Friday, July 20, 2012

Thanks for the Candy

Today was my last day of classes and I had to give two speeches, both in Japanese, to address all the elementary school students and the high school students. I thought I would be able to keep myself pulled together during the speeches, but when I looked out at all the elementary school kids and their little faces looking up at me, it was so hard not to get choked up. It's hard to leave these kids I've taught for the past two years. It will be strange for a week to go by without walking around and hearing a little voice shout "Erin-Sensei!", accompanied by a big smile and wave. Each of the classes presented me with a gift of the kids' artwork and letters that are close to impossible for me to decipher between all the kanji, hirogana and katakana characters of the Japanese language. At the end of all our last classes, the students would either sing me a really adorable song or play their recorders for me and it was possibly the cutest thing I've ever seen - and Japan has what I would consider the lion's share of the world's cuteness.

I thought I had composed myself by the time I had arrived in the high school, but yikes. I was a sweaty, blubbering mess today. I had a lesson with the seniors in the high school and they all came together and sang "Hello Goodbye" for me and gave me messages each student had written. I've taught those kids throughout all their high school levels and I will really miss their humor and kindness.

One of my eikaiwa students and close friends has a son in that class and in his message he wrote "Dear Erin, thank you for teaching me English. It was nice of you to give me candy in English class. My mother owes you a great deal. Never forget Ojika!!" I started laughing like a crazy person at that message in the quiet teacher's room. I gave the kids candy a lot - just for prizes when we had games and at times, as a source of bribery to get them to talk.

After them, I had class with the 10th graders and they also sang me the song "Country Roads." I never thought a John Denver song would ever make me cry, but it made me feel nostalgic for both Ojika and rural Wisconsin. One of the students in my class is an amazing artist and he drew a picture of me for the cover of a booklet of messages from the students. I have no doubt that that kid is going to be a rock star in the world of illustration one day after he graduates from school.

In the afternoon, the students had their closing ceremony before summer vacation begins. I used the term "vacation" loosely because they still have classes in the morning and club activities - just a lighter version of the norm. After the band performed and the student council was handed over to the new class of students, I gave my goodbye speech and played a last game with the students. Here are the students singing the school song. I love this song. It ranks up there with the Mozambican national anthem. So pretty and catchy! Sorry about the weird video quality - but the sound is fine.

I also had going-away parties for my eikaiwa adult English group and my teachers the past couple of days. I LOVE my eikaiwa group. Such a wonderful group of women (and one man)! "Kind" is such a broad-sounding adjective but that is what everyone is. No matter who you are or where you come from, the people of small, rural Ojika are blaringly welcoming and kind. Here in Ojika, I have found sort of a second family in colleagues, students, students' families, and friends. Where else in the world can you walk down the road and every person driving past you in a car bows toward you to greet you? I think there is something special here, untouched by the fast-paced salaryman-type world that mainland Japan is. People talk to each other and know everyone. Life here is slower and more beautiful in my opinion.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Winding Down

The time is winding down! I have about 3 more weeks left in Japan. Time to start canceling my cell phone (I am sure that will be a confusing conversation), closing my bank account and giving farewell speeches. I am shooting to give my farewell speeches in Japanese but I am extremely nervous about that. I have no problem teaching classes and being in front of the kids to talk about English. But when I am in front of all the students and teachers and have to give a personal speech, that's when 8th-grade-Erin comes out and starts to sway back and forth, talks quickly with a rash forming on her neck and face and tries to dry her sweaty palms on her straight leg jeans.

I start my trip back to the states on the 27th and I am getting pretty excited to be back home for a while. I won`t have a long time at home though because I have to be in Massachusetts by August 22nd for grad school. I have begun reading the suggested reading before schools starts and I have to flip a switch in my mind to think like a student again, since it`s been 5 years since I sat down in a classroom as a student.

I have been cleaning my apartment and I threw out so much this morning that it actually filled the neighborhood shared garbage/recycling bin. Sorry, neighbors! It sounds wasteful but it was really all stuff that couldn`t be saved but had had a long, eventful life. My apartment was full of junk left over from old ALTs in Ojika and it was time to finally get rid of it because I don`t want the next ALT to think I`m a pack rat. I am also doing a serious scrubdown because I understand how it feels when you have completely uprooted yourself to move to a foreign country and feeling downtrodden to have to move into a cluttered, dirty apartment.

I really wish I could be home today for the Fourth of July. There is nothing better than a Fourth of July barbeque and fireworks. It makes me feel really nostalgic and ready to come home after two years gone. So, please make sure to eat some brats and watermelon for me and be careful with the sparklers! Happy 4th of July!

