For Booklovers: My 2018 Reads

Image Source: Tee Turtle

2018 Reads: I would love to hear your own recommendations, reactions, and/or reviews in the comments below!

This is not meant to be an official, academic list. I have included all books that I remember reading this year (there were more! I may add later), not just those I loved, in no particular order. I would love to hear your thoughts.

My 1-5 star scale:

*: Hated it, and/or couldn’t finish it

**: Apparently I don’t give this rating. Likely I would describe it as “meh.”

***: Liked it. Not particularly memorable, but would recommend if you’ve got extra time on your hands/are in need of a book fix.

****: Loved it.

*****: Loved it, unforgettable. Must-read (genre- and theme-dependent, of course, according to your tastes).

The List: Books I read in 2018, and my thoughts


*****Pachinko, Min Jin Lee

A must-read for those interested in family sagas, historical fiction, and literature that challenges dominant narratives. It tells the story of several generations of a Korean-Japanese family — a take on 20th century Korean & Japanese histories and societies unlike any I have ever read. It also speaks to the immigrant experience, in a context new to most U.S. Americans (and rarely discussed in Japan). The characterization is powerful and nuanced, the plot gripping. I stayed up late into the night to finish it.


*****Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone, Richard Lloyd Parry (2017)                                                                                                                                                

This masterpiece of non-fiction is the result of twenty years’ experience as an investigative journalist in Japan, six of which Parry spent intimately involved with communities recovering from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. It is the first book I have ever read (or in-depth story I have ever heard) of a tsunami from the point of view of those who survived it. It pieces together the testimonies of hundreds of survivors, including many family members of those who did not survive, in one of the most gripping, harrowing accounts I have ever read of any event. It gives irreplaceable insight for English-language readers into the events during and following the tsunami, as well as to the philosophies surrounding death in Japan. I highly recommend, with the caveat that reading it at bedtime gave me nightmares. Genre: Non-fiction. Ages: high school-adult.   


*****Throne of Glass series, Sarah J. Maas (2002-2018)                                                           

This eight-part series, begun when the author was just 16 years old and writing on a self-publishing crowd-source site, came to its satisfying closure in October 2018. It is one of the best YA fantasy series I have read for a long time, featuring complex characters that develop in interesting ways over the course of the story, non-stop adventure, highly creative magical elements, and a cast of child and teenage (and later young adult) characters who do not obey the conventions of earlier genres or generations. My high-school age students and I have enjoyed geeking out over these books. Genre: YA Fantasy. Ages: high school-adult.  


*****Betsy Tacy series, Maud Hart Lovelace (1940-1955)

This was one of my favorite series as a child, when I read books 1-4, having no idea they went on into the protagonists’ adulthood! Betsy, Tacy, and their best friend Tib were at times more real to me than my own friends, who I knew for only a short time as we moved from school to school. First published in the 1940’s, the novels follow Lovelace’s own growing up in the 1910s in rural Minnesota (and later Minneapolis), and are lush with sociocultural details from that time period. As my own great-grandmother was growing up in Minnesota at the exact same time, these books have become particularly meaningful to me as an adult; but as a child I was simply captivated by the beauty of the friendship between the characters, and how lifelike their stories felt (from a child’s point-of-view). This fall I went on to read the entire ten-book series, and grieved when it ended. Genre: Children’s-Adult Fiction. Ages: 5-95 (Books grow with reader; all lovely as an adult).  


****The Rules of Magic, Alice Hoffman (2018)

Twenty-two years after publishing her iconic Practical Magic, prolific author of New England magical realism Alice Hoffman has released the prequel to that tale. As I am still mid-book, I can only say that I am thrilled to be immersed once again in the world of the witchy Owens family, and fascinated to learn the stories of the previous generations. (Note: I am giving it a tentative four stars: have not finished it, and too early to tell immediately.) Genre: Magical realism. Ages: Adult. 

*Update: I finished reading! I do not want to spoil, so I will only say that I highly recommend, especially for Hoffman fans.


*****Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor (2010)

After reading this book many years ago when it first came out, I had the privilege of re-reading it with two classes of junior and seniors in World Literature this Spring, which I co-taught with the awe-inspiring educator Leah Dunbar. Set in post-apocalyptic sub-Saharan Africa, this novel tells the story of Onyesonwu, whose name means Who Fears Death in Igbo. Onyesonwu and her band of best friends set out to redeem their world from the oppressive, brutally violent racist and misogynistic structures that surround them, in a story unlike any I have ever read, drawn from Nigerian culture and folklore. Although Okorafor wrote this as an adult book, many students mentioned this as the first novel they had ever actually enjoyed reading, and were absolutely engaged from beginning to end. Genre: Post-apocalyptic Saharan sci-fi. Ages: Adult (though also read and enjoyed with high school juniors and seniors, with some courageous talks around sexuality, racism, and sexism.)


***1/2 Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy, Kevin Kwan (2013-2017)

A nod to this trilogy, which I gulped down at the end of summer in preparation for the release of the highly anticipated Hollywood film. A very fluffy read that is a fascinating look into the lifestyles of Singapore and Hong Kong’s uber-rich and famous-in-spite-of-themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed these books, and would read them again, if only to keep track of the list of fabulous places and foods they mention. Genre: Beach read. Ages: adult.


*****You Know Me Well, David Levithan and Nina La Cour (2016)

I bought this book as a gift for one of my GSA students for whom I was a Secret Santa, and read it in less than 24 hours before giving it to her. (I do not like to gift books without having read them, but this one looked too good to resist, so I compromised by deciding to give it a quick read.) And…wow. This book so beautifully captures the intense beauty and angst of youthful love and friendships, in alternating chapters written by two of the lions of contemporary YA LGBTQ fiction. p.s. My students who read it also highly recommend. Genre: YA lit. Ages: teen-adult.


****The Disenchantments, Nina La Cour (2012)

After reading You Know Me Well, I decided to read this one by Nina La Cour, and am glad I did. This book tells the story of a foursome of best friends (to top it off, they are also a girl band and their roadie/manager/BFF), who set off on a West Coast road trip the summer before they start college. Once again, La Cour beautifully captures the intensity of that period of life, with a mid-90’s San Francisco-to-Seattle backdrop that brought tears to my eyes more than once. An ode to that time and place. Genre: YA lit. Ages: teen-adult.


***Everything Leads to You, Nina La Cour (2014)

Yes, I went on a Nina La Cour binge. This one, set in Los Angeles, was fun — I especially enjoyed its exploration of what goes into making an independent film — but did not resonate as deeply as the aforementioned two. Genre: YA lit. Ages: teen-adult.


*The Power, Naomi Alderman (2016)

Full disclosure: I have very rarely been a fan of satire, and this book was no exception. This satire was widely heralded, and may indeed be one of the most important of our times, but truth be told, I pretty much hated it. The premise was fascinating — what would happen if girls and women had the ability to physically torture and kill their aggressors, at the mere touch of their hand? — but is so brutally executed, and unconvincingly concluded, that I am only glad I read it so that I can knowingly discuss it with its fans. I know I should give it more than one star for being decently written, but I just can’t. I feel physically nauseous whenever I think of this book. Genre: Satire, sci-fi. Ages: adult.

