Monday, March 30, 2009

A brief Tokyo update

As if four days of moving into a new school building and traversing the country of Thailand weren't enough, we just found out that our application for moving into a new apartment was approved this week.


This move has several implications for our life here in Japan. First of all, we'll be leaving our first home in Tokyo, one which we both loathe and adore. This tiny series of rooms is where we had our first Thanksgiving abroad, learned about proper Tokyo garbage procedures, studied our first Japanese phrases, and stored our first set of decent chopsticks. Most of these things will move with us, but you always leave something behind when you move.

We decided to look for a new place for many reasons, but mostly because we desperately miss our furry bundle-o-fun, Callie. We had to leave her behind, and that's turning out to be just a little too difficult, especially since so many people have dogs here. Even this week, we got a report from Brad's mom in Colorado that the little snow-loving Wheaten Terrier has been running around nearly non-stop in the two feet of fresh snow that recently fell on the Denver area.

We've begun the long process of updating shots and completing the proper paperwork that will allow her to fly to Tokyo next fall. So, pretty soon our pup will join us in our travels around the globe.

We are moving away from several things: some very nosy neighbors (see these links to old blogs about our experiences with "Terry the Tiger"), an old, musty building frequently shaken by our close proximity to the train tracks, pink floral wallpaper we wouldn't put up if you paid us to, and low ceilings which have caused more pain and frustration than Brad wants to remember.

The new apartment named "Riverside Waco," is as the name suggests, near the river. We have miles of bike trails, open space, barbeque pits, reading and ultimate frisbee spaces just waiting to be used. See these views from our balcony:

Also, look at the excitement on Rachael's face thanks to not one, not two, but three closets (compared to only one now):

Since it was built only 12 years ago, the building feels much newer, cleaner, and even safer than our current building (earthquake-wise), which is about 40 years old. The price is right since we're moving across the river and away from one of the more expensive suburban parts of Tokyo (Setagaya-ku). At first, we'll use the savings to get Bradley-san a new bicycle for the 20 minute commute across the river and up the hill. Later, the savings will help with the added costs of having Callie here in Japan.

The timing of our move to a new school building and a new apartment is perfect since we were able to bring home 50 free moving boxes and are already in the "packing mode." So, when you come to visit, we'll have a nice, new tatami floor and futon waiting for you at Riverside Waco.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Running an orphanage

For the record, I'm weighing my words carefully on this entry. My intention is merely to reflect on what we saw and experienced, and to hear your thoughts and/or suggestions as well.

To begin with, we could not have been led to a better ministry opportunity than spending a week at the Tree of Life Orphanage in Buriram, Thailand and we hope to return soon. The kids we met and the love that was shared between the high school students from our church and those children was unforgettable and surely worth the long trip from Japan. These seventeen orphans each have a story, and most, if not all, would not have adequate food, clothes, or shelter without the help of TOLO (acronym for the orphanage). The kids are better off because they are at TOLO and we were fortunate to meet them and have an opportunity to impact their lives in some very direct ways.

However, we also felt a certain degree of anger at what we saw and experienced during our week at TOLO. I do feel that there is a time and a place for anger, especially when it regards the health and care of children. At best, we were unimpressed with the management of the orphanage by the director. At worst, we were furious about the conditions these kids lived in and the lack of effort on his part to do just about anything about it.

For instance, check out these photos of the bathroom floor before and after we cleaned it. I highly doubt that this floor had ever been cleaned.

Now, the director has had wonderful intentions in creating and maintaining this safe haven for children, but that doesn't mean his work is done.

- Just because the kids have food to eat doesn't mean that their dental health should be neglected.
- Just because there are walls, a roof, and windows to protect them doesn't mean that torn up window screens can't be patched up with a little duct-tape to keep the mosquitoes and cockroaches out.
- Just because the kids have a room to play in doesn't mean that they should be playing over a foul-smelling opening to the septic tank (right underneath the rug in their playroom).
- Just because he doesn't take a salary doesn't mean that he has no responsibility to make sure that the children change their clothes more than once a week, to clean up bathrooms or his own dishes after meals, to maintain the grounds outside the building itself, or to treat all the kids with love, patience and respect.

