19 February, 2019

What does a young man who grew up in Japan look like?

Our eldest son mentioned to me that he's had some interesting reactions to people in Australia finding out where he grew up. Mostly people don't guess that he grew up outside Australia. For one person, however, it went the other way—she'd been told about him and that he was "from Japan", perhaps even "a missionary kid from Japan", but was surprised to find that he was Australian. I'm not sure what she expected, or for that matter, what anyone expects.

Sometimes when we're in Australia it feels like we're a zoo exhibit. "Come and look at this rare species: the missionary family from Japan." My kids have never said that, but I wonder. People wonder what kind of weird we'll be, they invite their kids over to meet the missionary kids. I've had people wonder why I don't have an accent (to which I point out that I do . . . if I'm speaking Japanese words known to Australians, like "kimono", "karate", or "Kyoto").
I found this at a homeware store yesterday.
We've always said, when we're travelling,
that "home is where your toothbrush is".
But home is especially where
those you love are. This, of course,
is messy when your loved ones are
scattered about.

"From Japan" is a funny label that we get slapped with. Because, just like "home", where we are "from" is complex. Our youngest was introduced as "from Japan" when he first went to kindergarten in Australia. No other parents talked to us for months until he finally got an invite to a party and we had opportunity to explain what "from Japan" meant in our case. They thought that their four-year-olds were telling weird stories and they didn't know what to do with our obviously non-Asian faces.

But it has been interesting to watch our eldest son try to figure out what home means. Up until he left home to go to university last February, it was pretty simple. Home was where we were, though that got stretched a little whenever we were in Australia on home assignment. 

Last year, when we were in Australia for six months, he didn't spend as much time with us as we'd anticipated. The house we were living in didn't represent home to him, but later in the year he realised that "home" was really more about the people he felt most at home with rather than the place. And that even though the context was unfamiliar, he felt more at home with us than anywhere else.

Then he visited us in Japan a few weeks ago. Back in the house and context where he'd lived from 2010 to 2018. That really felt like home. Back in his old bed, old routines. Though there were some key things missing, like most of his friends from those years.

So yes, it's messy. Our lives are messy, if you view them through certain monocultural lenses. But we're actually pretty comfortable with our oddities. Perhaps in Japan it is just normal to be odd, as an expat. It's in Australia that we feel more uncomfortable, especially as we have to go around talking about the oddities of what our lives look like.

16 February, 2019

Was it worth it?

We've had a pretty calm, "normal" week and have started to have the head space to look back and process the last few months. It's easy to look back with regret. 

Home assignment is required by our mission, though how and when you do it is a negotiable thing. So we look at the last six months and start to think: "Did we do the right thing? Did we make the right choices?"

The fact is that there is no good way to do home assignment. It means a lot of disruption in the missionaries' lives. When those missionaries have children at school, that disruption is bigger. If they are teenagers, the disruption escalates to a high level. If those children are settled and the missionaries are established in good-fit ministries, then it seems so unnecessary to volunteer for this amount of disruption.

The other side, though, is that our mission relies on missionaries coming "home" to give a field-side perspective to their mobilisation efforts. People at churches we visit repeatedly say how good it is to see us face-to-face and that that makes a big difference for them.

So, at this point you ask: was it worth the effort? I can't answer that question, though I know we've paid a significant cost as a family to do this home assignment. I also know that there are a few benefits we gained. Here are some tangible ones:
  • we went through a crisis in late November that made us, and various related parties, look carefully at our calling to Japan—the result of that was great confirmation that we are indeed in the right place doing the things God has called us to
  • home assignment triggered us to get some help for one family member who had been struggling for some time
  • we were able to see our extended family members face-to-face and get a feel for how things were going for them: the benefit of that on relationships with them is immeasurable, but definitely not negative
  • we also reconnected more deeply with our home church and as a result see the start of changes there with regards to involvement in mission
  • I was able to address a slow-burning issue with a psychologist and find remarkable answers that will help me stay this journey long-term
  • we got to spend time with our eldest son and witness first hand that his transition to Australia has gone remarkably well (and got to help him on the way to a drivers licence)
There are a variety of benefits that are more difficult to discern, including how this will affect our younger two boys' abilities to transition to Australia after they graduate from high school.

But one, very tangible, result, was a realisation that we can do regular dates now. Many Fridays we dropped our son off to youth group and then went to a local restaurant (and played Scrabble). Our boys are quite old enough to manage a meal on their own (often left-overs). Last night we had our first date-for-no-special-occasion in Japan. I can't remember the last time we did such a thing, and it was great, especially being able to indulge in a spontaneity that has just not been possible for nearly 20 years! We have home assignment to thank for this. Possibly not something our mission leaders had in mind, but I'll take it.

A coffee-flavoured cake called an Opera Cake!
My decaf coffee (8pm at night) came with this dollhouse-sized jug of cream!

