Saturday, December 29, 2007

News Fast

I'm doing it. For the next week, for the start of 2008 I will NOT read or watch any news. This morning's news made me decide for good. In the international news--all the pictures of the violence and brutality of the assassination itself and aftermath of Buttoh's death. In U.S. news the story of the daughter and her boyfriend who killed her family on Christmas eve, including shooting a six-year-old and a three-year-old in the head. In Japan the stories, back to back, of the elementary school vice principal who was handed a suspended sentence for paying 16-17 year-old-girls for sex and the 12 year jail sentence handed to a man for raping his own two daughters. So. This morning, after reading the news I feel sick, sick, sick.

Lets see how a news fast affects my psyche. I know that you can't just bury your head in the sand and expect anything to change. But overdosing on all the news has me down on my knees thinking about puking up the last bits of hope in my system. So. News fast for the new years it is. I'll let you know how it works out.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

I Gotta Stop Reading the On-line News

Okay. I know I promised never again to be political. But this isn't so much political as . . . just observational? I woke up. I put my morning pot of coffee on. I turned on the computer and made the mistake of doing the rounds of the English language on-line newspapers. In the Mainichi Daily News I found an article about a prestigious high school wrestling team that has gotten in trouble because several of the older team members have been bullying the younger members. You know, doing things like wrapping towels and t-shirts around the younger guy's necks until they lose consciencness. That kind of fun, team bonding, character building stuff. You can read the article for yourself here.
(the article is "Top Aichi high school wrestling club members suspended for bullying")

So I stumble into the kitchen, shuffle up to my coffee maker and peer at the pot. Still not finished brewing yet. Damn. Back to the computer.

This time I read an article about an adult man, the boss of a decoration company, who has killed an employee. He was disciplining him by punching him in the gut in front of the employee's home. (The article doesn't mention if the employee was married, a father or not, but I guess if he was, then the boss wanted to teach the whole family a lesson.) You may peruse this article here. (The article's headline is "Tokyo boss arrested for fatally 'disciplining' employee: 'I went too far')

Okay. This time I clip back on into the kitchen, pull out the coffee pot (although it still isn't finished brewing) tip out some strong black liquid into my coffee cup and replace the pot. I stand for a second or two listening to the angry hissing noises my coffee maker now makes as it boils a few drops of spilled coffee that fell on the burner. If I were awake, fully awake, I'd be making similar hissing noises over the news stories I've just read, but as it is, I stand there and let the coffee machine do the hissing and booing for me. Back to the computer where I plop down, open up this blog and hit "new post".

You know, frankly, if this employee hadn't ended up dead at a hospital from his boss's stomach punch, it wouldn't be news here at all.

People lament the extent of grade school, junior high and high school bullying taking place here in Japan but bullying really isn't limited to early or later child hood education. I think the younger generation is just in a kind of bullying "boot camp." You're either in training to be a bully or to be bullied. You are being tutored in accepting, sanctioning and most insidiously of all in tolerating bullying as being a normal part of the social structure of heirarchy. The scariest part of bullying for me is that whenever one kid is singled out for the abuse there is a crowd of kids that are simply on the side lines watching that abuse taking place. Everyone is being conditioned by bullying--conditioned to do it, endure it or take it for granted as part of life, no big deal, the way things are.

Bullying takes place in the work place here--both emotional and physical bullying-- and it is unofficially sanctioned. My husband has an ex boss whom I hate and he still can't understand why. Part of the reason I hate the ex boss is because he is/was a bully. He treats the majority of those employed beneath him as crap. He is a very successful man and my husband even admires him. (My husband, the workaholic, is spinning around so quickly on his rat wheel that he never doubts the wisdom of the system here) I didn't admire the guy so much when he lectured Masa for taking a day off after having surgery on his hand. His reasoning was that he himself, at Masa's age had often worked for over a month straight without taking a day off and that my husband was setting a poor example for other workers in the office by taking the post operative day off.

I'm not saying that Japan isn't trying to do something about the problem of bullying. In fact, one of the classes I observed at Reno's school last year was about the ijime (bullying) problem. The teacher had the kids generate a list of words and phrases that made people feel bad about themselves. Then they dramatically put big "X's" over all those words and decided not to use them with each other. Then the teacher asked kids to contribute words and phrases that made them feel good about themselves when someone said them to them. These were the words that they decided they would try to use with each other.

Of course, Reno came home and started to use quite a few of the crossed off words with her sister. . . but because I had been at the lesson I was able to nip that in the bud quickly. (We're talking slang in Japanese here. If I hadn't been at the class I wouldn't have had a clue what some of those words meant!)

Reno has also brought home a national hot line number for children to call if they are experiencing ijime and don't feel comfortable confiding in a teacher or parent. She currently has a binder, a ruler and a handy index card with this hot line number on it.

The government is allowing parents and their children to sue schools and individuals over issues of bullying.

But if a Dad comes home well past midnight for over a month because he "has to work late" (without overtime pay) or if a Mommy is systematically excluded from the social circle at the PTA meetings or from the class meetings at her kid's school, or if a young woman is given the cold shoulder by absolutely every single one of her female colleagues at work, or Daddy's boss cuffs him upside the head for a mistake on the job. . . no one is passing out any binders or rulers to the adult folk.

And the young folk are sitting on the sidelines, clutching their bullying hot line paraphernalia, watching, listening and learning.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"Q" is for QUIP

Which, according to the online Merriam Webster is: a clever usually taunting remark. I feed on quips, literally. When I hear a good one in a movie or on T.V. it is like someone has suddenly chucked a bonbon at me. I savor it and suck on it. Quips make life interesting. A quip is also often: "a witty or funny observation or response usually made on the spur of the moment." (Thank you to Merriam Webster again.)

To be able to deliver a good quip though--there is a pleasure rush that I constantly crave.

Of course, my fondness of quipping doesn't really render me Sound-Of-Music-Julie-Andrews nice. And in instances, it sort of aligns me more with menacing ladies like say. . . Malificent from Disney's "Sleeping Beauty." Remember at the opening to "Sleeping Beauty" when Malificent quips, ". . . oh how nice, and the rabble too!" in reference to the three good fairies having been invited to King Stephen's party for the infant Aurora?)

Yup, that was me, the six-year-old snickering over the quip that Disney's villainess let fly.

Quips are handy though. They can infuse a bit of humour into otherwise humourless situations which make them excellent for the workplace. This of course would be the quip of the second kind--witty, funny observations.

Quips of the first kind, the cutting kind, are nearly indispensable for dealing with social situations in which you have been slighted. For example, here in Japan groups of junior high and high school students often like to scream HERRO at passing foreigners. No, they don't know me, they don't even recognize me from anywhere, they just recognize from my western face and build that I am indeed, a foreigner. This seems to grant most of the population of Japan the inalienable right to scream poorly pronounced English greetings at me whenever they are in the mood to do so.

I have considered stalking groups of Japanese on their famous tour packages in the U.S. to scream "KONNICHIWA" at them again and again but sadly, experience tells me that a) anything a monkey does is entertaining and in their eyes I would be just another excellent example of a gaijin/monkey screaming "KONNICHIWA" at them. b) many Japanese upon spotting a foreigner fail to understand anything coming out of the foreigner's mouth as they are propelled into a fear of English void. To wit, a friend of mine, in the course of a conversation with a woman in her town was left open mouthed when the other woman at the end of their conversation said, "Oh my. How do you and your husband communicate if he doesn't speak English?" Of course, neither did this town-woman speak any English and my friend had been conversing with her in fluent Japanese for well over half an hour or so. I have asked for directions (in Japanese) in downtown Tokyo many times to have the person I approached answer me in broken English, "No, EN-GU-RI-SHU." Gee thanks. No English? Riiiiightttt. . . even pointing out that that is fine, as I speak Japanese often doesn't quell the fear enough to get a decent response out of them. And finally c) I was raised never to point or stare at strangers much less yell out something at them. Such behavior is as reprehensible and appalling to me on a gut level as walking up and urinating on a stranger would be. I would be much more comfortable (and capable of) curling up into a fetal ball on the sidewalk and chanting, "happy place, happy place" than pointing and yelling at strangers.

So when I am walking down the road and pass a group of high school students who wait until I am about half a block away from them to scream "HERRO! AMERICAN JIN! EIGO JIN!" the quip is my weapon of choice. I go back. I smile. I turn and point at my posterior. "Oh my! I didn't realize that greetings were to be offered to people's bums! I thought they were to be given face-to-face!" Then I take my foreign ass and leave.

I've also been practicing a few quips in Spanish and French alternatively as it drives me nuts that most Japanese assume that ALL Westerners speak English.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

It's About Time

Well, after months and months of feeding off the creativity of other bloggers out there I have finally gotten around to (or in more embarrassing truth, figured out how to) add a side bar that lists my favorite blogs! These are the poor individuals whom I hover under like a starving bird, clicking their site meters through the sky with my incessant visits, always hoping to find something new to read and ponder. If anyone has been added who does not wish to be added, simply drop me a line and I'll fix that for you. If you don't know these bloggers already, check them out!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Don't Ask Don't Tell

It's that time of the year again--Christmas and my in house man-in-red (aka Old Saint Nick) worshippers are getting incredibly bright eyed and optimistic. Of course, financially pinched Mom and Dad aren't feeling so jolly.

