A quick check in 

China is good so far but I’ve been pretty busy with, you know, being in China and also doing coursework for school. So I’m going to wait until I get back to Canada before I (maybe) write any substantial posts or upload pics from my camera.  In the meantime, here are a few iPhone shots to offer proof of life. 

The old city in Hangzhou really illustrates the blend of old and new that defines modern China.


Taking the high speed train to Qufu. Super fast land speeds never cease to amaze me.


Crossing the Yangtze River on the train


Confucius in Qufu


A rainy day on a Chinese university campus



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Back in Asia

Hi everyone! 

When I left Japan I kind of forgot that I have a blog. I’m in China for a few weeks though and thought I would give this a shot. Let’s see if I can actually post anything from China. To test, let’s try with some photos.  




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Confessions of a Kawaii Mind

It all started out so innocently: one small, plush Totoro. I remember standing in the aisle of a crowded shop in Osaka, trying to justify the purchase.  On the one hand, 1700 円 is a lot of money for a toy.  On the other hand, Totoro!  It’s a cultural experience! I can use it in show and tell! I can take him home and teach my friends about Japanese culture!  The rationalizations went on and on, all the way to the cash register.  Thus began my slow descent and so I find myself making a difficult confession:  My name is Meagan and I am addicted to all (alright — most) things cute.  Or, as is more commonly said in Japan, I love the kawaii!! \(^o^)/ *

Four years ago, when I first visited Japan, I did not see this coming. I walked around a shopping mall during my first visit and was confused by the stuffed animals hanging off of teenagers’ backpacks.  Surely it’s fad.  Perhaps it is something Japanese teens do ironically.  When I moved to Japan I quickly learned that no, it is not ironic, nor is it limited to teenagers.  It is perfectly acceptable for grown men and women to have full-sized teddy bears dangling from their cellphones, handbags, and pencil cases.  Cute stuff is everywhere.  Why own a plain folder/ phone case/ toilet brush when you could have one covered in kittens?  Not only did I become accustomed to the phenomenon, but I surprised myself with how quickly I adopted it.  Only three months after arriving in Japan I found myself in that shop in Osaka, contemplating my first Totoro purchase.

A completely normal pencil case for a 17 year old boy in Japan.

I did not realize how fully I had embraced the kawaii until I returned home to visit my family and friends and I noticed how“grown-up” they all are. My friends all carry handbags devoid of plush animals.  Their pens and pencils are mostly solid colours, with nary an animated character in sight. None of my loved ones in Canada – not a single one – owns a cutting board shaped like a baby animal.

As I near the end of my JET career and my time in Japan, I have started to wonder what my re-adjustment to life at home will look like.  I have a recurring daymare in which I am meeting new people and my phone rings.  When I take it out of my purse I reveal several Beanie Babies dangling from my phone. Everyone around me recoils, exchanges a look, and telepathically agrees that they must never speak with me or my Beanie Babies again. Ever. ** Making new friends might be tough.  

Is it possible that my fear is a bit exaggerated? Sure, I suppose it’s possible.  But the reality is that once I return to Canada I will slowly start to assimilate with North American norms again.  For better or worse, I have only a few months left to shamelessly bask in cute culture, and I am hoping to take advantage of it.   Now please excuse me, an adult just showed me her pencil case.  It is shaped like a chipmunk and it is wearing a bow tie. I have some squeeing to do.

*I  do not understand Japanese emoji. I think they all look like bats. 

**For the record, I do not actually own any Beanie Babies or phone charms… yet.   

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The OTHER Worst Portmanteau

It should go without saying, but for those of you unfortunate enough NOT to live inside my brain, the worst portmanteau is “cronut.” My spell check does not recognise the word and I absolutely will not add it to my dictionary.

The other worst portmanteau is “Japanniversary.” Yes, this is a thing. People talk about their Japanniversaries.  If were such a person, I would have written a celebratory blog post on August 1st. I didn’t.

I will, however, take a bit of a break from my busy schedule (of sitting directly under my air conditioner and looking at pictures of grown-up Neville Longbottom) to tell you about my life in Japan after two years.

I suppose language is the obvious place to start.  The best way to think about my language capabilities is to think of what a two year old child can do with language. I can make two or three word “sentences” with nouns and verbs.  Ask me to use the appropriate article, however, and I will panic.  I can also understand some of what store clerks, etc. say, assuming they speak slowly and use simple language — as though I were a toddler.

Carrying on with the toddler theme, I am starting to have issues with rules.  The simple knowledge that I am not supposed to do something makes me want to do it so badly. After two years of mostly following all of the arbitrary (not really) rules of Japanese society, I am craving a bit of individualism these days.  In other words, I JUST WANT TO WEAR NAIL POLISH!!! Thankfully, I do have the impulse control of an adult.  This might be the main reason why not many toddlers make it past the JET programme’s intense screening process.

I suppose the biggest difference between my life now and two years ago is that I no longer have anxiety about doing normal activities, like paying my internet bill or sorting my trash.  I have that all figured out now.  In fact, I am partially responsible for teaching the newly arrived ALTs how to do things like pay their internet bills and sort their trash.  That’s a bit strange.

On that strange note, I shall conclude.  Life here is good. It is frustrating at times, as I continue to adapt to Japanese culture, but that will always be the case. Overall, life is good.  Now I will let you all go on with your daily lives. I know that you all, like me, have very important responsibilities to tend to.

Wizardry, indeed.

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In a few weeks I will have been living in Japan for two full years. This is the longest I have stayed in one place since I was 17. In honour of this anniversary, I thought I would post my reflection on my first year of living in Japan. This post was originally published in the 2012 Welcome edition of the TRAM, Toyama AJET’s magazine/blog. (Side note: I am now an editor of the TRAM. You can check it out here!)

