Monday, March 21, 2011

Talking about Danger, Disaster, and Loss

Tokyo, with its population of more than 8 million, is not like the rural United States. In the small-town Midwest, people recognize just about everyone and can tell if someone is from the “outside.” The train station we used in Tokyo, on the other hand, saw more than two million people pass through it every day, meaning it was packed with strangers at any given moment. As the parents of a preschool boy prone to running ahead of us, we had to have some dire conversations about how dangerous people could be. We found ourselves telling 3 year-old Sky that most people are not our friends and that we should never trust strangers unless they are policemen or train conductors. And as our warnings went unheeded, we found ourselves resorting to scare tactics like telling him, “If you get too far from Mommy, we may never see you again.” Every time we had these conversations, I realized that I was teaching my child how to stay safe, but I also knew that I was taking away pieces of his innocence and doing it way too soon.

But, how do we talk to our kids about danger, disaster and loss?

We have struggled with this question the past week as, even from the Midwestern US, we try to come to terms with the grave losses in Japan. Pink P. is too young to remember much about her years in Japan and cannot begin to fathom the idea of death or the fear of natural disaster. Sky, however, remembers minor earthquakes and earthquake drills. He knows about tornadoes, and tornado drills. He understands about death and loss, even as he struggles to understand how these things make people sad.

A week ago Friday morning, as we were getting ready for school, I switched on the local news only to be greeted with the horrifying sights of Japanese villages much like the ones I have lived in or visited being swept away by a mass of water. It made me cry. And just as I started to cry, Sky came in to talk to me. Surprised, he asked why I was crying, and I was at a loss to explain it to him. How do I tell a six year-old about a huge earthquake and then a mass of water sweeping away entire towns without scaring him? I kept it simple and said, “Japan has a big earthquake and that made me sad.” He wasn’t sure whether I was kidding or not, and so grinned and went to eat his cereal.

But the thing about my spectrum kid is that, while he doesn’t process people’s feelings well, he does process information. In fact, he is able to analyze and make sense of things in a way that ends up making him feel less scared instead of more. This makes it hard to know how to talk about what has happened in Japan. I know that showing him videos of the earthquake and tsunami and pictures of the devastation will give him the opportunity to analyze and make sense of the nature behind what happened there and help him to work through why Mom and Dad have not been themselves these past several days. But I also know that no child, or adult, for that matter, should ever have to see what we have all been seeing since the March 11th quake.

Cartoon image from:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Great Tohoku Kanto Earthquake

When we lived in Japan, I used to hate all that talk about “gaman” (perseverance) and being part of a group. It all seemed so shallow—making people conform and giving them a sense of what they were supposed to do without making them think too hard about it. This was why kindergarten moms were willing to spend endless hours making school bags and perfect bentos. At least that’s what I thought then.

Now, I’m not so sure. After watching how folks all over Japan have responded to the events of the past week or so, the strongest sense I have is one of respect and pride for how my Japanese friends and neighbors have chosen to support each other and to work together to rebuild. People in the quake and tsunami zones have started to rebuild. Folks in less affected cities continue to work without panicking despite grave fears about nuclear fall out. Heroes are emerging everywhere.

When I first moved to Tokyo, I had a good chuckle when the earthquake preparedness guide told me when a major quake struck, to do the following:

1) Yell, “Turn off the gas!”
2) Yell, “Turn off the gas!” and turn it off if it hasn’t been turned off already.
3) Seek shelter under a sturdy object.
4) Go to your evacuation spot.
5) Begin rebuilding your town three days later.

This last one is the one that made me laugh, but as I watch footage in the US and Japanese news the last few days of people determinedly cleaning up and taking care of one another, I realize that this may be an idea that has always been part of the Japanese way of confronting challenges. No one is sitting around waiting for someone to do his/her work. When an NHK newscaster interviewed a group of Japanese junior high kids living in a shelter in one of the hardest hit towns, each and every kid said just about the same thing: “Don’t worry about us. We are working hard together to make things better. Thank you for your support.” All of these were kids who were missing family members, friends and/or acquaintances, but after the quake and tsunami, these kids made huge posters to hang on the wall of the gym (of their school) where all of the evacuees slept. The posters read: “Let’s push on together, building connections and encouraging one another.” Adults in these hard hit towns said similar things: “We’ve all lost a lot. We know that. But we will support one another and we will get through this.”