I think I have Reno seriously doubting the integrity of Santa if not the credibility of his actual existence. She has noted recently that all the gift cards signed "from Santa" were suspiciously enough, written out in my handwriting and I have done nothing but stare back at her like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonder land blowing smoke rings in Alice's face. I haven't made the slightest move to try to debunk her theory.

Plus I came out and announced officially that Santa would be leaving only one gift per child.

Still, hopefully this season, though sparser than previous Christmases will not end up as the disastrous "they ruined my childhood"counseling session I tend to envision in moments of great trepidation and serious maternal fretting.

However, when my mother asked me for gift suggestions this year, my heart just literally thumped. BA BUMP. Suggestions? Gift suggestions? In an economically squeezed holiday season I was instantly thrilled! What we couldn't afford to get the girls, their grandparents could! They could go to Toys R Us and get that Gabrielle action figure doll for Saki! They could even, oh gasp of joy, purchase the High school Musical II DVD for Reno!

Of course, in my spasm of unconcealed elation I momentarily forgot who I would be sending gift ideas to--my mother.

My mother and father told my brother and I that after the age of 21 we were in no way entitled to anything from them--monetary support, lodging, and certainly not presents. Now, about the money and lodging, they meant we weren't going to get either from them, flat out, no room no board no mula. (My husband actually payed my graduate student health insurance for me--and he himself, was a poor international grad student! He still can't believe that my parents refused to even after they knew that he was coming to my rescue.)

About the presents clause though. What they meant by this was we were never, ever after the age of 21 to express desire for anything. Gifts were gifts because they were things that they wanted to gift us with not because they were things that we wanted or needed. So when my brother blew his knee out in Judo and he asked for help to go to a surgeon they told him, "why do you think we have been paying into the welfare system all these years?" The welfare system offered to weld his knee in place. His girlfriend's parents ended up paying for the specialist who was able to restore full movement and range to his knee. I didn't get student health insurance from my folks but I did get a card that announced that they had made a generous donation in my name to a charity.

Now, while the "Don't ask. Don't tell." policy regarding presents annoyed me a bit in my early twenties and still was rather irritating in my thirties. . . once I became a mother it became down right frustrating. Because I have not been allowed to make suggestions we have several duplicates of videos and English language children's books. Thank god that my parents actually do ask me about clothing sizes. But do you know how painful it is when you are an expatriate and you want to give your kids something from your native country/culture but you aren't allowed to ask for it? You want to get them "A Little Princess" which you can't find here anywhere but instead, you have to bite your tongue and gratefully receive another copy of Snow White--which you already own, having bought it over the Internet for a birthday earlier in the year.

So, this year when my mother actually sent a written request for suggestions--oh the searing second of rapture! I enthusiastically wrote out a list. Reno would ecstatically welcome anything at all connected to High School Musical (which interestingly enough doesn't seem to be popular in Japan at all!) and Saki's passion is Dora the Explorer, the Cheetah Girls and still anything to do with Disney princesses. I cautiously gave them the link for the Foreign Buyer's Club from which they could order American board games to be shipped to the girls (to save on shipping costs for them). I enjoyed visions of my kids playing Clue, Life, Cranium. . . .

My mother was very quiet. I heard nothing back for weeks. Then this morning the phone rang. As Saki had just finished vomiting (for the fifth time since she woke up at 5 a.m. crying) into the big bowl and I thought I had a good chance of 15 minutes or so until she needed to vomit again, I picked up.

Mom was calling to let me know that she had decided against going with the suggestion list. She was going to send the girls clothes. Which they need and which we will appreciate I am sure. It's just kind of sad to see my own childhood Christmases replayed like that for me on my own children, "oh. socks. Thank you Mom." (Okay, they aren't going to give them socks--that was for the first generation--me and my brother. The grand kids get actual outfits and they are usually quite cute.) Still, those of you who got woven and stitched things instead of bright shiny, impractical noisy things on Christmas mornings will know the feeling of quiet sadness I am talking about.

So the next part of our conversation really surprised me. "Do you have birds?"

Now, my parents LOVE wild birds. They have probably messed up the migration patterns of numerous species in their part of the U.S. as they have on their property about five different feeders. A local newspaper even came and did a special community focus story on them.

"Uh, in the spring, summer and fall we do. I haven't really seen any since the freezing rain and snow set in."

"Well, your father and I are going to send the girls a winter bird feeder. You can make it with them. "


"Will that be okay?"

I kept trying to respond, really. But I just couldn't stop trying to remember when exactly it was that I last saw a bird outside here. Crows. There must still be crows I thought. I hate crows. And I hate building things. There was a really good reason why I never even considered taking "Shop" class in high school. I even loathe having to put the numbered stickers on the toys that come in the kid's Happy Meals here.

"Oh yes. They like building things. We get lots of birds in the spring."
(I am so good at saying the polite opposite of what I am feeling inside.)

"Well, this bird feeder is a special winter bird feeder. For in the winter. Do you have bird seed there?"

"I've never seen any. Well I have seen bird food for parakeets in pet stores."


"Not that I have ever seen." (that wasn't attached in thin stings to the sides of cuts of meat. . . )

Mother was sounding displeased with my answers. Japan was proving itself to be a useless little country once again. I felt very much like the stupid silly daughter who went and moved to a far away country that didn't even have the decency to try to be more American!

"Well. That's decided then. We will be sending clothing and a bird feeder. "

Before hanging up with her she reminded me to have the girls complete their questionnaires and return them to her. My parents are trying to get to know their grandchildren better so Mom sent a list of questions for Reno and Saki to answer. Interestingly enough while some of the questions are very appropriate, "what is your favorite animal?" others are a bit perplexing, "What is your favorite musical piece to play on the piano?" I mean, they just started taking lessons last Fall. Their musical pieces are all by Yamaha and are called things like "Bunny Rabbit" and "Butterfly."

And instead of "What is your favorite food?" she asks, "What foods are special?" I left it worded just like that to see what the answer would be. Saki frowned, thought hard and answered, "Bananas." When I asked why she said, "because I would like to eat a banana."

Knowing my mother though, I know what she was really saying with that question. "Because you are being raised in a foreign country far away, you are foreign to me. You and I don't eat the same foods or celebrate the same holidays. What strange weird foods do you consider special?" Like my five-year-old is going to get all enthusiastic about describing some seasonal Japanese food to her American Grandmother. Even at the age of five, Saki seems to intuitively know that Japanese Obaachyan isn't the one to talk to about High School Musical and that American Grandma isn't the one that you offer to sing "Santa San RinRin Rin" to. She separates out her American cultural heritage from her Japanese. And my nine-year-old just plain knows that if she answers "omochi" it is going to turn into a kind of at home cultural report so she is more likely to answer "Bananas. Bananas are special." just to get out of the assignment.

Don't Ask. Don't tell.
How I forgot that simple rule for even a second of this Holiday season I don't know.

But I do know that I am going to have a good look at the winter bird feeder kit thing before I put it under the tree for the kids. If it looks like the "Headache of Christmas 2007" I am not going to put it under there. Instead, it is going to arrive tragically broken into tiny pieces--further proof that Japan just isn't up to snuff. That in itself will be a kind of gift for my mother--giving her ammo of any kind is treat. A strange dysfunctional kind of thank you note. Ah, my family--definitely a Don't Ask. Don't tell kind of clan.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

"P" is for Pathetic

I'm an American for crying out loud. (And from California too--remember the song by Missing Persons, "Nobody Walks in L.A." from the 80's?) And old. That last musical reference kind of let the cat out of the bag on that, didn't it?

But here I am in Japan without wheels. Which is entirely my fault. I stupidly let my American drivers license expire while my eldest child was experimenting with sleep deprivation torture techniques (can Mom go more than one year with less than three hours of sleep a night? I know I can, let's see what 'ol Mom is made of!). As a mother of a newborn with colic who was on the very lowest end of the sleep scale I let my license expire. I could have just sent in a postcard and renewed. Apparently 'ol Mom crumbled like a graham cracker, I didn't even have the energy or wits to do that.

Which didn't bother me all that much when we lived in Osaka. The buses and trains were so convenient, coming nearly every ten minutes and always on time. But, by the time we moved to the country side up North the only way to get a valid U.S. drivers license was to establish residency in the U.S. again and take both the written and the driving test. . . I had an uneasy feeling that back in Australia when I hadn't sent in that renewal post card I had made a major life mistake. I knew I had when ALL my new northern neighbors answered my questions about the local bus the same way.

First they looked confused. Next they clarified the question, "You want to know about the bus?" Then they persisted in looking at me as though I had asked them to tell the average number of mosquito bites they get on the third Saturday of August of each year. "The bus?" Then they usually sort of threw their hands up in the air and laughed nervously. "I have never taken the bus."

