Trash Talk

Every March, we get our Trash magazine in the mail. It’s actually pretty useful and I keep mine on the side of our refrigerator for reference.

This trash magazine shows us how and when, over the course of the next year, to dispose of our garbage and recyclables, and which category various types of items fall into.

In the back, they have a really handy little chart for each neighborhood that lists each month and each day that certain trash goes out.

Over the last year, I’ve noticed that I don’t have to reference it that much, though we still keep it posted. I just know that, for example, it’s the 3rd Wednesday of the month tomorrow, and so I get to throw out all the cans, spaghetti jars and aerosol bottles that might have accumulated under my sink.

Strange, but it’s weirdly satisfying to get that stuff out and deposited under our trash net.

Well, as part our new life in the elementary school system, we have new trash rules.


So, a couple weeks back we got a message in our Neighborhood Group messenger (Neighborhood Group- all our kids walk together to school, we have our own rotation of patrol shifts and PTA paperwork gets passed down the representatives and divisions and gets distributed to all these little groups) about trash. I wasn’t sure what in the world they were talking about.

The next day we get a paperwork packet and a schedule about it that I sat down with coffee to peruse over.

Apparently the first Saturday of the month at 9:30am, we will meet in front of our apartment and someone (??) collects certain items from us (milk cartons, aluminum cans, old clothes, boxes, etc.) which have to be cleaned and prepared in certain ways and separately. The copies they gave showing some examples look like they have been copied since the Stone Age and are basically illegible. But I suppose everyone else knows how it works, so it’s not such a big deal.

Anyhow, somehow the group makes money by doing this and that helps fund things like the small gifts that each group gave to welcome the new first graders.

(I just keep thinking, I’ve never received money for throwing trash out– or for recycling! In fact, I’ve had to pay sometimes to dispose of oversized trash!)

I guess it was time for a change anyway, I’d gotten so used to my trash system and working it in our house… it was getting too easy.

Some might be thinking– well, you don’t have to do it, do you? You can just continue with your own ways.

Yes, you have to do it. No, I can’t just do it my way.

I’d like to, but since we live in Japan, we are part of group culture now.

In group culture, individuals all act as part of the group, all contribute, all “show up” for the good of the group, all cooperate with the mandates of the group.

It would not be good to just do it our way (or not do it at all) because of convenience or because of preference.

I think this is very different than Western thinking. It’s not as “optional” of a lifestyle here.

But, in all fairness, there’s a lot of grace for “outsiders” like us who are coming into groups and into the system. Japanese will help us get started to figure it out, but we have to do our part. And when we do, as foreigners, we gain more credibility within the group (whereas, I think for a Japanese, it’s just a given that you’ll do it). It helps build the foundation for a good witness and respect from them…

And it shows a respect for them and their ways.

And if my years of finessing trash skills needs to be canned, well… so be it.

Daily Dispatches

There’s a special pink-zippered bag among my daughter’s school belongings that I’ve discovered is the most important item.

They call it the Renraku-bukuro (contact/communication bag).

But I call it “The Daily Dispatches” and approach it with a “Sir! Yes Sir!” attitude.

My daughter is the messenger, carrying all-important paperwork, notices and messages from the teacher neatly glued inside the renraku-cho (contact/communication notebook) and returning completed items and tasks the next morning.

But this renraku-cho has been my confoundment these last days.

It all began when I suddenly realized that I wasn’t entirely sure which was the front side and which was the back.

Both sides had a title. Both sides had a label for specific information.

Surely the side with the small bar code must be the back— which made the book Japanese style (binding on the right) as compared to Western (binding on the left). We do it both styles here, so it was a 50/50 shot.

On the inside(front, I assumed) cover, I was told to fill out information regarding my child, the school, and our job, which I diligently did.

At the ceremony, the lady in front made important communications regarding a special yellow paper to be put in the renraku-cho. I had heard of this paper and had heard of its importance. I sat up a little straighter.

She showed the yellow slip glued over the place where I had filled out the information on the front cover. And it didn’t look like she had any information like I thought I’d been told to do.