Maybe it's easier to judge his behavior because the director is not Thai. I understand completely that different societies and cultures have different standards of what "clean" or "healthy" means. But this man is from Texas! He knows that leaving a bathroom in the condition that it was in cannot possibly be conducive to the health and well-being of these children.

If we had seen effort- something, anything!- on his part, I think we would be more understanding. However, what we saw was a very incomplete foundation for the total care that those kids need. And it's not even a matter of finances or time. It took us three days to scrub, dust, and organize every surface in that home, and basic maintenance is not too much to ask.

If he wasn't there to do this though, who else would? Now, he's not quite Miss Agatha Hannigan, the mean-tempered woman in charge of the orphanage in "The Little Orphan Annie, " but he's no saint. Do we just have to accept what we see and pray for things to improve in the future?

I chose not to address this with him directly since my role was to help lead the youth on the trip as best I could, be there to lend a hand, and love those kids as much as possible. But now that we're so attached to the children at TOLO and are planning to return next year if possible, I'll be thinking about how we might be able to address this and make life just a little better for these wonderful children.

Your thoughts?


When we returned to Minnesota for Christmas Break in December 2008 we had a few priority visits to make. One of them was to stop by our favorite restaurant in White Bear Lake. The restaurant is called Wild Ginger, and it's a fantastic and simple Thai restaurant run by a wonderful man named Sam (review here).

He knows us pretty well now, since I generally dropped by every time Rachael was out with her girlfriends last summer and Rachael's family goes there periodically. We recount pretty often how Sam got a kick out of Mike (Rachael's dad) one particular night at the restaurant, saying "You funny man, Mike!"

During this December visit, we talked about our upcoming trip to Thailand and Sam was apparently so excited by an idea that he stopped mid-conversation to run quickly back into his kitchen. He emerged with several brochures about "Beautiful Thailand: The Land of Smiles." It was a sweet gesture that definitely got us excited about the trip.

Call it irony, coincidence, or God's sense of humor, but one of the children at the orphanage that we will not soon forget was named Sam as well.

On our first day in Buriram, Thailand at the Tree of Life Orphanage, this Sam kept his distance from the foreigners ("Faraang" in Thai, "Gaijin" in Japanese, "Gringo" in Spanish) who had invaded his home. He played with a couple of the other boys and basically refused to acknowledge that we were even there while most of the other kids immediately latched on to us (figuratively and literally, my back is still sore from all the piggy-back rides).

By the end of the second day though, I tried a few new things with him that never seem to fail with kids: Beatboxing and my Donald Duck impression. Within minutes, he and another boy named Fil were dancing crazily and having a great time. He opened up right then, and spent every moment he could with us from that instant until we left.

Sam is very smart and would fit in well in my second grade class (he's 8 years old). He loved learning and analyzing magic tricks, practicing math facts on flashcards, practicing his limited but developing English, and playing card games (more about this later). During our visit to the city pool he proved himself a great swimmer and his silly ways of jumping in the pool had everyone's undivided attention. Sam is also pretty overbearing with the other kids and often yells at them when he doesn't get his way. I later saw that this came from his equally short-tempered interactions with his "dad," the director of the orphanage.

I really love Sam. He's making the best out of a rough situation, and has a lot of potential to be successful and make a life for himself in a difficult area of the world. He also has some dangerous pitfalls. At the age of eight, his temper is already developing strongly and thanks to a few previous visitors who thought it would be a good idea to teach him how to play Poker, Blackjack, and a game called Sticks, Sam is already gambling at every chance he can. He finds and uses the small 1 Baht coins to bet and play with his friends. In contrast to many Christians who feel gambling is acceptable, most Thai Christians form a clear separation from society on this issue and make a stand to avoid it completely. You can imagine how his mother reacted when she saw him teaching us how to play "Sticks" one night (without betting, of course, but playing nonetheless). We got her point right away and taught him several new card games like Solitaire and Memory which he also loved...and won.

As we packed the truck bed with our suitcases to return home to Japan, we gathered all the children for some final group photos. Surprisingly, Sam sat on the other side of the playground and refused anyone's call to join us in the photos. So, in this photo, you will not see Sam.