Confusion: My First Year in Japan

When I was asked to write a reflection on my first year in Japan I hesitated a bit. I would love to write an essay about all the things I learned and the epiphanies I experienced. However, the truth is that I really don’t know what happened that year. It whizzed by in a big ball of confusion. I don’t just mean that I was confused; I was like a host for confusion, spreading it around like a virus. Anyone in my vicinity was susceptible.

I managed to confuse the entire school during the fall term’s opening ceremony. I walked up to the microphone and started to deliver my self-introduction flawlessly. Unfortunately, it was the principal’s turn to speak. I had to return to my seat and try again a few minutes later.

Outside of school presented an entire world of bewilderment. In the winter I got influenza and went to the pharmacy to buy a thermometer. I remember standing in a feverish haze, staring at a wall of thermometers, trying to figure out which one went where. Finally, I grabbed a thermometer and approached the till. I mustered up my courage and spat out “Sumimasen… doko?” while miming placing the thermometer in my mouth and underarm. Thankfully the lovely lady at the till stopped me before I had to mime any other potential locations. Still, she looked appropriately horrified a she pointed to her underarm. I thanked her and she rang me up. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when she went home that night. You will never believe what happened to me at work today . . .

Despite the confusion – or perhaps because of it – I managed to carve out a comfortably strange niche in my school and neighbourhood. The teachers at my school were so kind after I screwed up the opening ceremony that for a few moments I actually believed it could have happened to anyone. My students were a bit more skeptical of my brand of weirdness, but I was able to win over most of them within a few conversations about K-pop or soccer. As for the pharmacy, every time I return the clerk gives me a huge smile and slips some freebies into my bag. We are basically BFF.

I would like to say that I make fewer blunders now that my Japanese is improving. However, I recently learned that I have been confusing the Japanese words for “girlfriend” and “subway” every time I used them. (No, they sound nothing alike.) So I am sure that this next year will bring with it many more grim “Meagan in Japan” stories. So it goes.


One the one hand, taking this picture suggests that I have embraced the “cute” culture in Japan. On the other hand, I still think that seeing 4 oversized Poohs on the side of the road is strange enough to merit a photo op. I think we can agree that I have not yet fully assimilated.

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What’s more fun than studying Japanese on a Sunday night?

Trick question.  The answer is: everything.

I was sitting down to do my Japanese homework and thought… hey, you know what I haven’t done in ages? Write a blog post! So, here we are.

For those of you who may not know,  I am still in Japan.  I have re-contracted to stay here for a third year, beginning at the end of July.  That means that, if all goes as planned, I will return to Canada in the summer of 2014.

I went home for a quick visit in March.  One of the questions that I was asked most often was “So, your Japanese must be pretty good now, eh?”  Ha.  Let’s talk about my Japanese skills. But first, let’s talk about Japanese in general.  There’s an interesting infograph that compares the speed and information density of several languages.

As you can see in the graphic, Japanese is an incredibly fast language.

However . . .

So, what does this mean for those of us struggling to learn Japanese as a second language?  First of all, it means that listening comprehension is tough.  Even if you can understand a fair bit of vocabulary, it can be difficult to pick out key words from a long string of formalities in speech.  Secondly, even if you know a lot of vocabulary words, it takes a while before you can confidently string them together into anything that resembles proper grammar.

But what about me?  Well, I’m getting there.  I study with a tutor once a week and I spend at least a few hours a week studying on my own.  At this point, I can pick up on the main idea of conversations in the staff room, although I can never follow the conversation entirely.  If someone asks me a question in simple Japanese, I can usually understand but sometimes I take a while to process the information.  For example, today I bought frozen tortillas at the foreign food store.  The cashier asked me if I wanted an ice pack to keep them cool.  I understood this question, but there was a lag of a few seconds between her question and my comprehension.  The delay was just long enough that she started to panic because she thought I hadn’t understood.  Still, I considered this a victory.  After all, neither of us had to resort to charades to communicate.  (Not that there is any shame in charades.)

In casual situations, especially ones where I know the context, I can usually grasp the basics of what is going on.  However, in formal situations I remain lost.  In March I attended my school’s graduation ceremonies.  As I sat in the gymnasium before the ceremony began, I wondered how much of the ceremony I would understand this year.  As it turns out, I understood almost the same amount that I had the year before: nothing.  The hundreds of hours of Japanese studying that I had done in the previous 364 days were meaningless when it came to formal speeches.  Although, I can say with certainty that the principal did not use the phrase “the bookstore is in front of the station,” at any point during commencement.


Sometimes I wonder if my textbook was written specifically for me.

While formal speech is difficult to understand, I am equally baffled by excessively casual conversation.  Anything that has a lot of slang or is in a non-standard dialect is  difficult for me to understand.  This is troublesome because my prefecture, Toyama, is noted for its distinct dialect.  In fact, somebody once told me that trying to learn standard (Tokyo) Japanese in Toyama is akin to trying to learn the queen’s English in Alabama.  Do-able, but tough.

This is starting to read like a list of excuses, which is not my intention.  It is, however, intended to be a description of the realities of learning a language through immersion.  In theory, it should be so easy to learn Japanese while living in Japan.  However, real-life immersion involves a whole lot of factors beyond the repeat-after-me routines of a classroom.

The good news is that studying Japanese has become a lot more fun now that I know enough to use it.  Being able to have toddler-style conversations with my coworkers is very rewarding.  Any time I ever successfully read kanji I feel like a genius.  Most importantly, I am hopeful that in the future all of this studying will help me win it all in the final Jeopardy question.

“So, your Japanese must be pretty good now, eh?”   Nope, but I’m working on it!


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A little recap of things I saw and did in 2012.
(The song is “Lucky” from Said the Whale.)

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January 13, 2013 · 9:36 pm