Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Japanese Housewife Handbook: How to Be a Kyoiku Mama

There are two exceedingly important roles in the family that seem to be assigned to every Japanese housewife. The first is manager of family finances and the second is kyoiku mama (or "education mom," which is a totally lame, but linguistically accurate translation of the term). As an independent, working woman, I did not feel any particular need to take on these two vital roles, but they were thrust upon me just the same.

By the end of our honeymoon, I decided that the "holder of the purse string" role was actually pretty vital for the survival of our family. After all, Ren has trouble keeping track of his wallet, literally, not figuratively. The first time he visited me in the US, he dropped his wallet on the airplane. Fortunately, he realized it was missing before we caught our connecting flight, and the wallet which included his passport and various forms of ID was found and returned to us. But there was no cash inside, and there were incriminating traces of barbeque sauce on the outside. On our honeymoon.... Even now, more than ten years later, it's difficult for me to discuss.... Let's just say he fed the fish in Hanauma Bay enough money to sustain them for several generations.

These days, he's only allowed to carry minuscule amounts of cash.

When Ren and I married, Big Sissy was in her second year of junior high school (a.k.a. 8th grade), or just over a year away from her high school entrance exams. Sissy went to an "academic" junior high, so preparations for entrance exams was intense. In fact, the entire school completed the three-year curriculum in two years so the final year could be spent on review and exam prep. The eighth-grade year was spent focusing on studies and preparing for the all-city kendo tournament (for which I was asked to wear an apron, see previous post) held in the early summer of the ninth-grade year. Students participated heavily in the sport of their choice (only one!) for the first two years of junior high school, only to stop completely during the summer vacation of the ninth-grade year to focus on exam prep.

Most kids were already going to cram school by this time. In fact, most had been going to cram school for a long, long time by the time they got to the summer of their ninth-grade year. Not Big Sissy, though. We knew that unless she showed initiative regarding preparation for exams, no amount of money paid to a cram school would do any good. So we waited (and waited) for her to make the first move.

Some parents would view this as extremely risky behavior. After all, how could she possibly know what was best for her? Weren't we sabotaging her chances at getting into the best school by not forcing her to go to cram school? Of course, we knew a few things about our kid that others didn't. First, she was smart enough to get into just about any school she wanted (whether her class performance indicated as much or not). Second, money spent on things she didn't want to do was always wasted money. And third, she'd eventually come around. As far as I can tell, our waiting paid off. She finally decided she wanted to go to cram school the August before her exams the following January and March. This meant we only had to pay for less than 8 months of cram school. It also meant that she was just panicked enough to study hard, putting our money to good use.

Once summer came, however, life became no fun for anyone. For Sissy, regular school was followed by cram school three days a week, and her life began to be filled with one diagnostic practice test after another. It seems like we were going in for student-parent-teacher or parent-teacher conferences once every couple of weeks. Every practice test result came home with a class ranking. Since she went to the best school in our area, we knew that approximately half of the kids in her class would get into the best high school.

Sissy didn't really seem to care too strongly which high school she got into, but since her friends were vying for the best high school, she decided she might as well do the same. And since her "motivation" was external, and not especially strong at that, for the first few months of "serious" study, she was not so serious, and her practice test results reflected this. Just about every test she brought home showed her ranked in the very middle of her class, one or two spots above or below the magic cut-off line. And every meeting with her homeroom teacher went about the same way--"Well, she might get in, but then again, she might not..." You can see why this was a particularly frustrating process for us.

Eventually, Ren and I decided to level with Sissy. "Look," we told her, "Maybe you're not cut out for the best high school. To get in, you have to work a lot harder than you are now. Maybe you should shoot for number two." And like just about every adolescent on the face of the earth, that was all it took for her to defy us and work hard enough to get into the best school. I kid you not, from that day on, every practice test score came back with her ranked in the top five. Top five!

What no one tells you is that when your kid is preparing for high school entrance exams, the whole family is preparing for them. You can hardly tell your test taker to study hard while you run off to the movie or the mall. So, for the entire eight months that Big Sissy got serious about studying, we went nowhere and did nothing. We all watched from a distance as she doodled and fell asleep over her textbooks and fought to get through the material before her. And suddenly, the whole family became acutely aware of Sissy's sleeping and eating habits. After all, if she didn't eat and sleep well, she might get sick, and if she got sick, she would not be able to study. It was no fun for anyone.

The morning of the first exam for her back-up choice, a local private school, arrived, and Sissy woke up sick. She'd fallen asleep under the kotatsu (a small heated table with a blanket over it--everyone knows sleeping under them makes you sick!). The morning would've been comic if it wasn't so tragic. "How could you fall asleep under the kotatsu after all those months of studying?!?" we implored half-angry, half-panicked before sending her off to take the test anyway. She passed.

Then six weeks later, it was time for the real deal, the entrance exam for local public schools. All kids take the same public school test, but they can only choose one school to receive their scores (hence the endless discussions with her teacher about which public school she would shoot for). As planned, Sissy tested for the best school in the region (and fortunately, she wasn't sick the day of the exam).

Two days later, the results were posted on huge pieces of paper taped to the side of the high school's gym. Sissy went alone (though Ba-chan sneaked out and spied on her) to see if her exam number made the list. Number 583. It was there! She'd done it.

That night, we invited her aunts, uncles and cousins to dinner and celebrated her accomplishment. The next morning, she dressed in her junior high school uniform and we proudly accompanied her to her new school. Where we sat in a gym full of new students and their parents and listened for two hours as each teacher stood up, congratulated them on their achievement, and then proceeded to tell them that life was about to get much more hellish than any entrance-exam hell they could imagine. After that, each and every teacher gave them a homework assignment to do over the summer--homework assignments that generally covered the first third of each of the newly received textbooks they held on their laps, homework assignments that were ludicrously long and insanely detailed in terms of how they were to be executed.

Sitting in that gym, thinking about three more years of exam-like hell literally made me cry. It wasn't over, it was just beginning.

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