But what really tripped me up was that she kept saying, “glue it to the back of the renraku-cho”.

Now I was really messed up because she had clearly glued hers to the front. Is it a western book now? Was I not supposed to fill it out the information? Where did I go wrong? Which side is the back of the book?

Am I being gaslighted?

What is going on here?

I browsed my paperwork trying to read it more carefully.

Yup, fill it out and glue it to the back of the book.

Well, I wasn’t sure of the information to fill out on the magic yellow paper anyhow, aside from her name. I puzzled it out again later that night, figuring that I’d just have to find out the next day.

The next morning, I stuck the yellow paper in my purse, and took along a health card I had filled out with my daughter’s daily temperature readings and sleep times/breakfast confirmed eaten.

I asked a parent in our assigned group what to do with this health card. She gave me a look of panic and concern and told me to put it in my dispatch bag. She noticed the yellow slip was missing and quickly explained how to fill it out.

Happy to know how to complete it, I now asked her where to attach it.

“To the back of the renraku-cho.”



My daughter returned home. I demanded the dispatch bag, which contained paperwork to be completed.

I opened the renraku-cho to find a note from the teacher glued in. Sometimes homework comes in this notebook. Sometimes I stamp, sometimes I’m to sign it. At any rate, I now assumed that this must be the front of the book, confirming my original suspicion that we were dealing with a Japanese-style book.

I flipped to the back to glue in the yellow slip and to my dismay, found the health card (which I had thought missing) folded and glued on one edge like a fold out. Apparently the teacher must have done this.

Well, now what to do??

In the meantime, I sent a message to the aforementioned neighbor to confirm the information I was to fill out.

THANKFULLY, she sent a picture. And as I zoomed in, I looked for clues on the edges of the yellow slip to see where she might have glued it in.

And I think I figured it out guys.

The yellow paper was to be glued onto the back of the front cover of the renraku-cho– glued on the top edge, laying over the information I’d filled out.

I said I think… but that’s the way it’s going to be guys. Because I glued that thing in, washed my hands of it, and put it out of my sight for the evening.

I have the whole weekend now to finish the rest of my tasks and submit my Dispatches to the teacher on Monday morning.

First Day Frenzy

Yesterday we got an email from a fellow worker here in Japan regarding our ministry. It began like this:

“Sorry it has taken me a few days to respond… Things have been crazy this week with school starting back up for the kids and especially figuring everything out about my son’s new school as he just started first grade at the local Japanese school.”

I grinned, sighed and sent a commiserating nod across the internet wavelengths.

The evening after the entrance ceremony found me sitting among my kids’ bookbags, paperwork and uniforms sprawled across our bed. We had closed the sliding doors, effectively hiding the piles of “important things” from our neighbors who came over for a lunch celebration after our kids’ entrance ceremony.

Now it was time to deal with it.

I set all my preschooler’s items aside. I knew how to deal with hers and sort through her papers.

I tried to organize my first grader’s things into final details to finish up, needed items, things to be sent later and then took a quick flip through the folders and packets of papers. I kept referencing different papers and trying to decide what needed to be done first.

Meanwhile my preschooler was singing at the top of her lungs and my toddler stood, hanging onto the side of the bed, throwing papers with glee across our living room.

Eventually, I was able to pack the bags with needed items which were all adequately and sometimes doubly labeled.

As I labeled her gym clothes name tags with info I had just received that morning and ironed them on, I scorched the label on the shorts. I quickly called my husband who was out, asking him to run by the special store from which I had to buy specific labels. Unfortunately they were closed.

I knew my kid wouldn’t wear the clothes the next day but she still had to take them. So, I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best until I was able to repair the damage.

After the kids went to bed (a bit later than I planned for!), I sat down with the stacks of papers and began reading, sorting and putting into my own system of comprehension and organization.

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but in English, you can simply glance at something and within a split second understand it’s meaning and relative importance.

Even having lived here and spoken Japanese for years now, none of these papers completely do that for me. At least not that fast. It takes looking, processing, comprehending and deciding.

