Posted by: mariabro | February 13, 2014

Photoshopping our Lives

Through social media like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, we create our own Avatar – our online persona.  It is a reflection of who we want to portray to our social networks.    Social media has allowed us to craft our image, in other words we can brand ourselves.  Facebook has only been around since 2004.  I joined in 2007, in my mid-fourties and living in Tokyo.  So, my “brand” is fairly recent in the grander scheme of my life. (I think I am grateful there was no Facebook when I was younger…)
My avatar doesn’t wear glasses, likes to socialize and is always smiling.  Or, you may surmise, my life seems pretty happy at this point.  Or maybe I only post pics of the good times?  FB seems more of a place to share the good times than the bad ones to me. Like a glossy magazine of your life.
But for many people, the happy life we display on Facebook was/is not always the case.  Everyone has their share of hardship.  For me, about 15 years ago I had a triple whammy.  Death, divorce, and a move.  Over the course of many years I have gone through –
  • death
  • divorce
  • job loss
  • miscarriages
  • financial insecurity

In fact, here is a picture (which my family roars with laughter at now), that reveals the stress I was going through before our move to Tokyo.  The boys were 1 and 2 yrs old, Brittany 10.  Craig had already moved to Japan so I was left behind to pack up and clear out our lives in Canada.  Not the Maria you know.


Life is not always easy.  I worked hard to overcome the challenges I’ve faced and feel I became stronger because of them.  I don’t wish my children hardship but sometimes I look at how easy their lives are and wonder how they would deal with any sort of life stressor.  I honestly believe hardship builds character.
If you are going through any life difficulties, try to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel.  Keep working toward your goals whatever they may be.  Embrace the hardship and try to see it as something that will strengthen you and propel you onward, and upward.
And when you get to the positive cycle in your life, which you will, appreciate it and be even more grateful because you know the difference.  Celebrate the good times, share them with your friends on FB and be proud of your accomplishments.  And when your friends are in a happy place, understand that it may not always have been that way.  Don’t envy their happiness, support it, because you never know what it took them to get there.
Posted by: mariabro | October 10, 2013

The Detached Expat

Posted by: mariabro | May 1, 2013

Boston Marathon 2013

The sound of the blast and the smell of the explosion continue to haunt me. We were in the grandstand seats at the finish line of the Boston Marathon when the bomb went off.  I heard the massive boom, saw the smoke and felt the debris rain down over the finish line.  A tragic end to an epic event.

We had spent the day watching our first ever Boston Marathon and were privileged to have seats right at the finish line.  All day we cheered the extraordinary athletes who pushed themselves to the limit.  The first to cross was Yamamoto, the Japanese wheelchair athlete.Image

We were so proud to see him accomplish such an amazing feat and to watch as they played the Japanese national anthem.  After spending seven years in Japan, we shared the country’s pride in watching one of their own win such a prestigious event.  Then came the elite athletes, the women’s winner Rita Jeptoo, Kenya


and the men’s winner Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia.  Here is a picture of my husband placing his medal on him.


It was a beautiful spring day with a slight chill to the air.  After a couple of hours watching from the stands with our friends and our children we headed back to the Fairmont hotel for lunch.  My husband, daughter and I decided to go back about the four hour mark of the race to continue to cheer for the runners.  Two of my younger children decided to stay back at the hotel since they were a little tired and cold.  Just as we got back to the stands and turned to watch the race the bomb went off.  Directly across the street.  I remember it was silent for a few seconds, everyone was stunned.

I think it was my training as a flight attendant many years ago that came back and helped me react. I am the type of person who always watches for unclaimed bags at the airport, always like to figure out my escape routes etc.  I immediately knew it was a bomb.  I also knew we had to get away as I was pretty sure  it was a terrorist attack and I felt there would be more bombs.  People were saying “Get down”, but I said, “No, it’s a bomb, we have to get away.”  I grabbed my daughter’s hand and yelled at my husband to “GO, GO!”  My daughter seemed a bit dazed and said later she thought maybe a speaker blew up and did not realize the severity of the situation.