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***Shadow and Bone trilogy, Leigh Bardugo (2012-2014)

This is a fun YA trilogy for those looking for a fix after finishing the Throne of Glass series. Interesting world-building, swashbuckling action, heartache and heartwarming love stories. Also, grapples with the question: what would you do if you had the innate ability/power to take over the world? Genre: YA fantasy. Ages: teen-adult.


*****The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas (2017)

Rarely have I read a more timely piece of YA fiction. This novel tells the story of 16-year-old Starr Carter and her community, in the wake of the killing of her childhood friend by a police officer. Far from the political posturing/overt hatred often provoked by the Black Lives Matter movement (and other challenges to institutionalized racism), which tends to dominate mainstream discourse, this book invites us to step into the lives of a community devastated by the loss of a beloved child. I cannot recommend highly enough. Every U.S. American should read this book. Genre: YA lit. Ages: teen-adult.


*****The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)

I was about halfway through this genre-defying book when I realized that it was the work of a spoken word poet I have loved (and taught in my classes) for years: Afro-Dominican wunderkind Elizabeth Acevedo (see “Afrolatina”, “Hair”). Written as a journal in spoken-word form, this novel (?) tells the coming-of-age story of 15-year-old Xiomara Batista, Harlem public school student and erstwhile dutiful Dominican daughter as she questions the social and religious restrictions placed upon her, and finds her own voice. If you do not think you like poetry, do not be daunted: it is incredibly accessible. (And if you do, you’re in for a treat.) I could not put it down; read it in 1 1/2 sittings. I am already planning curriculum around this book. Genre: YA lit, poetry. Ages: teen-adult.


*****Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood, Trevor Noah (2016)

Oh my goodness. I loved Trevor Noah before, but now I am a super-fan. Growing up in apartheid South Africa as the son of a Black South African mother and White Swiss father, Noah spent most of his childhood in hiding, for fear of his being removed from his mother’s family: as the title implies, his very existence was illegal, in a social structure that required everyone to fit into a neat racialized category. In his characteristically humorous style, Noah tells incredibly painful stories of that time period in South Africa from his own uniquely multifaceted perspective, while shedding light on our own racialized categories and institutions in the U.S. I would like to teach this book, too. Genre: memoir. Ages: teen-adult.

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*****All teaching books by Linda Christensen (2000-2017)

If you are a literature teacher looking for ideas for lesson plans, look no further. I have never read any teacher-writer who inspires me more than Linda Christensen, all while giving highly practical, step-by-step advice. Genre: teacher lesson plan lit. Ages: adult.


***1/2 Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling (2016)

In need of a HP fix? This is the script to the stage play that tells the story of our beloved characters, 20 years hence. I can claim absolutely no objectivity on its quality, so am giving it a tentative 3 1/2 stars. For diehard fans, it is an indispensable read. Let’s argue about how good/bad it is! Genre: play script, fantasy. Ages: teen-adult.


*Laika, Nick Abadzis 😦 😦 😦 (2007)

Oh my God. I am putting this book on the list because I read it, but I honestly wish I hadn’t. It is a graphic novel that tells the story of Laika, the dog sent to space by the Russian space program in 1957. If you are an animal rights activist looking to convince others of (or at least get them to question) the ethics of animal experimentation, look no further. Incredibly harrowing, and heartbreaking. (Spoiler: after months of torture, the dog dies in the end.) Genre: historical graphic novel. Ages: teen-adult. 

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****Diary of a Tokyo Teen, Christine Inzer (2016)

Released in 2017, this graphic novel was written by then-17-year-old Inzer, visiting her grandparents’ homeland…Japan! A fascinating and fun teen’s-eye-view of Japan (and a quick read). We will be keeping this one on our shelf at home, and buying a copy for Tomo’s Japanese immersion school library. Highly recommend. Genre: graphic memoir. Ages: teen-adult.


*****Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond (2014)

Another teacher book: this one talking about the neuroscience behind culturally responsive teaching. Hotly argued in my grad school cohort (the more conservative amongst us claimed that the brain science was inaccurate), I find myself returning to it time and again for bare-bones advice and accessible visual descriptions of what I aspire to as a teacher. Accuracy of the science aside (I am unable to speak to this, as a non-scientist, although it *is* well-researched and cited), I found this book very useful in thinking about how to build rapport and best support students. Genre: teacher lit. Ages: adult.


***The Last Black Unicorn, Tiffany Haddish (2017)

I cannot honestly remember this book very well (which is why I am giving it three stars), but I read it and enjoyed it…while I had some reservations, as I recall. Haddish is a true survivor, overcoming what could have been a crippling child- and young adulthood to become a star comedic actress. What I do remember is that I laughed aloud, would read it again, and would like to discuss it with whoever reads it. *Warning*: if “raunchy” bothers you, I recommend steering clear. Oh yes, it’s coming back to me now…! One thing that bothered me about this book, now that I think on it, is that it was ghostwritten by notorious “fratire” author Tucker Max, who I find repulsive. I wondered if it would have lingered on her sexual exploits to the degree that it did without his hand in it. Genre: memoir. Ages: adult.


*****The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern (2011)

This book. THIS. BOOK! If you are a fan of circus literature, magical realism, haunting love stories, and/or Victorian-era fantasy, this is the book for you. I do not want to say too much about it, as I am almost afraid to talk about how much I loved it, and do not want to spoil anything. So good. Genre: magical realism. Ages: teen (?)-adult.


***The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls (2005)

This book came with the curriculum I inherited for 10th grade literature here in Tokyo. I would never in a million years have chosen it for 10th grade, particularly for a group of international Catholic school girls in Tokyo (or maybe any literature class, as there is simply too much else I would prioritize), but I am glad I read it. It tells the story of Walls’ childhood in the 1960’s and 70’s, daughter of U.S. American counter-culture parents who walk the line between principles and simple insanity. Also a beautiful testimony to the power of siblinghood. Sound familiar? I thought so, too. Genre: memoir. Ages: teen (?)-adult.


**1/2 Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck (1937)

I know, I know: How did I make it through five years of graduate education in literature (not to mention a lifetime of bibliophilia) without reading Steinbeck?! This novella was another of the aforementioned 10th grade curriculum I inherited, and I can only say…meh. While I respect Steinbeck for depicting characters that are not only White, male and middle-class (as he was), in this day and age, reading non-white and non-male characters who serve merely as foils, metaphors, or illustrations of the agony lived by the (White male) protagonists feels very dated. And when every single woman in the book is sexually assaulted, and we are led to consistently feel compassion for the assailants?…meh. Genre: historical fiction. Ages: teen (?)-adult.


*Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

I picked up this book because Ishiguro won the 2017 Nobel for Literature, and is a Japanese-British author, to boot. (I am on the look-out for culturally relevant books for my students and myself.) But…honestly, I couldn’t even finish this one. It was that disturbing. Set in Britain in the near future, it tells the story of a group of young people raised in an idyllic (?) boarding school with a horrifying (to the readers, not necessarily to the characters) secret. I do not want to say more in case you decide to read it, but I will say: I’m pretty over dystopic fiction at this point, unless it makes me think deeply about society, and consider how we might improve it. Which at this point narrows down basically to George Orwell’s 1984, as far as I’m concerned. I could not figure out the message of this book (which I will admit I “finished” by reading reviews/synopsis/critiques about). Why read about dystopias, when we have our very own brewing at home? Feel free to disagree. Genre: sci-fi. Ages: teen-adult.


