Saturday, 31 March 2007


A friend of mine once told me that her life had been all the things that happened to her while she was in pursuit of goals she never managed to attain. This was a woman in her seventies who'd had a very rich and happy life, but perhaps because I was in my twenties at the time, I thought there was something a little sad about such an assertion. Now that I am older, I am amazed at how my own life has turned out much the same. Not only has my life taken turns I never imagined it would take, but a lot of the major events of my life have had a lot to do with serendipity.

One of those events was meeting my husband. Two years before I met Peter, I went on an interview in New York for a job teaching English at a school in Northern Japan. The woman who interviewed me was a Japanese American. Throughout our meeting, I kept wondering who she reminded me of, and thirty minutes later, as we were concluding, I suddenly realized who it was.

"You know, you look exactly like a man I once studied Japanese with in Tokyo," I blurted out. "And he was Japanese American too."

"What was his name? My brother studied Japanese in Tokyo."

"Colin Wakabayashi."

Her jaw dropped. Colin Wakabayhashi was her brother.

I got the job, and Caroline assured me that it was not because I'd studied Japanese with her brother. Caroline and I eventually became friends and worked together for the better part of two years in Northern Japan. I took the job to return to Japan, in the expectation that a man I had been involved with for several years would join me there. This was sadly not meant to be; he ended up breaking up with me after keeping me on hold for a year. I was miserable and heartbroken, and not long after our break up, I decided to move down to Tokyo in order to find a better job.

In Tokyo, I went on at least a dozen job interviews, and had my heart set on two university teaching posts which I never got. On a whim, I answered an ad for a job at the British Council's school in Tokyo, and to my amazement, they gave me an interview. I suspected (with very good reason, it turned out) that the head teacher at my former post would not give me a good recommendation, however, and had little hope of being offered a job. So when they called and informed me that I could start teaching in April, I was overwhelmed.

I was even more amazed a few days later when Caroline told me what had happened. On the day that my interviewer at the British Council called my former school, Caroline, who had left the school shortly after I did, happened to have dropped by for five minutes. While the secretary was out of the office, the telephone rang. Caroline answered the call and it was my soon-to-be boss at the British Council, wanting to know if I was a decent teacher worth the trouble of hiring. Caroline wasn't employed there anymore, but she assured him I was hard-working and conscientious, that I had left our former school of my own volition, in order to find a better teaching post. She was considerate enough not to mention the fact that I was tired of twelve-hour schedules and not a great fan of our former head teacher -- or that she was no longer an employee of the school.

"I'm surprised they even gave you an interview, though," Caroline said. "A friend of mine told me they aren't all that keen on hiring Americans. They're not prejudiced or anything, but the students expect British teachers at the British Council."

One thing is for certain: if she had not dropped by and picked the phone up, I would never have gotten the job and I would never have met my husband.

Shortly after I started working at the British Council, they changed their policy and stopped hiring Americans.

Friday, 30 March 2007

A Swimming Cap on a Bald Head

"I'm sorry," said the polite young man behind the reception desk of the Kamagaya Municipal Swimming Pool. "Rules are rules. Your husband will have to wear a swimming cap."

"But, he's completely bald!"

"Rules are rules. If we change the rules for one person --"

"You'd have to change them for everybody," I said through gritted teeth.

The receptionist nodded, looking relieved. "I'm so glad you understand."

I didn't, though -- not a bit. Swimming caps are to keep hair out of the swimming pool and to keep your hair out of your face while you swim. A swimming cap on a bald man is about as ridiculous as you can get.

"I'm sorry," I told my husband, who had been trying to follow our conversation, "he says he can't bend the rules."

When we saw the sign that said SWIMMING CAPS MUST BE WORN BY ALL SWIMMERS we had laughed at first. Neither of us thought that a bald man would be required to wear one. I'd asked the receptionist if my husband also needed to wear a cap partly as a joke. Now I had to give him the bad news. "He says you'll have to buy a swimming cap or you can't go into the pool."

"Oh, for God's sake!"

"I know, I know. It's ridiculous. But rules are rules."