I immediately recognized this reaction since it happened on the last day with my third graders in Minnesota last year. One of my most challenging (and oh so rewarding) third graders balked and stood in the back of the room while we took photos wearing Mr. White's ties on the last day of school. At first I couldn't understand why he would be "so rude" on the last day that we would have together. It turned out that in both cases, these boys just didn't want to let go. Both boys began their relationship with me with clear defiance, ignoring most of my attempts to make them feel loved and appreciated. By the end of our time together, they had opened up their vulnerable little hearts and it was just too painful to say goodbye.

This situation begs an interesting question, but one which I believe does have a clear answer. Is it worth it, emotionally, physically, and spiritually to spend a week loving these kids with all we have...just to leave them a short week later? Is that too hard on them? Too much to expect of their trusting young hearts?

Although it was difficult for all of us to part ways, I believe with all my heart that, in the long run, the hugs, giggles, and teachable moments that occurred throughout that week far surpass the pain of separation. Still, I will continue to pray daily for Sam and the other kids at the Tree of Life Orphanage.

That he would grow into a responsible, kind and lighthearted man would be a dream come true.

Thailand in a nutshell

Buriram, Thailand

We just returned from an incredible week spent in Thailand. Our time there was filled with a flurry of new experiences, so we'll make sure to record the best parts here. Rather than write a long summary of the week, we'll pick out the most memorable snippets and write about each one separately. Hopefully that will make for an easier read for you (and it might help us to organize all that happened in the past seven days).

If you see something that piques your interest, makes you wonder, or inspires you to act, please write a comment and we'll make sure to write back. This week was certainly life-changing for us, so we hope our stories of those experiences will have an impact as well. Happy reading and thanks for stopping by!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Patrick's Day

Since we're between two major trips abroad where we're in charge of the health and happiness of groups of young people, and also happen to be moving to a new school building this week, we nearly missed St. Patrick's Day.

We did miss the major festivities- parades, parties, green beer- but had some fun celebrating at home anyway. Click HERE to check out that story and see some photos.

Last but not least, a funny memory just popped into my head...and therefore onto this blog page. The last time I was abroad for St. Patty's, I was in Buenos Aires with a fantastic group of new Latino friends (Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, etc.). We were in the main center of the city, along with thousands of other revelers. Soon after we arrived, many in the group grabbed 1-liter drinks and fully enjoyed drinking in public (lawful and hunkydory in Argentina).

All of a sudden, the mood of the streets shifted. A few of those large bottles began flying through the air, and as several were smashing against a wall maybe 30 feet from us we realized that those thousands of happy Irish-for-a-day Argentines were starting a small (celebratory?) riot. As we very quickly left the area in a taxi, we could see hoards of police approaching from several directions in cars and on horseback. Too close for my comfort.

Later that night, I watched the ensuing riot on TV. People went nuts. Back in those days, I didn't have much in the way of common sense. As a teenager, I always told my buddies, "Once in my life I'd like to experience being in a riot." I'm definitely glad I didn't stick around for that one.

And on that note, good night and Happy St. Patrick's Day from the Cahill-Whites (both Irish names, by the way).

Some interesting links from Google:
1.) A random LINK about one guy's experience in BsAs that day (he must have missed the riot...)
2.) Some fanatic's website about riots or war protests. Scroll down a little bit and you'll see that they had an Anti-Iraq War protest that day as it was the anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Maybe that's what this was all about in the first place.

Not about Tokyo, but amazing nonetheless

This is a simple yet powerful video we hope you'll take 5 minutes and 23 seconds to watch. It's a reminder of the amazing things that hundreds of thousands of incredible people are doing for us today. The kind of courage required for service in our armed forces is awe-inspiring, and even though it feels like we're a million miles away, we couldn't be more proud of these amazing individuals.

It's interesting to remember sometimes that our grandparents endured the horrors of WWII, when Japan was our sworn enemy. Now they are one of our stronger allies, and we live here in peace. Leaving your political convictions behind about all that's going on in the U.S. and around the world, it's good to remember that while things are rough for many of our friends and family right now, there are countless Americans who are willing to give the ultimate sacrifice so you don't have to. And this goes for all those who protect us: fire fighters, EMTs, police (especially the Colorado State Patrol, yee haw Blake), etc.

