Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Songs of Pink P

It has been an incredibly quiet couple of days (minus the gall bladder surgery). Ren and Sky have gone off on a Japan adventure without the rest of us. (No, I didn't decide to stay home because I was afraid I would drop Stow on the plane like I did Pink P when she was his age.... Well... okay, maybe a little).

The first thing I have noticed without Sky around is that living with Pink P is a bit like living in a fairy tale. I ask her to do something, and, generally, she immediately and willingly complies. Not only that, she usually sings some incredibly cheerful song while she is doing it. I keep looking for animated songbirds to start twirling around her head tweeting in tune, but so far, nothing.

Her songs go something like this:

I love my mommy ♬ ♬
I love my daddy ♬ ♬
I love my grandma ♬ ♬
I love my grandpa ♬ ♬
I love my brothers ♬ ♬
I love Big Sissy ♬ ♬
I love my ba-chan ♬ ♬
(repeat, ad infinitum)


We've been visiting Grandma and Grandpa. Grandma picked up a Barbie at a garage sale. I am NOT a fan of Barbie, but this Barbie is the worst. It sings:

"I'm just like you. ♬ You're just like me. ♬ It's something anyone can see. ♬ A heart that beats, a a voice that speaks the truth. ♬ Yes, I am a girl like you." ♬


"When you live your dreams, you'll find destiny is written in your he~art.♬"

OK, first of all, no one, I repeat, no one is a girl like Barbie. That's just creepy. Second, the cause and effect on the second song is confusing. What does it mean? I have no idea. And as I sit, slowly and painfully recovering from gall bladder surgery, I ponder this question at length and to no avail.

So there's been a lot of dancing and singing and twirling and skipping this week. It stinks that Pink P is so darn cute, spinning around, holding Barbie's hands and singing these songs. Curse advertisers and toy manufacturers who capitalize on cute little girls!

This article from the Huffington Post helps a little. And I've always been a fan of Jean Kilbourne's take on adverstising.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Take Off Your Shoes for Goodness Sake!

One question I used to get asked when I visited Japanese elementary schools was: "Do Americans sleep with their shoes on?" What an absurd question, I thought. That is until I realized the question about shoes, like the questions about guns ("Do you own a gun? I heard everyone owns a gun!" and "Aren't you afraid you will be shot?") can be tied directly to the programs my students were watching on television. When I first lived in Japan in the 90s, the selection of US television programs airing on the national networks was puzzling to say the least. There were a lot of Steven Segal movies, Full House, and A.L.F. For someone desperate to watch television in English after a long day of speaking Japanese, these were slim pickings to be sure. I mean, did anyone ever watch A.L.F.? And can you imagine a whole generation of Japanese viewers gleaning their understanding of the US from these three sources?

Finally, I decided to ask one of the third graders who posed the sleeping shoe question why she thought Americans slept in their shoes. After all, I can understand how Japanese kids would think it was odd to wear shoes in the house, but I couldn't imagine why they had the absurd idea that we slept in them. The kid's answer was simple: "Because, on t.v., we never see people take them off, and we never see where they put them. Besides, they already wear shoes in the house." (And by this last part, she meant to say that wearing shoes inside was already a filthy habit, so why wouldn't they wear them to bed?)

Most Americans know that Japanese take off their shoes when they go into the house. They assume this is to keep the house clean and to protect the tatami mats. They don't quite realize, however, how important taking one's shoes off is to maintaining proper etiquette. Japanese people, throughout their history have been concerned with keeping the pure and the impure separate. Have you ever seen a shrine gate like this?

It demarcates the separation of the unclean larger world from the purity of the shrine compound. That's why just inside the gate you will find an ablution pavilion (something that looks like a horse trough full of water and is used for washing oneself before proceeding).

There is a similar clean/unclean demarcation line in the entryway of the house and a designated space, therefore, for removing one's shoes which carry on their bottoms the uncleanliness of the outside. So, yes, taking off one's shoes is meant to keep the house clean, but no, it's not that simple.

