Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Mr Lu and the Electoral College System

It is funny that having taught English for years, the one student I remember most clearly is Mr Lu. It is funny because I taught at the school he attended in San Francisco's Chinatown for barely five months, and I only had his particular class for four sessions. They say that we tend to remember awful experiences, so that may account for why I remember the class. But I know that particularly good experiences are memorable as well. And in my collection of teaching memories, there sits Mr Lu like a gem on a dung heap.

There were ten people in Mr Lu's group, only five of whom bothered to show up on a regular basis. I inherited this class from a teacher who'd mysteriously quit having given no notice, and after my first day with them I knew why she'd left: nobody wanted to be there. I could hardly blame them; the class I was teaching was called Janitorial Skills and it was boring as nobody's business.

All of the men were required to take a number of classes that would give them the requisite skills to get jobs, and the English they learned was geared to the particular line of work they would be doing. There were typing classes and IT classes, which were highly in demand, but these were for people whose English skills were up to it. None of the poor souls in Janitorial Skills could come close to the fluency required for these classes; Mr Lu's English wasn't quite there yet either, but he was definitely the star of the class. You could see it in his eyes, which were bright, friendly and engagingly eager.

I had done my preparation: I had to teach the class about cleaning solvents and how to dilute them. That it was important to keep bathroom temperatures low to discourage both vandalism and odors. I was ready to impart this valuable knowledge to my students, and I was also planning to teach a little body language just to break the ice: how to shake hands and greet people, American style. It went over like a lead balloon.

Eight students were there on that first day. Three of them glanced up at me, looked me up and down in amazement, then made disgusted tsk-tsk sounds and opened up their Chinese language newspapers. Mr Lu noticed his fellow students' behavior and his neck reddened. He smiled back at me earnestly. "Good morning, teacher! My name is Mr Lu!"

I grabbed Mr Lu's kindly overture like the lifeline it was, desperately relieved that someone had reached out to me. "Good morning, Mr Lu. My name is Mary Witzl. I know my name might be a little hard for you to pronounce, so I'll write it on the board." Nervously, I turned to the chalkboard and walked right into the lectern. The men in the front row lowered their newspapers for a brief moment and tittered appreciatively. Mr Lu frowned.

Getting those men to shake hands and do role plays was like pulling teeth, only more painful. They were appalled when I gave them 'American' name tags so they could take turns pronouncing names like Henderson and Schlutz. They looked shocked and stunned when I suggested that one of them be himself and the other, Mr Gordon or Mr Armstrong, just to practice greetings. I agreed that it was silly: why should Gordon or Armstrong be any more 'American' than Nguyen or Wong? "But you see," I struggled to explain, "all of you can pronounce Nguyen and Wong. But you need a little work with names like Gordon and Armstrong." Mr Lu nodded, obviously taking in every word. "Hen-duh-son," he solemnly intoned. "Ah-muh-straw."

Those four class sessions were excruciating, but at long last they were at an end. We had covered temperature settings and thermostats, solvents, industrial machines, and safety procedures, and we were all heartily sick of them. And when I reflected that I would not have to look at that front row of men and their wide open newspapers that shut me right out, I felt like punching the air and whooping as much as I am sure they did. Mr Lu had been my one bit of happiness: the one eager, shining face that always made me feel welcome.

"Well, it's been a pleasure teaching you," I lied. "Do any of you have any questions you'd like to ask me? Anything at all?"

The men in the front row all but rolled their eyes, but Mr Lu's hand went straight up. "Please Mary," he said, leaning forward eagerly, "will you tell us about the American electoral college system?"

We had three minutes of class time left to go at this point. I did the best I could, but I'm sorry to say that it wasn't much.

Wherever Mr Lu is, I know that he knows all about the American electoral college system by now -- far more than I ever knew. And I'm so sorry he had to learn all about industrial vacuum cleaners first.


Thursday, 26 July 2007

Unwelcome Vegetarians

It rains a lot in Scotland.

