industrious ants

All about a life in motion.

A Year Comes To An End

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It is not yet the beginning of the day and the men in my life are still sleeping. I’ve been relishing the perfect light, blue-gray and only slightly seeping through the window. Save for the birds outside, it’s quiet.  Already I’ve read some scripture, written a letter to a friend in Japan, checked my email (about three times) and enjoyed dipping buttery jammed baguette slices into my morning mug of instant coffee. Waking up at 5am has all of a sudden made a very strong case for itself, but I’m trying not to get too comfortable. Next week I suspect that i’ll be back to my normal wake up routine. Normal, meaning whatever time Noah decides to saunter out of his room with a carefully selected book or toy in hand, an item that will quickly make swift and hard contact with my head. Sometimes there is no toy. Sometimes, he decides to just body-check my head instead. I’m not sure which I loathe more, the hardcover corners of Pete The Cat being repeatedly jabbed into my eye socket, or 28 pounds of small-person wearing a urine soaked diaper using my face as a trampoline. Trust me when I say that toddlers make for really crappy alarm clocks.

But hey, none of that is happening this morning thanks to two weeks of daily duckling swim lessons. Swimming, i’ve only just discovered, is like kryptonite for kids. 25 minutes a day of red-light/green-light and chop-chop-timber and your child is rendered powerless to things like sleep. It’s actually pretty awesome, and i’m savoring the extra shut-eye and longer mornings even if it will all be over as soon as the lessons run out.

My more rested mind has been thinking about Japan. We’ve been back now for just about a year, give or take a week. It’s contract turnover season and Facebook is alive with posts of friends still in the country going through the same departure rituals we did not so long ago. It’s a strange form of deja-vu to see pictures of farewell parties and send-offs that mirror your own album snapshots right down to the people in them. It makes me miss everything there so much more, especially the Japanese friends and neighbors that I struggle to stay in touch with. I can’t help but wonder what an extra year in Japan would have meant for our family, but I don’t wonder about it too long because deep inside I know on so many levels that it was time to go. I’ve had a year to mull it over and it feels good to finally come to sound conclusions based on experience and fact, rather than roller coaster emotions and the fear of what if. Coming back put a lot of noisy voices in my head to rest, and as in flux as our lives always seem to be these days, there is a great amount of peace that has come with it.

Life moves on. Some things here are different (like people) and other things never change (like people). Little reminders of where we’ve been are scattered around us. Miso in the fridge, the word genkan which we still use to describe the place we put our shoes, a pretty blue and white dress that lovely Maiko gave me and I wore for the first time since leaving, just last week (It still fits, thank God). These are just small attempts at keeping a beloved place alive in our day to day. Probably futile attempts really, ones that will get old or that we’ll outgrow, but they feel right for now.

A few weeks ago we drove to South Dakota for a cousin’s wedding. We stopped at a gas station halfway there, and as we pulled up to the pump I spotted two Asian-esque individuals in conversation across the lane. Before we’d even stopped, I knew they were Japanese. It was the distinct body language, the head bows, the way they spoke without barely moving their lips from a perfect polite smile. To be sure, once the car was turned off and the fuel was flowing into the tank, I cocked my ear to try and hear any hint of language I could recognize. They spoke so softly, so unlike the American volumes I had readjusted my hearing to, it was practically a dead give-away. So finally I just decided to go for it and called over a happy Konnichiwa! Their look of shock and then confused smiles gave me a lot of satisfaction. We spoke for a few minutes, a little in Japanese, but mostly English. I switched over after a few sentences, ashamed at the effort it took to dig up simple phrases I had once known so well and that I was at present clearly butchering.  All of us were excited to find ourselves in each others company. Even so, we kept it brief and said goodbye without even knowing what they were doing there.

Driving away, the car was quiet. I silently kicked myself for not having offered them something. Anything. A granola bar, an orange from the bottom of my purse, some token of welcome to this country that wasn’t even my own. It’s what they would have done for us had the tables been turned. A little later we pieced all the details of what had just happened into an amusing little story, retelling it for our own amusement, then reminiscing of times even further back in the Japan that we both missed and loved. There was warmth and joy in the nostalgia. And I couldn’t help but turn to look out the window at the passing endless fields of soy and wind turbines, thinking over those few words shared in a language I am surely losing, with strangers I will likely never meet again, who somehow made me feel so complete in such a short and fleeting moment, and then I cried.

Cottage/Cabin Country

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My ankles are itchy. For whatever reason that bony part of my body seems to be the preferred cut of meat to the mosquitos in my parent’s yard. They are relentless and I find myself surrounded by smoking citronella coils and mentally blocking out all the horrible things I’ve heard about DEET as I spray myself down. Becoming a garden buffet to kamikaze insects was not one of my expectations when Noah and I jumped across the border to visit the Canadian side of our family. It seemed far more likely a scenario in the lake country we just came out of in midwest America. Either way there is nostalgia that comes with the bumpy welts, a topographical map of memories across the backs of my legs. Memories of hot sleepless nights in a dingy Sri Lankan hostel, them too cheap to put nets over their beds, and us miserably and unsuccessfully fending off the blood sucking air-raids. Going even further back, images of my sister and all our cabin mates at the French Catholic sleep-away camp, lined up to have the head nun dab all our itchy spots with her magic medicine, counting the pink polka-dots as she went. Calamine dreams.