Along with so many of my friends and colleagues, I have been dumbfounded by the extent of this tragedy that has befallen this place I hold so dear. I cannot even begin to express the mixture of feelings and thoughts I have had since things began to unfold. I can say that I feel extremely blessed that immediate family and friends have managed to escape harm, but more than anything, I feel a great sense of pride to be able to call Japan my second home.


1) An article by Murakami Ryu in the NYT on March 17, 2011:

2) Okay, so not a big fan of Lady Gaga, but I like the idea of the bracelet (pictured above). For more info go to:

Apparently all proceeds will go to quake/tsunami victims.

Image from:

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Vote for Tinkerbell

You all have probably figured out from earlier posts that I am not a fan of princesses (or pink or tea parties or shiny castles or any of it). In fact, I was the quintessential tomboy growing up (remind me never to use the word tomboy with Sky again—that led to an awkward and essentially irreparable exchange). So much so, that when my sister got married when I was just thirteen, I refused to be in her wedding because under no circumstances did I intend to wear a dress (unfortunately, the refusal of a 13 y.o. doesn’t go far with a bride bordering on bridezilla-ness and there are some unfortunate pictures to prove it).

Such adamant tomboyish-ness could only naturally lead to me giving birth to the girliest of girlie girls. Despite my best attempts to keep any and all princesses out of her life (which failed – see blog #1), one of Pink P’s first words was pink and the first book she tried to buy at the bookstore was, you guessed it, a book about a ballerina dressed as a princess.

Pink P’s world centers on pink, princesses, and castles, in that order. She only wants to buy pink things. Pink cookies, pink cupcakes, pink bricks, pink emery boards, pink tampons … Me: “Pink P. what do you want for Christmas?” Pink P: “Pink!!” Me: “Pink what?” Pink P: “Pink pink!” You get the idea.

She insists on dressing herself, and she will only wear pink dresses. Pink dresses! And as a result of her adamant pinkness, we have a lot of pink things at our house (even though Sky constantly warns me that I might be enabling a dangerous addiction).

With the pink come the princesses. You can probably guess my issue with princesses. They wear a lot of dresses, sing a lot of songs, and sit around all day waiting for a prince to rescue them. They have a lot of money that they don’t work for, and when they do work around the house, they leave most of the hard stuff up to the helpful forest animals. Nothing good can come from loving princesses (unless you are a prince in a fairy tale, and I doubt you would be reading my blog if you were).

That’s why I vote for Tinkerbell. First, she’s not really a princess (a distinction currently lost on Pink P). Second, she doesn’t wear pink. Third, and most importantly, she has a job. Tinkerbell tinkers. Sure she makes some poorly-conceived choices, but she never stops working to fix them. So, when you see my kid in a Tinkerbell shirt, don’t think I have lost the princess battle entirely.

(Like the picture says, it's from

Monday, March 7, 2011

What's in a Name?

Picking a baby name is never easy. Picking a name that is in line with our tastes, personally meaningful, culturally sensitive, easy to pronounce, and does not have some kind of messed-up meaning in Japan or the United States is next to impossible. After removing all of the names that have been used by close friends, siblings, and cousins as well as the names of kids we didn't like in school and all the aunts and uncles, here is the list of boys names we've tested so far along with some of the problems they present to the Japanese-speaking portion of my household:

Evan = Eban (no, no, no "v" as in violin, not "b" as in banana)

Hugh = a cat call (picture construction workers whistling at a pretty girl)

Hoyt = the sound of spitting a hocker

Isaac = spelled backward with Japanese pronunciation --> kusai (stinky). No kidding on this one. I knew a mom whose child was picked on relentlessly in Japan because of this name.

Jaden = Let's face it, just about any "newer" name that has become popular in the last 10 years or so seems too ridiculous and foreign to a Japanese speaker that it's not worth the trouble of repeating it or trying to explain it for the 10 millionth time. So that means our list needs to stick with more "traditional" names, which brings us back to the problem of trying to avoid the various family names which have already been used once or twice.

Luke = Ru-ku = rucksack = backpack (Ru-ku ru-ku wa? = Luke where's your backpack? = numerous strange looks on the subway.)

Micah = Maika, a really pretty girl's name

Nathaniel = impossible to pronounce in Japanese -- Nazaneearu anyone? (Before we go much further, I have to acknowledge that besides names with "v," any names with pivotal "l," "r," or "th" sounds also have to be removed from consideration. So, no, Mom, "Laird" is not a good suggestion, even if it is a family name.)

