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One of the greatest things about being a teacher is that you learn as much as you teach. Especially when you teach adults. I don’t just mean learning about other cultures and other view points of life. In the English lessons I taught in Japan, just about any random subject could come up, even in the middle of a class I thought would be boring and predictable. I especially enjoyed teaching doctors. They meet a lot of people and thus have a lot of stories to tell. I once had a 40-minute conversation about testicular cancer with a doctor. Of the eight classes I had that day, it was the best one.
Naturally, when teaching a language class, you learn a few things about communication. The most important thing? The importance of being a good listener.
I do believe that listening is a skill and that one can get better at it with practice. Some people are naturally good listeners. Others need that practice. In teaching English as a foreign language, I often found that improving listening was one of the hardest things to get people to do. Not because they weren’t trying. Most of the time, they were. They just didn’t know how to do it.
It wasn’t that understanding the words was the problem. It’s that a bad listener has a harder time really listening to people. There’s a difference between hearing what’s being said and hearing what you expect – or want – to hear.
I had one student – great guy, nice attitude and very outgoing – who had the damnedest time trying to improve his listening. And I knew why – because he listened, but he didn’t *listen*. Know what I mean? He listened, but he didn’t hear. I could never fully explain why that was a problem. And then I overheard him having a conversation with our Japanese manager, and I realized that it wasn’t just a problem he had with English. He was just a bad listener. I asked the manager about it, and she confirmed my suspicions – she hated having to explain anything to him, because he listened, but he never really heard her. He would have the same problems and ask the same questions and make the same mistakes because he never thought about what was being said to him.
Listening is something that I’ve learned I shouldn’t take for granted. Understanding my students, at times, meant that I really had to listen to them. I had to listen to what they meant, not just what they said. It’s something I’ve found I continue to do here in the States.
And I’ve found that other people don’t always do it.
Starbucks Cafe at the Barnes & Noble I frequent. I go there once a week, at least, and 25% of the time, they get my order wrong, even when I’m the only customer there and they’re otherwise not distracted. Granted, I know 25% is not a large margin of error, but it’s there. And it’s not like I order anything complicated. A grande caramel latte. Sometimes iced. And the same girl has gotten my order wrong 3 times, which is 50% of the times she’s taken my order. I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe she’s not the best listener.
Okay, so what?
The what is that sometimes, you need to really pay attention, or you’re going to offend someone.
I’ve been going through the process of registering at the culinary institute (yes, I guess I’m going through with it!). A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with the financial aid advisor. Nice girl, maybe not the most organized. We were just chatting, and then she asked if I had any kids.
The babylost know what a powerful question this is. Its seeming innocence is nonexistent with us. Every single time, it feels like a challenge: acknowledge your child or keep the conversation easy and light? Nothing brings a conversation down faster than a dead baby.
Because I prefer to do things my way rather than the easy way, I always mention Lauren. I cannot not mention her. I would hate myself if I didn’t. I believe most of the babylost would understand that.
This financial aid lady heard me, but she didn’t *hear* me. She blinked, her smile stayed plastered on her face, and she said, “Oh, then that’s good for you.” And then there was an awkward silence as I stared at her and thought, so you’re going to one of them, huh? One of the ones who asks without listening, who replies without having heard.
Immediately, I myself lost interest in the whole thing. I wasn’t upset, but I felt that the conversation had just become depersonalized. It was not about me. Clearly, it never had been. The small talk we’d been having had been nothing but a warm-up, an easing-in. A chance to build rapport.
I know how this goes. I taught long enough to know what an attempt to make a connection is, what an attempt to put the person at ease is like. The trick is that, to actually build that connection, you have to actively listen. Because if you don’t, you’ve lost them.
I haven’t been back to the school since then. The admissions director has been emailing me like a mad-woman, and I’ve sent one reply, offering up the holidays as an excuse for being busy. The truth is that, the more I think about it, the more I realize that I am a little offended. Maybe even more than a little. Enough that I’m more than a little troubled.
It’s not even all about Lauren. Yes, she responded to my dead daughter as “a good thing” for me, but that disturbed me only superficially, not deep down. No, what bothered me, deep down, was that she asked me a question without caring what the answer was. I hate that. I always have. It means you’re not listening, that what I have to say doesn’t matter in the least. She had an answer already in mind; what I said meant nothing at all.
I have never had much tolerance for small talk. Warm-ups were always the hardest part of class for me, because I wanted to get people talking and listening and caring about the conversation. You have to get in there and ask good questions, and then you have to really listen so you can get that conversation going. Once started, a good conversation carries itself. But you have to listen.
There are lots of places on the web where you can learn the proper way to respond to a dead baby answer. It just takes a simple search. And I’ll add to that by offering you the best response, the one that simple common sense suggests: “I’m sorry.” Most people I’ve mentioned Lauren to say that, and that’s really all I need to hear. While I do love to talk about her, I know it’s an awkward topic. I know dead babies make people uncomfortable. But I have to acknowledge her. I have to say that she existed, that I have a daughter. And once that’s done, we can move on.
That’s it, that’s all I want. But to give me that, you have to listen. And everybody wants to be listened to. Not just the babylost. Everyone.
Confession time. Before this week, I’d never roasted a whole bird. With plans to make roast a duck for Thanksgiving and a turkey for Christmas, Geordie thought it would be prudent for me to try roasting something cheaper first. About once a month, whole chickens go on sale at HEB, so I was able to get a 5-pound chicken for about $2.50. Certainly cheap enough for a roasting test run.