Most visitors to our house here in the rural US don't seem to mind when we ask them to take off their shoes, though there is the occasional disgruntled person who comes with holey, smelly socks, or who is wearing laced-up boots. The problem is, though, that many of our American friends and family don't seem to get the spirit of the shoe-removal habit any more than my Japanese elementary kids understood why and when Americans wear shoes inside.

Here are some common mistakes they make:

1) They don't take off their shoes in the designated area, which is usually a swath of tile or a floor mat just inside the door. Instead, they assume that the entire entry area is like a mudroom and can therefore be tracked with shoes. They walk across the mat, across the carpet, and sit down on the steps to take their shoes off. The space for taking off shoes is almost always limited to just inside the door.

2) They take off their shoes, and then realizing they've forgotten something in their car, they go out in their socks to get it. After all, putting shoes on and taking them off again is a lot of work (she says with the slightest hint of sarcasm).

3) They get distracted and walk into the house with their shoes on anyway.

Now, don't get me wrong, I completely understand where these mistakes originate. After all, our visitors do take off their shoes as requested, even though it makes some of them uncomfortable to do so. So much of my family's cross-cultural existence is about meeting half-way. But the thing is, on some issues, there is no middle ground. There are some beliefs/cultural habits that one or the other of just us has to maintain for whatever reason. In my experience, the challenge of an international marriage (or any marriage, for that matter) is figuring out which of these beliefs/habits is non-negotiable and respecting the resulting boundaries. Sure, it gets old having to ask people to take off their shoes, and there is no easy, non-confrontational way to point out that taking off ones shoes and then getting one's socks dirty by walking outside without shoes defeats the purpose.

Sometimes Ren wonders whether people just lack common sense, and I remind him that we have common sense, it's just that the sense we share in common doesn't cover proper shoe removal etiquette. And then I remind myself that there are just certain times where it won't do any good to push him to see things my way. After all, who's to say my way is right, anyway?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Things to Worry About

Besides the normal stuff I worry about--like whether we'll ever really get Sky's impulsiveness and meltdowns under control, or whether his language processing and social issues will make him a pariah as he gets older, or whether these same issues will make it difficult for him to succeed in school, and whether Pink P will die from inadvertent consumption of a peanut, or whether she will suffer sudden respiratory distress from a heretofore unidentified allergy trigger, I have also recently been worried about these things:

*lead poisoning
*flesh eating diseases
*antibiotic resistant super bugs
*whether the US legislature will eventually make it impossible for us to get adequate medical care

The first one on the list has been the biggest as we have recently discovered lead paint in our house. When we moved into the college rental, I was handed a pamphlet describing the dangers of lead and essentially warning me from letting my children chew on the window sills. At the time, we had just moved back from Japan, and life was crazy enough that the threat of lead poisoning fell out of radar range. I mean, I'd never seen any of my children chew on windows. Don't ask me why I started worrying about it now, after living in the house for over a year. Most likely, I was procrastinating from dissertation editing, and I hit on this topic as an adequate diversion. After all, what's a little more stress?

So, I called the health department to find out about tests for lead in the kids' blood and learned that someone could come out and inspect our house for lead. This seemed like a good way to short-cut my anxiety. No lead paint means no worries, right? Unfortunately, the inspector found lead paint in all the windows. (Damn.) This made my anxiety Ren's anxiety. And he wasn't happy about the way I seemed to ferret out things to worry about, especially because I managed to discover a pretty big worry.