Now, rain is no problem for me. I grew up in a parched, hot, dry California city, and as far as I'm concerned, the more rain I get, the better. My family greeted every rainfall the way subcontinentals greet the onset of monsoon after a prolonged dry spell: shrieks of joy, mouths open, arms outflung. Please don't misunderstand me: rain is good. But there are a few drawbacks, as everyone knows, such as slugs.

Slugs are bad.

I am a firm believer in organic gardening, so when my hosta leaves developed perforations and every single one of my marigolds disappeared overnight, seemingly sucked into the earth but for the telltale leftover stems and shimmering white-silver tracks, I tried just about every environmentally friendly means to discourage them. Everybody and her sister has got a fail-safe slug remedy, and I gave them all a shot: sharp sand mixed with ground egg shells, beer in jars, wood ashes, overturned grapefruit and orange peels, sea shells, coffee grounds, and 'hand collection.'

I'll bet everyone has tried the hand collection method -- anyone who doesn't at least feel the occasional urge to thin out stray slugs manually probably doesn't garden. But consider this: some slugs can live over two years and during a lifetime, produce 40,000 baby slugs. And slugs are hermaphrodites, so all of them can reproduce. Given their impressive reproductive ability, do you really think you are going to have an impact on your garden's slug population by collecting them individually? By all means pick them up and plop them into cans (it is very satisfying, after all), but don't tell me this works. My husband and I practiced the collection method, in conjunction with other remedies, and we lost every single runner bean, our mangetouts, and the strawberries.

Up until now I've been endlessly tolerant. Reminding myself of the goodness of Albert Schweitzer, I've been kind and gentle and organically minded. I have tried to be philosophical, too: why should I mind a few holes in the leaves? Why begrudge these creatures their own chance to live and multiply? But then I saw my ruined pumpkin vines last week and something inside me snapped. Last year I had eight of the biggest, most beautiful golden pumpkins you ever saw, the pride of the neighborhood. This year I've got a handful of bitten-off stumps to show for all of my labor, each one sitting atop a small mound, surrounded by a moat of seashells, sharp sand, coffee grounds, and crushed egg shells. Telltale slime lines ran up and down each mound with its pitiful, ruined stump, and the thought of those nasty, fat-bodied little gluttons devouring every morsel of young pumpkin seedling was just too much for me to bear. I raised each and every one of those plants with tender loving care, and their stumps spoke eloquently of grief and pain for promised joy.

So now, ladies and gentlemen, the slugs in my garden had better be very, very afraid when they see me coming. No more Mrs Nice Guy; no more copper bands and oyster shells, no more sharp sand, horticultural grit, inverted orange peels, coffee grounds or jars of beer buried in the soil. I'm saving the beer for myself, and for the slugs, I'm going for the real thing this time: ferric sulphate -- and I'm going to scatter it freely too. Don't worry: it's supposed to be organic. I'll let you know how it works.

In fact, the slugs have driven me to doggerel once again, and for them, I have composed a poem. What a pity that the little buggers can't read.

Vegetarians I Would Happily Stomp on

Now in this world so fair and fine
Are many wondrous things:
Deep crimson flowers and warm red wine
And butterflies with wings.

Sweet birds who twitter in the trees
And children’s sleepy hugs
So tell me why, oh would you, please
God went and gave us slugs?

My garden’s treasures I will share:
Each dazzling marigold
Warm yellow poppies, sweet and fair
And zinnias, bright and bold

Green beans and peas grown in the pod
So vigorous and green
Were there one day, the next by God
Just stumps and slimy sheen!

A pea, a leaf, a tender shoot
I swear I wouldn’t mind
But chomping right down to the root
Is shockingly unkind

They’ve had my beer, my eggshells too
My gravel and coarse sand
They’ve felt the wrong side of my shoe
But still don’t understand

There is no moderation for
These gluttons of the soil
For them I make my fingers sore?
For them I daily toil?

I don’t begrudge the carnivore
The hungry ladybug
I only wish they could eat more:
Each greedy, gobbling slug.