I’m rather like a computer that’s a wee bit old. You know– you click and the wheel spins and a few moments later it does what you want it to do. Or at least, you hope so.

But, at least I’m getting faster and not slower.

Anyway, this isn’t a one-time-and-you’re-done deal. Everyday needs checking and confirming, because everyday is different. For the time being until the kids get used to carrying all the text books back and forth to school each day, I have a list a different items to send with my kid each day and a list of what she will study at what time, on what day and what time she gets off school.

Well… we made it through the first day of class (a Friday, thank goodness) with only a couple tiny mistakes. I have paperwork to fill out over the weekend and then the real fun begins!

If you think of me, say a little prayer for me, eh? And for my guinea-pig daughter!


So the day I’ve been preparing for for months finally arrived– The Nyuugaku-shiki or Entrance Ceremony for first graders beginning elementary school.

The gymnasium was lined with thick red-and-white-striped material on the walls, flowers across the front, and a wide, high desk on the stage. Chairs were social-distance spaced, and overall, a guarded silence pervaded the room as we waited for the children to enter and the event to begin.

The actual ceremony contained the parts of a “ceremony” we’ve come to recognize in all meetings Japanese– an official declaration of beginning the event…. speeches from so and so…. standing, bowing multiple times and eventually an official declaration of ending the event.

This time we got to listen to the national anthem, which was moving.

At one point (all the parents were seated behind the classes), I smiled behind my mask to see all the little boys in row line swinging their little legs (some of which barely touched the floor) while the girls in the next row to them held still legs.

During the course of the morning’s activities, the children learned who was going to be in their classes, who their teacher was, where their shoe cubby was. They turned in paperwork and received name badges with colors and numbers that all meant something. They deposited items we had been told to bring to their respective places, received their text books and… so. much. paperwork.

Class pictures were taken with everyone in their finest, and families looked forward to their individual celebrations at home or in the home of a friend.

It’s a big deal here in Japan and the start of a new season for children AND parents.

It wasn’t on the list!

The last few weeks have been incredibly busy while preparing for a new season for my daughter. I’ve made a number of bags and lunch mats to size, using tutorials I’ve found online in Japanese for lesson bags, shoe bags, gym clothes bags, school lunch bag (different than obento bags we made for preschool!)… lunch mats and many new masks.

I’ve done lots of shopping. A list of special items bought at specific stores, and other school supplies… somewhat different than what I would typically buy back in my home country.

And lots of reading. We got the handy dandy Local Elementary School Life Handbook about 6 weeks ago. About twice a week I sit down to browse through it (picking up on something new each time)— reading through topics of what kinds of routines are helpful to establish now before school, what happens in scenario A,B, C, the different schedules for the first few weeks, when they need certain items, measurements for items and samples of how to label things.

Labels. Now that’s the job I’m putting off. Everything needs to be labeled. Clothes, umbrellas (they need two with two labels each!), shoes, hats, pencils, crayons, scissors and case, disaster protection gear (my last thing I still need to purchase) and all masks.

When we bought my daughter’s very. expensive. standard. bookbag several months ago, it came with labels printed with her name on it so that should save me time.

But I feel like it’s going to be an all-night job, constantly referring back to the handbook and pictures I got on my phone of school material samples.

As we get closer and closer to the date, I have more and more questions I keep asking… well, anyone I can find.

The other day, my neighbor gave us a gift for my daughter entering elementary school. I pulled out some cute stamps and said “Oh! Thank you, they’re cute.”

She said- oh, they’re for the Renraku-cho. I said ok…. but nothing was computing why I would need stamps for the notebook. This was not in the handbook!

She explained a little, but as I had kids dragging me away by my hand, we couldn’t talk and so she later sent me samples of her kids homework in a text message.

Apparently, with one particular subject of homework, kids have to read words they’ve written in that book everyday to me. And I have to sign-off—- or stamp!—- the completion.