***I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez (2017)

I am giving this three stars because I remember that I enjoyed it, but honestly I read it while we were getting ready to move across the ocean, so I don’t recall much about it other than that. I would likely give it four stars otherwise. (I only give five to those I find so memorable that they make the world stop when I read them, no matter the circumstances.) Genre: YA fiction. Ages: teen-adult.


***The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan (2005)

I read this series-starter at the behest of many of my middle school-age friends, but honestly: I wasn’t that impressed. Yes, the premise is clever (to bring Greek mythology into the here-and-now), but some of the (Greek-)God(s)-Bless-America ideals on which it rests set my teeth on edge, and I was turned off by the fact that it is essentially a very classic boy book. (I have to admit that I was also miffed by the fact that when I later read Mr. Riordan’s blog post on his own book recommendations, they were written almost exclusively by male authors. (Except for Hunger Games — eyeroll — and the feline phenomenon Warriors  — solid choice.))  To each his own, I guess. Genre: middle-reader fantasy. Ages: middle school-adult.


****My Brother’s Husband, Gengoroh Tagame (2014-2017)

My partner gave me this one for Christmas, in our ongoing quest for culturally relevant LGBTQ lit. It tells the tale of Yaichi, whose estranged twin brother’s widower shows up on his doorstep soon after the funeral. While Yaichi struggles to accept this loud, hairy, gay foreigner, his elementary school-age daughter embraces him delightedly. While it might seem incredibly tame to the Western reader, in Japan it represents a remarkable cultural opening to the possibility of LGBTQ visibility. (It won the Japan Media Arts Award for Outstanding Work of Manga from the Agency of Cultural Affairs.) Tagame is an out manga artist best known for his yaoi hentai (“boy love” erotica); I believe this is his first foray into mainstream lit. A worthwhile read, if only to get a window onto Japanese perspectives on homosexuality, and the evocative pen-and-ink drawings. Genre: manga (graphic novel). Ages: middle school-adult.


**** (?) Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)

I picked up this slim volume at our school library here in Tokyo the day Winter Break began, and will admit that I have not finished it (I tend to read 2-3 books at a time). This is a beautiful, heart-wrenching portrayal of displacement and migration, taking into its scope pieces of planet all over the globe. Nadia and Saeed are a young couple falling in love in an unnamed country on the precipice of war. Like millions of others, they are faced with the decision as to whether or not to travel through one of the millions of mysterious black doors that have appeared all over the world, connecting the global South with the global North. Will they stay where they are, risking certain death amidst their loved ones, or will they step through one of the doors, losing everyone and everything they know, in a bid for survival? On their journey, they will come into contact with thousands of others, along with glimpses of those that they never met, weaving their story into the tapestry of humanity’s story, the story of our world at a crossroads. A powerful metaphor for our times, bringing to mind the mid-career works of Jose Saramago. Highly recommend. Genre: sci-fi, political fiction. Ages: adult.

…What did you read this year? I would love to hear your own recommendations, reactions, and/or reviews in the comments below!




The New Girl, Part 3 (Stranger in a Strange Land)

Santa Visits Japan…

Something happened in a store today that made me realize once again that there is a topic I have been wanting to write about for a while, but haven’t known where to begin. A theme central to my experience here in Japan, which is probably the single issue that would keep me from wanting to make this city my forever home. (Well, other than the glaringly obvious fact that I miss my family and friends so, SO much.)

And that topic is my public experiences as a foreigner here in Tokyo.

Today on the way home from Harajuku, we stopped by Tokyu, the massive department store connected to Shibuya station, where we love to meander the basement full of booths and counters that sell an endless variety of delicacies. But first, we were lured to the third floor, where there is a small but well-stocked stationery store*. I wanted to buy a replacement cartridge for one of my Frixion pens**, as quarter grades are due this coming week. After a minor detour into the Christmas card section (which has become half the card section now that Halloween is past) where we found some amazing stickers featuring tiny Santa Clauses enjoying various Japanese traditions, we headed to the pen aisles, where I began trying out the various thicknesses of pens on the provided pads of paper, deliberating aloud to Tomo as to which was the right size for my pen that was out of ink.

Suddenly, I heard a voice in English. “Those cartridges are very specific as to which pens they go to. It’s better to just bring your pen to the store, and have them find the right one for you.” I turned to see an older Japanese woman standing next to me.

“Oh shoot!” I said. “I was hoping that I could get away with just buying the cartridge now, so I wouldn’t have to go home and come all the way back to Shibuya.”

“Yeah,” she said, “Big companies sometimes order those cartridges to save money, only to discover that they don’t fit the pens that they’ve provided their employees.”

I thanked her for her advice, and turned back to the pen display, now trying to decide which pen I should buy, so that I could get started with my grading as soon as I got home this evening. Suddenly, the woman, who continued to stand there watching me, spoke again. “You know, people here don’t test pens like that. It’s best to have a clear idea which one you want, and pick it out, not to test a whole bunch of random pens.”

“Oh, don’t worry: they provide these pads here for testing them out,” I responded cheerfully, holding up the pad full of scribbles in different scripts and colors where I was trying out pens. “It’s not illegal,” she countered. “It’s just that people see that as very rude. You don’t want to be the wrong kind of gaijin.”***

I went silent for a moment. This conversation was going a direction I did not at all anticipate. My memory cast back to the many times I had tested pens at stationery stores here in Japan. My face flushed, and my hands went cold. Had I inadvertently disrespected the unspoken code of stationery stores, in which they provided pads for testing pens, but didn’t expect you to actually test them? Were people walking past me in silent judgement at this very moment, as they had been each time I was blissfully trying out pens, wondering why this rude gaijin was damaging perfectly good merchandise? “But,” I rejoined, in confusion, “This pad is full of pen tests from other people…”

“Trust me, when I was growing up in California, my grandparents owned a small business. They used to hate it when people did that kind of thing. When you are here in Japan, everything you do is taken as being a reflection of gaijin as a whole. And they pay more attention. Just like Black people in the U.S. will be stopped by a police officer for doing the exact same thing that a White person can do without any problem.”

Now I was really speechless. The way I am seen and treated in Japan is a far cry from the clear and present physical danger African Americans face from police officers in the U.S. At the same time, I heard what she was saying: the actions of a tall, high-nosed, curly-haired, uniquely-dressed foreigner like myself are seen differently than those of Japanese people; are held to a different standard. In fact, my Japanese American and hafu (mixed) students at school regularly tell me that they are judged and punished for not knowing or following rules that it is assumed they “should” know, as a Japanese person. Rules that I know I get away with breaking, as an obvious outsider. In fact, this is regularly referred to as “the gaijin pass” (or gaijin smash, depending on how aggressive you are about it): the special ability of Western foreigners to ignore, bend, or break rules no self-respecting Japanese person would dream of transgressing. I stared at the woman in confusion, and growing mortification.

Meanwhile, Tomo flagged down a staff member, asking if it was ok to test the pens out on the provided pads. “Please do!” said the sales associate, smiling and gesturing towards a test pad, and continued on his way. Tomo turned to the woman, righteously indignant on my behalf, and said, first in Japanese: “You see? The employee says there’s no problem.” And continuing in English, “I was born and raised here in Japan, and I have never heard of this. I think I know the rules here.”

