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Monday, December 22, 2014

Holidays Abroad

I played around with different titles, from more melodramatic ones like, “The Truth Behind Holidays Abroad” and less serious ones poking fun at my dramatic tendencies, “Holidays Abroad: Kaley Whines” but decided to settle for something a bit simpler. As a preface, this may come off as emotional nonsense to a lot of you but this is my blog and my emotional nonsense, so I’m sharing it.


It’s easy to forget that you’re living in a foreign country. You get used to being constantly surrounded by a foreign language, eventually just toning all of it out unless someone acknowledges you directly, shoving the sounds into the background with the heater or the clicking of keyboards. You get used to the characters on signs and storefronts, your eye easily drifting to the English option written underneath. Visits to the supermarket become routine and after a while you forget what it is like to buy anything in your native language, replying to the same set of questions over and over so that they become engrained in your mind. Moments of anxiety still happen, you need to visit a bank for some money transfer, you need help finding something in a store, announcements about train delays are spoken in deep, muffled voices you know even native speakers have a hard time comprehending.

But, you adapt, life goes on and the thought of living in your native space, in an area where simple questions don’t evade you, where ordering a hamburger doesn’t require practice, where you can walk up to anyone and just say exactly what you’re thinking sounds like a nice dream you had Once Upon a Time.

There is a time, however, when the feeling of being away from home really gets to you, and that’s during holidays. Every country is partly defined by its holidays, you ask someone what makes someone in Canada different from someone in the US and, outside of a borderline obsession with hockey, it’s that Thanksgiving is on a different day, they don’t have the Fourth of July, etc.

Japan itself has a smattering of national holidays, random Mondays or specific dates that everyone gets off, once a month on average. Most people don’t really keep track of which holiday is which outside of a specific few, Golden Week in March/April (which is more like Golden Random-Days-Off-In-A-Week-Or-Two), New Year’s Day, and the August vacation. The other days include “Respect for the Aged”, “Culture Day”, “Day of the Sea”, and the Emperor’s Birthday.

Japan has adopted Western holidays as well, stores will sell Halloween candy in October, girls confess their love on Valentine’s Day, and Christmas music is played in every shopping center for the entirety of November and December. But, these holidays are not the same as they are back home, they are mere adaptations in a country that doesn’t really grasp the meaning behind these days, that has taken a basic idea and shaped it to suit their culture and their desires.

Children don’t go trick-or-treating and costumes are mainly worn by people going out drinking for Halloween parties, and even those are usually just very basic cats and devils and men in strange full-body suits. Valentine’s is usually just a school tradition, where girls will slave away on chocolates that they will give to that boy they’ve had a crush on, hoping that he’ll return his affections on White Day a month later. And Christmas is purely commercial, where people may exchange gifts and eat a bucket of KFC (due to a clever marketing campaign in the 70s) with some Christmas Cake.

Christmas is what gets to my emotions. I can handle no Halloween, as I grew out of trick-or-treating years ago and can easily enough find a Halloween party to go to. Thanksgiving I can easily find myself surrounded by friends and eating familiar foods, Valentine’s Day is a nonissue, since in the States I never really had anyone to celebrate with. Japanese people are more than willing to try out a Fourth of July barbecue on a weekend, and New Year’s Eve is still New Year’s Eve.

Christmas, however, is not Christmas. There are not roads lined with houses covered in lights. There are no elderly white men in red suits in the mall, there is no holiday cheer and people wishing you “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”. There is just a stark reminder that you are outside.

This year, I’m working on Christmas; something that in my 25 years has never, ever happened. This fact alone has formed a gray cloud over my entire month, a looming reminder that I am out of place and that Japan is not my home. I need Christmas, I don’t need to sit in a gym for two hours listening to speeches I can barely understand and then sit at my desk feeling depressed for hours with nothing to do.

I’ve tried to explain to Japanese people just what Christmas means. Why is it so important? What makes it special? Why is working so bad?

It’s something I can’t put into words, it’s a feeling that I can’t express. For my entire life it has just been Christmas. I don’t expect understanding from people who didn’t grow up with a traditional Christmas. I don’t expect my job or my Japanese friends to feel the same way that I do about Christmas. It’s not their holiday, it’s mine, and living in this culture, living in their country, I need to make concessions to be like them, to push my feelings aside, suck it up, and do what is asked.

I realize I could have taken the day of Christmas off. Many of my friends have done it this year and last year I even took four days off to go home for Christmas. When I received my yearly schedule and saw that my last day before the official start of winter vacation was December 25th my heart sank, but I thought it wouldn’t be so bad. I could spend the time teaching my students about Christmas. This week I am doing nothing but Christmas lessons. Yet, Christmas Day is a closing ceremony, an aspect of Japanese culture I don’t understand the value of just as they don’t understand why Christmas is important to me. So I will sit in a gym for a couple of hours, and then sit at my desk waiting to leave.

But as the day draws nearer and my Christmas lessons are met with nearly zero enthusiasm, with children who don’t care about how a different culture does this holiday that means next to nothing to them, I feel more and more dragged down by the weight of having to come in on this day that I value so much.
Some Christmas gifts from home.

It’s a hard spot to be in, and when living abroad it is a situation you will be forced to deal with constantly. You will always be torn between two places, two countries, and two homes. I can’t just pop home for Christmas for a few days. I can’t just hop in my car and go to a friend’s wedding for a weekend, I can’t be there when someone I’ve known my entire life gives birth, I can’t be there when my dog dies.

With all of the great and wonderful things that comes with living abroad, all of the things I have learned about myself and what I am capable of; I’ve become more accepting of things that are different from my normal, I’ve learned to adapt to things that scare me, I’ve seen places that people only dream of visiting, comes a special weight that you will never really understand until you’ve been there. You never hear people talking about the stress of living overseas, of family and friends telling you how much they miss you, asking you when you’re coming back. Of looking at your life that you have and knowing that it can never be permanent, that at some point all of these people and places will be in your past.

