Small Town Charms

I appreciate small towns.  I admire small town people, their values, their predictable routines, and traditions.  I understand them because I am from one: Boerne, a small German town located in south central Texas.  My family moved there when I was four years old.  I started my education at the local pre-school and proudly donned the same Boerne purple and white tassel on my High School graduation cap.  No matter where I have ventured since, my small town values today remain the same as they did growing up:  Fit in, make friends, and obey the rules.

I like fitting into the crowd and blending into the background.  As an introvert, I believe in standing out at times, but only in an upright and respectful manner.  I am shy.  I enjoy being with people, but I enjoy the peace and solitude of my time in the quiet.  Making friends is not difficult, it just takes work, and making sure they are the right kind of friends.  I am very conscious of following the rules, it’s safe.  I rarely have to stick my neck out too far where it doesn’t belong.  For example, I wait patiently until the traffic light says I can walk across the street, regardless of the amount of cars.

By way of further introduction, I am competitive and relish outdoor recreation with childlike enthusiasm. I exercise for the sheer enjoyment of a natural high, but inwardly I want to run faster or pedal harder than any female that happens to be in front of me. I love to read. Books are a window into another world, whether that be into the past, into other lands and faraway cultures, into a complete fantasy land, or into the deep and hidden places inside of myself.  I love the Lord as the center of my life and as my only true north. Saving the absolute best for last, I love my husband. We work well as a team and bring balance and fun to each others’ lives. Our respect and love for each other grows as we spend time getting to know one another, as well as, spending more time with God. We make every activity into the next great Kempisty adventure.

I packed these values and life lessons along with me as I moved with my husband, Dave, across the ocean with feelings of both enthusiasm and trepidation.  As excited as I was about our new home across the globe, I had a personal battle to fight between leaving my ideated “perfect and settled” life and the new beginning I feared would be daunting.  I had been settled in Texas.  I had a beautiful home, a lucrative personal training business, the world’s most perfect dog, I had family close by, and friends, and our church.  I had a calendar of our favorite races, marathons, and triathlons outlined for each month of the year.  In other words, I had my routine, my social calendar, my comfort zone.  What was I going to do with myself in Japan?

Personal fitness training had been my career since 1998.  I was a personal trainer at Texas A&M University and went on to run my own personal training studio in San Antonio, Texas for 11 years before closing the doors and moving to Japan.

I thought I might try my hand at something completely different when we moved to Misawa, but old habits die hard and I found myself interviewing at the Base fitness center shortly after our arrival.  In that initial conversation I told them my credentials as a personal trainer and was hired on the spot. I had my picture posted on the wall before I could say “cheese.”  We had recently discovered I was pregnant with our first child, so I agreed to work for the gym until our baby came.  Word spreads quickly around a small base and I soon had a full schedule of clients.

My niche market in Texas had been the 55 and older age group.  In Misawa I was challenged working with 20 year olds.  The military requires it’s members to maintain a specified level of physical fitness.  An Air Force member is required every year to be tested on their maximum number of sit ups and push ups completed in one minute, a timed 1.5 mile run, and an abdominal circumference measurement.  After a female active duty member has a baby, they are given 6 months to pass their fitness exam.  If anyone fails a physical test they are “written up” by their supervisor and given 90 days to retake the test.  Every year members are discharged from the Air Force for failing repeated fitness exams.

I felt a lot of pressure to do my job well; people’s jobs were depending on it.  I enjoyed the change of pace, the different pressures involved with active duty military members, and the other officer’s spouses I trained.  I was comfortable, I was recognized, but I may as well been back in Texas.  What was I doing?  Is that how I was going to spend my precious few years in a foreign country?  I was being true to myself and following my personal values, but was I making the most out of a my blessed opportunity?  When I was honest with myself the answer was ‘no’.  I came to Japan wanting to watch and learn their culture, take part in their festivals and celebrations, see the sites, hear the different sounds, and eat rice!  In other words, to blend in to their background, make friends with their people, and learn their rules for life.

Where was I to begin?  How could I take the proverbial bull by the horns and really start experiencing Japan?  I thought I should start by learning to speak with the local people.  I started asking around for the best way to quickly learn the Japanese language.  A young Japanese teacher I met named Hisayo introduced me to Kumon.

Kumon is an after school program for kids to advance their learning mostly in math and reading.  It can also be useful for adults to learn foreign languages, science, and other useful subjects.  Hisayo gave them a call and set up my first evening class to see if Kumon was the right fit for me.

The classroom was a tiny modular building about a mile from our house, close enough that I walked to my first day of school.  I approached the front door, took a deep breath, and cautiously slid open the opaque glass door.  It opened into an entryway piled high with little shoes neatly tucked into small cubby holes.  I took off my shoes, but found they were far too big to put in a cubby hole.  I suddenly got very nervous and self-conscious, but quickly talked myself out of turning around and leaving.  I placed my shoes neatly on the floor and looked around the room.  Everything and everyone around me was tiny.  The room, the desks, the chairs, the people, all miniatures!   I noticed it was mostly children focused on solving math problems and repeating words over and over in the English language.  Thankfully an adult, perhaps the headmaster, walked over to me, and gave a waist deep bow.

I uncomfortably bowed back and slowly said in English “Hello, my name is Carrie.  I have an appointment today for Kumon.”

She nodded at me, pointed at her name tag, and said “Mizue, Sensei.”  Teacher.

