Well, I have had the ability to write this email for quite a while now, but I have been afraid of how long it will get with everything that has happened this first month and a half. But, the longer I put off writing an update, the harder it will get. So! Diving right in!
Some important terminology for you all:
J3 = My job. It stands for "Japan" "3 years". There are two other new J3s: Matt and Sarah. Sarah is my housemate, Matt lives in the next "town" over (about a fifteen minute walk).
VYMers = The Missouri Synod Lutheran missionaries who are going through orientation and training with us. They are four girls: Katrina, Haidee, Cassie, and Janae.
Kumamoto = a city on the island of Kyushu (southern Japan). J3s are stationed either in Tokyo or in Kumamoto after language training. Two out of the three new J3s will be stationed at Luther Gakuin (a Lutheran High School) after our orientation.
The Hongo Center = The center in Tokyo where the Lutheran church teaches English and some Christianity classes. One J3 will be stationed here after our orientation.
Katakana = The Japanese alphabet used for foreign words adopted into the language, such as my name. My name is now written: パメラ サーセン, which is transcribed as Pamera Sahsen. :-) If you want to know what yours looks like, let me know and I'll send it to you.
Now we should all be on the same page...or, if we're not, I'll try to explain as I go. ;-)
So, our first week in Japan was mainly time to get lost on the trains, have people talk at us in Japanese (I mean, get registered as legal aliens and get bank accounts and the like), and Learn to Use Chopsticks Now Week. It was a week when small successes seemed monumental. The major successes of week one were: successfully eating rice with chopsticks, getting to the correct eki (train station) without having to go backwards, and finding low fat milk.
Soon after our week of leisure and learning, we jumped on the Shinkansen (bullet train...think 250 km / hour!) and went down to Hiroshima for the J3 Retreat. Here we met up with all the J3s from the country--probably ten people aside from us. There are only two J3s stationed in Tokyo right now. The rest are down in Kumamoto teaching junior and senior high English classes. It was fun to have the whole group together, and amazing to see how good some of their Japanese was. It was also amazingly lovely to flee the endless buildings that are Tokyo. A Japanese movie I saw once used the phrase "lost in an urban wilderness", and that sums up what Tokyo feels like sometimes. Our lodgings in Hiroshima, though, were on an island with lots of trees and mountains and the ocean.
It was our lodgings in Hiroshima where we got our first very traditional Japanese meal, though. If any of you are thinking of visiting Japan, I would recommend getting good chopsticks skills first. It makes it so that if you don't know what something is, you can just try a little bite of it. Verses me, who was forced to put an entire mystery glob of food in my mouth, with varying results. It was usually fine, though. The exception was sushi squid, which, as my housemate so accurately described it, "is the only food that gets chewier the more you chew it."
Speaking of food, Japanese food is amazing. My favorite is katsudon--it's a breaded pork cutlet and egg on top of rice. Yummy!
Seeing the sites in Hiroshima was very emotionally moving. I could easily write you an entire email on the moral thoughts that were crashing around in my head as I walked through the museum there. Questions like: What would have happened if we hadn't dropped the bomb? When it comes to warfare, is the number of lives cost the only determining factor for whether an attack was moral, or are there some actions that will always be immoral? Perhaps the best thing I can say after seeing the museum is: nuclear bombs are scary. Please let's not use them ever again.
We went straight from Hiroshima to Kumamoto where we visited the schools and possible future bosses. The schools are definitely Japanese. The students are there for hours and hours during the day, and the teachers are as well. Some positive things about Kumamoto that I learned were that I might have the opportunity to help out with a bell choir there and I also might be able to teach a class at a kindergarten once a week. But in terms of the teaching itself, I think I am better suited to the Hongo Center.
