this was all I had, you see

All I had in hand was a sheet of paper with pairs of sentences, one in English, one in Japanese.

Please show me how to buy a bullet train ticket to Kyoto. (Japanese translation)

Please show me how to buy a local train ticket to the Kyoto University neighborhood. (Japanese translation)

Please show me where I can call for a taxi. (Japanese translation)

It was my first time traveling alone. I had my suitcase, this paper, a map, and a small amount of trust in strangers. My parents dropped me off at the airport, and suddenly I was alone with my excitement, alone with my fears, alone with my issues. I had more baggage than just my suitcase. I slowly inched through the security line, passing the same faces as the line weaved, back and forth, back and forth. A large group of obviously close friends was traveling together, and I shamelessly eavesdropped on their conversation because what else is one to do in a line so long, so tedious? Well, my eavesdropping proved to be quite serendipitous as these turned out to be friends of friends, and beyond that, they were people that I had been hoping to meet for awhile because they were of wonderful reputation. And here was our most unexpected introduction. A long time to sit otherwise alone, now blessed with company. Twelve hours later, we parted at the bullet train station, my courage strengthened. With each remaining leg of the journey to Kyoto, I stopped any person wearing a hint of kindness and pointed at the appropriate sentence. There were nods and hand gestures and a lot of bowing, ‘arigato.’

By the time I stepped off a small local train near Kyoto University, I had been traveling for over 18 hours and it was near midnight in Japan. I was jet-lagged and exhausted. I still had to walk the remaining few blocks to the University itself with my suitcase, but it was summertime, and it was midnight. What would I do if the dorms were closed? I called the number on my wrinkled paper, and mercifully, a voice answered on the other line. I could not stop the trembling as I tried to explain, I am here for a summer school program, I just need to know if I can get in, I’m sorry it’s so late at night. It was obvious the person on the other line did not fully understand my English, but he understood my fear. “Ok…. ok.”

I arrived, both hopeful and resigned, at the door to the dormitory. I knocked, and I waited. A tentative face appeared at the window, and then slowly, the door opened.

It was a summer of strangers, new friends, a new culture, a summer of shedding the old me. A summer when a complicated relationship intensified and ultimately ended. A summer of getting to know myself, getting to know God’s voice in the thunderstorms that shook the earth, getting to know God’s humble friendship when I walked the streets, heavy with homesickness but known, so deeply known. I brought my paper, my suitcase, my excitement and my fears. I left with a heart that was full, known, broken, healed, loved.

the time the post office sent me to the Dominican Republic

It was a beautifully sunny day outside but the disposition indoors was not. The air was thick with the tension of people driven by a strong need for efficiency, straightforwardness, and personal justice. I had forgotten how time stands still in the post office. Few things there feel straightforward when you’ve got a frail package in an odd shape that needs to arrive at the other side of the world yesterday, and no I’m not willing to pay that much to make that happen but could you somehow just write “expedite” on the outside for free? Few things feel straightforward there, which means few things feel efficient. Which means that some will violate the justice of a line that everyone must wait in to jump in front with “just a quick question, sorry.” You are reduced to staring at the back of peoples’ outfits, eavesdropping on the conversations at the windows, some pleasant and some inane, and making fast judgments about people.

Smiles waned. Arms crossed. Throats cleared. Sighs escaped. Strangers slowly connected with one another in mutual frustration and the growing desire to gang mob those who disregarded the line and scurried to an open clerk with mumbled apologies.  I saw the cameras mounted in the corners of the post office and thought, how those cameras must capture the quiet worst of people, day after day, here in the US post office. I wondered if they caught me staring, ok well, glaring, too long at the man who jumped in front with his “quick question, sorry to interrupt.”

When I left, a memory surfaced of my experience with my summer internship at the International Services department of the American Red Cross during my public health grad school years. Our American team had traveled to the Dominican Republic to develop and conduct nutritional surveys among hurricane-affected communities in the DR. We had a 9:00AM meeting lined up with local leaders who worked with the World Health Organization and the Dominican Red Cross. By 10:30AM, it was still only the American team present in the conference room. Sometime close to noon, the Dominicans showed up with big smiles, firm handshakes and no apologies. My supervisor turned to me and said, “Welcome to Dominican time.” That was just their way. The American need for timeliness and efficiency was completely foreign to them. It was not an issue of disrespect or unprofessionalism. Their worldview was simply not like ours.

Sometimes my world becomes as small as a US post office and all of a sudden everyone is at everyone else’s throat. Which is ironic because in theory, the post office tells me that the world is a big place, beyond me, beyond us and our efficiency-driven culture.  I don’t know that my personality type would allow me to live as lax as a Dominican. But at the very least, when I find myself being overtaken by the muted but heavy tension in the post office, I fight to remember that I don’t have to give into it, feed into it, become a bit of it. Not at all. God is on His throne, the sun still rises, and the world is so much bigger than this.

Set me free.

Life on the throne gets complicated

Every time I enter a public restroom, my eyes shoot to the same spot every time, without fail. I look for the number, size, and…well, freshness…of stains on the toilet seat. And then I answer the burning question, “Should I stay or should I go?” Go, as in, evacuate. I mean, go, as in, leave the room. Hmm. That was an awkward intro.

Anyhow, I’ve been in all kinds of, shall we say, unique toileting situations beyond just your classic port-a-potty at your local fair. I’ve been in remote villages in China where you enter a small bathroom stall and see little more than a deep pit available for the relieving of your needs. The pit is deep but not deep enough to not see movement. Oh yes. Movement.  (Externally. I mean… *sigh*  …never mind.) The shiny, subtle movement of hundreds of maggots, deep down in that not-deep-enough pit. And that’s when you just look up, whistle, and try to push your too-close-to-reality-imagination out of your head, and then bolt out of there before the tickling you feel on your legs becomes real.

Then there is the infamous squatty potty. What’s that, you ask? Oh you’re missing out! There is a humorous but rather educational blog post about the squatty potty, complete with bonus side tips about toileting in Asia. Suffice to say, I don’t think I ever really got the hang of this, but some international friends tell me that they find the squatty potty much easier to use and much more sanitary than Western toilets. Some, apparently, have found it so difficult to transition to the Western toilet that they would prefer to climb on top of a Western toilet, somehow manage to balance themselves precariously over the bowl, and take care of business, squatty-potty style. I only know this because I’ve seen footprints on the McDonald’s toilets in Taiwan. I can’t even imagine how that doesn’t eventually involve a very embarrassing call to 9-1-1.  I hope that McDonald’s is well-stocked with toilet seat covers, at the very least, for those with less-than-perfect aim…and all who follow afterwards. (I think squidoo’s advice about keeping your pants at your ankles probably gets thrown out the window here, but who knows… I’m no acrobat.)

And of course, the Japanese bidet. My first (surprise) encounter with this clever contraption was in a charming, traditional Japanese restaurant in Gardena, CA. You know, the type of restaurant that only has the menu handwritten in Japanese on the wall. I don’t know why I thought the instructions for flushing the bidet would be any different. For a relatively simple machine serving relatively simple purposes, there were a whole lot of buttons to choose from. I started to wonder if I was on one of those secret Japanese prank shows. I stood up, and after one tentative round of eeny-meeny-miny-mo, I pushed a button encircled in green and this happened. Oops. I bet that bathroom door needed cleaning anyhow. I left a generous tip that day.

All this to say, well, nothing, really. I intended this post to eventually be about how toilet etiquette is a funny reminder that we live in community, and the awkward quirks we encounter when we enter into shared spaces with one another.

But all those deep thoughts have apparently gone…  yes, I’ll say it.

Down the toilet.