The Day I Lectured on Katy Perry

katy perry

A couple months ago, I participated in Obirin University’s English Language Program Lecture Series. The Lecture Series provides a unique opportunity for ELP faculty to lecture for about an hour about any topic they find interesting. (Check out other ELP lectures here.) These presentations are open to the public, and are specifically targeted to English language learners who are eager to challenge their comprehension skills in topics seldom found in their textbooks. About 50 students, faculty, and staff attended my talk. (It is interesting to note that about 75% of the students in attendance were female. I have a feeling it had to do with the large picture of Katy Perry dominating the lecture flyer. Perry has a strong fan base among young women in Japan.)

My lecture was entitled “Can Katy Perry be Japanese?” It was based on Katy Perry’s 2013 American Music Awards geisha-inspired performance, which subsequently led to an Internet storm of controversy. My presentation examined the similarities and differences in how Perry’s performance was received in the English-speaking world and in Japan, primarily via online news articles and blogs. It also aimed to be a guide for engaging in open-minded and informed discussions on sensitive topics such as race and cultural appropriation and/or cultural engagement. In addition to a PowerPoint, I also created a worksheet to help the audience collect their thoughts and stay engaged during my hour-long talk. (See a couple of the completed worksheets below.)

I really enjoyed this break from normal English teaching routine. Instead of focusing on grammar and vocabulary and spelling, and working out of a sometimes rather dry textbook,  I got to focus on a topic I find fascinating. Even though I’m a teacher now, it felt like I was a student back at Oberlin working on a class presentation for Comparative American Studies. It also reminded me of how much I enjoy engaging in research, sharing my findings with others, and holding discussions. I could really get used to this whole professor thing…


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Travel Bug: Winter 2013-Spring 2014

On the 21st of December 2013, I set out on a journey unlike any I had ventured on before. I boarded 20 planes, twice as many trains, buses and taxis, 18 boats and flotation devices, and exactly one rickshaw. Dozens of times did I hop onto the backs of friends’ motorbikes. I walked, hiked, ran, swam, scuba dived, bungee jumped and piteously attempted to surf. I went to all the Shansi sites I had yet to visit, plus a couple countries I never imagined visiting, and even went back home for a while.

I traveled for grand total of 88 days.

Here’s a map of the places I traveled to:

map final final

My travel itinerary looked like this:

Japan (December 2013) → China → Indonesia → Japan (January 2014) → Malaysia → Indonesia → Australia → New Zealand → Japan (March 2014) → United States → Japan (April 2014)

Traveling to so many places for so long has helped realize how incredibly privileged I am to be a Japan fellow. Having visited all of the other Shansi fellow sites, stayed at their houses, and played in their streets, I find that I have no reason to complain about the my apartment, no matter how old or far away from the train station it may be. As a Japan fellow, my standard of living has gone way up compared to my life in the US. The same cannot be said for any other Shansi site. Japan fellows make surprisingly more money than any other fellow, and this has granted me the privilege to travel as much as I have. If I had been any other fellow, I certainly would not have been able to travel as much, especially since I started Shansi nearly penniless.

This is not to say that I look down on the other fellows’ living accommodations and neighborhoods—far from it. In fact, if I could do Shansi again, I would be happy to be placed in any other site. I’d especially love to move to Banda Aceh, even if it means bucket showers, giant roaches, and waking up to mosque prayers at 4 in the morning. The bucket showers were refreshing in the luscious heat, the roaches were so big I could do nothing but laugh and see them as housemates, and there was something warm and reassuring about being brought back into the waking world by mystic song. Not to mention the gorgeous beaches in near proximity, the freedom of riding a motorbike around town, fragrant nasi uduk, and Indonesian hospitality—what Aceh fellows may lack in amenities like hot water and water pressure, they make up for in so many other ways. I feel the same is true for fellows in Jogja, Taigu, Madurai, and Daramshala. After visiting each site, I found that they are all gems in their own special way. There are countless small details about these places that provide a source of fascination and comfort that the quiet, clean, often impersonal streets of Machida and the greater Tokyo area cannot provide.

That being said, I am now back in the streets of Tokyo. Being in Japan after traveling to places where I didn’t understand ni papa has made me significantly more confident in my Japanese language skills. This is because I was absolutely incapable of communicating in Chinese and I was at little-tiny-baby-level in Malaysian and Indonesian. Occasionally I would run into Japanese tourists, and I would unconsciously eavesdrop on their conversations. Japanese would just float into my ears and understanding almost unconsciously followed. The first time it happened to me, in Jogjakarta, I stopped in my tracks, and almost turned around and talked to the young Japanese couple shopping for batik prints behind me. That would really surprise them, I thought, if a random, clearly non-Japanese native just casually commented そうだよね. あのお土産の方がいいと思う。(Yeah, that souvenir’s better.) Instead, I just smiled to myself.


 And now, my top ten photos from all the places I’ve been this trip:

10. The Shire, Matamata, New Zealand


9.  Finders Street Station, Melbourne, Australia


8.  Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

2014-01-30 18.25.06

7. Batu Caves, Selangor, Malaysia

2014-01-31 13.35.21

6.  Taigu, China


5. Queenstown, New Zealand


4. Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas, United States

2014-04-07 22.59.203. Taigu Agricultural University, Taigu, China

DSCF64222. Penang, Malaysia


1. Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

2014-01-04 10.29.11


I arrived back in Tokyo with a deep tan, an empty wallet, and a mind full of colorful memories.