14 February, 2019

Elements of home

A couple of weeks ago a Japanese friend brought back the pot plants that she'd been looking after for me. I was really glad to see them (I missed seeing her, but caught up with her over a cup of coffee last week). My humble (hard-to-kill) pot plants are a small part of what makes this house mine on a longer-term basis, not just a place that we're sleeping for a few months. We didn't have any in Australia, there was no point, but I missed having a few plants to ponder.

I've got a few spare pots, I'm looking forward to adding a couple more plants when spring takes off next month.

This one has come downstairs to our living area. No sun here, but at least it is warm. I'll keep an eye on it to see how much sun it might need. Although according to some people, being located next to the router might kill it!

This is the view from the kitchen through to the dining room and my desk (on the left, just out of view).

Getting back to familiar places is always a good thing to do when trying to re-settle into a place. The school where most of our family spends a lot of their days, has been a great place to return to. I've enjoyed getting back into the parent prayer meetings too. It's a place where transition is common and, though most people have never been to Australia, the idea of leaving Japan for several months, and then returning, is quite normal.

Last week I also made it back to the gym, another familiar place. At this place I can work out for a mere 320 yen (AU$4).

Familiar places and people. All these things make it feel like home, and different to a move to a new place. It has a surreal note to it, though. We're missing some key factors that mess with our heads occasionally. For example, though we are in mid-winter, we've not just had a cold Christmas and some members of the family can be heard humming Christmas carols occasionally. 

Now, five weeks since we arrived, the dust is starting to settle, that includes emotions. Having our eldest visit just after we arrived back was great, but it did muddle things for a bit.

13 February, 2019

Foil gift

An important value in Japan is to not inconvenience other people (or, another way to say that is: not annoying other people, as I wrote about in a post three years ago). 

As a foreigner, it is not always easy to figure out when you might inconvenience other people and we're still learning. But in a city where space is at a premium, where you put yourself, your children, and your belongings is a serious issue.

But when it comes to doing construction work on your house, you're heading into a land of much inconvenience to others. So we find that construction workers are generally very considerate about things like their vehicles blocking the narrow roads. However, to ward off any potential bad feelings, prior to doing construction it seems that they do an obligatory run around the neighbours to give an apologetic notice accompanied by a gift.

Last year we got a towel from the neighbours behind us. And we got another towel six years ago when a neighbour's fence was being fixed.

This time we got 20m of foil.

A house on our street, about 30 m from ours, has been demolished. It looks like they are going to be building again very soon. The block of land is bordered by two roads, neither of which is very wide. They aren't main roads, but they do get a reasonable amount of traffic on roads that are only about 5m wide. We've caused minor traffic jams by someone stopping near there to pick us up by car. 
Blue rectangle: our house
Red star: the construction site
Green arrow: entrance to kindergarten
Orange arrows: roads

I'll have to write another blog post to explain why there's
white paper suspended from string in the middle of the block!
Obviously, large construction vehicles are going to potentially cause traffic congestion and inconvenience to pedestrians, especially because across the road is a large kindergarten where most kids arrive by bus and on foot. They have a car park, but it is down the street about 50m. 

So, we've received a letter of apology in advance and some foil! I presume the kindergarten and all our neighbours received something similar in the name of keeping neighbourly relationships smooth.

10 February, 2019

Complicated emotions in the park

Last Thursday I'd had two full days "in the office" and needed to get out. I'd been watching the weather because when you're going to ride your bike several kilometres, you'd rather be doing it at a sunny or still 14˚C than at 0˚C with precipitation or wind. Anyway, Thursday's forecast looked great, so I took off to the park late morning. Turned out to be a good few hours in the park. I'm gradually getting my bike stamina back and rode around 14km.

The park at this time of year is rather brown and dreary. It, like the rest of us, is just waiting for the start of spring. 

In another six weeks or so this area will be flooded with bikes and picnickers sitting under divine pale pink cherry blossoms.

But there were some early glimpses of spring.

 I assume these are types of plum blossoms.

These are the two seats that I've sat on many times before. In summer they are a beautiful shaded spot surrounded by lush, green trees. At this time of year, the sun is welcome, but the outlook a little dull. It was good to be back at another familiar place, a place I'd dreamed about while we were away and ached to be able to visit again. However, my mood was rather morose. 

Complicated feelings caused by a bundle of small and bigger things, including the post-transition-slump. It was a great comfort to be able to reach out virtually to two friends who have become especially dear in recent months. I was feeling inadequate and unworthy. While sitting on this (cold) familiar bench, my friends loved me unconditionally all the way from Australia by "hearing" my pain and telling me not to apologize for the emotional dump. My friends are teaching me another level of being vulnerable that I didn't know I could or needed to go to.

I put this out there, not for sympathy or reader love, but to keep this real. I'm not a superhero and I don't want to pretend that I am. I'm sorry if my post last Tuesday about our eldest son leaving home made you feel that I had it all together. If anything, the past few months have revealed to me even more deeply how flawed and vulnerable I am.

But like all who trust the God of the Bible, I cling to his adequacy, his immovability. I want to be like the wise man of Matthew 7 who had his foundation on rock and his house was not smashed.

07 February, 2019

Why do you ride when you could drive?