I remember thinking “if this was a bigger bomb the buildings would have come down and everyone would be dead.”  So many thoughts raced through my mind, but the certainty I had that it was a bomb and it was an attack, remain with me.  My first thoughts were that I had to get to my younger children who were at the hotel.  We ran to the hotel while the first responders ran towards the blast.  No one on the other side of Copley Square had seen what we had just seen.  I tried to be calm and said to the hotel security guards.  “I think it was a bomb, you need to do something about security at the hotel!”  They looked at me somewhat skeptically but then realized what had happened and began to lock down the hotel.

When we reached my husband’s staff we told them what had happened. One of them became frantic as her son was running in the race.  I tried to help her get him on the phone but the cellphone lines were overloaded and the call would not go through.  I raced upstairs to get the boys and, still in emergency mode, outlined what had just happened.  They started to cry and we tried to reassure them. But at this point we had no information and were not sure there were not more bombs at the hotel, the race headquarters.  We went to the lobby, kids and dog in tow, to decide what to do.  Then we went back to the room and tried to keep the kids occupied while we watched the news and reassured our friends on Facebook that we were safe. I felt trapped in the hotel but was not sure what else to do.

It was just two years ago that we had been in an equally traumatic situation.  March 11, 2011 we lived in Tokyo and experienced the Tohoku earthquake.  There were many similarities that day, but this time it was not a natural disaster, it was a terrorist attack.

For me writing is cathartic. I wrote about the earthquake just as I am writing about the bombing.  It helps me process and express my emotions.  Here is an excerpt of my blog post after the earthquake. Many eerie coincidences, the bombing was at 2:50 and the earthquake at 2:46.

 At 2:46 we felt a little rocking, which is pretty standard when you live in Japan.  But it kept going.  And getting bigger and louder.  My son ran up to my room to get me up.  I told him to let me rest a little while longer.  Then I realized this was not a “normal” earthquake.   I kept saying “OMG, what should we do?”  When my 7 year-old son could not give me an answer I turned to Facebook.  My postings during the three minute earthquake were as follows:
  • Omg how long will this earthquake last? Longest ever? March 11 at 2:48pm
  • Omg
  • omg this is scary
  • drawers opened, pictures rocking and things falling off the counter
  • its still going, craig work is being evacuated
  • our alarms are going on, I’m going to school
  • Picked up the boys at school, have grandma and yuki in the car. Brittanys on the bus and craig’s at work. Still rocking
  • Thank God for Facebook as we can’t call or text

Again, it was the sounds that continue to haunt me.

The tick-tick-tick sound of the windows and the rumbling, like a train rolling through the house, are of some of the things I will never forget from that day.  My first inclination was to get out and go to an open, flat area.  That is not what you are supposed to do, they teach the kids to “duck and cover”.  But when things are shaking and falling around you, you tend to want to get away.  We jumped in the car to drive to school to pick up my older son.  The parents lined up in a fairly orderly fashion to pick up their children.  But as it was only 3:00pm they decided not to let them out until regular dismissal time at 3:30.  So, we stood in the street waiting nervously.  Then the first aftershock hit.  The utility poles swayed and the electrical wires waved above us.  I heard an announcement in Japanese over the public address system.  I asked someone what it said.  ”A Tsunami warning”.  I wasn’t worried as that is standard procedure after an earthquake.  Then they decided to let us take our children.  I guess two earthquakes and a tsunami warning were enough.  My son came out to me and hugged me.  Some of the mothers were crying.  The children had ducked under their desks and stayed there for over half an hour.

Finding an area that is open and flat in Tokyo is not easy.  I decided to drive to the Imperial Palace in the centre of town.  It took about 20 minutes to get there.  Traffic was very orderly.  Then around 4pm we saw people in suits and hard hats start streaming out of the office buildings.  The trains were all stopped so everyone was trying to flag taxis on the side of the road or resigned to walking home.  Traffic started to build.  We had the radio on and it kept transmitting more tsunami warnings.  My older son started to cry.  It finally hit him.  I turned off the radio and decided to head home.  We live in one of the highest areas of Tokyo so I felt that may be the safest place for us to be.