“Oh,” replied the woman, “Like I said, it’s not illegal. It’s just not how it’s done. In San Francisco, where I grew up, we used to hate young Japanese people…”

“That’s too bad.” Tomo cut her off, as I bowed to her respectfully, turned and walked away, horrified that this bizarre conversation was going on, in English, in public. “I love San Francisco.”

We paid for our pen and stickers in silence, then went down to the basement to get food, though neither of us was hungry anymore. What had just happened? Was this woman, a fellow U.S. American who was trying to be helpful, giving me advice based on her insider knowledge as a person of Japanese descent, merely voicing what everyone around me here was thinking? All the times people have given me dirty looks — as I walked down the street (for reasons unapparent to me), or took a second too long to get off the bus, or otherwise walked across some invisible line that branded me, in their eyes, as an inconsiderate and ignorant foreigner — came rushing back to me. Suddenly, I wanted desperately to go home to our cozy apartment.

The thing is, people in Tokyo are tired of tourists. Tired of crowds, stressed with their jobs, exhausted by dealing with too many people in too few square miles. This is what I tell myself, when yet another person huffs meaningfully when I make a mistake. Cuts their eyes at me when I step the wrong direction by six inches. Mutters under their breath as I cross their path. Tells me that a restaurant is full when there are clearly still seats available. Opts to stand for half an hour rather than sit beside me on the bus or train. The list goes on. This has not been my experience anywhere else in Japan. But here in Tokyo, it is a daily occurrence, an undercurrent to my existence here.

So. I can’t pretend that Japan is a fairyland, where everyone welcomes me with open arms, enticing me to stay forevermore. In fact, although so many people have been generous and kind to us here in Tokyo, I get the feeling that many Tokyoites would actually be quite happy if I turned right around and went home. While as a tourist I was blissfully ignorant of the quiet irritation all around me, it has become more and more obvious to me as time goes on, and I become more adept at reading the body language of those around me, which is subtler than American body language, but says volumes once you learn to decipher it.

I try to be philosophical about it. I have no doubt that my first experience with being a big, awkward, confused gaijin that stuck out like a sore thumb in small-town Japan, when I was 15 years old, shaped who I am as a person today. I know that it strengthened my dedication, born of earlier childhood experiences, to those who, like me, found themselves strangers in strange lands. I know, KNOW, that being the new girl is character-building…my Third Culture kid students and 8-elementary-schools self all agree on that point. At the same time, I know that this discrimination will not kill me. I think about Sikh civil rights activist and lawyer Valerie Kaur, whose family has lived on the U.S. West Coast for over a century (longer, incidentally, than mine has), and yet still faces being seen as outsiders. I think of her powerful prayer for our country, a call to what she calls revolutionary love, in which she says,

“And in America today, as we enter an era of enormous rage, as white nationalists hail this moment as their great awakening, as hate acts against Sikhs and our Muslim brothers and sisters are at an all-time high…black bodies are still seen as criminal, brown bodies are still seen as illegal, trans bodies are still seen as immoral, indigenous bodies are still seen as savage, the bodies of women and girls seen as someone else’s property. And when we see these bodies not as brothers and sisters, then it becomes easier to bully them, to rape them, to allow policies that neglect them, that incarcerate them, that kill them.

I am not in danger of most, or maybe any, of these consequences of my otherness.

So I try to be thankful for this low-stakes lesson in being Other. I try to hold it close to me, let it sink in, lest I forget it when it next comes time for me to be an ally. To speak out when someone else is being marginalized, excluded, or judged based upon standards that do not make sense to them.

In short, I try to be the wise woman I am working on becoming, four decades into this human experience. At the same time that I sometimes long for my mommy. My brothers and sisters. My other-side-of-the-ocean home.

Edit: After writing this post, I came across several recent articles on this topic, which is apparently beginning to be talked about here in Japan, now that they are about to host one of the world’s most important events (the Olympics), with visitors coming from all over the globe. Here are a few that I found interesting:

“Japan racism survey reveals one in three foreigners experience discrimination” (The Guardian, March 2017).

“Tackling signs in Japan that you’re not welcome”  (Japan Times, June 2017).

“In 2017, Japan woke up to the issue of discrimination” (Japan Times, January 2018).

*Maybe someday I will write a post dedicated to stationery stores here. Other than bookstores, they may be my favorite stores on earth.

**OMG, Frixion pens: if you have not discovered them already, these are truly erasable pens and highlighters that come in every color, with beautiful, bright, flowing ink. My favorite teaching pens in the world, hands down. I can write colorful comments and corrections, editing myself as I go along, without whiteout that would obscure the student’s work, or make for a messy rewrite. So good.

***Gaijin is the informal, sometimes derogatory form of gaikokujin (外国人), or “foreign-country person.”



All Hallow’s Eve in Shibuya (Or, The Human Tide)

I can’t resist posting a few shots from last night’s sojourn into the most epic Halloween party I have ever attended, in downtown Shibuya, the heart of youth culture in Tokyo. Oh my goodness. Here are a few shots, which don’t even begin to describe what it felt like to be amidst what was very likely a (literal) million partygoers, in some of the most creative, cute, funny, and scary costumes I have ever seen. (Note: I tended to focus on cute and creative, as I have never enjoyed the twisting of the holy day that is Samhain towards fear and terror.)

We’ll start with a 1-minute vid that hopefully gives you a sense of what it was like to cross the street. (Note: This was early in the evening…it got busier as the night went on. (Notice police officers using caution tape as a herding device.)





At the door of our favorite bar/skewer spot.
Cutest pumpkin patch ever


Cry baby
Taxi girls take a selfie.
Need I say more?
Coco-inspired crew
Adorable drunken couple
For the Ghibli fans in the house…
I bought a hat from this bunny.
Spooky Snow Whites
These young men and I were a little in love with each other.
So many adorable bunnies
We found Waldo(s)!
Giraffey and Witchy Woman in the heart of downtown
Check out this rabbit’s amazing origami head!
Oh did we mention that there was a Brazilian batucada with samba dancers randomly getting down in a store front? Because Halloween in Shibuya, that’s why.
Giraffey finds his long-lost cousin
Volunteer trash collectors. The waste from this event has been a major problem for Shibuya in recent years…enter dedicated youth volunteers! We didn’t get any pics of ourselves picking up waste (our hands were pretty dirty, and we were pretty focused), so this will serve as an example… ❤
Halloween Trio 2018
Our Crew

And finally…our last crossing of the evening (around 10:30 p.m.). Oh what a night!

Ex-pats (The Elephant in the Room)


The first gift I received from a colleague upon arrival to my new school was a small paperback book entitled, An Expat’s Guide to Japan. At first I thought he might be trolling me: was this some sort of comment on my character? Had he made a snap judgement about me, and found me wanting? And then I realized…he was trying to be helpful.

Thus began my tenuous relationship with Tokyo’s self-described “expat community.”

Having lived in several countries in Latin America on a variety of tourist, student, research, and work visas over the past 25 years, I learned early on to steer clear of those who called themselves expats. In my experience, they were easy to spot. They only hung out with each other.  They had little to no interest in learning the languages or customs of the country where they were living. Yet somehow they spoke with great authority (and no little disparagement) of their host cultures. They lived abroad because it was less expensive than their own country (thus their standard of living was much higher), because they got paid better, or both. And/or because they liked the climate, landscape, and rhythm of life. …While at the same time they were quick to describe the native peoples as lazy, thieving, backward and/or childlike. In other words, they sounded basically like any other European colonizer of an American, African, or Asian country has since the 15th century.