"But what's the point?"

"Honey, I didn't make the rules!"

"Jeez, it would make more sense to insist that I wrap my body up in cling film."

I sighed. "Look, let's just humor the guy and buy a swimming cap for you, okay?"

It had taken us an hour to get the kids' swimming gear together: the goggles, the suits, the inflatable arm bands, the towels. It had taken another hour for us to get to the pool. The temperature was close to 40 degrees, the humidity near 85%. The kids were hot and cranky and I was tired and in need of a swim, and frankly, I would have done just about anything to get into the pool at that point. Even if it meant buying a completely superfluous swimming cap.

Rules are rules in Japan. Sometimes, they are 100% practical -- no shoes in the house means a lot less vacuuming; washing before you get into the bathtub means the water stays much cleaner and can be used again by others. Sometimes, though, they don't make a lick of sense -- like a swimming cap on a bald head.

My husband grumbled, but he finally went and bought it. A flashy green and black number it was. Somewhere, we've still got it.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Irony and Shared Experience

How do you spot a use of irony? When someone says something ironical, how do you recognize it as such? And finally, how do you teach a non-native speaker of English to identify irony in English? Until I'd tried to do this, I never appreciated how hard it might be. A lot of it, I found, has to do with shared experience. Shared culture is important, of course, but shared experience counts just as much or more.

"Oh, how delightful," said Maria, a fellow teacher, when she heard another of our colleagues had gotten married. "Another couple on the road to eternal happiness."

It took me ages to explain to a student who overheard this comment that it was intended to be ironical. She was absolutely certain that Maria naively assumed that marriage ensured a life of bliss. Maria was divorced; I was married; the student was single. Maria and I had a shared experience -- years of marriage -- that clued me in to her use of irony.

One of the hardest jobs I've ever done was having to find twelve uses of irony in an essay on parenting and then explaining the irony in each one. This was a test question given to Japanese university students on one of the entrance examinations to a particular university, and it was so fiendishly difficult that even the teachers overseeing the test struggled with it. My job was to go over the sentences with the teachers and explain what I felt the correct answers to be. I was also expected to analyze the irony.

The teachers, both excellent speakers of English, did very well in picking out what was ironical and what wasn't, and their answers were very similar. Unfortunately, though, they had gotten stuck on one sentence that they could not agree on and hoped that I would be able to settle their dispute.

The pesky sentence? "All single parents who manage to raise children on their own are heroes."

Nakajima-san insisted that this had to be an ironical use. Heroes were people who pulled others out of burning buildings or carried their buddies over their shoulders through minefields. People who did nothing more thrilling than bring up children were -- well, parents. "Ironical of course," he stated emphatically.

Sakamori-san stared at his test paper and shook his head. "Not ironical," he said flatly. He looked at me and I nodded. "Not ironical."

Nakajima-san couldn't understand. "But you said irony is an exaggeration!" he disputed. "Big exaggeration to say that single parents are heroes!"

Poor fellow; he just didn't have the experience. I wish his mother had been there to lend us her support.

On the way out of the office I turned to Sakamori-san. "How old is your son now?"

"Two. Terrible two."

"Oh lord, you poor guy. Does he still keep you up at night?"

He merely nodded, but I'd already seen the bags under his eyes.

"How about the temper tantrums? Are those any better?"

He shook his head. "He bit my wife the other day," he said glumly.

"My youngest went through a biting phase," I commiserated. "That's tough. She's sleeping through the night now, though. Almost every night, too."

He perked right up at that. "Has she stopped banging her head on the ground?"

"She doesn't do it as much as she used to, but she still has her moments. Whenever she loses it, we just make sure she's nowhere near a concrete floor."

Nakajima-san stared at us as if we were insane. He was a perfectly bright guy, he just didn't happen to have the shared experience.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Bengali Oatmeal

When I was pregnant with our second child, my husband and I went to visit friends of ours in Sendai, a town in northern Japan. We couldn't have been the easiest of house guests. We had our two-year-old daughter with us and I was suffering from terrible morning sickness. There was almost nothing that didn't give me heartburn, and keeping food down had almost become an obsession.