We have a three story house so we headed up to the third floor and set up camp.  The boys brought snacks upstairs, and played Wii.   We sat upstairs in the playroom for 6 hours waiting for more news, waiting for my husband and daughter to return.  The aftershocks continued.  Cellphones and texts were not working.  The only way I could reach my daughter was on Facebook on her iphone.  I could email my husband on his blackberry.  thank God the internet was working.  My husband arrived home around 10:00pm.  My daughter was on the school bus.  It took them 8 hours to get home.  I walked to the bus stop at midnight to meet her.  Along with a small group of parents.  We clapped when they got off the bus.  As I was waiting there for her I noticed salarymen wandering around with maps in their hands.  I don’t think they had ever been above ground in this neighborhood.  They were walking home and had no idea how to get there.  Many walked for 6 hours to get home.  My daughter said she saw them walking away from Tokyo while  her bus was driving into Tokyo.  Lines of men in suits walking along the darkened streets trying to get home.

No one was rushing or looting or shouting.  The Japanese people accept this as part of their lives in Japan.  Shougani.  It can’t be helped.  This perfectly describes the Japanese mentality for better and for worse.

My family has been through a lot in the past few years but we were the lucky ones.  We continue to think about all the lives lost and people injured in the earthquake, tsunami and now the bombing.  But it has affected us all deeply.  We question why we were on the other side of the street, we struggle with survivor’s guilt. We wonder why things like this happen.

When my daughter was very young, maybe 5 years old she was thinking deeply about something and in her childlike words, she asked me “What is this world and why am I in it?”

I hope I can figure that out.

Posted by: mariabro | March 18, 2013

The Luck of the Irish

ImageIt seems that this is the time of year when everyone claims to have a little Irish in them. Or at least they pretend they do, so they can celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by hitting the local pub and drinking a pint or two of Guinness.

On an average day about 5.5 million pints of Guinness are consumed. That more than doubles on St. Patrick’s day to about 13 million pints. That’s enough to fill more than three Olympic-sized swimming pools.

GuinessDrinking those millions of pints are millions of revelers who would be hard-pressed to actually explain why they are celebrating, even experts like pub owner Ellen Brown, who says, “I know St. Patrick was English and found God while a prisoner in Ireland so it sounds like a good excuse to drink Guinness all day to me.”

Boston pub owner Mary O’Connor has her own beliefs: “Patrick was the patron saint of Ireland and he couldn’t stand being good during Lent each year. So he finally said forget it. Let’s have a day right in the middle of Lent so we can drink.”

I was surprised by the fact that Tokyo holds a rather large parade in Omotesando every year to honor the famous Irish saint. In fact, it is the largest St. Patrick’s parade in Asia and the first one to be held each year in the northern hemisphere.

But wherever you celebrate your Irishness, you’ll need to know a few facts so that you can pass for Irish and be served your green beer.

● St. Patrick was not actually Irish. He was born in Britain and moved to Ireland, first as a captured slave and then as a bishop to spread the gospel of Christianity.

●  Although many people believe St. Patrick drove snakes out of Ireland, this is actually a myth. It is true that Ireland has no snakes, but this was more because of geography and the ice age than anything St. Patrick did. Some religious scholars believe the myth was a metaphor for driving out evil as St. Patrick spread his message of Christianity.

● For more than 40 years, the city of Chicago has been dyeing the Chicago River green for St. Patrick’s Day.  The river is colored using an eco-friendly powdered vegetable dye that takes several days to dissipate.

● St. Patrick’s “official” color is blue, not green. Green became associated with the holiday during the 19th century, and is supposedly worn by fairies and leprechauns (who also have nothing to do with St. Patrick).

Finally, you will need a toast to impress your friends as you tip your glass of green beer. Try this one: “May the winds of fortune sail you. May you sail a gentle sea. May it always be the other guy, who says ‘This drink’s on me.’ “

Posted by: mariabro | February 6, 2013

Rules of the Road

In my (just over) 50 years I have traveled to over 40 countries.  Each trip has been an education in geography, politics, religion, sociology, you name it – you learn it when you travel.

While I enjoy learning about the politics and economics of a country I also enjoy observing the everyday behavior.  In fact, I think the two are closely interwoven.  I have a theory that the driving patterns of a country reflect its political stability.

