Saturday, March 31, 2012

Race and Barbados and Japan

I posted about race in Barbados last year, but since it's relevant, I thought I would do a quick post on race in the 2 countries I've lived most of my life.

From some of the comments early in the week, and from the comments of Americans on the racially-related articles that triggered my posts, many people forget or don't know that there are places outside Africa where blacks are not a minority.


From 2000 census

black 93%
white 3.2%
mixed 2.6%
East Indian 1%
other 0.2%

I hear horror stories of being black in the US and other countries and I consider myself lucky. I've never had a white Prime Minister. Or a white Member of Parliament. I didn't have a white teacher until university. I had one white friend in school. In my entire life, I've probably had 5 white Barbadian friends. And, as far as I know, Rihanna is the richest Barbadian. And she's black.

Barbados is not perfect, and it's not free from discrimination. But I can't say I've ever experienced any racial discrimination. I never had to worry I didn't get a job because I was black. My teachers couldn't dislike me because I was black. I've never had anyone cross the street because I was black. Or clutch their purse. Or automatically assign any set of traits to me. Not even during my 2 years in the US, since I spent all my time in a US Coast Guard uniform, and that tends to overshadow all other considerations.


Being black here is completely different from being black anywhere else. Once again, I face no discrimination on account of being black. There are a million and one ways that Japan discriminates against foreigners in general. Living in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere though, I sometimes have to deal with Japan's silly discriminatory laws, but I never have to deal with personal discrimination.

Being black makes you the "cool" foreigner. My predecessor was a black guy, but in my town and the surrounding area, I'm often the first black female people have ever met. Everybody wants to talk to me (albeit for one line of conversation before they run away, too shy to continue). Everybody wants to touch my hair. Everybody wants to know where I come from, and if I know Bolt (Usain). I pretty much got adopted into the reggae crew I roll with, just because I'm black.


So, while this week's posts have been in response to stories of racism or racial stereotyping in the US, I write from a very different place than I imagine most American bloggers would write from. I'm proud of being black, and the vast and wonderful heritage that includes. Not to mention the wealth of hairstyling options. lol. But my black experience has been very different.

A part of me identifies with the downtrodden black person. I'm black, and I can imagine how it must feel for that to mean inferiority - in the way people treat you, in the services you have access to, in the life you're allowed to lead. And even though I'm in an insanely small majority in Japan, it's a (mostly) beloved majority. In Barbados, I'm a majority. So while I'm not white (well, 1/16, but who's counting?),  I also write from the same position as a white person writing on race. I write from the position of priviledge.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Is race a social construct?

Many scientists now believe that all people can be traced through their matrilineal heritage to a single African woman, Mitochondrial Eve. Additionally, many of the links between characteristics like intelligence and race are now thought to be tenuous or non-existent. These and other factors give rise to theories of race - outside of physiological issues - being a purely social construct.

It's a difficult question to answer, essentially one of nature and nurture. How does one consider race outside of society? One way is to look at race in different societies.


In North America, Asians are thought to do better, on average, in school. FALSE. Living in Japan, I can tell you there are kids who crash and burn. They are not good at any academic subject. It's probably not for lack of trying either, this is the land of the Cram School. And also the land where one tries to be as much the same as one's colleagues as possible.If you're failing here, I believe it's because you can't do any better.

There's also the idea that Asians are hard-working. TRUE. They are hard-working over here, too. My Junior High kids don't get home until around 10, between club practice and cram school. And then they've got their homework to do. But even though the stereotype matches up with the truth over here, it's hard to tell why. Is it that Asians are naturally inclined to do the best they can? Or have they just been pushing themselves, and honouring their families with their successes, for so long that they don't know any other way?


Despite only being 166 square miles, and only having 280,000 people, we're a first world country. We have a great education system which is free through university, up to specific Masters' degrees. Free health care. And we're 90% black, and have been run by a black person for at least 40 years.

Barbados proves all the negative black stereotypes wrong.

Black people can thrive in academics.
Black people are not all criminals.
Black people are capable of working at all levels in all fields.

Everything white people do in the major developed nations, black people do in my country. 


There is one thing that, more than anything else, suggests to me that there are non-physiological connections to race. That is black music.

Black people were taken from Africa hundreds of years ago. They were scattered all over the world. They were forbidden from playing drums. And yet hundreds of years later, without going back to Africa, they manage to develop music with centres on beat and rhthym. Where white European and American music centres on melodies. It makes me wonder if anyone has ever researched the connection between melanin and rhthym.


I agree that many parts of race are mere imaginings of society. All of the things I pointed out in the Barbados section, for example. But I also believe that the genetics of race go further than we imagine. I mean, maybe we were all once a part of the same woman, but we've come a long way from that - 20,000 years - and like any other siblings, we've become more different as we've grown.

What do you think?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Racial Stereotypes. All Bad?

On Tuesday, I made a distinction between racism and racial stereotypes.

To recap:

Racial stereotyping is the universal assignment of  a characteristic to a particular race.
Racism is defined by implication of inferiority, discrimation and/or negativity.
A racial stereotype can be the root of racism.

I'm guessing everyone who isn't racist agrees that racism is bad, but what about racial stereotypes?