I am not writing this to complain, though I do feel better having typed my feelings out, I am writing this to paint the full picture. It’s so easy for us to show only our perfect, cookie-cutter, edited lives to the world. But, that’s not life. Living abroad is great and wonderful and life-changing. It’s the best thing I have ever done and I regret zero moments of it, even the bad ones. But, it’s not always happen. In fact, it’s often very stressful. It’s often putting your own self aside in favor of a culture different than yours. It’s often about sitting in a gym for two hours on Christmas.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Top Ten Books of 2014

As I promised in my “Books I Didn’t Enjoy This Year” here is my list of my Top Ten Books of 2014! I have read nearly sixty books this year from a variety of genres from high fantasy to young adult contemporary and everything inbetween (except romance, I can’t stomach romance). You can see the entire list and my ratings over on Goodreads.

These are books that were only released this year, as to keep things current, but I am planning a list of my favorite books of All Time, so keep your eyes peeled for that! I am not going too in-depth on any of these reviews and they will all be spoiler-free!

10. The Three by Sarah Lotz

Published: May 20, 2014 / 471 Pages / Goodreads Rating: 3.38
Science-Fiction, Horror

This book was a very easy read, it is written quite some time after four planes simultaneously fall from the sky, four children survive and are said to be bringers of the apocalypse. The story is told entirely from many, many points of view to stitch together what has happened since that day and what it means. Because of this way of telling a story it goes by really quickly.

A warning though, if you don’t like very open ended endings, don’t read this!

9. Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Published July 8, 2014 / 310 Pages / Goodreads Rating: 3.68
Contemporary, Romance

I’ve seen books by Rainbow Rowell popping up all over the internet this year, and finally decided to start reading her books a few months back. I started with Attachments, which was fantastic, and moved onto Landline shortly thereafter. It didn’t disappoint! While I didn’t enjoy it as much as Attachments, it is still a great book. She has a way of writing characters that are very real, their flaws aren’t too huge and their perfections not too perfect. Her young adult books, however, aren’t my cup of tea, which is perfectly okay.

In short, it’s a story about a workaholic whose husband takes the kids to his parents’ for the holidays without her after work gets in the way of family, again. After finding an old telephone in her childhood bedroom she learns that it calls a past version of her husband from when they were dating. She then has to use this newfound power to do what is best for her husband and her family, save her marriage or stop it before it even starts. It’s a charming story about self-reflection and coming to terms with one’s flaws.

8. I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

Published May 27, 2014 / 704 Pages / Goodreads Rating: 4.22

This book was so satisfying to finish. It is a heavy book, there’s a lot going on and a lot to keep track of in the first half of the book, but it definitely pays off. I found myself finishing each chapter in the early stages of the book wondering just what was going on, but it all ties together so wonderfully at the end that if you stick through the confusion you will face with all the information thrown at you in the beginning, you’ll find yourself completely pleased with how it ends.

A former secret agent from a secret espionage group in the US is pulled out of retirement by a New York detective who had read the book he wrote on forensic investigation. The case the detective puts Pilgrim on grows evermore convoluted and it turns out he needs to solve this case to save America from certain doom! It may sound cliché, but it isn’t. I’m not even a huge fan of detective books, but this goes so much farther into the genre than I expected.

7. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Published May 13, 2014 / 227 Pages / Goodreads Rating 3.89
Young-Adult, Contemporary, Mystery

This book surprised me. I don’t usually go for young-adult contemporary novels like this one, but I took the risk because it was short and kept popping up in my Goodreads feed. I am so glad I did.

The book is about this wealthy family who goes to this private island every summer. The grandfather is the head of the family, having established the wealth that his children (and grandchildren) benefit from, oftentimes becoming lazy and unproductive. The summer before the book takes place there was a horrible fire which burned one of the estates to the ground. The main character suffered a head injury which removed the time surrounding the fire from her memory. The story unravels as the girl’s memories of that night come back, causing her to relive the most definitive summer of her life.

6. Rooms by Lauren Oliver

Published September 23, 2014 / 320 Pages / Goodreads Rating 3.36
Contemporary, Mystery, Light Science Fiction

After the death of a wealthy pack rat dies, his family comes back to sort through everything he left behind and get closure about this man who they had become estranged from’s passing. His ex-wife, son, daughter, and granddaughter spend a few days looking through all the rooms in the old house, coming to terms with old ghosts and new ones. But there are others in the house, long-dead past residents that have their own secrets to let go of in order to move on from this life.

It’s a wonderful story about closure and accepting things that have happened to you. There isn’t a real goal in this story, and that makes it such an easy, stress-free read. The points of view are wonderful and interesting, and there are so many great little surprises along the way.

5. You by Caroline Kepnes

Published September 30, 2014 / 432 Pages / Goodreads Rating: 3.79
Contemporary, Romance, Horror

I never thought I’d feel compassion for a stalker, but this book made me. It was creepy, creepy in a very subtle-yet-not-so-subtle way that just really made me feel like I had an itch I couldn’t scratch somewhere in my brain. The main character is a bookstore worker, he looks down on nearly everyone around him yet manages to be charming in that creepy psychopathic way. A woman comes in his store and he falls for her, eventually stalking her to make her fall in love with him, and using whatever means necessary to keep her.

The cold, emotionless way the author writes the really disturbing things that are presented in this book left me feeling very confused and in awe. I honestly felt as if I was turning into this creepy stalker and even found myself empathizing with him at moments, finding strange parallels between his way of thinking and mine.

4, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrille Zevin

Published April 1, 2014 / 260 Pages / Goodreads Rating: 4.00
Contemporary, Romance

This is another book about a bookstore worker, though far less creepy than You. A.J. Fikry is a prickly bookstore owner who finds himself needing to take care of a young child that was mysteriously left in his shop. It follows his journey from a reclusive widow to a pleasant family man. It is a simple, sweet and very enjoyable story about redemption and second chances. There’s also a bit of mystery as the origins of his adoptive daughter are revealed.

It was such a surprising little book to read. It really is very simple, yet there is so much depth to the character of A.J. Fikry. Even when he was a grumpy man in the beginning he still had a charm to him. The whole transformation just seemed very real, even if the premise of finding an abandoned baby in a bookstore and raising it as your own seems a little out there.

