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Argh, sorry for being lame and more-or-less abandoning LJ, but guess what? I'm recently engaged, and decided to create a separate blog just focusing on wedding-type things. Why? Well, I figured my beautiful LJ friends don't need to hear the minutiae of it all and (more importantly) I didn't want people trolling wedding websites reading through my "real" blog. So for those of you who are interested, may I introduce Ring My Bell: Bike Love.

5 Years Out

For some reason I have been keeping close tabs on how many years I've been out of high school. For a while I've noticed my 10-year reunion steadily looming on the horizon, growing ever nearer. Come this spring, it will be 10 years since I graduated, which also means that it will be 10 years since I lived in Nebraska. No matter, my 10-year reunion doesn't seem so scary as it did when I first got out of college. By while I was fretting and worrying about how many years I've been out of high school, I COMPLETELY failed to keep track of how the years have flown by since I graduated college. Somehow 5 years have passed since then, and when I think back on it, I suppose I've done 5 years worth of stuff but man... I'd kind of like a few of those years back. D:

My good friend Jon, another Chicago Ole alum, suggested a weekend trip to Minnesota for Homecoming Weekend and I gladly took him up on the offer. We loaded up our iPods with music and This American Life podcasts, and hit the road last Friday for our 8-hour drive to Northfield. Jon and I have been friends for over 9 years now. He was one of the very first people I met at college and we've been friends ever since. It meant a lot to me to be able to go back with him and poke around. We had a lot of fun reminiscing about the people we knew, the things we did, and the millions of other memories we share.

Jon and Me, Homecoming 2001

I always remembered the Homecoming weekends when I was in school. All of the alumni mulling around; food is better than usual; campus looks cleaner than usual; everyone is on their best behavior. I have to admit that it really amused me to hear current students grumbling about it, saying the exact same things my friends used to say. "They're just showing off," I overheard one student complain. "They never have this much fancy food normally."

I was embarrassingly excited about the different alumni stuff I could finally justify buying, particularly the cliched Olaf-related items. Things I brought home with me include:
  • 2 pint glasses with the lyrics to "Um Ya Ya"
  • an Ole the lion shot glass
  • an "Uff da" magnet

But I have to admit that one of the things I was MOST excited about was the fact that my name tag had a bright maroon ribbon on it, which declared me an official 5-year alum. (I'm bona fide!)

Jon and Me, Older but No Wiser, Homecoming 2010
(Check out our rad name tags with ribbons!!1!!!1!)

As I looked around the campus, I noticed the birch trees planted next to the commons were much taller and more robust than I'd last seen them. The new science center, which had its groundbreaking after I graduated, is finished and in full use. It's a truly magnificent building and I'm a little bummed that I didn't get to make use of it.

Old Main and Steensland Gallery, as seen from inside the new science center.

Jon and I spent an afternoon on campus, then moved on to our unofficial official reunion at one of the local pubs, The Contented Cow. I saw many people I recognized and a few old friends, but most of the faces drew vague memories at best, and were completely unrecognizable at worst. It struck me that my friends who I hadn't seen for several years still looked 22 to me, while the people I didn't know looked... well... kinda old. Sigh.

My very own Camelot; St. Olaf on Manitou Heights

One thing I'll never forget is the first time I ever visited campus. Being at Olaf in the fall always brings these memories rushing back to me. Though I spent many falls there, the colors of the trees still take my breath away, and the crisp smell of fall makes me feel like a giddy teenager. It was 10 years ago this month, actually, that I first visited campus. It was back when George HW Bush and Al Gore were in the midst of a fierce presidential campaign, and the date of September 11th had no particular significance. At the behest of a cousin of my father's, my dad and I drove up from Lincoln to visit. It was a cold fall night when we finally arrived, and I vividly remember the smells of fall, and the obscene amounts of political posters clogging everyone's lawns. My dad stayed with his cousin while I was able to stay with a high school friend of mine in her dorm room for an evening. We took a campus tour the next day and we were stunned by the gorgeous foliage on campus, as well as the beautiful limestone buildings. St. Olaf continues to boast the highest rates in the US of students who study abroad, as well as a world-famous music department. I was in love. My dad took to referring to Olaf as "Camelot," and declared the students on campus as "a bunch of Annie's." It was perfect, and I never looked back.


One interesting aspect of working with so many people who have lived and traveled abroad is the random things we had in common with our experiences. I feel like the East Asian rep; but the other pre-enrollment advisors have worked all over Central and South America, Europe, and Southeast Asia. As I was eating lunch the other day with two of my coworkers, we all bonded over our shared hatred of Americans who pretend they're Canadian while traveling abroad. RANDOM.