Silver Divorce, Golden Opportunity

Machiko only wanted what most women want: security, respect, love -- and romance. The problem was, she was 61 and already married. But while her husband gave her security, he hadn't even come close to fulfilling, let alone understanding, her other needs. They'd been married almost forty years, after all. Why should she want love and romance, especially at her age?

"I've given up on your father," she told her middle-aged children. "I'm sick of all his affairs, his boorish behavior and his patronizing attitude. I want a divorce."

The whole family did their best to discourage her, but Machiko stood firm. Her friend Fukiko, a widow, had found love and romance, and she was 62.

Machiko's children were utterly disgusted with her. "Your friend Fukiko has money," her eldest reminded her. He could have added that Fukiko was also beautiful, but he left it unsaid. His mother was a little bullet of a woman: tough, energetic, and feisty. But you couldn't call her beautiful by any stretch of the imagination.

Behind her back, Machiko's three children said a lot of cruel things. "She'll regret it! A year from now she'll be begging him to let her come back;" and "No man will look twice at a woman her age; it's crazy for her to think anyone will!" They reminded her that with only forty years experience as a homemaker, she could not possibly expect to make a living for herself. Divorce, they insisted, was not in her best interests.

But Machiko was shrewd. She waited until after her husband retired in order to get a share of his retirement severance payment and other benefits, including half of their household assets. That way, she explained to her exasperated children, even if she didn't find love and romance, she wouldn't starve. She found a stylish little apartment and set up housekeeping. Her children seldom visited her, but once in a while they would call her.

"How's the dating going?" her daughter asked her somewhat cattily. "It's a little slow," admitted Machiko, "but I love living by myself. How's your father?" Her daughter sighed. "He can't find anything. And he doesn't know how to use the washing machine." Machiko smiled. "He's a smart man. He'll learn."

Six months later, Machiko's eldest called his sister and brother. Their mother, it appeared, had a boyfriend. She'd been going out with him for several months and claimed that it was serious. "He's obviously after her money!" his sister exclaimed, and her brothers both agreed. "We'll have a chance to meet him," he told the other two. "They've invited us out for a meal."

Machiko's boyfriend turned out to be a widower exactly her age, and a real charmer. He taught food science at the local university, owned his own house, and claimed that he loved to cook. "Too good to be true," all three children agreed. "Time will tell." They felt a little sorry for their mother, but what could they do?

A year after her divorce, Machiko remarried. Her professor friend is now retired, and they travel around the world together. The two of them have taken up Spanish, and they're thinking of signing on for ballroom dancing lessons.

"When do you find the time?" asked her daughter, "what with that big house and the garden?" Machiko shrugged. "We've got a gardener. And a lady comes to clean the house once a week."

Her daughter stared at her. "But what about cooking?" Machiko laughed. "He does the cooking. In fact, he's much better than I am at it. After all, he taught food science."

"Why Spanish?" persisted her daughter, genuinely curious. "Why not English? It's much more practical." Machiko smiled. "We're thinking we might like to spend our retirement in Spain. We both like Spain: it's so romantic."


Sunday, 22 July 2007


I first met Sachie at the local swimming pool one cloudy summer day. Most Japanese tend to go swimming on hot days when everyone else has decided to go to the pool too, but like me, she wanted to swim, not just cool off. With just the two of us rattling around in the pool, we got to talking. She started speaking to me in English, but immediately changed to Japanese when I asked her to. I appreciated that: a lot of Japanese people who speak English well resent having to speak Japanese to non-native speakers. Sachie didn't seem to care which language we spoke, and I found that refreshing.

We found that we had a lot in common. Like me, she had studied literature and languages and we liked many of the same books. Moreover, she not only knew where my hometown was, she had actually spent a summer there. An eventful summer, as it turned out: during that time she had met her husband, also Japanese, at the local university. Personally, I can't think of anything I'd hate more another summer in my hometown, but Sachie claimed that she liked dry heat; she remembered her days there as among the happiest in her life.

Over the next year, Sachie and I talked on many occasions, and I was always struck by her intelligence and sensitivity. She was one of the best listeners I have ever met; when I made a comment, it was almost eerie how carefully she would consider it before answering. Sachie's daughter, a year older than my eldest, suffered from a chronic cough, as did my youngest. We talked endlessly about our children, discussed books, and traded recipes.

