Shipping Out to Japan

Last week, the Global Wisdom arrived in port here, skimming lightly in at high tide, escorted by a couple of tidy Crowley tug boats.  Several days later, this traffic-cone-orange cargo ship sailed back up the sound, through the Salish Sea, and out into the Pacific Ocean.  Along with thousands of logs from the lumber giant Weyerhaeuser, the Global Wisdom was carrying bottled water: 29 pallets, 1960 bottles per pallet, 16.9 oz. of water per bottle. A total of 960,596 ounces of water, all bound for the people of Kashima in the Tohoku region of northern Japan.

It’s an astounding amount of water – about 7500 gallons or 500 tanks of gas for my car — but nowhere near the amount of water that surged over sea walls and washed away coastal villages after the devastating earthquake on March 11.

Here we are, 6 weeks later, and I still cannot bear to watch the videos of the black water swarming, like some monstrous sea creature, over the walls and buildings of those towns.  This series of events is, yes, horrible.  But devastation occurs everywhere. Constantly. Just ask the people in Alabama whose homes were demolished by tornadoes yesterday.  Their devastation is no less important.

Nonetheless, it is the scale of events in Japan, the continuing series of disasters, that is so heartbreaking:  the earthquake itself, registered as 9.0 on the 10-point Richter scale, the tsunami tossing trucks and boats about as if they were toys, the explosions at the nuclear reactors and the subsequent contamination of the surrounding land and water that will displace people for decades and take away their livelihoods.  When reading the accounts of the shifts of workers trying desperately to shut the plant down, I imagined the horror of the 3 workers whose legs were inundated by radioactive water – what they must have felt, looking down at their submerged feet.

By now, the tsunami has found its way back to the sea, though water still stands in the lowered fields. The aftershocks may continue for up to 6 months, but the earth will eventually grow quiet.  The radiation leak has been stopped, but there are many bodies yet to be recovered.

Natural disasters – earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis – pass quickly, though the devastation does not. Manmade disasters, on the other hand, are prolonged, driven by ego, money and the darkness of the human soul. (I admit to growing angry when the front page headlines in the local paper switched from the events in Japan to the attacks on Libya.  Disaster reigns there too, but it is one initiated by greed and the desire for power.)

Many of us have tried to find ways to help the people of Japan – donating money, folding chains of paper cranes in a beautiful reversal of custom.  The irony of Americans folding cranes for the Japanese can’t be overlooked. It was the nightmare of Hiroshima in 1945 that gave rise to this custom of folding cranes in Japan.  The chains of cranes adorning monuments in that city are constantly replenished in an essential effort by people to ensure that beauty overcomes nightmare.  The cranes are as necessary and refreshing as the water the Global Wisdom carries.

My heart is especially with the people of Japan, because of the scope of the disaster, and also because of my personal connection.  You can look at the photo in the top left corner of this site and know that I am not Japanese, though my surname is.  My spouse is a native of Japan, and we lived there with our children for 2 years at the turn of this century.  Thankfully, our friends and family there were never in danger, never even felt the quake from their homes in the southwestern part of the country.

I have seen close up the integrity, the diligence and the heart of the Japanese, and I know they will work as long as it takes to recover, bearing their sorrows as they go, always with the goal of making things better.  It’s not their first disaster of this scale. One need only look at Hiroshima today to see what might arise from the contaminated fields and flooded plains of Tohoku.

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If you’re interested in the ongoing rescue and clean-up efforts in Japan, you can find continuous updates in the Wall Street Journal.

If you’re looking for ways to help the Japanese efforts, consider one of the agencies listed here.  These links were sent to me by a friend in Japan:

And if you want to send a message to the people of Japan, this site allows you to translate that message into Japanese.

The Death of an Immigration Bill

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, July 11, 2007.

Dead again.

That’s the status of Senate bill 1639, the 1,000-page rat’s nest that tackled the nightmare called immigration reform. Like Lazarus, this bill was resurrected, only to have a stake driven through its heart.

During debates about the bill, I found myself in a strange camp – with conservative Republicans, who fought it because it would give amnesty to undocumented immigrants if they jump through some hoops and pay some fines and fees. (Much of immigration is about money. He who pays, plays.)

When I lived in Laredo, Texas, in 1988, a student of mine led a group across the border to tour a maquilladora – a manufacturing plant American companies established in Mexico. This one was for Ford Motor, and this student’s father had relocated from Detroit to manage it. The most startling characteristic about this plant was not the 15-year-olds working there or the low wages but the surrounding neighborhood, a collection of houses the employees constructed of plywood from shipping crates sent to the factory. I understood instantly why people risk their lives to cross a border. It’s not hard to feel sympathy for people who just want a better life.