Thomas = most likely to elicit comments about the ever-so-popular Thomas the Tank Engine, who is even more ubiquitous in Japan than in the US. There is even a Thomasland at one of the major amusement parks in the environs of Tokyo. Tom, meanwhile, will remind everyone of their junior high school English textbook. Tom is just easy enough to pronounce that he has become a regular in this genre.

Other names to definitely avoid (they weren't on our list to begin with, but while we're on the subject):

Kendall -- this name sounds a lot like kendo, or Japanese sword fighting done these days in most elementary through high schools with a bamboo sword. In my experience, every time a Japanese person hears this name, they feel compelled to pretend they are in a kendo dual.

Gary -- "geri" means diarrhea.

Esa -- I don't suppose this is a common name in English, but in case you're considering it and happen to have ties with Japan, please think again. In Japanese "esa" means dog food.

Anyway, you get the picture...And we haven't even started thinking about middle names!


Thursday, March 3, 2011

Mommy Training

When Sky was in Japanese preschool, I had to remember to do a lot.

On Monday, he needed to be sent to school with freshly washed and perfectly folded art smock, luncheon mat, a sparkling clean tea cup, and small towel for drying his hands (rolled up just so and placed inside of the tea cup which was then placed in its own special bag). He also needed to take his hand-washed shoes in his spanking clean shoe bag, his book bag, his back pack, his colored hat, and his gym clothes (also washed, folded, and placed in the special gym clothes bag just right). And, oh yeah, his painstakingly prepared and cutely decorated boxed lunch (obento).

When walking to school in the spring and summer months, he needed his straw hat with the special pin that identified which school he attended.

On Tuesday, he needed to take his special bread plate in its specially-made bread plate bag and his fork and spoon set, but not his obento since it was school lunch day.

On Wednesday, his tea cup and small hand towel came home for a mid-week wash, and I needed to remember to pick him up at 11:30 instead of 2:30.

On Thursday, he needed another cutely constructed obento, and I had to remember to wash his gym clothes which were sent home on Thursdays so they could be perfectly prepared for sports day on Fridays. I also had to remember which were the "onigiri" days when kids were supposed to take rice balls for lunch instead of full-on obentos so they could think about children who are in need.

On Friday, I had to remember to dress him not in his uniform and straw hat but in his gym clothes and colored cap and send him to school with his bread plate and utensils. And when everything came home on Friday, including his indoor and outdoor shoes, I had to remember to wash them all by hand again and prepare them to start over the next week.

(The Friday outfit worn by everyone on "Sport's Day.")

Somehow, I managed to remember these things and all the thousands of other things that the school required of me--this in spite of the fact that I was trekking all over Tokyo meeting with scholars and tracking down impossible-to-find-sources for my dissertation.

So, why is it that, now that we are back in the US, I simply cannot remember to send Sky's library book with him on Wednesday mornings?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Pink Princess Potty Mouth

So Sky never went through the potty talk phase. Pink P, on the other hand, relishes it. Remember, this is the kid who loves dresses and Hello Kitty and princesses. But her potty mouth is so bad, sometimes I will hear her in the next room saying to herself, "Poopy, potty, hee, hee" and laughing hysterically.

And at breakfast, she likes to make up songs.

♬ Jingle Poop, Jingle Poop, Jingle Fart, Fart, Fart ♬
♬ Frosty the Fart, Fart, with the Poop, Poop, Poop, Poop, Potty! ♬
(for some reason, she's fond of Christmas music)

Not sure how I ended up mom to a curly-haired three-year old potty mouth who is most often decked from head to toe in pink. So far, warnings and time outs don't seem to discourage her. (She's THAT committed). I hope this isn't a sign for the delinquency to come!

While Pink P is singing about poop, Sky is usually making his daily observations on a number of different topics. Over oatmeal and yogurt, the conversation (if you can call it that) goes something like this.

"Why did Darth Vader tell Luke he was his father?" or "Kyla's mom has a baby in her tummy, too, but her arms are a lot skinnier than yours." or "Did you know Daddy is just like Captain Underpants? He only wears underwear, too, except he goes outside like that." (These "conversation starters" most often leave me speechless--which is fine because it turns out he doesn't expect answers any way).

Not sure what I will do when #3 learns to talk.