from inside my snug, warm house during and after a selection of blizzards.

And here are some snaps from the snowshoeing I did with my cousin and friends last weekend.

The dogs had at least as much fun as the people.  I love how she is covered in snow balls.

I’m aware that I am procrastinating on wrapping up my writing about Australia.  As long as I am still writing about it, it feels like part of me is still there.

Another day in the Botanic Gardens.  Heidi was on a mission to see some of the Invictus Games, and I was happy to go along.  Prince Harry was rumored to be making a speech just outside the gardens. Rumored.  We stopped and asked five people, and no one knew, not even the volunteers or employees.

“Sorry, love, we ran out of programs ages ago and none of us even know the schedule,” was one volunteer’s response.

In case you’re wondering if there were any interesting plants in the Royal Botanic Gardens, there were.  I kept lollygagging to take photos.

I wanted to stop at the gift shop again.

“Aw, Annie, I’m afraid we’ll miss Harry’s speech,” Heidi said.

But I insisted. It would only take a minute.  There was a card I had seen that I hadn’t bought and now as long as we were passing by … but we both became mesmerized by the beautiful botanical-themed items and spent 20 minutes there.

We then raced across a broad lawn to find we had just missed Harry’s speech opening the bicycle races.

Heidi’s shoulders sagged and she let out a sigh.  This is a woman who lived in London for 18 years, who had gone to every celebration of the Queen’s birthday, the Golden Jubilee, any and all flag-waving, Hail Britannia, crowds-in-the-street type celebration that came with an extra day off work.

“I’m sorry!  I made you miss Harry’s speech!”

“No drama!” Heidi shrugged as we moved with the crowds to view the races.

There were competitors from 18 nations, all of them physically or emotionally handicapped.  I was impressed that as much weight was given to veterans’ mental trauma as physical.  It made sense, since Harry and his brother William support mental health charities at home because of the trauma they endured when their mother, Princess Diana, died.

That said, the cyclists with only one leg were the most impressive.

Visitors were wearing their national colors.

Some were more gung-ho about representing their countries than others.

We verbally edited the “Taco’s and burito’s” menu, then moved on to order kimchee chicken burgers for lunch.

Lastly, I added to my collection of photos of myself with large furry animals.

Not Welcome

In my last post I wrote about Australia’s Welcome Wall, on which the names of everyone who has ever immigrated to Australia are inscribed.

There’s also a very mean side to Australia’s immigration policies, historical and present.  In the Maritime Museum there was a section about the White Australia program that handed out money to people—white people—from Britain to incentivize them to “settle” and “civilize” Australia.  It was specifically meant to exclude “hoards” of invading Asians, many of whom had been brought in as indentured laborers and then had the nerve to move to cities once their servitude in the outback was complete.

This program only ended in 1973.

Nowadays, Australia, like most countries, has a points-based system for immigration.  If you speak English and are a mining engineer or some other valued professional, you’re in!

If you’re a refugee, you are detained on Pacific islands like Nauru, an island so remote it obviously negates the need to build a wall.

One of my favorite news stories of late is of a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, Behrouz Boochani, who won the top prize at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for his book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison.  Boochani has been detained on Manus, another Pacific island, since 2013.  He wrote the book on his cell phone and sent it in snippets to a translator via Whatsapp.

I’ve been thinking a lot about immigrants and refugees.  The issues are in the news a lot because of Donald Trump’s push to build a wall between the US and Mexico.  But I’ve also been hearing first-hand stories from immigrants that make me lose sleep at night.  I’ll relate three of them here.

One: A fellow employee and I were eating lunch in the break room at the YMCA.  I said his name—Vicente—and told him my son’s name was Vincent.  He stared at me incredulously and replied, “I’ve been in this country 18 years and no one has ever pronounced my name right.” Vicente told me he lived 45 minutes away from work. He left his apartment at 5:15am to get to his job as a custodian.  He was worried whether his car would start when he went outside after his shift because it was so cold and he thought he needed a new battery but he couldn’t afford it right now.

I asked if he liked his job and working at the Y.  He said yes, that in eight years there he had only had one bad experience.  He had been mopping the floor in the men’s locker room when a member screamed at him, “You got my socks wet!  I paid $60 for these socks—they’re high tech!

What an asshole. Vicente had responded that he was just doing his job.  Sort of to his credit, the man returned later and apologized.

Two: Vince works at a country club and his Mexican coworker, Angel, holds the same position as he does but has been there 10 years, as opposed to Vince’s two.  Vince noticed right away that when managers came in every morning, they greeted him (Vince) enthusiastically and made small talk but ignored Angel. Vince has brought it to the attention of HR several times but nothing has changed.

“The saddest part is,” said Vince, “I don’t think they’re dissing Angel.  I think they literally don’t see him—as a human being—he’s invisible.”

Three: At the Y again, one of my young coworkers showed a video on her phone of her car going up in flames.

“Someone doused it with gasoline, threw the gas can underneath, and set it on fire,” she explained. The fireball soared 25 feet into the air.

“But why!?” my other coworker and I were horrified.

“We don’t know,” she said carefully.  “There was this neighbor who was giving us dirty looks … my husband is white ….”

She is of Vietnamese ancestry. Could that be it—the neighbor wasn’t happy with a mixed-race couple?

“The police were useless.  We’d just had the baby, and we were so scared, so we moved out of our new house and we’re living with Matt’s parents.”

My.  God.

What are people so afraid of?