Thursday, 30 August 2007

My Night in the Yokohama Suijo Police Station

Obviously, I didn't set out to spend the night in a Japanese police station. When I got to Yokohama Station's Keihin Tohoku line and saw the doors of the last train closing, my first thought was that it couldn't be happening. Surely there was some mistake; it couldn't really be that I'd missed the very last train.

But I had. I watched the train rattling down the tracks and the shock and disappointment hit me like a fist in the stomach. I'd been so certain I was going to make it, despite everything that had gone wrong.

My flight from Seoul, where I had gone to pick up my long-awaited Japanese work visa, was delayed an hour because of a storm. Then it had taken ages for my luggage - including several bulky cushions I had bought on impulse - to arrive. Before boarding the train to Yokohama, I'd stopped to help another American who was having trouble getting his reservation confirmed - very much the blind leading the blind, but compared to someone so fresh off the boat I was the one-eyed king - and finally I stopped at a kiosk for a bowl of noodles. I'm notorious for cutting it fine when it comes to time, but I usually manage to catch the plane, get on the train, make the date. This time I was fresh out of luck.

The station employee stood rigidly at attention until the train had disappeared, leaving only echoes behind. Only then did he relax his posture. He passed a finger around the circumference of his collar and performed a little stretching, neck-cracking maneuver – and yawned. He looked like a man who knew that his work was over for the night, who could now go home to a couple of beers, a hot bath, and a cooked dinner. If he saw me there, dismay and dejection all over my face, he didn’t give the slightest sign.

As he pulled down the metal shutters and listened to my tale of woe, I could see him take a quick peek at his watch. He crossed his forearms in front of his chest to show me that I had missed the last train. "Rasuto wan," he said firmly and often, misinterpreting my look of chagrin as dull-witted incomprehension.

I was well and truly screwed. I hadn't bothered to stop at the bank for more money because I reasoned I would have more than enough for the trip home. Which I would have, had I managed to catch that last train. In those days before 24-hour automatic tellers, if you were out of money at that hour, you had to make do without it. The 600 yen I had on me was just about enough for two cups of coffee - not that any coffee shops were open at that hour. The next train wouldn't be until 6:00 in the morning, and my apartment in Konandai was far enough away that taking a taxi was not an option. I felt like sitting down and weeping, but instead I went to the police box.

Japanese police boxes really are box-shaped. This one was brightly-lit but blue with cigarette smoke and an overpowering smell of air freshener that only succeeded in making the fuggy air even denser. Unfortunately, the station police didn't know what to do with me either, and no sooner had I told my story to one policeman than another would enter and I would have to go through it all over again. Four separate policemen had to be told that no, I hadn't anticipated that I would miss the last train, and yes, it would have been far wiser for me to prepare for that contingency. Anticipation and contingency planning – the two things my mother was always trying to drill into me. Small comfort that she was not there to witness my shame.

My policemen conferred, then one explained that he was going to give me a ride somewhere. I was hopeful: was there perhaps another train station not far from Konandai that I was unaware of? I’d only been in Yokohama a few weeks and the train system was vast and complex, so this did not seem too far-fetched. Was I to be given a ride to a station where there was an even later last train. Or might someone be driving in the general direction of Konandai, so I could hitch a ride? Whatever the case, I was relieved to be leaving Yokohama Station. At least I felt as though I was making progress.

When the driver stopped the car fifteen minutes later, however, I realized that he had merely taken me to a larger police station. My heart sank.

Even though it was after midnight, the telephones at the police station hardly ever stopped ringing. I was introduced to a young sergeant and my predicament was explained. He nodded and stroked his chin and explained to me that my only option was to wait in heated safety and relative comfort until the trains started up again at 6:00 a.m. With self-conscious chivalry, he escorted me past rows of grey metal desks - and the interested eyes of the men who sat behind them - to a battered Naughehyde sofa in the back of the room. The young sergeant spread his hands. "Please. Sit."

With as much dignity as I could muster, I tried to stash my three twine-and-paper wrapped Korean cushions under the sofa, but no matter how I pushed, they wouldn't fit. The cheap brown wrapping paper had suffered a lot in transit - especially when I had gotten caught in the rain - and much of it was peeling off in long, wet strips. Gallantly, the young sergeant took them from me and stacked them in a corner. I shrugged off my backpack and sat down.

I was acutely aware that I had become, if not quite the center of attention, certainly an object of great interest. Several of the men cast furtive looks in my direction as I fumbled in my bag for my Japanese homework. I had a reading comprehension test in three days and my weekend trip to Seoul had put a dent in my preparation time. I had a lot to catch up on, and if I had to lose a night's sleep in the police station, at least I could manage to get some work done.