It’s no big deal but I had no idea. There’s a lot of things I have no idea about— different groups we are now a part of (and when to expect what from them), messaging lists to register to by certain dates, different paperwork they are handing me, different start/finish schedules for different days, when certain duties fall to me… when they won’t apply.

My neighbor said, “Oh, don’t worry. It’s a lot but whenever you have a question, please ask me anytime.”

But my concern is not so much for the times when I have a question.

My concern is for the times I don’t realize that I should have a question.

There are a lot of things that are intuitive to people here, but for me, this is all like a blank slate. For example, I went to the store with a friend looking for school materials. I told my daughter she didn’t need a particular item she was begging for. I turned to my friend to confirm and her daughter pulled out her own of the same item mine was begging for.

Oh. Well…. It wasn’t on the list!

They really stress parents making sure they get things right for their kids so their child isn’t “shocked” and distressed at school when everyone has what they need but he/she doesn’t.

While I’ll get some grace because I’m just the poor foreigner mom who has no idea what she’s doing, I’d rather not put my kid in that situation where’s she’s the foreigner in her class always getting something wrong.

Overall, my kid is pretty excited for this new season she’s been dreaming of. I’m sure she’ll do fine. But me… well, I think I’m more nervous than she is.

Slouching Efforts

Yesterday, I attended the school play for my middle daughter. My husband attended our eldest daughter’s performance and they rushed home after a flurry of frenzied texts about the delay in the dismissal of the previous session. Dad and I made a mad dash of a switch as he hopped off, I hopped on and pedaled off with a different kid on back.

When I arrived, I keyed the code to get into the school grounds and as staff saw us, they ran to meet us, check temperatures, sanitize us and rush us off to our respective locations.

It was pretty amusing see my daughter whisked off by staff, switching her outdoor shoes for her indoor ones, taking her school hat and getting her ready. Meanwhile, I ran up the stairs and was guided to my marked square on the tatami floor of the school hall.

I sat down, took my coat off and tried to get comfortable, giving into the temptation to sit cross-legged on the mat. Very unladylike.

But as I sat, waiting for my daughter’s 3 and 4 year old class to come on stage, I noticed with customary envy how the women can all kneel so prettily and keep their backs ramrod straight for the entire time.

The other acceptable position for a woman is off-kilter, like you just tipped over the side of your legs while kneeling. The legs are still tucked under, and though the hips are at an angle, still somehow these women stay straight up without leaning on their hands.

It’s so pretty, and try as I might, I cannot pull it off for very long. My legs fall asleep, I fidget around after 15 minutes or so, and overall, I feel like I sit significantly higher than them since I have wider legs than they do.

At any rate, I saw the rows of straight backs and thought to myself, “There we go. Though I’m a bit late, it’s a good New Years Resolution in the health department: Good posture.”

My back aches, and it’s the proverbial January 2 today and I’m still trying to be careful to correct my body whenever my shoulders slouch forward, etc. I don’t want to end up an old lady, in pain and unable to walk upright. That requires action now.

Anyway, last night as I was laying in bed, enjoying the relaxing of tired muscles, I was thinking about the various bits and pieces that we need translated into Japanese for our website and in the general running of our ministry. Honestly, thinking about doing it myself made my head ache in a way that I instantly found a “pair” with in with my weary back.

Nonetheless, it needs to be done. I could take the easier road and ask someone to do it for me. But if I am ever to do “well”, I must make the effort though I know I will fall drastically short of my desired standard when I get it edited by a native speaker. Sometimes I wonder why I make the effort, as so many of my word choices or particle choices are exchanged for better ones. This is not to be unexpected, this is normal. We have to learn this way. And I can only make progress if I make myself dredge through it.

But, I think this kind of attitude MUST be with those who go on the field, from the very elementary task of language proficiency to the more “advanced” tasks of effective cross-cultural ministry. It’s wearying, it’s a joy (ok…. sometimes), it’s daily and constant, all-engulfing, and ultimately a privilege I see this attitude in several of those I have worked with or am acquainted with or even read about. It’s that sighing and yet, still pushing of yourself in an area (in ministry and in their personal lives– I think it often shows up in both arenas), that tightening of slouching muscles– to do things rightly. To do well. Maybe not perfect, but better than it has been… closer to the goal. Discipline. Excellence. Vision for the end game.

