Sunday, 29 April 2007

Getting There -- Eventually

I have no sense of direction.

Now, when I say that, some might imagine that I simply have trouble finding my way places. That is certainly true: I have an awful time just getting from A to B. But my direction problem is so severe that you really have to see me in action to believe it. I'm not bragging and I'm not complaining; I'm just stating a fact. Even if I've been to a particular place over a dozen times, the odds are that I'd never be able to find my way there on my own. And even if by some miracle I did manage this, I'd never be able to find my way back.

I've been like this from the get-go, and the one thing I will say for this problem is that it does help you have interesting adventures. When I was just a toddler, I got lost after playing in my grandfather's front yard in Stockton. I couldn't remember which house his was, so I went to the neighbors' instead and walked in on a very lively party in full swing. The neighbors were quite taken with me and invited me in. One woman lifted me high over her head, then handed me to someone else. I got passed around the room and I still remember wondering what the hell was going on and what was so funny, as I sailed from smiling face to smiling face. Eventually one of the more sober revelers took me back to my grandfather's house next door, but it was an interesting two or three minutes.

I also got lost going home from school during my third week at kindergarten (we lived approximately one and a half blocks away from the school). I ended up at the house of a very nice family many blocks away from the school. They all spoke Spanish, which I found intriguing, and they had crucifixes on the walls; one of the little girls there was named Maria and she invited me to come over and play whenever I liked. Maria shared some chocolate gold coins with me, and Maria's mother had to get our telephone number from the directory and call my mother to come and get me; I blush to remember it. Sadly, I could not take Maria up on her offer to go and play with her: try as I might, I could not remember where she lived.

In Japan, I got lost on a regular basis and quickly learned how to ask for directions in about two dozen ways. I also learned that I could not trust anyone who couldn't immediately tell me the way. The minute someone frowned and started wondering if the the place I was looking for really was the second turning after the acupuncture clinic, past the temple and down the side road towards the second graveyard, I knew that I needed to find another person to tell me the way. I lived in Japan for seventeen years, and I'll bet that I spent a good six months of that time trying to find my way somewhere. But it did wonders for my Japanese, and besides, walking is great exercise.

Of course, I can laugh about it now and make light of the fact that I have this particular handicap, and yet there have been times that I have wept from frustration. Why oh why oh why, I have silently cried, was I given this particular defective brain with this vast, yawning desert where normal people have neat little grids -- built-in direction finders like those devices you can now get in cars that show you exactly where you are and where you ought to go?

I'm not sure when I stopped shaking my fists at the sky and learned acceptance, but I am now at peace with myself. The problem is not going to go away; like my eye color or height, it is an inherent part of me, and like it or hate it, it's here to stay. I now make a virtue of a necessity and tell myself that the quest is more important than the goal, the journey more important than the eventual destination. In fact, I want that on my tombstone:


Thursday, 26 April 2007

Place Names

"Say that again, Mary!"


"What you just said. Go on -- say it."

"What do you mean?"

"Go on -- where does the ferry leave from again?"

"The name of the port?" I said, being deliberately obtuse. I knew what he was after, the bastard.

"Just say it!"


"Come on!"

"Very well. Hair-itch."

"Ha! 'Harr-idge' -- that's how it's pronounced! Not 'Hair-itch.'"

"Well, at least I didn't say 'Har-witch' this time!"

My husband grinned in smug satisfaction. He never tired of getting me to say 'Harwich.' Two weeks earlier, he'd had to correct me when I mispronounced 'Marylebone.' This looks for all the world as though it ought to be Mary-le-bone, but no. 'Marlabone' -- that's how it's pronounced. 'Leicestershire,' which to my Yank eyes looks as though it ought to be pronounced 'Lay-cest-er-shyer,'is in fact pronounced 'Lestershirr.' For the first few months I was in the U.K., I dreaded every place name I came across. My husband thought it was wildly funny.

Styvechal, Gloucestershire, Edinburgh, Pontypridd -- I floundered miserably and consequently provided him with hours of merriment.

Then we went to America.

"I think we want the next exit," my husband said one afternoon, on the way to my cousin's house in the Bay Area. 'Ju-nih-per-oh Sair-ah."

I sat up straighter and licked my lips. "Excuse me?"

He looked furtively at the map. "Joo-nih-per-oh --"

"Ha! 'Woo-NIH-per-oh!'" I cried. "The J is pronounced like a W 'cause it's Spanish!"