The good news is that environmental testing show normal lead levels in the house (we're still waiting for blood test results but anticipating they will be normal). The bad news is that it will probably be years before Ren stops reminding me that his super- hyper- cleaning habits (he vacuums a lot!) are probably what saved the kids.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Unexpected Go-Between

A few months after Ren and I started dating, I got called into an unexpected meeting with the head English teacher, Mori-sensei. At that point, Mori-sensei had been teaching for over thirty years, making her just a few years away from retirement. She was under five feet tall and had an annoying(or endearing, depending on your mood) habit of singing to herself. Not only was she the de facto head of the English curriculum at the school, she was also someone I taught with regularly (regularly enough to know that she was by nature unassertive--not the best quality for teaching junior high students). Compared to the other English teacher (Matsuo-sensei) though, teaching with Mori-sensei was a walk in the park. Matsuo-sensei deserves at least one blog entry of his own, but suffice it to say that he had employed the tactics of fear and humiliation to teach English to three generations of students living in that small mountain hamlet, and like frat brothers who love their fraternity more after enduring brutal hazing, every man, woman, and child over the age of 13 demonstrated a deep sense of love and gratitude for Matsuo-sensei's unorthodox teaching methods.

Anyway, on that particular day, as I prepared handouts for the day's lessons, Mori-sensei invited me back to the tea room. In Japanese schools, the teachers' desks are all gathered in one room. There they keep all of their teaching materials which they carry back and forth to the classrooms. Students don't rotate, teachers do. In smaller schools like the ones where I taught, all of the teachers' desks were in that room organized in clusters by grade taught. Since the teacher's room is a very communal space, every school has some kind of tea room/break room suitable for the occasional private conversation. I'd never been summoned to the tea room before, so I followed Mori-sensei with a deep sense of intrigue.

The conversation went something like this:

Mori-sensei (haltingly):
"The principal wanted me to speak to you about something...."

Me (perplexed--I wasn't sure the principal even knew I existed):

MS (stalling): "Someone called him."

Me: "Okay."

MS (even more haltingly, face increasingly reddened): "And they are worried because (pause, pause, pause)....(pause, pause) sometimes you don't come home at night."

Me (in my head): What the heck! Which of my nosy neighbors has it out for me? Ugh, it's probably the bitter divorcee Koga-sensei(who happened to be the school nurse at the other junior high where I taught).

Me (out loud): "I see, so one of my neighbors is worried about me? Do you know who called? I'd be happy to talk to them."

MS (with a certain amount of resignation):
"The principal didn't say. He's just worried. You see, everyone knows you have a new 'friend.'"

Me (in my head): You've got to be kidding me. I'm 25 years old. Even my mom wouldn't be this nosy.

Me (out loud, as tactfully as possible): "Yes, sometimes I do stay down in the city. Many of my friends live there, you know. I thought it was safer than driving on the mountain road late at night."

MS (dubiously): "So, you are staying with your foreign teacher friends?"

Me (vaguely): "Yes, various friends..."

MS (gaining her footing): "Because, you know, since you have come all this way so far from your family, everyone feels responsible for you. And you do have a new male friend."

Me (keeping my cool despite my desire to do otherwise and dismayed that I actually have to say this to a work colleague):
"You don't need to worry, I am not doing anything inappropriate. Besides, my parents know about my 'new friend' and they are not worried, so you don't need to be either."

MS (relieved--not by my explanation but because the conversation was clearly nearing its conclusion): "I'm glad to hear that. I will let the principal know he doesn't need to worry."

So let me say here, that my response to Mori-sensei's line of questioning went against every fiber of my being. What I really wanted to do was chastise her for prying into my private life and attempting to squelch my sense of independence. After all, what I did on my own time was my own business. Fortunately, though, I had lived in the town (and in Japan) long enough at that point to know that a) my business was not my own, and b) reacting as a strong-willed foreign woman would get me absolutely nowhere. I had also managed to do the don't-say-exactly-what-you-mean-and-let-others-think-what-they-will dance successfully for the first time, so, it probably sounds funny to say this, but I was proud of how much I'd grown.

That night, I told Ren about the conversation, hoping to vent my frustration at having every aspect of my private life analyzed by meddling neighbors. Ren patiently listened to my account, and then said something that totally shocked me:

"I think I should talk to Mori-sensei."

Me (in my head): Whaaa~t??? I totally did NOT see that coming!

Me (out loud, not at all sure how this would pan out): "Ummm, okaa~y."