3. Big Little Lies by Liane Mariarty

Published July 29, 2014 / 480 Pages /Goodreads Rating: 4.17
Contemporary, Mystery

The cover of this book did nothing for me. It really doesn’t match the book at all. It’s an Australian book, and I always find myself enjoying the humor in these. It’s that perfect mix of the dry English humor with the hyperbolic American. The book opens with a chaotic scene of a PTA benefit dinner gone wrong, eventually leading to a police investigation for some sort of “incident”.

It flashes back to the beginning of the school year, where you’re introduced to a cast of eclectic characters. The chapters begin and/or end with snippets of police interviews that make you want to turn the pages faster and faster to find out what happened. A lot of school politics that I shouldn’t found interesting but did play a role in what ultimately happened at that PTA benefit. A must read!

2. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Published February 4 2014 / 208 Pages / Goodreads Rating: 3.69
Science Fiction, Mystery

Warning, this book will mess with your head. It is set in an undisclosed location (Florida, it has to be Florida, I’m a Floridian and it’s Florida) decades after the appearance of a mysterious Area X. A barrier just appeared and you aren’t really given many details of it, other than weird natural things happen here and it’s been reverted back to untamed wilderness. It’s a beautifully written book, full of wonderful imagery and a lot of tense moments.

There isn’t a lot of dialog, as it is written like a journal. The narrator is a biologist and that’s all we know about her, you never learn her or her colleagues names but that hardly matters. This means that even though it is a short book, it is a lot to read. Thanks to the writing, however, you easily get sucked into this world of Area X and lose track of time while reading it, at least I did. It’s just about the expedition the narrator is sent on into Area X, and serves as a set up for the following two books, which actually deal with the main conflict of this story.

Honestly, Annihilation could have easily been a standalone novel, and the second and third books, while very good, lack the magic this book had due to the very personal way in which it was written.

1. Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Published March 4, 2014 / 1088 Pages / Goodreads Rating; 4.76

Anyone who has talked to me about books should not be surprised that this is my favorite book of the year. Brandon Sanderson is easily one of my favorite authors, if not my favorite author. His Mistborn Trilogy made me really want to become a writer of fiction and his books have never disappointed me, and I’ve read almost all of them. He just has a way of developing characters and worlds that you can’t help but want to read about.

I read the first book in this series in January, and read this book in less than a week after its release, mainly floating in my bathtub for hours while the snow fell outside my window because I live in Sapporo and it snows in March. As it’s the second in a series, I won’t summarize the basic plot in the story, and really there is so much going on in these books that I can’t even begin to make a short summary of it all.

It’s a high fantasy novel, which is likely hard for most people to read. And there are a lot of pages to get through, but it’s so worth it. Sanderson has a way of making such in depth worlds, but in such a simple way that the reader never feels like they need a spreadsheet to keep track of it all. If you’ve been curious about the heavier fantasy books, but are scared or unsure what to try, I definitely think Sanderson is your go-to for an introduction to the genre!


Those are my top ten books of 2014. I hope you’ve seen at least one book to peak your interest. There should be something on this list for everyone! If you have read any of these books, please let me know your thoughts. Any other great books released this year that I didn’t mention? Let me know! I love talking books!

Monday, December 8, 2014

School Lunch in Japan, How I Learned to Eat

I’m a picky eater.

I used to be a really picky eater. Like really, really picky. As in, I only ate maybe five different foods and just the thought of trying new things would send me into a near panic attack. It wasn't something I was proud of, and I would try to hard to hide it from everyone I could. I'd feign stomachaches, eat before going somewhere, and spit food into napkins to try and hide my picky-ness from the world.

When you're a small child learning to eat going from squished up baby food to all the textures and tastes of real food is pretty difficult. And I decided I wanted nothing of this. My parents gave in rather than forcing me to eat the salads and meats that were being made for dinner, and often just made me my own meal. That meant that I never learned how to eat other foods, my tongue didn't like these strange textures and I would seize up the second anything that wasn't mac-n-cheese, pizza, or a grilled cheese came near my mouth.

In Japan, you cannot be that picky. In Japan, if you are that picky you will starve. Nearly all socialization done in Japan includes food. There was no way I could hide being picky in Japan. So, I decided I didn't want to.

In the year leading up to moving to Japan I tried my best to do some work on my eating capable food repertoire. My lowest point was when I ended up crying in a supermarket whilst an ex-boyfriend was picking out a lovely dinner to have with his family and I couldn't imagine being able to eat any of it. The sheer ridiculousness of the situation fueled me with this fire that I. Must. Change. So I pushed myself really, really hard and tried my best to change my mindset.

And that's when things began to change. It was a slow change, but eventually I began to eat more things. Most importantly, rice. As someone who was planning to live in Japan I couldn't not eat rice. 

Japan's school lunch is what helped me the most. I eat it every day. I could bring my own lunch, it was an option, but I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to be even more different. As part of my preparations for moving overseas I researched what Japan's school lunch would be and it scared me, it scared me good. Whole fish, tiny little fish, quail eggs, squid, natto, loads of mushrooms, shrimp, and even whale. I sat there staring at the pictures scared. I was going to starve, my schools were going to hate me. I should just bring my lunch.

But I didn't, and as I began teaching in Japan I began the very slow (and hungry) process of teaching myself to eat new things. The first few months I lived in Japan I barely ate anything. I'd eat the rice, drink soup broth, try a vegetable here and there. Slowly, though, my stomach began to win out over my brain and I would eat things.

I ate fish for the first time, and while I don't really enjoy the taste of  most fish (and really almost all of seafood for that matter) I can eat it. I began to eat the salads that were given. And, most importantly, fruit. I could eat fruit. I am from Florida, I grew up with an orange tree in my front yard and a grapefruit tree and my back and I never once ate them. To me, eating an orange was the holy grail. It was everything I hated. Small, little things that break apart in your mouth, squishy, chewy, and just all-around gag inducing. If I could eat an orange I had finally conquered my texture issues.

