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?