Leah Wood '16: Comfort Food
Leah Wood '16 is the 2018-2020 Shansi Fellow at J.F. Oberlin. This is her second year narrative.
There has been a part of me that felt this time would never come — the day when I’d be looking at the last six months and seeing home on the horizon. In a way, it still hasn’t wholly arrived because what I’m seeing looks very different from what I have been anticipating the last year and a half. I’ve been pedal to the metal trying to reach the end, and now my foot is on the break.
“Last times” have come. Moments where I’m starting to wonder if it is the “last time” I’ll eat something, see that view, or say goodbye to a friend. I’m pulling focus on the moments I know I will miss. The inevitable changes ahead are clear and the negative spaces cutting harder into my vision: the people and things that I won’t have when I go “home.”
I’m going to miss the food. Not just the fresh ocean fish that I can buy so easily at the supermarket or the near literal sea of restaurants that make up Tokyo’s street view with endless options of Japanese, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and Indian fusions... but also the fact that I can walk to the Convenient Store that’s a two minute walk from my apartment and get my favorite onigiri and a bag of shredded cabbage and call it lunch. I’m going to miss the produce, the fact that I can buy Japanese cucumbers, Asian pears, kabocha, lotus root, Japanese sweet potatoes, and tons of figs in late summer. Growing up, Japanese food was my comfort food (nikujaga, tamagoyaki, oyako-donburi, curry, sukiyaki, miso soup, nimono, tsukemono) and now that’s all I eat. The food feels like home, even if I am a foreigner, even if I feel wildly out of place at times.
Takoyaki Party at the Obirin Coope with Emily, Sara, and Ernie in January, 2020
Rakuen dinner with Junko, Nancy, Sara, Emily, and Hiromi in December, 2019
I’ve finally gotten used to the trains and I know I’m going to miss them. I thought I’d never round that corner. There is a rhythm to it. The beep when you walk through the gate, the sound of shuffling feet as everyone walks to and from the platforms, the navigating between bodies, the waiting behind the yellow line and steady announcements in Japanese and English, the audio track of bird sounds to keep everyone calm, the stepping aside as the doors open and people flow out, the two lines of people filing in and negotiating a spot on the train, the clunking as the doors slide shut, the click and hum of the train as it gains speed, the announcements interrupting the mechanical whir with apologies and warnings and information, the slowing, stopping, and chimes of the train and station... on repeat. And inside the train, eye contact flicks around as everyone who chooses not to look at a screen tries to find a safe, unintrusive place to rest their gaze. It feels like a game. Sometimes it’s easiest to just fall asleep.
Sara and Emily at Takao Station with Tengu Station in October 2019
Detailing my experience with all of the people I’ve met during my time here would be too much. Every person that I’ve had the privilege of building some relationship with (my co-fellows of both years, my students, a friend that I met on the way to Narita airport, friends that I’ve met through volunteering, other Obies in Tokyo, the woman at the supermarket who I always see, the people at the gym who greet and chat with me, the woman at the local clinic I’ve gone to, the other teachers at the ELP, restaurant owners, people I tutor) has taught me something that has changed me even in some small way. Maybe the most important shift is that my view of the internal life of people has changed. I’ve thought more about how there is no wide sweeping solution to an issue, that generalizations aren’t necessarily helpful, that we all live in a very complex system inside and outside of ourselves and as people who choose to interact, it’s important to approach one another with openness, respect, curiosity, and care. For example, I think before it was easy for me to feel upset at female students who I felt were “acting dumb” in class in order to appear cute. Now, I try to be more patient and encouraging, to make a more intentional connection with students to try and understand their shyness, and slide in compliments and reassurances whenever I can. I think one idea that has come into play is that of “unconditional positive regard,” which in its most basic terms means that you accept someone as they are regardless of what they’ve done or said. I think my experience with teaching, volunteering in an elder care center, tutoring, and having conversations about the dark, challenging, and vulnerable parts of living has encouraged me to be open to the possibility of seriously pursuing psychology once I return home. I think in the past I felt I wasn’t smart enough for something like that (it is science after all) but now my curiosity and the fulfillment I find in connecting with people and learning about our minds, traumas, regrets, and choices has allowed me to think that maybe I can try it. Maybe I have it in me to completely change my life path because during this fellowship, I uncovered something that I find meaningful, and I hope that will be enough to drive me forward.
I haven’t had any major revelations about my identity as a half-Japanese woman “exploring my roots” while living in Tokyo. My first year was perhaps the hardest year of my life so far in terms of the deep isolation, negativity, and defeat that I felt — but so much has changed. I surprise myself sometimes when I feel suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude and joy for everything that has happened over the last couple of years. I even started dancing alone in my apartment again. I still feel pretty lost, but that’s alright. There are still days when I can’t keep tears in and I end up crying on the train, but that’s ok too. There are things about Japanese culture that I find frustrating (especially having to do with beauty, communication, gender roles, racism, and work culture) but I think that there is a slow churn of change happening for the better. My views aren’t superior, they are different.
My grandparents met on the train from Kyushu to Tokyo and started dating as they went to school here. I often go to a park called Inokashira Koen in Kichijoji, one of their date spots, and am thankful that there were no cellphones back in the day because if there had been, it’s likely neither of them would have looked up, and therefore likely that my mother would never have been born. I imagine them walking around the same sakura tree lined paths that I do with friends now. Both grandparents have passed away, but I feel grateful to be able to have spent this time here. To get to know a little better this place, even though it has changed so much since they were my age.
Last week I had a koto performance. My supportive co-fellows Sara and Emily came and took a video for my mom. I played a piece that my grandmother (and pretty much anyone who learns koto) played: Rokudan. I’m overly sentimental and even though I’m not very good, I felt happy to have had the chance to try this instrument and wonder if my grandmother would have been proud to see her Japanese-American granddaughter stumbling through this piece that has four hundred years of history in Japan. Maybe.
Koto concert with Nakanishi Sensei in January 2020
Coffee in Shimokitazawa with Laura Li
So, as I look at the last six months of the Shansi Fellowship I feel a little melancholy. When they told us in January 2018 for the fellowship training that two years might seem like a long time but it’s not, they were right. Things are just getting started. I’m grateful for my time here and everything I’ve learned and plan to savor these last weeks here in Japan.
Sara at Enoshima with Mt Fuji in the background in October, 2019
Miyajima Island in Hiroshima with my sister Gena and my cousin Ema in January, 2020
Playing with kids in English with Kyoko and Eiichi