In many emerging economies the traffic is chaotic.  There are no lines and no rules, or if there are, no one follows them.  I remember a recent visit to Vietnam where we wanted to go out for dinner to a restaurant a short walk from our hotel.  We stood on the side of the road unable to cross.  A never-ending mass of motorcycles, bicycles and cars careened across the multi-lane boulevard.


We finally gave up, went back to our hotel and ordered room service. We later learned from our guide that you have to simply walk into the chaos and the drivers will swerve around you.  A bit unnerving at first but it did seem to work.

I enjoyed driving in Japan where almost everyone obeys the rules.


You know what to expect.  There are a lot of cars on the road but it is rarely chaotic. The drivers are as evolved as the economy.  My biggest fear was not other drivers, it was getting caught in a narrow, dead-end road and having to back my SUV up, while trying not to scrape the sides of my car. You know when you hear “further branches ahead” on the GPS it is not good.

I also learned about six hour traffic jams to go 30 km.  It seems many people in Japan choose to go the same place at the same time.  It only took me once to learn that lesson.


I recently moved to small town America.  The drivers are very orderly but there is a new dynamic that is confusing.  They are so polite they don’t actually obey the rules.  They slow down and let you turn in front of them.  This is very puzzling when you are new and don’t know the rules or when you are not sure if the other person is using “small-town polite” rules or regular driving rules.

My second theory is about politics and nightclubs.  This is a theory I studied many (many) years ago but I think it is still relevant today.


I remember going to clubs in Paris, London, New York and Toronto. The lineup procedure went like this: in Paris, you had to be invited in by the locals, in London, you had to know someone from high society, in New York you had to stand out from the crowd, in Toronto you just had to lineup.  It all makes sense.

I encourage you to come up with your own theories on your next trip.  Education and travel are life-long adventures. As St. Augustine says, “The world is a book and those who do not travel, read only a page.”

Save on your hotel -

Posted by: mariabro | January 24, 2013

Necessity is the mother of invention

50350781d73a7c1bI have my daughter to thank for my latest invention.  Or rather my daughter’s lack of interest in managing her finances.  As she started to earn money as a model we started to question her more about it.

Having two financial parents is not easy for a teenager.  Her dad tried.  He sent her spreadsheets to use that would make the financial statements of a large bank seem simple.  I tried.  I pestered and nagged her about her income and her somewhat large expenditures.  The former financial advisor in me reminded her to save for retirement.

It all fell on deaf ears as she texted, facebooked and instagrammed her way through her day.

Suddenly, I had an epiphany.  What if tracking her income and expenses was as easy and fun as tagging her friends in a picture? What if she could do it all on her iphone while she waited at her auditions? I wanted to create a tool that would help her take control of her career and finances.

So, I set to work on an app.  As you may or may not imagine, developing an app is not as easy as it sounds.  One day, I will devote an entire post to it  but suffice it to say, I could not have done it all, by myself.

Here is a brief synopsis of the steps I went through:

Do a thorough search (or have a lawyer do one) to ensure your name and concept are unique

Register an LLC, limited liability corporation – so that all earnings (and losses…) and liability would flow through the company.

Set up a corporate bank account, to deposit said earnings into. Obtain an Employer Identification Number for the IRS, so aforemetioned earnings can be taxed appropriately.

Find an amazing app developer to turn your vision into code reality. (I can recommend one if you are interested)

Source funding for development – creating a sophisticated, complex app takes time and money.

Spend 5-6 months in development, defining and refining your vision.  I think I spent more time with my app developer (in my pyjamas, on skype) than I did with my husband in those 5 months.

Set up a website to support the app and to help brand your product.

Create a social media, networking and marketing plan for the app.

Submit to Apple for approval.


Get Approval!


Celebrate with a glass (or two) of wine and write a blog post!

iModel is now available on itunes.  Coming soon, iGig  for musicians and iAmNotASalaryMan for freelancers.

Posted by: mariabro | January 16, 2013

Anti-Aging Elixir

On Monday many young Japanese people celebrated Coming of Age day. I remember when we first moved to Japan in early January 2006 we were thrilled to see the kimono-clad parade of debutantes entering adulthood. They seemed full of energy and beauty, looking forward to all life has to offer.