Anyway, one of my coworkers, H, actually just moved back from Argentina a few months ago. She left behind a boyfriend who she talks about a lot, and obviously misses a great deal. He surprised her by buying a ticket to Chicago and got in today. She still had to come to work, but the manager was flexible and let her come in late and leave early. When she got in she was absolutely beaming. She told me how she was running around the terminal exit looking for him and then... there he was, smiling at her. I had such an insanely clear picture in my mind of the whole thing, probably because I've experienced that exact scenario 3 times in the last year and a half.

Being in an international relationship is a unique form of torture which I'd never, ever recommend. The longing to see your loved one is incredible. Talking to H all of that came rushing back to me: the daily Skype dates, the physical yearning to reach through the computer screen and grab Austin and pull him through the wires that separated us, the feeling that I'd never really be happy again until I saw him with my own eyes and held him in my arms. It is insane. And then, when we were reunited... the tangible and the dream come crashing together to create reality. Physical memories come flooding back, and I remember his smell and exactly where my head rests in his neck. I know exactly how H feels right now. There's nothing like it.

After telling me about how happy she is, H went on to admit how scared she is of him leaving, and what will happen afterwords. "I already told him he's not allowed to leave. I'm going to tie him to my bed and never let him go." I'm 99% sure I uttered those words verbatim last year, while Austin was visiting me in Japan. Remembering those times, when I had to see Austin leave, or when I left, well, thinking of it breaks my heart. Having your loved one back is amazing, but knowing that it is merely a respite until they leave for good is the most bittersweet thing in the world.

After work, H returned to her boyfriend and I returned home to find Austin waiting for me. I made a nice dinner for two and afterwords we sat on the couch as we always do, just being a mundane couple. This time there's no plans to come or go, but just to be. And I've never been happier.

FINALLY a job I can be proud of!

Two weeks ago today I was bumming around the apartment (as usual) when I received a call. It was from a company I had interviewed with in the very beginning of July. Needless to say, I had completely written off this job several weeks before. But there I was, being offered a job, but with a catch: I had to start the following Monday. I asked for a day to think about it, and he agreed. He was calling back the next day at noon and needed an answer.

When I got off of the phone I was excited but mostly just really apprehensive. Was I ready for such a sudden change? Lord knows I was sick to death of my current job and had been pining for a "real" job since February. It was just so... sudden. Of course after a few hours of thinking and rationalizing I was completely on-board. The next day I accepted the job and broke the news to my manager that I was leaving. She was fine with it, until I told her that Sunday had to be my last day. (Sorry, Pawk!) But no matter, my coworkers were all a-twitter, congratulating me for finally getting what they were all hoping for as well: a ticket out.

So what is this new job, anyway? I am now an advisor for a TEFL certification company. TEFL certifications are things that people train for to help ensure that they will find a job teaching English abroad. (TEFL stands for "Teaching English as a Foreign Language.) You need 100 hours of class time and 20 hours of tutoring/observation/teaching to qualify. TEFL certifications are not necessary but are extremely helpful in competitive markets, and to prepare you for the realities of the ESL classroom. I actually tried to get certified before I went to Japan, but nothing ever worked out for me since I needed a part-time course. (The company I now work for, which does offer part-time courses, wasn't quite up and running yet.) I really wish I had been certified... lord knows it would have allowed me to get a better position at a better company. Oh well, now I can get certified for FREE! \(^o^)/ (If any of you are interested in getting certified, let me know and I'll send you some info. We have awesome online courses.)

It's really nice getting up in the morning and going to a job I actually like, with coworkers that have ALL lived, worked, and traveled all around the world. I get to talk to people all day long about living and working abroad, about my experiences and about their hopes and dreams and how I can help them attain these dreams. It's pretty damn cool.

The company itself is young, laid-back, vibrant, and growing in leaps and bounds. In the past two years they went from a single office to two offices and a learning annex, and their sales are just amazing. They can actually afford things like NEW computers and NEW printers and NEW copiers etc etc etc. Coming from some companies that notoriously dragged their feet on new office electronics, it's a real relief to be in a place where things are up-to-date. My god, the computers even run VISTA! I mean, McGraw wouldn't even let us update our browsers to IE7! And now I'm working for a place that uses all of the latest social media and insane website spying technology out there. (And btw, it's pretty nuts what companies can find out about you and what you've been up to on the internet these days... ) So yeah, it's a breath of fresh air to say the least.

Hopefully my enthusiasm for this job will continue to grow, as it has since I started working there, a whole two weeks ago. It seems like every day I find something new to be excited about and to make me feel good about my new and sudden career change.