Our friends Glen and Jayanthi, were a couple I'd known for years, since my own time in Sendai. They too were foreigners, from India. I am crazy about Indian food, so our first night there it broke my heart that I was suddenly surrounded by it and could not really enjoy it.

The first morning at their house, I dreaded the thought of breakfast. Glen, the husband, was stirring something on the stove that looked like oatmeal but smelled like an Indian spice shop. When I asked him what he was cooking, he said simply "Porridge." Then he laughed and added "Indian style porridge, I suppose."

Now in my family, oatmeal was something that was cooked to the consistency of wallpaper paste. It was tough and gluey and there were little chewy bits in it. With the best will in the world, I cannot say that I was a great fan of my mother's oatmeal.

This was something entirely different -- intoxicatingly spicy. I could smell cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. And I noticed that Glen kept stirring the pot, and he kept adding milk. When it was finally finished, the porridge had an almost creamy consistency, and it could be poured into a bowl, not scraped out in hard clumps. Glen sprinkled a generous helping of jaggery over the top, then dusted it with extra cinnamon. He served it with roasted cashew nuts, honey and sliced bananas. It looked so good, I had a bowl myself.

Ever since then, I have never made oatmeal any other way. Even if you use nonfat (skimmed) milk, 'Bengali oatmeal' -- the name my husband and I gave this -- is far nicer than the traditional stuff.

Some hardliners I have met pooh-pooh this. They say that the only way to eat oatmeal is cooked with water to a wallpaper consistency -- and that the only seasoning permissable is a dash of salt. But since these tend to be meat-and-two-veg types who wouldn't touch a lime pickle with a barge pole, I don't pay them any mind.

And perhaps it was the ginger, but I found that Bengali oatmeal was the perfect thing for my heartburn and morning sickness.

Friday, 16 March 2007

Sugar and Honey for Breakfast

My kids are never satisfied with what they've got. Buy them the rubbish breakfast cereal they've been clamoring for and they only want more. Donuts. Candy. Packaged cakes. If it's got E-numbers, saturated fats and practically no nutrition in it, they just know they're going to like it.

Like all kids, all of their friends have it better than they do. According to them, their friends' parents buy them anything they want, any old time. I point out that I bake my own bread and cookies and other mothers don't necessarily do this, but they won't go along with that. They can't see that it's an advantage to have a Mom who cooks and bakes from scratch; they can only see that I am one of those tiresome Moms who refuses to buy them Kit-kats on demand. Who actually reads the ingredients on cartons and packages. In the supermarket, I fumble around for my glasses to read the fine print on a box of cereal and they die a thousand deaths. 'Oh, Mom!' they mutter anxiously, glancing around on the off chance that one of their friends is going to find out their horrible secret -- that Mom is a Stickler.

If they had their own way, my kids would have nothing but sugar and honey for breakfast. In a bowl, mixed together, perhaps with a little butter in it.

Part of me feels for them. My parents used to embarrass me, too. I grew up in California in the sixties. Nowadays, you can't turn the corner without finding another vegetarian, especially in California, but back when I was a kid we were just about the only vegetarian family around, and we were absolutely the only non-drinking vegetarians I'd ever heard of. I used to go to friends' houses and see the pork chops in their refrigerators, the hot-dogs and rump steaks and bottles of wine and beer -- and the thought of our own spare cupboards and our refrigerator with its meager selection of cabbage and carrots shamed me to death. I wanted my parents to be the sort of parents who had gin and tonics, who grilled hamburgers on their barbecues and knew the difference between burgundy and chablis.

My father was what was called a health nut back then. The sort of person who sprinkled wheat germ on everything, made sure we had plenty of produce to eat, watched the saturated fats he consumed, and chose to buy nuts and fruit instead of candy. All of my friends brought things to school that my parents would not have dreamt of having in the house, let alone allowing us to eat. I opened my packed lunch and just knew that the world could see that I had a sandwich made with wholemeal bread and cheese when they were proudly taking out white bread and bologna. And I was so ashamed.