I guess you could say that the word expat, for me, has a negative connotation.

Back in 2015, the Guardian put out an article that astutely and succinctly put words to what I had intuitively understood from my very first run-in with proud expats, decades ago:

“Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?”*

Because colonialism, that’s why.

As a person of European descent (or an actual European), it is impossible, or at the very least egregiously irresponsible, to not consider the historical context that has allowed you (us) to freely roam the earth, while others, fleeing desperately for their lives, find doors closed to them all over the planet. Today there are over 68 million forcibly displaced people worldwide; more than 10 million of those are stateless (meaning, in a nutshell, they have no country to return to)**. And here we are, tra-la-laing of to “Cabo” or “Costa” without batting an eye.

As a teacher in an international school, I am acutely aware of the current and historical realities that make the accident of my U.S. American birth and English-as-a-mother tongue (not to mention my light skin, hair, and eyes) a form of currency that opens doors to me all over the world. Yes, I have worked hard to get where I am, and am working hard to stay here. Yes, I have had to leverage a thousand angles to travel as much as I do, as I have always funded it through my own labor, mostly as a barely-making-it single mom. However, without the magic combo of my genealogy and my geography, my chances to do what I have done would have been greatly reduced, if they existed at all.

And then there’s the very fact of international education, itself. International education as it stands today — particularly in the form of the International Baccalaureate (IB) system — officially has its roots in movements with which I am deeply aligned philosophically: the decolonization movements, movements for world peace and justice, and civil rights movements that followed World War II. However, the roots of international education go back much farther than the 1960’s, as any historian could tell us. (See nuns and priests the world wide, 1492 onward. And, my Irish ancestors would likely argue, well before that.)

…And to make matters more complicated, I am teaching at a Catholic school. But I’ll leave that aside for the moment, as that’s a topic that deserves an entire blog post to itself (or several).

What I really want to talk about here is the constant double consciousness I am experiencing in my current situation (see W.E.B. DuBois). On the one hand, I long to spend time with people who speak my home languages (which in this case would be English, as I know precious few Latin Americans here). On the other hand, more often than not, I will be out with a small group of “expats,” when suddenly someone will say something so breathtakingly disrespectful, if not (and usually it is) downright racist that I will want to sink through the floor and/or begin apologizing to everyone in the room. (These episodes inevitably take place in public, where expats tend to assume no one speaks English.)***

Case in point: I was out for a birthday dinner with a group of colleagues and spouses a couple of weeks ago when everyone began discussing their plans for Autumn Break. Someone said they were going to Bali. Another someone said Phuket. “Ach! I never want to go to Thailand again,” pipes up the tipsy expat spouse down the table, “I don’t mean to generalize, but in the time I was there, they gave me the impression that all of their men were thieves, and all of their women were prostitutes.”

Wow. Just, wow.

Or: crossing the street with a couple of colleagues earlier this week, one of them darts out in front of a car, on our red light. The car about to proceed through the intersection stops, waiting to see what the rest of us will do. The colleague left behind with me gestures wildly at them to keep driving. “Jesus!” She cries, eyes rolling. “These people need to learn how to drive!” (Emphasis on “these people.”)

These are just two recent examples that come immediately to mind. I could go on and on.

My point here is not to say that I am somehow above other foreigners living in Japan, simply because I do not identify with the term “expat.” Nor is it to say that the term “expat” is exclusively for White people (though pretty much). Nor that all people who identify as “expats” are repugnant, either. Rather, it is to point out the dangers of falling into colonial and colonialist dynamics, when living abroad as a European, Australian, Canadian, or US American (particularly of European descent); and to explicitly state my own humble commitment to continuing my work towards equity and justice, in whatever setting in which I find myself.

A couple of weeks ago, in a professional development workshop on global mindedness at the high school where I teach, our principal asked us, “What is the difference between being an international teacher, and teaching internationally?” I raised my hand and replied,

“I have known many people who teach internationally who never seem to actually leave home — they stay in their own cultural bubble, never learning the language or showing any interest in the customs of their host culture. They teach a European or American curriculum, drawing from authors, thinkers, and sources that only reflect Western thought, history, aesthetics, and achievements. On the other hand, I have known teachers who never leave their local context who are incredibly globally minded: their curriculum draws from cultures all over the world, while they encourage and embrace students bringing their own home languages and cultures to the classroom. They, for me, are international teachers; whereas the latter are merely teaching internationally.”

That is all for now. I don’t really have any earth-shattering revelations, just observations to this point. Observations and the determination to be ever cognizant and vigilant of my own expat tendencies, so as to be the most open-minded and culturally responsive teacher-student that I can be. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Thank you for listening. ❤

Resources (if you want to read further):

  1. *”Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?” (Guardian, 3/2015):
  2. **Brief review of the 2018 UN Report on Refugees:
  3. **On statelessness:
  4. Trevor Noah’s brilliant rebuttal to the French Ambassador, who took him to task for saying Africa won the World Cup. (Ambassador: “The rich and varied backgrounds of these players is a reflection of France’s diversity.” Trevor: “I’m not trying to be an asshole, but I think it is more a reflection of France’s colonialism.”) A beautiful meditation on race/ethnicity, citizenship, and how colonialism underpins how we think about both.
    ***This, by the way, used to be fairly common when I found myself in groups made up solely of White people in the States, as well, but in the last couple of years folks have become a little more conscious of their off-the-wall racist/ignorant thoughts, at least in the PNW. Thanks, 45? JK. Thank you, Black Lives Matter, and other activists working tirelessly to raise people’s consciousness. It is seriously lacking in the ex-pat community, I have found.

The New Girl, Part 2 (Growing Pains)


In our early weeks here, as we took part in the crash course-orientation that was to serve as our launch pad before students arrived in mere days, our Head of School said, more than once,

“I always remind my teachers that new teachers are new all year.”

(Almost) three months in, I see what she means. Life at our school is a seemingly endless set of rules and rituals, each and every one of which is brand new to me. There are the basic rules, the daily and weekly rituals — some of which I am still learning — and then there are those that accompany special days and weeks. And in the nine weeks we have been in school thus far, not one of them has been normal: American system tests, International Baccaulaureate assessments, British system tests, holidays (American, British, Catholic, and Japanese), professional development (often tucked in and around a school day, as some grades are holding class, and others are not), seasonal celebrations, spirit days, pep rallies…the list goes on and on. And for each of these, a whole new, detailed set of unspoken (and often unwritten) rules.

At a certain point, it gets exhausting.

In a recent PD workshop, we were asked, “What one characteristic is most important in international teachers?”

Can you guess what it was?

…Yup, flexibility.

Growing up, I was a rhythmic gymnast. With ease and thoughtless grace, I could twist, spin, arch, leap. I can still clearly recall, with that peculiar thing that is body memory, the feeling of spinning…releasing…flipping…looping, up and down, in and out, on the uneven parallel bars. My favorite event (next to artistic tumbling). As a young adult, the ultimate centering and relaxing, for me, was in yoga poses — which I executed without thinking twice, dubbed, laughingly, “gumby girl” by my beloved teacher.