I avoid my first instinct, which is to hide out in the house. That just defies the entire point of being here. The beauty of this place, aside from the obvious doting grandparent factor, is the room to breath. Outside the front door is not a hot apartment hallway or bustling city avenue, but grass, trees, shade and wind, and all belonging to our family. Noah keeps busy in mom’s gorgeous garden, digging in the sandpit, watering plants, swinging in the hammock, admiring the Cardinals that brave their shyness to steal seeds from the feeder and pointing out the passing propellor planes overhead. On sleepy rainy days like today, we venture farther and he puddle jumps from one neighbors driveway to the next, until we land in the almost empty ball-park bleachers at the corner park, cheering on both teams of foul mouthed butchy ladies swinging bats at softballs. I force myself to sit back. It takes a lot of effort for me to do just that, with or without mosquitos. My mind is always restless with one thought or another. It’s noisy in my head, but being here helps turn the volume down a bit.

Mom and dad like to call this place their cottage in the city, and I can see why. They’ve made the one home they have into the place they want to be almost all the time. Even though I didn’t grow up here, living out of a suitcase in the spare room still feels like I belong. If you know my parents at all, you know it’s almost impossible to outstay your welcome and already i’m getting pressure to change my ticket and stretch it an extra week. The idea is tempting. It has been worlds easier to parent Noah with no less than 3 sets of adult eyes on him at all times, eat meals not made by my own hands and sleep that extra 30 minutes that makes you feel one step closer to sanity.

We have another sanctuary south of the border, similarly in the company of other grandparents at what there is called the lake cabin. I still sometimes call it the cottage as we would here in Ontario. The giggles I receive in response to my commonwealth vernacular remind me how different things are just a stones throw below the 49th parallel (restrooms not washrooms, Cub Scouts not Air Cadets, run in miles and remember that there are 4 liters to a gallon). Every other weekend we brave the traffic and escape the concrete jungle to drive north 3 hours to our American family’s lakeside escape. Noah stays awake for as much of the drive as he can, identifying every train track and engine, digger and dump truck along the way. He loves it up there to no end, and he’s a different kid entirely when all the boundaries of the city are removed. There are no streets he can’t cross or places he can’t play. He wades into the muddy waters with Matt, plants beans with his grandma, rides every one of Grandpa’s wheeled machines and of course eats copious amounts of everything we never feed him at home. The cabin with all its trimmings, like my parent’s home, is big enough to hold him. At the end of the day I check the crooks and crannies of his little body for ticks and then he happily falls asleep, full of happy-tiredness, without much fuss.

I haven’t made up my mind about the tickets yet. To stay or to go, it always seems to be the question i’m trying to answer. I have a bad habit of feeling like the grass is always greener on the side i’m on. The prospect of returning state-side to long weekdays wrangling Noah alone after so much family time here almost gives me a panic attack. But I have to remember the glorious weekends with our other family that help bring so much balance to our small trio. For that i’m grateful. We’ll bounce back and it won’t take long for us to find our American groove. It’s never perfect, but there are many good things to look forward to.

Broken

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*Apologies for the half written blog post I published by accident before this one. A too quick slip of the finger. Here’s the refined version of what you might have already seen.

I’ve broken another glass. Just seconds ago. This time it was a small wine glass being used as a make-shift vase on my window sill with little basil clippings floating inside. Those bright green leaves looked so pretty contained in its curvy water filled form and made our rough hewn apartment seem ever so glamorous when the south facing light hit it just so. I’m not surprised that somehow i’ve managed to snap the stem clean off the thing. It was for similar reasons that growing up mom used to call me Calamity Jane and stashed all her fine china away in a bulky display case away from my klutzy plate-breaking fingers. One less thing to pack. The only thought that came to mind as I threw the fragments into my recycle bin and then replaced it with my very-likely next victim, a less than classy goblet with frosty print marking the anniversary of some place i’ve never been. Blodgette’s, 1848-1998, 150 years. This one will be a guaranteed guilt-free break if it ever comes to that.

At the moment it eludes me why I own this tacky replacement vase/glass. I must have fished it out from some curbside take-me box the first time we lived in town years before, packed and stored at the cabin, unpacked and re-shelved after we moved back. We were desperate then. Even more so than now. I remember our first apartment, which was essentially the living and dining room of a huge chopped-up turn of the century house that had seen many better days. The only thing separating us from the guy who lived in the back of the house was a door at the rear of our unit. It was locked on our side, but we later found out that it could be easily opened from his. Thankfully, he was nice and liked cats so we trusted him. Also, we really didn’t have much to steal.  The guy upstairs was a different kettle entirely. Clean cut and smooth talking, he owned a small covey of road bikes, riding a different one to work every day. He had a bad habit of throwing parties where all his guests happened to be women in high heels with a cocaine like party-stamina that lasted well into the early morning. His go-to girlfriend was, intimately speaking, very vocal. Or maybe he was just that good, but I find it a little hard to believe.

