Friday, April 17, 2009

Flashback Friday: Earthquakes and embarrassments, Japanese style

How the heck have I not told any stories about Japan for Flashback Friday yet? I spent a summer in Kyoto on a BYU study abroad program in 2000. Japanese was my minor at the BYU, and almost a second major (I was two classes short of the major when I graduated). Now, the fact that I speak Japanese is more of a parlor trick than a real asset in my day-to-day life, but you never know when it might come in handy again. Someday.

Today's story is about embarrassing church moments, as well as earthquakes. Sometimes these two things overlapped.

I loved, loved, LOVED my time in Japan, and I think if I had spent any longer there, I would have gone completely native. Even given just a summer, I was well on my way:

There were only ten of us students on the program, all living with Mormon host families - 2000 was the first year the administrators at the BYU were able to pull that off - and I happened to get assigned to an amazingly awesome Japanese family who I remain in contact with to this day.

They really embraced me as a member of their family. They had three daughters, aged 9, 13, and 15, and I ran/biked around town with one or two or all of them throughout the summer. I even crashed the middle daughter's bike once and decimated her handlebar bell, as well as my knee.

But, church. There were a few wards in Kyoto and a couple of actual Mormon chapels, but the ward I attended with my host family met in a rented space above a car-repair garage (still one step above lime green velvet curtains, though). To designate the space as a church, they printed out "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" on pieces of paper and hung it in the windows on Sundays, as you see below (slightly garbled because the windows are open).

Inside, we met in partitioned areas for our various meetings. I got to be the piano (well, keyboard) accompianist for the Primary children, which remains my favorite calling ever. I loved the kids, the kids loved me, and they were always touching my hair. They called it "golden."

One embarrassing moment I had was at the very end of the program, on our final Sunday in Japan. There were one or two other BYU students who also attended that ward, and that day, I happened to be playing the piano during the worship services. The closing hymn was, fittingly, "God Be With You Till We Meet Again." We Mormons, Japanese and American, all sang together and felt so friendly and warm toward one another. The song ended, and the leader conducting the meeting went up to the microphone and said something that I thought meant, "And now Sister Bridget will continue to play the piano."

I couldn't quite figure out why they wanted me to do that, but I just turned the page to the next hymn and kept playing. No one was singing. They were all just listening to the music.

About halfway through the song, I realized that what he had meant was for me to play "God Be With You Till We Meet Again," one more time, so we could all continue to reminisce. And in the English hymnbook, maybe it wouldn't have been so bad: the next song in that book is "Lord, We Ask Thee Ere We Part." Not the most well known tune ever, but still appropriate for the situation.

But in the Japanese hymnbook, I ended up turning the page and playing "As the Dew From Heaven Distilling." I'm not even sure what that hymn is about, and there I was playing it, completely solo, to a group of Japanese people. By the time I realized what they had intended for me to do, it was too late to do anything about it.

I finished the song and the leader graciously pretended like I hadn't just made a puzzling spectacle of myself. To this day, I can't sing "God Be With You" without doing a mental facepalm.

The earthquake debacle was less interesting than it sounds. It was about halfway through the summer and we were all sitting in church, listening quietly to the speaker. Suddenly, there was an earthquake. I've been in a few small earthquakes before, but being in Kyoto, I had heard plenty of stories about the 1995 Kobe earthquake that was 6.8 on the Richter scale. That was the first thing that came into my mind when the ground started shaking. I confess I actually cried out, out loud, in a not-so-quiet voice. If everyone in the congregation had done the same, maybe it wouldn't have been so embarrassing. But no - all the Japanese people just sat there calmly and waited for the earthquake to finish in polite silence, and then the speaker carried on with her talk like nothing had even happened. I'm sure they were all laughing at the cowardly American for the rest of the day.

And they were right to do so.

Ah, memories. I don't know if I have many more stories from Japan, but I'll see what I can dig up. There's something about first-world countries that doesn't lend itself so well to crazy adventures, but I'll do my best.


Amanda said...

I took a semester of Japanese in college because I needed more units. In our second or third class, we were learning how to say what we did for a living. I was getting nervous and I practiced saying, "I am a student" over and over in my head as the teacher was going around the room, calling on people. She got to me and what came out of my mouth was, "Watashi wa saifu desu." Which means, I am a wallet. To this day, that sentence remains the only thing I remember how to say in Japanese.

Liz Johnson said...

Japanese, Arabic, Russian, English... what else do you speak, Bridget?!

In Mexico, everybody does the opposite thing during earthquakes. People just go crazy. It is PURE PANDEMONIUM until it stops going. People still have PTSD from the big earthquake of '85 or something.

Jill said...

Man, Japanese too?! My dad served his mission in the Kobe mission back before we were all alive, but has fond memories and still keeps in touch with his host family there. It sounds like a wonderful place. I hope to go someday.

Lindsay said...

Where haven't you been??? :)

Anonymous said...

I've cried out loud for far less serious things than earthquakes. Stinging insects and getting locked in bathrooms, for instance. I'm surprised people were so quiet during the earthquake. I've never experienced one, but I'm not sure I could ever get that used to them.


Suzanne Bubnash said...

Perhaps their "Japanese-ness" had something to do w/ their calmness during the earthquake. Part of it though is likely due to their experience w/ quakes--I've been through many & the common reaction when it begins is to discreetly go on full alert (which may not be noticeable)--it's like putting up an antenna. You fully concentrate on the shaking, prepared to react should it get worse. It's always a huge relief when the motion dies down. But unlike the Japanese, Americans would then all look at each other & comment on the quake. Even in church. If the shaking intensifies though, it's everyone for themselves as all have to dive for safety, which you want to do before it's too late. 'Too late' is when the shaking is far too intense to move & you're stuck where you are. And that's a terrifying time.


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