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For the love of enkai

One of my favorite things about life in Japan is enkai.  Enkai is roughly translated to mean a party.  Work enkai are very common.  There is always an end-of-the-year party and sometimes even one at the start of the year.  In the field of education, there are two in the spring; one for teachers who get transferred out and one for those who get transferred in.  Sometimes there are impromptu parties in summer time or if there is a weekend work retreat, or in the case of my farewell.

So on the occasion of my visiting Japan, I got to enjoy several enkai.  Usually they are held in restaurants who specialize in large group events.  The room is long, the one, long table low to the ground.  Everyone takes their shoes off and sits on the ground. Most often, sashimi and other dishes good for sharing are served.  Sometimes you get individual portions. With the constant flow of beer, the enkai becomes more lively and loud.  I always love enkai!

While I enjoyed seeing my former colleagues at all my enkai, I was particularly happy with one in Fujieda.  I was really touched by the attendance of a few teachers…unexpected and so very nice. It made me feel really special, and that’s always a good thing.


This is a photo of the sashimi dish and the nama biru (draft beer) served at one of the enkai.  It’s not an enkai if you don’t see this!

Hello Hideto!

When I first met Hideto, he was in third grade.  He was one of three boys who were inseparable in elementary school.  Hideto was the smart, science loving kid.  His chosen sport was swimming.  Masaki was the cutest and most personable. And Yuta would spend every waking moment playing soccer if he could. Hideto and Yuta lived near one another, and so everyday they walked to and from school together.

When I started teaching at Takasu Elementary twice a week, I could always count on these three boys to come to the teachers room after lunch and ask me to join them at lunch recess, most often for a game of dodgeball.  But occasionally, only Hideto would come to the teacher’s room to attempt his English, chat in Japanese or rummage through my teaching supplies and prizes.  It was clear he had a big crush on me, and I adored him quite the same.  He was a good and sweet kid.

One of the most anticipated moments of my whole Japan vacation was that of my visit to the junior high where all of my favorite kids are now in their third and final year of junior high.  When I left them, most of them were 11 years old.  Now they are 14 going on 15, and any parent to teenagers know what a significant age difference this is.  Any teacher knows what a tender age junior high school students are experiencing.

What amazed me about “my” kids is that all of their faces – the ones which used to smile so big and laugh in class and sing songs and enthusiastically raise hands to answer questions – were exactly the same.  I remembered many of their names, but for sure could recognize all of their faces.  They were taller, lanky, some a bit fat, a few pimple-faced and highly aware of their changing bodies, thus awkward in their body language and severely shy to show any bit of excitement to see me.  The Principal had told me, though, that all of my babes were asking for three days, “Is Shanna coming today?” “When is Shanna coming?”  “I will get to see Shanna?”  It was reassuring to hear that they were just as eager for the reunion.

It was everything I could do not to burst into happy tears when I saw all of them.  The wave of memories and happy times sweeping over me.  We shared some good days together in that English room.  My beautiful girls and my cool boys.  And there they were before me, still youthful, but teenagers.  I told them all when I left that I felt so attached to them and adored them as I would my own.  My sentiments remain the same. I don’t care if it make me sappy, I was on cloud 9, seeing these youngsters!!!

I was standing in the back of one class when I saw a head pop up in the back door window.  And then the boy returned and stared.  It was Hideto.  His face lit up and he gave me a very quick wave.  I smiled at waved back at him, but he took off to catch up with his friends who had walked ahead.  After that class was over, he returned to the room and we were able to chat.  He and Yuta still walk to and from school together. And Masaki is still the #3 of the group.  Hideto is a bit taller, his hair longer and “cool” but he is still that sweet little boy who had a crush on his teacher.  We had only time for a brief chat and a photo, before I was whisked off to the next class, but I was elated that I got to see him.

I don’t know if when these kids are 20 or 35 or 50 that they will remember our days spent in the English room, or if those lessons will remain with them enough that they pursue a career involving English, but I do know that I will always hold those kids dear in my heart.  While I’ve seen them as 14 year olds, they’ll probably always remain those amazingly energetic 5th graders in my memory.  My students.  My kids.


How cute is he? – This is Hideto Suzuki, now.  It was so good to see him!


Soon after I returned from Japan in 2007, 13 of my Japanese friend came to visit California on what we called the Tomodachi Tour. Tomodachi means friend, and so the term fit perfectly.  For my first party in Japan, I reunited with the friends who joined me on this tour.

