お通夜

I try to keep my blog light and more focused on the quirky or quirkily mundane rather than the issues that face expatriates that are more serious, or at least amplified because we are away from our usual surroundings. But that is part of the experience over here, and while I am not going to dwell on the “downers” it is important balance if I’m trying to explain my life here.

The past couple of weeks have been very difficult. I found out my boss was leaving sooner than I thought and I was working really long hours trying to resolve various issues, and I really didn’t have an option to not work those hours. However, far worse than those complaints is that last weekend one of our expatriate colleague’s children died suddenly.

Certainly in any small office, friendships develop and people in the office care for one another. In an expatriate office, we of course care a lot for each other. But everyone in the office somehow seems a little more like family than when I am in the office in the States. Here in Nagoya, we are all thrown in to this big mélange of new experiences, confusion of how to do some of the simplest things, uncertainty as to the duration of our assignments, and even uncertainty in what our roles are. Although we don’t socialize that much since everyone does have their life here, we do some important things as a group and with families. For example, we do a major community event in May, we have a group Thanksgiving dinner, we had a bowling party / food drive, we sponsor orphans at Christmas time, we have 忘年会 (bounenkai – forget-the-year party), 新年会 (shinnenkai – New Year party), and simple 飲み会 (nomikai – drinking party). We’ve even as a group ended up at a hole-in-the-wall bar and taken over the karaoke machine. My point is we pull together, know each other’s families, and look out for each other.

One of the things I’ve always worried about as an expat is something happening to my family in the States, or something happening to me while I am here. Several members of our team have lost parents or grandparents and have had to travel back to the States. Other colleagues have been traveling back because of parents that are ill. Although I live a long distance from my family when I’m in the States, the distance isn’t so great. Living across an ocean makes the distance feel very far.

Medical care is hard enough to navigate in the US – I can’t imagine what it would be like here to really get what you needed. One time when I had strep throat, I got these pills that looked like children’s aspirin and had to take them forever. It took a long time to remotely start to feel better. How I longed for a Zithromax 3-pack (mind you, I am not an antibiotic pill popper – I can only remember these two cases of antibiotics in the past 10 years. The Zithromax wiped out a case of pneumonia I had picked up after traveling LA – Hong Kong – Kuala Lumper – Tokyo – LA in less than one week).

So of course the death of our colleague’s child was shocking. Without going in to too much detail, the Nagoya media speculate that he died due to complications of H1N1. That can’t really be confirmed though, but his death was sudden and unexpected, and he did test positive for H1N1. He was 4 years old. Many of my colleagues have young children of their own with them in Nagoya, and this news was particularly difficult for them. Fortunately, our company has a program to assist employees in these situations and an American counselor residing in Fukuoka was dispatched to Nagoya to talk to our team.

Over 75 families attended the wake (otsuya – お通夜) on Tuesday night. There was a Buddhist prayer from in the home of my colleague and then a viewing / wake, still in the home. My colleague is Japanese-American and his wife is Japanese, so they had a more traditional Japanese wake than a western wake. Almost everyone from the office went. There’s a lot of mixed information out there surrounding otsuya, so for once I’m not going to make a link. If you are curious, you can do the research on your own.

Once again, I’m not going to dwell on the serious difficulties we face at times as expatriates. My next entry will be frivolous and lighthearted. There is no way that I know to seque from this topic to any other topic, so forgive me in advance.

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