A few years back, my best friend and I were talking about our childhood. Her mother and father were way up on my wish-list of parent perfection, the sort of parents that in my heart of hearts I wished I'd been given. "Your family were such trend-setters," she said, "vegetarians back when almost no one was a vegetarian. And your mother tried different things, too -- the first place I ever had Chinese food was at your house. I used to love eating with your family."

I was gob-smacked by this revelation. Maybe in years to come, my kids will be born again healthy eaters. Maybe their friends will comment approvingly on my broccoli soups and low-fat stir fries. Maybe, in time, they'll even forgive me for not letting them eat their weight in candy. For nixing sugar and honey for breakfast.

Monday, 12 March 2007

Women are Muesli, Men are Bacon Sandwiches

"I'll have the full British breakfast," the man tells me eagerly as I stand there, pen and order pad in hand. "What does that include, again?"

The man is somewhere between 50 and 60. He has a bulging waistband and a bar-code comb-over -- and more worryingly, a wheeze and obvious shortness of breath. I try not to be judgmental, but I find myself wishing my first aid training were more recent; this fellow looks like a heart attack just waiting to happen. And when I asked him what he wanted for breakfast, I could not help but notice that his wife winced.

I try not to look at her now as I answer him. "Eggs any way you like them, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes, and beans. Toast of course, either white or wholemeal, and coffee or tea. Orange, grapefruit, or apple juice, and fresh fruit salad. And it really is fresh, too, and not out of a tin."

"Lovely. Great. I'll have fried eggs, please, white bread for the toast, and --" (ignoring wife's expression of exasperation)-- "the bacon and sausages, of course, but could you hold the beans and tomatoes? I don't want those."

"What about the fresh fruit salad?"

"Oh -- no thank you, I don't need that."

The wife might be a few pounds overweight, but she is Twiggy next to her husband. Her voice is terse with strained patience. "I'll just have an egg," she says in clipped tones. "Poached, please. On wholemeal toast." The 'wholemeal' is pointedly stressed.

"Fresh fruit salad?"

"Yes, please. I'll have a small bowl of that too.' She eyes her husband before adding an ironical aside: 'I might as well indulge; after all, we're on holiday."

As I serve the couple their breakfasts, the wife glances at the husband's plate as he tucks in and I can see her jaw set, a look of dismay settling over her features. I feel awful: like the enabler I know I am.

"Excuse me,' the husband asks, avoiding his wife's eyes, 'could we get a bit more butter here?"

I do my best to avoid the wife's eyes as I place the dish of butter on the table.

Later, walking past the table I hear snatches of conversation:

"Don't think you're going to have this again tomorrow!" hisses the wife. "I don't even want to think about what your cholesterol count is going to be when we get home!" I try not to eavesdrop, but I hear her mention the words 'salt' and 'butter' in an aggrieved way -- more than once. No doubt about it, she's made her views on the subject known before.

In the entire time we ran our B & B, I can only recall one wife who ate more -- or more unwisely -- than her husband.

We served up to eighteen people breakfast every day for the better part of two years, and I am here to tell you that if it weren't for their wives, a lot of men would be in really bad shape. I don't think it is the least bit surprising that married men live longer than their single counterparts. Knowing what I know now, the wonder is that so many single men live as long as they do.

I'll bet that a lot of men might assume from this that their wives are spoilsports who don't want them to have any fun. The truth is that we just want our guys to live as long as possible. If I were a man, I'd be a lot more worried about a woman who encouraged me to have fried bread and sausages, who didn't clear her throat when I grabbed the salt shaker before tasting my food, or spread extra butter on my bread.

If I'd had my way, I'd have served heart-healthy breakfasts. Poached or boiled eggs; muffins made with canola oil instead of butter and with plenty of fiber and wheat germ; porridge made with skimmed milk; muesli, fresh fruit, and assorted cereals. Bacon and sausages on occasion perhaps, but leaner, less salty versions whenever possible. I'd have made a big point of advertising our healthy breakfast fare and I'll bet that women everywhere would have been queuing up to make reservations.

