Friday, April 15, 2011

Why My Kid Doesn't Know His Nursery Rhymes and Yours Does

“Your son doesn’t know his nursery rhymes,” someone pointed out to me recently.

One of the things I have noticed after spending half of my adult life living overseas and speaking a foreign language is that it’s the simple things that leave you first. I’ve long had this theory that there is only so much practical knowledge your brain can hold at any given moment, so to make room for new knowledge, the brain has to purge itself of things you no longer use on a regular basis. The first to go is idioms. If you want to experience the true joy of the mixed metaphor, speak to a native English speaker who has been living in Japan and speaking Japanese for a couple of years. A friend said to me once, “He’s the bedpost of the church.” Now, I knew this was wrong, but only peripherally. And I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the correct idiom. At least not right away. I eventually figured out that she meant to call him the “pillar” of the church, not the “bed post,” but in my mind, both were sturdy, supportive pieces of wood, so same difference.

Since becoming a two-culture mom, I have similar problems with the loss of other basic skills—my parenting skills. After Sky was born and before we moved back to Japan for 18 months, I essentially had my act together as a mom. I knew how to get involved in various parent-child groups, knew which of the various baby products we needed and where to get them, and had a sense of what I should be teaching him when. He knew the standard fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and lullabies. Aside from being bilingual and overly rambunctious, he was basically socialized in the same way as his peers.

Then we moved to Japan. At the time, Sky was 3 and Pink P a newborn. Suddenly, I found myself being a first-time parent all over again. None of my common sense as an American mom applied in Japan. This was made clear to me early and often. On February 1st, when we got off the airport bus in snowy Tokyo after 24 hours of travel, I realized, for the first time, that I didn’t have a coat for Pink P. Why? Because until that very moment, I had always bundled my babies in infant carriers snuggled with tiny blankets and covered with a fleece car seat cover. There was never a need for a coat unless I wanted to take them sledding, which I didn’t plan to do in Tokyo. Bad mom. Very bad mom.

This sensation recurred almost continuously the entire first year of Pink P’s life. I missed her 6 month check-up because I didn’t realize that the check-up was not the same thing as her immunization visit to the local health department. She got her shots, but nothing else—at least not until I realized my mistake when she was 9 months old.

And the shot schedule was totally different. Not only that, but the way shots were administered was different, too. First, we all appeared on the assigned day, and by all, I mean a hundred of us with babies born within a month or two of each other. Then we filled out the necessary forms before going on to step one: undress baby. Step two, temperature and general health assessment. Step three, get immunized. (The first time we did this, it was for the BCG vaccination. Our pediatrician in the US told us to keep Pink P on the Japanese immunization schedule, so we did, but BCG was pretty horrible. See the picture above? See how many needles that has?) Step four, sit together with our irritated babies and wait for 20 minutes to make sure they don’t have a negative reaction to the vaccine. It wasn’t until step four that any of the moms even looked at each other. I suppose they were all dreading the shot and worrying that their babies would freak out (and why wouldn’t they?). I had no idea what was coming, so no time to worry. And Pink P didn’t even flinch when they gave her that monster.

When we transitioned to solid foods, more dilemmas. Where did people get their baby food? Surely they didn’t pay nearly two dollars a jar for it. It took time, but I eventually figured out that most people made their baby food. Once I figured out I was supposed to make it, it took even longer to figure out what people put in their homemade baby food. For starters, daikon radishes.

Things weren’t much better with Sky’s transition into preschool (which I have already described here). Adjusting to the expectations there was rough. In order to make sure Sky was essentially socialized the same as his Japanese peers, we had to give him a crash course in various children’s songs, morning greetings, and basic Japanese fairy tales. There was very little overlap with what he knew or what he was expected to do in the US. What’s more, he was learning all of this in his second (now primary) language.

Eventually, we all got properly socialized to Japanese child-rearing and schooling. That’s about the time my research stint ended in Japan and we moved back to the US where we had to unlearn and relearn everything all over again. Apparently, I forgot a couple of nursery rhymes in the process.

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