Because I had no idea what to do with a whole bird, I went in search of a good roasting recipe. There are plenty to be found, but I already knew which one I really wanted to use. I was tempted to do a recipe from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table, but instead, I went with one from Anne Burrell’s Cook Like a Rock Star. I adore Anne Burrell. As far as celebrity chefs go, she’s my personal culinary hero. I love her approach to recipes, which is to make things as simple as possible without dumbing them down. She explains why you do things, which is always nice, because I always wonder why things are done the way they’re done. Also, when you watch her show, she’s one of the few hosts who doesn’t go on and on about some personal story that you really don’t care about (I get kinda tired of hearing about how someone had a meal once in Spain or Italy or France or something and simply had to recreate it at home, or how they served this particular dish at their cousin’s niece’s brother’s birthday and everybody loved it even though something went slightly awry – I don’t care about that stuff, I just wanna hear about the food!) When Anne Burrell has airtime to fill, she does it by talking about food, and I appreciate that. It’s one thing to read a story in a cookbook; it’s another to have 5 minutes of a 24-minute show wasted by it.
But maybe that’s just me. That’s cool.
Anyway, back to the bird.
I may have used Anne Burrell’s recipe for this bird, but I’ll definitely be looking at other recipes – particularly Dorie’s – because this worked beautifully.
Okay, maybe not visually beautifully. I had a little trouble turning the chicken over and needed Geordie’s help, and things got a little disheveled. Also, I neglected to buy kitchen twine, so I couldn’t truss the bird. I’ll do that next time. I figure it’ll make it easier to turn the bird, which will make it prettier on the table.
Also, I need some practice carving. Burrell provides instructions in her book, but I’m thinking I should probably see a demonstration before I try again. I got the meat off the bird, but it was in no way elegant or clean.
Oh, but it was tasty. The gravy was made with the carrots roasted with the chicken, along with some white wine and a little extra chicken broth. Geordie thought it was a little “tangy,” but I loved it. I should have thought to buy potatoes and make a nice mash to lay the chicken on and soak up the gravy, but I didn’t, so I just served the chicken with some homemade bread. Next time, I’ll do the potatoes.
Actually, next time, I’ll do a few things differently. But I will say that, for this time – the first time – I was so happy with my chicken. And I wondered why I hadn’t done it before.
That’s easy enough to answer, really. Doing up a whole bird seems a bit of a daunting task. I was pleased to learn that it’s really not. Once I’d got the chicken into the oven, there really wasn’t much for me to do except make sure the bird got to the right temperature. With a little guidance, that was easy enough. No undercooked or overcooked bird here – it was done just right.
Alright, Thanksgiving, I’m ready for you now! This duck and I are going to take on the world!
Or just the kitchen. That works too.
I’ve been feeling this way for a while. It creeps up suddenly – I’ll be minding my own business, and then I’m hit with a strong desire to be back where I always felt I most belonged. I long for the small-town community that I came to enjoy, for the place that I made for myself in that community. I miss the friends I made there, the people I worked with, my daily routine.
I miss Japan. To be specific, I miss Moriya, that little town so close to Tokyo I could spend a day there but still far enough away to maintain its country-side charm.
I’m happy here in San Antonio. I’m making a life here with a husband whom I adore more than anyone else in this world. And I know that he would understand what I mean when I say how much I miss Japan, how I miss the people and the food and the atmosphere and the beauty.
Last year, I was thankful for a Florida autumn, for the prevalent sunshine and the warmth and the closeness of family and friends. This year, I find that I miss Japanese autumn. Here in Texas, as in Florida, the changing of the seasons is a rocky course. This week, for the first time this season, the temperature highs have dipped into the 60’s. Next week, they’ll be back up to the 80’s. I may not miss the snow that comes with Japanese winter, but I miss the steadier march of the seasons, the gradual slide of summer into autumn. The seasons leave their marks on Japan, in the greenery of summer that warms and brightens into fall foliage, only to dull as winter approaches. I miss the cultural embracing of the seasons – I always loved that the spring and autumn equinoxes were national holidays.
Even though I was clearly a foreigner, I always felt like I belonged in Japan. I didn’t have to think about what my place was – I was, inherently, an outsider. A foreigner. But I felt welcome. I felt that it was okay to be who I was, because it was already expected of me. There was no pressure to be like others, no subtle suggestions to change who I was to fit in better. I was who I was, and that was okay. I didn’t have to be anybody else. That’s something I’ve carried back with me to the States, and I’ve been the happier for it.
I did not get homesick after I moved to Japan. I never even worried that I might. In the States, I lived in a city that I disliked greatly and had a job that was easy but boring and paid little and would go nowhere. In Japan, I lived in a quiet country town and had a job that challenged me every day in a good way. I taught English, which I loved doing, to people who were mostly interested in learning it. The kids, not so much, but they were maybe 30% of my day, so if I could get through them, I was okay. And even most of them weren’t so bad (some of them were, but I wasn’t the only one who had problems with them). And I made enough money that I could travel and explore and enjoy myself. The only time I wished myself back in the States was on my birthday (because of the Birthday Fiesta o’ Fun that my best friend and I always threw for ourselves) and around Christmas (because I love being with my family at Christmas). When Geordie and I got together, we made no initial plans of returning permanently to the States. Japan was where we both felt we belonged.
A year ago, we left Japan. It had been my home for three years. It is where I met and fell in love with Geordie, it is where Lauren lived and died, and it is where I spent the best years of my life so far. I love it, I miss it, and if Geordie and I were given the chance to return, I wouldn’t have to think very hard about it. We’re both hoping that a life in Japan is still in our future.
For now, we’re here, and that’s okay. I do like San Antonio, which is why I can let go of this homesickness and enjoy the life we have here. Because, no matter how much I miss Japan, it doesn’t matter as long as I’m with Geordie. Home is where Geordie and I are together, and that’s all I need.