He was silent for a few moments. "Very well. Woonypairo."

"Oh, that's brilliant! Woonypairo!"

He stared sullenly straight ahead. "How do you say it, then?"

"Woo-NIH-per-oh" I said again. He tried gamely, but failed spectacularly. I laughed my head off.

I had a wonderful time in America with my husband. We travelled all over the country and encountered place names which were a breeze for me, but really gave him pause: Yosemite, La Jolla, San Clemente, Michigan, Albuquerque, Pensacola, Poughkeepsie -- it just got better and better. But all good things have to come to an end, and finally our American holiday was over and we were back in the U.K., in Scotland, this time -- a first for both of us.

"Sorry? Where did you want to go again?" the petrol attendant smiled.

"Um...Kirk-cud-brite," ventured my husband.


"No, it's Kirk -- here," I said, flustered, handing the man the map and pointing.

He looked at the map and smiled broadly. "Ach, aye. 'Cuh-coo-bree,' that's how it's pronounced. It's one of the harder ones, ken."

My husband and I stared at each other, then looked back up at the petrol attendant. "Cuh-coo-bree? is that really how it's pronounced?"

He grinned and nodded. "Aye, a lot of people have trouble with that one," he said happily.

"Cuh-coo bree. Jeez. Well, okay, thank you."

In another five years or so we're thinking of moving to China.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Changing Japan

Japan is changing. International marriages used to be rather rare in Japan, and the only people who spoke Japanese were those who looked Japanese. But the peoples of the world are gradually coming together, and although the Japanese have traditionally been a little behind when it comes to mixing, they've been doing some catching up in the past few decades.

Back in 1980, I still remember doing a double take as I watched a traditionally dressed young couple get on a bus in Tokyo one evening. The husband was wearing a grey suit and looked every inch the conventional Japanese businessman he probably was. His wife, a few inches shorter than her husband, was wearing a gold and yellow kimono with a bright scarlet and green obi. What made me take another look was the fact that she was African.

Years later, I met another interesting international couple, of sorts.

The young woman in the baby changing area couldn't have been older than fifteen. She was Caucasian, so I assumed that she must speak English, even though the baby she was changing was obviously Asian. "How old is he?" I said in English, indicating her baby. She flushed and looked down in embarrassment. "Sumimasen, eigo ga dekinakute..." she said softly, explaining that she spoke no English. Her Japanese sounded absolutely perfect.

I stared at her. This girl looked 115% Caucasian. She had straight brown hair and brown eyes, and if I'd introduced her as my much-younger sister, no one would have batted an eye.

"I'm sorry," I said in Japanese, very embarrassed, "it's just that you look so --"

"I know," she put in. "My father was American." The term 'American' is almost exclusively used to mean 'Caucasian' in Japan. This mistaken assumption used to drive me wild, but I did not take this girl to task for it.

That one of her parents was foreign was a foregone conclusion, but I nodded. "I see. You must have a lot of people wondering why your Japanese is so good."

The girl nodded rather miserably. "I do."

"And you obviously grew up here, given how perfect your Japanese is."

She nodded again. "And foreigners are always approaching me and talking to me in English too -- asking directions, I suppose. And I feel awful because I don't know any English at all. Most of them don't know Japanese, and sometimes they won't believe me when I tell them that I don't speak English."

I nodded again, thinking to myself that I had barely believed her myself at first. "So your father didn't teach you any English?" I asked.

Again, she looked embarrassed. "I've never met my father."

Now it was my turn to look embarrassed. In fact, I felt like kicking myself for my nosiness.

"I am so sorry," I began, but the girl shook her head. "Not at all, really." She smiled and held up the freshly changed baby. "This is Tatsuya, my little brother.

I nodded and smiled, profoundly relieved to know that this girl, whose life must be hard enough given her situation, wasn't the mother of a nine-month old baby too.

Later I thought about this girl. She was one of a small group to be sure, but over the time I lived in Japan I met at least a dozen people whose native language was Japanese, but who didn't look the slightest bit Asian. My own kids had a tough enough time in Japan as it was, even though they were bilingual; I can't imagine what life was like for this girl. Like my kids, she was probably fine in her own neighborhood, where everyone knew who she was and that she could speak and understand Japanese. But when this girl left the area where she was known, she'd get cat-called and openly discussed. And that must have been unpleasant for her, understanding every single word that was said, as she did.