Our first few nights in that ancient house we slept on the floor and used our camping air mattresses with Matt’s souvenir Afghan rug tucked under those to avoid puncturing them with all the random nails that poked out of the aging floorboards. The bed we eventually inherited from my in-laws, their marriage bed to be exact, was for a long time the only significant piece of furniture we owned. We developed a keen eye for garage sales and forgotten roadside furniture. I learned quickly that America really was the land of the free, because if you waited long enough someone would throw away just what you needed, in perfectly good condition. That, or give it to second hand store. So it’s no surprise that our quality of life greatly improved when I started volunteering at a local thrift shop which afforded us first pick at a good selection of pyrex, winter gear and eventually the cottage chic kitchen table that I’m writing on right now.

My kitchen cupboard today is just as occupied as it was then with  random items, assembled from here and there, some more loved than others; a beautiful but chipped robin’s egg blue cereal bowl from the thrift shop, 3 gold trimmed dining plates from Matt’s grandmother, a Chinese tea set from the woman upstairs who moved out the week we moved in, a creamy ceramic Ikea glass scrounged from a box of randoms at a garage sale, and the obvious pair of mustard yellow mugs with bright red apples on their sides that I only really wanted for the Made In West Germany script printed along the bottom. There are a few like these, but not many. I try to keep it bare bones in the kitchen because that’s my favorite room in every place i’ve ever lived and the more I have now the more I know I’ll need to leave behind later. And, as a dear globe trotting friend of mine said to me today as we talked about her life downsized as she prepares to move half-way around the world yet again, it never get easier. It’s like all those books you boxed from college, the signed art book by your professor, the classics you fingered for the first time, the ones that made you feel feelings while reading, stored in dampening cardboard in your parents basement, opened up years later after marriage and kids with an intention to purge, only to start flipping through them, remembering/reminiscing, stacking them around yourself sitting on the basement floor before quickly boxing them up again and shoving them even further back behind the winter coats and Christmas decorations. It’s hard to let go of something you so authentically loved. Well, my broken glass has started me thinking more about what I already think about too much. What of these temporal objects do I truly love? Here in my little kitchen, my favorite room in this apartment, either by choice or calamity i’ve already started weeding out the ones that won’t be coming with us, and searching out the right box for the things I know we’ll carry forward.

 

Notes From A Brief Silence

IMG_6559 - Version 2A rainy day outside my window and Noah sleeps. A miracle. The child must run on solar energy, because he is relentless on sunny days, tearing up the house, singing at eviction-level volumes in our tiny apartment and defiantly touching every off-limit item until I manage to peel my body out from bed, shower my sealed eyes open and fall into our routine which brings marginal amounts of sanity throughout the day. Unfortunately, with outdoor parks and long walks around the neighborhood being a good chunk of our day, that routine falls flat on its face if the weather is bad. Like today. But so far we are managing. Laundry, dishes, vacuuming, all made into games for his pleasure, and then the other kind of playing with actual toys, a tuna sandwich lunch (minus the tuna that he picks out of the bread), one story then another, and incredulously a nap. Only cloudy days seem to afford me such a luxury. It’s happening right now as I sit here typing in the next room ever so gingerly, appreciating the white noise of the nearby highway keeping Noah fixed in his rainy-day slumber.

Dad tells me that it’s beautiful and sunny there outside of Toronto, and that reassures me a little bit. Our weather systems seem to be connected, so I hope it is coming this way, and not the other way around. Every time I look out over that wet and misty sky I feel my heart sink a little at the idea that in a few short months we will be moving further west, past the mountain shield, to where you pay for gorgeous summers with endless winters of rain and gray. Possibly not the best fit for me given my roller coaster melancholia. Investing in an indoor sunlight lamp seems like a real option right about now.

In other news of not so grand importance, I’ve been running again. It was only a matter of time, and inevitable, really. Running just doesn’t go away. It sticks to you like head lice and makes you itch all over until you do something about it. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated, almost thanked, winter for all the black-ice excuses she gave me to stay warm inside my parent’s house, cuddled up with a box of President’s Choice Concertino cookies. Far, far better than making frozen sweat under layers of leggings. I scoffed at all the winter runners and quietly tsk tsk’d them under my breath. Obviously they didn’t care about their fragile ankles or their freezer burned lungs. How irresponsible of them. But winter has officially left me and took all my reasons not to lace up with her. All the summer runners came out in force the moment the sun broke through the gray, and suddenly that tell-tale itch demanded scratching again. I tried to shake it off, headed to church only to find the sermon hijacked by some guest speaker from World Vision who basically challenged the entire congregation to run a marathon for water-wells in Africa. I kid you not. So here I am again, doing not what I do best, but doing it all the same.