So, we called Mori-sensei (awkward), and we invited her to dinner (even more awkward), setting up a date for the next night. (Whaaa~t?)

Have you ever seen those "meet the parents" movies where the young adult child brings home her unexpected betrothed and all sorts of chaos ensues? That's kind of what the dinner date was like. Only, the meeting wasn't with my parents. And we weren't betrothed. There was no chaos (Japan is almost always notably lacking in the chaos department). And the food wasn't all that great, either.

It was a very, very uncomfortable meal. I had no idea what to say to either Ren or Mori-sensei, both people I like very much, so I said nothing. Ren and Mori-sensei tried to forge casual conversation, but failed. Finally, Mori-sensei got to the point, in one of the most mortifying moments of my existence.

She said, "So, what are your intentions?"

Ren, not missing a beat, replied, "My intentions are pure. Please know I am not playing around. I'm serious about her and will take good care of her."

Holy shit! This is like where the guy meets the girl's dad and asks for her hand in marriage. We're just dating for goodness sake! And then it hit me. Since my folks were thousands of miles away, Mori-sensei had been appointed to be the unofficial go-between in this most unorthodox of o-miais.* Both Ren and Mori-sensei were in the middle of a necessary formality and nothing I would do or say would halt the inevitable.

Now, many years later, we are still friends with Mori-sensei. We exchange new year's cards, and whenever we are in Japan, we drop in for a visit. Still, I will always wonder how she felt about being assigned the task of being our unofficial go-between.

* An o-miai is a formal meeting between two families to determine whether they will proceed with an arranged marriage. In the past, the potential marriage candidates would be meeting for the first time. These days, in the era of the so-called "love marriage" (as opposed to an arranged marriage), the o-miai has taken on a much different feel and, indeed, is usually absent.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Cards I Shouldn't Have to Carry, Really

First, there's this one:

A lot of states have this type of law on the books. What's more, a lot of breast feeding support groups, etc. hand out this type of card. It's not the law or the card that bother me. It's the fact that they are necessary. I'll avoid my soap box here (maybe), but let me just say that breastfeeding is not only natural, it's also the most healthy alternative for mother and baby.

I'm incredibly disturbed by the types of perceptions many Americans seem to have re. breastfeeding. At the end of an article about a woman who was dismissed from her job for taking unscheduled breaks in order to pump, I was amazed by the number of comments from women who thought she deserved it because she had the audacity to choose to have a baby, breastfeed that baby, and work full time. There were also many whose comments likened breast milk to other bodily fluids like urine and vomit. Their point being that they didn't want to see a woman's breast milk any more than they wanted to see her urine or vomit. Okay, how many breastfeeding women out there are parading their breast milk around in public? If you're one of them, you need to stop.

My biggest problem with these discussions, though, is that breastfeeding women have very few alternatives to "breastfeeding in public." I suppose we could all stay home until our babies are grown and no longer breastfeeding like the reader comment above suggests. But, here's a radical idea, what if large public spaces offered a place for women to breastfeed? What if they had mother-baby rooms that not only had adequate changing tables but also places for mothers to sit in relative private and feed their babies? Is this a radical idea? If it is, then why does Japan, which is supposedly so far behind the US in terms of gender equality, provide such great resources for women who would rather not sit home for the first 6-12 months (or longer) of their child's life?

OMG! How crazy is that? It's a room with a comfortable place to sit and nurse AND changing tables that are not surrounded by filthy public toilets!

For the record: I've never met a nursing mother who was aching to show her boobs to complete strangers. In fact, most of the nursing mothers I know would like to be able to feed their babies without feeling like they are exposing themselves or committing a crime. I can tell you that during the months I am breastfeeding a baby I feel a lot like this:

So, I'd rather not have to worry about getting grief from a bunch of crazies who think I breastfeed in order to show them my boobs.

Then, there's this card:

Let me just say this: If I have to carry a card around to explain why my kid (and my parenting skills) are not living up to your expectations, then screw you. Thank you, and have a nice day.