We met up at a kushiyaki restaurant.  I call this “stick food,” because everything, whether it is fried, grilled or fresh, is served on a stick.  We had a party at this restaurant before…it’s actually one of my favorites.  As always, the beer was fresh and the food delicious.

The members of the Tomodachi Tour were not only eager to see me, but they were happy to have an excuse to get together themselves and catch up.  Most everyone brought their photo albums.  We all enjoyed reliving the trip, the funny moments, the favorite places and special events.  Hands-down, the favorite part of the trip was the BBQ at my parents house.  I’m so delighted I could give them that opportunity.  I remember how tiny little Noriko and Tomomi ate everything…the hamburgers, the hot dogs, the chicken, the salads…they had to have a taste of it all.  And Yomamura listed this as his #1 memory in his album.

Their favorite city was also San Diego.  We visited San Diego, Los Angeles, and with half the group, Las Vegas.  Yomamura, with the most wonderfully designed photo album, kept a bottle of sand he took from Coronado.  A prized possession.

As we chatted through the evening and caught up with one another, I fell back into a rhythm which suits me so well.  I was surprised how easily my Japanese returned to me. How even though I was the only foreigner in the group, I was one of them.  That’s how I always felt with my Japanese friends.  I never felt different.  I always felt I belonged.

As the beer went down and the happy times relived, we began talking about a second tour.  We decided we would once again visit San Diego, but then also San Francisco and Seattle.  We could call it the cities which start with S tour, but instead, we landed on TOMO II.  And Tomomi, who has decided she wants to get married at my parents house, particularly like the name, because if the tour becomes her wedding TOMO covers her name and II (2) represents her and her future husband.  So there we have it.  TOMO II is in the works!


The photo above was taken at the end of the evening.  I loved seeing this group of friends and having this be the kick off enkai for my stay!  TOMODACHI are good!!!



This photo was taken during the Tomodachi tour in 2007. Disneyland was a must!!!

5 star wedding

My life in Vietnam has certainly been void of cultural experiences lately. I suppose this is why I so often look back at my posts from Japan.  I had oodles more free time to travel, explore, hike and trek and basically, soak up Japan.  I spend six days a week and far too many evening hours on work stuff that I have found it pretty difficult to “get with the program” here in Hanoi and really sink my teeth into Vietnamese culture.  So I was incredibly happy this week when I received an invitation to our Financial Controller’s daughter’s wedding.

April 10th was considered a lucky day in the Chinese Lunar calendar.  Our company “Madame” (I’m not really sure her job title, but she’s essential for all the community and government relations), had also chosen April 10th as the moving date for our Emeraude office. I’m sure the wedding was scheduled on the day for the luck factor, as well.

After the circus of idiot movers (see blog entry below), I rushed home to get ready.  The wedding was at the Sheraton, walking distance from my house. As soon as I walked up, the courtyard was full of dressed-up party goers taking lots of photos near the central fountain and under the wedding arch, decorated with white roses.  At some signal, all of the 500+ guests made their way to the dining room, deposited the money envelopes in the large heart boxes, and sat freely on either the groom’s side or bride’s side of the room.  The ballroom decor was a rather “normal” set-up with the cake on one side of the stage and a champagne glass pyramid on the other, waiting for the champagne to be poured by the couple.  The glowing ice-sculpture in the middle was a nice touch.  Tables were decorated with tall center-pieces and lots of white roses.  This sat, of course, on a large glass lazy-susan so that the traditional vietnamese food could served in the traditional manner.

As I’ve seen before in Japan, there was a host for the reception.  He hushed the crowd and started the “show”.  The parents came down the rose petal-sprinkled, red carpet and took their places on the stage.  The audience clapped after introductions.  Then the dry ice machine was turned on and with dramatic music, the couple walked through the foggy air and made their way to the stage as well.  The fathers gave a speech.  Then the cake was ceremoniously cut (it was never served).  Then the couple poured champagne over the glasses, the top four of which had pieces of dry ice so that the whole charade looked like a living sculpture.  The couple returned to stand in-between their parents, but with the couple having switched places so that they were standing next to their partner’s parents, symbolizing the unity of the family.  The champagne was served to the family and the host gave the toast and everyone raised their glasses.