People often ask me why I run, and aside from being able to eat copious amounts of dark-chocolate with nary a feeling of guilt, the thing I gain most is a personal sense of self-control. Nothing is more satisfying than telling my brain what to do, instead of the other way around. Leading up to a jog it tells me how tired I am, how I deserve time off, that I shouldn’t work so hard. And then later it tells me entirely different things when I look in the mirror. These mind games are very much unappreciated. If I can just get my shoes on and hit the pavement, then I win. That little voice has to shut up and I get a chance to feel like everything in life is possible, simply because I willed myself to move my body and finish what I started. The ability to act on intention is an awesome power, one I haven’t perfected yet, but I suppose that takes training too.

 

 

Thoughts On A City

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The snow was gone, I swear. Thank goodness we were, in true Canadian fashion, too nervous to pack up our winter clothes. It’s bad luck to put all those fleecy pajamas and long underwear away. Secretly we knew that if we did, we’d just be cutting open some cardboard box we’d only finished taping up, rifling through it for mitts and toques, those wooly winter socks with the holes in the heels, the ones we never could just throw away. We knew with uncertain certainty that we’d need them all again when that last-hurrah-blizzard would hit us like a truck full of snowballs. And of course, inevitably, looking out my window this mid April evening, at the huge snowflakes falling into a whitened landscape, I smile a little and then frown at the accuracy of my seasonal intuition. When will it end? Well, I know but still ask. Soon, but not yet.

Time is moving forward in leaps and bounds, and just as I get settled and comfortable in one month, the next is upon me. We’ve been in this American big/small city since mid-March and I finally feel like I have a hold on my surroundings. Not having a second car helps significantly with that. When I’m on foot or navigating a public transit system, I always feel a little bit more in my element. Street names stick in my head easier, grid systems make more sense. It’s only the highways I haven’t figured out just yet and I’m in no rush to. After many strung-together days of chasing, reprimanding, feeding, watching like a hawk, my daring darling son, I admit that I savor the moment when I can buckle him solidly into his car seat and sink into shotgun beside my husband with nothing to think of, nothing to do, just maybe look out the window, or even better, close my eyes. My weekend luxury.

We had a good run in Japan. The money was good, the rent was cheap, the minor celebrity status as foreigners always kept things exciting. And here we are in a sort of mirror image of all that, and I welcome it. There’s nothing like simplifying your life and putting up some self-imposed fences to see what really makes you happy. So far, I’ve discovered food trumps pretty much all of my other worldly desires. At the library I find myself stuck in front of the cookbook shelf and I daydream about the meal I’ll make the next day, and the day after that. At the grocery store I painstakingly read over ingredient lists, squeeze lemons, smell cilantro, reject false advertising, take advantage of all the ‘ethnic’ on sale items that people here can’t seem to make sense of. Hooray for Panko and Garbanzo beans. The whole process makes me feel alive and powerful, like how I feel when I’m taking pictures. So it’s true then that I am a mulit-media artist. Cooking happens to be an art that I still have much to learn about. In our small apartment I spend most of my time in one place, practicing my techniques. Noah has noticed. He now calls the kitchen “mommy’s room”.

When not cooking or eating, we walk here and there and it keeps me thankful for my legs and that bulky stroller I lugged through US customs. Our walks tell us about where we live. We journey for blocks without seeing another soul on foot. Cars there are no shortage of though, and American flags too. Star spangled reminders to the people of who they are, everywhere, lest they forget, on the sides of buses, on the front lawns of homes, hidden in gas station names. Indeed, you are Super, America. Our little neighborhood is cozy and village like, but I feel sad when I go downtown. The buildings and the people loitering outside of them seem empty and worn out. The most colorful building I see is multi-leveled parking lot. A shrine to our latest god. When will we finally melt that golden calf down?

I get a sense that the gap between the haves and have-nots here is a bit bigger than I’m used to. The faces of buildings and pedestrians tell me so. I’m not used to seeing so many people down and out, which strikes me as odd coming from an even bigger city than this. Neighborhoods and skin color change quickly from one street to the next. Some accents are unfamiliar. The Somali ones I know. Asian and Spanish, of course. But not the ones connected by this country’s sprawling interstate system, the southern rhythms, the scandinavian undertones of bleached blonde locals, the midwest beat of the black community, all meeting on the banks of the Mississippi. The immigrants here I understand, but everyone else seems foreign. I suddenly miss Toronto, where minority is majority, elsewhere-accents so common that we don’t notice them anymore, and normal that the Indian in me is french-braided ever so tightly with my Canadian roots. No one here can pronounce my name, something I find hard to believe. “It’s French” I say. That only makes things worse, but everyone pretends that the explanation somehow makes it better, and inevitable I will need to clarify the spelling and say it slowly just one more time. Looking at me, do they expect I’d be called something different? Like Amal, or Lakshmi, or Kadhija. I feel insecure and overthink it all. My name. My skin. My own stereotypes of Americans.

I have way too much time to think about all this, pushing a stroller kilometers and miles through the city. And then when I meet strangers I force conversations about race relations and economics upon them. I need more things to do with my hands to take my mind off all the differences that divide us and them and me. The snow will be gone soon, and there is a chance that I can get a plot in the community garden. The list is full, but I submitted my application anyhow, remaining hopeful that if I wait long enough I can help make something grow.