With Coming of Age day behind us, and our own coming of age even further behind us, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on aging, or rather our desire not to and how to avoid it if possible.

While there are many books written on the topic of aging I am going to suggest one anti-aging trick you may not have thought of – it’s not drinking Acai juice or Green drinks – while that also may help. It’s not complicated but it does require some effort.

I think one of the secrets to staying young is keeping up with technology.

Technology changes at the speed of light and if we don’t do a little exercise everyday we can get left behind. Very quickly. I’ve noticed it with myself and other family members. I especially noticed it with my 90-year-old mother who did try to keep up and was skyping and emailing until the end. It kept her in touch with her grandchildren and kept her relevant. She even had us set up a Facebook account for her. Although she didn’t have many “friends” as none of her peers were on Facebook. Her desire to continue to learn new things kept her current and her mind active.

I try to keep up with the latest social media sites and spend too much of my time texting, blogging, facebooking, instagramming, tweeting and pinning on Pinterest. But I do feel I’m better able to understand many current events because of it. I am also better able to communicate with my teenage daughter.


However, I am still behind at updating my Mac, and syncing my iPhone and iPad. Apparently, I missed a few upgrades on my computer and I am now light years behind. My computer concierge recommended a new computer rather than trying to bring this five year-old dinosaur up to standard.
I love the way technology keeps making our lives easier. I click on a date in an email and it gets entered on my calendar and the location is mapped out for you. It is seamless.

But I see how it can get overwhelming. It can seem like it’s spiraling out of control, the home computer, the smart phone, the television, the camera, everything gets more and more complex. How many passwords do we need?


Technology is like music. You have your classics, your favorites, but you learn to appreciate the new stuff. I love classic rock but I realized there is some good new music, when I accidentally synced my iPhone with my daughter’s music library, much to her dismay.

So, enjoy your classics but keep up with the new “music” and perhaps you’ll recapture some of that energy and beauty of your own coming of age.

Posted by: mariabro | December 24, 2012

Windows to the Soul

I once went to a seminar about cross-cultural issues at my children’s school when we lived in Japan.  One of the more interesting things I learned was about the difference in communication styles, and I don’t mean a language gap.  I’m referring to the sunglasses versus facemask dilemma.


North Americans often sport large sunglasses when they are out, whether to ward off the bright sun or to look like a celebrity hiding from the paparazzi.  It is considered chic.

Japanese often sport facemasks when they are out, whether to ward off germs or to protect others from their germs.  It is considered polite.


What I didn’t realize is that Japanese find the sunglasses distracting and somewhat rude.  They think it hides the eyes and therefore reduces one’s ability to communicate.  On the other hand, many North Americans have difficulty holding a conversation with someone wearing a facemask.  The inability to see the mouth is distracting and considered somewhat rude.

I began to see how my habit of wearing large sunglasses in the schoolyard could be misinterpreted as not wanting to engage with my fellow parents.  Meanwhile their attempts to hold a conversation with me while wearing facemasks felt equally as confusing.

As I studied this phenomenon in more detail I noticed other things to support this theory.

I found a similar issue with texting and emoticons.  While North American emoticons focus on the mouth, the ubiquitous smiley face for example, :), Japanese ones focus on the eyes, using the pointy brackets.

Emoticons are a pictorial representation of a facial expression using punctuation marks, numbers and letters.  They are usually written to express a person’s feelings or mood.  The word Emoticon comes from the combination of the words emotion and icon according to Wikipedia.

Japanese emoticons are known as kaomoji, a combination of the Japanese word for face “kao” and for emoticon “emoji”.  Here are some examples.

ヽ(*⌒∇⌒*)ノ、 ( ^_^)/

I have to admit I received many texts from my Japanese friends that I had a hard time understanding.

In an article on, Japanese scholar Masaki Yuki says in Japan, people tend to look to the eyes for emotional cues, whereas Americans tend to look to the mouth.  He believes this could be because the Japanese, when in the presence of others, try to suppress their emotions more than Americans do.

“After seeing the difference between American and Japanese emoticons, it dawned on me that the faces looked exactly like typical American and Japanese smiles”.

Understanding the nuances of non-verbal communication is difficult in the best of times but adding in cultural differences makes it that much more complicated.  Just something to keep in mind the next time you head out wearing your shades/facemask and texting smiley faces to your friends.