Just today I picked up a second mikan and ate it happily.

I still have my issues, if I am having anxiety problems my ability to eat reverts back quite a bit. If I'm sick I can't really handle the different textures. And there are still some things I just won’t. Shishamo (whole fish), most mushrooms, quail eggs, shirasu (small little sardines), asari (manila clams), squid, natto (just google it), etc. But they are more of a taste issue than a "I want to eat this but can't" issue.

And because I know you're all curious, here are some images of school lunches that my schools have served, just so you get an idea of what it is like. I cannot fathom most American children eating half of this stuff.
Chicken and nuts salad, grapes, cold ramen
Grapefruit, chicken stir-fry over rice, a salad with manila clams in it.

Italian soup, fried sugar bread, hasukappu (blueberry honeysuckle) jello, spinach salad.

Shishamo (whole fish), tofu in a spicy sauce, rice, spinach and cabbage salad.

Clam chowder, pumpkin salad, hotdog in chili sauce with bun.

Curry udon with ice cream.

One of my favorite lunches! Pork fried rice, potato and beef croquette, yogurt and fruit salad.

Potatoes, yogurt, spaghetti with meat sauce

Hijiki rice (a seaweed), baby tomatoes, flounder, miso soup.

Bread, potato and bacon soup, white fish cooked in mayonnaise, milk jelly with fruit.

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Personal Story: Assault In Japan

This is going to be a personal one, a potentially upsetting one, a maybe you'll be kinda uncomfortable one, but it’s one I feel I need to write. I'm nervous about writing this, sharing this with the world at large. Not because I am ashamed, not because it upsets me, not because it's difficult for me to put into words. I’m nervous because I don't know how people will react to me presenting this topic in this manner.

“You don't need to worry, Japan's so safe!”

I've heard this so many times in the years I have lived here, mainly in reference to walking home at night or traveling around the country alone. And really, Japan is pretty safe if you consider major metropolitan areas around the world. But… it's not 100% safe. Especially if you're foreign.

If you look Asian, you can blend in, travel around undetected, and avoid most of the looks other non-Asian foreigners get daily. If you don't look Asian, however, you are going to stick out like a sore thumb no matter where you go. Always. Even in Tokyo. You're just going to. Which means you can often times attract very, very unwelcome attention.

The number of times I have been standing in a public area (usually waiting for a friend) and been approached by older Japanese men is far, far too many. Oftentimes they say nothing, just silently stare at me while intruding on my personal space until I feel so uncomfortable I just walk away. The number of times random people just come up behind me and try to talk to me as I'm waiting to cross the street is too many. Sure, they may be trying to be “friendly” but it's not. It's startling and makes me very uncomfortable.

I've also been physically assaulted while walking home at night.

This happened years ago, back when I was in my first year of living here in Yamaguchi, way on the other side of the country. I rarely went out drinking back then, it was about a twenty minute walk from my apartment to the main entertainment district and I didn't have many friends, so going out drinking wasn't something I did often. One night mid-February, however, I had been invited out. It ended up getting pretty dramatic thanks to an acquaintance and a crazy girl he was dating, so I was 100% sober on my walk home. I am so, so grateful for this fact.

It was around 2am, and I was sticking to the well-lit main roads for my walk. Ten minutes down this road and ten minutes down another. I was about two blocks from my apartment when I heard footsteps behind me and then felt hands grasp my arms. My first thought was that it was a friend I had just left, that they'd seen me walking home and wanted to surprise me. When I reacted the man grabbing me readjusted his grip so that he could hold me facing him and I realized I had no idea who this guy was.

He was middle-aged, he wore a baseball cap, he was in a track suit, he was nearly my height. He looked serious. He looked determined. He was saying some things in Japanese I didn't understand, but I guess were along the lines of, “wait, be quite.” I struggled to get free, he wouldn't let me go. His hand on my right shoulder moved down towards the hem of my dress (thankfully I had on legging as it was February) and at that point I used my newly freed right arm to grab his neck. In my mind I was ready to kill him if he didn't let me go, I squeezed as hard as I could.

His eyes bulged and he panicked, tried to grab my own throat but I had a scarf on so his hand never got a good grip. That's when I screamed. It was a noise I didn't know I could make, one I don't think I can ever make nor do I want to make again. He ran off, faster than I ever saw anyone one run, straight across the four lane road in five seconds and I stood there watching him retreat shaking, angry and confused and not really sure what happened.

I stood there for a minute, just watching where he ran and making sure he didn't return. I walked back to my apartment, still shaking and checking behind me every few steps, until I finally got home. I sat down against my door and cried, listening and hoping not to hear anyone on my noisy stairs. Eventually I fell asleep sitting there.

When I woke up I showered in my clothes, because everything he touched was dirty and I didn't even want to touch it to take it off. Later the police would scold me for this but I didn't care. I still don't.

It was exactly a week before my birthday and I spent my Valentine's Day in a police station reenacting the assault over and over for police, taking them to where I was attacked and answering question after question about every single movement that we all did. It was so jumbled in my mind it took a while for me to sort it out. The entire attack lasted no more than twenty seconds, and in those moments it was largely flailing arms and panic,

They took pictures, collected my clothes from my house, and asked me question after question in Japanese and English. It was a hard day and later on I ignored my phone when they called, which led them to call my boss, and my boss to call me the next day at work where I cried in the break room and told them what happened.

They had an idea of who attacked me, as girls had reported similar instances though none as violent as mine. None of them went through with it. None of them stuck it out to get him convicted. I can't blame them, I really can't. It was awful. I would go days ignoring my phone and my email until a police officer would show up at my door to take me to the station. After I correctly identified my attacker in a photo they arrested him and brought him in, where I looked through a tiny foot by foot one-way mirror in a door at the man who attacked me. He looked far less menacing that way, surrounded by police officers and behind a locked door.

A month and a half after my assault I moved to Hokkaido and thought myself done with it. I was wrong, they flew up twice. I'd drive for thirty minutes to the nearest city and sit in a cramped room being asked the same questions I'd been answering for months.