My Japanese-American friends living in Japan had the opposite problem.

"It's so annoying!" said my friend Karen. "I ask for directions in my best Japanese and they motor-mouth their reply. Or they write the directions out in Japanese, which is no use to me at all." I wanted to sympathize, but since it always took me a good five minutes to convince Japanese people that I could read instructions written in Japanese, I felt a little envious of her. Another Japanese-American friend of mine used to go out with her Japanese-speaking Caucasian husband and claimed that she felt like a ventriloquist's dummy. "They look at me while he's talking! They ask me questions and he answers, but they never seem to figure it out. I just stand there while they talk over my head. I have to wait for him to translate what they say. It's just so weird."

It really is pretty weird, I suppose, when someone who looks like an Iowa farm girl speaks perfect Japanese and a girl who looks like she ought to be able to speak Japanese, can't. But the world is becoming so international that stories like this are becoming commonplace. And slowly but surely, even Japan is changing.

Friday, 20 April 2007

Parenting: a Good, Hard Dose of Reality

Thirty years ago, I watched gob-smacked as a friend's daughters, one after the other, used her skirt as a towel after washing their hands. She didn't even seem to notice. I made a mental note never to be the sort of mother who allowed that kind of thing. My kids would not see me as a dish-rag, an object there to be used and discarded. Things would be different for me when I had children, I told anyone who would listen. Those of my friends who did not have children generally nodded in agreement. So did a few of those who did, but some of them, I noticed, smiled and changed the subject.

At my local laundry, I watched as a mother directed her three-year-old to fold and stack the towels as they came out of a drier. I smiled and nodded in approval as the little tyke industriously folded and piled under his mother's tutelage. When I had kids, I made sure to tell my friends, I was going to show them how to pull their own weight too! My children wouldn't be like so many I saw around me: obnoxious, lazy little slugs who never expected to do a lick of work. Once again, my childless friends thought this was a great idea, and I got the same reaction as before from my friends with children.

For a long time, I didn't have children. I worked and travelled and spent many of my child-bearing years accumulating friends and interesting experiences. But sometimes I thought about the children I knew I would have some day, and how smoothly parenting would go for me, especially because I had given the subject of child-rearing a little more thought than most. My kids were going to be artistic. They would be funny and disciplined and creative, and we would have a wonderful time doing housework together. They would admire and want to emulate me, and all I really had to do was work hard to make it happen.

Now, of course, I have kids, so I know better than to have such ideals or make such sweeping statements -- even in the privacy of my own mind.

We parents can do a lot for our kids. We can encourage them and get them to perform to the best of their ability. We can nurture their talent and help them build character, and do any number of things to give them a good headstart in life. Conversely, we can discourage, belittle and criticize them so severely that they lose all their confidence. There is no doubt about it: we have a lot of influence in their lives. But to imagine that our efforts can mold our children into what we want them to be is sheer nonsense.

My kids are artistic. They are funny and creative and we sometimes do housework together. But it has been one tough, long slog, and I'm not going to mention all the things I haven't managed to get them to do -- it is just too depressing.

One thing I can tell you, though: they've stopped wiping their hands on my skirts. Why? I now wear trousers.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

They Made Me a Moron

Once upon a time I was perfect. My tuna casseroles were ambrosia, my cookies were world-class, my smoothies were nectar. Plus, I was beautiful and I could do anything.

Things have changed: I have teenagers. I know that I am smarter and savvier than I was when they were toddlers, but this truth sadly eludes my kids.

Sure, I could make things easier on myself: I could learn to distinguish between an MP3 player and an i-Pod. I could learn to text. I could learn why Emo and Goth are different or what YouTube is – or does. I could make more of an effort to keep my ideas about tattoos and body piercing to myself and dress in trendier clothes. I could stop singing ‘The Harder they Come’ when their friends are in earshot. But I don’t because I would lose what self-respect I have left.

Teenagers are not logical. You can do everything in the world for them and get no thanks, then impress them with some trifling display of knowledge or skill. You can be a taxi-driver for them and their friends, hem their trousers, clean the toilets, get rid of the dead bird the cat has brought in, welcome unexpected kid guests to dinner conjuring up extra portions out of next-to-nothing, but ask your kids to sort their laundry or take out the trash and the response you get will be 'Why do I have to do all the work around here?'