Monday, June 11, 2012

"How to Write About Africa" - Binyavanga Wainaina

I have already started doing some of the recommended reading for my courses and there is a really good article called “How to Write About Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina. Wainaina is a Kenyan author who writes often about the Western stereotypes of Africa and how there is a complete disregard for how large and diverse the continent is – that it is a place that deserves a view of equality, not pity or romantic visions of sunsets and wildlife - as an untamed place that requires control. It's definitely thought-provoking. He writes the following:

"Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African's cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it—because you care.

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love—take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off into the sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.

Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).

Bad Western characters may include children of Tory cabinet ministers, Afrikaners, employees of the World Bank. When talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the Chinese and Indian traders. Blame the West for Africa's situation. But do not be too specific.

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.

Describe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa’, and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West. The biggest taboo in writing about Africa is to describe or show dead or suffering white people.

Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people’s property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant. Big cats have public-school accents. Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents. Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil).

After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa’s most important people. Do not offend them. You need them to invite you to their 30,000-acre game ranch or ‘conservation area’, and this is the only way you will get to interview the celebrity activist. Often a book cover with a heroic-looking conservationist on it works magic for sales. Anybody white, tanned and wearing khaki who once had a pet antelope or a farm is a conservationist, one who is preserving Africa’s rich heritage. When interviewing him or her, do not ask how much funding they have; do not ask how much money they make off their game. Never ask how much they pay their employees.

Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical—Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces. When writing about the plight of flora and fauna, make sure you mention that Africa is overpopulated. When your main character is in a desert or jungle living with indigenous peoples (anybody short) it is okay to mention that Africa has been severely depopulated by Aids and War (use caps).

You’ll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where mercenaries, evil nouveau riche Africans and prostitutes and guerrillas and expats hang out.

Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care."

Centipede Surgery and a Samaritan

Ugh, I’m the worst. I keep thinking about updating this but I get distracted easily. The weather is getting warmer here now, which only means two things – 1) I am under the constant companionship of a sweat rag and 2) there are ginormous insects out and about. Last night I went to take my garbage out and as I opened my door, a giant grasshopper fell on my arm. I just herded it outside and went on my way, but there’s nothing more disgusting than feeling a large insect fall on you. I take that back. I had a lizard fall on me from the ceiling when I lived with my homestay family in Mozambique. I was also doing yard work with the other teachers in my apartment building and it almost convinced me never to spend very much time outside. The worms were the size of baby snakes and there were mukade (poisonous centipedes) all over the place. Mukade are really difficult to kill - kind of like a woodtick in the U.S. But the centipedes can become very large and are known for crawling into shoes and biting unsuspecting victims. My English teacher co-worker and neighbor, who had been hard at work trying to decapitate the mukade with a shovel, told me that she once took a scissors and cut a mukade up into three pieces to kill it and it was still moving!

The other week, almost all the students went to Sasebo for the prefecture sports competition, leaving the members of the brass band club and the baseball team to stay at school to do some independent study, participate in club activities and the grand prize, clean the high school gym. It was kind of fun cleaning the gym though because it gives us a chance to chat in a non-classroom setting. I am always impressed/shocked by some of the phrases that come out of my students' mouths that I am 100% certain they learned from watching movies. It ranges from "what are you talking about?!" to "damn you to hell." I was with another English teacher when they said that last one and when they said that wasn`t a good thing to say, the student revised the phrase to "damn you to heaven!" I guess that works?

I am on a good samaritan spree. Every day, I have to try to find one good thing to do for someone else. There is nothing that bothers me more than when I go to the grocery store and there is a big line of people and customers refuse to help the clerk by bagging their own groceries. So I always do it for the ladies in the shop because it just seems fair. I think they are surprised that I know how to bag - like it`s advanced calculus or something. The logic is clear - heavy things on the bottom and light things on top. I guess working at Mega Pick 'N Save when I was 16 really paid off. I was walking home from the store the other day and I was walking past the park near my house and I saw one of my second grade students had scaled the chain link fence and was looking up at the pavillion roof. The kids had been shooting plastic arrows with bows and one of the arrows had gotten stuck on the roof, with no way to get it down. I stood there and assessed the situation with the 7-year olds and then told them "chotto matte, kudasai!" Please wait a second! And then I hurried up to my apartment, set my groceries inside and grabbed one of my laundry poles. The kids were all waiting at the end of my driveway with their bows and arrows and when they saw me coming, they jumped up and down and cheered. I am sure I looked ridiculous knocking that arrow down, especially since the pole still had laundry clips on it, but it made the kids happy.

My ticket has been purchased to come home! I will be back in the states July 28th and then I will head to grad school in Massachusetts in the middle of August. I am really excited to be starting the next chapter – not so much about the being a poor student again. I have already started doing some of the recommended reading for my courses though and I am chomping at the bit to get started and soak up all the information I can before the school year starts. The highlighters are out in full force! Ganbatte! (Japanese for "Do your best!")