Hey Howdy

It's pretty hard to believe it's August already. Time has absolutely flown by since I've been back in Chicago! I still have dreams regularly about Japan and traveling. Many of my dreams center around my now-expired passport: I either need to travel abroad but can't or am abroad and need to get home but can't. Maybe I should just bite the bullet and renew my passport? Hmm.

Austin and I moved into a new place in late-April. It's a seriously cute one-bedroom (WITH CENTRAL AIR) that I love to bits. Since this is the first apartment we've had on our own, I've been slowly decorating and gathering the necessary furniture and household accessories we were missing. We somehow had a couch but no coffee table, and loads of records but no record player. After a brief obsession with apartmenttherapy.com and lots of searching on craigslist, I finally got the living room all in order.

The biggest challenge was finding an agreeable solution for Austin's massive beer collection. In his old apartment it took over most of the pantry, refrigerator, and various other nooks and crannies, but I wasn't having any of that. We finally agreed on a 5x5 Expedit from Ikea and it has performed its task beautifully. (More pics of the apartment are on flickr.)

The job front is rather discouraging. I've been working at a sushi restaurant since March and while it's certainly not a bad job in general, when I do have bad days all I can think about is how my education and experience is going to waste. It really gets me down sometimes, but most of the time it's fine. My coworkers are a motley crew and lots of fun to hang out with. I make surprisingly good money and am only working 4 days a week, so I really can't complain too much. I spend my days reading on the porch, walking around the neighborhood, doing this or that chore, and bumming around the internet. Not to shabby.

The one thing I haven't been doing much of is music. It's a real shame and I need to get off my lazy fanny and tune up both my shamisen AND my poor neglected violin. Two of the girls from work and I have been discussing starting a piano trio and the prospect of having a classical outlet is really exciting to me. This is the problem with not having regular lessons or performances; if there's no reason to get out my instruments, they just sit and gather dust.

At any rate, the great job search continues as always, and the apartment will continue to bloom as we settle. I'm cautiously optimistic about the future, but optimistic nonetheless. At the end of each day I know that I am a lucky, lucky girl to be where I am, to be happy and healthy, and to have a wonderful man to share it all with.


Home Sweet Home

It's been 2.5 months since I left my beloved Yokohama and though I of course miss it and all of the lovely people there, I have to say I'm quite happy being back in Chicago. I arrived at the tail-end of winter, and spent a few weeks bundled up and enjoying the familiar feeling of freezing-cold air on my cheeks.

Pretty much the first thing I did when I got back was go to to my storage unit and break my bike out of jail. I was kind of dreading getting back on my bike but as soon as I was back in the saddle I felt an odd sense of elation. I felt free... suddenly I was free to go where I wanted *when* I wanted. There were no more trains to wait for or buses to track down. Just me and my two wheels.

I spent the first few weeks searching for a job. After sending out countless resumes to publishing companies and emails to old coworkers, I got the picture: the slump is not over and will not be over for a while, at least in that industry. I instead spread out my search and ended up with a semi-part-time job, which I have been doing for 2 months now. My job is... get ready... I am a server at a sushi restaurant. XD How did I know it was going to end up like this? As it turns out, my emails to old coworkers were not completely in vain, and I did do some temp work for Mother McGraw for a few weeks, slinging sushi at night.

I've been staying with Austin and his extremely generous roommates since I got back. It's been nice being around so many people, but 4 in one apartment is kind of pushing it. They're letting me stay here for free but while I was job-searching I completely scoured the entire apartment... I'm talking floor to ceiling cleaning. I scrubbed and washed and vacuumed and swept and folded and tossed and organized. No drawer was left untouched; no expired food products left behind. (Just to give you an idea of what I was up against, I found year-and-a-half-old cream cheese in the fridge.) It was a huge undertaking but I was happy to do it considering how kind my new roommates were being to me.

Thankfully for everyone involved, Austin and I decided to find our own space. We (read: I) searched high and low for the right amount of space in the right place. We signed a lease, got keys, picked out paint, and are moving in later this week. I'm pretty excited to finally get to actually unpack; I've been living out of the two suitcases I lugged with me from Japan since I got here. It will be nice to see my old furniture again and I've been happily hunting for vintage furniture deals in my free time. (It's safe to say that I am heavily addicted to apartmenttherapy.com at the moment.) But I have to admit that the thing I'm *most* looking forward to is my old bed. It's not particularly large or comfortable; it's just an old double bed my parents donated to the cause when I first moved to Chicago 5 years ago. But compared to the ikea twin bed Austin and I have been sleeping on for the past 2.5 months, it's a luxury. To be able to *read* in *bed*... ahhhh, how divine!