The only thing that seemed odd about her was the amount of make-up she wore. Although she dressed rather plainly and carelessly, as I did, she was never without it, and she put it on with a heavy hand. Since she tended to keep her head out of the water when she swam, preferring to do the back stroke, side stroke or dog paddle, the make-up stayed on most of the time. Once she got it wet, though, and I remember thinking that she must be trying to mask a birthmark or a large blemish. Later, I wondered if she might be covering up a rash or other skin ailment instead: sometimes she put more make-up on one part of her face than another.

The last time I saw Sachie, she was in her car and I was hurrying home. She smiled and waved, and pulled over to the side of the road. Rolling down the window, she called out that she wanted to talk to me. "I'm in a hurry!" I told her. "Give me a call!" And I scrawled my phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to her. She gave me hers, and I put it in my pocket.

Unfortunately, I washed the jacket with Sachie's telephone number in it. I figured she would call me if she needed to, and I would get her phone number from her when she did. But a month went by and Sachie seemed to have disappeared. One day, a mutual friend told me that she had taken her daughter back to her hometown, Kagoshima, and was never coming back. I expressed my surprise.

"Well, she had to do something," said our mutual friend. "Or he really would have killed her."

I had no idea what she was talking about, and I said so. The friend shook her head.

"I didn't know either! She was always so happy, always in such a good mood. I found out by accident one day. I happened to drop by her house when he was beating her up. She'd locked herself and her daughter into the toilet and he was punching holes through the door. I had to call the police!"

"Dear God!"

"You should have seen the state of their house. Broken plaster everywhere. Holes through all the doors, through the shoji, cracked windows, little piles of broken ceramic where he'd thrown the dishes."

"I can't believe it!"

"Neither could I," she assured me. "He'd already broken her jaw -- twice, I think."

Now I knew why she'd worn all that make-up.

"Did she tell you how long it had been happening?"

"Oh, ever since they first got married, I think."

"And all this time she's never left him!"

"Mmm," said our friend. "Her parents are pretty old-fashioned. So when she told her mother about it, her mother just told her to gaman." Gaman means to endure. It is used a lot in Japanese.

What amazed me was that Sachie had kept all of this to herself. Our mutual friend claimed that if she hadn't actually witnessed it and gotten involved by calling the police, Sachie would probably have been too ashamed to tell her. "I thought she might have told you, though," she said, "because you're not Japanese. She might have thought you wouldn't judge her so harshly. That you wouldn't tell her to gaman."

She was right: I wouldn't have.

I don't really blame myself for not stopping to talk to Sachie the last time I saw her. A shrewder, more perceptive person than I might have figured out what was happening from her ill-applied make-up, but other than that, there were no clues. Sachie seemed as happy and cheerful on that last occasion I saw her as she always was. But I wish I hadn't washed that jacket.


Wednesday, 18 July 2007


Our eldest has an amazing memory. By the time she was five, she knew the name of every single kid in her nursery school, over one hundred children.

"Who's that little boy?" I would ask, pointing to a child I vaguely recognized from a class two years under hers.

"That's Tatsuya."

"And his last name?"


"Doesn't he have a baby sister who's just started nursery school?"

"Yep. She's two."

"And what's her name?"


I tested her frequently, and found that she could correctly name every single child, from the six year olds in the most advanced class to the merest babies who had just entered the school. She got a new boy's name wrong once (his mother later assured me that almost everyone in the school confused him with his cousin) and was mortified for a whole week. She knew all the teachers' names, too.

I found this skill of hers incredible. As a teacher, I had a tough time with names. I once had fifty-three students in a beginning English class and over one third of them seemed to be named Nguyen. Trying to remember who was and wasn't a Nguyen was hellish; getting the pronunciation right was almost easier. I had to assure my students, however, that it wasn't just my lack of familiarity with Vietnamese names that made me so forgetful. If they'd all been Smith, Jones and White, I might not have struggled with the pronunciation so much, but remembering who was who would still have been a futile effort.