Months later I scored a bus schedule. My stop was not listed. Many, many stops were not listed. And the buses apparently came like every hour, hour and forty-five minutes. Often there seemed to be a bus in the morning but none after 9 or 10 a.m. . . . . hmmm.

Then I managed to ride on a local bus and instantly realized, "Oh." The only other passengers were about 70 years old or older. I bet none of the passengers knew how to use a cell phone for e-mail, program a DVD player, burn a disc or download from the Internet either--much less drive a motor vehicle. I'm American for the love of God and now I live the limited life of someone outside the info/technological loop. I ride buses in the country side of Japan. And here in the country side none of the bus stop's schedules and timetables are written out in romanji--just kanji. I can't read kanji.

Then our first winter here arrived. It was a strangely warm winter the locals all mused. We didn't get much snow fall, or I should say, much snow fall that accumulated. We'd have snow and high winds, then freezing rain and sleet. By 4:30 p.m. the roads were sheets of ice. Bicycling completely lost its appeal and although I did invest in spikes to strap onto the bottom of my snow boots. . . I just lost the enthusiasm for leaving the downstairs family room--the room in the house with the heater. Japan hasn't really gotten into central heating. Most homes don't have it and most homes also are not insulated. Our heater runs on kerosene. A big kerosene truck comes and pumps something like 200 liters into it every two weeks to a week and a half (depending how cold we get/how much we use it) during the winter months.

My most courageous act of motherhood during the months of October through April is rising before the rest of the family, donning my knee high winter moccasin slippers, whipping an extra sweater over my pajamas (which consist of a thermal undershirt and long johns), slapping a jacket on and going downstairs into the "morning Arctic zone" to turn on the heater. It takes about 1/2 an hour to kick in and start warming the downstairs room.

I have to confess that out of the entire realm of maternal experiences, even being vomited upon, this has proven the most difficult for me. At least vomit is warm.

So, the chill of winter has really highlighted the fact that NOT having a drivers license sucks when you live in Northern Japan in the country side.

My poor daughter, Reno, turns big pathetic eyes towards me on mornings when the snow is falling heavily and the winds are whipping fiercely (our first year here I thought it was always a typhoon coming in, until locals told me, "no, these high winds are typical for this city.") as I cheerfully stuff her into her snow suit, muffler, goggles (to help see through the snow) mittens and snow boots (with spikes built into the bottom to help prevent her from slipping and falling), "itterashai!" (Have a good day!) I boom at her as she whimpers "ittekimasu" ("I'm off!). Saki at the age of five is still riding the youchien (preschool) bus so she hasn't fallen victim to long morning treks to school in snow storms yet.

So when the first spring thaw hit last year I contacted a local driving school. If you haven't got a drivers license from another country you can't switch to an international driving license here. You have to take the Japanese driving license test, both written and road. To pass this test, it is basically a given fact that you must enroll in a Japanese driving school and pay thousands of dollars for them to teach you the intricate orchestrated "dance" of the driving test. One glance over the wrong shoulder at the wrong moment and you have failed the test. Most people take the test an average of about 3 times before they pass. You have to pay a fee each time you take the test too.

So I decided, time for drivers school.

But when the drivers school representative knocked at my front door, the first thing he did was pass me a pamphlet written entirely in Japanese/Kanji. "Can you read this?"

"No. Well, I can read through the second grade level of kanji."

"Then there is really no point in you entering our school. All written tests are administered in
Japanese only."

Aye, there's the rub. (I just feel piratey at the moment, but basically it does sum up my dilemma.)

So. I am she of forty years of age stranded to two feet. And my children are sentenced to experience only the world within walking distance of our home unless Masa has time off of work to drive us somewhere.

Fast forward to this winter season. Snow fall has arrived early this year with three out of five days last week seeing the white stuff descend. On Monday I stuffed and laced and zipped Reno into her snow gear and pushed her puffy waterproofed body out the front door. She returned about 15 minutes later to announce that she couldn't "see the road" and was too "afraid to go to school."

Now our morning schedule runs:
Reno out the door by 7:15 a.m.
Saki on her bus by 8:40 a.m.

I didn't have time at 7:30 a.m. to escort Reno to school and still get Saki on the bus on time. The walk to Reno's school in good weather is about 3o minutes, in freezing cold, high winds and snow, about 40 minutes. So I ended up putting Saki on her bus first and then walking Reno to school. But I had to call the school by 8 a.m. and let them know that she was going to be late.

The man who took my call was kind enough not to laugh in my face.
"Why is she going to be late?

"Well. . . she did leave for school but then she came back. She couldn't see through the snow."

"I see."

"I will walk her to school as soon as I get my youngest daughter on the youchien (preschool) bus."

"I see."

To locals, the snow storm that day would have seemed like a walk through the park. So I recall even sending a small prayer of thanks up to heaven that the man let me hang up after that, without laughing audibly in my ear.

However, while I may have gotten away with avoiding a proper mocking for coddling my nine-year-old on Monday, on Thursday when I transgressed against the cultural codes and allowed the same nine-year-old to remain at home with me that day rather than shuffle off in the snow to school. . . ah. I got pounded.

First off, they take this "the child goes to school every day" thing very seriously here. It is a bone of contention betwixt many a foreign parent here in Japan and the school system. The school sends home letters telling you how to raise your children. They tell you the proper way to feed your child, the proper way children should dress according to the seasons, the proper time that they should come in from playing outside, the proper time they should sleep, wake and leave for school. They send home daily schedules for vacations. I wrote in another post about the summer "rajio taiso" (radio exercises) that you are supposed to send your kids off to at 6:30 a.m. on lazy summer vacation mornings. (ha ha ha. . . titter. . .get it? Lazy summer vacation mornings? I am still so not indoctrinated into the school life here.)

Okay. Confession time. Yes, I had already been lectured by Reno's teacher earlier this spring about how in the FOURTH grade life gets serious. They are training for adulthood. Therefore, tardiness is not acceptable. (And, yes this past week Reno was tardy on Monday, so strike one.) Reno also forgot to take two hand towels, two laundry clips, a cup, a toothbrush and a hand mirror with her on Tuesday. I had to drag her sick little sister Saki to the school with me to drop off the forgotten items after receiving an irate phone call from her teacher requesting that I get the missing gear there within half an hour. That was my first trek through the falling snow last week. So calling in absent on Thursday was a bit cheeky, especially as Friday was a national holiday. . . giving the kid a FOUR day respite from schooling? Unthinkable.

But good 'ol American me, decided that in the midst of planning and preparing for my first ever genuine Thanksgiving day dinner at my house ( I am now officially all grown up. I hosted a Thanksgiving Day dinner and roasted a turkey that people ate and NO BODY got food poisoning.) having my eldest daughter home to help out a bit wouldn't be a big deal.

Cue weak laughter. You now, the nervous kind.

2:30 p.m. The phone rings. I answer. It is Reno's teacher.

"I understand that Reno stayed home today?"

Me: "Yes. "

Mean Teacher: "That would be because? ? ? "

Slightly flustered me: "She woke up this morning not feeling very well."

And this is where it gets scary. From this point on in the conversation I knew that I was in for a pounding. Because in Japan, one rarely, if ever, needs to give an excuse. Giving an excuse is even sort of considered rude. You apologize right off and that is the end of it. I have never ever had to go into detail about why my child has missed a school day. Just, "Chotto, kigen warukatta desu. . ." (she was feeling a bit off) and they "Odaijini" (Get well soon) you and that is it. I mean, if it is flu season, yeah they might ask if it is the flu and if so, which strain? But otherwise, you still get to pull some parental authority and declare that you judged your child not to be well enough to go to school. Not so with Mean Teacher.

Mean Teacher: "What are her symptoms?"

Completely flustered me: "What?"

Mean Teacher: "her symptoms, s-y-m-p-toms. . . ? ? ? " (Mean Teacher frequently talks to me in incredibly over enunciated long drawn out yet "simple" sentences. I don't really like Mean Teacher much at all.)

In fact, during most parent-teacher conferences I feel like Mean Teacher is fiercely concentrating on not rolling her eyes at me.

But back to my thumping.

"Er. Well, she has a cough."

Mean Teacher: "A cough?"

Me: "Yes. It gets very bad at night, waking her up. Her little sister has had one too. Her little sister has finally been started on antibiotics by the pediatrician for sinusitis. I think Reno may need antibiotics too."

Mean teacher: "Fever?"

Me: "No, but her little sister hasn't run a fever with this either."

Mean teacher: "Very well. You need to come to the school by 3:30 p.m. to pick up home study work for Reno."

Me: "oh. . . . well, I don't drive, but I. . . . well. . . . I guess I could leave Reno and Saki here alone and walk to the school."

Mean teacher: "by 3:3o. " click.

It was SNOWING outside with incredibly HIGH WINDS.

So, I put on long johns, jeans, snow boots, a turtle neck, a fleece and my down waterproofed parka, muffler and ski gloves. I lectured Reno and Saki about everything that they were not to do under any circumstances while I was gone and quizzed them on what to do in the event of a fire, earthquake, stranger at the door, stranger on the phone. . . etc. Then I pushed the front door open against the fierce gale like winds and walked through the storm. It took me 25 minutes to get there and I only fell on ice twice. I called home on my ketai (cell phone) to monitor how things were going between siblings twice.