At any rate, I'll definitely be updating more when I settle into the new place. I'm eagerly awaiting my chance to start decorating and making the new place feel like our new home.

Total Shamination

Knowing that yesterday was my last day in Japan for a while, I arranged one last blow-out shamisen performance at the Pink Cow on the 24th for their January Japanese Lounge Night. The performance was awesome. The place was completely packed and some of my coworkers even came up from Yokohama as moral support. Kumiya (the event coordinator) put me on last. The crowd was surprisingly receptive after so many performers but I had people coming up to me afterwords asking to take a picture with me and offering to buy me drinks. (It's a rough life, but somebody's gotta do it!) You can watch my last Cow performance here: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/4194077 I begin performing around the 2 hour mark.

Kumiya and I perform "Ringo Bushi."

The best part was being approached by a TV producer, asking me if I wanted to perform on live TV for a foreigner talent showcase sometime. The show he works for, Yokoso Channel 9, is a nationally-broadcast news and entertainment show. They have a Japanese host and 3 guest foreigners on the panel. The idea is to discuss events from many different perspectives, which is often lacking in Japan.

I told him I only had a week left in the country but he arranged for me to come in on Wednesday, which I did, right after a shamisen lesson. When I got to the TV studio, I was led to a dressing room and presented with a gigantic name-tag and a 3-page script, all in Japanese. Talk about a pop-quiz! I was sweating bullets but the producer went through all of it with me and assured me that I didn't have to memorize anything and just to keep the key points in mind. He wrote down key words and phrases on cue cards and we went over the questions a few times.

My name-tag and script.

After that it was time for a sound check and rehearsal. The crew was very nice to me and asked me a lot of questions about the shamisen after the sound check. The cast weren't very sociable but seemed nice in general. I was having trouble with one or two of the questions but overall wasn't too nervous about the broadcast. Once the show started, the only thing I had to do was sit and wait my turn, since my segment wasn't until the very end of the program. Then, it was show time:

Yes, I definitely stumbled on one of the questions, but overall I think I did pretty well considering the interview was all in Japanese. The most important part was my shamisen, and I think I kept calm and cool and performed well. Yes, they really did give me a yukata worth 10,000 yen, and I am very thankful. It was an amazing experience.

Thinking fame was behind me, I headed home to FINALLY start packing. The next day, however, I was contacted by a man from the Pink Cow, saying that a man from NHK World Radio wanted to talk to me. I kind of freaked out but told him to give the man my contact info. He did call and leave me a message that he would email me but never did. :'( I'm still extremely curious what could happen with that, but I'm guessing that ship has sailed.

This story has a very appropriate ending as well. My friend Meidai, who likes to rib me every chance he gets, went with me to the airport yesterday (my luggage was heavy!) and after handing my bags over to United, we decided to go get a drink and chat for a few minutes. As we were walking around Narita, these two women approached me and asked me if I was the girl from Channel 9! I was totally stunned. They gushed about my performance and asked me what the host was like, and wished me the best of luck. It was totally nuts. I turned to Meidai and told him, "Look, I really *am* famous in Japan!" And for once, he didn't contradict me.


Today was my final day of work in Japan. I can hardly believe that it's all over! Just one week left and I'm back in The Windy City.

As expected, my last week of work was fairly emotional. I found it surprisingly difficult to say "goodbye" to a lot of my students, particularly the youngest ones (2-5 years). A lot of them still want to be mothered. They want to sit in my lap, hold my hand, and be loved. They also form pretty tight bonds with the few adults they see on a regular basis. The really little ones obviously don't understand the situation, either. They don't see this week as any different, and don't understand what the big fuss is about. One of my favorite little girls, Honoka, is under the impression that I'm just going on vacation, despite the many explanations by her mother and sister to the contrary. She walked away perfectly content while I was blubbering like an idiot in the doorway. Oh, life.

Honoka, her sister Aoi (also my student, also one of my favorites), and me. Tears were shed shortly after this was taken. By me.

My students and their parents turned out to be a pretty generous bunch. I got quite a few presents, including 6 bouquets of flowers (all pink!), three hand towels (for my purse, not my kitchen), a nice set of chopsticks, a gorgeous silk tapestry, and lots of candy, letters, and pictures. I also got two sweaters from a mother, with the comment, "Chicago is cold!" Hah! One of my kids was sick today but was so determined to get me the card she made for me that her mom *faxed* it over. That's real dedication right there.

