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.

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5 comments:

Eryl Shields said...

Great story - I love that when you build up a picture of someone and when you finally meet them they are totally different.

Interesting too that arranged marriages tend, on the whole, to be more successful than 'love matches'. I guess it's because they come with a different set of expectations that are less likely to be dissapointed. There was a time when I was terribly upset that my husband was nothing like Mr. Rochester. Thankfully I got over it.

Mary Witzl said...

Hello, Eryl. I too like having my preconceived ideas about people challenged by reality. Which is a good thing, because this happens to me all the time.

I also had a huge crush on Mr Rochester after reading Jane Eyre in my teens. Then I saw the movie where he was played by George C Scott and that ruined him for me. George C Scott was a fine actor -- and a very good Mr Rochester, too -- but he was just not my type. Though perhaps if we'd had an arranged marriage -- who knows? Even with the age difference. . .

Brian said...

After 55 years of marriage I still don't really know what to expect of it . The wife and I are both headstrong ( old astrological joke -- she's Leo , I'm Aries -- which declines into the Biblical as the Lion lies down with the Ram ) but we knock the edges off each other .

Our marriage was certainly not arranged , but indeed strongly opposed ( see my poem Six Maiden Aunts ) : her lot -- country bred conservative , religious , Edwardian -- as compared to my mob , leftist industrial workers ( coal miners no less ! ) , irreligious to atheist and just a tad more modern as moulded by what followed the Great Depression .

But ying and yang seem to fit fairly harmoniously , so who's complaining ?

Kim Ayres said...

Mrs Yanagi sounds like fun and clearly prepared to enjoy life.

I would live to go to Japan and experience Japanese cultures, but I can't help but feel that living there for a length of time could feel quite claustrophobic.

Mary Witzl said...

Brian -- The coal miners in my family were all conservative fundamentalist Christians, but they were certainly country bred -- and yet I think that translates into something entirely different in the U.S.! I don't pay astrology the slightest mind, but a surprising number of my good friends are Leo and I am Aries, so I do wonder...

55 years of marriage is an achievement that ought to earn you a medal. I am completely serious: what you and your wife have done is phenomenol, as far as I'm concerned, and as deserving of a medal as anything else I can think of. Courage under fire, bravery, stamina -- you've got it all, plus my sincere congratulations and admiration.

Kim -- It can be claustrophobic, definitely -- and stifling. The way you get around it is by making a place for yourself, finding a group that is as idiosyncratic and accepting as possible, and then living in mutual support. Most foreigners do that by living among other foreigners and socializing with them in the main, but we were very lucky: we had children and managed to fit in against all odds. Now we find ourselves missing it -- though not some of the more stifling situations, of course.