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Stereotypes of African Men

I love this video put out by the group Mama Hope, a non-profit working to end the idea of "pitying Africa" and instead, creating sustainable projects that are based on local ideas and use all local workers and resources.

I think that the young men in this video put a great message out there not to believe everything you see in movies.

When I Hear Your Voice, I am Fat

I still like to stay in touch with students from Monapo from when I was a Peace Corps volunteer. I called this student up this weekend to say hello and see how he was doing. He is still working hard and helping take care of his family. Besides telling me that I should go to church, he said "senhora professora, quando eu ouco tua voz, fico gordo." Teacher, when I hear your voice, I stay fat. Fat is just another way of saying happy and satisfied. But I like to think what people would say or think if I started dropping that line in an English conversation. Cracks me up.

One way that I am "staying fat" is thinking about the future. I have been accepted into the International Development and Social Change program at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, so I will be heading to the east coast in the Fall! I am really excited to start pursuing my degree in international development and to meet people with similar interests. It seems like a great school and program, so while I am sad to be leaving Ojika in two and a half months, I am also excited for the new opportunities and experiences I will have being back in university!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


During my second year as a Peace Corps volunteer, I helped put together a conference for the empowerment of girls in the northern part of the country. Gathering girls from three different provinces, they attended a workshop on girls’ issues, health, rights, and a short technical training in areas such as sewing, computers, first aid, mural painting, etc. Overall, I really enjoyed myself and felt that bringing these girls to the city to meet other girls and learn important information to bring back to their own groups was such a valuable experience. Prior to the conference, all of the chaperones received and signed a contract agreeing to the modest amount of money they would be given for the four days, plus travel. I only knew to present them with these contracts because of the arguments our conference predecessors had faced.

One thing that definitely darkens the mood of trying to gather a large group of people to provide important information, opportunities, and activities is per diems. I know that this is a problem that people deal with a lot when it comes to training seminars or workshops in Mozambique and numerous other countries. Per diems are a set amount of money that you pay people every day that is supposed to make up for what that person would have made had they been home. It can also account for the loss of that person to care for the family and the home. Often, these per diems are a lot of money and people have grown to expect it when they attend workshops.

This is a great article to check out called "Per diems undermine health interventions, systems and research in Africa: burying our heads in the sand" by Valéry Ridde. The author discusses "perdiemitis" and I think they really hit the nail on the head.

Per diems are an out-of-control monster in my opinion. What it comes down to is that you are paying people to teach them new skills or information, when they should naturally have that thirst for knowledge and that desire to improve their communities. Also, their jobs will already pay them a salary so it seems unnecessary to give large per diems. It’s fine to give a modest sum, but if people are attending a workshop only because they are going to receive per diem, i.e., only learning when it benefits them, you`ve got a bigger problem on your hands. When they return to their community, do you think they will properly put that information to use?

The problem is: how do you revert to a system of volunteerism and a genuine desire for knowledge (with money only paid for hotels, food, and transportation during a conference or seminar), when per diems have been doled out for years? Because the truth is that practices in health, governance, technology, etc., aren’t going to improve until people have a vested interest that isn`t purely financial gain. I’m not saying that everyone is in it for the money, but I do think that some people are and this impedes development. I think that true development will happen when there is a better and more genuine conversation with communities and people, rather than by just throwing money at people and expecting change.

Luggage Locker Vacation

So my parents came to Japan for a week last week and we had a grand ol’ time. We started off in Fukuoka, where we took the ferry to Ojika. The ferry is just a big open room basically, where you sleep on the floor, surrounded by other people doing the exact same thing. It`s not exactly the epitome of comfort and the stench of cigarette smoke is strong. As my dad described it, "it`s like a giant neighborhood sleepover party." You get enough floor space to lay down and that`s about it. I fell asleep with a family next to me and I woke up with one of the children huddled up at my feet. Thankfully, the mother woke up, grabbed the child’s leg and dragged her back over to her allotted floor space. Sleeping in such conditions is difficult for people like me, who tend to flail and thrash in their sleep. Whenever I wake up, I am almost always partially mummified by my sheets (minus the embalming).

"Oh, hey there! Just hanging out outside the Ojika post office."

My parents really enjoyed Ojika – meeting my friends and students, and walking around and seeing the sites of the island when it wasn’t raining. I took them on a death march because we didn't have a car. The weather wasn’t ideal and regrettably, we didn`t get to see the Pot Hole. The Pot Hole is a well-known landmark on the island, where a stone ball was formed in a hole on the coast by crashing waves. It`s about as exciting as it sounds. We went to the high school sports practices, where we dealt out Reese’s and after a mishap with a friend, we had to advise them to remove the dark brown paper before consuming the peanut butter cup. Also, my mom and I hit a soft tennis ball back and forth, much to the amusement of the girls tennis team. Whenever I have gone to sports practices, I am still not used to everyone turning and collectively bowing in my direction. I prefer to be covert in my arrival.