The thing about stereotypes is that they are mostly based in truth. But a racial stereotype can be bad or offensive when it's assumed to be absolutely universal.

Take Tuesday's fried chicken example. I don't have data on how much more black people like fried chicken that white people. I don't have data on the demographics of KFC's customers. But I do happen to be black. And I happen to know I love fried chicken. My road trip partner and I have a standing joke that every time we go on the road and we hit a combini (convenience store), I head for the fried chicken. It's like freakin' kryptonite.

There's also the fact that Barbados was (and maybe still is, I just don't have the data) the number 1 consumers of chicken per capita IN THE WORLD. And the population is 90% black. There may be a million other reasons for the correlation (price, ease of cooking, availability of other meats),  but the fact is there happens to be a correlation between my 90% black homeland and chicken.

It is not unreasonable to assume that a black person will like fried chicken. But there may be disastrous results if they don't. In fact, one of my friends who was arguing about the fried chicken pic on Facebook, is a black vegetarian.


People are more than the group they belong too. Asians like anime. That's another fairly common stereotype. But if you're hosting a Japanese exchange student, that doesn't mean you should stock up on hours-worth of anime DVDs. The student will have other interests. Maybe they really like nature, and would like to go hiking. Or they love sports. Or they'd like to learn how make gumbo. Who knows? But even if they do fit into the stereotypical descriptions of their race, there will be more to them.


I'm not sure that this one particularly matters outside Asia. Black stereotypes apply fairly well to all blacks in the West. Ditto Latino sterotypes. But in Far East Asia, the relationship between Japan, China and South Korea is a complex one. Sometimes stereotypes from one culture are applied to all Asians, and it does not go over well. For example, asking a Chinese person if they own a kimono.


I have a Japanese friend, Asuka (one of several Asuka's - it's a super popular name), who has a stereotypical Japanese body. She's less than 5 feet tall, and so skinny that I could fold her up and fit her in my thigh. She has virtually no hips, and a teeny bust. And her eyelids are always so close together you can't tell if they're open or shut. In 4 years, she's the only person I've ever met who looks so stereotypical. But there are many who break the stereotypes. There are tall Japanese and fat Japanese. I even had a teacher last year who I nicknamed "Surprise-Face." His eyes open wider than anyone I know, leaving his face in a perpetual state of surprise. (I used to love telling him mundane things just so he could look surprised to hear it. What? I'm easily amused.)

There are many characteristics which are similar for many people in a race. For example, here in Japan, people are shorter, and so are houses. In his first few months, I would hear my former neighbour, P, yell at least once a week when he forgot to duck, and banged his head in his house somewhere. And of course, there are clothing manufacturers. Brands that concentrate on black females often have more room in the hips and butt. Brands that concentrate on Asians have less leg and hip room.


Stereotypes can be useful in catering to large groups of people, if you do it tastefully and thoughtfully. Say you have to plan a menu for a conference of Asian people. Rice is a winner, as is fish. If you're catering for black people, you'll probably want the food to be more seasoned, and for latinos, spicier.  Sports and music and clothes also tend to run along racial lines. But racial stereotypes can be sticky when dealing with individuals or small groups.

I think everyone would be fine if they remember one thing. People are people first.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Race and Entertainment

It's been a racially-charged week in several ways. I'll be posting on race as I see it until Friday. I hope my words will shed some new light on the subject for you.

So, this happened. Apparently some Hunger Games fans were disappointed, hurt and even angry that Rue, Thresh and Cinna were black. Now, I am the world's least visual person. I don't see characters in my head like I imagine most readers do, so I run right over description. I didn't notice Rue and Thresh were black until casting either. Guess I just don't notice race where it doesn't matter, which is like 95% of the time anyway.


Rue and Thresh are described as having dark skin. Yes, you can have dark skins without being black. But Katniss is described as being olive-skinned, the skin tone of darker White people, many Native Americans, and much of South-East Asia. If she's going to call someone dark, then they've got to be darker than that.

Now, if Rue and Thresh were always black, it raises the issue of how so many people missed that. I already told you how I missed it, but if you clicked over to the link, lots of people imagined Rue one way or another. They're clearly not in the same boat as I am.

Magicians, comedians and pick-pockets use something called misdirection. A pick-pocket may spill something on you and wipe your dress off. While you're concentrating on your dress, their other hand is fishing your purse out of your handbag. The principle behind the thing is that your brain has a set of expectations and doesn't see anything else.

In the case of Rue and Thresh, the misdirection is not purposely set up by author Suzanne Collins. The misdirection comes from society, entertainment, and the literary canon. I mean how many characters are specified as non-white, especially where their race is not a plot point?  Especially in dystopians and other speculative fiction (fantasy and sci-fi)?


Cinna's race isn't specified, but according to commenters on the Jezebel article, he wears gold eyeshadow, which just wouldn't work on certain tones. Even if that weren't the case, what protesters about Cinna are saying is that if a race is not specified then a character must be white. White people never have to be specified as white. If you write a movie script with no descriptions, the casting director should only consider white actors and actresses. Only where specified, should a non-white actor/ress be sought.