Having opened my textbook, I took out my pens and Japanese-English dictionary and began to study. The young sergeant came back and placed a steaming cup of green tea in front of me. He glanced at my homework.

"You are studying Japanese!"

"Yes, I am."

"So that's why you can speak it - because you are studying it!"

Comments like this always threw me. Should I acknowledge that I could speak Japanese? This was arguably true, but only just. And agreeing with such a statement struck me as arrogant. I settled for a cautious qualification. "I speak a little Japanese."

"Oh no - you are fluent! When we first saw you, our hearts sank. We felt certain that we would have to speak English - and no one here can speak English! We were all so relieved to know that you could speak Japanese! And no wonder you can speak it, because you are studying it! That is truly commendable!"

By this time a small crowd had formed around us as one by one, almost every man in the station - there were no policewomen - had gotten up from his desk to come see what I was doing.

"She is studying Japanese!" enthused my young sergeant, pointing to my textbook and dictionary. I cringed.

"So she is, so she is! What are you studying?"

Blushing furiously, I surrendered my textbook. I was, in fact, studying a fairytale, Urashima Taro, the Japanese Rip Van Winkle who rescues a turtle and is rewarded for his kindness with a trip to the Dragon's Under-the-Sea Palace.

"Hey, Urashima Taro! We did this in second grade!"

That was it in a nutshell: they'd done it in second grade. I had a pretty good idea how far from fluent my Japanese really was. What I knew of the language didn't begin and end with Urashima Taro scaled down for second-graders, but it was a close thing.

"Why is she here?" I heard one policeman asking another. He had obviously been out earlier when I'd been brought in.

"Missed the last train. The station police brought her here because she had nowhere to go. And she didn't have enough money to take a taxi back to her apartment in Konandai. So she's going to spend the night here."

My so-called fluency in Japanese notwithstanding, when the station police had first explained to me that I would be spending the night at the Yokohama Central Police Station, I had not fully grasped what was happening.

The new policeman stared at me. "How'd you manage to miss the last train?"

I felt my face growing hotter. "My flight from Seoul was late because of the typhoon."

"Heh. What were you doing in Korea?'

I tried not to sigh. I'd been through this half a dozen times already and wished to God that I didn't have to go through it afresh for every new person who asked.

"Getting my working visa at the Japanese Consulate there."

"Heh. So you're working here. What are you doing?"

"Teaching English," someone told him. "And get this: she speaks Japanese!"

The newcomer looked impressed. "Really?" he asked me. How could I answer this? Surely it should have been fairly obvious that I read at least some Japanese: my textbook was still lying open in my lap, Urashima Taro still very much unread.

This was a phenomenon I was becoming all too familiar with: a foreigner learning Japanese was either assumed to be a linguistic genius or a complete dullard.

"Didn't you have enough money for a taxi?" the new policeman wanted to know. Again, I tried not to sigh.

"I didn't think I'd need it. I thought I'd have time to catch the last train back." This was true. And if I hadn't bought the Korean cushions as a spur-of-the- moment purchase, I would have had enough money for a taxi - but they didn't need to know that. The cushions, which had seemed like such a nice idea in Seoul, had turned out to be a pain in the neck. I should have had the sense to realize how awkward it would be to carry three bulky, twine-bound packages from Seoul to Yokohama. But I wasn't to know that a typhoon would delay my flight, or that they would take their time coming through on the baggage console when I arrived in Tokyo. Or that when I got caught in the rain, the brown paper they were wrapped in would turn into mush and peel off.

"Have you learned any Japanese songs yet?" asked a different policeman, a younger one who was cuter than the rest.

I shook my head. I had, but I wasn't planning on singing any of them here.

The young policeman took a step closer. "Want to hear one?" he asked shyly.

I started to answer him, but another policeman placed something in front of me. It was a pale, shiny lavender and looked very much like a section of plastic egg carton. "Here, have this - you must be hungry."

The young policeman who had asked me about Japanese songs began to sing one himself, very softly. Another one joined him. They had beautiful voices, one base, the other tenor.

"Go on," said the man who had given me the purple egg carton section. "Try it!"

I thanked him and began to prise open the plastic container. It looked awful.

"No - no! You don't open it - just pop the whole thing in your mouth, it's all edible!" He watched eagerly while I did this.

"How is it?"

