Saturday, June 11, 2011

Japanese Housewife Handbook: The Gender Divide

My first encounter with gender stereotypes in Japan came during my first month there, when I was forced to sit at my desk at the BOE for 8 hours a day every day (see my Learning to Drive entries for more on this). Since the highlight of my endless days at the BOE was trying to figure out what to order from the local restaurant for lunch, I was desperate for anything to keep me busy. After all, there was only so much journal writing and Japanese studying a person could do in any given 8-hour period. In a last ditch effort to keep myself from going crazy, I asked Sawako (the OL who spoke English and whose desk was next to mine) if there was anything I could do to help her.

"Yes," she told me and led me to the small kitchen area. Then she proceeded to introduce me to the various tea cups that were in the drying rack there. "This one is for Nishmura-kacho. And this one is for Ono-kakaricho..." she told me, working her way through the office in order of rank. Only then did it dawn on me that we were going to be serving tea. With no way out, I politely listened as she explained first the cups and then the proper method to making tea. I quietly followed her as she passed out the freshly-prepared cups to each of our colleagues. And when everything was done and we were back at our desks, I leaned over and said, "Thank you for showing me that. I will never do it again, though, since I am pretty sure those men can get tea for themselves."

The longer I lived in Japan, the less sensitive I was to these gendered expectations. Perhaps the biggest reason for the change was the fact that most of the women I knew, women who worked full-time and took care of families on top of that, seemed to carry out these menial tasks with a hearty dose of cynicism. Many of them voiced, in one way or another, the idea that even though the men around them tended to hold positions of power, most of those men were hopelessly incapable of taking care of themselves. In other words, these women saw themselves as ruling from behind the scenes and believed they were giving up positions of power for the sake of the greater good. This type of thinking was just subversive enough for me to accept.

Ren conforms to gender stereotypes about as much as I do. When his younger sister got married, he acted as the family head in place of his deceased father. Ren is one of the many Asian people who lack the enzyme necessary for his liver to process alcohol. Ever notice an Asian friend turn bright red after a couple of sips of beer? This is because they lack the same enzyme, so any alcohol that they consume essentially poisons them. (Amazing what one can learn by teaching English to doctors who specialize in diseases of the liver...) Anyway, one of the things a family head at a wedding has to do is go to each and every table and offer drinks to the guests. Since drinking in Japan is reciprocal--you serve him a glass, and then he serves you a glass and everyone drinks up to indicate camaraderie--not drinking a glass that has been served to you is essentially not an option, and sharing drinks with the more than 100 guests while lacking the enzyme to process alcohol, is also not really an option. So, Ren's solution was to have me tag along. Dressed in a fancy kimono, I stood behind him and drank two out of every three glasses offered to him. After all, I not only have the needed enzyme, but I'm also of German descent.

Another time, Big Sissy's junior high was hosting the city-wide kendo tournament. All the moms were called into action and had to serve not only as score keepers and snack/tea providers, but also as parking lot attendants, telling people where and how to park their cars. I was relieved to be assigned a position in the parking lot--after all, it would save me from tea pouring. One of the requirements for all of the moms, even the ones working the parking lot? We had to wear aprons. Aprons! What makes you think I own an apron? And, I'll be damned if I am going to go out and buy one just so I can direct traffic in a junior high school parking lot! When the day in question arrived, I showed up in my track suit and a baseball cap. Take that you apron-wearing moms!

There were a couple of times when I just couldn't quite buck the system. The one I remember most vividly was at the wake of one of Ren's distant relatives, held in an old farmhouse up in the mountains. It's morbid to say that I looked forward to the wake, but I did. It was something I hadn't seen before, and I imagined it would be a good learning experience. Unfortunately, as soon as we walked into the house, Ren was ushered into the front room where the wake was being held--a room full of mostly men drinking tea and eating snacks, and I was taken into a small room off the kitchen where I was forced to prepare tea continuously for about two hours, which is about how long it took Ren to figure out I had been kidnapped. Ironically, I couldn't and still can't make a good cup of green tea (most likely an overreaction to the first time I was asked to make it back at the BOE), so I was relegated to pouring it. Apparently, I didn't even do that well. About 15 minutes into my two-hour tea pouring hell, a relative I had never met chastised me four pouring. the. tea. with. my. left. hand! What can I say, I'm ambidextrous, but given there were about 10 of us in a space no larger than a pantry, left-handed serving was easier. Nothing annoys me quite like being forced to serve tea and then being told exactly how I have to do it, but after incurring the wrath of a bunch of old women I hardly knew, I had no choice but to serve the tea right handed.

I'd like to say these gender issues only happen in Japan. We all know that's not true, though. I'm married to a stay-at-home Japanese dad. I hold a full-time job while raising children and breastfeeding. People are shocked to learn that Ren gets up at night to change the baby's diaper before handing him off to me (and not just on the weekends). At parent-teacher conferences, it's assumed I will be the parent who attends, but if I don't have my husband with me, sometimes I'm not heard. As far as I can see, things haven't improved all that much since third grade Y basketball when none of the boys would pass the ball to me. The only way I could score a point was to steal it from someone on the other team and drive, drive, drive to the basket. Japan or the US, it seems like I've been driving ever since.

1 comment:

FMBMC said...

Way to take one for the team at the wedding!

And I knew the water you served me tasted left-handed!