During the march, near the public track and field/baseball grounds.

After Ojika, we headed to Kyoto and saw Kiyomizu-dera (a temple), the Golden Pavillion, Nijo Castle, Fushimi Inari and Arashiyama’s monkey mountain. How it works is you climb up a really steep mountain and pretend to not look winded. The monkeys roam freely close to the top of the mountain. When you finally wheeze your way to the top, you go into a screened in room where they sell apples, bananas and peanuts to feed the monkeys, who all hang onto the chain-link fence separating monkey from man. So it`s basically like a reverse zoo. I went and visited the monkeys last year with my sister but I just couldn`t get enough of their creepy little human-like hands reaching out for apple bits. My favorite part was when three monkeys were hanging on the fence with their hands outstretched. One monkey was being particularly impatient and crying out loudly when I heard my mother say to the monkey “no, you`re naughty. I am not giving you any!” The monkey then proceeded to turn around and attempt to defecate on the other two patient monkeys. Revenge, a dish not served so great while hanging from a chain-link fence and gravity is working against your favor.

One of the patient monkeys.

After Kyoto, we went to Osaka and visited the aquarium. Words of advice - never visit the Osaka Aquarium during very busy tourist times. It's probably the only time and place I ever see people being outright rude to each other, shoving and pushing their way past each other. The aquarium is designed to flow downward so that people walk past tanks and take in the sea creatures. However, this is lost on the crowds that tend to swarm toward the glass windows in large groups so that very few people can enjoy viewing the animals. They even crowded together to take pictures of small crabs, something I can see on this island. Those crabs probably now have a very elevated sense of self-worth. Even my mom was bitten by the photo-taking bug, with my dad dubbing her "Charlene Lynum, Marine Photographer."

After Osaka, we headed to Hiroshima, where we engaged in a battle of epic proportions for luggage lockers to leave our crap in while we walked around. It was only one battle in the constant war during our trip in finding suitable and open luggage lockers. Not only was it a matter of finding lockers but also finding lockers to fit all of our luggage and the size of our luggage. Luggage lockers are a serious business at Japanese travel hubs during heavy tourism times. As soon as you take your stuff out of one, people literally run for the now empty locker. We spent about an hour in Hiroshima station before eventually figuring out how to safely ditch our luggage. We spent a few hours at the Peace Park, where they were having the 2012 Hiroshima Flower Festival. I was happy that my parents got to see some Yosakoi dances at the festival while we were there.

The grounds of the Peace Park, decorated with flowers and giant paper cranes for the Flower Festival.

A Yosakoi dance group that was pretty impressive. Anything that involves back-flips is always impressive to me.

I loved these metal hair decorations!

After we had finished our crazy, fast-paced trip around Japan, we ended up again back in Fukuoka the night before my parents flew back out. We went out and consumed an authentic Japanese dish for our last meal together, tacos with chips and salsa. I had a really great time with the parents and it was great to see them after so much time apart. They seemed to enjoy themselves, minus the sitting and sleeping on the floor. It's never easy to say goodbye to family at security gates at airports but I can rest assured because I will see them again in July when I return home. I'm hoping to return home to find a fabulous photo album full of trip pictures, two-thirds of which will be of seals and jellyfish.

"Go, go, go!" - It was raining and this was a few seconds sans umbrella and people walking through the shot.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Stranger Than Fiction

When I was a child, I read books but I wouldn't really have called it my number one hobby. While I was convinced I could dig my own hole for a swimming pool in the backyard, my sister was more of the bookworm, reading her Babysitter's Club books. However, as I grew older, I found reading to be a more enjoyable and satisfying activity. A lot of people prefer to watch films to get the story faster but with a book, you feel more involved. And the best thing about a book is that you can be alone (say, relaxing in your house in rural Mozambique or on a fairly isolated island in the East China Sea) and never feel lonely.

Since arriving in Japan, I have made it my goal to surpass the number of books I read while in the Peace Corps and attempt to read a book a week. This leads to a grand total of 105 books that I have to reach by July 25th. Challenge. Accepted. It hasn't been easy because some books just aren't quick reads and sometimes, I have zero attention span and go watch some TV. But I have been on a real nonfiction kick. There was an interesting article on NPR entitled "Why Women Read More Than Men" and it raises some good points, with the author discussing why women tend to gravitate more toward fiction. (Another article to read about the subject of gender and reading is the article "How to Talk to Little Boys" by Lisa Bloom. She talks about how girls have surpassed boys in education and how reading is now generally frowned on as a male activity, when it used to be that reading was a more masculine pastime.)

Anyhoosies, here is my list of great books that I recommend and have read in the past year and a half or so! (Also, forgive me for my sometimes depressing taste - they are just subjects that I find interesting.)