The other day, I cooked a big breakfast for my fifteen-year-old. Then I took her and three friends shopping. I sang ‘oldies’ with them all the way there and endured her howls of protest over my attempts at harmony. I went with them from store to store, guarded their bags and coats while they tried on clothes, and heroically withheld my idiotic adult opinions. I treated them to coffee, then drove back in the dark, in gale-force winds and driving rain – and ended up putting away 95% of the shopping.

Later, my kid told my husband that I had impressed her. How, I wondered, had I managed to do this? Was it my skillful driving in awful conditions or better-than-usual parking? Was it the fact that I listened to her and her friends talking about having their navels pierced and never once threatened to get my head shaved in retaliation? My uncharacteristic generosity in treating everyone to coffee? No: it was the fact that I happened to know the lyrics to the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Saying No to the P.T.A.

Whenever I find myself getting nostalgic for Japan -- and I often do -- all I have to do is think of the P.T.A. That usually clears it right up.

In the U.S. and the U.K., you are certainly encouraged to join the P.T.A., but if you don't, you aren't automatically labelled a Bad Parent. In Japan, P.T.A. duty is a given. Not only is your participation a foregone conclusion, during the course of your child's education, you are also expected to serve as a P.T.A. officer at some point. When I first heard this, I told myself that they wouldn't make me do it -- a foreigner with a full-time job. Gamely, I did all of the bare minimum things parents were supposed to do: I helped pull weeds in May, washed classroom curtains, volunteered at the school bazaar in November. Even activities like this bored me to tears, but I told myself 'When in Rome...' and did them. I figured that by being so cooperative, my failure to serve as officer would never be noted. But I was wrong.

First grade and second grade were smooth sailing; other moms generously -- even eagerly -- took on the posts of class P.T.A. officers during those years. But when my eldest was in third grade, suddenly no one wanted to be officer. And the teacher wasn't prepared to take no for an answer.

Every year, my kid brought home a form from the P.T.A. There were three boxes, and you had to tick one. The first was 'I am willing to serve as officer,' the second was 'I am only willing to serve as officer if no one else is prepared to do this,' and the third was 'I am unwilling to serve as officer.' After this one it stated, ominously, 'Give reasons in full.' Every year I ticked that box, and I always wrote 'Busy at work' -- which I hoped would be self explanatory. It wasn't.

On our first group parent-teacher meeting, all of us mothers (fathers were seldom in evidence) sat in a circle in kid-sized seats, already at a huge disadvantage as we tried in vain to make our adult-sized bottoms comfortable. The teacher, holding our completed forms, laughed nervously and told us that she was in a quandary. No one this year had volunteered to serve as an officer, and before the end of the meeting, four of us had to do this. Or else.

'Some of you,’ she said, shattering my peace of mind, ‘have written that you are too busy at work to serve, but that is no excuse. I myself obviously work full-time, but I am currently serving as PTA officer for my daughter’s class.’ At this, several of the women immediately looked down at their hands. I followed their cue and looked at my hands, but the teacher wasn't to be put off. One by one, we were put on the spot and asked why we were not prepared to serve. The excuses were depressingly good ones:

'I'm taking care of my grandmother with Alzheimer's' said an exhausted-looking woman in stretch pants. She already stood out in a group that were better dressed and groomed than I was on any average work day.

'I'm expecting twins,' said a vastly pregnant woman, and I'll bet I wasn't the only one who privately wondered if it wasn't triplets.

'My eldest is taking his university entrance exams and I need to be there for him.' The teacher tried to tell this woman that this wasn't a good enough excuse, but she soon gave up. I've known women whose kids are preparing for Japanese entrance exams to disappear from society for the better part of two years, only resurfacing when their kids have either passed or given up.

When she got to me, I knew that my job was not going to be enough for her, so I tried a desperate measure. 'I'm a foreigner' I blurted out, 'so I might not be able to understand everything.' This was true: my Japanese was reasonably fluent, but I did miss a lot of references that the others got. But the teacher gave a hollow laugh. 'If you can follow this conversation and make your case so eloquently, your Japanese will be good enough.'

At this, all the women in the room looked up hopefully. The teacher had finally landed a live one!

'It's just a weekend or two and the odd week night a month,' said the teacher encouragingly. 'It really isn't such a difficult thing.'