We pray for their continual safety, and a speedy return home for the troops in harm's way.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Coats in Tokyo

I think I've discovered a secret Tokyo-Japanese obsession.

Clean coats.

Compared to anywhere else I've lived before, people in Tokyo tend to dress very well, and care a great deal about the smallest details of their daily fashion statements. Shoes are polished and perfectly coordinated with whatever they're wearing. Young men and women both use mirrors, train windows, and cell phone cameras to constantly readjust stray strands of hair.

But the coats. The coats!

If I wouldn't be pegged as a creepy stalker, I'd take a photo of everyone I pass on the street or the train, and you could see this secret obsession with keeping coats in mint condition.

Unwrinkled. De-linted. Unstained.

I have no idea how they do it, but it is fun to watch. Today Rachael and I both laughed as we actually noticed that a guy on the train had a tiny piece of white lint on his black cashmere coat. If you come visit and don't want to stand out like a sore thumb, make sure you've had your coat in for a thorough professional cleaning within the last two and half to three hours.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

For all you foodies out there

Don't forget to stop by Rachael's new creative endeavor:

We're still learning to use our new camera, and I get the pure joy of testing out all the goodies she makes.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Our Trip to the Ooooooohklahoma & Texas

You'd think taking a trip to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and Waco, Texas with a bunch of high school boys might be uneventful, but our trip with the Varsity Ensemble was full of bizarre travel experiences making the week unforgettable for the boys and the chaperons.

On the plus side, the boys sang exceptionally well at the ACDA Convention (American Choral Directors Association). Actually, Hal Leonard publishing is now flying several people to Tokyo this week to make a sort of educational film about the choir and their unique approach to choral singing! Randy Stenson, the group's director (from Minnesota, woot woot), incorporates physical movement into every note that the boys sing. The result is a beautiful, mature, cohesive sound, and a performance that is much more visually interesting than many choirs in the Lutheran tradition who simply stand rigidly with their hands at their sides. On the choral side, this was a very successful week for Mr. Stenson and for the boys in the choir.

Now for the ugly side of airline travel...

When we first arrived at the Delta counter in Tokyo's Narita Airport, we were told that our second connecting leg to OK City had been canceled because Atlanta's airport was snowed in. We could still land in Atlanta, but would have to stay there one day. Luckily, we had only planned sightseeing and rehearsals that first day, so we didn't miss anything too important, like a concert or singing clinic.

We worked with the Delta agents to find another solution, and settled on staying in Atlanta overnight and then flying the following evening to Austin, Texas, where we would meet three of the chaperons with our rental vans (who themselves flew out earlier on 2 different flights to OK City to pick the vans up because there were none in Austin).

Confused yet? We're only just beginning.

Even the simple transition of getting from the Atlanta airport to our nearby hotel proved difficult. Since the boys were expecting 70+ degree weather in Texas and Oklahoma, none of us were prepared for the frigid snow and wind of Atlanta. In clothing totally inadequate for the conditions, the boys waited over an hour outside for the hotel shuttle to come pick us up. At that point, Rachael and I (the only adults with the group) realized that the boys needed to get inside or they could get sick, ruining the whole tour and therefore the point of our trip. So, I found two opportunistic gentlemen at the airport and struck a deal to use their private airport shuttles (that were not being used) to take us a few miles to our hotel. A good deal on both sides: They made a quick buck and we got out of the cold and to our warm hotel for $2 a head.

Once we arrived at the hotel, things went mostly as planned for the week. The Varsity Ensemble sang at Baylor University for a successful joint concert with their men's choir. The following day, Mr. Stenson gave a clinic on his movement techniques with the university's mixed choirs and director, many of whom will become music teachers in the near future. We took a campus tour, which was surprisingly impressive, and the boys got a taste of the American university experience that is between one and three years away for many of them.

Next, we traveled in our three white vans to OK City to prepare for the ACDA convention performances. We attended one of the convention concerts and heard some mind-bendingly good choral music. Rachael and I had a blast, to say the least. Most of our "free" time was spent shuttling the boys back and forth a dozen times from the hotel to a nearby mall for food or "exotic" shopping at Abercrombie, Pacific Sunwear or Hollister. These trendy Tokyo guys sure love their shopping.