1. The Zookeeper's Wife (Diane Ackerman) - This book tells the story of the zookeepers of the Warsaw Zoo who helped save hundreds of people during World War II.

2. Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way - (Jon Krakauer) - Krakauer wrote this short Kindle e-book about the author of Three Cups of Tea and discusses how parts of the original story were fictionalized and how funds were mismanaged - a sad and common trait among some "charitable" organizations.

3. Girls Like Us: Fighting For a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale (Rachel Lloyd) - This is a book about a British woman who helps young girls and women leave a life of prostitution and abuse to try to start a new life.

4. Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq (Kirsten Holmstedt) - A great book about women who serve in the United States armed forced and how they fit in among a dominantly male military culture.

5. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berline (Erik Larson) - I love Erik Larson`s books. This book is about the family of the American Ambassador to Germany during the rise of Hitler`s regime in the early to mid-1930`s.

6. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (Laura Hillenbrand) - This is the well-told story of Louis Zamperini, a former Olympic athlete and POW. It`s really well-written and this guy's life and story of survival are pretty amazing.

7. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (David Simon) - This is a book about detectives in Baltimore, Maryland and how they go about solving crimes and murders. The stories of the detectives also served as the inspiration for the TV series Homicide and The Wire.

8. Cool, Calm & Contentious (Merrill Markoe) - This is just a funny, well-written book by a former writer for several comedy TV shows. The parts where she writes about her mother are hilarious.

9. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (Mary Roach) - Okay, this book can be a little gross at times but it`s still an interesting read about where our bodies end up after we donate them to science.

10. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (Mindy Kaling ) - This is a just a funny book with great opinions and thoughts about society by Kaling, a writer and cast member of the American version of The Office.

11. The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America (Erik Larson) - Like I said, I love Larson`s books. This is the story of the set-up and planning leading up to the 1893 World's Fair, set alongside the story of the serial killer H.H. Holmes, who operated in Chicago and found his victims during the hustle and bustle of that period.

12. Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (Mara Hvistendahl) - No matter how you feel over the controversial subject of abortion, this is an interesting read that discusses sex-selective abortion and what the world has already and could become like if more and more people use technology to choose the gender of their children.

13. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (Robert K. Massie) - A biography of Catherine the Great. The court life of Imperial Russia reads like a soap opera. Sometimes it can be a dry read with all the historical details but for the most part, she was a very interesting and intelligent woman.

14. Outliers: The Story of Success (Malcolm Gladwell) - I really, really loved this book. Gladwell talks about how people often define success as something we have worked hard for and deserve more than others. However, he believes that, in reality, our success is often a result of being born in fortunate time periods, being given opportunities, and special circumstance and coincidences.

I haven't really read much for fiction lately and although I love fiction, sometimes the truth truly is stranger and more interesting than fiction.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

April's Random Photos

Just when you think you have escaped a latrine-style toilet of Mozambique, you come to Japan and get the modern version.

I am always amazed by the size of bobbles and trinkets that both boys and girls put on their bags. Sometimes it seems like they probably weigh more than the actual item in the bag, in this case, badminton racquets.

This is what I like to call "The Wall of Warning." It warns of the dangers of what seems to be eczema, smoking and the effects of too much studying. Just a few days before, they warned of proper dental care, falling asleep with your feet under a kotatsu table (heated table) and suffering second degree burns.

My parents are coming to Japan on Saturday night so I am going to pick them up from the airport and we are taking the night ferry to Ojika. Fun will be had in Ojika, Kyoto, Osaka and Fukuoka for Golden Week in Japan. Can't wait to see them! 21 months is far too long to go without seeing your parents! Pictures to come!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Back in the Habit

My desk - where all the magic happens.

Today was the first day of school in the high school. The kids in first year all showed up in their new uniforms, looking slightly nervous. They set up the gym, which takes a looong time. They put down a floor covering so that the chairs don't mark the floors, set up chairs and actually physically measure the distance between chairs and their angles, put up red and white striped cloth around the gym (so it looks like an old-fashioned election day), and bring out the bonsai tree. It looks great but it's also a lot of work for a short ceremony. Everyone works really well together though. It was fun to see a bunch of mothers decked out in their kimonos. I also had fun chatting with the kids about their spring vacation hair cuts. Turns out whenever you mention the word "bald" (hage) in Japanese, students find it hysterical.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

My Favorite Things

I am going to go all Oprah about my favorite things to do in Japan - but I'm sorry, no one is getting new cars, espresso machines or comfortable slippers. What do I do in my free time in Ojika? I do a lot of reading and writing (no arithmetic, I hate math), and I like to go for walks around the island.

I am lost without my Kindle. I take it everywhere I go and when I have downtime, I just pull it out and read. I am like a 90-year old senior citizen, amazed by technology. It's just shockingly wonderful that I can carry 100 books in something the size of one.