Suddenly I was seized by an inspiration. From time to time, though admittedly very rarely, I had to be on hand over the weekends to answer questions that came up at work. 'I sometimes have to work weekends,' I blurted out rather desperately. ‘Ah,’ said the teacher, like someone who has just found out that her lottery number was one digit away from the winning number. ‘Ah, I see.’ She sighed deeply and went on to the next woman.

I avoided the eyes of the other mothers. I didn't want them to see the triumphant relief in mine.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Getting the Better of Dandelions

You've got to admire dandelions. They've got a tough, fibrous root like a rat's tail. If you pull up a dandelion and leave even the tiniest fragment of the root, the dandelion grows right back. It sends up a thin little root from that tiny piece you failed to remove and over time that thin little fragment thickens until it is as thick and tough as the previous root. Soon that dandelion you tried to kill is hale and hearty again and back to the business of attracting bees and making baby dandelions. They seem to live forever, too. I've got granddaddy dandelions in my garden with roots almost as thick as my wrist.

Dandelions can grow in almost any soil, under almost any conditions. We've all seen dandelions growing in cracks in the pavement and out of crevices in brick buildings. In my garden, there are dandelions growing in moss, and in dry, shady corners with next to no moisture. Really, there is much to admire in a dandelion.

This is not to say that you want to let them grow unheeded in your garden; if you do, pretty soon, that's all you'll have. When you get rid of them, you can rest easy in the thought that there will always be plenty more where they came from; dandelions won't go extinct in a hurry no matter what you do. And you needn't poison dandelions to get rid of them. Personally, I dig them up. I spend a lot of time doing this. In fact, I find digging up dandelions an interesting diversion from writing and the business of raising kids, and a marvelous way to get exercise. The fact that I am amused and entertained by digging up dandelions is no doubt a sign of just how badly I need a life, but there it is. I'm a great believer in making the most of life's small pleasures, and you've got to start somewhere.

It's easy enough to do, even in the lawn. Just position your garden fork at the base of a dandelion, sink it into the soil, and wriggle it around. If you're lucky, you can gentle the dandelion out of the soil, slowly and carefully, then pat the ground back into shape with your toe. If you're unlucky, you'll snap the root off, but never mind: it'll take a few weeks to grow back and you can try again. The most important thing is to catch the dandelions before the flowers turn into seed heads. Blowing the seeds off dandelion heads may be one of the joys of summer, but do it outside your garden if you want to save yourself some work.

God knows I have plenty of dandelions, so I never run out of opportunities to divert myself. And here's a useful tip: you can eat dandelion greens. They're tastier when they're young and tender. Find a good strong dandelion root that hasn't been treated with a herbicide, dig it up, and plant it. When all you want is a bit of green for a garnish or the odd couple of leaves to add to a fairly blah salad, your potted dandelion will come in handy.

Hardy, irrepressible, tough, edible, and absolutely free. Yes, you've got to admire dandelions.


Though we dug them out and sprayed ‘em
And we mowed ‘em into shreds
We were powerless to dissuade ‘em
From filling up our beds
They doubled and quadrupled
And it was the cruellest thing
Oh, when it comes to weeds, I swear
The dandelion is king

Yes, we dumped on glycophosphate
But they came back anyway
So we poured the vinegar on straight
(The grass died right away)
We weren’t stingy with the 2,4-D –
It hardly did a thing
For when it comes to weeds, indeed
The dandelion is king

They were impossible to beat
We reckoned we were foiled
Until we learned that we could eat
‘em finely chopped and boiled
We sautéed ‘em and we fried ‘em
And they added quite a zing
For when it comes to freebies, well
The dandelion is king

Now we gather them in bunches
As their tender leaves emerge
And they feature in our brunches
And we’re mighty proud to serve
the weed that used to drive us wild
Yes, now we welcome Spring
For when it comes to salad greens
The dandelion is king

Sunday, 8 April 2007

Gardens from Hell

When I was growing up, our garden, or 'yard' as we call it in American English, was a mess of tangled shrubs and trees, all planted in a crazily haphazard fashion. Our lawn had brown patches from lack of watering, and rather boring looking succulents, as my parents tended not to go for plants that needed lots of water and coddling, like roses. I gazed longingly on the gardens of our wealthier and more traditional neighbors: great pristine stretches of manicured turf, neatly laid out beds where weeds dared not show their faces, roses spilling over trellises, and windowboxes with artfully arranged flowers.