 

Ode To The Journey Forward

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I would love to title this long overdue entry Back By Popular Demand! but I’m on a truth-bender these days. It should probably read more like Back By Random Suggestion Of One Friend In The Post Script Of An Email. Writing has been sitting heavily on my mind these past 9 months, so a small nudge was all I really needed. Thank you Lisa.

Yes, it’s been 9 whole months since we left our lives, jobs, friends, chunks of our souls and everything else, back in Japan. Long enough to have had a secret baby in that sleepy Ontario town I hid out in, but to be clear, I didn’t have one. No, not literally anyway. My time was spent conceiving and strengthening other things; ideas; relationships; heavier weights not easy to bear, but nonetheless better carried and born than the stark alternative.

My other half and I did not leave Japan on the same page, let alone on the same plane. To be nakedly honest (and I am to a fault lately) we were in disagreement about a few too many things that needed reconciling. Our 7-year-itch desperately needed scratching and I couldn’t see how it was going to be dealt with right in Japan. It was a difficult departure for the both of us, for different reasons probably. All the same, if there was one thing we both mutually felt it was the heartbreak of leaving the country we loved so deeply. It was the feeling of leaving ‘home’, and in that sentiment we were united.

Time has flown forward and the months have helped re-balance a great many things, if they were ever really level in the first place. It is a sobering experience to be 30 something and moving back into your parent’s house, sitting intentionally unemployed, realizing you don’t have much of a clue about any of this mother/wife stuff and are just about on the verge of an almost-mid-life crisis. What a blessing to have the kind of parents that actually want their kids to move back in with them, along with their grandkids, and sure, throw in the son-in-law…something about being Indian is my best guess.

It was all for good in the end, at least I think so. Not a painless process, far from finished, but redemptive I’d like to think. I’m out of hiding, out of the shelter of that redneck-ish Canadian hockey town that I was actually sad to leave, and now we, the trio of us, mother/father/son once more, are traveling down the next road, onto the next adventure, sketching out plans on the backs of napkins and paper bags, living simply, with an outline of some purpose in mind, learning continually that loving often entails failing, so not to give up, not just yet, because you learn from mistakes, don’t you? Eventually. We are here for the moment, which is somewhere between then and there. And here is home, because home is always where we are together. This is what I have learned so far in my short and small existence.

 

A Day At The Beach

Only a small part of what makes leaving hard.

The Art Of Being Misunderstood

A lovely American couple moved into the region this past year and they include me in their mailing list of updates home to family and friends.  I love reading them, not just because they are funny and honest, but because it reminds me of what it was like my first year here as well. Everything was exciting, fresh, a new discovery. If I go through my photo album from that time there are exponentially more images of me doing mid-air jump shots in front of random Japanese tourist sites and flashing two-fingered peace signs like Winston Churchill was in town. If you flip forward in my album you’ll notice that pictures these days rarely have me in them, cause I spend most of my time trying to digitally immortalize Noah rather than keep an enduring record of my own stark aging process. Times change.

Additionally, my friend’s newsletter well explains how frustrating it can be to live in an existence where you can’t read, write or speak the local language. At times the politeness of Japanese culture doesn’t help any either. It’s actually been easier for me get things done in more abrupt cultures, like in parts of remote Russia, where they so desperately want to get rid of you that after you’ve pointed at and paid for the thing you want in the store window they turn away unsmiling and pretend that you no longer exist. But here, even though there is a mutual understanding that neither party will be able to verbally understand each other, the clerk or cashier will inevitably ask you all the same, beautifully complex respectful phrases they’ve been taught to say to everyone. Would you like a bag? Do you need a straw, chopsticks, a spoon? You just gave me 1000 yen. Do you have a point card?  Your change is 22 yen. Are you sure you don’t have a point card? Do you want one? Here’s a coupon you can’t read and will never use. Thanks for your business. With all that extra linguistic dressing the most basic of tasks can feel overdrawn and more confusing than it ought to be. It took a while to get the hang of buying groceries, but I’m happy to say that I no longer break down in tears when I try to buy eggs or milk at the market. And just the other day, finally, after 4 years of hearing the same announcement played a hundred plus times over the loudspeaker at the local all night supermarket, I registered what it was saying. You must be 20 years old to buy alcohol and tobacco.

Now if you think of how utterly simple selecting and paying for food is, but how enormous a task it can become when you are essentially illiterate, you can appreciate how much more difficult everything else can end up being. Buying stamps, taking a bus, doing anything at the bank, ordering food at a restaurant with no picture menu, trying to get rid of Japanese speaking Mormons who turn up on your doorstep, telling a hair stylist to give you a trim, going to the doctor, going to the doctor with your sick son, going to the doctor again with your sick son after you went the first time and things didn’t get better, breaking a sweat trying to write your address, filling out your kids daycare sheet every morning, answering the phone at your desk, trying to fix your faulty internet, visiting the dentist or gynaecologist or immigration office (and no the immigration officer does not speak English for some reason), being pulled over by the cops, trying to get rid of the NHK cable guy trying to collect money for cable you don’t have, getting a driver’s licence, having your garbage rejected and not understanding why until someone smartly takes a magic marker and circles the forbidden item through the plastic bag, getting a cell phone (this one is the worst because not even a native speaker can understand the crazy phone plans), getting lost anywhere with or without a map, giving condolences to your neighbour after her husband dies, trying to differentiate between detergent, softener and bleach.

