I was the only girl on my 3rd grade Y-basketball team. Throughout my elementary school years, I spent hours at the Y practicing my shot and could beat just about any boy who challenged me to a game of one-on-one, no matter how old he was. I've lost more than a few boyfriends and potential boyfriends by beating them in a number of different sports.
Before I moved to Japan to teach English, friends and family members joked about my finding a Japanese husband. I couldn't think of a more absurd scenario. Super-independent, tomboy me, falling for an old-fashioned, chauvinistic Japanese man? Never! Well, we all know how that turned out. It's also probably obvious by now that Ren is no more a "typical" Japanese man than I am a "typical" American woman. Stereotypes are never useful. Still, my fierce competitiveness (along with a number of other "un-ladylike traits") made me a less-than-ideal candidate for becoming a Japanese housewife.
Despite my best intentions, however, I spent more than two years of my life in that role. Like many Japanese housewives, I had a Japanese husband, a kid, and a part-time job. Unlike them, I'm not Japanese, my kid was a step-kid and my job was teaching at a national university, but I suppose I fit the role just the same. Before I married Ren, several of my Japanese friends warned me against becoming the wife of the oldest son. The role of daughter-in-law is never an easy one, made much worse when living with one's in-laws. And as the wife to the oldest son in a family from somewhat rural Japan, I had the distinct pleasure of living with my mother-in-law after Ren and I married.
When we dated and talked about getting married, Ren was anything but the typical Japanese man. He cooked, he cleaned, he shopped. He expected me to be and do who and what I wanted. Unfortunately, one man's expectations can't hold up to an entire culture's. First of all, Ren's mother did not want Ren in the kitchen. That was my job. The hardest part of married life for me was cooking. As a single person, I "cooked" but this usually entailed boiling pasta, melting cheese on tortilla chips, or making berry smoothies--hardly food I could serve to my new Japanese insta-family. After all, I went from being single to living with not only Ren but also Ren's daughter Big Sissy and Ren's mom, Ba-chan.
Worse. Breakfast in Japan cannot merely be cereal, a banana and some yogurt. No, there is usually miso soup, rice, and some kind of fish involved. "Western" breakfast invariably include fried eggs, toast and a salad. For someone who could barely manage pouring cereal in a bowl that early in the morning, the breakfast expectations seemed unbelievably high. While making breakfast, I was also expected to make boxed lunches (bento) for Ren, Big Sissy and I as well as dinner for Ren who usually worked well past dinner time. Given that I was the kid who never ate breakfast because I couldn't stand the sight of food before say, 9 a.m., this was not easy.
Mornings were made more challenging by the fact that Ba-chan threw down the gauntlet regarding wake up time. If I got up at 7, she got up at 6:30. If I got up at 6:30, she got up at 6. If I got up at 6, well..., you can figure it out. Not one to back down from a challenge, I would peel myself out of the futon at 5:30 and before even opening my eyes, I could get the rice washed and cooked, start a pot of soup, and finish making half of the bentos. By the time everyone was up at 7, I had everything cooked and on the table, the laundry in the washing machine and the futons shaken and stored in the closet.
I wish I could say that I learned something enlightening from being a Japanese housewife for two+ years, but mainly I just got very, very annoyed. I decided that women in Japan have to work a lot harder than women in the US. Not just with cooking, but with shopping--since refrigerators are smaller and food fresher, most women shop every day or at least several times a week. Since Japanese houses are more permeable to the outside, most women dust and vacuum daily. Since washing machines are smaller and fill up sooner, daily loads of laundry have to be hung out in the sun (most families do not have dryers). Sleeping on futons means that bedding has to be shaken out and folded up every morning and aired out at least once a week. When I was a Japanese housewife, there was an insane amount of work each and every day. It helped to have a husband who vacuumed, a job I could go to, and a sense of humor, and most of all, it helped that we finally left Japan for the US.
My time as a Japanese housewife mostly taught me about the sacrifices we make for each other when we get married, sacrifices that seem more extreme when the marriage is an international one. Ren has sacrificed as much or more since we came to the US. Knowing how hard it was for me in Japan, my sense of gratitude for his sacrifices is tempered by a sense of guilt since I have a good idea of what he is going through.
NOTE: I should probably note that these stereotypes regarding the roles of men and women are much more entrenched in rural Japan than they are, say, in Tokyo, and of course, there are exceptions to these stereotypes just about anywhere. Sometimes sweeping generalizations make for more interesting blog posts, though...