Or soil wasn't easy to create beds in, being mostly decomposed granite with many rocks, so my father planted a large cactus garden which quickly took over a large corner of our garden, a pepper tree, the roots of which cracked and buckled our asphalt driveway, and a paper mullberry, which sprouted countless seedlings with amazingly tenacious root systems. We also had a weird hodge-podge of fruit trees: kumquats, lemons, apricots and figs grew in abundance, and we were the only people in the neighborhood with a macadamia nut tree in the front garden.

Both my parents worked hard in our garden, but with full-time jobs, a harder-than- usual gardening situation, and children who had to be bullied and nagged into doing even the smallest gardening chore, our own yard quickly got the better of them.

You've probably heard it said that the process is more important than the product; our garden was a living example of this. Our figs, lemons, and apricots notwithstanding, our dandelions and bull-thorns could have won prizes. And yet I still remember sitting outdoors with my mother in the cool of the evening as she weeded, talking. Afterwards, we sipped iced tea and gazed up at the stars as we sat on the grass. She didn't agonize about the dried up patches in the turf or the obvious health of our dandelions. I know that the weeds, broken up driveway, and runaway cactus garden bothered her, but they didn't manage to ruin her pleasure in the garden. I can still remember walking around the garden with my father as he watered the lawn, listening to his explanations of fig pollination and lemon varieties. Our garden was far from perfect, but my mother and father obviously got great joy from it. I never realized it at the time, but I was learning a valuable lesson. Even if what you've got isn't 100%, it's yours, and you might as well learn to make the best of it. And if you can have fun in the process, so much the better.

My own garden here in the U.K. is in many ways a Scottish version of theirs. I have little gardening sense. I harvest giant rocks, broken pot shards and horse shoes from beds I dug up months earlier and would have sworn were rock-free, plant the wrong things in the wrong places, and tend to have a mess to show for all my efforts. I can't get my kids to do a lick of work half the time, and as I am loath to use pesticides or weedkillers, I don't get the spectacular results of some of my neighbors. Every day I pit myself against moss, dandelions, creeping buttercup, and daisies, but what great exercise it gives me! And besides, I've got apples and red currants too. Who cares if the apples are spotty and the birds get half of the red currants?

It's not perfect, but it's mine, and I'm determined to make the best of it. Out there with my fork and gardening gloves, my dolomite and coffee grounds and egg shells and homemade compost, I feel like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Somehow I think my parents would be proud.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Yang and Yin, A Matching Pair

The art department at my university was going to have a new design teacher, and the 3rd-year girls I was studying art with were all thrilled to bits. They’d heard he was single and fresh out of graduate school, thus as young as a teacher could possibly be.

There was endless speculation about what he’d be like. Kimiko hoped he’d be hip; art teachers were supposed to be hip. Kazue pictured a philosophical type with soulful eyes and strong, clever hands. Michiyo claimed that she didn’t care what he looked like as long as he was an easy grader. All the other teachers, most of them old men of forty or older, were notorious for being hard taskmasters who made you slave for decent grades.

The young ladies’ hopes were dashed a few weeks later when they heard that the new design teacher would be getting married shortly before signing his teaching contract. Alas, he would not be potential husband material. Still, they could dream. And even a married man would be more exciting than the boring old farts who’d taught them for the past two and a half years.

When Yanagi-san arrived, however, our jaws dropped. He was a dainty, willowy fellow, pencil thin, with a narrow, ferrety little face and practically no facial hair. His voice was thin and reedy too and he had an affected, high-pitched whinny of a laugh that made even my skin crawl. His complexion was unnaturally white, and his forearms and hands were so delicately skinny, you found yourself wondering whether he could handle an exacto knife without injuring himself.

Kazue expressed amazement that there was any woman in all of Japan willing to marry such a man. I pictured a tiny, hyper-feminine creature who would make him look, if not tall, at least normal-sized.

I finally got to meet her when the sculpture teacher hosted a party for the art department faculty and a handful of students. Coming into the house, I was startled by the sound of a woman’s laughter. It was loud, gutsy and coarse – not the sort of laughter you usually hear in broad daylight in Japan when most people tend to be stone-cold sober. "That’s Yanagi-san’s wife," murmured Matsue, the wife of the painting teacher. "Come on, I’ll introduce you."