Speaking of the Hongo Center, we also have taken the opportunity to spend time there on Friday nights. Paul, the current J3 who will be leaving in March, teaches a Christianity Today course and Aaron, a longterm missionary and pastor, leads an English Coffee Hour afterwards. Most of the Hongo students are in university or they are professionals. One man is a neurologist who studies the Bible in French, German, English, and who-knows-what-else so long as it isn't Japanese. He thinks studying the Bible in Japanese is boring. If I were placed here, I would be teaching adults during the week. I think my teaching style is a little better suited to adults, and I like the idea of teaching the Christianity Today class.
Anyway, about a day after we returned from Kumamoto, we began our Japanese classes at the Lutheran Language Institute. We have two teachers. Nunokawa Sensei is one of those amazing teachers that you know loves you and wants you to learn. She could beat just about anyone I know at charades. Our other teacher is Miyazawa Sensei, and she speaks my language when it comes to language instruction. That being said, I have come close to being murdered by my classmates while discussing grammar with Miyazawa Sensei on more than one occasion. Apparently, my enthusiasm for the Japanese classes can be intimidating at times. I'm trying to tone it down. Really.
...but grammar is so interesting! And I have to clarify about it sometimes because that's how I know how to use it correctly. Ahem. I'm done now.
One of the real lights of my time in Japan has been the time we have spent with the VYMers. We've been doing Bible studies with them once a week. And when my church experiences are all in Japanese, having that time to worship and pray in a group in English has been amazingly filling. We've made a point of doing things outside of class and Bible study as well, which resulted in my first trip to a sento (public bath). Contrary to my fears, the sento was great and relaxing. I've actually, with the help of a Japanese friend from church, located a sento within walking distance of my house now. Sarah and I are planning on checking it out at some point. We're just hoping it's not one of the mixed gender ones, because that would be more than we can handle.
I've been attending my assigned congregation, Hachioji Church, for about month now. It's a nice place, and the people all seem very friendly. It is both a blessing and a curse that there are almost no English speakers there. The hardest part is the sermon, which is usually around 45 minutes long and, of course, all in Japanese. My Japanese is getting "good" enough that when we have meals together at church and it is discovered that the gaijin (the foreigner--me) likes shiitake mushrooms when one of the energetic extroverted Japanese guys doesn't, I can say "mada tomodachi?" (still friends?) and people laugh. The relationships with people from church are really different from other relationships. We can't say much to each other, but we can do little things. I can help move tables for lunch and they can compliment my ability to write my name in katakana (I have yet to go to church without someone being impressed by this).
I am going to leave you on a darker note, which is my prayer request for this email. One of the trains that I ride to school every day is called the "Chuo Line". A popular way to commit suicide in Japan is to jump in front of a train, and it so happens that the Chuo Line is the line that has the most suicides. I asked a Japanese man why the Chuo has so many, and he said it was one of the great mysteries of Japan. My Christian perspective has some possible answers to this that would make it a less mysterious, however. There are times riding the train when it has felt like a very 'dark' place. A couple weeks ago, I felt called to pray for the Chuo line. So, I have been praying, listening to applicable Christian music, or reading applicable Bible passages while riding that train. Please join me in prayer for the trains. Pray that light would come to those living in darkness, pray that the suicides would stop right now, and please pray for my perseverance in praying for these things while on the train. The train ride is about forty minutes long, and especially on more tired days I need the perseverance prayers.
Okay, so I know I said I was leaving you on that darker note, but that really seems not nice. So, I will end with a story that a few of you have heard before, a.k.a. Pamela's Amusing Gaijin Blunder #2. The other day, I was doing one of my convenience store lunches and decided it would be nice to have some protein. I saw some of the usual stuff like canned tuna and sardines and, sitting next to them, what looked like canned chicken. I was intrigued. I took the can back to school, peeled back the lid, and ate a piece. It didn't seem quite right, and asked one of the VYMers if she thought the chicken needed to be heated up. Rather than responding to my question, she asked, "Are you eating cat food??" Oops. Needless to say, my lunch was proteinless. I tried leaving the cat food outside for some of the stray cats in the neighborhood, but it was still there after class, so I had to throw it out.
That seems like a better note to leave this long email on!
Love you all!