There's a part of me that wonders how much we are to blame. By we, I mean stakeholders in the publishing industry. There are so many times when a character isn't required to be of one race or another, and they are just "arbitrarily white." There's no reason why more supporting characters couldn't be black, Asian, Latino, whatever - unless that completely doesn't work for your setting. It would be weird to have a lot of Asians in my books, set in Barbados. If your book is set in Dutch country, I don't think there are any Amish people of other races. 

And then there's the house angle. I keep hearing that houses say they can't sell books with minority faces on the cover. I expect that if people see a minority face on a book, they assume it's a "minority book." And who can blame them? Right now, that's the case. The only way to change this mindset, is to change the actuality. Put some minority covers out there. Yes, you might take a hit for a minute, but a good book is still a good book. The people who will purposely avoid a story only because it features a minority, ARE a minority. And even if they weren't, you kind of have to wonder about the validity of catering to racism - because it IS racism. It's allowing people to say this book is inferior because there's a minority person on the cover.


Hollywood is even worse than publishing when it comes to minorities. I posted about it 2 years ago, when I got really annoyed at the casting for The Last Airbender. The tribes are clearly based on the Inuit and early Asian cultures. And for 3 of 4 characters, they cast white actors. Then there was that time that Goku from Dragon Ball was white, and the time they spray-painted Jake Gylenhaal orange in Prince of Persia. Even in the same Hunger Games, there is no way that Jennifer Lawrence could be considered "olive-skinned." 

The Hollywood argument is sometimes that the actors just aren't there. There aren't a wealth of A-list minority actors to draw on for roles. How many A-list Native American actors do you know? I'm talking pre-Twilight. The only actor I can think of is Adam Beach, from Flag of our Fathers. On Hollywood's end there are two possible solutions. Cast more non-whites, and eventually you'll have more non-white A-listers. And solution 2 is to go with unknowns. Every single one of Twilight's werewolves has Native American ancestry. Had anybody heard of any of them before Twilight? Probably not. But they all turned out to be fine actors. And one of them is now an A-lister.


Not all the tweets in the Jezebel article were racist. There are some where people had just genuinely not considered it. Why consider it, if it never happens? Maybe if it happened more, it wouldn't be so terribly shocking. So, if you're a fiction writer, I've got a challenge for you. Have an minority or "other"* character in your work. A main character, if you're willing put in the work. (The one thing worse than no other characters is poorly-done other characters.) One of the bigger supporting characters, like Rue. The guy that sits next to your MC at work or school. The boss. The principal. The waitress at the local hangout spot. Better yet, see if you can do that in every novel or script you work on.

We've got the power to change the mindset, one minority character at a time.

*I define "other" character as any character who doesn't fit the mainstream literary reality. It includes different races, different sexual preferences, disabilities -- basically anyone you'd find in the section of a college application about who they don't discriminate against.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What is racism?

(Aside: I'm alright after a 6.4 quake off the coast, just in case you worry ;)

Race has come into my radar in 3 unrelated issues this week, and being a believer in things grand and cosmic, I can't help feeling that happened for a reason, so for the rest of this week I'll be posting on race and racial issues. I hope I give you some food for thought.

Last week, a think tanker posted an article about President Obama's "convenient" pre-election stance on homosexuality. The blogger accompanied her post with this photo (which I will probably remove soon).

The think tank removed the picture and offered an apology for a picture that was "racist and pornographic." The blogger apologised, saying she meant nothing racist by it, it's just that the state was a Southern one, and fried chicken is Southern.

A friend posted a link to all this on Facebook, and I said I was much more offended by the pornographic end of it, and that I didn't believe the connection of black people to chicken to be a racist one.

Enter argument, stage right.


My defence lies in the definition of racism. After a few times back and forth with my friends, I was beginning to think my definition was skewed. So I checked 5 dictionaries - the one that is physically in my house, and 4 online ones, because I wanted to be sure that racism meant what I thought it did.

Racism is NOT, as many people seem to think, the universal connection of a race to one trait, one type of food, one category of anything. Racism can include all of that as an aspect of it. But racism MUST include some aspect of inferiority or discrimination or negativity.


To say all people of one race are murderers or liars or thieves is racism, because it's negative and discriminatory. To say black people have good natural rhythm is not, because there isn't an element of inferiority or discrimination or negativity.

So what are these things which lump all people of one race into a category, if not racism? Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the racial stereotype. Racial stereotypes, like any other stereotypes can be both  useful or harmful. They can be the root of racism, but they aren't in and of themselves racism.

Come back tomorrow for my look at Race and Entertainment.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Life block

Well, I put my mouth on it. That's Bajan for "to jinx something by speaking about it." A couple weeks ago, I posted about writers block. And I said, that I believed it was like pain. It existed if you said it did. But for me, personally, I was unlikely to have writers block. I was more likely to get a life block.

Hello, self-fulfilling prophecy.

What's life block? Well, seeing as I just invented the term, the definition is still a little un-refined. But it is to life what writers block is to writing. I'm back to having little or no desire to do things. The weird thing is I know somewhere in myself that I do want things. I just don't actively want them now.