It goes on, and really it never stops even as you start to get a grip on the basic language skills, because inevitably the longer you stay, the more complex the problems become, and you end back at square one thinking how great you thought your Japanese was but then realizing actually how shitty it is. Yes, this was exactly where I found myself last week when Noah got sick and refused to eat anything for 3 days. The doctor said it was a throat infection, prescribed me all sorts of mystery medications that I would administer faithfully but saw little change. One night in lieu of taking him to the emergency room in fear that I couldn’t even tell the cabbie where to go, I called my sister on the other side of the world. She said…luke warm baths, cold compresses, lots of fluids…all simple reassuring things that helped me get a grip in that moment. It was so good to hear it in English. The next morning I stood at the gate of Noah’s daycare trying to ask if he could attend that day because his fever wasn’t so high. I repeated 3 times over in the worst possible broken Japanese “Is it ok? I can stay for a bit to watch him and make sure he’s fine.” No one understood me. Three times over and then I broke, bowed my head, put my hand over my eyes and just cried. Well, that got their attention. At least tears are universally understood. The one worker who always looks at me like I’m the most novice of mothers and that I have a lot to learn was the one who put her hand on my back asking me over and over “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?”

Ahhhh. What’s wrong? That was a good question. The problem was and is that even if I could speak perfect Japanese, there is no way I could tell her, because what’s wrong really cannot be verbalized in that sort of moment. It’s a feeling more than anything else, one that boils up to a point of uncontainable pressure, where your mind sort of short circuits as it searches for any possible word that will get the message through, but you can’t find it because you don’t know it and you feel utterly alone and helpless and frustrated because nothing, absolutely nothing is helping you be you and do what you would do in that moment if that moment was happening someplace else. Yes, it is the feeling you get when you lose yourself to a language. That’s it exactly. So instead of trying to say any of that, I told her “I’m not very good at Japanese.” I think she understood.

Some of us foreigners here like to throw around the term ‘expat’, trying to disguise the fact that what we really are, are temporary immigrants. Immigrant has always seemed like such a dirty word to us North Americans. It implies balconies full of garbage, smelly food, strange ways of dressing, clothing hanging any which way for days on end on the clothes line and sometimes left out when its raining, being late for everything, a lack of education or class or politeness and an all around inability to get with the program.  I don’t know about you or anyone else, but that description pretty much sums up my Japanese life in a nutshell. Ask anyone in my neighbourhood where the foreigners live and they could tell you by the way we park our car or leave Noah’s toys lying around the back of our building. Or better still, just stand quietly for a minute or two and I am sure you will hear our loud western voices carrying through our paper thin walls amidst the other silent houses. Somehow my bike repair guy successfully found our apartment and dropped off my bike only with the knowledge that I lived somewhere over the hill from his shop. It’s a big hill. It’s almost a 20 minute walk.

All this is to say, now that i’ve experienced just exactly what it’s like to live the immigrant lifestyle, with all the language and culture barriers that come with it, I don’t think I could ever tolerate another person saying something as stupid as “You’re in a America now, act American!” It will also take all of my willpower not to throw something hard and heavy at that person’s head. You’d never hear a Japanese person say “You need to start acting Japanese.” In fact, I’m sure they don’t even think it’s possible. Their mindset is that someone who is not Japanese is going to have a very difficult time naturally acting like one, so why expect it of them? They are thrilled when we try and succeed, but  they set the bar very low for foreigners in this department, which might explain why I still have so many good Japanese friends despite all the cultural blunders i’ve made. Some foreigners take a personal affront to this though, especially those who have lived here for a long period of time or who have married a local. The phrase “You will never be one of them” is often thrown around negatively, but the idea doesn’t bother me. Of course I’ll never be one of them. How can I be? I’m Canadian.

So here is where I would like to mention that there is no way in hell that I could be as happy as I am here in Japan without the amazing and absolutely selfless Japanese friends I have made who time and time again come to my rescue. To my neighbour who is usually coerced into explaining all of Noah’s daycare tasks and requirements, thank you. To my colleagues who not only helped me set up my life here, but still patiently remind me to this day of reminders that are clearly written in front of my face on the announcement board, thank you. To my dearest of dear friends who came to ultrasound sessions, interpreted at Noah’s birth, sat through emotional talks with my pastor, helped me fill out mountains of paperwork for every possible government office imaginable, and who waited on hold with tech support for more times than I can remember, thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m sorry, but I don’t think there is any way I could ever repay you for everything you’ve done for me. Even so, thank you.