With all my heart I wanted to say that it was delicious, but it was exactly how you might imagine the texture and taste of Styrofoam. Inside there was some sort of paste that must have been over 90% sugar. Somehow I managed to swallow it all down and murmur my thanks.

"Did you like it?"

I couldn't say no. I nodded with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.

"Good! Because there's plenty more!"

The young sergeant who had brought me tea handed me back my textbook and asked me The Question: "Why do you want to learn Japanese?"

I took a sip of my lukewarm tea and got ready to give him my stock answer. An answer which, although it might not have been the whole truth, was as close as I could get to it given my linguistic limitations: Because I've always wanted to learn it.

Monday, 27 August 2007

A Few Minutes of My Time

"Mary, come over here and interpret for me, would you?" my friend Linda called anxiously. I looked over my shoulder and saw that she was being interviewed by several youths with a video camera. She was obviously struggling to explain herself in Japanese.

We had taken our toddlers to play in the park earlier. As the camera-carrying lads were casually dressed in jeans and tee shirts, I figured they must be students who were interviewing people as some sort of classroom assignment. I waddled over to see what was going on, though I was more than a little leery of the cameras: I had good reason to be.

Five months pregnant, I looked awful. My hair was a bushy mess, I hadn't managed to wash my face that morning, and I was wearing my husband's old denim jacket from which my sumo-esque pregnant belly protruded like a watermelon. Some pregnant women manage to look all glowing and fashionable when they are growing their babies. I just looked sloppy and tired.

"What do you want to know?" I wheezed, and they slowly trained the camera on me. "We'd just like a few minutes of your time," one of the men said, holding up a microphone. "We're interested in people's painful experiences," he explained. "Tell us about your most painful experience." I turned to Linda and duly translated this for her benefit.

"Physical pain?" she wanted to know, and when I asked them they nodded. "Yes, physical pain. We're not interested in heartbreak."

"That's easy," Linda exclaimed fervently. "Having a baby!" I provided the Japanese for this, and the man with the camera followed our every move. "How about you?" one of the men asked me, and the camera and microphone swiveled my way.

"Yep -- childbirth would be my answer too," I burbled, eyeing them curiously. They looked impossibly young with their jeans, tee shirts and fashionable haircuts, and I had half a mind to ask what year they were in at university. But instead, I waxed lyrical on the subject of childbirth. It's not every day people ask you about this, after all. I didn't get into the real nitty-gritty; I will always be grateful for that. But I said enough. The main interviewer asked me point-blank if I hadn't learned my lesson, given my obvious pregnancy, and I burst out laughing. "Obviously I haven't!" I crowed, and the camera dipped down to cover my enormous pregnant belly. Not that there was any way you could miss it.

They spent about five minutes filming and recording us. Once I got past my initial embarrassment, I really enjoyed that camera, the thrill of being the center of attention. Why not go along with it, I reasoned. Only a handful of people were ever going to see me in all my pregnant glory, after all, and being asked my opinion and given a chance to express myself ad nauseam was like a dream come true. Linda rather enjoyed it too. She and I never managed to ask the boys what college they attended or what class they were making the film for. Then we forgot all about it.

Some six weeks later, I got on the train to go to work one morning in June and noticed that people were staring at me. I discretely checked my face for traces of jam or butter, but no, it was perfectly clean. When I got off at my stop in Tokyo, more people stared at me. I put it down to being hugely pregnant, but it still felt strange.

At the YWCA, where I went for my pre-work swim, one of the ladies approached me in the pool. "You were on television last night, weren't you?" she asked. "No," I said, smiling. "But you were!" she said. "It looked just like you!" In Japan, I was often confused with other Caucasian women who were younger, older, shorter, darker, fatter, thinner. So the penny didn't drop until one of the women said, "But you were talking about pain. You and your friend. You were talking about heartburn and childbirth and how awful they were." Suddenly I stopped smiling. Oh God. Oh please, no.

"I had heartburn when I was pregnant too," one of the women told me. "So did I," said another woman. "And my feet were swollen. Plus, I screamed my head off and I didn't care who heard me, so you shouldn't feel ashamed about that!" I turned to look at her. "Did I say that?" I asked faintly. "Yes," she said, "and it was all so funny! My husband and I laughed and laughed. I'm going to tell him that I met you today! I told him I thought you were a YWCA member, and he was very impressed!"

The boys with the camera equipment, it turned out, had worked for NHK, the Japanese national broadcasting corporation.