That's confusing, huh? I guess it's like watching a movie about a character you don't care about. You know with your brain that things are important. And maybe you even feel that they are. But you don't really care about them.

I haven't written in quite a while. I don't go anywhere, other than to the reggae events that I'm invited to. I'm not studying my Japanese. I'm not working towards my TEFL certificate. But the bit that really scares me is that I've stopped reading. I mean, I am reading. The Old Testament (started as a Lent project, but going to stretch far beyond) and the occasional writing craft book. But I have only read like 2 fiction books this year. This from someone who read 100+ last year. And the worst part is that, right now, I have no desire to read them.

As usual, I'm trying to dig my way out on my own. (As opposed to pestering the psychiatrist.) It may just be a simple matter of stagnation. I've been at this job, in this house, in this country for almost 4 years. And that's about a year longer than I tend to do anything. I think it might just be time to shake it up with some change. Right now, the temptation is to learn Portuguese. It's actually a 10 year-old temptation, which I usually ignore due to the fact that I "made friends" in Portugal with 1 word of actual Portuguese and an entire arsenal of Spanish. But Brazil and Portuguese came up 5 or 6 times in one day, and I feel like that's some sort of omen or cosmic hint.

Anyway, I hope it's just stagnation. Because that's an easy fix. Plus, my last year in Japan starts in August. I think I'll be too busy cataloguing all my "lasts" to be bothered about the fact that I'm doing the same thing for the 5th year in a row.

How about you guys? Anybody else ever suffer from "life block?"

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Don't get your Calvin Kleins in a knot.

Blame my friend for the title. She tagged me on FB in this vid. Go Calvin Klein!

I watched Airplane with my English adult class last night. I remember watching it a long, long time ago, but I did not remember how politically incorrect it was. I mean, the Air Israel plane had a beard!

I've expressed my annoyance with the general concept of political correctness. I hate that some words are automatically off-limits. Like the word "retard" for example. It's a legitimate word, but heaven forbid you actually use it. Like many terms that are now politically incorrect, it came into fashion to replace another term that became derogatory. Oh, and my favourite bit, "mental retardation" is actually a scientific term and a subset of mentally-disabled. Good luck trying to figure out what to call a child that falls into that scientific subset.

But this post is actually not about political correctness. It's actually about how individuals deal with situations and comments that may be seen as an affront. Some of them are politically incorrect. Some are mean. Some are just ignorant. In the moment, you have no power over the situation, the only thing you're in control of is you.

I find that sometimes (=a lot of the time) people over-react about these things. I'm not being flippant. I know it's hard to deal with name-calling, and insecurities. I know I'm not the norm in the way I reacted to the rumours which surrounded me (turning them on their head and asking, a la P!nk, "So What?"). But it's doable. What other people say is not the sole determinant in who you are.

Specifically for teens going through these situations - whether you are bullied or just surrounded by a climate that makes you feel lesser - fight back! Don't start flinging insults like you're Courtney Walsh at a Cricket World Cup. Do what you need to buoy up your confidence. Make lists of the ways you're fantastic. Find a hobby. Do something you're good at. The power is not in the bully's hands (I can't believe I'm about to quote Captain Planet), the power is yours.

Sometimes, people say things and it comes out of ignorance. They heard their parents say it, or they never realised that it could be hurtful. If someone isn't trying to be mean (and you can usually tell), point it out to them. It's a little more difficult if they're trying to be mean. Sometimes, calling them on it, will shame them into being better. Sometimes it makes it worse. There are no easy answers.

This post came about as a result of the new END. IT. NOW anti-bullying campaign. I support the campaign. I believe that children should be stopped from growing into the type of people who take their pleasures from standing on the backs of others.

But I wonder, what percentage of bullies know (or care) that they are bullies. How many of them aren't excusing themselves. I'm making this person stronger. If this person were stronger, they'd resist me. I am strong/normal, so it's my right to give this person grief. Also, lots of people come forward to say, "Iwas bullied." How many come forward to say I was a bully? And parents always come to the aid of their bullied children, but fewer will admit their kid IS the bully. And even fewer are being observant to see if their child is being downright evil to others. These things combine to convince me of a sad fact. Bullying will never be completely eradicated.

In Japan, there's a word, "gaman." It means endurance and tolerance, but there's also this less-translated aspect of gaman. Through endurance and tolerance of a tough a situation, you grow. I'm not saying that the world has the right to throw any and everything at you. But I am saying that it just might. And only you can find your path to survive that.

We, as adults, as YA writers, as people who care, we continue to try to fix the problem. But you, as a person who is hurting, you have to continue to fight. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Bigger is Better

I've been reading a lot of craft books lately - mostly about humour and script-writing, and this theme keeps popping up in my mind.

Bigger is better.


I wrote before of being committed. If your character is supposed to be whimsical, be careful not to try so hard to balance her out that you end up with a sensible MC with a spoonful of whimsy. But apart from being committed to character, I also realise the relevance of the term "larger than life" in writing.

Story people are crueler than real people. They're more neurotic. They're more spaced-out. They're bigger skanks. They believe their philosophies whole-heartedly. Real people go back and forth and back and forth and back and forth ad infinitum. In a story that just seems whiny. When you're sailing a ship and another ship approaches, you have to go hard over to port (or starboard depending on the laws in that area), so that the other ship is immediately clear what's going on. Ditto for story people.