Rakuten Ichiba Japan is the largest shopping site in Japan, with thousands of merchants and millions of products.

The Donna Karan Company

Posted by: mariabro | November 27, 2012

American Idol



Election 2012 was my first election in America. Not that I was allowed to participate, but even as a bystander it was wildly entertaining. I felt like I was watching gold medal athletes perform at the Olympics while sitting on the couch eating a donut.










I was truly impressed by the machinery that goes into an election in what is the world’s second largest democracy, after India. In a country of over 300 million people, just under half of them manage to vote in a relatively orderly fashion and produce results in about half a day.

The reality show — I mean the televised election coverage — was as well-produced as any Oscar night telecast or American Idol finale, complete with dynamic graphics, music scores and choreographed interviews. But did you know that American Idol finales can generate more votes than the presidential election? (Perhaps it’s because people can vote as many times as they want on American Idol.)

They even managed to wrap the election up just after 11 p.m., so they could return to their previously scheduled programming without too much disruption. I think they knew that if too many people missed a rerun of Storage Wars or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo they might have a civil insurrection on their hands.






But democracy in action is impressive. Linda Roberts Singh, who recently returned to her home state of Minnesota after living in Japan, told me: “My window looked out on the steady stream of people as they parked and walked to the church to vote. It was a spectacular parade of democracy all day — young and old, people in wheelchairs, people with strollers.”

Lisa Jardine, who also recently returned to the United States after several years abroad said, “This election day, my first in America in many years, I am thankful for the right to vote — to have a choice.”

While Americans value the right to vote, many were not enamored with the results. The country is clearly divided, almost exactly in half.

I asked Massachusetts native and small business owner Doug Karo why he looked so glum the morning after the election. He said he was concerned about the direction he thinks America is taking. He feels the contributions of entrepreneurs are not as valued as they once were.

“The American middle class comes from entrepreneurs. They are the people who make a country run. But if you take away their ambition, you take away their spirit. They roll the dice four or five times in their lives, they take risks and work hard. They employ people.”

While America was evenly divided on the election, the rest of the world was squarely in the Obama camp. But there was one town that was particularly pleased with the Obama victory. According to a Nov 7 AP report, a local official of the town says the Obama victory will help them continue to build and grow. The re-election means more opportunity to capitalize on their shared name. It even held a beach party to celebrate the re-election. Its name? Obama, Japan.

Rakuten Ichiba Japan is the largest shopping site in Japan, with thousands of merchants and millions of products.

Posted by: mariabro | October 20, 2012

My IQ, Interesting Quotient

I’m afraid I’m losing my interesting and exotic quotient, gained entirely on my pre-during-post life abroad.

In the beginning our friends at home thought we were adventurous and maybe a little crazy for heading off to a new life in Tokyo with two babies and a not-so-happy pre-teen in tow.

Then our visits home during our seven years in Tokyo ensured we always had great cocktail party conversation.

“Yes, there really are Harajuku girls, capsule hotels and love hotels, slurping is considered a good thing, trains run on time and they’re rarely as crowded as they’re purported to be, the sun does indeed rise very early, there are vending machines on every corner with every sort of convenience you could imagine, and the list goes on while your interesting quotient rises.

Then when you leave Tokyo you have a good year of stories and guarantees of being the exotic new friend wherever you move to. It was my daughter who warned me about the potential life-span of the post-Japan cool factor. She left Japan for college the year before we did. She told me how it was great in the beginning to introduce yourself as the new girl from Japan. Often followed by the “you don’t look Japanese line.”  But after her first year she began to feel a bit silly saying, “I just moved here from Japan. Well, actually it was a year ago.”

SO last year.

It made me realize that by now most of our friends back home have heard most of our stories. Fortunately we moved to a new city where we still have a shelf life for our stories and right now are still new and interesting. But I feel time running out. I’m trying to figure out a plan to earn some new interesting and exotic stripes. As my husband says, move up or move out.

But for now I’m happy to rave about Japan and our life in Tokyo for at least another six months and I’m looking forward to the Christmas cocktail party circuit (while I still have something interesting to say).

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