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.