I know that some people say that journaling is for 12-year old girls, but I have kept a journal religiously since I left university. These are all the journals that I have filled up since coming to Japan. It's a great stress-reliever and it's great looking back at the stories and my embarassing immaturity in the past.

I have never been a fan of manga or comics or anything of that sort. It probably has to do with the fact that I worked at a bookstore for about two and a half years and people would always come and sprawl across the floor in the middle of that section to read the books rather than buying them, blocking my path. But I bought this compendium of the Walking Dead comic book series and it's actually quite good, although morbid and depressing enough that I have only made it about halfway through so far. For those of you who don't know Walking Dead, it's about a zombie apocalypse and people trying to survive. Sometimes I just need to put it down and go watch a panda sneeze on Youtube to add some levity to my day. I doubt I will ever actually get into reading comics but my students in Japan LOVE comics and manga.

I also go for walks around the island. I have enjoyed exploring all the roads and walking past all the rice paddies and farms. There was a frightening encounter with an enormous roaming cow on one part of the island. We just stood there and stared at each other for a few seconds while I tried to remember if cows ever charge. I am not a farm girl. But almost anywhere you go in Ojika, you can find a great view of the sea.

And here is just a random picture of a gift a friend gave me for my birthday back in February. It's a model Japanese restaurant. She got it as a kit and she put it together piece by little piece. Super kawaii!

Like a Rabbit on a Leash

'Tis the season for cherry blossoms. It's called Hanami in Japan, which basically translates to "sit under a bunch of trees and eat a picnic." If you go to the big parks, you will see large groups of friends and families bbq-ing together and just enjoy being outside, camped out under the pretty trees.

In honor of Easter, it seems fitting to post that while we were walking around, we saw a couple with a rabbit on a harness leash.

We thought a paddleboat would be a fun activity.

The fun ended when the paddleboat jammed and we could no longer peddle. We had to naturally crash-land into the "coast" on the lake and crawl ashore (while a really confused couple secured the swan paddleboat for us). I am pretty sure that the people relaxing by the water thought we didn't understand how to operate a paddleboat. It was a dramatic rescue that resulted in us sitting with the boat, like a rabbit on a leash, until the paddleboat operators came and hauled it away.

Anthony Bourdain goes to Mozambique!

So I am really excited to watch the No Reservations episode on the Travel Channel! On Monday, April 9th, they are showing Mozambique and Mozambican food! It looks like he goes to Maputo and the fish market there, Beira and Nampula. In this video, he is on Ilha de Mocambique, which was close to where I lived in Nampula. Nampula, represent!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Bad Back

So a couple of weeks ago, I had a great Saturday. I got so much accomplished with cleaning and laundry. I went to bed feeling smug and satisfied with my homemaker self. However, it was when I woke up on Sunday, that all of my satisfaction came crashing down. I couldn't move. Any time I tried to move to get up off my bed, I was met with tear-inducing pain. In the past, I have had some back pains as a result of sleeping on the floor, where most Japanese beds are. However, this time, as a result of sleeping on my thin futon mattress on the ground and sleeping in contorted positions that would impress the cast of Cirque du Soleil, I had really done it this time. My back is no longer as springy and agile as it used to be.

My mind immediately rushed back to when I visited the doctor before coming to Japan and had to get a chest x-ray that was necessary for medical clearance for entrance into my job. The doctor looked at my spine and said that I had the spine of a 40-year old woman, not a 26-year old. I blasted myself for not having consumed that bottle of vitamins the size of horse pills. I eventually rolled over and rocked myself until I staggered into a semi-straight standing position. Panicked, I did what any normal 28-year old woman would do. I called my mommy and daddy. They gave advice to put some heat on it. Since I didn't have any heating pads, my mom asked if I had any rice and to seal the uncooked rice in a cloth and microwave it for a minute or two and place it against my back. It totally does the trick, by the way. I tried explaining this makeshift heating pad to the school nurse and her facial expression was a mixture of horror and polite confusion.

I eventually went to the hospital and had them check it out. I got medication but it was only for 30 hours and I knew it was something that would just need to work itself out. I ended up being floor-ridden for about a week and that was no fun. You would think that endless hours of watching every old TV show and movie would be exciting (hello Mighty Ducks, the Cosby Show and Polly (the 1989 film) - I was on a Keisha Knight-Pulliam bender). But I can tell you that it is not. I have always really liked my coworkers but they were especially kind during that week. I am a pretty lucky gal and I appreciated their help. They dropped by with food, did a pharmacy run for me and checked in on me. I am extremely fortunate to work with such wonderful, kind people.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Fun, Germs and Studying Zeal

