Yesterday, January 20th, was my Japan Day – the day I came to Japan 3 years ago. On my last Japan Day I wrote a post while reflecting on all the things that had happened in the previous 2 years. That post was, and still is, rather important to me – because it helped me seriously think about the things that I did right and the things I could improve on in my life (of course, I’m sure I missed a few of the latter). Today, I’d like to keep it simple and just quickly write about 11 things in 2011 that changed my life in some significant way.
In chronological order:
Working at COOKPAD: Although I started at COOKPAD in November of 2010, it was January and February when it finally hit home that “I’m not in Kansas anymore.” By February of 2011, I was very aware that I had taken a leap outside of my comfort zone. My initial expectations for the new work environment didn’t match the reality and I started feeling a little anxious about my work and my potential to do great work. The biggest cause of the anxiety was actually one of the reasons I moved to COOKPAD – the desire to work in a Japanese company with lots of other engineers. What didn’t dawn on me until after the “honeymoon period” was the fact that language barriers at work essentially crippled my working style. I’m usually in a good spot if I can take charge and do the things that I’m sure will help make things better… but that only works if everyone else can understand how the thing I’m doing will help them. By February, I’d already made several attempts to collaborate with other engineers – but my ideas weren’t getting through the language barrier – and it made me feel more of a burden to others than anything. This feeling, this anxiety, really hit me hard and made it clear to me that the only person to blame for my situation was the guy in the mirror. It forced me into action, and looking back – I’m glad it did.
3/11 Earthquake: I wrote a post about 2 hours after THE quake hit Japan. It was scary, so scary that for the first time in memory I actually feared for my life. The event and the following weeks were mind-blowing. Everything from aftershocks, heart-breaking stories on the television, and the unseen threat of nuclear radiation was coursing through conscious thought, while my dreams were often interrupted by the strong aftershocks. The intimidating power of nature is one way to learn how small a person really is – it put a lot of things into perspective.
Expecting: The day before Ayako and I left Japan for our seriously delayed, but never forgotten, honeymoon – we learned that we were expecting a baby. At the time I heard, I was sitting at the Gotemba train station – a rural resort town near Mt. Fuji – where I had just spent a night with coworkers. The news was big, but not completely unexpected – yet it still made me think constantly about the future ahead of me and how I could prepare.
Italy – our honeymoon: I promised my wife when we got engaged that I’d take her to Florence, Italy. It was only fitting, in my mind, since we met in a town by the same name in the States. Seeing the Old World was amazing – and the weather during our trip couldn’t have been better. What made this trip extra special for us was knowing that our lives were going to change completely over the next 9 months.
Japanese Lessons: The week after we returned from Italy, I registered for 1-on-1 Japanese lessons at Meguro Language Center. The schedule was intense – 5 days a week from 8AM to 9:30AM – with loads of homework to do each night. The curriculum and teachers really helped me map out a fast-paced path to learning Japanese. Getting up at 5AM every day and going to bed around midnight became the routine – and the product of all that work is something I’m still proud of today, albeit I’m not finished. Registering for the classes was a big step forward for me. I put my money where my mouth was (that’s an accurate pun) and pushed myself past my simple daily habit and it made me feel in control.
A tiny heart: In May of this year we got to hear, for the first time, the beating heart of our baby. That moment still is etched in my memory as clear as if it were yesterday. Life, the baby we couldn’t yet call by name, was there – and it was very real. I’ll probably never forget that feeling, knowing that something so tiny relied on me in such a big way.
Golden Week with the In-laws: The first week of May we spent in Maebashi with Ayako’s parents. The news of their first grandchild sparked life into them like I’d never seen before (not that they weren’t lively before). We traveled to a temple in Ota city together, and I learned a lot more about family life in Japan.
Losing my brother: The lowest point in my year came in mid-May when my brother, only 8 years my senior, passed away. It was a very heart-wrenching feeling to know that I was on this side of the world, far removed from his suffering and unaware how serious his illness had become. My unawareness actually had nothing to do with my family keeping me updated (they did email and call me often), but more so with my unwillingness to accept that he was dying. Although he told me that he was tired of fighting renal failure (which came from a near fatal infection that attacked his kidneys when he was an infant – after which one doctor said he wouldn’t live much longer), I couldn’t believe he’d given up, or that his body was truly failing him. I argued with my brother at one point, telling him he had to seek different medical help – he had to go to a different doctor, a different hospital – he had to fight it. I argued with him and silently told myself that he’d pull through, but he didn’t. Not going to see Roy in his last days was a deep emotional wound that I inflicted on myself. I was deep in depression for several months after his death; I drank a lot then (almost daily), and pondered that the world is full of unfairness: some people get more time than they deserve and others never get enough. I thank God that I have my wife and a lot of friends here in Japan – I was never alone, and it forced me to hide my mourning with a smile and chit-chat and activities – and I relearned that the only way to truly heal was to keep moving forward.
JLPT: In July of 2011, I took and passed the JLPT level N4. I had taken the test 6 months previously just to see where I was in my language ability – and failed as expected. This time, however, I passed without a problem and felt great about all that studying. This little boost to my morale kept me going for the next 5 months in preparation for the next test in December. No matter how tumultuous the first 6 months of 2011 had been, I had a bearing on my direction – I was in control:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Losing a friend: By August, I’d thought all the bad events for the year had already been used up, but I was wrong. On the 22nd of August I received ill tidings that one of my close high school friends had taken his own life. He and I had spent a lot of our high school days playing basketball together at school and at an outdoor park. We’d play during the warm summer, cool springs and falls, and even once played around 6am on a chilly winter morning when he’d called me saying he couldn’t sleep. We even shared an apartment for a few months when I started my second year at a college in Georgia. That didn’t last long, due to some unfortunate uncontrollable events, and after that, even though we were still good friends, we drifted apart as many high school companions tend to do. My heart pained that I hadn’t seen him or talked with him before he died – his sudden death was a fresh cut on an already deep wound. Luckily, perhaps, that very same day I’d been a part of an informal after-work meeting in which a few words not directed at me seemed to speak directly to me. I took solace in the idea that I’m really the one in control of my life – it’s up to me to reach out to others proactively – it’s up to me to tell myself “shoganai nai”, and that’s what I did in a week long experiment that I plan on doing every year as a way to remember my brother and my friend Scott.
My daughter: With all the ups and downs that 2011 brought me, there was one particular high-point that eclipsed everything: the birth of Mia Kristen. Witnessing that event was life-changing in itself, but even now I know that my life has been irrevocably changed for the good. I’ve matured a bit more, perhaps it isn’t noticeable yet, but it’s true. I’m a father now, and seeing her face and dreaming of her future is all I need to be glad that I am.