Flood and Drought

Snow on Trees in Japan

I wish I could send some of the snow piles sitting around my apartment right now to my friends and family in California. Here I am near flooding with school closures scheduled tomorrow and they’re practically shriveling up for lack of water.

There is a beauty in deserts, especially around an oasis. It is a stark often lonely beauty. Here’s to hoping some of those oases come back to California and the rest of us can be a little less wet!

But if its not to be, then let’s figure out how to make the best of it. Otherwise it’s going to get a lot worse! At least my husband and I had a good time bonding under snow flakes while walking our groceries home. It was too snowy for the bicycles to be safe! Anyone else have some climate change weather ideas? Please comment away!


National Story Telling and the Museum Medium

I’ve had the privilege of living in The People’s Republic of China, South Korea, and Japan in the past four years and visited national museums in each. The true impact of these experiences gain value as you add one countries national historical account along side another.

One of the major events of my year studying in China, was the visit to the Nanjing Massacre Museum, also called the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Placards and notes on the exhibits are written in at least three languages: English, Japanese and Chinese. It is a site designed to be seen by the international eye as proof of China’s suffering. For the native viewer, the impact strives to assure that the gaping wound of resentment will never be closed. From the white bones showing through the open mass grave to notes on the heroism shown by German and American expats, its sculpted to leave an indelible mark on whoever experiences it.

Two years later I visited the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, South Korea. Read that again carefully. Not the National Museum of South Korea but the National Museum of Korea. Words really do mean something. Inside the exhibition halls the ideal of a single Korea is carefully presented.

I came to this museum having a degree in East Asian Studies and living a year in China. From my first week in South Korea, I was able to see influences from dynastic China on the local history, much the same way that one can see influences from Rome in Washington D.C. Inside the the National Museum strong nationalistic decencies shied away from attributing significant culture or heritage to the historic Middle Kingdom of Asia. Korea was Korea, the line seemed to be. Korean was Korean because of indigenous Korean capacity.

History is always more complicated than politics would desire, especially nationalistic politics. When I walked down a sidewalk in Seoul, the manholes leading to drains had the Chinese character for water stamped into the metal, not the Korean word. The Korean writing system is about 400 years old. I walked away from National Museum with a sense of how fiercely Korean have had to struggle to keep their peninsula state and an appreciate for much of the grace and art of Korea. But I was also left scratching my head about the idea of a continuously sovereign Korean. Where my textbooks said Korean had paid fealty to this Chinese Emperor or that one, the museum preferred to lay out a gray area of of “mutual benefit relationships” and other kinds of arrangements on display at the museum.

Not that I’m faulting them for it. China does much the same, as do other countries. The idea of a unified dynastic China marching strong down through the pages of history is exactly that, an idea. There have been plethora of civil wars, break away regions, separately ruled Chinas and periods where the Emperors controlled much less territory than China holds today. Even the ethnicity of the rulers changed. It’s a fantasy the Chinese like to tell, much like we like to think that the first thirteen state of the United States were all excited about becoming a unified country.

Later I made my second visit the Yasukuni Jinja Museum in Tokyo. The entire display flows beautiful. Dates and artifacts mix in imaginatively designed rooms that maintain a traditional sense of Japanese value for simplicity. Readings about the Nanjing Massacre or even Hiroshima were noticeable missing. Like in other nationalistic museums, I left with a sense of the courage and resourcefulness of the people of the nation. A Japanese friend I ran into in the museum asked me afterwards, “How does it feel to go through the museum as an American? Isn’t the language very strong for Japan?”

I had to think about my answer. After all the national museums I’ve experienced, I could claim no surprise at the tone of the language. Actually, I wondered aloud to my husband recently on what the national museum in Afghanistan will look like in sixty five years or so. What will the U.S. look like in that museum performance? I don’t know. Honestly, I’m fairly sure it will be more honest with our faults and less honest with our virtues than we would wish, depending on what displays Afghanistan in the best.

I answered my friends question by referring to the hall displaying letters written by men and women to their families before they died. Many of them knew they were about to die. They are moving and powerful in their frequent simplicity. How much do any of us have to say, when we know its the last thing we will say? I’ve read these kind of letters in China, Korea and the U.S. I told my friend, “They all say the same things. They all love their families. They all thank their mothers and fathers and express hope for their siblings or beg those left behind to take care of their children.”

My friend waved her hand between us. “You’re American and I’m Japanese. Look how we are now.”

I agreed with her. Either none of us are the monsters these museums want to make us out to be or we are all monsters in our own turn.

Defining the enemy to create an “us” is easy. Leave the embarrassments on the cutting room floor. Highlight the triumphs and explain away the glaring failures with expressions lack of resources or unfortunate events. Each successful national state will eventually, if not immediately, create a powerful and moving argument for itself.

It’s not in the advantage of anyone drumming up national pride to confront complicated relationships, failed campaigns or what a nation has done when driven to extremes. It requires compassion, mortal fiber and a belief in a nation’s cause that is not based on its shiny image.

Governments need solidarity and power. Individual people need connections and relationships. I think we’ll be chipping away at these blocks of irrational nationalistic pride and hate for years. That’s how thick they are. But I do believe it can be done, since I’ve been experiencing it myself, one cup of tea, coffee, beer or soju at a time.

Communicating Through Barriers

More and more of us are finding ourselves in a position where we are trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t’ speak our language, or doesn’t speak it well. As we race into an ever increasing global 21st century, this isn’t a situation that’s going to change any time soon. Even with the massive amounts of English classes being pushed by governments and private companies around the world, language acquisition is a slow process and the quality of English spoken by non-native speakers is extremely variable, as are our own second language abilities.

Communication is still possible. Here are a couple of ways to approach situations with language barriers if an interpreter is not readily available.