That's not to say they don't need contrasting characteristics. Real people are not all one characteristic. If they're cruel, you can show a kind moment. If they're neurotic, a moment when they let loose. But I find that personally, I have the problem of trying too hard to balance out the characteristics. The characters end up extremely like real people, but they make for very wishy-washy characters. Going big solves that problem.


Plot is what I suck most at. (Unless you count snowboarding. I suck lollipops at snowboarding.) So I read a lot of plotting books. Many, if not all, of them agree that there needs to be a moment near the beginning of the story where the Main Character no longer has the option of going back. Luke in Star Wars doesn't have the option of going back to the farm. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz can't just return to Kansas (well, technically...). Ted Striker in Airplane can't just get off the plane.

The "catalyst" as some experts call it must be big enough that the Main Character has to make a choice. It's even better if there's a time limit to that choice. In HUNGER GAMES, Katniss has to choose between letting her thoroughly unprepared sister compete, or volunteering, and she has to make that choice in seconds.

Near the end of a story, there's a point often referred to as the "all is lost" or "dark night of the soul." (Some people define them as different things, some don't.) As the term, all is lost suggests, there's no hope. Let me repeat that, it's important.

No. Hope. 

The temptation (for me, at least) is to not go all in on the all is lost moment. After all, you still have to resolve the thing. But if the audience can see the way out, then all really isn't lost is it. The harder the MC falls here, the more amazing the victory.

Do you have any difficulty making their plots and characters big enough?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Live Ya Life

My co-worker died. Not the neighbour I mentioned last week, a teacher at my school. Some of what happened was lost in translation (Japanese is my 5th language - it happens). But from what I can piece together, he was driving through a tunnel, and rear-ended by a truck, and his teeny-tiny sports car burst into flames.

When I think about this teacher, I remember him smiling. I remember him playing the guitar at the district school staff social clubs' social (if that makes any sense). Each of the teachers are assigned to be responsible for a club. Other than the band, it's really all admin work - making sure there's a bus for the tournaments, and the uniforms are all the right sizes - but he actually went to practices and played right alongside the kids. Only he and the naginata teacher would be walking around in their team uniforms on evenings.

Having two deaths so close together has wreaked havoc on my mind, but in the midst of all the morbid, I keep thinking of this as a reminder to live.

Last week at my neighbour's funeral, pretty much all the important people in town spoke about his involvement in so many things. I came away from the funeral thinking, "Wow! He lived!" I don't know the maths teacher that well, but he seemed like the kind of guy that really jumped into anything he was involved in.

And that's what's on my mind this Monday. If you were to know the split second before that death was coming, would a laundry list of things you hadn't done pop up in your mind? I'm not talking about a Bucket List of grand gestures like climbing Mount Fuji or going to India. I'm talking about the little things. The things you can do this year. The things you can do every day.

Would you wish you'd smiled more? Gotten more involved? Worked less? Worked harder? Spent more time with family? Learned to surf? Worn more purple?

What would you wish, if the moment was now? And if you'd wish it, and it's attainable, why aren't you doing it?

After all, tomorrow isn't guaranteed.

Live ya life.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Death Rites

As I said, my neighbout died last week.  I attended his funeral, and saw some of the Japanese mourning procedures and thought I would share them with you. Bare in mind, Japan is both Shinto and Buddhist, and people are buried  according to one or the other, but there are similarities between the two. The ceremony I attended was a Buddhist one.

The deceased is laid out with their head facing North. The kimono is worn with the right side over the left - the opposite of how it's worn in life. All orifices are stuffed with cotton. Shortly after the person dies (or shortly before), you wet their lips. We did it using strips of paper, but I've read online that Shinto practice uses cotton swabs on the ends of chopsticks.We then lit an incense stick and placed it in the pot above his head. Then you ring a little bell three times and clasp your hands in prayer.

The following day was the Cremation Ceremony. I didn't go, partially because I didn't know if it was open to the public or not - despite the fact that there was a sign with all the info - and partially because I didn't want to handle my neighbour's bones with chopsticks. After cremation, family and friends pick the bones out with chopsticks. Sometimes, they pass them from one person's chopsticks to another, which is why it's considered a faux pas to pass food chopstick to chopstick.

The funeral was held two days later at the temple near my house. When you arrive at a funeral, the first thing you do is sign in at Reception. Then you hand over your condolence money. Depending on your relation to the deceased, or the relation of the person you know to the deceased (example, when I went to a teacher's fathe's funeral, the relation would have been father) the amount in the envelope increases. I believe the highest is around $500 US.

Since my neighbour was both super-important and super-popular, the temple was packed and I couldn't see anything that was going on. People who were related to the deceased sat in benches in the front. I assume some people who were early got the leftover seats. Everyone else sat on cushions. 