She turned around and motioned with her hand for another lady to join her.  They pointed to a tiny chair next to me indicating that I should sit down.  I nearly landed on the floor before my rear end found the miniature seat.  The new lady was evidently my interpreter as she listened to Mizue speak to me in Japanese and then explained in broken English about Kumon.  She showed me a chart that depicted what I would be learning, and how quickly I would advance depending on my personal pace.  I noticed the three languages of Japan were all included:  Hiragana, Katakana, and even Kanji.  I was excited, my first Japanese class!  I enthusiastically agreed to attend.  They directed me to fill out the application, instructed me to show up Monday and Thursday evenings, and collected my first month’s fees.  I could hardly wait until Thursday to get started.

When Thursday arrived, I walked quickly to my class, took off my shoes and found a more discreet corner to place them.  Again I was the only adult student in the room, the only foreigner, and certainly the only one learning Japanese.  Mizue again asked me to sit down on the tiniest seat I have ever balanced on.  She handed me a pencil and a sealed booklet and said, “Please begin, test-o”.

“Test-o?!” I replied, wide-eyed and quite confused.

“Yes, must complete,” she stated slowly.

I opened up the booklet and flipped through the pages of foreign letters and symbols.  When I got to the back page it asked for my signature in English, I was grateful I could answer one question.  I felt sick, I was living my nightmare of showing up to school not having studied for a test.  Only here I was in the twilight zone of little Asian people staring at me like I was from Mars in the first place.  I handed her my empty booklet.  She had the nerve to open it up and mark everything with red pen.

She smiled at me and said, “You start, Level 1.”

The whole room cracked up into little hands-over-mouth covered giggles, including myself as I turned seven shades of red and sunk closer to the floor.  She gave me another small booklet with a CD taped inside and signaled me to follow her to another part of the room.  She led me over to a desk with an old CD player with vintage 1980s foam earphones attached.  She pointed at the English directions that instructed me to listen to the first lesson on the CD and repeat aloud what was being said.  This was getting worse!  Mizue walked back to her desk and I was left to myself to hit the play button and begin.  I was the only voice in the room to be heard and every head would slowly turn my direction as I attempted strange Japanese words and sounds for the first time.  I worked my way through Lesson One finishing the audible section and then my CD instructed me to trace and practice drawing my first Japanese letters.

I took a moment to look around the room and realized that I was on my own to learn at my own pace.  I had all evening to finish my work and if I wanted I could start working on lesson two.  I watched the children repeatedly and quietly focus and study, then solve and erase their work.  As I observed them interact, I quickly noticed that calling attention to oneself or standing out amongst your piers was a taboo to the young Japanese students.  If there was a hint of discontent or unrest by any of the children, they were immediately called down by the older students in the room or quietly, yet sternly, spoken to by the Sensei.  Some of the children were young and would obviously get excited about a difficult problem or possible solution they wanted to show Mizue Sensei, but first they found a small plastic hand broom and dust pan and tidied their work space of eraser flakes before they would dare approach the Sensei.  I naturally followed their example, finished my work, and walked it over to Mizue.  She hovered over each answer with that dreaded red pen, wrote “100” on the top, and handed me a stack of handouts as she slowly sounded out “ho-me-work.”   I suppose I volunteered for this, but homework? Yuck!

One evening at the end of my lesson, Mizue sat me down across the table from her as she crouched down working with two other young students.  Instead of quickly grading my lesson, as before, she covered up my answers, and pointed at the blanks that had asked me the correct word to describe the picture.  A little Japanese boy with the cutest little round face sitting to one side of her, leaned across the table, and looked up at me.  His little face was about ten inches from my own.  I tried to focus and say the correct word aloud, but Mizue was distracted by another student.  The little boy, in my face, shook his head vigorously side to side indicating that I had said the wrong word.  I looked at the picture and tried another word with a quick glance at him and his more subtle head shake clearly let me know I was wrong again.  Then Mizue was looking right at me ready for my answer.  I tried one more guess and the little boy smiled and nodded with hidden pride as he looked at his own paper letting me know I got it right.

During my regular evening walks to class I would practice my new vocabulary, noticing “window”, “field”, “dog”, or “child.”  I continued attending classes twice a week cramped in that small building with about 15 other kids working on their own subjects. We all had homework to complete every day to turn in upon arrival on Monday and Thursday evenings.  Each of us would open the sliding door, remove our shoes, while announcing our entry with “Konbonwa” or “good evening”.  We would hear a loud response of “Konbonwa, Carrie-san”, or appropriate name, and bow as we stepped up one step to enter the classroom.  We would look up our names in the color coded files near the door, take the stack of new handouts for the day’s classwork, and replace them with our completed homework.  We would find an empty seat to get settled and begin our work.

I was 34 years old, the adorable little children were anywhere from 6-12.  I was tall and blonde, they were short and black haired.  They had all the energy in the world, and I would waddle in after a long day at the gym, while getting bigger and more pregnant every week. They would whip in and out of their chairs when their parents arrived to pick them up.  I, however, had to be helped up and down by several little hands when I was coming and going.  Mizue Sensei would even go so far as to meet me at the door to help me take my shoes on and off every evening.  The children were always respectful of my presence; however, never open and interactive.  My attempts at “konbonwa’s” and other familiar greetings were politely answered, yet never initiated.  Even after a year, the young children learning English were never interested in practicing their skills with me.  The Sensei would ask me the correct pronunciation of a particular word in English, but never anything more.  Yet without fail, every time I sat down to complete the audio section of my classwork, little faces would peer around the corner watching and giggling.