My child's ability to remember names, I believe, comes from my father. Although he wasn't a brilliant man, my father could give you the Latin and common name of just about any plant you could think of. He once enrolled in a plant identication class and came home after his first lesson a little shame-faced. The teacher had called him back as he was leaving the classroom. "Mr Witzl, would you like to teach this class?" he'd asked. My father knew he couldn't have taught the class, but he was ahead of the teacher in one respect: he had all the names down pat.

Just for the fun of it, I taught our eldest all the Japanese names of the plants in our garden. Hydrangea, rose, spirea, zinnia, morning glory -- she had them all, and her pronunciation was perfect. One day when she was three, I was walking her home from nursery school when we passed another woman and her daughter. The woman was carrying a potted hydrangea in a plastic bag over the handles of her bicycle, and as she passed us, she looked us up and down. Pointing a finger at us she turned to her little girl and said "Gaijin." This means "foreigner" in Japanese, and is not viewed as overly polite. Clearly, she was pointing out to her daughter what we were -- our correct label -- just as she might point out a fox, a pine tree, a tractor.

My three year old didn't miss a beat. Pointing back at the woman, she called out in a clear and confident voice "Ajisai." Hydrangea.

I will never forget the expression on the woman's face; I consider that memory one of my most precious souvenirs from Japan.


Friday, 13 July 2007

Mom, I'm Okay

On January 17, 1995, it was so cold that the pipes to our washing machine froze. There being no room for it inside the house, it was just outside the kitchen in what we called the washing shed, a gravel-floored lean-to cobbled together from corrugated aluminum siding and bits of leftover lumber shortly after the war when building materials were scarce. The door to the washing shed was fixed together with a piece of rusty wire, and wind whistled through it. Rain fell through the holes in the roof, and toads took up residence there, no doubt attracted by the abundance of mosquitos, cockroaches and slugs. All in all, doing the laundry was never very pleasant, and during the winter it was particularly nasty. On this occasion I hurt my hand attempting to thaw out the pipes -- unsuccessfully -- and I was in a grumpy mood, what with that and having spent much of the previous night trying to soothe a coughing baby. When I considered having to hand wash a dozen stinking cloth diapers and a tubful of half-frozen, sopping-wet laundry, I felt like going out and kicking down a fence.

On the plus side, my husband had dropped our four-year-old off at her nursery school on his way to work and my bronchial baby had finally gone down for a nap, so at least I could get a little work done. I found my briefcase, pulled out a handful of mock examinations and settled down to start proof-reading them when the telephone rang. It was my cousin in Los Angeles, and she sounded frantic.

"Are you guys all right?!" she practically screamed.

"We're fine," I said bemusedly. "Except I think I've sprained my wrist because the pipes to the washing machine have frozen and I've got a dozen dirty diapers and --"

She interrupted me.

"But there're buildings on their sides and whole neighborhoods on fire! And people stuck under their houses and highways that have collapsed and --"

For a minute I almost wondered if one of us was hallucinating. We'd had a similar conversation exactly a year earlier when she and her family had experienced the trauma of the Northridge Earthquake in L.A.

"Where did you say this was happening?" I asked.

"In Japan!"

"Well, it's not Tokyo, then. Believe me, we're fine here."

"Just turn on your television and you'll see!"

I did, and I could not believe my eyes. Kobe had been struck by an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale. The death toll was already estimated to be in the thousands.

All morning long, I moved through my chores as though in a dream. Our baby was barely six months old, and when I turned on the television and saw mothers with babies her age sitting on blankets on the ground in the freezing temperatures, their faces bruised and stunned, my heart went out to them. I couldn't get over the fact that I'd been so upset over our burst water pipes and non-functioning washing machine; I knew those women would happily trade places with me.

I taught a small group of women English in my house and we had a class scheduled that day. When the last member of the group, Tanizaki-san, showed up, the others immediately expressed their concern; I had not realized that Tanizaki-san's son had just begun college in Kobe. She smiled and reassured everybody that he was fine.