The whole way there I kept having the same picture flash through my mind. It was a picture of Mean Teacher getting out of her car in front of our home when she had come for the home visit at the start of the year. I know she drives.

Waiting at the traffic single near the school it became clear to me.

"I am being punished."

Mean Teacher seemed very happy when she handed me a bag of homework for Reno to enjoy over her three day weekend. I think my beat red (from the wind and snow and ice) face and my completely soaked rear end, thighs and calves (big fast truck splashed about 20 liters of ice water on me) gave her satisfaction. She seemed giddy with delight when she bowed and waved at me as I disappeared back down the dank gloomy school hallway headed for the blizzard outside again.

And I dislike Mean Teacher so much that I was actually eager to get back out into the welcoming frost of the winter weather.

You'll be relieved to hear that both my five-year-old and my nine-year-old, as well as both cats and the structure of our rented domicile were all still in tact when I got home. I was relieved. Although I did walk home alternatively talking with one or the other of the girls on my cell phone. (They've been fighting a lot recently and Reno has taken to wrapping her hands around her little sister's throat when she gets really frustrated. Saki for her part just goes at Reno like David fighting Goliath--with no fear and A LOT of enthusiasm. So leaving the two of them alone in the house seemed very high risk to me.)

What has all this done for me? It has rekindled the fires of determination to get my license! The last few years here I have stopped looking right, left, right and then stepping out in front of on-coming vehicles. That alone seems like a sign that I'm ready to tackle the Japanese roads. Plus with a license, I'll be less pathetic and much less vulnerable to Mean Teacher's punishment. Hell, I could even drive up to the school with the radio cranked up and slide in to those cold grey corridors without a hair out of place, no sweat on my brow and dry clothing!

More practically I could take Reno to school by car on cold harsh winter mornings, drive the kids to the doctors when they are sick rather than dragging them through the streets and we could explore the entire prefecture let alone the whole town! And I could invest in a good pair of shades, order a Missing Persons CD from and re-live my teen years whilst cruising on the Northern roads of Japan!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

"O" is for On-line petition

After my last post I realized that while I complained about a situation I didn't offer any possible actions that I or others could take to try to change that situation. I would like to remedy that in this post.

An on-line petition has been started by Thomas in Kyoto that you can put your name on. I think it is really important that we, foreigners in Japan, do not sit quietly and take the wait and see attitude towards these new changes in Japanese immigration law. Look what has happened in the U.S. and other first world industrialized countries! In the U.S. there has been this, this too and this.

For some examples of events in the U.K. have a look at this and this.

If such horrible instances of injustice can be carried out in the U.S. and the U.K., why should we sit by and watch the road paved for further violations of personal liberties and basic human rights here in Japan? And it doesn't always happen to high profile academics and artists. It happens to us normal people too. We just don't get as much press space.

To sign the petition, check out the Online Petition (created by Thomas in Kyoto--( which is available at:

And if you are personally coming in and out of Japan, Arudou Debito has also supplied a link to a Bilingual protest letter you can print up and hand in as you clear Customs.

There. I didn't want to just get other people pissed off as well. Hopefully if we all work together we can effect some positive changes.

And I promise, unless I am unfairly arrested, detained, questioned or otherwise personally dragged into the political realm I will not be posting on politics again! I am so not political. Really.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

NOW I'm pissed off

Okay. "N" is for now or whatever.

Japan has decided to follow the U.S.'s stunning example of being a world leader for freedom and individual liberties and rights (I'm typing sarcastically) and the next time I come back into Japan after getting out of this special little country I will be herded into a line for "foreigners" and my fingerprints and photo will be taken. In case I am a terrorist.

I'm a 40 year old mother of 2 Japanese citizens (and remember, this country NEEDS more children). I am a permanent resident and that is because I intend to live out my life here in Japan--with my Japanese family.

Here's a link to an article where someone much more articulate than me discusses why finger printing all foreigners coming into Japan is a bad idea. Check it out.

It's not like I am suddenly being slapped awake from a beautiful dream of "belonging" here in Japan or even a light nap in which I might have dreamt briefly of being "accepted" here. I mean, my name isn't even on the family register (specifically the jyuminhyo or residence certificate) downtown. Our family register shows Masa, Reno and Saki. No wife. Why? Because our family lacks a Japanese wife. Because I am a foreigner I must be listed separately in an official alien register.

The other thing that has ALWAYS reminded me that I am not exactly welcome here (oh yeah, youkoso Japan, if you cut all the tatemae crap stuffed in that you'd just print up huge billboards that read, "Welcome to Japan. Now go home.") is the fact that no matter how frequently I have protested that honest, really, I haven't got any other home than my home here in Japan with my husband and children (you know, my family) I am always under the obligation to supply a "home address" to the folks at immigration. And when I get off the plane I have to fill in a reason for my "visit" to Japan.

Which makes me wonder, what is going to happen when I no longer have living parents in the U.S. who let me put down their address on those forms for a "home address". (Although, honestly, it is kind of hard for me to write it out without laughing out loud at the idea. My parents would stick me and my kids in the car and drop us off at a homeless shelter in seconds flat should I ever turn up on their doorstep saying, "I need a place to live.")

Anyway, I tried to remain calm about the whole finger printing/smile into the camera for your future "wanted" posters thing that the Japanese government will be starting here this month. I tried. Even though my stomach hurt at the thought of my children standing and watching Mommy being finger printed with all the other "foreigners." I mean God forbid they should ever forget the severity of having one non-Japanese parent. If you can't make them feel freaky enough by rushing them in public and demanding that they say something English or calling out, "hafu!" when you see them why not orchestrate it so that they will have to line up with every foreigner in the airport to get through customs very publicly chained to their FROM THE OUTSIDE mother. I tried though, not. . . to. . . get . . . angry. I thought about the way liberties are being trampled on and how personal privacy is being invaded by the government back in my home country. But then this came out.

To cut foreign crime? I am so sick of hearing all about how only foreigners commit crimes here. Don't these idiots read the newspapers in which their wonderful full blood 100% Japanese citizens are out there randomly slashing passerbys, poisoning, strangling, dismembering, stabbing, beating, raping, . . .ARGH! Don't they read their own newspapers? Like all crime in Japan is committed by foreigners?

Great. I know. Lets go one better and put all those Self Defense trucks to good use and just go out and round up all these pesky foreigners and dump them off the island. Seriously, is my alien registration card going to suddenly turn into a badge that I have to wear at all times? (And I actually really do carry mine on me at all times. When I was an exchange student, two students in our group were taken into the local police box for questioning when they were found to not be carrying their alien registration cards on them during completely random--as in, hey look. A foreigner. Let's card them.--checks.)

I am so NOT feeling all "whatever" about this thing now. And I really hate the photo of Kazutomo Miyamoto (the "T.V. personality and celebrity") playing with the foreigner finger printing/photographing equipment. It reminds me of when they let you stand in a cell at Alcatraz. Jerk.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Let's Meme!

Okay, Suzanne Kamata over at Gaijin Mama tagged me for this meme.

“List your (and your kids’) current seven favorite children’s books, along with their authors. Then, if you’re so inclined, tag seven fellow bloggers to do the same.”

Only seven? Sigh. Practicing self-discipline and restraint is good for me, so I promise to keep it only to seven. Although it hurts. Really. A sort of twisting pain in my stomach.

1. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. (ages 4-8) I can do this one by rote. Saki can do this one by rote (and has been able to since the age of three). My kids love it. Reno, even at nearly 10 years of age, still adores this book. And I still do too although I'm pushing 41!

2. Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban and Lillian Hoban. (Ages 4-8) I grew up with this one. I gave birth to two picky eaters. I ran out and bought a copy. They love it. Reno will now eat anything. Saki still makes vomiting noises at just the sight of a vegetable but she loves the book--maybe because she can so closely identify with the Frances who will only eat bread and jam at the beginning of the book.

3. Wait, No Paint! by Bruce Whatley (Ages 4-8) This book is hilarious. The illustrations are hilarious. The story line (a re-telling of the three little pigs) is LOL hilarious. We love it.

4. The Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (Ages 4-8). I. . . can't. . . . bring. . . myself . . . to recap this one. Yes, it is brilliant. Yes, universally children adore it. I just feel like it has been used as an implement of mother torture in our household. PLEASE, don't ask me to read this one AGAIN!

5. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling (this one is classified as "literature" on Amazon--so ageless!) I am totally in love with this series. I grew up on fantasy. I never out grew fantasy. My kids adore it as well. We like the humor, adventure, wit and mystery of the books. I'm still sort of in rehab over the end of the series. . . which reminds me, I haven't read the series from the beginning again in over two months. . .

6. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (another one classified as "literature on Amazon--so again, ageless!) Hmmmmm. I wonder if there is something to be said for losing your complete first and middle names to initials in the publishing world? My sixth grade teacher read this series aloud to my class. The magical spell that was cast over us still is upon me to this day. I was so exited when I was able to pull out "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe" and start to weave that spell over my own kids.

7. A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle I haven't read this one with my kids yet. I own it though and have it upstairs, waiting. This was one of those books/series that opened my inner creative mind to the endless possibilities in the universe both without and within. Basically, if I was drawn to fantasy before reading this, I was definitely smitten with it after. Plus the heroine definitely isn't fodder for the cover of Seventeen magazine, and she's smart and funny and likable. And the boy ends up liking her despite her lack of Cheerleader genes.

I'm tagging:

Mommy In Japan, Ramblings of a 30 Something, Homesick Home, Sakura Family,
Purple Kappa , Cafe Yamashita and finally Mommy Colored Glasses

Thursday, November 8, 2007

"M" is for my method to soothe my little monkeys

In this case, my little monkeys are of course, my beloved children. The ones that exasperate, challenge, and, as Reno progresses slowly and steadily towards puberty, berate me. I mean on the one hand I have my nearly ten-year-old rolling her eyes at me, giving me the "look" (The same one I used on my mother and that woman must be made of steel. How on earth did she refrain from bursting into tears and fleeing the premises or from alternatively reaching out and grabbing me by the neck and shaking me about like a rubber chicken? Note to self, shower mother with affection, appreciation and gratitude for letting me live to adulthood.) and on the other hand I have my just turned five-year-old dramatically sighing and saying things like, "I wish I had a nice mommy."

Ah. Karma exists and I have entered payback time. So this week I took away "sugar."

Oh the monkeys beat at the cage bars and screeched when the disappearance of all refined white stuff was announced. The thing is, they can have sugar. . . in low dosages. But recently Saki has become a kind of sugaraholic. She will lie to get. She plots to get it. Her focus and intensity regarding consuming the stuff is actually frightening me. Hence, the sugar ban. Which was inspired by my husband being called into work on a Sunday evening as the local hotel staff had discovered a visiting professor laying on the floor, paralyzed and in diabetic shock. So, I let Masa be the strong hand--he made the announcement:

"You shall not have any sugar during the week. If you eat good food to make you grow strong and stay healthy then on the weekends you can have treats." Then he went off to work where the shit flung from the cages couldn't reach him.

But, after a terrible, horrible, awful, certainly very no good detox the girls emerged . . . . calm. Not completely. I mean, they don't say things like, "let's all sit quietly and draw each other's shadow portraits like the Victorians did" or even, "say, let's sit and listen to Mum read Shakespeare's sonnets aloud." They still want to vault off the sofa, do back flips over the cats and then get into fisticuffs with one another just because they are bored. But the "edge" was taken off a bit. The spirit of playfulness seems to have replaced the mean sugar drunk swagger.

And then in a stroke of genius I discovered the magic of music. Specifically the magic of elevator music. It's a CD that I had bought when I was pregnant with Reno and was looking for soft soothing music to labor to. I actually really like it. I'm calling it elevator music because it is pop music without the words. A collection of cover hits from the pianist Lorie Line.

Actually I had used music on the girls when they were babies. Reno loved groups that harmonized like Simon and Garfunkel and Peter, Paul and Mary. Saki liked. . . ah, um. Isn't it funny how you remember all the details with baby number one but not with baby number two? (Poor little thing. I found her older sister's baby book yesterday and immediately decided that I need to set aside time and forge entries into Saki's baby book.) But I remember sleeping with a portable CD player beside me whenever I was sleeping with a breastfeeding baby.

I had forgotten the power of soothing melodies though. We were busy shaking and wiggling to Shakira and doing the Hokey Poky to the traditional tunes but soothing music I had forgotten.

Until last week when I found myself threatening to "give you a BIG smack if you hit your sister one more time." The sheer stupidity of that statement made my mind go blank. If you hit. . . I'll hit. . . ludicrous really. So I went immediately to my personal medicine cabinet--my CD collection and decided to take a dose of Lori Line's greatest cover hits. And Saki after swirling and twirling as Ariel in an underwater dance to "Part of Your World" sat down and peacefully played with blocks--building a palace, building with blocks, NOT using them as blunt objects to beat with or throw. And Reno, by the time we reached "Tears in Heaven" actually suggested taking a bath as she was, get this, feeling ready for bed.

The next night I popped it in around the witching hour and presto--it worked again.

On Saturday evening, when they were both totally amped and doing a recreation of "10 Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed" I snuck the old CD player back in the bedroom, popped in the CD and bing! They were out within 10 minutes.

Of course I worry a bit that I am conditioning them to enter elevators and lounges world-wide where as soon as the soothing strands of elevator music rise up to greet them they will be out like light bulbs. . . but in the meantime, anyone have some good soothing CD's to recommend?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

"L" is for Loyalty: Is the Loyal Samurai Trustworthy?

My husband is very proud to be descended from Samurai. His family name is the kind that was only granted to families of the Samurai. His most recent forefathers were school teachers and professional gamblers, but still it's the samurai in his family past that keeps him firm in the belief that his blood is nobler in some way than that of the blood of the unfortunates all around him descended from farmers and merchants.

Being a modern day descendant of samurai seems to have instilled two features into this man I married. One is a sense of obligation and duty: to work (first) to family (blood family first) and then finally I would hazard a guess to me. The foreigner that he married and reproduced with, his wife. I want to say that he is loyal too. And he is in the sense of honoring his duties and obligations to either work or the family.

But can my loyal samurai be trusted? When we first started to date my mind ran wild with all kinds of doubts and second guesses. The influence of new love, where as fires burn hotter and hotter jealousies tend to become magnified, was compounded by throwing the Pacific ocean in between us. We went on our first date in 1987 but for the next two years we saw each other only for 2 weeks here and at the longest 3 or 4 months there. There was plenty of time to sit and gaze off into the distance and fret that my man was frolicking with some homegrown geisha girl. Apparently he worried that my affections might wander a bit as well, hence the habit of proposing marriage to me via air mail during those first two years of our "courtship."

It took years until I felt so completely grounded in my relationship with Masa that I no longer pondered his potential to betray, humiliate or worse than any other foreseeable act, stop respecting me. When we were engaged he had to go back to Japan for a few months just prior to the wedding. A good friend of mine (a male friend) used to enjoy grinning at me and teasing me that Masa was probably cheating on me with a Geisha. And this story shouldn't be misread as "by God she had horrible choice in friends." Rather it shows that my very good friend knew how much I trusted my fiance and knew he could kid about my fiances faithfulness with me.

Or I am a poor judge of character and my friend really was trying to prod me into a total emotional melt down?

But, the point is that regardless of my friend's reasons for teasing me in such a way, my faith in Masa was unshakable.

My faith in his fidelity to me ran so deep that even after we were living in Japan and I had already started to go down hill in the fashion and looks department, especially when compared to the beautiful, svelte young Japanese women all around him at work. . . I never seriously considered the idea that he would ever act in any way unfaithful to me. I even wasn't bothered by the idea that certain young women at his workplace fancied him.

I should qualify the "even when were were living in Japan" statement. Not every Japanese husband is unfaithful to his wife. But, if a Japanese husband is unfaithful to his wife it doesn't really seem to shock or ruffle many feathers on this side of the Pacific. In fact, as long as a husband is discreet about it, an extra marital affair may easily be overlooked by his wife. Mother in laws are quick to point out that the daughter in law is the one to fault for the affair, not their sons. Just as a young boy who runs into a room at full speed only stopping to make kicks and karate chop the air around him (and occasionally a mate who gets in the way) is heralded as "genki ottoko no ko desu ne!" (what a healthy little boy!) so a husband who cheats on his wife is, well, ottoko wa ottoko desu--a man after all. The sex industry here caters to married men and while basically the sex industry in every country caters to married men, it is disturbing to me here in that it doesn't seem to disturb many of the Japanese that that is the case. It just is a fact of life.

Which makes it rather ironic that Japan keeps getting the top spot on lists of countries with sexless marriages. Although I guess, those lists are talking about the lack of sex between man and wife, not exactly lack of sex on either side of the equation. . . When we lived in Osaka I got so sick and tired of getting the local sex shops ads in our mail box. In our family apartment building mail box. Invariably there was a naked girl (except for the high heels of course) either bending over or squatting in exactly the manner I am trying to teach my daughters never ever to bend or squat. And on the other side their price list. I learned a lot of dirty Japanese from those price lists.

Even when I go on line to get my English language news on Japan, if I visit the Mainichi Shinbun's site (a top Japanese newspaper) I usually have to scan past their WaiWai section (wai wai is a scream of excitement I believe) in which they detail the latest sexual services offered in the sex industry here in Japan. The "ick" factor is high in these articles as the men writing them, well, they "try out" the pantiless yakinuku joint, or the nipple massage with blow job service. . . The articles aren't written by staff at the Mainichi, the Mainichi's Wai Wai section is just a collection of articles taken from Japan's top weekly magazines--titillating gossip and smut.

The convenience stores here place their porno mags and pornographic manga face out so that you see the whole slew as you walk up to the store through their glass window fronts. And I wonder why my daughters sometimes horrify me by striking incredibly sexually provocative poses. . .

When I lived in Tokyo and had to ride the trains every day it drove me nuts that businessmen routinely read (read? looked at maybe a better word choice) the most explicit sex mags on the train next to me, in front of me, basically so close to me that it would have been more practical just to ask me to hold the damn magazines up for them!

The number and availability of sex industry services here is mind boggling. I assume that there are similar services available in my home country, the U.S.A. but thank god for America's puritanical roots--Hustler and Penthouse were well and truly buried, obscured, hidden under the counter behind a black cover at the local market. I had to babysit in order to be able to peruse my first pornographic magazines. (My pre-teen girlfriends and I had a network going, if you discovered pornography, magazines or videos, at a babysitting job you had to tell the group that way we could all look it over.)

Sexuality and nudity on T.V. here would be a whole different essay. It has changed since the 80's. I remember watching a game show in which the bimbo girl would have to take off a piece of clothing for each incorrect answer and as soon as she was nude she had to get on a slide and slide down into the all male audience. Or my favorite I-love-to-hate-him comedian, movie maker, wife cheater, Takeshi Beat's show where he conducted interviews while everyone had a naked woman sitting astride their neck/shoulders. I think that show was protesting the new restrictions on allowing nudity/sex on television shows.

(Of course, on the other side of the Pacific, I should probably confess that I tuned into a episode of Fox's Nip and Tuck and couldn't believe my eyes--sex and nudity? Big time! I have to watch most of my own T.V. shows after the kids are asleep. I let them watch a few episodes of Friends (comedy so I considered it innocent) and I got so tired of hearing them say, "Let's have sex" that I had to cross that off the child appropriate list. I am down to watching The Power Puff Girls and Lizzy McGuire re-runs. It is driving me nutty.)

Health Delivery girls (think about it), Soap Lands--use a nude girl as your shower sponge and then get extras thrown in--hiring a van and the prostitute in the back of it to "service you" while driving about the city are big. There are companies that provide elaborate ruses for spouses--back ground noises to throw them off the scent. Calling from the local soap land? No bother, your wife will only hear the typical noises of a train station platform in the background.

I mean, there is so much invested in deception and the alteration of perceptions here in Japan. Whole industries--the mobile phone industry is scary in all the different methods it has produced to make sure that a spouse will never figure out who you are really calling on your mobile phone. . .

But the bit about it all that disturbs me the most is that it isn't done to protect the person who is indulging in experiences "out of the bonds of matrimony" as much as it is done to "protect the spouse." I mean, if in the end, the truth is discovered, it is not so much a problem. Unless the guy has put his whole family in debt for the services offered in the red light district. THEN it is a problem. But otherwise, so what? A guy is a guy is a guy and ignorance is bliss and ensures domestic tranquility.

Example: Guy in my husband's hometown leaves his wife and children for a young Filipino bar hostess. Then he embezzles money from his insurance company business to buy her stuff. He embezzles A LOT. We're talking thousands of dollars from several different customers. Probably into the 100's of thousands. My mother in law is one of them. First he runs away. Then he comes back. To avoid being black listed in his professional field he promises to pay all of his clients back. He pays my mother in law about a hundred dollars a month. (He owes her THOUSANDS) Everyone in town is perfectly happy with this arrangement. Everyone extends him courtesy and friendship, comrade ship. He gets new clients.

What he did wrong was he embezzled money from clients. I can't get past the wife and kids. . . I mean, who's going to pay for those kids' college? How does the wife get through each day without making him into salary man sushi? My mother in law lives in a small town. EVERYONE knows what this man did.

So your man cheats on you? It is to be expected. So while I explicitly trusted Masa for the first 7 years of our marriage I have to admit that I kept up of a front of being a little jealous. It was meant to be done in a teasing manner but beneath it lay a tiny bit of real fear. Fear that he would give in to the cultural pressures around him. Fear that he would give into group pressure or give into a midlife crisis. He has had friends who were unfaithful to their wives. One of those friends even brought his lover into his home to babysit his children. And Masa still considered the man a friend: I considered him the scum of the Earth and a bit like dog shit that needs smeared from one's shoes onto a sharp edge of concrete.

There's a cultural divide here that I just can't get across. In fact, the most annoying thing that Masa has ever told me is that he is the world's best husband because he has never cheated on me. Uh. . . huh. Should I be doling out gold stars for each day he successfully doesn't have an affair? Or, maybe I should rephrase that: should I doling out gold stars for each day that he successfully doesn't have an affair?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

"K" is for "Kitchen"

My mother's kitchen is huge. It has unparalleled counter space. It has two sinks--one in the counter and one in the isle counter--a convection oven and a conventional oven. She has an assortment of cutting boards (two built into the kitchen counters others that I remember from my child hood moving house to house with us.) Cooking in my mother's kitchen is a delight, because it is a social event. My last trip home, four years ago when my daughters were 5 and 1, one of my closest girl friends flew with her 5-year-old daughter to spend Thanksgiving at my parents home with me. To try to offset the burden of extra company for Thanksgiving, my friend and I volunteered to cook up the entire feast. Mom insisted on doing the turkey herself, but apart from my parents sneaking in in the early morning to pop the bird in to the oven, the rest of the day was spent with five-year old girls grating, peeling and washing things at the two separate sinks while my girlfriend tutored me in the art of preparing mouth watering dishes.

My girlfriend is a real cook. She is in her element in a kitchen.

I am not. I am not a real cook that is. I am a recipe cook. I select the recipe, I study it, I consider it, I study it some more and then I follow it, painstakingly down to the last detail. My food tastes pretty much like one would expect, edible but not memorable.

Despite my complete lack of cooking finesse, I enjoy a good kitchen. I love my mother's kitchen because it is HUGE. On that Thanksgiving day five years ago, my one-year-old sat at the end of the kitchen isle unloading pots and pans from a cupboard underneath the isle, my five-year-old viciously and cheerfully frisked and scrubbed vegetables at the isle sink. My friend's five-year-old painstakingly grated huge mounds of cheddar cheese next to her mother by the stove top. My friend was busy teaching me the art of creating a light and flaky pie crust.

And I brewed and poured coffee into our earthenware coffee mugs. (I love my mother's plates, dishes, cups and bowls--so many local pottery pieces). I leaned on the kitchen counter and laughed and gossiped and talked and talked and talked. In the moments when we got the girls out of the kitchen and to the dinning room table to color in turkeys and fall leaves, we dissected our lives and our marriages over our cups of coffee. But all afternoon the kitchen never sat in silence.

My mother's kitchen, the 2 sink, middle isle one is not the kitchen I grew up with. That kitchen was in the house in the foothills of California. It had only one sink, no center isle and only one cutting board. But it had an attached breakfast bar, where in fact my family ate most of our meals.

While one person was cooking or cleaning up in the kitchen, another could sit at the breakfast bar and do what I like to do best in a kitchen: talk.

In fact, should you ever find me at all reticent, drag me into the nearest kitchen and I'll open up.

I don't recall a single conversation of importance with my mother that didn't take place in the kitchen.

Even guests seemed to intuit the conversational pull of the kitchen and despite seating arrangements or name placards the best conversations always erupted in the kitchen.

When I was 9 and I was helping my mother by offering guests tea or coffee I remember how out in the living room the adults would receive a tea cup with formal thank yous but how they would later walk into the kitchen and leaning against the kitchen counter start real conversations with me. Sometimes they told me about their own childhoods or something about their own children. Often they gave me advice or offered insights that made no sense to me at the time, at that age. Just this morning, as I sat staring at Saki (4 years old) who was whacking a large empty cardboard box with a stick (loud, but still not as loud as last week's obsession which was dumping marbles in a metal bowl and then swishing them around and around and around) I heard again, Mrs. Rudemyer confessing in my mother's kitchen, "Oh Laura I can't wait until my Amy is your age! And can talk about something! I can't wait to have interesting conversations with her! Talking with you is so fun, you have opinions and ideas! Young children can be so repetitive and . . . . boring. It's a challenge." As Saki continued to enthusiastically whip the box with her stick the 40 year old me smiled at Mrs. Rudemyer and thought "how true."

And yet, I want that little box whipping child in my kitchen! In fact, I try to lure both girls into the kitchen with me whenever I can. Unfortunately, our kitchen here in Japan is basically a thin rectangle. There is no room for anything, certainly not for more than one person at a time. I worry that the cat will eventually show signs of brain damage I end up stepping on her and booting her about so frequently in the kitchen as she tries to wind her way past or through my legs to her food dish at the end of the kitchen. One side of our kitchen is lined with the refrigerator, the sink and the stove top. The other side is lined with the dish cupboard, a standing plug in isle (wooden table with outlets built in it) pushed up against the wall that holds the rice cooker and coffee pot and the small convection oven. The convection oven is a BIG domestic triumph and it took me five years to get it. But now I can bake American style and it can even fit a small turkey. Then at the very end there is a tiny space for the cats bowls. They have to eat shoulder to shoulder. Counter space I create by laying cutting boards across the sink.

And yet, here I am still trying to coax my daughters into the kitchen to talk with me. I am never so desperate for conversation as when I am in that tiny kitchen.

Our first apartment here in Japan had an even tinier kitchen. It was only one side of the wall and that was the wall that was also part of the family room. I enthusiastically bought a huge wooden table to plunk down opposite the wall with the kitchen on it. The table was so big that you could barely squeeze past it. In fact, Reno usually just danced up on and down the bench rather than try to squirm around it. It looked like I had put Barbie furniture in a traditional sized doll house--very out of proportion. And still no one stayed to talk to me. Reno and her father usually sat in front of the T.V. at the end of that room. We ended up calling it the "overpriced cutting board."

When we moved into our mansion in Osaka I was enthusiastic over the kitchen. It was marginally larger, but the part I loved was that the sink had dual facets in it (although after living there for four years I only remember one occasion on which I actually had a friend there to use one facet while I used the other.) and that there was an open counter looking out into the dinning room. Where I of course placed the monstrous dinning table. My family however, continually drifted towards the end of the dinning/family room, pulled by the force of the T.V. and my big homey table became a kind of "side bar". I could look out that kitchen window at that empty table as much as I wanted to. The hoards stayed firmly encrusted on the sofa, opposite the table, out of my range of view, in front of the T.V.

Of course at meal times I could force them to sit at the table. But where was the epicenter for conversation in our family? In Osaka, it ended up being in the ofuro. Which is fine for family, but you can't exactly drag company in to the family bath, ask them to disrobe and get chatty now can you?

Here in Akita, I find that the kids open up and want to talk to me at bed time. No matter how long the day has been or how late the bed time hour, they sit up, suddenly perky and willing to divulge all kind of fascinating details about their day or they are inspired at the precise moment that I say, "now lay down and go to sleep" to ask questions that are deep and significant.

Growing up, I was inspired to explore and plumb the depths of the universal truths by the site of a peeler in my mother's hands. My kids seem to get inspiration from the lines etched in my face from fatigue.

For me, a kitchen is a place for creation and communion. If there is someone in there that can cook too than not only my soul but my palate will be satisfied as well. But my main concern in the kitchen is the feeding of my soul. Japan's skinny kitchens have put that aspect of life on a strict regimented diet. No one wants to squeeze in there with me!

So I am trying to perfect the art of meditation in a kitchen. Using recipes as mantras, stirring and whisking and chopping up the events of the day, preserving memories and striving to balance my soul while I attempt to put something edible on the plates at the big table.

Oh, and if you ever have the desire to call and chat during the pre-dinner hour (from 5 to 6p.m. Japan time) please feel free to ring me! My cordless phone works perfectly well in the kitchen!

Monday, August 20, 2007

"j" is for . . . .

"J" is for Japan! I first came to Japan as an exchange student in 1988. I didn't eat sushi, I couldn't stomach natto (fermented soy beans) and I disliked even ramen! I lost a lot of weight and looked fabulous when I returned to the states. I also seriously fell completely in love with my husband. Although we had met the year before in Oregon at my university, being an exchange student here in Japan just made the love affair all the more intense. I still remember how he looked when he would crawl through my window at the seminar house (where all the exchange students stayed) late at night. He was working at a juku (cram school), so it would be maybe 11, or midnight, he would be in suit and tie, his crisp white shirt loose, half unbuttoned, his tie stuffed in a pocket. I loved watching him concentrate on levering himself up and then the moment our eyes would meet and he would freeze there on the threshold to my room. It was a hot and humid summer and I didn't care. I couldn't get enough of him. I cried ceaselessly for days after returning home. Still have no idea how I was able to get on a plane and put all that distance in between us. I felt like I had ripped my heart out and left it on a bench in Narita (large international airport in Tokyo)!

Japan. The country I live in now. It is hot and humid and my husband asks me why I sweat so much. Oh how twenty years can turn lust on its head.

Japan. Eating with ohashi (chopsticks), cooking with ohashi (I was chagrined to find myself dropping the stirring spoon in the pot, fumbling with the cooking utensils I grew up with on my last trip home. Actually thinking, "Good lord, what I wouldn't give for two fine long and straight sticks!"), gohan (RICE. Not the rice of my childhood, overdone and mushy. Not the long grain rice I grew up eating in Thai food or Chinese food in California but short grain Japanese rice, cooked in a rice cooker, rinsed and drained and soaked and steamed in our state of the art rice cooker.) My daughters bringing home a dirt covered diakon (large Japanese radish), a dirt covered sweet potato, a dirt covered potato from ensoku (field trips). I love the enthusiasm with which Saki and Reno have dragged home their vegetable trophies. The kids excitement over beetles. The Onsen--even with two children who have to be reminded again and again "this is not a pool! It is a hot spring! RELAX and stop JUMPING." DS lite software, digital cameras, plasma screen t.v.s --I can wander an electrical store here for hours, happy. Onigiri, nori (dried sea weed) on salted white rice wrapped up like an edible softball, still warm. The smell of incense lingering over the tatami in the room that houses the butsudan (Buddhist anscetstoral alter) at MIL's house.

Japan in the summer--sofuto kurimu (soft cream ice cream)kakigori (shaved ice), uchiwa (hand held fan) and mugichya (roasted barley tea). My bell crickets ringing on a hot August day, the kind of day when you step outside and feel the moisture in the air settle on your skin and roll off of your face as you wipe at it with a handkerchief. It is cold somen (thin wheat) noodles, cold soba (buckwheat) noodles, cold ramen noodles and chilled cucumber strips for dinner. It is the bags of gold fish that my daughters gleefully bring home from local matsuris (festivals), along with brilliant (very breakable) electrical swords that they brandish at one another and squeal with delight as they draw on the night sky with them. (They've already broken the light toys that we bought for them at the big Kanto matsuri this year.) It is the hanabi (fireworks) that light up the sky overhead and the senko hanabi (sparkler) gripped in your four-year-old's hand, sparkling and showing her sandaled feet on the grass poking out from underneath her colorful yukata.

The shrill cry of the early summertime semi (cicada), the dragonflies that hang on the autumn breeze, suspended over the rice fields on invisible strings, the hawk as it glides and circles close enough for me to yearn to raise up an arm and stroke it's cocoa brown chest (I would forget about those talons and beak until they sank into me--Hawks mesmerize me, I love them).

The preying mantis the size of my forefinger that defends the bush at the front of our house. First difficult to spot as she sits on a green leaf but by early October striking in her contrast with the by then bright red leaf underneath her. The fact that she eats her husband? Plucky. I like that in an insect.

The first day of winter when the vending machines switch over to "hot" drinks and I can make my favorite fall dish--butajiru (miso based soup with daikon, gobo/burdock root, tofu, carrot and konnyaku and fatty pork) with grilled sanma (Pacific saury)and a wedge of saduchi lime. As the weather chills and the temperature drops deciding that it is too cold to eat anything but nabe(one pot dishes)--Kimchee nabe, kiritanpo nabe, seafood nabe. Until January arrives and you can start to lay the slabs of homemade omochi ( pounded glutenous rice cakes that MIL sends every year) on the stove and watch them puff up. Drizzle a little shyoyu (soy sauce) on top and warn the girls for the billionth time--small bites and chew well!

The change of the seasons themselves, reflected in local decorations, culinary dishes, even the snack foods offered at the local convenience store--in the spring time, snack on ume (plum flavored) potato chips, in the fall snack on yakiimo (baked sweet potato flavored) chips. This summer I enjoyed my first Cucumber Pepsi--a Summer time seasonal drink. So popular it sold out locally within two weeks of being introduced. The seasons reflected everywhere because in Japan the four seasons are distinct. There is no such thing as an autumn like winter night or a summer like fall evening. The change in the season ("Today is the first day of spring!") is announced on T.V. not because it is fanciful to do so, but because it is a fact.

I like looking up into the night sky in Japan and seeing the rabbit in the moon. And although I have taught my children to find the man in the moon as well, we all agree that we prefer the nocturnal quiet of that bunny to the face of that man looking down on us.

Japan is a feeling, a way of being, an undertone a nuance. I love my American sense of independence and I absolutely love small talk when I return home. But for a few minutes in the airport I miss for a fraction of a second the invisible veil that I have in Japan. The space between me and those around me is suddenly consumed in the noise and the vigour of the American crowd around me. And when I am absolutely dead tired, jet lagged on my feet, I even miss the anonymity of never being expected to say more than, "Good afternoon. This please. Thank you." at the register. Reaching out to receive a gift with both hands, bowing on the phone, unwrapping the furoshiki, greeting the delivery man in the genkan (traditional Japanese entranceway) who brings you your ochugen gift (summer time gift, one of several seasonal gifts traditionally exchanged during the Japanese year) of chilled mikans (Japanese tangarines sent by MIL).

The chorus of aisatsu (greetings) that encircle life here and bind us to one another:

Inviting someone into your house : aggatte kudasai (please come in)

Entering someone's house: ojamashimasu (I'm sorry to bother you)/shitsureishimasu (I'm sorry to intrude/be rude)

Leaving someone's house: ojamashimashita (I'm sorry to have troubled you.)

Morning greeting: ohayogozaimasu

Afternoon greeting: konnichiwa

Evening greeting: konbanwa

Good night: oyasumiyasai

Before eating (when serving food) : meishi agatte kudasai (please eat) douzo (here you are)

Before eating : itadakimasu

After eating: gochisosama deshita

Excuse me (used a LOT more than in English for nearly every situation imaginable, asking a clerk to ring up a sale, after bumping into someone, when trying to get past another person, etc.): suimasen

Please: onegaishimasu (used when asking a favor)

Thanking others for their hard work: otsukare sama deshita (for instance, when you leave work to your co-workers)

Goodbye: sayonara or matta ne (the later is more informal)

Thank you for everything: oseiwa ni narimashita (I have to write this at the beginning of each note to my girls' teachers, a kind of acknowledgment for all that they do for my children and therefore for me.)

Take care: genki de ne

Get well: odaijini

Apologies: mo shiwake arimasen (kind of an "there is no excuse, I am sorry"
gomenasai (a more literal, "sorry")

Excuse me for leaving before you (when there are people still at the office working, for example) = o-sakini shitsureishimasu For letting someone go ahead of you = douzo osaki ni

Pleased to meet you: hajimemashite, yoroshiku onegaishimasu

"J" is for Japan: the country where I say "Tadaima!" (I'm home) and my children and husband answer, "Okaerinasai" (welcome home).

Friday, August 17, 2007

"I" is for Identity

Which is what? What is my identity? I am. . . American? An expatriate? A foreign wife? A Gaijin? Do I qualify as international?

Am I over-the-hill, old, an obaasan--a mother, a wife, a footnote to my former self?

If identity is in part based on origins, mine lay in the mid-west of America. My father's family is all from Illinois and I was born in Kentucky. We lived in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Illinois from the time of my birth until I was in the second grade. I remember bits of Pennsylvania (we lived in Hershey, Pennsylvania--who can forget the smell of chocolate after rain? The street lights shaped like silver wrapped Hershey kisses?) and all of our time in Illinois.
My mother's family also comes from the Midwest--Pennsylvania and Michigan. But my parent's marriage was a kind of shining-knight-rescues-damsel-in-distress deal so I grew up in the knight's compound and didn't really mix much with the clan from whence my mother was taken.
But my father re-located our Midwestern family to California in 1976 when I was nine-years-old. In California we had only our nuclear family which means that I was raised in the universe of my parents. It was a fascinating sociology experiment. A bit like the movie "Mosquito Coast" just tamed down and camouflaged. And my parents remained there for the next two decades. They relocated back to the Midwest, to Indiana, after my father's retirement from teaching.

So all my pre-teen (tween as it is now fashionably called) years and teen years were carried out under the optimistic strong glare of the Californian sun--tattoos, liberalism, fresh oranges a buck a crate, the smell of suntan lotion and burning asphalt and the glorious rebirth of the foothills in a brief baptism of green until spring runs away and summer lays her golden mantel over the Sierra Nevadas. But somewhere in my background is the tenacity and the humility of farmers who settled in the plains of the Midwest--humidity, home grown tomatoes, lightening bugs, real green grass lawns, front porches, lightening storms and hail the size of baseballs--Midwestern reserve and Bible belt morals.

My educational background, another element in forming identity, was a small private liberal arts college in Oregon, followed by graduate school at a California State University and then my formal education ended in Reno, Nevada where I was working on a Ph.D. in English literature. That I never completed. And I feel it so keenly that I am convinced that any doctor to perform an autopsy on me would be able to cut me open and point out, "Ah, and see here? This is where she was unable to complete her doctorate program."

And really, now that I have metaphorically got myself up on the slab, cut open for inspection, we get closer to how I feel about my identity: Bits and pieces. Bits and pieces that for a time here and there are able to form enough cohesiveness to pass for "me."

Most of the bits and pieces of me have reached the shores of Nihon, the land I call home and the home of my children. They don't all fit in here though, although I can't say for sure that they fit perfectly in the U.S. either. Being Gaijin here helps the western immigrant keep a tight perspective on their cultural heritage. I will never be Japanese and so I can unburden myself of the albatross of cultural assimilation. I learn the customs and the ins and the outs of living in Japan, but I don't have to remold my soul to fit anything at all here. I am fundamentally foreign and safe to remain so.

Does this make the American me more American? In the beginning, I realized that living outside of America did highlight for me what it meant to be American. Ironically I won the sixth grade speech contest, "Why I am Proud to be an American." It's ironic, because I can't remember why I was proud at that point in life. And ironic because I realized that I had no clue what it meant to be American until I left America years later.

Now that I have lived outside America for a decade I realize that I am unable to come up with the necessary cultural passwords. I use the Internet to try to fill in my American cultural gaps--I read about Britney and Hilton, about the political scandals and the homegrown backyard victories. I listen to the top ten and watch American Idol, spell bound.

But when I was home for a visit four years ago and sat in front of the evening news it hit me for the first time that I was an American living far from America. The first news that scrolled across the screen were the names of local soldiers who had died in action. We were at war. The next morning when I took my parents dog out for his morning walk my mother pointed out the homes of those who had loved ones over in Iraq. The yellow ribbons on the trees, I kept wondering, why hadn't I noticed all the yellow ribbons before?

In Japan, I knew we were at war, the U.S. and Iraq. I knew it, but I didn't feel it. Just like I know that my children are Japanese and American, not one nor the other but a combination of both--incomplete in some areas of each, but whole in the sum total. This is easier to see and accept on an intellectual level than witness in action. When we drove in from the airport to my folk's house in Indiana my children shrieked with delight, "A park! A park! Can we stop?" over and over again. They were pointing at backyards filled with climbing gyms and swing sets, something that they don't see here in Japan. Swing sets and slides are for public parks, not private homes here.

The disappointment that became palpable at meal times in my parents house when my children refused American favorites, pizza, jam, SpaghettiOs, macaroni and cheese, pumpkin pie. . . making it hard to swallow. The resignation when my mother offered up the rice cooker ( a gift we gave my folks years ago) and rice. The greed and glee with which my children danced around the steaming rice cooker, squealing with delight, "It dinged! it dinged! The rice is done!"

The distance that inevitably starts to fill the space between my American friends and I. Shared experiences no longer strong enough to build a bridge in certain areas of our lives. If I complain about the heat and the humidity to my friend who lives in an insulated, central air conditioned house. . . how can she understand mold that grows in the bathroom, on the window sills and behind the furniture on the wall? If I whine about household chores to my friend who uses a dishwasher, a dryer and an oven large enough to bake two trays of cookies at once how does she find a way to understand my frustration with hanging up laundry indoors to dry during the rainy season?

When I first came to Japan as a married woman, my Japanese mother-in-law suggested that my husband and I live tanshinfunin (a common practice in Japan where the husband lives in a different city or area of Japan from his wife and children for work purposes). I remember looking at her incredulously. I couldn't fathom the idea. When she asked me how to translate tanshinfunin into English I told her "separation" as in prior to "divorce". She looked at me incredulously.

A friend of mine is faced with a making a decision this spring. Her Japanese husband has decided on a job in a different prefecture from where they are currently living. They just bought a beautiful home in the area of Japan in which they are now. Her eldest child has started elementary school there. Her youngest is finally settled in a new day care there. I asked her if she had considered tanshinfunin? To me, it makes sense now.

There are a lot of things now that make sense to me. It doesn't bother me at all anymore when someone cancels plans or turns down an invitation just by saying, "I have plans/something came up." without offering any further details. I no longer give excuses. In fact, just saying, "chotto. . . " rolls right off my tongue. Chotto literally means, "a little", but in conversation it can kind of translate into "uhhhh . . . " and whereas it used to frustrate me to be "chotto'ed" by someone, now it doesn't offend. If feels right.

And I feel a little anxious until I know the exact age of the person to whom I am speaking. Then the ground levels out and I know exactly where I stand or where I should be standing in relation to them.

A foreign friend came to my house the other day and when she left I went outside and stood in the street and watched her car disappear down the road. When I could no longer see it I went back inside. I knew I probably didn't have to do that. She is American too. But I didn't seem to be able to stop myself from following her out the door. Waving at her. Bowing at her disappearing car.

Identity. I'm still searching for mine--the bit of me out in the street watching my friend's car vanish, the bit that has memorized all the Japanese nursery school songs and finger plays, the bit that got drunk off of Coors beer in the back of my boyfriend's car in high school in the California foot hills, the bit that hugged my professors fiercely when I received my MA degree, the bit that sang 9 Inch Nail songs at the top of my lungs, the bit that answers to the word "Mommy", the bit that wants to roll the windows down and feel the San Joaquin's heated breeze rush over my face. In the kaleidoscope of me, I sit watching the pieces fall into different patterns. Is this a constant act of reinvention? Or is it the process of being?

Identity: fractured, incomplete, incandescent, in motion, in memory, a figure in a life in progress.