The week came to a big close with the midnight announcement of the Hal Leonard video and the numerous praises from choral directors and publishers at the convention. Since our flight left at 5:30am the following morning, most of the boys (and Rachael) didn't even try to sleep.

By 3:30am, the boys were assembling downstairs, and we set off for the airport. When we called the airline and asked when we should arrive to check in, they informed us that the airport didn't even open until 4:30am, so no earlier than that. Although we had arrived MUCH earlier for our Tokyo leg of the flight, we trusted their recommendation. That was our first mistake.

Upon arriving, Delta had only ONE gate agent that was able to check us in. And because of the weather mix up and the Tokyo Delta employees' poor handling of the tickets, each ticket had to be manually re-entered into the system, rather than checking in the entire bunch of 30 as one group. This took between 5 and 15 minutes per ticket, and with the one agent (yes, agent, singular) there to check us in and no supervisor around to help (until 6:00am), only 11 boys and 4 adults got checked in for the flight. Those students and two adults boarded the plane while Rachael and I tried to deal with a hostile, rude, and arrogant gate agent who would neither hold the plane for the second half of our group or explain what the problem was (we were on opposite sides of the security checkpoint and couldn't contact the rest of the group).

Judging that nobody had come through security in about 20 minutes, we decided not to board the plane and walked back through security to the gate. While we were greeted with applause from the guys in our group for not getting on the flight and leaving them behind, this quickly became a very frustrating and difficult situation. The other 13 already on board went ahead without us.

For the next hour, the gate agents (and their supervisor who eventually arrived) tried to find a way to get us home. This was important for two reasons:
1.) We had already gone through a lot, so leaving 17 of us behind was just not acceptable.
2.) Second, the boys (and their accompanist, Mrs. Stenson) had to be back on Monday for an International Honor Choir rehearsal with Henry Leck.

Finally, using my laptop and 20 minutes of free wi-fi, I found the only remaining flight from the U.S. to Tokyo that day that had more than a handful of open seats. There were three problems with this flight:
1.) It was an American Airlines flight, so we'd have to go through some "higher-ups" to get all 17 of us approved for it.
2.) The flight was from Dallas, not Oklahoma City (where we were at the time).
3.) It was already 7:30am, and the flight left from Dallas at noon.

Try as he might, the lead agent at the Delta counter could not find enough spots on flights to Dallas that morning to get us there in time for the flight. He gave up on the option. Then someone had the bright idea of driving to Dallas. It was a three and a half hour drive, and we had four hours to get there. Was it within the realm of possibility? Yes. So, we went "all in."

Rachael ran downstairs and rented two minivans and a small car, we handed a list of the 17 remaining people to the lead agent with the hope (not even assured yet from the higher ups) that he could get all of us on that flight, and we left Oklahoma City for Dallas.

Driving quickly (ahem), we watched the GPS slowly update our arrival time to earlier and earlier times. By the time we pulled up to the airport, we had shaved 26 minutes off the original estimated time and given ourselves just enough time (15-20 min) to check-in before they began boarding. We ran in and began checking the boys in. For the first time in our entire trip, we could actually check ourselves in at the self-service kiosks. It felt wonderful.

That feeling quickly dissipated when three boys' tickets were not found, and we were told they wouldn't be getting on the flight. I can't explain the despondent looks on their faces, but needless to say, these boys had been through a lot and were devastated to be left behind. Again, we were fortunate in that one teacher also didn't make it on the flight. So, he stayed with them, and the rest of us boarded the plane to return home.

If we'd had only 15-20 more minutes, we would have been able to go to the Delta counter and have them transfer the remaining four names, but that was just plain impossible.

And in a nutshell, that was our trip.

But wait, there's more! Since Rachael and I checked in for the original flight and didn't board, our bags were sent to Atlanta and didn't arrive at our apartment for three days (after many phone calls with the airline).

AND here's the best part. I just received an email from Delta saying that they are sorry for what happened...and sorry that they can do NOTHING about it. No reimbursements, no apology awards, NOTHING.

Needless to say, we will not be flying Delta again, and we highly advise anyone else from doing so. What a week!