Seasons of Rain

Rainy season is supposedly upon us, but it’s been gorgeous as of late. I’m not complaining one bit. We had a few hard downpours this past week, and I was sure that we were officially in the thick of rapid bathroom mold growth and never drying laundry season. But after one day of biking home with puddles in my shoes, shoes which now smell permanently of trench foot, it’s been rather pleasant. Still, I know too well how deceiving the weather can be here in Kyushu, and my full body rain suit and dehumidifier stand ready. Some days the air is muggy and heavy with water that hasn’t decided yet if it should become a cloud or just hang there a little longer. Inevitably the indecision will break, and we’ll all be wet again until the end of June. Predictably, I will lose another umbrella. I’m sure of it. Sigh. All this is coming from a person considering a move to the west coast of Canada, where it doesn’t just rain for a month, but for an entire annual season. I’m going to have to check my sanity meter sometime soon.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine called me up and asked if I wanted to pay a visit to a Japanese missionary and her American husband one evening. I’d met the wife a year ago when she was here on her last Japanese tour, so I thought it would be nice to see her again. It was an interesting evening to say the least. I found myself in a stranger’s living room sitting around a low table and chatting with various other Japanese people I didn’t know. The evening progressed from chit-chat and snack eating into a sort of a mini church service. We sang a couple Japanese worship songs, thankfully ones I was familiar with, and then the floor was opened up for people to share anything that was on their heart or mind to share. It was quite amazing to sit there and listen to people talk very openly about the challenges they were facing and trying to overcome. One woman was in conflict with her siblings and they hadn’t talked to her for a very long time. Another woman shared about her daughter’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, causing her to overly worry about cleanliness and hygiene to the point that she washed and showered multiple times a day. The evening ended with me talking in depth with the American husband about his life growing up with an alcoholic father and then about his son who also had drug and alcohol dependency issues.

It was an amazing night of candid and open-hearted conversation, something that all too often feels missing here in Japan. Maybe spilling our guts comes more naturally to us North Americans. ‘The more information the better’ seems to be our modus operandi. It’s easy to be personally oblivious to this until you’ve spent a bit of time in a place like Japan, surrounded by a culture of few words, words that are spoken softly, not to mention delicately chosen. I find myself tuning out of fast paced fluent conversations when I’m with large groups of English speaking friends, as if my mind can’t connect with the quickly changing subject matter or absence of pauses for reflection.

The Japanese, so far as I can tell, are very private people. I learned quickly to keep my questions and conversations neutral lest I wander into a who-can-win-this-blank-stare-and-uncomfortable-silence competition the quickest. Matters of love and politics are best avoided. Food, however, seems to always be a safe topic in the office, and it’s usually what I hear people speaking the most passionately about. Sadly, I tend to find out personal details about people by accident through other colleagues (read: office gossip). And often, because I’m the foreigner, I’m the last to know about pretty much everything.

My work mates seldom bring up loved ones in conversation. There is of course nothing wrong with keeping your work and home life separate, but I can’t tell you the number of times I have discovered that a teacher was married after a few years of knowing them, or that they have kids. Again, it could be the language barrier that is keeping me from hearing the tell tale “My girlfriend thinks that…” or “This weekend I took the kids to….”, lines that I was so used to in other jobs. Silent hints are also few, like family photos or cute kid drawings on their desks. Instead, you find pictures of their homeroom students, or screensavers with shots of their dog. Personal photos tend to be kept on cell phones where full control of who sees them can be exercised. As an aside, I usually discount the times that male coworkers have drunkenly referred to their wives as ‘the devil’ as actually talking about family.

Thinking back, I remember very specifically during my first year at our school an announcement was made at one of the morning meetings. Two teachers had just gotten married. One had married an office worker from our school and another a teacher in another school. No one really had much idea that these individuals were in dating relationships up until that point. In another case, a colleague whom I’d known for all of my stay in Japan was transferred. It was well known that she was married, her husband a teacher in a school across town. After she transferred we learned that she had in fact been divorced for a number of years. Even her closest friends at work had been oblivious.

Outside the workplace this same personal code of conduct exists as well. Just last week I went to my favorite salon in town. The owner of the shop is headstrong, honest and always gives me a great cut for a great price. I find myself in her establishment at least 3 or 4 times a year. This time I spent 5 hours there because I wanted to try out the infamous Japanese straight perm that so many of the women here subscribe to. I spoke on and off with the owner of the shop throughout the process. She told me she’d recently gone to Hawaii. I asked her if she went alone or with a friend. She said, with a friend. We covered all the bases and talked about the people, the beach, the shopping, the hotel and particularly about the low quality of the food. A couple days later I was out to lunch with the Japanese friend who had actually recommended the salon to me in the first place and who has known the owner for a long time. Our conversation led to the owner’s trip to Hawaii, and I was a little surprised (and also a little not surprised) to find out that she’d recently been married. The trip to Hawaii had been her honeymoon. It was the only detail she’d left out from our conversation that day.

