Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

They say that Americans abroad are often the most American - I certainly found myself more excited about Halloween this year than I have been since I was five and I got to dress up as a ballerina bunny. So I decided to introduce ARI to our strange American ways by throwing a Halloween party, complete with candy, costumes, and more candy! With the help of some very enthusiastic Japanese volunteers, I made sugar cookies, pumpkin pie (using fresh Japanese pumpkin (kabocha) and fresh orange pumpkin), roasted pumpkin seeds, and caramel - a recipe for an ARI-wide sugar-high. And then we carved pumpkins! Or, as Marie from the Philippines put it, we made "mottainai (wasteful) pumpkins." (I'm hoping to remedy the mottainai factor by chopping up the pumpkins tomorrow and cooking them.) Here are a few pictures of the prep work:

Collecting pumpkin seeds

Nazi from the Philippines

Swae from Thailand carving his pumpkin

My roommate Ayumi and me

The final products!

And the party, to my relief, was a big success! Everyone loved the jack-o'lanterns and the sweets, and most people even showed up in costume. I unfortunately chose the wrong costume - I was a rainbow (wearing every color, including a wonderfully bright yellow jacket), but the participants thought I hadn't dressed up at all! Which tells you a little about ARI fashion. Finally, I place where I can wear all my favorite, bright clothes without attracting odd stares...

Halloween dance party ARI-style! Just imagine a mix of Indian hip-hop, Lady Gaga, and "Country Roads" (for some reason, it's wildly popular in Asia).

Chunxia and Thsushara exchange traditional dresses

I hope everyone back in the States is having a good Halloween weekend!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A good morning

Today started with one of those mornings that makes you pause and give thanks for the beautiful world around you.

I start every morning in the field, working among the veggies against a backdrop of distant blue mountains. This morning, the peaks of the mountains were covered in storm clouds, while the foothills were glowing in the morning sun. Gorgeous. As I harvested wing beans and red chilies and Chinese cabbage, I felt very close to the mountains. I felt very thankful for my time at ARI.

The pictures don't do justice to the morning light, but here are a few anyway:

Now time for breakfast - itadakimasu!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Almost one month!

Sometimes I almost forget that I'm in Japan. I'm busy working with people from 20 different countries, learning about how chili sauce is prepared in Myanmar or what plants grow in Nepal or how anti-malaria programs work in Kenya. And tonight we (the Euro-American volunteers) made baguettes with cheese fondue for dinner! True, I hear a lot of Japanese, but I feel very removed from Japanese culture.

And then I go running. Running past fields of rice (harvested earlier this month) and broccoli and cabbage (still un-harvested), past the vending machine pit-stops, past the stunning Nasu mountains. That's when I experience the deepest sense of dislocation - I'm listening to the same running playlist (with M.I.A. and Kayne West, I must admit) but I'm in a totally foreign world. The landscape is different, the buildings are different, even the light is different. That's when I start to think about how I got here. If someone had told me four years ago that I'd spend the year after Dartmouth volunteering as a farm hand in Japan, I don't think I'd have believed them. Me? This Lizzie, the girl from suburban Washington who hates yard work?

So what am I doing here?

Mostly I'm learning. Learning how to distinguish between sweet potato varieties, how to harvest winged bean and egoma, how to make green tomato jam, how to back out of a room so as to properly line up my slippers. Learning how to communicate and share with people from completely different backgrounds and with completely different world views. Learning how to walk rather than dash through life. I'm struggling a little with the last one. I'm a very future-oriented person - always planning for the future, my mind disengaged from the moment (that's why I'm so hopelessly oblivious to my physical surroundings...). At ARI, I sometimes have trouble being truly present. Especially during repetitive farm work, my mind is often off to the next meal or the next day or the next year back in the U.S. - not on the opportunities at hand or the friends present. Not to say that I think I should concentrate on every single edamame that I shuck, but I think my tendency to focus on the next thing prevents me from fully taking advantage of the present. So I need to slow down. I struggled with the same problem during the first few days of Trip to the Sea, a week-long canoe trip that I did last spring down the Connecticut River. We paddled for six to ten hours every day, usually in two- to three-hour stretches. At first, the hours of uninterrupted paddling seemed endless - the same motion repeated again and again, the same scenery sliding by at a walking pace. But then I learned to accept the speed of the canoe and enjoy the slow scenery and the quiet passage of time. I learned to be present on the river. I'm still working on being present in the farm shop...