At the funeral, the monk chants and the deceased is assigned a new Buddhist name. As with religious figures' chanting all over the world, it was completely indecipherable. I'm not even sure if the chant was in Japanese. There were also two "instruments:" a bell, and something which sounded like a car wheel falling over. Then there were some speeches- by the Mayor, the head of town hall, the deputy head of the NPO Sports organisation, and the deputy head of the festival team. He'd been the Head of both organisations that put forth deputies as speakers.

After that there were the messages. In Japan, if you can't attend an important event, you send a message. A sample of the messages is read at the event. Apart from the sample, the names of all the people who send messages are also read.

After the messages, the monk started chanting again and they passed around little pots of incense. From the right side of the container, you take a pinch of incense between your fingers, raise it towards your forehead, and then lower it into the little raised bit on the left side of the pot. I believe you repeat this three times. Then you clasp your hands.

I'm not sure when a Japanese funeral ends. The last time I went to what I now believe to be a prayer ceremony/wake, people just left when they felt like. This time, the son was speaking, when people just started to dissipate. When the lady I was with got up to leave, so did I.

At the end of the funeral, you receive a gift for attending. It's usually something household-y like coffee. Also in the funeral gift is a packet of salt. You dust this salt over yourself and in front of the doorway in case you've brought any spirits from the temple with you.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

On Being Yourself

The interpubs (my newly coined term for the publishing industry internet) went crazy last week with Dr. Seuss' birthday. I don't remember it being quite so celebrated last year (maybe because I wasn't on Twitter) but I don't pass up excuses to celebrate the Seuss-ter.

One of my friends posted a Seuss quote from THE HAPPY BIRTHDAY BOOK.

Today, you are you
That is truer than true
There is no one alive
Who is you-er than you

As my Jamaican friends would say, " 'im neva lie."

It's easy to get caught up in a race. It's easy to make competition where there is none. To try so hard to be appreciated that you stop being yourself. To do all this for so long, that you forget who that is. But today, Dr. Seuss and I are here to remind you. You're unique and special.

There is no one alive who is you-er than you!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Announcing Tomo: the Anthology! (And self deprecation)

Comment on today's post before next Wednesday 11.59 pm EST and be entered for a chance to win a copy of the anthology, TOMO: Friendship through Fiction, edited by Holly Thompson.

TOMO was released on Saturday, almost a year to the day after the disaster in Tohoku. It features 36 contributors who are somehow linked to Japan, and proceeds will be used to help teens in Tohoku. Even if you don't win, click the book to be taken to Book Depository, where you can buy a copy with free shipping (unless you're in Pakistan :( ).

I'm a contributor to the book. I wrote a choka. Choka,  translated literally, means "long poem." It is structured 5 syllables- 7 syllables, 5-7.5-7,...5,7,7. I decided to write a choka, because Japan is famous for haiku, but there are a zillion other poetic forms.

Anyhow, having the books got me to wondering if contributors sign anthologies. I mean, it's kind of technically "your book," but it's also kind of technically not. That led me into a whirlpool of reasons to sell myself short on being a TOMO contributor.

-- All contributors have a connection to Japan, and are writing in English, ie, smaller competition pool.

-- I know the editor.

-- I live in Tohoku, and was here for the earthquake. Including me = great marketing tool.

-- It's not like it's a novel or anything.

-- I didn't have to contact an agent or a publisher. 

I could go on and on with reasons why being selected for an anthology - this anthology - isn't important. But there are so many reasons why I'm happy that I'm a part of it.

Firstly, it's for a great cause, a cause I believe in, heart, mind and soul. I'm so proud to be able to contribute in these little ways. I mean, I decided to become a writer since I lived here.That's not to say I wouldn't have gotten here eventually, but I owe Japan and Tohoku for all of it. It's the least I could do, give my help when it's needed.

Secondly, I'm in a book. I mean I've written stuff before. I've appeared in organisational journals, and magazines and newspapers and even one e-book non-fiction anthology. But, now for the first time ever I'm in a real fiction book. People can go on Amazon and buy a physical copy of something with my fiction (well, poetry, potayto-potahto) in it. That's crazy!

And so in honour of the strong little creatures that still make me laugh every day, despite all we've been through -- in honour of these teens of Tohoku, I'm offering up a copy to one lucky commenter. Remember it's open until next Wednesday, 11.59 pm EST, and international. Also, I'll sign it if you want. Still haven't figure out the protocol on that. lol.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Year On

Sunday marked a year since the earthquake-tsunami-meltdown. It's been a tough year, emotionally and physically, living in the disaster area, but not.

On Sunday there were ceremonies and moments of silence. At 2.46 pm (the time of the quake), fire trucks sounded their sirens followed by a "mokutou" - where everyone bowed their heads and payed their respects. There were also lighting and candle ceremonies in the prefectural capitals, and prayer services throughout the region.

Ad for a lighting ceremony in my prefectural capital, Morioka, Iwate.


I haven't been out to the coast since the 3 days I spent there last March. So my impressions of the coast come from friends and TV.

It seems much of the road network is back up. Some of the train tracks have been fixed, but I'm not sure how much. The airport in Sendai is running. People are rebuilding. There is still a long way to go. A long, long way, but everybody is dealing with it.

We're still on setsuden - electricity conservation measures. Noone seems to know if or when power plants will generate enough energy to support East Japan again. But we seem to be getting by on what we have. Everyone is conscientious about energy use.