My husband, naturally, would not hear of it.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Omai Madness

The omiai, literally 'getting together and seeing,' is a Japanese custom whereby unattached men and women are introduced to each other to consider the prospect of marriage.

Tachiko was a lively, vibrant young woman of about thirty. She was bright and funny, neither plain nor pretty, and a brilliant piano player. The first time I met Tachiko, she told me about her omiai habit. ‘I’ve been on about thirty-five omiai,’ she said matter-of-factly. ‘Omiai are my hobby.’

I was new in Japan at the time and intrigued by the whole concept. What was an omiai like? Tachiko pondered this. ‘It’s really just a first date. Sometimes it’s formal and your parents will go with you, but most of the time it’s informal and you just go and meet the guy on your own. At a coffee house or a restaurant, say. And you talk. You know, about the kinds of things you usually talk about on a first date. Hobbies, stuff you liked in school – things like that.’

For Tachiko, it was a point of pride that after the omiai, she would invariably have her mother call up the next day and offer her regrets. She would do this even when she liked the guy and felt that they’d hit it off. I couldn’t understand this and I said so. Tachiko shrugged. ‘I’m not much of a catch: my parents aren’t rich, I’m not beautiful, I didn’t go to a good university. I figure the guys will probably say no themselves; I just beat them to it by saying it first.’ I thought this sounded defeatist, but Tachiko maintained that this way she got to go on a lot of dates and go out with a lot of boys she would otherwise never have the chance to meet.

The last time I talked to Tachiko, she’d just had her forty-fourth omiai and seemed remarkably blasé about the whole thing. ‘The last one was really cute,’ she sighed. ‘And he liked books, too.’ ‘Weren’t you tempted not to turn him down?’ She shook her head. ‘I figure if one of them really likes me, he’ll call back.’ She shrugged. ‘Anyway, we always make them a pound cake.’

Junko was forty-two and divorced. She had been married briefly to a widower with two teenaged children after her colleagues had arranged an omiai. An attractive, maternally inclined woman, Junko had been looking forward to mothering her new husband’s teenagers. She’d had no idea what she was getting into. ‘They hated me from the word go. Nothing I cooked tasted right to them, nothing I did impressed or pleased them. They hated the new curtains I bought, hated the color I painted the bathroom, hated the drapes I hung, the sweaters I knitted for them. In fact, they really hated me, and it didn’t take them long to persuade their father I was no good. I felt like Cinderella. I cooked for them, cleaned their rooms, drove them to piano lessons and parties – and they still hated me.’

Once, on hearing that I had been proposed to by a man I had no intention of marrying, Junko urged me to accept. ‘Go on – say yes! Just give it a try! If you don’t, you’ll never know whether you liked being married or not!’ She sighed. ‘I wish divorce weren’t such a stigma here. Then maybe someone would arrange another omiai for me. . .’ Junko worked full-time as an accountant, but she still managed to get through fifteen Harlequin Romances a week. She had bin bags full of them in her closet.

Keiko was twenty-five. She was beautiful, but intimidatingly intelligent. And tall. ‘On my first omiai, the guy asked me how tall I was,’ she said, disgusted. ‘And when I told him, he looked really depressed. He goes: You’re two centimetres taller than I am! And then later, when we ran into these friends of his, he asked me to bend my knees a little so they wouldn’t be able to tell I was taller than he was.’ ‘Did you?’ I asked her, and she laughed. ‘No way. I stood up nice and tall. On tiptoe.

‘Then on my second omiai, the guy spent over half the time on his mobile phone. It never stopped ringing and he didn’t even excuse himself, he just went ahead and answered it. Every call lasted about twenty minutes and it was all about boring stuff – money and stocks and stuff. Then on my third omiai the guy keeps asking me about my girl friends. How many I’ve got, whether they’re pretty, and finally – whether they liked girls. Seriously.’