In recent years, that thoughtless flexibility has been put to its test. I have experienced my first back injury, finding myself suddenly locked up (By fear, trauma, or actual injury? Hard to tell. …Is there a difference?), experiencing pain and limitation where I had never experienced anything but flow previously.

And then, of course, there was last month’s fall, which put me out of commission for a few weeks, but is now, thankfully, a slipping-away memory. Suddenly, though, every step was a struggle; gravity and the earth, long my trusted friends, turned abruptly treacherous. As the flow of humanity surged around me — in the street, on train platforms, on stairways — I toddled unevenly, fearful I might be knocked off my feet, or fall again.

Am I flexible enough? The question occurs to me now, as I sit in bed in the early evening, pajamas on at 5 p.m. in hopes of staving off what feels like a fever. The hardest part of this most blessed adventure is how much I miss my people: those that love and know me well; who I can call on a whim, and walk with, or sip tea with, laugh, cry, talk books, and drink prosecco with.  And those that are bound by blood to love me, if nothing else (and truly, there is so much else).

As a child, I attended over half a dozen elementary schools. To this day, I could tell you the names, favorite games and family stories of my best friends in each and every one. And yet I never saw any of them again, once we moved away. Thousands of miles from home, I grieve these losses all over again. Losses lived, over and over, by the Third Culture kids that fill my school. They are brilliant, they are cooperative, they are charming…and like me, there is a bit of a reserve to them, a reluctance to give too much of their heart, too soon.

And so we bide our time. I dive into books, the place I have always found comfort, my most faithful friends. I find myself rediscovering beloved series from childhood, at the same time that I am catching up on the books everyone is talking about, the winners of various awards, those made into movies; continually adding more to my list. In the less than three months we’ve been here, I have read at least 30 books — one every two or three days, sometimes more. At school, I long to sneak off to a corner and read (and often do); one of my best friends in the building is the high school librarian. I sink into literature as I always have, finding old friends rather than making new ones.

The girls — our students — look at me out of the side of their eyes, ask me unexpected questions that let me know they’re paying attention, even when I don’t know anyone sees me. Their curiosity is at once comforting and exhausting. I wish we could skip this chapter, and go to straight to the part where we love each other wholeheartedly. I count the minutes until I can go home to my husband, then find myself too tired to explain myself even to him.

The time has come for me to write a book. And I know that, but am not sure I know how to begin. More and more, I am drawn to writing children’s literature — after all is said and done, my very favorite kind — but am feeling more serious now than ever, and am not sure that that is the best place from which to begin a book meant to console the lonely little person I was, and perhaps still am. And so I turn to those authors that did that for me as a child, finding in their words not only solace, but also inspiration, as I feel my way towards this promise I made to myself decades ago.

And that is the beauty of being the new girl. The chance to invent myself anew, to rewrite the script. If I have the flexibility and grace to allow it. May it be so.

❤ , The New Girl


Homelessness in Japan (Is that a thing?)

Coming to Tokyo, one of the most glaring differences I immediately noticed was the fact that I didn’t see homeless people. Anywhere. I was confused, and tentatively hopeful. Were the social networks in Japan so tight-knit that there simply weren’t any homeless people? Is this what a society without drugs or war, and with universal health care, look like? Or…oh no! Could their absence be explained by the high suicide rate? (In other words, did people on the way to homelessness simply kill themselves rather than risk shaming themselves or their families?)

Over the years, and as I have come to explore more of Tokyo’s nooks and crannies, I have learned that there are, indeed, unhoused people here: as in many American cities, under bridges and in train station corridors are two places that they can be seen (although, unlike American cities, you could count the numbers of people in those places on your hands). So, their numbers are still vastly reduced: I would not be at all surprised if I heard that my city of 160,000 people had more unhoused people than this metropolis of 39 million. (Anyone know those numbers? On looking it up, I found several sources discussing a recent government survey staying that Japan has 5,000 homeless people…total. In the entire country. However, there are some who question these statistics, as it defines homelessness very narrowly, and the counting techniques were perhaps cursory.)


Since there is an entire web series dedicated to this topic — which, by the way, I highly recommend — I will not go too far into providing stats or speculation, but will simply give a couple of key points and personal anecdotes that you may find interesting.

So, a couple of key points:

  • First, yes the fact that drug use (other than alcohol) is so much less common here has much to do with the greatly reduced rate of homelessness. (And yes, alcoholism is high among the homeless population. So basically: stay away from drugs, kids.)
  • People with mental health issues here tend to be institutionalized, rather than mainstreamed. There are up and down sides to this. I think that the down sides are clear, and are the reason such practices have been largely stopped in the U.S. (though it  could be argued that prisons have taken the place of mental institutions, to some degree). An up side to institutionalization is that people with mental illnesses are not on the street, as they are in the U.S. (where they are less likely to be institutionalized, but often have no other net to catch them when they fall).
  • Turns out that the lack of a military, and military engagement, helps with homelessness. (Who knew?…But seriously: how many homeless veterans do you personally know/see on a regular basis?)
  • Homeless folks very rarely beg here, or ask for help in any other way, and indeed work to stay out of the public eye.
  • There are a series of organizations and systems that work hard to keep marginally housed people employed and off the streets…and are surprisingly successful at doing so.

So, that said: I want to talk about a story my students told me recently, and one that Tomo told me yesterday.

First off, a few weeks ago my Social Justice students were telling me about all the different types of social service projects they were involved in. It turns out that one that is very popular amongst them is making onigiri (rice balls) for the homeless, which they hand out at a local church on Sundays. (Remember, I teach at a Catholic school.) When I asked them how this experience was for them, they talked about the fact that, having grown up in Japan, they had no idea that there was homelessness here at all, much less the scope of it. I asked them how many people came to eat their rice balls each weekend, and they said, “So many! The line reaches around the building and down the street, Ms. Liliana.” “Like how many, would you estimate?” “Hundreds, Ms. Liliana,” they said, eyes wide. They all agreed that they were shocked by this, and that the men — they are all men, they said — were very humble and grateful to them for the food they are providing. Still, they have little interaction with them beyond that, and I am left wondering who these men are, and what are their stories.

Secondly, Tomo’s experience yesterday. Tomo was in a park in our neighborhood taking a break from his Sunday afternoon solo jogging date to do some dogwatching, when he came upon a man stretched out on the grass, apparently sunbathing. After a couple of minutes of sitting nearby the man, he approached Tomo and asked him if he might be able to “donate” some money to him. Not wanting to give him cash, Tomo told him he did not have any change, then went to buy him a hot beef onigiri at a park kiosk. The man was visibly surprised that Tomo had done that for him, and very gratefully thanked him. Tomo explained to him that he had experienced a similar situation himself once upon a time; that he was thankful to those who helped him at that time, and that he now found himself in a situation in which he could help others. The man was moved by this, and said he hoped one day he would be able to reciprocate.

Tomo was shocked and saddened by this exchange, as it was the first time in all of his life in Japan that he was approached by someone hungry, asking for money. He was also sad in thinking about the fact that most people that he knew of here would be likely to refuse to help, and would indeed shy away from being spoken to by a homeless person (as is the case with many people in the Americas, of course). He said that he realized that his experience working and living closely with unhoused people in Eugene made him more comfortable talking to the man than many others might be.

