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
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 will walk her to school as soon as I get my youngest daughter on the youchien (preschool) bus."
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 Amazon.com and re-live my teen years whilst cruising on the Northern roads of Japan!