Sitting next to her husband, Mrs Yanagi looked even bigger than she really was. And by Japanese standards, she was massive. At just under 5’7” I was the tallest woman on campus – probably in the entire town. But Mrs Yanagi was a close second. She was a good thirty pounds heftier than me, too. Her speaking voice made you think of a ship’s captain of good, honest peasant stock. She had a ruddy, pock-marked face and a completely uncontrived manner. You got the feeling that when she wanted to let out a good belly laugh, she just let it out, that she wasn’t the type who would discreetly pass her tongue over her teeth to feel for stray bits of spinach first. Japanese women tend to cover their mouths with their hands when they laugh, but I’m willing to bet that the idea had never occurred to Mrs Yanagi.

Throughout the party, Mrs Yanagi frequently interrupted and corrected her husband in a friendly, high-spirited manner. She wasn’t unkind or grossly crude. She didn’t swear or make catty comments, and she showed interest in what other people at the table were saying even if she did hog the conversation. But the other faculty wives looked stunned: she was completely not their type.

"So, what do you think of Mrs Yanagi?" Matsue asked me later.

I smiled. "I've got to say she's not what I had expected."

"Definitely an arranged marriage,’ she said,laughing, and I had to agree.

Five years later, Matsue and her husband, who had not had an arranged marriage but a ‘love match,’ went through a particularly unpleasant divorce. The last I heard, Mr and Mrs Yanagi had three children and were still going strong.

Monday, 2 April 2007


I'm a great believer in recycling. When I was a kid, our family was the first in our neighborhood to recycle. Over the weeks, my mother would save up all our empty cans -- and given that we were a family of five with over ten cats we generally had a fair number of these about. She would wash and save every glass jar or bottle and carefully pile up old newspapers and magazines and, when we finally had enough to fill the back of the car, cart it all off to the University of California's newly established recycling center. We were their very first customers.

It was a time consuming business. Cans had to be cleaned and crushed flat, which meant that both ends had to be opened. Newspapers and magazines had to be in precise bundles, too. We kids resented having to do this, but my mother appealed to our sense of ecological accountability.

Decades later, when my husband and I lived in Japan, recycling was mandatory. There simply isn't enough spare land in the Tokyo area to accommodate the unrecycled trash of over twelve million people. Glass, cans, paper, cardboard, even plastic -- all of these things and more are recycled in most major Japanese cities, and the rules for what goes where are strict.

On recycling pick-up day, the trash areas are patrolled by a group of ladies you don't want to tangle with. These are generally veteran housewives rougly over the age of fifty, and if you play fast and free with the recycling regulations and try to get away with mixed glass and aluminum, say, you are just making their day. My husband mixed newspaper and cardboard once and got a good telling off for his negligence.

With my own recycling background, I rarely fell foul of these ladies, but I had my own recycling woes. Because I spoke Japanese and not all of the foreigners in our neighborhood did, I was frequently asked to remind them about the importance of following the rules. I am a wimp; I have absolutely no leadership skills or air of authority about me, and I dreaded having to do this. Our foreign neighbors were, variously, an American bachelor with a worryingly active and noisy social life, an Irish couple, and a group of young Australians who all seemed to be over two meters in height. I approached all of them and in my namby-pamby way, managed to tell them about the neighborhood recycling committee's rules. The general response to this was 'No way am I going to all that trouble just for a handful of old bats who have far too much time on their hands.'

In the interest of international harmony, I told the neighborhood trash ladies that the other foreigner residents felt that they were too busy at work to spend much time organizing their trash. I sensed the ladies' indignation, but imagined how much worse it would have been if the other foreign residents could speak Japanese -- or if I'd translated their words verbatim.

When we finally left Japan, I breathed a sigh of relief that I would never again be asked to serve as a go-between in trash disputes. My husband pointed out that in the U.K., recycling was not mandatory. We could toss our bottles and cans into the garbage and never feel a moment's compunction.

But the habit is too well ingrained. Here in Scotland, too, I recycle everything: compost, paper, tins, bottles, plastic, clothes, shoes, toys -- you name it. I even recycle jokes.

Easter holidays began on April the first, and my two kids strongly felt they ought to be allowed to lie in bed until noon. At 9:00 A.M., I knocked on each child's door and bellowed out "It's your turn to clean the cat sick off the stairs! The cat's eaten a mouse and its guts are everywhere! Get down here right now and do it!" Quite naturally, they whined and pulled their blankets over their ears. I give my eldest credit, though. She finally stumbled out of bed, muttering, "Okay, okay -- I'll do it."

April fools! My mother used to get me with that one every time. And that's the third time my kids have fallen for it.