Fumie was only twenty-two, but her parents were keen on getting her married off as soon as possible. She’d already been on three omiai. ‘God, I hate them,’ she said flatly. ‘The first guy was a jerk. He had a nice car, but he had a pornographic video sitting on top of the back seat, right where anybody could see it. When I commented on it, he offered to show it to me – on our very first date! The next guy was dead boring and he had awful breath and dandruff. And the third guy took me to a family restaurant.’ Japanese family restaurants are, as you might imagine, for families. They are the sort of place you can take a group of unruly children and not spend your entire time apologizing to the staff. Although they are not perhaps the ideal venue for an omiai or a first date, the prices are right and the food is okay. When I said as much to Fumie, she agreed. ‘It wasn’t so much the fact that he took me to a family restaurant as it was that he kept pointing out babies. Isn’t that one cute? Don’t you want to have one right away? Jeez.’

Naoko was fifty and a career woman who had never been married. She lived quite happily with her elderly mother in a small apartment with no garden, so they liked to get out as often as possible and go for walks in their local park. ‘On our way to the park, there was one house that we just loved. Really old and traditional, but in perfect condition. It had a huge garden with a fish pond full of koi, a raked gravel bed, pine trees, camellias – all of our favorite flowers and trees. We’d just stand at the fence and stare at it and wonder what it would be like to live in a nice house like that.’

After Naoko’s mother died, friends had arranged an omiai for her. She had been dubious, but intrigued. The man was a widower with two teenaged boys, and he lived in a large house he was finding it difficult to manage on his own.

‘On the day of the omiai, my friends came and collected me. When we got to the man’s house, I couldn’t believe my eyes: it was the house with the fish pond and the garden – the one my mother and I had admired so much!’ Naoko and the widower hit it off. They found that they shared a passion for gardening and bridge. Naoko put in long hours at work and hated cooking, but that was no problem, as her new husband was a superb cook. They spent their weekends gardening together and, with Naoko’s salary, were able to afford a part-time housekeeper.

Her new husband’s two teenaged boys thought Naoko was terrific. ‘They come home drunk and I go into their rooms and yell at them. But they’re great boys, really sweet and thoughtful. We wash the dishes together after dinner and we always have a laugh. I never thought I’d like being a mother, but I do. It’s wonderful. I just wish my mother could have lived to see this. She’d have been as happy as I am.’ Naoko paused and smiled. ‘And she kept telling me I ought to have someone arrange an omiai.’

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Lap Dance

When they were tiny, my kids used to love settling in my lap and being sung to. They would request favorite books or stories, snuggling up to me in bed or climbing onto my lap. When does all of that stop? One day, I patted my lap and said to my youngest 'Come over here and sit on my lap,' and she told me that was silly, she wasn't a baby anymore, she didn't need to sit on my lap. Which was true, but of course it still hurt.

Not long ago, we got a cat. Personally, I love cats, but I had my reservations about this. I told the kids I knew who'd end up feeding her, and of course they rushed to assure me that they would always assume the responsibility for this chore. I let them know I wasn't keen on changing the cat litter, and again they insisted they would be able to cope. So we got a cat, and she's great. Happily, the great outdoors is her litter box and the kids do occasionally feed her. What we didn't reckon on was the dead mice and birds. Our cat is a veritable killing machine; when I was a kid we had dozens of cats and not one of them could have come close to her skill. And all the bird and rodent corpses are 95% my responsibility. My husband, smart fellow, opted out from the very beginning.

Now, the kids and I are crazy about this cat, and she is crazy about -- well, me. The kid she is not so thrilled with. This has nothing to do with who feeds her, as we all share this chore pretty equally, but a lot to do with the fact that the kids won't leave her alone. Even though they're old enough to know better, they insist on picking her up when she has just settled for a nap or begun to eat her dinner. So the cat chooses my lap nine times out of ten. And it is nice to have a cat in my lap most of the time, so I am not complaining. But the real benefit to having this cat is that the kids have begun to get jealous. Not of me, but the cat. They dump her off my lap and -- big girls that they are -- sit there themselves and insist on being paid some attention. I pretend to be irritated. I fuss over the cat and how upset she must feel to be so rudely displaced. I tell them that they are cutting off the circulation in my legs. That they are not babies any longer, for pity's sake.

But secretly, I am thrilled.