It might seem strange if you never lived in Tokyo, that we often ride our bikes here when we could drive (especially when the weather is nasty). The truth is that often we can get somewhere local faster on a bike than in a car. Tokyo roads are narrow and have low speed limits. Add to that the traffic, including pedestrians and bikes, that you might have to deal with, and driving can be very slow. Not to mention that when you get to the other end, you might, or might not find a free park to put your car in, or have difficulty parking your car. In most cases it is much easier to park a bike!

Here are roads I rode on today:
Note that this narrow road has all sorts of obstacles on the actual road: electricity poles and signs. To drive this you can't actually drive much faster than 20km/h because you'd be dodging these obstacles as well as any pedestrians or cyclists who are sharing the space with you. Not to mention the possibility of kids or other vehicles emerging from the many near-invisible roads that empty onto it. You will often have to give way to oncoming traffic on these narrow roads as it's not possible for two cars to pass easily in all places along the road.

 This one is a bit wider and faster at 30km/h, though still has some poles on the road. There are no dedicated footpaths (sidewalks), the painted lines are to indicate where you should walk.

This is a quite a wide two-lane 40km/h road that wasn't very busy, mostly because it's got t-intersections at either end of its relatively short length.

And the "big" two-laned 50km/h road. Cars were ripping along here, probably faster than the speed limit. I've driven on this road many times, and the lanes are quite narrow in places. There are also many traffic lights, so if you get up to speed, you quickly have to decelerate to stop again.

Here's another 30 km/h road, with a footpath and poles on the road. The white T on the road is to indicate that there is an entering road on the right.

05 February, 2019

One year anniversary

I shared this photo on social media this day last year.
It sparked a metaphor that was helpful—that the calm
water going over this weir would eventually settle back
into calmness again. As would our lives, after this
farewell and transition.
Today it's one year since our eldest son left home. It was a hard day, even though I left with him. I'm not fond of travelling and the task of taking my son away from his brothers to live in another country, not to mention the tasks that lay in wait for us in Australia didn't fill me with peace. The hardest thing about the day was watching his brothers say goodbye as they went off to school. They'd never known life without him and, though I knew this was the right thing for him, it was hard to see how it was good for them.

However, one year later we've all adjusted and he hasn't crashed and burned. In fact, it's kind of weird to have him here these last couple of weeks, living as though he'd never left! I need to keep reminding myself that he's an adult and lived a pretty independent life in Australia.

It's a different kind of life, though, once they move out. You no longer know what they're up to on a daily basis (especially when communication isn't their forte). You trust that no news is good news and you carry on with daily life "almost" as if they weren't missing.

But I haven't been as devastated as you might imagine. I had someone say to me around this time last year that she couldn't imagine sending her kids overseas for university (admittedly her kids are currently primary aged and they all live in their passport country), but, though it wasn't easy, it wasn't as hard as she imagined. There are several reasons for that.

1. It's normal in the missionary world
As a missionary, it is more "normal" to expect that your children will graduate and move overseas. It's what's happening with all your missionary peers. That means that from the start, our expectations are very different to those who live in a capital city in their passport country and expect that their kids will remain at home during university years. Expectations are powerful things.

2. Our life experience
Both David and I left home at 17 to go to university (admittedly not overseas, but still we lived far enough from home that a daily commute wasn't possible), and we both experienced significant personal and spiritual growth during those uni years. So, it's normal, and indeed positive, in our experience, to leave home after high school.

3. A holistic view of parenting
Another element is the view of parenting that I've held since the beginning of this journey: kids don't complete me. Yes, I wanted to be a mother very strongly. But my boys aren't my main purpose for living and they certainly aren't the centre of my world. At times that view has made parenting hard, as I've struggled to focus on them instead of other things that have been going on, but in general, it's given me a more holistic view of the role that kids have in my life. 

4. Parenting goal
I have also held strongly to the view that my main job as a parent is to raise a child who will eventually leave home as an independent adult, able to contribute positively to society. As I see that happening, I realise that I'm achieving my goal, even if letting go of them hurts. My goal for my boys isn't that they give me joy by being close by.

Wow, I hadn't thought that I had all these reasons. It's been useful to write it out (but believe me, if this were in ink, this would be about the 25th draft, I've made so many changes as I've written!)

Another element is that we knew we were going back to Australia in July, so it wasn't a whole-year farewell (though it felt that way). We didn't actually see as much of him in Australia as we'd expected. But that was a good thing too: we could see that he had a life. He had friends, things to do, and commitments to keep. All good stuff. Indeed, he is well on his way to becoming that independent adult that was our goal all along—so satisfying. And, in letting him go, we're getting the joy that we wouldn't have received if we'd clutched him to ourselves.

Nevertheless, we say goodbye again on Saturday. This time it could be a 10-month farewell. We're not planning to be back in Australia any time soon, but perhaps he'll be back here for Christmas?

However, this time, though it will be sad, it will be just a little easier, because we know he's got a life to return to in Australia and that we've coped without him in our daily lives during the last year.