Because, God is worthy of my effort, and my utmost efforts reflect my perspective of the worthiness of God and the task He’s given me.

Things my kids say in America

So, the one benefit of living in another language is that sometimes we can still talk about whatever we want that we wouldn’t normally say in public. Sure, everyone has studied English and they listen into our conversations to see if they can understand.

But, it’s also a benefit because… you know that really awkward stage kids go through when they make less than politically correct observations whenever it occurs to them to do so?

Well, it’s a little less embarrassing for me, since we have little bit of a cover.

Welcome to America though. Ha.

Still, sometimes their observations tell me what they’re looking at.


That’s humongous! (Literally, about anything)

The trees are different here.

Why do you have your shoes on in the house? You forgot to take your shoes off!

Why is that person buying so much food?

Mom, look at the grass! It’s so green!

Why are there so many flags everywhere?

Why are there so many churches in America?

Why is that person rolling around on a car in the store?

They bought TOO MANY toys.

(While eating dinner with friends) Um, why do you have different rice?

(When exasperatedly explaining that they had to wait for their clothes because they were in the dryer)… But mom, I don’t know what a dryer is!

That’s too cold! (regarding toilet seats– they are heated in Japan)

Are we going to walk or are we taking the car?

Upon merging onto the highway: Wow, this is like a racetrack way!

Every time we go to America, it’s fun to see how they see the country through their eyes. What are the things they notice that I take for granted? Sometimes it gets us side-long glances from those who don’t know our story.

Re-entry Events– Shopping

“WOW! This store sells EVERYTHING!”

I smiled as my daughter experienced that joy of entering Target for her first conscious time.

Yes, honey. Yes, it does.

That glorious feeling of entering a store, located on one enormous floor where you can purchase socks, noodles and dish soap and even appliances all in one stop.

It’s absolutely wonderful. Given our tight quarters in dense Tokyo, we’re used to escalators, stairs and lines for the elevator at “department stores”… separate registers for separate floors and all the rest.

While it’s so convenient, it’s also a wee bit overwhelming. It’s a favorite “event” for me– one that requires patience on the behalf of family and friends.

Let’s take a moment to think about this.

Imagine yourself walking into a foreign market. You could imagine yourself walking into a Japanese supermarket. Or if you’re familiar with that, say- an Indian supermarket. Or an outdoor market in South America.

Now, you need to meal plan for a week and buy all your household goods– toiletries, laundry goods, kleenex, etc. And your kid needs to contribute a cleaning rag to the school and that’s due tomorrow.

True story.

Anyway, how long do you think that’s going to take you?

Is that salt… or sugar? Pork? Beef? Oh wait, a picture of a cow. Ok, beef.

Will this work as a substitute for what I was thinking?

What kind of meal should I use this vegetable in? Do they sell frozen carrots or should I get fresh?

You get the picture. You’re going to be walking those aisles awhile.

Well, surprisingly, as long as you think it’s going to take you in that store is how long it takes me when we come back to the States. Back in Japan, I can get in and out of the stores fairly quickly. (Well… my husband might debate that one…) but I’m pretty familiar now with my options, opportunities and limitations.

Here though… I stand in the aisle of box meals or snacks and I stare. Then I turn 90 degrees, stare down at my list and turn back to the shelves and look up again blankly…. leave the aisle and decide to try again later.

And don’t even get me started on the lotion aisle.

What’s the difference between all these options? How much do I need? Should we take some back with us? Which is the best deal? Is it better to get cheap or is it better to get something in the middle? And oh, what is that??

I feel like I am the foreigner in my own favorite stores and it takes time to get reacquainted and try to ride that bike again.

Home and Heritage

Over the last year, I’ve been reading a book about raising healthy TCKs (Third Culture Kids). There are some wonderful benefits to raising your kids overseas (like an expanded global worldview, outside-the-box thinkers, an intuitive ability to empathize, etc.). But there are also challenges that many TCKs tend to face and that don’t often surface until their adult years.