I'm also here to serve, although most of the time I feel like I'm receiving much more than I'm giving. But the volunteers do help keep the farm running, since the participants divide their time between classroom and field instruction. With the staff, we're often the ones finishing the harvest or processing the crops (today, for example, I threshed egoma, a seed similar to sesame that's used to make cooking oil, and helped husk the rice harvest). And as I learn more about how the farm works, I'm able to be more useful.

Some highlights from the past two weeks:

I turned 23! Thanks to everyone who sent me birthday wishes - it was so wonderful to hear from you all! One of the staff members made me a delicious banana cake, so it was a good day.

Learning how to make jam and yogurt. (Now I can satisfy my yogurt cravings when I get back to the U.S.!)

Celebrating Halloween with some local Japanese children. I was given a Snow White costume (as if I don't already look young enough...), and I handed out chocolates to an adorable parade of pumpkins and black cats.

Looking forward to:

Halloween party! (I'm organizing it with some of the other volunteers, so we'll see what happens. Dancing, sugar cookies, and Japanese sweets will be involved.) Hiking in nearby Nikko. Learning how to drive the farm trucks (although it could be a little hazardous with me behind the wheel of a stick vehicle...).

Right now my stomach is full (onaka ipai!) of delicious cheese fondue, my fingers smell like onion, and my hands are stained from the sweet potato harvest. I'm ready to go to sleep to the sound of the typhoon rain. O yasaumi nasai, friends!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Week two

Hello again, dear friends!

As I enter my second week at ARI, I'm still processing what this place is - what ARI means to the participants, what ARI means to the staff, what ARI will mean to me. That will be an ongoing process. Right now, all I have to offer are some fragmented thoughts...

Highlights of the past week:

Learning how to make Chinese sesame balls (delicious!). Dishing out dozens of Sri Lankan egg hoppers (basically crepes with fried egg) to customers during the Harvest Thanksgiving Celebration (HTC) - and speaking broken Japanese in the process! Seeing the participants' pride in their HTC. Singing a Thai folk song. Seeing Nasu mountain for the first time while working in the fields one clear, sunny morning. Laughing, cooking, exploring.

Not-so-great moments:

Getting sick! I've been sick for three days now - not fun. (And what is that special Mother-power that enables my mom to see that I'm sick over Skype?) At least it gives me time to work on my Japanese... I just hope that I get better in time for the farewell party (involving kareoke!) for the volunteers who are leaving this weekend.

Thinking about:

The concept of "mottainai," waste and wastefulness. Dartmouth (particularly the student chaplains at the Episcopal Student Center) really opened my eyes to the idea of resource conservation on a local, individual scale. Simple things, like composting, taking your own bag to the grocery store or your own mug to the dining halls, buying your vegetables locally, covering your windows with plastic insulation and turning down the heat. ARI takes that concepts and institutionalizes it. The office uses only used or recycled paper, the pig feed comes from the cafeteria leftovers of local schools, and we put old egg shells in the chickens' feed to strengthen the next crop of eggs. During HTC, ARI provided regular dishes and asked the guests to wash their own dishes - as a result, all the trash for an event involving over 1000 people could have fit in my kitchen trash can at home! It's impressive what an organization can do when it really embraces the concept of no mottainai.

Also thinking about the Japanese system of counting - why is it so complicated?? There are different "counter words" for numbers, time, flat objects, round objects, days of the month, days of the week... yikes. Wish me luck!

And Haruki Murakami. I'm about half-way through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which is a crazy, gripping, trippy, wonderful book set in 1980's Tokyo ( / an alternate universe of Murakami's imagination...). I definitely recommend it!


I don't have very many at the moment (since I'm very bad about bringing my camera around), but here are a few from this past weekend's Harvest Thanksgiving Celebration.

