On Writing a Novel

Hi everybody. It’s been a real long time. Sorry about that.

I’m back with some good news, assuming you liked reading things that I’ve written. If you don’t, well, then I have some bad news: I wrote a book.

It’s a novel about talking animals. That may not sound like it has much in common with this blog, or my last book, but there’s a lot about it that you will probably like.

I won’t say much more about it all right now, aside from telling you how you can go ahead and order the thing.

Right now it’s available as a paperback through Amazon.com, and if you use that link, your purchase will also help some kids in Nepal get to a dentist. I know that’s a non-sequitur, but it’s pretty great. Here’s that link again, real big:


OK, so I know that some of you like paper with batteries, so there’s a Kindle version coming out too. That goes on sale next week, and you can bet that I will be re-emerging to let everyone know when it does. You can pre-order the Kindle version here and download it on November 26.

I think you Kindle people are probably nice people and won’t bootleg the book, like jerks, so there’s no Digital Rights Management on the book. That means that you can download the thing to any device that reads ebooks without getting hassled by Amazon, which is great. Read it on your iPhone or iPad or Newton or whatever, I’ll be psyched. I’m not going to make a giant link to the ebook yet because it’s just a pre-order, but here, have the link to the Kindle pre-order again. (Oh and if you prefer the Japanese Amazon, here you go).

So far I’ve spent more time explaining what DRM and Kindles are than I have spent talking about the book. So here, here are some frequently asked questions, at least in my imagination:

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On Taking Pictures in Kathmandu.

I haven’t written in over a year, but I wanted to share my photographs from the month I spent in Kathmandu.

It was my liminal phase between Japan and London. The relaxed, chaotic atmosphere of Kathmandu was a stark contrast the clean social and architectural lines of Japan. On several of my bus rides through winding mountain creeks, faced with the anxiety of starting a new life after Japan, I fantasized about getting off the bus and simply living wherever I ended up.

The people of Nepal are tremendous. We praised Japan for its orderliness in the wake of the triple disaster in March 2011; Nepal has no such order on the best of days. But it had dignity and strength and intelligence. The people I saw were creative and ingenious designers of solutions for problems that, through sheer dumb luck, many of us in the United States would never imagine confronting.



I took these photos in Kathmandu in 2013. Looking through pictures of the disaster in Nepal, many of them have been transformed into piles of smashed brick and dust. Temples have crumbled. The city had always felt precarious, its bricks laid on top of bricks like a Jenga tower. No central planning office, just a patchwork of buildings hatched through hundreds of years of maximizing space.

I’m sorry for the saccharine nature of all this, but I am honestly heartbroken. It was only two days before this disaster that I sat in a Nepalese restaurant safely reminiscing over momos about my time there with another traveler. Both of us had come to the conclusion that, indeed, if we hadn’t ever left Nepal, we might still have been happy.



Humanity doesn’t often do stuff together, but it did this: It collected billions of dollars for the Earthquake in Japan. People thanked me for it, personally, for months — years — in the streets when I traveled in Japan; practicing their English by saying thank you America for its help.

Japan saw billions of dollars in aid and in charitable donations. I’d love if the same community that cared so much for Japan could give a modest and thoughtful contribution of what they can to one of the following organizations that can help Nepal.

Nepal does not have the infrastructure of Japan. Compared to Japan, Nepal is economically irrelevant. But its people are some of the warmest, and funniest, and kindest that I have met. I’m sure we all know that this should be more important than economic status. We also, most likely, know that “should” does not equal “does.”

It is only a stroke of luck that all of us are where we are. In our best visions of parallel lives, we might imagine a different life. Had we been born outside of the English-speaking world with the technology and wealth and power to insulate us from the harshest of realities.

Nepal is hard. Power outages were a fact of life. Plumbing, not so much. And yet – and yet! Here is a city dense with its own kind strange kind of beauty. In Kathmandu, I could wander through a courtyard into a dense maze of apartments, and stumble into an ornate temple, over a thousand years old. Not a museum piece, though it could be — instead, part of the real, breathing daily life of the people who live there. Kids playing soccer against a shrine older than the United States of America; a statue older than the discovery of North America sits perched between the doors to a television repair store.

Much of that heritage is lost; much of the city I have photographed here has been, quite frankly, obliterated. But the people remain, and I hope you will join me in helping them in any way you can. Again, no matter how modest your contribution is – even five dollars! – if enough of us do it rather than do nothing, it may build up to something meaningful.

You are going to see a lot of pictures of poor people from Kathmandu crying. You are going to see pictures of children looking sad at cameras, and, without even thinking about it, you are going to see how different they seem from you, and your life.

They aren’t. I promise. These are people who live and thrive and work and play, who laughed with me with the same head-shaking and shrugging when our bus had to stop for a herd of lost goats.