Escape from Winter

I ran away from

my frigid Tokyo dwelling

to Indonesia










samusa kara

Indoneshia ni


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My bones have thawed out

Sambal set my mouth ablaze

The sun turned me brown











karai sanbaru

ii hiyake




Tropical living

is clearly the life for me

Goodbye dear snowmen











seikatsu no hou

ga suki desu

2014-01-03 14.33.14*I wrote these haikus while traveling through Indonesia in February, but never got around to posting them. The temperature has since warmed up considerably in my apartment–thank heavens.


IMG_5381IMG_5385IMG_5384This is based on a true story. My symbol for “drink” is actually the symbol for the number six in Chinese. My face in the third panel is made out of the Japanese hiragana no (の) mo (も) and tsu (つ).


*This comic came out a little messy…sorry! It was late…

This is How We Bond in Machida

Aside from our teaching commitments, we have a lot of free time. This is how the Japan fellows choose to spend it:

Music: Beyonce, “Love On Top”

Sites: the Obirin courtyard, an Obirin ELP classroom, an Obirin Coope apartment, and Machida Station.

Special appearance: the matching blue dresses from our “Thriller” video back in October (see “Class Time: Halloween Special”)

Home is Closer Than You Think

While visiting China, I found a lot of unexpected reminders of home. For example, I walked into a stationery shop in Taigu and found correction tape in the shape of a Miami Heat basketball team jersey, and a cafe I breakfasted at in Beijing was showing Miami Heat highlights. (According to the Taigu fellows, their male students love following the NBA. One of Veronica’s students claims to pray to Kobe Bryant because Kobe gives him the strength to be a good student.) Pitbull (“Mr. 305” after the Miami area code) played in shopping malls. I went to a salsa club in Beijing where nearly all of the dancers were Chinese, and I have never been spun and twirled so many times in my life after dancing with one (slightly drunk) older Chinese gentleman.

My favorite reminder of home occurred in Taigu. I got invited to attend a Shansi teacher meeting with the English department of Shanxi Agricultural University. I had no idea as I climbed the stairs with Amelea, joined the other Taigu fellows at the big round table, and looked over at the dozen or so English teachers, that I would be bonding over my hometown with a Taigu native.

First, the head of the English department had everyone break up into small groups and chat. I was originally paired with Veronica and several other English teachers. We talked about the differences between the students I taught at Obirin and the students at Shanxi Agricultural University, what American sororities and fraternities were like, and changes to the Chinese college entrance exam, among other things. Throughout our conversation, I could overhear snippets of another conversation coming from Charlotte’s group. “When I was in Miami…” I kept hearing. So naturally when the department chair suggested we switch groups, I shimmied on over to Charlotte’s group and sat next to the Chinese man who I had overheard earlier.

“Hi, I couldn’t help but hear earlier that you were in Miami. I’m Lissette. I’m a Shansi fellow in Tokyo, and I’m just visiting Taigu. I came over to talk to you because Miami is my hometown.”

The teacher’s English name was Jack, and it turns out that he had spent the last two years teaching Mandarin at Miami-Dade College, Kendall Campus. And the conversation just took off from there. I told him that my mother got her Associate’s degree from Miami-Dade College in the early ’90s. He told me he first fell in love with salsa music at the Dolphin Mall, where a free live band was playing. I know that mall well, and smiled fondly at the memories of the place, as well as the memories of all the family parties full of salsa dancing. We agreed that we liked old Cuban salsa best. He said his favorite food in Miami was the yuca root, and told me a funny story about buying raw yuca from Publix. (He shopped at Publix! There’s a Publix supermarket at the end of my street back home.) He loved yuca but didn’t know how to prepare it, so he asked his Dominican next-door neighbor to give him a hand. (I’m half Domican!) We talked about Calle Ocho in Little Havana, about South Beach, and about the best way to make patacones, or fried green plantains, which are my favorite.

After listening to Jack’s experiences in Miami, I couldn’t help but draw some parallels between his two years teaching there and my two years in Asia. It was as if we had traded places, and he had done a Shansi fellowship in my hometown just as I was leaving it to go on my own Shansi adventure abroad.

What a small world, I thought. I had traveled thousands of miles to get to this staff meeting in Taigu, and there I was, laughing about yuca and patacones with a teacher from rural China.

Home is always closer than you think.


A Holiday in Taigu


I flew over to China to visit the Taigu fellows for the holidays. Outside in the cold, grey town, people hustled and bustled like any other time of year. Aside from a cut-out of Santa’s head on a shop window or two, the Taigu streets didn’t seem to buzz with the Christmas spirit the way it might back in the States. To most Chinese here, Christmas is just another day. But inside the Foreign Expert Houses where the fellows are warmly nestled, things were gearing up for the holidays. Small plastic Christmas trees, gold and green garland, and handmade paper snowflakes decked the halls. We went out for duck hot pot on Christmas Eve and had homemade pancakes, hash browns, and apple crisp on Christmas Day. We exchanged small gifts, watched “Love Actually” and spent the holiday season full of cheer. I missed my family of course; this was my first Christmas away from home. But I Skype called my family on their Christmas morning and saw them gathered by the tree, opening presents, and I told them I loved them, and that I’d be home for Christmas, next year. This year’s was still spent well, among caring and jovial friends, in a small rural town in China.

Happy holidays!


Autumn Poetry

A shinkansen ride

takes me to a forest path

that smells of fresh pine.










densha de no

tabi wa rindou




Gold and crimson leaves

fall into a clear river

It’s a pretty death










kouyou ga

toro ni nagareru





The wind is biting

A sign of the frost to come

I am not ready










samui kaze

nareteinai wa

fuyu ga kuru