“Did he reach for your skirt before or after you choked him?”
“What arm did he reach down with?”
“His left.”
“What arm did you choke him with?”
“My right.”

These tiny details made me relive the moment over and over until I could see nothing else. The event itself probably lasted fifteen seconds but I wasn't allowed to forget it for months. At one point they asked me to tell them what I wanted done to this man, a question that shocked me and took a while for me to process. After I expressed my confusion they said, "You're emotional appeal for justice will help get him convicted." It felt wrong somehow, for me to decide what should happen to this man, as if I was resorting to his own level by forcing my will upon his fate.

I simply told them, "If he is mentally ill, I want him to get help. If he is of stable mind, I want him in jail. I don't want him to hurt anymore people. That's all I want. That's the only reason I am doing this."

They tried to convince me to take time off of work to testify in court, to fly across the country just to face this man and a judge and tell them what happened even though they had it written down a dozen different ways. I couldn't, I'd reached my limit.

“If you don’t go to court he'll go free.”

At this point I no longer cared, I wanted to move on. I lived on a different island now, I was safe. Though the thought of him doing it to someone else disgusted me and I hated myself for not being able to face it. The entire reason I had been doing this for months was so he couldn't hurt anyone.

Then, one day mid-August, I got an email. He was going to jail for two years, I didn't need to come to Yamaguchi. It was over. He'd finally confessed.

I cried again, for the last time, and was relieved in a way that made me realize I never really knew what relief was. I'd done it. I'd gotten him. He wasn't going to hurt anyone else for a while, hopefully ever, because for six months I dealt with it. I'm not the best with follow-through.

I share this story not to scare anyone. I don't want people to fear walking home at night in Japan. For the most part I don't. I have my problems still, whenever someone runs in my direction I freeze, that involuntary flinch that's hiding under my skin always. Middle-aged Japanese men make me uncomfortable when they look at me. I'm always thinking the worst with them and I feel guilty for making the blanket judgment.

But, I'm safe. He didn't even touch my skin. I had no marks from him, not even from where he grasped my arms so tightly, because I was wearing a jacket. I got off unscathed, unharmed physically. It could have been so much worse and I am so thankful every day I didn't drink more that night.

My story isn't a one-time fluke. It happens more than people realize in Japan, and I have shared my story with many friends only for them to tell me their own in return. They vary from stalking to stitches, but they're there. By sharing mine I don't feel brave or that I deserve some sort of praise for being so strong. Because lately I've not been. These things happen and I shouldn't have to feel shamed by sharing it, so I don’t. But I still feel like I need to share it, I need to broaden the audience who know my story outside of the friends I have shared it with. All too often I hear people brushing off Japan as "safe", almost blinding themselves with this notion that nothing bad can happen here, it's such a nice country. Every time I hear someone mention how safe Japan is compared to America or England or any other country I roll my eyes, I've been attacked here, I haven't been attacked in America. I'm biased.

Japan is still a country full of people, and people can sometimes do bad things. While it does have a low crime rate, it also has a mandatory shutter noise on all smartphones in the country due to perverts taking pictures up the skirts of girls and women. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Books I Didn't Enjoy This Year (And How They Make Me a Better Writer)

I read a lot. It's a simple fact, I'm a reader. I'm not ashamed and I don't boast about how well-read I am. I honestly haven't even read many of the classics, and really didn't enjoy the ones I did. I read for fun, I read because I have a lot of downtime at work and it is something to do on the commute. I read in the bath in the evening and I read in bed at night. I go to cafes when I have a few hours to spare and I drink coffee. It's just part of my life.

A few years back I got a Nook, it was a pretty decent eReader, but something strange happened to it when it moved to Japan and the customer service I received in trying to fix the issue treated me like an incompetent monkey so I switched to a Kindle. Three years later, my Kindle is my best friend. I rarely leave the house without it in my purse, it doesn't even have a case. I've split coffee on it, dropped food on it, and one time left it on a bus.

This year (so far) I've read 55 books, last year I read 53. They aren't huge tomes of novels, I would say the average size of the books are about 300 pages. A large portion have been young adult, and the genres vary greatly from fantasy, to science fiction, to horror and mystery and thriller and contemporary and you get my drift.

As an aspiring writer reading helps me, it gives me ideas and it lets me see how words should flow and it shows me how to craft a story. But, it also helps me know what I don't like. What sort of things in novels make me roll my eyes, what kind of things make it difficult to turn the next page (or tap it), and what just makes a book not very enjoyable. As a writer I think it's really important to reflect on why you aren't really into what you're reading. What makes this book annoying and rudimentary? Why don't I want to finish this book?

That’s why I am giving you five books that I didn't enjoy this year. There were more than five, believe me, but I've decided to limit my list to books that were only released in 2014. I'll make another list of books I really loved this year, as there were far more of those, but I want to wait until the year is over.

1. The Infinite Sea (Fifth Wave #2) by Rick Yancey.

Goodreads rating of 4.10  Stopped reading at 58%

 I loved The Fifth Wave. It was released last year and I read it very quickly and I thought it was great and wonderful and such an interesting book. I love a good dystopia and, honestly, it's really hard to find a decent one following the release of The Hunger Games. The young adult genre is loaded down with them and most of them are utter crap. They're essentially romance novels under the guise of being a cook dystopian book. And I hate romance novels.

The Fifth Wave definitely had romance in there, but it was so much on the back burner that I didn't care that much at all. I couldn't wait to read the second book and learn more about this story. It started out decently enough, and that was great. There are a lot of point of views in this book, which can get confusing and annoying. I know some people don’t enjoy too many point of view changes, and I have read a few books where it’s just too much, but overall I like a few points of view in a story.

But, then something happened. A character was brought back who really shouldn't have been brought back and so began what I like to call The Curse of Catching Fire. Catching Fire is the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy and it started this annoying trend in these YA dystopian novels of the second book being all about romance and… screw the actual story! Now, thanks to the multiple POVs the Infinite Sea isn’t a perfect case of that, but when this character came back and started this stupid love thing again I just knew I wasn’t going to finish the book.