Some of my kids very shyly brought me presents which were clearly of the home-grown kid variety; a pack of vegetable stickers, for example, or a fist-full of candy. I don't know why but these gifts were almost *more* touching. It's easy enough for a parent to hand their kid a bag and say "Give this to Andrea Sensei," but it's something else entirely for a kid to come up with something completely on their own and with their own resources.

Gifts I received on my last day.

Aside from the wonderful physical gifts, a lot of people said really kind things to me. It's nice to hear a 3-year-old tell you that he loves you over and over and over while he's grabbing your leg, even if it is for 10 minutes straight. (How could you possibly be angry at something like that?!) I had a few of my older students tear up when they told me goodbye, which frankly shocked me. I honestly had no idea that meant that much to these kids. I only see them once a week, but for a handful of them I think I really did make an impact, however small, on their lives. That's a pretty amazing thing to realize.

In addition to the kind things said to me by my students and parents, it was the things my coworkers told me that really made me feel good. Having my peers tell me that they think my classes were creative, well though-out, and well prepared really meant a lot to me.

The Friday managers, Jeff Sensei, and me.

There was no party after work. No drinks, no dinner, no nothing. My manager walked me to the employee entrance and I handed over my name badge, officially ending my employment. The security people wished me good luck and good health. As I left, my manager began to cry, which made me cry. I walked home with tears in my eyes and my arms full of presents and good wishes. Although I had a lot of challenging days during my almost-year of teaching, I have a lot of great memories to take with me.


Time to Go Home

There are many times in the past few weeks that I have wanted to write about the numerous adventures (big and small) that I have had during the past month, but a fatal mixture of anxiety and apathy have stilled my fingers and my brain. But seeing as this is supposed to be a (very) generalized chronicle of my life, to remain silent any longer would prove insincere. Though many of you already know this, the truth is that I decided last fall that a full year in Japan was enough for me. As of January 31st, I will once more reside in Chicago.

The decision to leave Japan was not an easy one. But the real issue that dogged my 2009 was that of my middling health. Last year was very difficult for me to say the very least, but it ended on a high note. I got the medical attention I needed and am optimistic that I will continue to mend and heal over the coming months. Being at home with my friends and near(er) to my family will certainly help put my mind at ease, though the idea of job hunting is daunting as always. (Seriously, as if I didn't get enough of unemployment last February...)

As I look around my apartment, it's hard to think that I will leave it forever in just a little over 2 weeks. After all, practically everything in here belongs to the landlord, my dear Dr. Hayashi. My belongings do little more than clutter the place up. (I think it may be time for a great purge when I return to Chicago; my storage unit and my parents' basement are full of crap that I neither need nor want.)

Today marked an interesting milestone: the day I met my replacement at work. His name is Paul and he's tall and gangly and genki. My kids will love him. I hope. But I will dearly miss so many of my kids. I have given a few of them my email address and hope that they will keep in touch. It's hard to sit in my classroom and know that as much as it *feels* like my classroom, it really isn't my classroom at all, and never has been.

Unbelievably, my last week of work is next week. It seems impossible that my departure is so near. I think back to what I was doing this time last year, and though the situation is virtually identical, I feel like my life and mindset are so completely different I can't even truly compare the past two Januarys of my life.

January 2009: In Chicago, I was preparing to leave my family and friends for an indefinite period of time; perhaps years. My boyfriend and I were trying hard to avoid the crushing sadness of saying farewell to each other, and to our relationship. My last day at Mother McGraw was the 16th, and I arrived in Yokohama on the 30th. I was looking forward to exploring more of Japan and relearning the shamisen. I had no job prospects and meager savings. I had no work visa and few contacts. I had no idea how I was going to get my luggage to my apartment, or even where my apartment was. But I was determined to make the situation work, no matter what. And somehow I did.

January 2010: In Yokohama, I am preparing to return to my family and friends, while leaving new friends behind. My boyfriend and I have reunited (after more trials and tribulations than I care to think about over the past year) and are eager to get back to our life together. My last day at GEOS will be the 22nd, and I will return to Chicago on the 31st. I am not looking forward to the bitter cold and snowy weather of Chicago. I will miss the safety and convenience of Japan, but still think America is more exciting than Japan in many ways. (Japan is weird, but in America anything can happen.) I have many people who care about me who will help me get my feet back on the ground and hopefully a good job opportunity will come knocking in the coming months.

Keep your fingers crossed for me, everyone. I am going to need a lot of support and TLC to get through the coming months, but I still have hope that 2010 will prove to be the beginning of a great decade.


Merry Christmas 2009

Merry Christmas from your friendly neighborhood gaijin.



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