The united family then made their way through the tables to individually toast the guests.  The classical quartet took their places on stage and began playing a very reined set of music.  The food was served, people ate, ate some more, drank some more and then the tea was served.  An hour and a half after we sat down, everyone was getting up and heading out the door.  There was no dancing, no throwing of the bouquet, no garter toss and no possibility of a cheezy DJ showing off as emcee and playing the chicken dance.  I was home by 8:30pm.

My understanding is that this was a very high-end wedding.  Most are held in large halls, and there is plenty of beer, food and light-weight Vietnamese falling drunk off their chairs.  So while I am glad I was able to enjoy a really nice Vietnamese wedding reception, I hope I have the chance to see a more modest celebration!!!


The big 4-0

I remember being 29 and getting ready for work one morning.  In my bright yellow bathroom on Bentley Avenue in Los Angeles, I was putting on my mascara.  I looked at myself, the tears started to well and I said out loud, “Oh my God, I’m going to be 30!”  For some reason I was terrified.

My 30’s turned out to be pretty damn good.  I spread my wings when I moved to Japan, and without a doubt, those five years in Shizuoka made for the best chapter of my life.  I was fulfilled on so many levels.  The last three years of my 30‘s have been full of transition and constant change… returning to San Diego, getting caught up with family and friends, taking off on world travel and then searching for the next step in my career before heading to Vietnam.  Obviously, 39 has been a crazy year filled with both minor and major adjustments.

I’m not sure that I have yet welcomed this next decade with open arms.  I haven’t had that moment in the mirror where it has really sunk in that I am now 40.  I have had several moments in the mirror recently where I thought about a neck lift and a nose job, about getting pregnant by some handsome stranger just to move along Project Shanna, but I don’t think that that means 40 has sunk in.  Does it?

What I hope is that this decade is kind.  I hope to find my dude, perhaps have a child (Project Shanna 2009 has rolled over into 2010).  It would be nice to share my life with someone and have a family of my own. (My parents would be thrilled with this idea, too!)  I’d like to continue to explore new and fantastic corners of the world.  I am an adventurer at heart and I don’t yet feel settled.  Although I’m not sure how well that goes with the project.  I guess at 40 – I want it all, damn it!

I hope I worry a lot less about what people think of me.  I’m overly considerate and too concerned about others.  While I always want to be a kind and giving person, I’m tired of sacrificing myself for everyone else.  I need to get a healthy dose of selfishness.  I need to be kinder to me.  I have to take care of myself first and foremost.

I suppose that my lack of worry that I’m 40 is a bit of an indication that I am on the right track headed into this phase of life.  The fact that I haven’t had that “Oh my God” moment may actually be the sign that it has sunk in and I am accepting this.  Besides, aren’t we as young as we feel?

I’ve often said that my ideal age is 28.  That was the year I traveled to Italy, my first solo travel. That trip changed my life and that year was just a fantastic year for me.  But with all the life experiences I’ve gained since then, I don’t identify as closely to 28 as I once did.  In turning 40, I was looking for quotes about the milestone and I found this one – I’m not 40!  I’m 18 with 22 years of experience! And you know what?  Bingo!  That’s how I feel!  So here’s to 18 and letting the counter on the years of experience continue to roll over.  Bring it on!


I’m ready! Bring it!

I’m at home today packing for another trip.  It’s a bit of business and a bit of pleasure.  I first go to Berlin for the annual ITB, a travel trade show.  I have a lot of appointments with our overseas travel partners, some of which I already know and some who I have not yet met.  It will be a busy week.

On the 13th, I have a big day.  I’ll turn 40.  And to celebrate, I’m headed to Spain!  I’ll spend 2 nights in Madrid and 3 in Barcelona.  I am most excited.  Spain has been at the top of my list for awhile now and while I just had a two week vacation, I am trying to use up a few more days of annual leave before they “expire” in March.  Nevermind I couldn’t take them in 2009…but that’s another blog entry.

I have sort of just planned everything at the last minute, actually need to still book my hotel in Barcelona.  But for me, this is just a taste of this fascinating place and I really want to do what I normally do when I first land somewhere – take a long walk and just let the city speak to me.  Sure, I’ve printed off some materials, some walking tour suggestions, points of interest.  But I’m the type of traveler who likes to look a map, get my bearings and then just go.  Considering the birthday I am celebrating, I think this will be a fantastic way to enter into the next decade…totally enthusiastically and with terrific hope that there are a lot of great discoveries ahead.