The main character is also unbearable. She’s just an awful character. I cannot handle the sort of main characters that are just so hard headed, dramatic, and all around annoying. The other characters in this story are great, they have such potential and there is so many interesting back stories that are hinted at, they just aren’t mentioned enough. If there was less focus on this awful main character and more focus on these supporting characters it would have been much more enjoyable.

Plus, the titular “fifth wave” is stupid. I don’t understand why it is what it is and it doesn’t make sense. I’m sorry. It is. Waves one through four were slightly understandable but I often felt myself thinking “why?” whenever the fifth wave was mentioned and the reasoning behind why it was chosen.

2. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Goodreads rating of 3.99   I stopped reading at about 30%

When I first read the premise of this book I was really intrigued. A man who is reborn at the same point in time over and over and over again, when sudden in his fifteenth life this woman comes and asks him to save the world! He then has to work in all of his lives thereafter to keep catastrophe from happening. It was interesting, it was unique and I wanted to read it right away.

Thirty percent of the way in I couldn’t read anymore. I had been scanning the book for maybe the last twenty pages just hoping for something to happen. I understand the need of establishing a backstory, of setting up a foundation for which the actual story has to happen, but a third of the way into the book and they story hadn’t started yet.  Where was the girl who was to come to Harry on his deathbed and say how in his next life he needs to keep the world from ending? It was just the same things over and over. The same life over and over and nothing was happening.

Maybe, if I have nothing else to read, I will try to go back and get through the rest of the book because I really, really wanted to read it and even writing this again I am thinking how I should have finished it and maybe it did get really interesting. But, I know that I don’t stop reading books just because I get a little bored. I have pushed through books because I got it in my head that I had to finish them many times. Usually, if I am giving up on a book it’s because I’ve not touched it in a few days and I want to move onto something else. I am the type of person who can only focus on one book at a time, I don’t enjoy jumping from story to story, so if I stop reading a book and change to another, I won’t pick the former up until I’ve finished what has replaced it.

This was just one of those books I stopped reading and never came back to. I didn’t feel like it, there was always something better to read. Eventually, I just gave up on the notion of finishing it all together and moved it to my dreaded “dropped” shelf on Goodreads. Sorry!

3. Death Sworn by Leah Cypress

Goodreads rating of 3.65    I finished this book!

Seeing as I finished this book it must not have been all that bad, but it was definitely one of those books which I was just reading because there was nothing better to tide me over. In my actual review of the book (I rarely make reviews) I said how the book just went by really quickly, and it did. This book required zero brain power to get through. It’s mainly dialogue and there’s very little description. That’s because it mainly takes place in a cave. It’s about a girl who used to be some great magician in training who suddenly lost her power and has to live with assassins.

It’s a fantasy novel. That’s important. When you pick up a fantasy novel to read you have very clear expectations with what you want. You want a great world. You want to be transported somewhere else. You want to leave your world and enter another. Maybe you want magic, maybe you want adventure, maybe you want politics. Maybe you want all of it. But you want something more than just talking and characters. Which is really all you get in this book.

The lead character just seemed unnecessarily difficult. The assassins and she had the same goals. They wanted the same things! Yet she always complained about what they were doing because it wasn’t the way that she would do it. Okay, that’s great. Thanks for sharing. I just couldn’t find myself any motivation to care for either side. Why was the evil side evil? What made them so bad? Nothing was given to me in that regard. No history or anything other than, “They did bag things to me!” Well, maybe you’re unlucky? I don’t know.

It’s a decent book to read if you just want something mindless to tide you over until the book you’re really wanting to read comes out. I don’t think I’ll be reading the second, however.

4. The Shadow Throne (Ascendance Trilogy #3) by Jennifer A. Nielson

Goodreads rating of 4.19  I got about halfway, maybe.

This one may be my fault. It’s a middle grade book so I don’t expect great prose or conflict that are too deep. I expect fun characters and an interesting story and action. I read the first two books a while back, before I lived in Sapporo and was in rural Hokkaido and I loved them. They were so witty and fun and the characters were great. The first book is about a boy who fakes being this missing prince and his attempts at making people believe that he is this prince. It’s a really great read and I enjoyed it so much. Even for a middle grade book! It didn’t feel like one at all.

This one, however, does. I think it’s because in the third book they are trying to face some more adult topics, and it’s just so difficult to do at a middle grade level. It just felt really juvenile while the other books didn’t. There was so much going on and there was so much skipping around that I often felt confused. A preteens suspension of disbelief is probably much more forgiving than mine,  even though mine is pretty great, but it just didn’t work for me.

The author was trying to do too much with too little. The book is too short to allow all that she wanted. The audience is too young to explain things as they should be. If this book had been produced in a way similar to Harry Potter, where the writing grew with the intended audience rather than stay at the same place over multiple years, it would have been more successful (and is one of the reasons Harry Potter was so successful, I should know, I read the books from ages 10-18 as they came out!). Book one was great for middle grade, but book three should have been bumped up to young adult.

5. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka. J.K. Rowling)

Goodreads rating of 3.78   I read maybe 40% of the book.

Kaley! You just mentioned loving Harry Potter yet you didn’t enjoy J.K.’s book?

Yes. I am one of those, but not because I think this book is awful. I honestly think that as someone who has such fond memories of Harry Potter, who holds those books on such a high, infallible pedestal, that it will be virtually impossible for me to like anything else J.K. Rowling writes. The standards of expectations are too high, even if I like to tell myself they aren’t. My mind expects too much.

This is definitely not a bad book. My mother read it and enjoyed it and she reads constantly. The characters are fantastic (J.K. Rowling has a way with characters) and the writing is witty. I just don’t like detective novels. Both of her adult literature attempts that I have read have disappointed me, not because I didn’t like her writing but because I didn’t like the genre. My mistake. I thought my love of her writing would convert me over to a detective novel, but I was wrong.

Speaking of the writing, though, it seemed sort of misplaced. J.K. Rowling has a very distinct way of writing. Her language use is a little strange and her flow is very distinct. It worked really well for Harry Potter, as the books are typically full of quirk and it’s fantasy so things are going to be a little different. But in a book devoid of any magic at all, it almost seems out of place. It feels like I should be reading something fantastical but all that happens is the mundane.