Nepali people are suffering, but they aren’t “poor people” or “tragic people,” they’re “awesome people.” And right now a lot of those awesome people could use your help. They’ve lost their city, they’re sleeping in the streets, and $4 USD is the cost of a hotel room.

Here’s your chance to be an awesome person. I think we can do a lot of good.

Here are some charities I recommend.

For immediate medical and rescue efforts
DirectRelief is coordinating medical help with several charities and hospitals in the area. GlobalGiving has a specific Nepal fundraiser underway.

To help with the long-term education and health of people in Kathmandu: 

I’m making a personal appeal here: You always see people buy local, support local music, and drink microbrew beer, etc. Here’s a way to support Nepal through a local organization: The Women’s Foundation of Nepal is run by Nepalese women, to help all of the people in Nepal. My friend has worked with this group to oversee their finances last year. They, and she, are legit. She’s set up this fundraising page to help them out. They’re struggling to distribute things far more essential than records and beer – for the same cost, you could change some lives. Even a $10 (9 Euro) donation would be amazing, but give what you can. It would really mean a lot to me!

Also, here, CARE is helping to address systemic problems which are creating poverty in Nepal.





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It’s been about a year since I left Japan, and I know many friends and readers (those in the JET Program) are coming up on saying goodbye to a country or to their friends who are headed home. Here’s a few posts from the archives about leaving:

On Disconnecting in Japan (link)
It costs $200 to remove an air conditioner in Japan. 

On Meeting a Strawberry in Japan (link)
What seemed to happen, in my last weeks in Japan, is that rather than feeling a sense of attachment and a longing to stay, I have left already. Some students gave me flowers. They’re plastic so I don’t have to water them. It’s a nice gesture, but lately I feel like those plastic flowers, being there and looking the part but not really living.

41 Things I Like About Japan (link)
Useful in drawing up your Japanese bucket list.

7 Lessons Learned (link)
The ideas that have kept me sane – or have been learned after losing and finding my sanity – while practicing to become the person I am today. I’ve tossed a lot of ideas out in Japan, these are the ones I’ll be taking home.

On Life After Japan (link)
I panicked in an airplane-hangar-sized grocery store. My favorite restaurants at home had closed, or didn’t taste the same. I had to drive everywhere, and I felt stagnant from not walking. I instinctively tried to book a train to see my friends, but there are no real trains, nothing I could afford.

On Falling Out of London (link)
I came to Japan to write uncertainty out of my dictionary, to invent a new language to define myself, one that didn’t rely on anything outside of itself. That was a stupid idea.

You can follow This Japanese Life on Facebook, and don’t forget, you can buy the book


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On Falling Out of London


Words are social creatures, with every word defined by other words, and dictionaries are a party. Interactions define things: words can’t write themselves. Meaning emerges in connections and gaps. Take some scissors to a Webster’s and cut out your favorite word, tack it to a whiteboard, and show it to someone who can’t speak the language. The entire system falls apart. Human beings are no different.

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On Sexual Harassment in Japan (Part 3): A Modest Proposal



I have been overwhelmed by the support from readers of my posts, On Sexual Harassment in Japan (Part 1) and (Part 2). I’m also stunned at how many of you had stories of your own, shared here or in the many posts on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook I’ve seen or been copied on.

This post was not really part of the original plan, but I’ve been asked what, exactly, would an ideal sexual harassment policy look like, one that accepted both cultural nuance and misunderstandings and the unreserved right to expect a safe work environment. Well, here’s my attempt at it. By all means, suggest your own ideas.

The following is drawn up based on a very simple fusion of the sexual harassment sections of the Tufts University guidelines (selected at random), those which already existed in the JET General Information Handbook, and a simple explanation of Japanese law. In case word economy was a concern of the JET Program, the original clocks in at 412 words; this revised edition is 470, but moves support phone numbers out of a diagram of the JET bureaucracy buried in an appendix in the back of the handbook.

I’ve cut out the victim-blaming language and statements of the obvious, gone is the suggestion that the ALT makes a close friend at an office (which is not always possible); gone are the suggestions that drinking and dressing comfortably invite sexual harassment. I have done my best to establish that a victim will be supported and has many options within the system. Of course, now the system has to actually support those options. Start the clocks. Continue reading

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On Sexual Harassment in Japan (Part 2): For ALTs


In my previous post (part 1) I discussed the history of sexual harassment law in Japan, and the struggles women continue to face today. But in truth, this series was inspired by a report in The Japan Times about foreign workers in English-language schools.

The article collects information from women who work in private lessons for the Japanese English-education firm GABA. Teachers reported incidents of clients exposing themselves, making lewd remarks, spending 40 minutes staring at a teacher’s breasts during a lesson, and stalking. One client “leant over and looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘I want to drink your breast milk.’”

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