So, I’ve been reading about them and some proactive approaches as a parent to help them.

One of the suggestions was regarding how we spoke about “home”.

In my mind, “home” is America. It can also be wherever we currently have our suitcases– but the key idea of “home” for me is in a little wooded street between hills, with a green house with a white porch, drafty bedrooms and ongoing improvement projects.

For my kids, “home” is Japan. Their passports may say otherwise, but to them, our corner apartment on the side of a busy street through town is where their life goes on. Trips to America are just that– trips– to a foreign country. Loved ones are there, but essentially it’s a country and a culture where life is different.

In the book I’m reading, the author recommends referring to Mom and Dad’s home culture as their “heritage” as compared to their home.

It’s an interesting concept! So, we’ve been taking the opportunity to explore things on our trip to America as learning experiences for the kids– “This is where Mommy comes from. These are some things I ate growing up. This is how people in this part of America do this.”

Even though we’re American (well, and Honduran too), having lived on another continent for so long– we’ve changed a lot. Our ways of doing things have changed. Our taste buds have changed. Our way of thinking and perspective on many things has changed. So, our culture at “home”–the one in Japan– is not necessarily American. It’s a little mix of everything that works for us.

Approaching things from a heritage perspective has helped me be more purposeful about things– pointing things out, having conversations. Granted, they aren’t in depth conversations since it’s a (almost) 7 year old and a 4 year old.

But it’s a start between bridging these worlds that are oceans, plane rides and life experiences apart.

Phone Calls

One of the most intimidating things for me is making phone calls. If possible, I always prefer to talk to a real person. It’s so much easier to understand– seeing their face, their mouth moving, anything they might have to show me– I usually leave with a fuller understanding of what the situation is and what I need to do, if anything.

Plus– if you don’t manage the phone call well, you might end up making things worse. Or having to incorporate a 3rd party.

We pay most of our bills via cash (Japan is still primarily a cash society) at the local convenience store. But more and more, everyone wants us to pay via bank transfers or credit card and send a little explanation page with this “easy” bank transfer option.

Since we deal with banks on two continents, different accounts in Japan, and have to keep good records and budgets and all that fun stuff, it’s just easier to deal with cash.

Anyway. I got a fancy-looking bank transfer slip from the electric company a few weeks back. It looked kinda important, and seemed like it was a new way to pay that they were offering. It had certain codes and all that. I browsed over it, but didn’t get the impression that it was mandatory.

Still, I stored it away with my stack of “questionably important Japanese paperwork” that I’m not always sure what to do with.

We were getting ready to go to “the ‘Merica'” as my 3 year old calls it, and I was attempting to make sure everything everywhere was accounted for and taken care of before we left for a month.

I kept waiting for my electric bill to arrive.

It was about 10 days late. I had an uneasy feeling and the clock was ticking. So I went back to my questionably important pile, re-read it more carefully and lo and behold- it was not an optional payment method.

I needed to register my phone to receive a link to pay online. Complication #1. I didn’t recognize the last digits registered for the phone number. I guess when we moved and a friend helped us get our utilities set up, they registered the account to their own phone. Complication #2. And now I’m late on receiving my bill. Complication #3.

So I did some fiddling online, tried to change the number registered and sign up for the fancy new service. I hoped I had it taken care of.

A day later, and two days before departure, I still had no resolution and no way to pay my bill. I didn’t want to arrive back to Japan with our electric off in the dead of winter.

So I broke down and called. Eventually I heard the word “operator” and pressed the number accordingly.

A long explanation of “my situation” with its complications, long periods on hold while the operator checked with his manager about how to handle us (Japan is very by the book– and we usually don’t fit in the books!)… and 30 minutes later we had a solution.

I felt really satisfied at how far we’ve come in being able to get things done and manage affairs in Japan– even so far as making phone calls! Still, pride goes before the fall, so I don’t want to get over-confident, because I’ll probably botch the next one.