"But how do you know?" one of the women cried. "My sister-in-law lives there and all of the telephone lines are down! No one can get through!"

Tanizaki-san told us she'd had a strange phone call from her son early that morning. His voice sounded strained and a little distant, and she was groggy what with having been woken up, but she'd heard him say "Mom, I'm okay. We might be out of touch for a while, but I want you to know I'm fine" -- and then the connection went dead. She'd been trying to reach him ever since, but there was no dial tone.

"So I turned on the radio," she said, "and found out that the earthquake had struck at 5:46. I was upset, but I knew he was okay."

It took Tanizaki-san several days to get in touch with her son and find out what had happened. He had been woken up by the earthquake when his bed flew across the room and slammed into the wall along with his desk and chest-of-drawers. He had spotted the telephone in the midst of a pile of debris on the floor, picked it up, and phoned his mother. Miraculously, the lines were still functioning.

All of us women -- every one of us a mother -- were mightily impressed by the consideration and presence of mind of this boy. Thrown across his room in the wee small hours of the morning, he thought to call his mother and tell her that he was fine. Imagine what those days would have been like for her if it hadn't occurred to him to do this?

My children have grown up hearing this story, and they know that when it comes to thoughtfulness, Tanizaki-san's son set the gold standard. Whenever I tell this story -- and they can pretty much recite it word for word along with me, to give you a good idea -- they know what the moral is: If you are ever in a similar situation, for God's sake call your mother if you can. Save her nerves a little wear and tear.

There's another moral too: If you've got a baby with a cough, a load of half-washed laundry and a washing machine with frozen water pipes, remember that it could be a whole lot worse.


Sunday, 8 July 2007

Bringing Ishiguro to the Masses

While helping out at the school book fair recently, I was surprised at the number of children who bought books they could easily have checked out at the library. I mentioned this to another mother who was helping out, but my American accent must have gotten in the way because she misunderstood me. "I like buying books!" she said, giving me a rather supercilious look. "I buy books all the time, and I'm never happier than when I'm reading a good book!"

I assured her that she had misunderstood me. That I too read books, getting through several a week, but tended to buy only the ones I couldn't find in the library. We then got to talking about our favorite authors and she told me that hers were three very prolific writers -- two Americans and one Briton -- whose names I will not note here because I am a weenie and I do not want to be sued.

Now I'm really not a book snob. I'm not ashamed to admit that I've never read Proust and I find Faulkner a little tiresome. That Henry James gives me a headache (didn't he ever learn how to do paragraphs?) and I am out-and-out bored by John Milton. If I was really a book snob I would hide all those facts from you instead of admitting to them freely and openly. But when this woman mentioned those three particular writers, all of a sudden I felt like an elitist. Because here is the embarrassing truth: I have read the books of all three of these writers and although I blush to admit it, I have pretensions to do better.

I don't deny that these people can write. I don't deny that they can come up with interesting plots, snappy dialogue, and endings that satisfy their readers time after time. I am fully aware that they've done what I have singularly failed to do: honed their craft, marketed their work, and built up a huge readership. I honestly have no illusions about how hard it is to achieve even part of what they have achieved; I am just stubbornly convinced that if I try hard enough and am endlessly patient, I will be able to achieve something more. Something better. I am convinced that my characters won't be so one-sidedly good or bad, their romances will be more believable, and their lifestyles less unrealistically rich-and-famous. (Yeah, I already know: they'll go over like lead balloons, won't they?)

Do I really have it in me to be a better writer than these incredibly successful, bestselling writers? Am I just full of sour grapes because, while lusting after even an iota of their commercial success, I have the sense to know that I will never have one tiny scrap of their selling potential? Who knows? It doesn't even matter: I have this guilty ambition, and I might as well admit it.

I didn't say all that to my fellow book fair helper of course. I just acknowledged that I knew the authors she liked and had read their books too. And I swear to God, I wasn't the least bit snooty about it.