I think this whole phenomena of privacy creates an illusion to some foreigners here that Japan is a sort of utopian society, where there is no violence, no conflict, no personal problems suffered by at least the people that we encounter in our own daily lives. It’s easy to think that way at first. Sales people are always happy and never seem to be having a bad day, colleagues never seem tired, neighbors are always smiling and giving you mystery fruits and vegetables from their gardens that you have no idea how to prepare or eat. It all seems so perfect. But the longer you stay, the more Japanese you pick up and the more time you spend with local friends, you realize that it’s all a sort of a kabuki performance, or a dance that is played out without missing a beat. It’s so real, so lifelike, but at the end of the day you know that all the characters are just actors and their lines have been memorized. The sales people are high school drop-outs, your overworked colleague is recovering from a mental breakdown and your neighbor drinks too much. Here in lies the truth about the Japanese, that they are a beautiful, stoic and proud people, but they are just like the rest of us.

Where Stories Were Told

One of the coolest job’s i’ve ever had was ushering and bar tending at the majestic and beautiful Massey Hall concert venue in Toronto. I sort of chuckle now and wonder how good I really could have been at my job, because I really didn’t drink much back then. I hated making martinis, because no matter which way I made them, dirty, dry, they always tasted horrible to me, so I had no idea if I was doing it right or not. Thankfully it was usually not that sophisticated a crowd that rushed our bar during intermission, and the only thing I had to do well was pour a bottle of beer, and fast. It’s funny to think that I learned how to pour two at once before actually ever drinking those same beers myself.

The hours at Massey weren’t exactly what one would call consistent. We only worked if and when there was a show, and sometimes we’d go weeks without a shift. In any case, most of the staff held other jobs. I was working as a barista at a coffee shop (which is also ironic, cause I didn’t really drink much coffee back then either). Massey was something you did, not for the money, but for the fun of it. How could you not be having an amazing time when you were getting paid to watch Sting, or Cindy Lauper, or Sigur Ros or Beck or The Flaming Lips or better yet, work their after party. I think I reached the pinnacle of my bar tending career when I was asked to stock Alice Cooper’s dressing room with drinks. His drink of choice, Starbucks Frappacinos. I became an instant fan right then and there.

What really made the job special though was the people I worked with. Our bosses and managers were always professional but cool, and my fellow coworkers were one big happy mess of interesting people. One guy was a lawyer, another girl a professional clown. There was a standup comedian, a cartoonist, a guy in real estate, a sports journalist, boys in bands (some semi famous, others very unknown), people who owned their own businesses and others who surfed friend’s couches not sure of their life’s direction just yet. Wether you were working the bar, tearing tickets at the door, or showing people to their seats, there was almost always someone else by your side helping you out. Conversation, story telling and swapping secrets were inevitably going to happen.

I love stories. Especially the ones that are told by people about themselves, the true ones that you never could have guessed, ever, even if you tried, but once you sat there and heard the whole thing through, everything about that person made so much more sense, and in fact life seemed to make more sense too. You know…the stories that people tell you that you don’t forget. The ones you can’t forget.

One just like that was dropped at my feet by a debonaire friend and usher on a quiet and boring night down in the bar as I waited for the show to end and the after party to begin. It started with me brewing coffee and pouring us both a cup and then somehow through random chit chat the tale made its way out of his mouth, into my ears and burned itself on my mind forever. It was about how years ago while traveling through Thailand he found himself accepting a too good to be true offer to smuggle drugs onto a flight into Taiwan. And of course, being too good to be true, he was caught at the airport and sentenced to 12 years in a Taiwanese prison. His family could do nothing, except send him books and crossword puzzles, so aside from eating a lot of rice, he read quite a bit and learned how to speak Mandarin. Prisoners weren’t allowed out very often and it was hard to tell how much time was passing. He said he always knew a month had gone by when all the inmates had their heads shaved. Head lice was apparently a big problem. 4 years into his sentence, unannounced, he was released and deported back to Canada.

That’s the story. Through his retelling there were moments when he smiled, or chuckled a little bit over these memories. That was the intriguing thing about it. He could think about his experience, tell me everything, and even speak fondly about some things. It was as if there was something he found there within himself that he was happy to have stumbled upon. It was quite amazing. I have no recollection of anything he told me after that. I don’t know how long it was between his arrival home and that night that he leaned against the bar, sipping the horrible house coffee and sharing 4 years of his life with me in one conversation. I haven’t seen him or even heard his name spoken out loud in so much time, but I guess because this is my fourth and final year in Japan my mind has pulled his story up from its database trying to compare and draw a relationship between the two of us. In the end there isn’t much there in common. Except maybe the part about the rice.

If I saw him again, the first thing I would want to ask him is “Would you take it back?” And I think this is the question that all of us might ask ourselves when we end up trapped in the circumstances of our lives or actions. Would we take it back? Of course, who in their right mind would say “I really want to spend the best years of my young life sitting in an Asian jail with hijackers and gang members!” But if you did happen to end up in such a dark place, and lived through it, and came out the other side into freedom, would you want to change the person you’d become? Undoubtedly, it all depends on the person you were going in and who you chose to be coming out.

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