This is the best possible advice anyone can give you. People are more willing to work with someone who is relaxed and pleasant. They’re probably as worried as you are.

Whatever you do, raising your voice, using baby talk or getting angry will not help. Keep it light and treat the person your speaking to with respect. Language barrier or not, people will know when you’re treating them badly. Even though their language might sound childish or naive to you, they’re likely mature capable adults and sound like that in their own language.

Use sign language:

This is actually pretty effective. Sound effects, pictures, facial expressions and miming are all useful tools that we’ve used before entertaining children and making jokes with our friends. These are skills we already have, at least nascent.


If you know ahead of time that you will be in this kind of situation, whether for social reasons etc, preparing a simple slide show of pictures and clip art can fill in the awkward gaps in the “conversation”. Alternatively, you can upload a drawing app on your device or go old school and keep a pad of paper or a pencil to help you describe things or ask questions as you go along.

Finally, think about investing in an electronic dictionary. You can also download dictionary apps to your computer or other portable electronic device. There are even apps being advertised now that allows you to carry on a verbal conversation with your smart phone translating as you speak. I can’t speak for their accuracy but  in a pinch, it probably works.

Keep a sense of humor.:

You might just find yourself having the time of your life miming eating long noodles or finding the entrance to Tokyo Tower. Don’t be a afraid to look a little silly! It’s worth it.  Besides, half the time you’re probably in a country where nobody knows you. Who’s going to make fun of you in twenty years, or even the next five minutes, unless you tell on yourself, of course. And even if you are in your home town, you’re probably a hero, because everyone else is too self conscious to try to communicate with the “difficulty”. They’re all secretly glad you stepped up to the plate. Remember, someday, you could be the difficulty for someone else in the future, or maybe your son or daughter is miming their way through buying fruit in some car away country hoping someone will take the time to understand them.

To Rate or Not to Rate

It used to be that you could go down to the store, find a CD on the shelf, maybe ask the person behind the counter what was “hot” but in today’s online shopping arena, that’s no longer the case. We go online, read Amazon or Goodreads reviews to decide whether or not to buy a book, check Yelp for the latest restaurant experiences or drop into LinkedIn to check on someone’s profile.

It’s a self sustaining system, requiring the constant input of thousands of us as we go about our daily lives. Without the social proof of reviews, a completely wonderful new bar in town or a promising young author is going close up shop and leave us without their new vibe or perspective.

Stars, reviews, votes and shares today are worth more than a single purchase. If you know of an author you enjoy, an artist who’s music moves you or a movie that you thought just rocked, go out and review. Even if its a short one liner or a quick star rating on a podcast, give it a shout out. If we want our favorite businesses, entertainers, writers and artistic to continue to serve us, entertain us or motivate us, then we have to lend them the modern stamp of approval.

The great thing is we can do this without spending money or getting up and delivering a speech. And it means that we’ll likely be enjoying more of what we like.

So get on your keyboards and vote. It’s not just a political thing anymore, it’s a stand for how you like to be entertained, serviced and spoken to.  It does make a difference. Those likes, votes, and ratings are often the first things donors, supporters, publishers and potential interviewees look at.

If you don’t like the social proof that’s being awarded, get out there and give a little to those you believe deserve it. Make the world a bit more how you want it to look, sound or read. In the end, it’s to your benefit.

Diversity: An Interactive Performance

My husband and I are very comfortable talking about racial differences. It’s a daily staple of our lives. He worries about how my pale skin sunburns in literally a handful of minutes and he drives me nuts because when the lights are out, all he has to do is close his eyes and I can’t see him. We don’t see any reason to tiptoe around who we are. It’s an adventure for us to explore how the other experiences the world.

Sometimes we forget other people don’t see it quite the same way. Living abroad as we have the last few years, we’re so used to being the outsiders. A few months ago we met up in Maebashi with some American missionaries. Technically they were proselytizing us. We had been very open that we were content in our current belief system but they had asked to meet anyway and we enjoy good natured debate as well as meeting new people, so we agreed to lunch at the station MacDonald’s.

It was a hot sunny day. We met just outside and as we stood there in the sun, my husband started fussing over whether I was all right in the sun with my still healing sunburn. “You and your superior African genes!” I groused. My husband never burns. Sometimes he gets a red hue to his skin, but it’s an undertone. “It’s not like you ever burn!”

My husband laughed. “But you do, so I get to worry about you.” He dropped an arm over my shoulder and turned me around, pulling me under the shade. The two people we were were meeting looked gobsmacked. “It’s all right,” I said. “We’re very comfortable talking about racial differences.”

Our companions had no comeback. In fact, there was a distinct note of silence. Think foot shuffling, hand rubbing and quick glances anywhere but straight in the eyes. My husband and I quickly filled the silence by discussing seating and the busy ordering area in MacDonald’s. The thought of good old American fries and burgers rescued the moment.

Our companions were good people. They meant the best and they were definitely of the tolerant persuasion, willing to accept people who were different than them, at least to a point. But despite all that, they didn’t know who how to handle face-to face-openness of those differences. So often you hear people preach about tolerance, acceptance and the good points of diversity. But what about interaction with diversity. What about reveling in it? Living in it? It’s not a glass wall to look and say, yes, I’m educated enough to like looking at this. It’s not art on a wall, people!

This is important. It’s not effective and dynamic diversity at a personal relationship level, a group level, and institution or organizational level, unless we can talk about, joke about, handle recognition of differences with humor, grace and dignity. Differences aren’t bad! Being different than the person sitting next to you is awesome. It means you have something special to share, a different angle to bring to talking a problem, a story to tell. But we can’t enjoy all these benefits if we can’t open our mouth and talk about them.