I can't explain the emotion I feel in regard to the disaster. I lived through it, like people all over Tohoku. I live way too many miles in land to have been in danger of tsunami, but I went through the thousands of earthquakes with everybody else. My colleague and I started joking that anything under 6.0 wasn't even worth the time. It sounds offhand and callous, but when you experience 100 earthquakes in a day, you have to deal some way.

It's hard for me to deal with the coast. My TV broke and I didn't get a new one. That's partially because I don't want to pay NHK's ridiculous licensing fee. But it's also because there's tsunami are coverage every day, and I can't take it. I guess it's different when you've been there. You've seen my tsunami area pics. Imagine travelling to somewhere - somewhere you've been before, where there used to be houses and buildings and schools - and there's nothing. There's not even debris, no grass, just dirt, as far as your eye can see. I still can't get down to Ritz (Rikuzentakata) where my colleague, Monty Dickson, was claimed by the tsunami. I just can't face the place.

It's still hard to deal with how unaffected I was. I'm an hour inland. One drink fell over in the drink machine and an antenna fell off at work. We ran out of New Zealand Cheese and toilet paper. (My town is a farming town, so we were good for food.) We ran out of gas. The power went off. The trains didn't run for a week. The shinkansen (bullet train) didn't run for over a month, and then when it did run, it ran an hour slower. Due east of me another colleague spent her post-tsunami days cutting up cloth to cover dead bodies. I got off easy.


I am still glad I was here. I am still glad I AM here. Living through the past year has taught me so much about the human condition. What love really is. How much people can help one another. How much they want to.

And it's taught me so much about me. About who I become in a bad situation. About how far I can go before I can't take any more. I know how I can be helpful, and how it all feels. It's made me understand that sometimes, when the world crumbles, all you can do is to keep moving as best you can. Never forget, no, always carry those memories with you. They make you stronger and better. But always keep moving.

Thank you, Tohoku. I will keep moving. ありがとう東北。続きます。

Monday, March 12, 2012

The words to say goodbye

My neighbour died.

He was an amazing man. He was the head coach of my school's volleyball team. And the head of NPO Sports - the organisation that puts on all the cultural and sports events in town. And the head of the neighbourhood festival team. And so on, and so forth.I'd gotten to the point that if I went to an event and didn't run into him serving as the head of something, I was shocked.

Not only was he amazing in general, he was amazing to me. In a country notorious for having little or nothing to do with foreigners, he was welcoming. Even in my neck of the woods, which is supremely friendly by Japanese standards, it's just not the norm for Japanese people to go out of their way to befriend people.

He did. He told us to call him Masa, for short. We never told him why that was funny. He came over to explain some of the crazy Japanese randomness. He brought us the happi (coats) that we would wear while pulling the neighbourhood float. He told us what time to be there. I think our festival team is the only one with a foreign contingent: the 4 or 5 English-speakers plus 10 or so Vietnamese. And he let us lead the procession (although I suspect the weight of the big lanterns might have something to do with that -lol). And when I mentioned, on Facebook, that he'd passed on English teachers from as far back as 7 years ago said the same things about his kindness and friendliness.

Here we are in last year's summer festival. That's me and my colleague in the marroon happi he lent us.  The light blue happi behind is one of the Vietnamese.

The night I found out, we stopped by his house, and his little brother sent us up to the funeral home to the viewing. I gave his wife my condolences, but I wanted to say more. And now, I've got even more to relay. I don't want to give a generic condolence. This man meant something to me. Enough that my experience in Japan is what it is because of him. And I don't know the words to say that. 

Sometimes that is the hardest thing about living in Japan. I am a wordsmith. In my native English, I can speak in any register, any tone. I can write, and read and understand anything. I can be succint, or I can pad my speech with superfluous, but flowery imagery. I can weave tales and write poetry. I can even do some of that in my 2nd and 3rd languages. Words are my business, and my heart. 

And it's hard not to have them. 

So I'm saying it here. My neighbour meant a lot to me. I can't imagine that he won't ever wave to me from his driveway as we both shovel the mountains of snow that have fallen in a ridiculously short time. I don't know what the town's summer festival will be like. In my mind, it doesn't exist without him. I will miss him.

Rest in peace, Masa. 安心に休めて下さい.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My views on Writer's Block

In 1968, nurse Margo McCafferey defined pain as "whatever the experiencing person says it is, existing whenever and wherever the person say it does."

I don't think they've devised a scientific way of calculating pain. It doesn't have a unit of measurement. There's no way to predict how much pain a person will feel in a situation, or whether they will feel pain at all. Pain is unique to the person experiencing it. 

That's my view on Writer's Block. Writer's Block is whatever the experiencing writer says it is, existinng whenever the writer says it does.


Many people do seem to experience Writer's Block. For whatever reason, they're afraid to write at all. They are afraid of new words. All the old words seem like too much crap to edit. They don't think in stories, characters, plots. They stop trying to improve the craft. Whatever, their reason, the writerly world takes it leave.

It's real to them, and it takes a supreme effort, and sometimes several years, to dig their way out.