Once again, we are reminded of the incredibly fortunate life we lead, and wonder how we could be of greater service to the world.

So that’s all for now on that topic. Tomo and I have decided that we want to do some volunteering to help the unhoused here. I will let you know how that goes.

Want to know more? Check out this series (here’s Part 1) :

Also, these articles:

“Homeless in Tokyo: Fallen through society’s cracks and frozen out” (12/24/2017)

“Japan’s homeless ranks down to 15-year low under 5,000, survey says” (7/14/2018):








Catastrophe and the Power of Art (Yet Still, We Rise)

Hello All! I took a little hiatus from writing last week — I was a bit down about my knee, I think, or maybe it was just the turning inward that a change of seasons often brings for me; especially the turn to fall. Thank you to those of you who wrote asking for another installment. 🙂 I am happy to hear that you are enjoying following our adventures.

So, last night we went to the Mori Art Museum to see their 15th anniversary exhibition, which we have been eagerly awaiting since we first arrived two months ago: “Catastrophe and the Power of Art.” The exhibit explores “What art can do in chaotic times where the future is uncertain,” in the political, social, personal, and environmental realms.

43773437_486458675096849_8549398703545253888_n.jpgPhoto by Tomo Tsurumi

I am still processing the power of what we experienced, but I will try to share a bit of it with you here.

First off, the museum is situated on the 53rd floor of the high-end “integrated property development complex” called Roppongi Hills, less than an hour by public transport (one bus+two trains stops) from our apartment. (On a side note, I thought originally that Roppongi Hills was just a shopping mall, but last night I started noticing areas that were only accessible to certain people, and just now learned that, according to Wikipedia, it includes “office space, apartments, shops, restaurants, cafés, movie theatres, a museum, a hotel, a major TV studio, an outdoor amphitheatre, and a few parks” — who knew?? — oh, and a subway station, too.) So the first part of the experience is to take in the incredible view that the walls of windows afford you as you step off the elevators:

43951857_1054995491326508_712514054836453376_n.jpgPhoto by Tomo Tsurumi

The exhibition itself includes works — photographs, paintings, drawing, sculptures, interactive community projects, mixed media and digital installations — from over 40 international artists, as well as organizations in communities affected by disasters. Here is some of what we saw…

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This piece was one of my favorites. I hope that you can zoom in and explore the intricate scenes and allusions captured inside Ikeda Manabu’s 6-foot-by-11-foot pen-and-ink drawing “Foretoken,” which evokes, at first glance, Hokusai’s iconic Great Wave.


Finished in 2008 (after 2 years of 8-hour days, usually at around 4 square inches per day, according to this 2013 interview with the artist: ), three years before the disastrous Tohoku earthquake+tsunami+nuclear meltdown known in Japan simply as “3-11,” this work has come to be considered prophetic in its foreseeing of the widespread disaster created by those Great Waves.

Another powerful piece was this one by Ai Wei Wei — a commentary on the situation of refugees today, inspired by his recent tour of refugee camps and conduits in 23 countries (as seen in his 2017 documentary Human Flow, which I highly recommend).

44073616_300240900579358_9082207237908201472_n.jpgPhoto by Tomo Tsurumi

Seen from afar, this massive work resembles Greek pottery, with its repeating motifs, geometric patterns, and depictions of scenes of battles and daily life. Upon looking more closely, though, we can see that it actually shows the world as it is today, in 2018, as experienced by refugees:




20181012_202117 (1).jpg

There were many that responded to the experiences of the Japanese citizenry during and in the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe and 2011 Tohoku earthquakes. Here are a few we found especially compelling:

20181012_194216.jpgThese pastels were created by the artist to convey his lived experience — rather than the concrete “facts” — of the 1995 Kobe earthquake. I especially enjoyed the way that he uses color to suggest (in my interpretation) the emotions surrounding the event.

43851730_1577425759070578_4350832524029591552_n.jpgThis wall of what appears at first to be black buttons are in fact meant to resemble timers (of the type that count down minutes), and are inscribed with the faces of the workers who worked at and/or returned to Fukushima plant during and after the meltdown in 2011, knowing that their time was limited by this act.


Note the workers’ faces, clothed in hazmat gear.

There was also a small library of art books and artists interviews/statements, as well as documentary footage of panels/interviews with artists in response to disasters. Here are just two pieces that spoke to me amongst the many interviews I read:


20181012_203408 (1).jpg

In addition, there were digital installations, such as this one, that showed artists in hazmat suits visiting Fukushima in the months following the meltdown, and making their statement (notice that they being with the red sun-on-white-rectangle that is the Japanese flag):

This depiction of hope and resistance amidst environmental and political meltdown, seen in the second part of the exhibition — which spoke to the healing and transformative power of art — moved me:


Here is another hopeful example, this recreating an evacuated cafe, and painting fresh life and dreams (symbolized by the star) into the space:

Film by Tomo Tsurumi

And finally, the last piece: an installation by Yoko Ono meant to represent a refugee boat in the open sea, which visitors are invited to contribute to:

44023092_259135441610999_5448843266894069760_n.jpgMy sister-in-love and I make our contributions. (Photo by Tomo Tsurumi)


A sampling of messages.

…That’s all for now, folks! There were so many more pieces and projects I could have shared, but I hope that this at least gives you a small sense of the vast variety of powerful and creative art at the exhibit (and here in Tokyo). As I mentioned in an earlier post, environmental disasters are an integral part of life here in Japan, and to see them faced this way was deeply moving. I may have more to say on this later, but wanted to at least give you a taste today.

Sealed with a kiss, L


Photo by Yuka Tsurumi


p.s. Every day is full of so much discovery here, both internal and external, that to truly do it justice, I would have to make this a daily diary (which I just may do!), but I am also trying to balance how much is the right amount to write so that it is accessible to my loved ones. Thank you for your patience. ❤

Tokyo! (The Endless Wonder)

Up until now, both in my life and on this site, I have been so focused on getting settled into our new home and my new job that I’ve said almost nothing about where we are…


Screen Shot 2018-09-29 at 8.23.12 AM.png



And for those of you who love to geek out on history, urban planning, and/or the marvels of what human beings are able to accomplish when we work together:

…Is it possible to fall in love with 39 million people at once?!

So, it’s 8:03 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and I have a major dilemma…there are just too many amazing things to do today! Do we go to a world-class museum? (And which one?? Modern art, animation, political, historical, Japanese, Western, architectural? Or should we go to the new immersive digital museum? Or the upcoming exhibit on catastrophe and the power of art? …There are dozens of possibilities.) Do we attend one of this weekend’s festivals? (Indian, Czech, Red Spider Lily, or the one where locals are processing through the streets, pretending to be samurai, geisha, courtesans and other historical characters?) How about a movie? Oh wait…Hollywood, Japanese, international indie, or film festival? Or perhaps we should go window-shopping…but which world-famous shopping district should we choose? Or maybe we should slow down, and stroll through a park, or visit a temple/shrine…but do we want to see flowers, trees, or art? Buddhist or Shinto? Lesser-known God, or widely-adored Goddess?

From time-to-time, in the street, a station, or at home, I turn to Tomo and say, with genuine awe and more than a little Christmas morning-level excitement, “We LIVE here!!!” 