It is hard, though, for me to be sympathetic toward those who break laws, especially when legal immigrants work so hard to enter this country. I could only stand by, hands tied, while my spouse jumped 10 years of hurdles to earn a green card to work in a field that desperately needs his talent. And I can only commiserate with the man at the bus stop who, after 14 years here legally, has still not received his card.

According to an article in a recent issue of Newsweek, “Every year we take in more immigrants than the rest of the world put together.” We already have 43 different visas on the books – 44 if you include the diversity visa, which is given lottery-style each year to 55,000 people eligible to emigrate from countries that have been historically under-represented.

Forget the morality of the issue. Consider the logistics. The proposed Z and guest worker visas, which require short stays and several returns to the home country, couldn’t possibly succeed. Our government recently had to postpone its mandate for American travelers to Mexico and Canada to carry passports because it couldn’t meet the demand of its own ruling. Imagine the paperwork involved in tracking the guesstimated 12 million illegal residents already here, not to mention new migrants seeking these visas.

Now that S-1639 is dead, maybe we can get to the real work of reforming immigration.

First, we could enforce the Immigration and Control Act of 1986, passed when there were only 2.7 million undocumented immigrants. Enforcing that law might uncover more companies like two in Texas, which supplied fake documents for aliens working at an oil-rig manufacturer that received a $73 million federal contract.

Second, we could work with Mexico to undo the damage of NAFTA, restore its economy, fight the flood of immigrants on their southern border, and reign in the drug lords. If you keep citizens happy – and safe – at home, they’ll likely stay there. Then the border-crossing theme park that opened in the state of Hidalgo could truly be for amusement rather than reinforcing a legacy.

Third, we could ensure that the expensive surveillance equipment already placed at the border by companies like Boeing actually works.

And most importantly, we could reduce the hurdles imposed on those trying to migrate here legally.

The US is indeed a nation of immigrants. Here’s to all of us immigrants who obeyed the laws to find our better life.

Travels from the Comfort of the Couch

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, February 7, 2007.

Recently, I took a couple of trips while sitting in my living room. No chemicals involved. Just the help of some magazines.

I assure you there’s no Travel & Leisure at my house — I have young children — but these magazines took me places I don’t usually go.

My first stop was in the land of American Handgunner magazine. I’m one of those who thinks guns should be controlled, so I opened the cover of the magazine (passed along by a student) expecting tales and politics, written by and for men, promoting the ownership of guns regardless of their danger.

But as I looked through the magazine, I was surprised. The magazine has women on the editorial board and a Japanese photographer. Several letters to the editor were from women, one of whom fights her husband for the newest issue when it arrives in their mailbox. An enlightening letter from an American civilian described the conditions of working in Iraq. The articles included a quote from Shakespeare, ideas for writing a journal, and a curious tale of hunting hippos in Africa. (Why someone would try that with a handgun is beyond me.) But most of the articles, including one by a man who accidentally shot his bedroom mirror, stressed the responsibility that comes with owning a gun and using it safely.

My second trip was through the vistas of Men’s Health, published by Rodale Press, which publishes other mainstream magazines such as Prevention. In its pages I expected a wholesome view of men’s lives but again was surprised at what I found. Lots of slick photos of buff guys, of course, and diet, exercise and nutrition tips. Recipes. (Nice to see those in a guy’s magazine.) Sex tips, of course. There’s even an advice column. Change the sex of the bodies in the photos and it starts to look like Cosmopolitan.

Unfortunately, I was left with that familiar view of women as objects, something to be had, like a car or a house. To its credit, the magazine had human interest stories – a doctor writing about everyday experiences with patients, a guy writing about marriage in terms male readers understand. (That’s the October 2006 issue, ladies.) But overall the magazine reinforces the same narcissism that many women’s magazines are guilty of. Not surprising, but definitely disappointing.

It’s not that I prefer handguns to buff guys. Frankly, I don’t need either one. It’s that reviewing these magazines from the comfort of my couch showed the value of “crossing over” – looking at how others live and think about the world. Imagine magnifying this investigation to a societal level, where everyone steps outside their comfort zone to see the world as others do. It might forever change how we see ourselves. Expand this plan to a global level – say, Americans living outside mainstream culture (easy to do within our borders) — and it might profoundly change how we think. It just might also change how citizens of other countries see us.

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There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.

— George Santayana, philosopher (1863-1952)

Learning the Local Language

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, March 5, 2006.

Recently, I moved to Olympia from “flyover country” (FC) — that place east-coasters fly over to more important places on the other coast. My specific spot in FC was Lexington, Kentucky.  If you’re a fan of racehorses or bourbon (or both), you know it. Now that the dust has settled, or been subdued by rain, I’m noticing some language differences between FC and Olympia.