I loved the characters and I didn’t intentionally not finish. It was just another case of me setting the book down to read something else and not picking it back up again, much the same as The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.

I’ll still try to read everything she releases. Something else aside from Harry Potter that she writes will have to suit me, right?

I tried very hard to be as objective as possible in these reviews. It has been a long time since I’ve read many of these books, so some of the specific details are fuzzy in my mind, but my emotions are still there. It isn’t often that I don’t finish a book and I’ll spend months keeping a book on my “currently reading” list before shifting it to “dropped”. Some have even been there for years.

The whole purpose of doing something like this is to get this, why didn’t I like these books? What was it about these books that made me not finish them and how can I use that to become a better writer? And I have made this brief list:
1. Annoying Lead Character – People have to be able to connect to your main character. Make them likable in some way, even if they aren’t very likably (see Jorg in Prince of Thorns).
2. Juvenile feeling – Make sure the plot suits the level at which you are trying to write at.
3. No plot progression for too long – There needs to be some backstory given, but be sure to keep it at a minimum and try to work it in throughout the book rather than all at once.
4. Inability to connect to the conflict – Try very hard to make your readers care about what they need to care about. If the bad guy is bad, make him bad!
5. Rushed with too much trying to be done – If there seems to be too much going on, maybe you need to edit some of it out. Make sure everything that is important to the story gets thoroughly explained.
6. Writing style – Your writing style is your own, remember that not everyone will like it, but your tone has to fit what you’re writing.

This blog post has been very long, but I hope it was interesting. If you’d like to see more book reviews by me, I can think about it. I think it’s difficult to be a literary critic as everyone has such specific tastes for what books they like, but I can give it a shot. I will make a similar list of books I really enjoyed this year in about a month, so look out for that!

Monday, November 17, 2014


I can count on one hand the number of winters that I've had snow in my life.

Nothing prepares you for it. It's always very sudden. One day the weather forecast says rain but the sky decides that rain isn't good enough, and the temperature dips just a tiny, little bit, and the water freezes. It's usually night, which comes much earlier in the day than you'd prefer, and you’re walking along and you realize the rain is too slow. The water drops a little too big. Then you realize it's not even rain at all. You've worn shoes that won't protect your feet from the slush and your jacket is just a bit too thin, but none of that matters because snow. It's beautiful and it's been a long time and it's falling.

It feels heavy almost, walking through that first snow of the season. The way it moves in the air reminds you of the tiny pieces of seaweed that float in the ocean, the connection to the warm sun of the ocean and the cold flakes hitting your cheeks a strange feeling. Then a tiny flake will find its way to your tongue, a tingly sensation as each individual snowflake melts. It's crisp and it's clean and it's cold.

You watch the snow fall to the ground, each tiny piece disappearing just as quickly as it appeared. Its brief life ends in a flash and you’re thankful. You had a good life, you think to yourself, you're one of the first. And it's true. In the month that follows the first snow the newness is still there, the excitement of things changing and the world as you know it becoming different. Their short little lives fill you with that childlike feeling, even if you know that in a few weeks you'll wish it were summer again.

The trees get covered first, their thin branches collecting the flakes into tiny little piles of what looks like cotton. It's as if there was some really huge pillow fight that you just pissed and all the stuffing has been left behind. It will remind you of Dr. Seuss without the color. It will remind you of childhood. It will remind you that there are things in this world you're still not too old for.

Then you'll walk inside and it's warm, you'll leave the quiet of the new fallen snow and the world seems brighter somehow, more distinct. You'll close your eyes and feel melted snow on your lashes touch your cheeks, a chilly reminder of winter's start. You'll rush to take your jacket off and your hat and your scarf. They will be wet with tiny little beads. In subway stations you'll see everyone's hair dotted with the droplets and you'll know that outside the snow is falling.

That next morning is shocking, it always is. That first time made your heart race and you found yourself giggling as if you were five again as you hopped through the snow in shoes that weren't warm enough, weren't dry enough. Now, it's been a couple of years and you're prepared. You put on your boots designed just for this, pulling them from the back of the closet they've rested in for spring and summer and most of fall. Your feet are heavy with the unfamiliar weight of added lining and waterproofing. The ground is covered now, the nighttime is always the busiest for snow. You walk through the half melted piles that line the sidewalk, trying your hardest not to slip, your legs not yet adjusted to winter. You're coat's warmer today, you've brought your gloves and you've left a few minutes early so that you have time to enjoy the snow in the daylight.

Everything is quiet, it's so much quieter with the snow. Everything you've read about it in books in true. There's a stillness to it even in the middle of the city. And it's white, so much white. Your life had been filled with green before, and now you've gotten to see different colors. The reds and oranges and yellows of fall and the white of winter. You never knew such whiteness existed.

The day will go on, the temperature will rise, and the first snow will melt and freeze into dangerous slicks of ice. You'll find yourself wishing for more snow, anxious for it to really start. The first snow is just a tease, it always is. It'll be weeks before the permanent blanket covers the city. You'll get used to the roofs out the window being laden down, using them as makeshift measuring sticks for how much snow had fallen as you slept.

I began to write this for NaNoWriMo last week after the first snow happened here in Sapporo, and decided it would make a nice blog post instead. It's a bit different from what I normally post so I hope you enjoyed it.

Monday, November 10, 2014

5 Tips to Conquering National Novel Writing Month

I first learned about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) back in 2006 when I had an English teacher who shared the project with us in class one November. I remember thinking the idea was interesting, but I never had the motivation or wherewithal to actually do it.

Two years ago I was sitting in my tiny, cold apartment on the brink of my first ever Winter with a capital “W”, in a town where I had barely any friends and realized that I have a lot of time to dedicate to something like this. I’d been thinking of a book that I would like to write for a month or so leading up to the November first start date, and decided that NaNoWriMo would be the perfect time to stretch out my writing fingers.

So I did it. And I completed it. Easily.