I’ll keep you posted.


A very Sapa Christmas

Well, I’m afraid to say that Christmas is officially over.  I returned to Hanoi in the wee hours of this morning on the overnight train from Sapa.  The ride back to Hanoi was much smoother than the ride up to Sapa.  Coming home, I had both Pete and Duc in a private cabin, and one which was pretty luxurious compared to others.  In 2008, when I traveled back to Hanoi from Sapa, I suffered a horrendous amount of bed bug bites, some of which, after getting severely infected, still scar my legs. Because of this, I’m not a big fan of overnight trains (go figure!).

On the way up to Sapa last Wednesday, though, I had new friend Duc with me, and two strangers in the cabin.  At some point in the evening, I was in dream mode, but had a frightening nightmare which entailed some creepy man trying to move me over to share my bed.  It was all too realistic and relevant to my situation, and so the crazy dream led me to scream in my sleep, startling my fellow cabin mates.  I was a bit embarrassed, but the face and hand gestures of the man on the bed across from me, left me to giggle softly after I had recovered from the nightmare.  See….travel is FUN!!!

Once in Sapa, I was met with blue skies and unusually warm weather.  Normally it’s about 5 degrees Celcius, but we enjoyed about 25 degree weather in the day. After arriving in the early morning and getting settled, we headed out to the valley for a very easy walk through the village.  The Hmong and/or Red Dao ladies love to walk along with you, in hoped that you’ll buy something from them.  They make hand-embroidered purses, sell silver bracelets and other trinkets.  But they also get a chance to practice their English, which is pretty good.

I had a nice chat with Thang (?) who told me she was 26 years old and mother to two children.  That was it for her. Unlike her mother who had ten.  Whoah!  She has one boy and one girl and feels blessed. She could understand difficult English such as, “Are you the oldest or youngest among your brothers and sisters?”  I always enjoy speaking to the locals and learning about their life, I just don’t enjoy the hard sales pitch at the end of the walk!  But it was fun and we all enjoyed the great weather!  Mountain air is soooo refreshing!

Christmas Eve, Duc, Pete and I enjoyed a lovely hot pot for dinner and thought of creative names for Pete’s new company.  When you are trying to find a twist on meanings, it helps to have an internet connection.  We laughed our butts off with some of the phrases we came up with and also some of the new words we learned; synonyms to words we were pondering.

Christmas Day was a lazy one and we took a drive through the mountains and stared over the beautiful valleys.  It was my first time to see the peak of Mt. Fansipan.  I’ve been challenged to climb it, but am told it is more difficult than Mt. Fuji.  Hmm….we’ll have to see how I feel in July or August!

Christmas Day night was the big dinner at the restaurant.  The local minority children arrived just before 6pm and then filed into the restaurant to grab a seat.  This was the part of Christmas I couldn’t wait for.  Pete and Sapa Rooms Boutique Hotel are very involved in the local communities.  In addition to his partnership with Ma Cha school, he also does a Sunday Soup program for the local children and feeds about 80 kids each week on average.  He distributes lots of donated clothing to some of the most rural areas; these are places where most of the kids run naked for lack of anything.

The Christmas program provided all the kids a meal and a present, which was either clothing or school supplies, or a combination of the two.  You can see some photos of the dinner and more HERE.

The day after Christmas, we took the remaining presents into TaPhin village where the Red Dao tribe lives.  The presents went quickly, as it was the mothers and grandmothers who were there to accept…the kids were all having lunch at home when we arrived.  We also spent some time hiking around and then to the medicinal baths.  Being the only chick, I was alone in my little room in a wooden tub, but it was so relaxing and rejuvenating…I really enjoyed the hot herbal water.  Awesome.

The train ride back to Hanoi came all too quickly.  As I’ve written and as you know, Pete is one of my most favorite people ever and I am so delighted I could spend this special holiday with him at his hotel in Sapa and spend a wee bit of time with the local people.  It was a great Christmas and one of my fondest memories of Vietnam to date.  Hope you all had a great holiday!  I’ll look forward to seeing your updates on Facebook!

Now – let’s get ready to ring in the New Year!  Hello 2010!!!


A little Red Dao boy. – There are about 7 ethnic minorities in the Sapa area. It is such an interesting part of Vietnam!  I’m glad I got to take a peek for a weekend and for a very special Christmas!


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