Everyone on the island seems to have the flu so the face masks are out in full force. I don't wear one because I like to think that since everyone else is wearing one, that frees up all the clean air for me. Flawed, I know. This line of thinking has worked out so far (find me a piece of wood to knock on, stat!). But I can't help but recoil every time I am within a ten foot radius of a child who sneezes or coughs without covering their mouths and then I have to sing the "Hello Song" with them. The "Hello Song" consists of marching around the room with about 12 first-graders and singing/yelling "Hello, hello, hello, what's your name? Hello, hello, hello!" At this point, you have to find the nearest person and say "My name is Ayami. My name is Erin." And then you shake hands as the music goes "hello, hello, hello" and you find your next partner/flu victim. In the last class, I told them that we were going to play a fun game where we pretend to shake hands but do not touch each other. Also, at the end of class, they all want to give me high fives. Afterward, I race to the antibacterial hand spray and practically hold it up in the air to shower under it to decontaminate, like some horrible lab experiment gone wrong.

With the high school students, it is just more difficult to understand them with a mask covering their mouths. A lot of the students wear masks as a form of prevention. It seems like the third year students, who are in the midst of heavy studying for university exams, are in isolation in a room in a separate wing of the school. I am sure that it's a very crazy time for them with exams. In Japan, the system for graduating students is much different than the system for American kids. American kids apply to three or four universities and then when they go to university, they have a vague idea of what they want to do and then actually decide their sophomore year. In Japan, they begin asking what you want to do with your life when you are in seventh grade and by the time you enter high school, you must know whether you want to go to university or not. If you decide to go, you enter the "alpha" class, which has a more rigorous study schedule than the "beta" class. And you cannot change your mind once you enter the "beta" class. You cannot take the exams for universities. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Their choices at 16 years of age are all a bit too permanent for my taste.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Visiting my old students in Mozambique during this last holiday season really opened my eyes more than ever to the wonderful opportunities I have had because I was born in the United States. My students are entering 12th grade this year and they are already thinking of what they will be able to do once they graduate from school. They all have dreams of becoming doctors, nurses, engineers or activists, but the question that constantly lingers in their minds is whether they and their families will be able to afford to go to university or a technical school. Some people say that this is the problem everywhere. But it is much worse and a much more complicated problem in Mozambique, where there are few jobs for high school graduates, few scholarships properly distributed and no such thing as a student loan.

Although many students have difficult stories and circumstances, one student really has my attention. Fabião is currently 20 years old and just graduated from high school in Monapo, the town in Nampula where I was a Peace Corps volunteer from 2008-2009. My roommate was his teacher but I grew close to him as he would come over to practice using my computer. The oldest of six siblings, Fabião is soft-spoken and always has a quick smile. I don’t think he has a mean bone in his body. He and his family are humble and kind.

In the two years after I left Monapo, his older brother passed away and as the next oldest son, he began working to help support his large family. During the 12th grade, he switched courses so that he could study at night. Studying at night in Mozambique isn’t always easy, because often, the level of instruction falls because teachers and students often don’t show up for classes. While going to school at night, he began working at a banana farm some 20 km away from Monapo during the day. Every morning, he woke up at 3:30 and got on a company truck to go collect bananas in the hot sun for 11-12 hours. He returned home at around 4 or 5 pm to bathe and have a short rest before going to school from 6:30 until 11:00 pm. After school, he would return home to get a little sleep before having to wake up early again to repeat the same process the next day.

He has graduated now, despite the struggle that stood in his way for getting his high school education, but like most others in town, he does not have the money or the opportunities to go to school. So he continues to work at the banana farm, collecting bananas every day and hoping to save enough money to one day be able to go to school in the city to study English. If he were to go to school, he would also leave Monapo, leaving his family without the income from his job on the banana farm.

Fabião is kind and intelligent and I have been thinking about him a lot. He deserves better opportunities than what he has in front of him, as do so many of our old students who have graduated from Monapo but now remain “parado” - stopped. He and the others students are why I want to go into development and education as a career. Time and time again, visiting with old students, the frustration of limited opportunities and resources was evident. Only a select few with money and connections are able to study when there is so much intelligence, creativity and potential in these young people.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Matando Saudades in Moz

In Portuguese, to say that you miss or have a deep longing for something, you say "tenho saudades." Saudades is one of those foreign words that doesn't quite translate perfectly to English. Here are pictures of my trip to Mozambique from December 19th to January 7th, where I had a chance to "matar saudades" - kill my longings for Mozambique. Sounds dramatic, right? I visited Maputo City and Namaacha (along the Swaziland border) in the south and Nacala, Ilha and Monapo in the north. I had a wonderful time visiting old friends and students. I apologize in advance for these photos not being in any specific order.

The art market in Maputo. You can find some really great stuff here but bring your A-game in negotiating. The vendors used to be on the streets but the city moved them to this really nice park.

This woman made really cool dolls out of capulana material. I couldn't help but buy one.