It was a great feeling of accomplishment: 50,000 words in 30 days, averaging 1,667 words a day to hit that 50,000 word mark. I ended the month having written 50,586 words. When I did NaNoWriMo again in 2013 I ended the month at 50,502..

This year I am doing it again. I had prepared myself a lot and had great ideas for books I wanted to write the last two years, but found myself bogged down in the intensely detailed stories I was trying to write. With the strict writing schedule required from NaNoWriMo it didn’t leave me much space to work out plot issues when they popped up, or build on my world if I went to an area I hadn’t yet planned.

With my two years of experience I think I have a handle on how to go about NaNoWriMo, especially if you find yourself not having too much time to dedicate due to work and/or your personal life. Granted, the event has been going on for fifteen years now so I am by no means an expert, these are just things for that work for me as a more casual writer. I know people who hit 50,000 words in the first week and end the month having written hundreds of thousands of words!

2012 word count per day

1. Write in Different Places

I cannot be productive in my apartment. It’s impossible. My apartment is a place where I relax. I don’t do any lesson planning there and I don’t write there. If I am at home I am curled up in my chair under a blanket watching some YouTube video, catching up on American television, or watching a random documentary on Netflix. My mind goes into shutdown mode at home.

There have been times when I have written at home, and if I actually had a desk to sit at and write rather than an ottoman that my laptop sits on I may be more inclined to write there. But, alas, I do not have the space for a desk in my tiny Japanese apartment so I do not have one.

Regardless, I think that different locations can break the slog of always sitting down to write. Take your laptop to a Starbucks and enjoy their free wifi and outlets (maybe one of the only places in Japan that has both of these). If your laptop has the battery life, take it anywhere and just write. Maybe even see if you can just go visit a friends and share what you’re doing with them. I write at school in my free time and I write in cafes.

2. Have a List of Names

There is nothing worse than being in the groove of writing only to introduce a new character (or location) and just stop because you can’t think of a name for them. I have ruined many writing sessions because I have to stop and search for a name for my character.

In the week leading up to NaNoWriMo I opened up and just refreshed their Random Name Generator. I like theirs because you can select different countries or even historical periods to get your names from. If I get bored of refreshing (which I did) I then open up a random country and jut write names I like. In my fifteen minutes of searching I ended up with a list of about 30 names that I pull from when I introduce a new character.

Also, always remember that you can change a name if you don’t like it, removing the stress of finding the Perfect Name makes it a lot easier to just choose one and go back to writing. Microsoft Word has that lovely “change all” feature where you can search for a word in your document and substitute it out with another, so it is very easy to go back through and change a character’s name, even after you’ve written upwards of 50 pages!

3. Don’t Force Yourself to Write Everyday

While writing every day would be ideal, I think for most people it is impossible to sit down and write anything of merit just because you have to. When I give myself the time to actually get in the mindset and just write, I can easily knock out the required 1,667 words a day in about 45 minutes to an hour. If I sit in a café for three or four hours on a Saturday afternoon, I can write 4,000 easily. And that includes random texting breaks and time spent on Facebook just clearing my mind after a chapter finishes.

Last week I was extremely busy, I had a lot of classes to plan, so free time at work was minimal until later in the week, then I had three days of my part-time job (rather than two) in the evening. I was exhausted. But I knew that this week at school I would have so much free time due to exams that I didn’t worry about not being able to write much.

Currently, I am very far behind, but I know that I can easily write 2,000 to 3,000 words a day (if not more) just at work, so I can easily make up the lost time. Not constantly worrying about writing all the time makes it easier. My first year I was able to write daily thanks to my work schedule being easy, but last year was much different, and I had stretches where I wouldn’t write for days yet I still finished.

I think giving yourself three or four days in the week to write 3,000 to 4,000 words is perfectly acceptable and how I prefer to do NaNoWriMo. Plus during the down days I can focus on what I want to write next in my story.
2014 graph - Clear break in writing

4. Have a List of Things to Write

Because I take days off to think about where I want my story to go, I can create a list of different scenes or events I would like to write about. I was walking through a very gray, drizzly, cold November day last week and decided that I would like to write about one of my characters reminiscing about similar times related to that weather in his past whilst walking down a road. So I wrote it down on my List To Write and when I was next free I wrote about it.

Sometimes a certain scene can just not what you’re in the mood to write, so I think it’s a good idea to skip it and write something new. That change of pace will refresh your mind and you can come back to the skipped scene easily. The great thing about early drafts is that you’re going to change things anyway.

Things that I usually have on my list include: how two different characters met; a history explaining the certain aspect of a character; history about the setting itself; minor events that happen in the story that maybe don’t play a role overall but I feel like writing because something inspired me like a song or real-life event. Sometimes when I am just sitting on the bus or subway a scene will pop into my head and I write it down. Even if it doesn’t fully work for the story, just writing something with my characters is good for the development of those characters’ voices and personalities.

5. Just Write

Sometimes we hit a block and we just can’t think of where to take our story next. This happens to me all of the time. I actually think forcing yourself to write something can help break through that wall. Put on some moody music (high energy, intense, sad, whatever) and just write using those characters. Write something that is nonsense. Have two characters meet for dinner and discuss something. While it may not be useful to your story and you may not even use it in your book at all, the practice will help you develop the characters more and maybe their conversation will lead you to something that you didn’t think of for the story itself.

To me, writing is a very organic process. I’ve written fantasy stories and I spend quite a bit of time in the prep of the world itself. Designing governments and magic systems and cultural habits. But the stories themselves I like to allow to happen more naturally. I have a basic design of where I want to go, things I want to happen, but I feel the story is more enjoyable to write when I have a loose goal at the end like “I want to write a story about self-discovery in not needing anyone to love you” and then have the story morph around that.

I think one of the best things I heard from a writer was when I read something by John Green years ago. He said how 90% of his first drafts aren’t even in the books. When you break away from that mindset of perfection and following a strict outline you give yourself the freedom to let the story just happen. Relax the mind and just write. It is much easier than you think!

As a note, this blog post was just over 1,700 words! So 1,667 isn't so bad!