"So who are your favorite authors?" she then asked me. I told her that I liked Kazuo Ishiguro. She stared at me for a few seconds. "Never heard of her," she said flatly. I told her that Ishiguro was a man, that his novel Remains of the Day had been made into a successful film starring Anthony Hopkins, (she'd heard of him), but she commented rather dismissively "I don't read foreign writers."

This needled me. I happen to come from a long line of teachers and missionaries, people who had it in their DNA to try to reach the ignorant and bring The Truth to them, a quality I have inherited in spades, so I told her that Kazuo Ishiguro had lived in the U.K. since he was four, was as fluent in English as it is humanly possible to be, and almost certainly a naturalized British citizen. I said this very politely and I didn't bother to tell her that Ishiguro can write English 500 times better than any of her favorite authors, but my words cut no ice with her. So I got a little mean. I pointed out -- gently! -- that two of her favorite authors were actually Americans, i.e. foreigners, and yet that didn't take away from her reading pleasure, did it?

To this day the woman shies away from me on the street.


Two Bimbos and a Noisy Drunk

It was a hot day towards the end of September, and I’d had a long, hard day at work. I was on the train home, and the train was packed with students and commuters. There were so many people standing up that they were virtually kneeling into the laps of those of us lucky enough to have seats, pushed forward by the great heaving sway of humanity all around them.

For most of the way home, I usually managed to read or do work, but on this particular occasion I had finished my book and had no work to do. So I indulged in another favorite activity: I studied my fellow passengers, as discreetly and unobtrusively as possible.

Two young women in particular attracted my interest. They were dressed in clothes that I found vulgar in the extreme: ridiculously short mini skirts, high-heeled platform shoes I was glad not to have on my own feet, and flashy, low-cut blouses of brightly-colored synthetic material. Their jet-black hair was bleached blonde, and their make-up was, to say the very least, not tastefully done. One girl had plucked her eyebrows to thin arches and painted her eyelids a glossy robin’s egg blue, while the other was wearing white lipstick and false eyelashes. I sat with my already- finished book, pretending to read it, but really studying them furtively. Two healthy-looking, potentially gorgeous young women who’d turned themselves into cheap bimbos. Jesus, but youth was wasted on the young!

All of a sudden, a man standing about fifteen feet away from me began to bellow at the top of his lungs, obviously either drunk or insane – most likely both. His Japanese sounded northern, and very rough, and he was slurring his speech, so I could barely understand one word in ten. There was suddenly a ripple in the crowd of standing commuters: people were trying to distance themselves from the drunk, obviously giving him a wide berth. More people than usual got off at the next stop; some of them probably changing cars to get away from the shouting man.

He was a powerful-looking fellow; his voice was hoarse and very deep and he obviously bore someone a great grievance. In the middle of his long tirade, he would frequently interrupt himself. You stupid bastard! he cried out over and over. You’ve messed everything up! You’re no good! Nothing but trouble!

The luridly-dressed girls, who had been absorbed in conversation, found like all the other commuters that they had to raise their voices to make themselves heard over the man’s thundering invective. Suddenly one of the girls stood up. You ought to shut up – you’re nothing but trouble yourself!! she announced in a loud, clear voice.

The entire car quietened down – even the shouting man grew quieter. I am certain that I was not the only one who was amazed at the girl’s bravery. Inwardly cringing, we all waited for a huge explosion. The man spoke up again, and he wasn’t shouting this time. I was only – he began defensively, but the girl interrupted. You’re very loud! she said sternly. We were all minding our own business, and you started yelling and giving us all a headache! We’ve had enough of it! Again, the whole compartment held its collective breath, waiting for the boom to fall.

To my astonishment, the man got quiet. Instead of bellowing, he now calmly attempted to explain himself. He was sorry if he caused his fellow passengers undue distress – (he repeated this several times) – but he had his reasons. He carried on for another three minutes, his volume now down to an acceptable level, describing the vagaries of his job, an unfair boss, and a less-than-ideal family situation. Then to everyone’s great relief, he abruptly got off the train, barely managing to keep his balance as he tottered and swayed onto the platform. He never looked back.