Maputo city

Me, hanging out with me and my roommate's former students in Monapo

Me with Fabiao, possibly one of the kindest and soft-spoken people on the face of the earth

The sewing master at the back of the market in Monapo. He made me two dresses and a skirt during my stay in Monapo. He used to make clothes for the first volunteers in Monapo and still has old fashion magazines they gave him.

Some of the dress examples he has on the wall. He said that he has made every kind in the pictures.

The Monapo market during a busy time.

Chamussa, a dog left by Megan, the last health volunteer in Monapo, watching everyone play basketball in the local gym. I met him once and as I walked up to the house of the new volunteers in Monapo, he came sprinting up to me to be petted. He is much calmer than Timba ever was.

Playing basketball with kids in Monapo and the new volunteers, Leah and Ariel.

The fortaleza on Ilha de Mocambique. This used to be the capital of the country and was led by the Portuguese. This is also a point for the shipment of slaves from Mozambique to foreign countries.

Walking around the fortaleza. It is an eery and empty fort, full of history.

The view of the beach next to the fort.

Me at the fortaleza on Ilha de Mocambique.

These little girls assumed that I didn't understand any Macua. Au contraire, little girls. I understand you when you call me an ugly white person. I turned around and said "n'sheni?" - "what did you say?" I never got so much joy out of a shocked and ashamed expression on someone's face before.

Castro with Ismael. Ismael was one of my best students in Monapo. He hated when he earned a score any less than perfection. He can converse really well in English and I think that if given the right opportunities, he will have a very bright future. He is full of opinions and never afraid to give them.

Fermino, one of my roommate's really sweet students, grilling the chicken.

Me, sitting and chatting with Ismael and Líle.

Castro, Assane and Fermino as we hung out in Monapo, making dinner one night.

One of my best students, Raimundo, and his cousin in Nacala. He is incredibly intelligent and hopes to study science in Nampula after graduation.

A Nacala sunset.

Some of the best and cheapest food in Mozambique is bar food. This plate of fish with rice and a potato sauce only cost about $3! Nothing tastes better after a long day of walking around in the sun and the heat.

A child taking a break at the Monapo chapa stop to fix his toy car. Kids in Mozambique are incredibly creative in making toys for themselves.

Timba is alive! He's alive! And he's bigger and more muscular and probably would have ripped my hand off if I had stuck my hand there. He didn't remember me but that's okay because he is thriving at the house of Monapo's priests, except for the fact that he has penchant for biting priests rather than thieves. He has now bitten two different priests because they were bothering him.

Women carrying water in Monapo.

Assane, my roommate's former student, working as a volunteer at Monapo's local radio station.

A giant form of mancala being played in the market while vendors wait for customers.

Beautiful nampula. Rock formations that look like they have just dropped from the sky.

Me with Eulalia, one of my students during my time in Monapo in 2007-2009. She is now 17 years old and she is going to be entering 12th grade later this month. She wants to work in the health field after she graduates.

Ugh, hello chapa (the main, sardines-in-a-can, form of transportation in Mozambique). We meet again.

The beautiful new international terminal at the Maputo airport. The Chinese are helping renovate the entire airport and are currently working on the domestic terminal.

The outside of a chapa waiting to fill before it can leave.

Me and my host family. Since I stayed with them four years ago, they have had 5 more Peace Corps volunteers come to stay with them and my host father is a chefe with Peace Corps in Namaacha in helping coordinate the housing of trainees.

I ate a meal at three different houses on Christmas Day and the food was delicious. Preparation of food for special events is a loooong process.

Walking to see the infamous, beautiful mountains of Namaacha.

A funny woman who saw us walking past and wanted her picture taken with me.

Castro and I

Castro and the mountains. Waaaay out in the mountains behind him is the family's "machamba." A machamba is where people plant their vegetables and crops and it is often far away from the family home and requires a lot of work.

Visiting Dona Olimpia, the host mom of my Peace Corps friend, Angie.

Holding Becky, named after a Peace Corps volunteer, Castro's niece.

Castro picking lychees on his mother's kitchen roof, the most delicious fruit in the world.

I got to Namaacha at prime lychee time.

Making matapa - a large pilao for pounding the leaves.

Aninha making batatas fritas (french fries) over charcoal.

Celeste, my host mother's niece's foster daughter. It's a difficult family web to untangle sometimes. She is such a sweet and curious little girl.

Me and Aninha, one of my host sisters with a wonderful sense of humor. She is now 17 years old and will be studying 9th grade starting later this month. She wants to be a doctor one day. She is constantly singing and I told her that she will need to moonlight as a DJ as well once she becomes a doctor.

Me with Pedo, my young host brother and a neighbor and my other host sister with babies. Nelinha, on the left, is holding her niece, Jazy, and Atalia, my host sister, is holding my host mother's great niece, Joyce.

Maputo city, looking good.