For me, Writer's Block is something that prevents writing and solely  writing. If I'm too depressed to get out of bed, that's not Writer's Block, because that's stopping me from going to work, and from eating and from washing clothes, and from shopping, etc.

In addition, Writer's Block, to my mind, should prevent all writing. I've never been in a position where I'm incapable of writing anything in any genre. I might not be able to get words down on my novel today, but if I can write even so much as a limmerick, then I'm not blocked.


The other reason I don't believe that Writer's Block exists for me is because of my wide definition of writing. Many people define writing as putting (new) words down on paper (/hard drive). But that's not all there is to writing in my mind. When I re-read my work, and edit it, that's writing. When I brainstorm characters or plot points, that's writing. When I let things ferment in my head for a week or a month, that's writing. When I read craft books, that's a part of my job as a writer. Ditto for reading, both in and outside of my genre.

If I'm unable to do any of these things, or I'm stuck in an endless loop of one of them, without moving onto any of the others, then I'd consider myself blocked.

How about you? Do you believe in Writer's Block? Have you ever been blocked?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Good Veg

One of the biggest drawbacks of my otherwise fantastic job is time. There are only 20 days off per year. Theoretically, that's not so bad. Most jobs give 21 days at home. But let's consider the extentuating circimstances.I'm on the other side of the world from friends and family. It takes 4 days (both ways) and a couple thousand US dollars to go home. And I'm in Asia - a continent so far away from home that I feel like you'll never again get a chance to explore it. Plus, the fact that there are those days when the kids are "on vacation" from teaching, but still coming to school for clubs, and you spend weeks on end doing not much more than sitting at a desk.

Add these up to arrive at what happens to most JETs. You feel like you can't take days off unless you're doing something, or more likely, going somewhere. Eventually, you get to the point where your "vacations" are more exhausting than work. I saw all of Hong Kong in 3 days. 1 day at the Great Buddha and Disney. 1 day in the North seeing the heritage. 1 day going up to Madame Tussauds at the Peak and then seeing the biggest standing music and lights show in the world at Victoria Bay. Phew. The plane ride home was the most relaxing part of the trip!

End result, for me anyways, is constant exhaustion. (Not ignoring the fact that the longer I do anything, the tougher it gets, and 4 years is a year past my limit.) To the point where I haven't taken a real vacation in forever. I haven't hit up any of the exotic destinations in this side of the world since Australia in 2009. The last time I left the archipelago was to go home for Christmas 2010. And last Christmas, my "vacation" was just the days they give all public servants and I spent them in Sendai, an hour on the bullet train from here. Honestly, I'm not sure that somewhere you can day-trip really counts.

And so I've taken the week off. Not a plan in the world. I've pencilled in "clean the house." (My neigbour last year said that my living room looked like another living room had thrown up in it.) And I'll probably nip out tomorrow to hand in a form and go watch a class (I know, semi-defeating the point of a vacation, but my colleague's Dad is in, so I want to). And on Friday, I've got to head to Sendai for my appointment and meds refills. But other than that, I've been staying up as long as I feel like, going to bed when I feel like, doing what I feel like. 24 hours awake followed by 13 asleep.

And it feels great. It feels great not to have a list of things to do. Or places where I need to be. I mean, I love living. But sometimes it's great to just exist.

When's the last time you had a good veg?

Thursday, March 1, 2012


I'm currently reading The Eight Characters of Comedy by Scott Sedita. It's really a guide for actors on playing sitcom characters, but it's quite useful for comedy writers as well. Sedita mentions four "Cs." Commit is one of them. Actors have to commit to the role they're playing.

What's that mean? It's not about showing up early, and doing your research, and understanding the character, although you should do all those things as well. It's about to committing to being the character. Look at the GOLDEN GIRLS.

Rose is a complete idiot. Dorothy is sarcastic. Blanche is a manaholic. Sophia is mean. They all commit to that characterisation. When Rose says something idiotic, she can't act like it's idiotic. She has to be perfectly serious. She has to think it makes sense. If she knows she's an idiot, then it's not funny any more. Ditto, the others. Dorothy has to look at the others like she really believes she's better than their company. Blanche has to behave like sex is number 1 (and 2, 3,4 and 5) on her list. And Sophia has to act like she doesn't give a damn about anybody else or their feelings. The have to grab on to the role, commit and not let go, not even for a second.

As I read, it occured to me that this is something I've been struggling with in my latest MS. The main character is supposed have a certain set of characteristics. She's supposed to be logical to the point that sometimes people think she's heartless. But she's not heartless. Deep down she feels just like the rest of us, maybe more. And I keep trying to highlight this with scenes that negate the characteristics I'm supposed to be establishing. Instead of seeming like X with a sprinkling of Y, she's coming across as rapid oscillation between the two. A wishy-washy version of what's supposed to be a really in-control character.

And it's because I don't commit.

But when you write you have to. You have to commit to the characters being who they are, even if they're bad, or not like you, or there's more below the surface. You have to commit to the plot, even if (and especially when) harsh things happen. You have to commit to the voice and the tone and the message and the setting.

That's not to say that there won't be little parts that are "out of character." It's just that if you want to go out of character, you have to establish the character first.