I am searching for a metaphor that describes what living in Tokyo is like — something that illustrates that the further you go, the more you discover, and the more you realize there is to find. An onion? A labyrinth? The ocean? Marriage?


Bwahaha! …But I digress.

(It really might take 38 years to get to the green sproutie core of this city!)

For a girl with FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), however, the struggle is real. So, I’ve decided to get strategic. To attempt to harness the endless opportunity, today we’ll go to my favorite stationery/school supplies shop*, purchase a dry erase board and large wall calendar, and begin mapping where we want to go, and when. We have two years…how will we see it all? How will we do it all? (And maybe most importantly, how will we eat it all??)

I’ll keep you posted, and be sure to take pictures!


Walking in a nearby neighborhood after dinner ❤

…Oh, and p.s. Did I mention we are hosting the 2020 Olympics, and that the volunteer application opens any day now?


xoxo, Lilli

*My new favorite stationery shop: Yes, there are rows upon rows of the most adorable, classy, and creative stickers you have ever seen. Yes, there are handmade pop-up cards depicting Japanese seasonal traditions that play music. Yes, there are letter-writing sets the like of which I have not seen in the U.S. in at least a decade (have you tried buying a stationery set lately?). Yes, they have colored pens from all the best brands in the world.
And finally: yes, there are animal post-its. And animal paperclips. And animal binder clips. And animal…you get the picture.


Home Sweet Home (Life in 54 sq. meters)

The upside to this leg injury is that I am finally getting to spend some solid quality time in our (hard-won) new apartment.


Sleepy Saturday resting my knee in our living room.

One of the first questions people asked upon learning that we were moving to Tokyo was, “Where will you live?” To which we had to answer (faking more confidence than we actually felt), “The school will put us up in a hotel for two weeks, while a real estate agent helps us find an apartment.” But in the end, the process went much more smoothly than we might have imagined. (Well, give or take a hole or two in the ceiling that drips water from time-to-time, and ongoing struggle over the dearth of bicycle parking space.)

A few months before we arrived, we received an email from the agent with a looooong questionnaire regarding our housing preferences. Here are a few things that were on that  list:

  • Area of where you wish to live
  • Walking distance from the school
  • Required space (in square meters)
  • Age of the building
  • Monthly budget (including management fee)
  • What you would like to avoid such as ground floor, tatami room, etc.
  • Priority (area, size, monthly rent, age of the building, etc.)
  • How many years you have lived in Japan
  • Japanese language ability
  • Nationality

Now, imagine you are moving halfway across the world to a massive metropolis with which you are marginally familiar. How many of these questions could you answer with reasonable clarity? (And for those of you involved in/aware of fair housing laws in the U.S.: what does nationality, language, etc. have to do with it?)

…If your answer was, “I have no idea even where to begin,” then you know more or less how Tomo and I felt. So over the course of the next few months, we did *a lot* of research. And reached out to everyone we ever knew (and some strangers) who had lived in Tokyo.

And this is what we learned:

  • The closer you live to a train station, the more expensive your housing will be, but also exponentially more convenient.
  • Ground floor apartments are likely to turn into a damp, muggy, moldy swamp.
  • Rooms are measured by the number of tatami (reed sleeping mats) that would fit in them. A standard apartment bedroom will be around 6 tatamis, or the approximate size of 6 people sleeping on camping mats, toe-to-toe and side-by-side.
  • The age of a building matters because earthquakes (See Tremors (A meditation on earthquake preparedness)). 
  • Many landlords refuse to rent to foreigners because we are notoriously loud, uncouth, incomprehensible/uncomprehending, and not willing to follow basic rules and regulations (i.e. no sand in the elevator, no bottles thrown off of balconies, no turning your second bedroom into an AirBnB to fund your rent). It is completely legal to have a “no foreigners” policy.
  • I suspect that the type of foreigner/what nationality you are also affects where you can live. (This is anecdotal; I would have to do more research to confirm.)
  • There is a series of abbreviations to indicate layouts: “LDK” means it has a living room-dining room-kitchen (usually as one room); “SDK” means storage space and a dining room-kitchen, and so on.
  • Living rooms are not a guarantee, and in fact the agent was surprised at how attached I was to having one. (And everyone was surprised at to what degree couch=home for me.)
  • Move-in is a massively expensive endeavor. Apartments routinely charge:
    • 1-2 months’ rent worth of “key money” — this is non-refundable, and its destination is not entirely clear to me
    • 1-2 months’ deposit (standard cleaning fee is 1000 yen or approx $10/square meter upon move-out, the rest is refundable)
    • 1 month “thank you” fee to the agent who helps you
    • Approx. 10% rent “management” fee (this is monthly)
    • +1 month’s rent

…And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Once we had filled out our questionnaire, over the course of the next couple of months our agent would send us pictures/stat sheets on apartments from time-to-time. None of these would actually be available by the time we got here, but he wanted to get a sense of our tastes. A few weeks before we left Oregon, we made a plan to meet with him the day after we arrived and look at which apartments he had in mind for us, now that he knew more or less what we were looking for.

The apartment that we ended up choosing was the second one we saw. We saw three apartments that day, and more in the following days and weeks, as well as madly searching internet housing sites, and this one was far and away the best option for us, all told. (Apparently our answers did give a sense of who we were, after all.) Our budget limited us, so we had to give up some conveniences, but ultimately we would rather spend money on travel than rent.

So what did we end up with?

We are living in a 6th-floor apartment less than 15 minutes’ walk from my school, most of which is along a cherry-tree lined canal. The entire southern and eastern sides of the apartment is wrap-around windows, so we have sweeping views of the roof-and-tree tops of our neighborhood, as well as an intimate view of the comings and going of the vicinity’s raven population.



This is our building, from the outside.


The view from the LDK down the hallway to the front door.

The first door on the left leads to the sink and bathing rooms. The door further down, on the right, is the toilet room. (This is very common in Japan.) The other door is a closet. Our closet space is the envy of our friends here. Note that the entryway has a different textured floor than the rest of the apartment: that is where shoes go.


Bedroom #1, before move-in. Note sliding door that effectively becomes a wall between bedroom and living room, or makes it one large room.


             Bedroom #1, after. Ikea and Nitori furniture hand-built by yours truly. This is before we figured out that our suitcases fit under the bed, if we lifted it up.


With our dear friend Rachel (another Oregonian-Japanese international teacher who I dance with back home), celebrating Fall Equinox on our new couch.              Note bedroom #1 with door open behind us.


Our teeny-tiny kitchen before move-in.


Our teeny-tiny kitchen today.


Bedroom #2 (aka Sereno’s room/our office). We’ll have this furnished by the time he comes in December. 🙂 (Yippee!)


Bedroom #2, view #2. Note clothing rack. (We did pick up a dryer, which is rare here, at the local “recycle shop” — similar to St. Vinnie’s — but hang-dry most of our clothes.)


It’s hard to get a complete shot of the sink-and-bath rooms.


Here’s a close-up of our sink-cum-laundry room today.


Me demonstrating the length and depth of the (Japanese-style) bathtub.


The canal near our house

That’s all for now! Please feel free to post questions, comments, or topics you want me to cover below. Thank you for reading! xo


…And in case you really like to geek out on housing (this is a pastime bordering on obsession in my family), here is a walk-through we filmed while we were trying to decide which place to choose: