Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Independent Emi: Dennis the Menace Japanese style

My first impression of this child was that she must be about five or six years old. Reasons for this assumption were: she was to be found at nearly any time of day, outside, in the streets, roaming the neighborhood on her own. She also towered over my three-year-old.

However, upon closer inspection I deduced that she was simply tall for her age. Reasons for the revision in my initial assumptions were: she spoke more like a three or four year old, she often was to be found without any shoes on and she didn't appear to dress according to the weather.

She also liked to come up and tell me in the park that she needed to pee. And she needed someone to push her on the swing set.

It was finally revealed after a chance encounter with her mother that this little girl was in fact younger than my daughter--by a good four months. She was about twice as heavy and a good foot taller, but she was my daughter's chronological junior. Her mother confided to me that Emi-chyan was the fourth of four children and a bit of a handful. Her mother and father both worked and she was often entrusted to the care of her eight-year-old brother or her older (High school and college aged) sisters. How hard her siblings worked to keep her in sight however was another matter. Her brother, with whom she was left most often, would basically circle back around the neighbor every few hours, find her and yell at her to go home. She never paid him any heed.

As fate would have it (or perhaps luck?) my daughter Saki ended up going to a different pre-school so for the first year here we managed to contain our interactions with independent Emi to the local park. Except for the time that she got into our back yard and got into the large inflatable swimming pool we had set up. And of course, after she discovered that we kept all the outside toys in the tool shed in the back yard I started to find the door left open and various toys strewn around our property. . . She was a definite presence, even with out being obviously present. She was almost a kind of physical manifestation of a poltergeist. When I would accuse the girls of forgetting to shut the gate to the back yard, or forgetting to put away all their toys in the shed they would answer with cries of "We didn't do it! Emi did!"

Then, after the spring thaw this year all that changed. Now an independent four-year-old--whose her mother confided to me one afternoon has them concerned as she has started to cross the nearby heavily trafficked roads and has been found as far as several traffic lights away--Emi has planted herself firmly, physically at our house. It started with the unexplained, mysterious ability of our two house cats to get outside.

At first I marveled at the cats' strength, dexterity and cunning. They must have found a way to open the sliding glass doors off the back sun porch! How? I bemused. Then Reno, my eldest daughter said, "I betchya Emi is letting them out." I scoffed. No, no, no. . . then one day I heard the pearl of our front door bell. Upon opening the door I saw Emi, a big smile on her face. She looked particularily pleased. "Emi-chyan? Saki isn't home from pre school yee.....t. Melon! Happy! Bad Cats!" and I took a flying leap off the front porch to try to tackle our two house cats who had just streaked by. After scaring both cats back inside I mused out loud, "how did they get out? " and out of the corner of my eye I saw Emi's grin radiating at me. "Emi-chyan. They are house cats and are not allowed outside." She beamed at me, waved at me and meandered back out into the road in her signature bare feet. Later that afternoon I discovered a pair of Emi's shoes carefully lined up in the back yard just outside our sun porch.

Next came the mail fiasco. For several weeks I kept finding a neighbor's mail in our mail box. Every day I would summon Reno and instruct her to deliver the mail to the correct address. When I asked if she found the right houses okay she always said, "Yeah. no problem." I figured that we must have a particularly ambitious mailman who was just going along on his scooter so fast that he was tossing some of the other neighbors' mail in with ours. . . until one day when I decided to take the mail to the correct addresses myself. Walking along our road, squinting at each door plaque trying to match the Chinese characters on the envelopes to the family names etched on the plaques I finally realized that all the mail belonged to Emi's family. Sure enough, when her mother opened the door and saw me there holding a bunch of letters she grimaced and said, "Oh, I'm so sorry. Emi likes to put our mail in other people's mail boxes! Emi?" a barefoot and muddy faced Emi appeared from their side yard. "Did you put these letters in Saki's mail box?" "uh-uh. " and she grinned expansively at both her mother and me. Her mother frowned. Then she turned and bowed very formally to me, "I am so sorry. Really I am."

The week before our family came down with the influenza this spring, I found Emi at the park wearing only nylons and a t-shirt in 6 degree Celsius weather. By now, smart to her ways, I looked around the expansive park quickly and saw, tucked under a tree at the far end what looked like a small brown bundle. "Emi? Where are your pants?" She shrugged her shoulders and gave me an expansive smile. "Are those your pants under that tree over there?" She looked down at her by now very, very dirty nylon covered toes. "Let's go put them on, shall we?" It was to be our last day in the park with Independent Emi for a week or so as just a few days later my husband came home with the flu which he gave to Reno which she in turn gave to her little sister Saki. No one gave it to me so that I could stay inside and take care of them all.

That's when the assault began. Starting as soon as she was home from pre school and then on the weekends from about 9 a.m. in the morning, Emi began appearing at the front door asking if my girls could come out to play. "No. Not today. They have the flu." Emi's eyes never left my face. "Can I come in then? I want to see what's inside." "No Emi-chyan, sorry. Goodbye."

She would wait anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour in between ringing the bell but she kept it up all day, every day until darkness fell. Sometimes she would vary her request changing the plea for human play mates to, "Can I take one of your cats outside?" At first I went to the front door every time. Then I started to just pick up the interphone and say, "Kyou asobanai. Byoki dakara" (They can't play today, they are sick.) and finally, I found myself, a full grown 40 year-old woman, a wife and a mother. . . turning down the volume of the front bell as far down as it would go and turning up the T.V. volume.

Then, at the beginning of this week she got in. Everyone was back up and running so Saki had just returned home from pre-school and I was busy making her a snack in the kitchen when I heard giggling. Coming out of the kitchen I found Saki and Emi sitting on the floor with a cat in between them giggling. The cat looked a little nervous and green snot was trailing out of Emi's nose so I handed her a tissue and said, "Remember to be gentle with the cat!" She took the proffered Kleenex and tossed it on the ground behind her. I picked it up and held it up to her nose. "Blow." She blew and then looked up at me. "I want a snack."

And so it began. That afternoon, after I had had Reno escort Emi-chyan home a total of no less than 5 times, it was already 6 o'clock by the time our household was Emi-free.
Today, I swear to God, that child must not have even stepped foot in her house after hopping off her pre school bus and she was pounding on the front door and leaning on the door bell (although I've turned the volume down as low as it can go, we can, unfortunately, still hear it).

I was behind in making prep for dinner so I let her in and she and Saki played up stairs for a while. . . which was OKAY, until I found them jumping all over the futons (after they had been expressly forbidden entrance to the bed room to begin with!) so then they moved downstairs where I had to tell Emi every 5 minutes or less to stop teasing and tormenting the cats. When cautioned that they would bite and scratch her, she pulled herself up to her full height and declared, "But I won't cry ." So I said, "Okay. But you will bleed so stop it."

Then she decided to try to climb up on our stove top provoking a rather loud and stern "Dame!" (NO) from me. Then she filched my house keys! I only noticed by accident--lucky that!--and again told her DAME. In fact, I looked deeply into big wide brown eyes and said in a low, even and deadly serious tone of voice, "Zetai ni dame" (absolutely NO!). She blinked which I took to be a sign that my authority was starting to be recognized.

The next time she entered the kitchen it was with her eyes focused on the bottle of syrup sitting on the kitchen counter. She demanded rather authoritatively that I make her pancakes. I laughed and said "no." Then she leaned dramatically against the kitchen cupboards, sighed and said, "Boy would pancakes taste good. I could really go for some pancakes about now." I pretended not to hear. But I did offer her some Nabisco chocolate chip cookies and a vegetable/fruit drink. It's what my four-year-old drinks. She accepted both and then promptly pronounced the juice "yucky" and went and pulled open our refrigerator door and attempted to climb in. Japanese refrigerators are a little different than typical American refrigerators. Our refrigerator for example has a large cool box on the bottom for vegetables, then two small freezer drawers and then the upper half is normal refrigerator. For a four-year-old, this makes sneaking things from the fridge a bit of a height challenge. When I realized that she had pulled out the vegetable drawer to climb up on it I intercepted her and poured out a glass of milk. She continued to open every refrigerator drawer she could reach however, her curiosity apparently having been piqued by the glimpse of our vegetables.

She took the glass of milk and promptly spilled about a 1/4 of it on the floor. And then stuck her feet out and smeared it across the wooden floor in an attempt to hide it. I commented that the milk had spilled and bent down with a cleaning cloth to wipe it up. Then I guided her to a chair at the table and told her the eating and drinking rule again: only at the table.

She was up and out of the chair, cookie in hand within seconds. I pretended not to notice as I was actually quite relieved to have her further from the kitchen no matter how many crumbs I'd discover around the family room later.

Then, the rice finally having binged and the ingredients for dinner all chopped up and waiting for a quick cook up later I announced that Saki and Emi should clean up before leaving with me to the park. Emi loudly announced that she would wait for us in the genkan. So I asked her if she had played with the toys? Yes, she had. "Then you are going to clean them up with us." But she bolted down the stairs where she put on a pair of high heels (taken from the genkan-front entrance) and proceeded to stomp about the house in them scratching the wood floor in two areas where she slipped in them! I wanted to. . . . grrrrrrr. . . .but I just dragged her back up stairs and said flatly, "if you don't pick up after playing here than you won't play here again." For which I earned two blinks and one doll put in the toy chest.

Then it was off to the park! Reprieve! Much less stressful. Until it was time to head home. She followed us although I said clearly and directly: "Saki-chyan wa ima kaerimasu yo. Kyou mo asobanai. Mata ashita ne? BYE BYE." ("Saki has to go home now she can't play anymore. See you tomorrow. Good bye.") I got to say the same thing and variations on it about 5 times. . . then luckily her mother appeared and ushered her home. About 5 minutes later I found her in our genkan (front entrance area). When I told her that we were having dinner and she had to leave she looked up and said, "Okashii chyoudai!" ("Give me snacks please!") I told her that soon her mother would be serving her dinner too so I would not give her any snacks just before dinner. Then I took her by the arm and put her out the front door. And put the chain on.

She struck next at the back of our house--pounding on the glass and opening the doors to the sun porch. I went out on the porch and told her it was time for her to go home. Shut and locked the doors, explaining that the cats are indoor cats and can not be let outside. She kept pounding on the glass windows/doors. I popped my head out and told her "Dame, go home." and shut the curtains.

She finally went home. But this afternoon I am sure she will be back.

And having gotten this all out of my system it reminds me to prey fiercely just before bed tonight that no local Japanese mother is blogging about, has ever blogged about or will ever blog about one of my children. And I just know that they have inevitably done some things that'd make them good blogging material. . . a little worrisome actually. It also has raised the specter of my own precocious childhood and reintroduced me to the four-year-old me that used to ask to use people's bathrooms so I could look through all their cupboards and take off my underpants. I hated wearing underpants. And I had a habit of publicly and loudly announcing to people who didn't like children that they didn't like children. It has made me thankful that I have learned over the years how to better control my own impulses.

Even though Reno continues to roll her eyes at the very mention of Emi-chyan (for the older girls on the block she is seen as the quintessential tag-along irritating "little kid") and asks me, "You don't really like her, do you Mommy?" I have to grin at her expansively and confess, "No, you know, I really do like her! She's a sweet little girl." She's just as sticky as gum on hot asphalt and as stubborn as an 80 year-old-man! but I don't say that part out loud, because really, I do like her.


Sarah said...


There is a boy in our neighborhood like that but because we have all girls he's not really interested in our house. Our neighbor, who is also in charge of our neighborhood and has two boys, has kind of taken Sho-kun under his wing but he appears very early in the morning asking if anybody can come out and play and he's always carrying a bag of food or snacks that he's bought himself. He's pretty chubby but it seems like his family gives him money and sends him out.

Also his mom is pretty loud so not many of the kids like her. She keeps telling all the first-graders that second grade is going to be really hard and then laughs and rides away on her bike. Usually after she's gone I tell them all that they're smart so they'll be fine!

Now that Emi has started first grade, after school some girls will come by to ask if they can play with her. One girl in particular comes home to an empty house and her grandma comes home a few hours later and then her mom comes home a few hours after that. I'm wondering now if she is going to turn into an "Emi-chan".

I don't think I would have as good of an attitude as you would though.

Suzan said...

I would NOT be able to handle this situation with near the grace and kindness that you do. I really admire you for being so patient and understanding. You know, she may just "make it" because of you. :)

Sheri said...

That sounds challenging!

Gina said...

Wow, what a little dynamo she sounds like. Jumping on your futons, throwing your keys, messing with the cat, demanding pancakes and all the rest. Wowsa! You do seem like you are handling the little neighborhood girl pretty well despite all that. I agree with Sarah, I couldn't handle it nearly as well as you are doing! : )

Lily said...

I read and read in disbelief. I admire her strong, courageous personality but I feel that her family is irresponisble. My goodness the child is just 4 YEARS OLD! I also would be cautious that her family is not taking advantage of your kindness and allowing her to harrass you. You are very, very patient- I would have stormed over to her parents house and made it clear that they better take care of their child.

Trisha said...

You know, this story just made me sad. Not for the way you handled it (I think you did the best you could) but for the child. It reminds me of a little girl I used to see in the park. She was always by herself even though she was only four or five years old. The story going around the park was that her mother saw the child a s a headache and sent her off to the park to get her out of her hair. The child still wore a diaper because the Mom didn't want to worry with potty training her. I was appalled. Soon after we moved to another city, but I often think about what became of that little girl.

azumarisan said...

Wow, you have way more patience and grace than me! But also, i'm surprised that the parents let her behave like that. I thought Japanese parents were pretty strict but they seem like they just throw their hands in the air and let other people deal with it. I've never encountered Japanese people like that before.

When i was reading your story i kind of felt afraid...i couldn't deal with that kind of kid. I'd have to lock all the doors and windows and close the blinds haha.

I hope you don't have to put up with her for too much longer.