Opening worship

Tsusara (from Sri Lanka) and me making egg hoppers

Bai-bai for now.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Welcome to ARI

Konnichiwa from Japan!

After 29 hours of traveling, I finally arrived at the Asian Rural Institute (ARI) in Nasushiobara, Japan on Friday night. (For a full description of ARI’s mission, please see my first post below) I immediately discovered, just as past volunteers had told me, that ARI is not Japan, but a wonderful and sometimes eccentric mix of cultures. The customs, cuisines, and languages of the participants and the volunteers all blend together to create something uniquely ARI – everyone refers to “ARI English” (a somewhat confusing mix of English and Japanese) or “ARI food” (a fusion that depends on the nationality of that meal’s cook). Since I haven’t yet had a chance to explore what lies beyond the ARI campus, I sometimes find it hard to remember that I’m in Japan!

I was a little at loose ends for my first few days, since participants and volunteers have the weekend off. Fortunately, several of the volunteers (from Germany and Korea) took me under their wing and gave me a bike tour of downtown Nasushiobara. Nasushiobara, I was surprised to discover, is actually a fairly big city with some significant urban sprawl. In some ways, Nasushiobara could be mistaken for any American city, with its Burger Kings and 7-11’s and pizza places. But the architectural details are distinctly Japanese, Shinto shrines edge the major roads, and everyone drives on the left side of the road (a fact that this jet-lagged bicyclist kept forgetting…). I got to practice my new knowledge of the katakana alphabet (used for foreign or import words) in the local department store, which was a strange mix of foreign and familiar. I discovered that many commercial items in Japan use the American name – conditioner becomes “kondishyona” and shampoo becomes “shanpu.” More importantly, I was able to buy the all-essential slippers. I knew that the Japanese only wear slippers inside the house, but I didn’t realize that I would need to keep a pair of slippers in every building at ARI!

I finally started work on Monday. Work at ARI is focused around the concept of “foodlife,” a term coined by the institute’s founder to emphasize the connection between the food needed to support life and life needed to produce food. Every member of the ARI community, not just the participants receiving training, helps with the daily work of managing our crops and livestock and of preparing the meals. I was assigned to crops and vegetables for my first month, so I’ll be working in the ARI fields, harvesting and weeding.

A “typical” day at ARI (based on my two days of experience…):

- 6:30 am: Morning exercise – stretching to a Japanese radio program! We all gather in the courtyard to stretch and do jumping jacks in unison. Not quite my usual morning yoga, but still a good (and pretty amusing) way to start the day.

- 6:40 am: Foodlife work. For me, that means field work – harvesting veggies for our meals, weeding, etc.

- 8:15 am: Breakfast. Rice, vegetables, miso soup, and homemade yogurt (my favorite part).

- 9:15 am: Morning gathering. Sometimes worship, sometimes community time.

- 10:00 am – 12:15 pm: Morning activity. This week is an unusual one for ARI because the whole community is preparing for the annual Harvest Thanksgiving Celebration (HTC), so I’ve just been helping out where needed. I think I’ll have more field duties during this time after HTC has finished.

- 12:30 pm: Lunch. Rice, some sort of hot dish (often curry!), soup, etc.

- 1:50 pm – 4:15 pm: Afternoon activity. At the moment, more HTC preparation…

- 4:15 pm – 5:15 pm: Afternoon foodlife work. Back to the fields!

- 6:30 pm: Dinner. More rice!

- And then free time for the rest of the evening. A chance to relax and possibly learn some Japanese or a Thai song or an Indian dance (which is what I'm off to do this evening in preparing for HTC)...

I’m still adjusting to life at ARI, which can be a little overwhelming at times. But after five days, I can distinguish between white rice and sticky rice during the harvest, I find changing my shoes constantly almost normal, and I’m already picking up some of the catch-phrases of ARI English. ARI is a lively, warm community – I’m starting to find my place within it.

A big shout of thanks to everyone supporting me in this adventure in mission, especially my home parish St. Mary’s and my dear friends and family. Arigato gozaimasu (thank you)!

O yasumi nasai (goodnight) for now.