The girl who had chastised him shook her head and commented laconically to her friend. God, I hate drunks. Just like my Dad. I was openly staring at her by this point. She and her friend no longer looked like foolish tarts to me – they looked like strong, brave, spirited young women, and I was filled with respect and admiration.

For the next twenty minutes, I sat there casting furtive looks at the girl who had told off the drunk. I composed and mentally rehearsed a brief speech that I would make before I got off the train to tell the girl how impressed I was with her: Good for you for telling off that man! I am amazed at your incredible bravery! I went over my little speech in my mind again and again, correcting my own words, polishing my Japanese and getting the tone and the register just right – admiring, but not fawning, polite, but not obsequiously so.

But the girls got up and left two stops before mine and I never got up the courage to say it.


Monday, 2 July 2007

Margaret Thatcher's Most Amazing Triumph

Most of my British friends, when they think of Margaret Thatcher at all, remember her as an arch-conservative, a self-made politician who put business above social services and economy over the well-being of British communities. My husband tends to froth at the mouth when anyone mentions Mrs Thatcher, and I am not here to try and convince anyone that what she did was right or good. But forget the coal mines she shut, the unions she crushed and the milk she snatched; I happen to know that Margaret Thatcher pulled off an astounding feat. You may wonder if I am talking about the economy here, her firm stance with the IRA, or her handling of the Falklands War. I assure you that I am not referring to any of those piddling things. No, Margaret Thatcher did better than that. She won the hearts of fifteen uppity Japanese teenagers I once knew. And as far as I am concerned, whatever barriers she may have broken through in British politics are as nothing compared to that.

These girls attended an exclusive girls' finishing school in Tokyo, a junior college for young women who were not academically inclined, informally known as a school where one usually finished with an 'Mrs' degree. They came to our school ostensibly to study English, but really to lark about and have a good time. Still, though they essentially treated our lessons as nothing more than a chance to have fun,I found them a lively, spirited group and, in the main, enjoyed our classes. But because they were not known for their generous opinion of middle-aged women, which most of us teachers were, they weren't everybody's cup of tea. They could be hypercritical and judgmental about the less fortunate or beautiful of their gender, and when they were, they didn't do a lot for a person's self esteem. They were young women who appraised every other woman's appearance and charm with a jeweler's eye, and they weren't shy about expressing their opinions, either.

Several months after I quit my teaching job there, Margaret Thatcher came to Japan, and she stopped by the school for a visit. As it happened, she sat in on their particular class, which a friend was teaching at the time. This friend hated Margaret Thatcher's politics with a passion and found her cozy relationship with Augusto Pinochet particularly repugnant. So when she knew that Mrs Thatcher was going to be an observer in her class, she was not best pleased.

I almost pitied poor old Mrs Thatcher showing up in front of this particular class with a teacher who hated her guts and a group of catty girls who happily ate grown women for breakfast. I had to tell myself that she almost certainly deserved it.

As it turned out, though, Mrs Thatcher was a big hit and gave every appearance of having a wonderful time. She expressed genuine interest in what the girls were studying, sat cozily with them and chatted about what they were interested in, and basically charmed their socks off. After she left, they were all in awe. When my friend asked them what they thought of Mrs Thatcher, they all allowed that they'd never met anyone like her. So sweet and nice, so much fun, and -- I swear I'm not making this up! -- so beautiful.

Now, you'd have to know these girls to know how incredible this was. It wasn't just the fact that Mrs Thatcher was well dressed and properly groomed that impressed them. Though these girls spent hours on their personal preparations every day and certainly expected this of others, I knew for a fact that they thought little enough of many celebrities. I'd brought in photographs of actresses and musicians like Meryl Streep, Madonna, Joan Baez and Linda Ronstadt, and these girls had been mightily unimpressed by their talent and appearance. But Margaret Thatcher, as far as they were all concerned, was ten out of ten. "She had such pretty skin," sighed one. "She was fashionable! And she was so smart -- and so friendly!" enthused another. The concensus was that Margaret Thatcher was one hell of a role model -- a woman they would love to emulate.

Scary, isn't it?