First off, I’ve learned new meanings for familiar words. I’ve heard these words before, but here I’ve come to know them on an, uh, intimate level: septic tank, power outage, and the most critical — generator. In FC, these terms were spoken only by people “in the country” – three more words that now apply to me.

Other words I’ve had to rethink include that ubiquitous phrase uttered by salespeople everywhere: “Have a nice day!”  Salespeople in FC say those words constantly, but they have a different ring here. Shopfolk seem to mean it and look me in the eye when speaking. The cashiers at Safeway even pronounce my name correctly. That’s one advantage of being on the West coast. With the Asian influence, my surname doesn’t seem foreign. And yakisoba is easy to come by.

Naturally, I’ve come up against the vocabulary for ordering coffee in the Pacific Northwest. But I don’t drink the stuff, so I can plead happy ignorance of the terms. The closest I’ve come to a double mocha latté is chai, but I can’t tell you what’s in it. I enjoy seeing espresso huts on every other corner, drive thru ones at that. In FC, you can drive-thru for money, dry cleaning, drugs (the legal sort), and even beer, but not latté. That’s a true measure of the culture.

Certain terms I learned as oddities in FC are common here, especially those associated with yoga:  plank, warrior, and anything ending with –asana.  If I shouted “down dog!” in a crowded theater, everyone inside might actually assume the position. Those street corners lacking espresso huts harbor yoga studios, and my kids even learned the tree pose while standing in the school bus line.

On the other hand, the meanings of some current terms here have already been decided back in FC — for example, smoking ban and water rights. I’ve found the image of a place doesn’t always reflect reality. East-coasters joke about FC, but the folks there are, on occasion, a step ahead.

I’ve also become attuned to the visual language of Olympia, and much of it delights. The Mountain. The calming presence of the water. The sharp outlines of trees against the sky, a scene made possible by clear air.  More men in grocery stores, shopping and working checkout. That booklet in my mailbox detailing issues on the ballot, so I could actually cast an educated vote. Older couples hand-in-hand in a lively downtown. Olympia’s downtown thrives at a level larger cities should envy.

For all the new meanings I’m discovering here, though, there are two visual terms I’m glad not to encounter.  Big hair.  Power suits.

One Country, Two Men

Every morning I wake up with immigrants.  One in my bed.  One at the bus stop.

The one in my bed is the lucky one.  Lucky to have me, perhaps, but more so because he came here from Japan, a country Americans respect. Like most other immigrants, he came looking for personal freedom and opportunity. He is the epitome of the diligent and hard-working Asian. Highly educated. Highly skilled. Productive and industrious, in a field where his skills are in demand. Just the sort of person we want to come here.

And yet, his journey was not easy.  Because he’s in medicine, he was subject to restrictions that other immigrants are not. He was fully trained and licensed in Japan,  but because the U.S. doesn’t recognize medical training from other countries (except Canada), he had to repeat 7 years of training here and return to Japan for 2 more years before he was eligible for a green card, regardless of his marriage to me, an American citizen. It was a grueling odyssey during which he nearly collapsed, but now he’s living the American dream. Home and children. Good job. A martini before dinner.

The man at the bus stop is not so lucky. He came from Mexico – legally — 14 years ago, after his butcher shop failed when NAFTA destroyed the surrounding farms and ranches. At first it was picking tomatoes in California, then a series of manual jobs till he landed at the farm across the road, where he tends horses and, with his wife, is raising two daughters. He also works a second job at a restaurant across town. In the meantime, he studies for his GED.

José and his family live in a disintegrating rental trailer on the horse farm, but the owner is selling the farm and has told him to find somewhere else to live and work. He managed to save up money for a down payment on a house. But the horse farm owner, an elderly and increasingly ornery man, wouldn’t vouch for him with the mortgage company, and so he lost the house, and his $3,000 down payment.

As the work at the horse farm dwindled,  José worked maintenance at a nearby casino and considered getting another job 20 miles away. He has finally found a new job in town. Before he began, however,  he had to have an emergency appendectomy, with no insurance, and his visa expired when the regional immigration office got bogged down in a backlog of applications. No one has been able to sponsor him for a green card.

José, a man of pride, is also smart, hard-working and diligent. He too is just the sort of person we want here. But there is no happy ending for him. He now works nights cleaning floors at a health club. No house. No martini.

If I could save him from this string of calamities, I would. But I have no avenue to help other than to commiserate with him as we wait for our children’s school bus. So I look for ways to help that he can’t trace back to me. Anonymously paying off the rental bill for his daughter’s flute at the music store where my children take lessons. Leaving a tip at the health club at Christmas time, a small number of bills tucked into an unsigned greeting card.  It’s my apology for how my country has treated him.