The people at work had seen it too. So had half of the people on the train coming home. Months later, Japanese friends in Wales and the U.S. were calling us: they'd seen me on satellite. "We were sure surprised to see you on national television!" they all said. "Were you really only five months along? You looked huge!"

My brief moment of fame and I hadn't even brushed my hair.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

What Are You?

This question always used to stump me as a kid. I asked my parents again and again, but I always got more than I'd bargained for. My ancestors seemed to have come from every nation in Europe and a few others besides, so it took them ages to finish answering the question. "Lots of stuff," I used to tell people who wanted to know, citing a few of the more interesting examples. I always used to envy the people who could give one answer, like 'Dutch' or 'Pakistani.'

Once I moved to Japan, however, I was American, pure and simple. Never mind the fact that for many Japanese people, American meant Caucasian and all too often Caucasian was another way of saying American; most people didn't even ask me what I was because they felt they already knew. And in case I was ever in danger of forgetting, there was always someone eager to remind me, especially late at night on the trains when people had been drinking more than they should. I found this unsettling. All my life I had felt quite neutral -- as though my nationality or ethnic origin were hardly even there. Now all of a sudden, I couldn't get away from it. It followed me out of bed in the morning, sat on my shoulder and whispered in my ear.

In a sea of generally black-haired people, I stood out: a little taller, a little larger, my facial features more pointed, my hair more wavy and far lighter. In the part of Japan where I lived, you could go for months without seeing another obviously non-Japanese person. After a month, catching sight of myself in the station mirrors became a nasty shock. Good God, is that me? No wonder people are staring!

The more I felt myself defined by my outward appearance, the more keenly I began to feel for every ethnic minority in the world. I remembered the Egyptian boy who joined my third grade class and how he used to sit watching the others play, desperate to join in but not knowing quite how to do it. The handful of African-American students who suddenly appeared in our largely white elementary school one year; how annoyed one of the girls got when someone asked her what color her blood was. The three American-born Hispanic kids in an all-white high school biology class, how patiently they smiled when well-meaning people asked them questions about Mexico and pestered them with random phrases they had learned in Spanish. Dark-skinned people in the Midwestern States, Indians in Africa, Africans in Finland -- I couldn't get enough of reading about how they coped as minorities, what their experiences had been, and how they had handled their frustrations, their feelings of alienation and differentness. I was willing to bet that they would hardly feel different at all if the people around them weren't so eager to point it out.

After a little over two years in Japan, I went back to the States and suddenly felt my new identity disappear overnight. I was neutral again; all around me conversations were taking place in English and no one batted an eye when I walked past. No one whispered that I was foreign; no one asked me how they did things in my country, how they said things in my language. No longer was I called upon to be both spokesperson and de facto goodwill ambassador for every sorry Caucasian on the planet. The relief was so great I could have wept.

And yet, here is the weird thing: I felt different. Completely different.

For the next few weeks, I moved around almost as though in a dream, considering from a distance those members of my new/old in-group: Caucasians. Redheads, tow-heads, small and large, tall and short, rednecks and Republicans, hippies, liberals, conservatives and communists, members of the Aryan Nation and tree-huggers. They -- we -- were all as different as chalk and cheese and yet for two years all of us had been lumped into one group! It was mind boggling.

Now I live in a small town in Scotland. We have little ethnic diversity here. There are a handful of ethnic Chinese, most of whom operate restaurants, a Scot of Pakistani origin who lives here with his many brothers, a family from Nepal who run a gardening center, and the odd tourist. I hate the fact that I notice their outward differences. I hate the fact that a lot of people mix up the Nepalese man, who is in his forties, with the vastly younger, thinner, lighter man who runs the Chinese restaurant. I cringe inside whenever I hear people talking in loud, patient tones to the restaurant-owner's children, all of whom were born here and happen to speak with Glaswegian accents.

Because I know how much we all have in common.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Just Talkin' 'bout Shaft

"Who knows Eye-zack Hay-zoo?" asks Teramoto-san, holding up a piece of paper and waving it around. The staff room is quiet; no one knows what he’s talking about.

"Black singer, spos’t be famous," Teramoto-san explains helpfully.

"Isaac Hayes," drones my fellow teacher Michael, not looking up from his Japan Times.

Teramoto-san moves swiftly over to Michael with his slip of paper, business in his eye. "You like Isaac Hay?"

Michael looks up at him, caution going down over his face like an awning over a shop window. "Uh no, not really."

"The Black Moses," I say, being an insufferable know-it-all. "Theme from Shaft – he got an Academy Award for the soundtrack back in the seventies."

Teramoto-san turns to stare at me, so I hum a little of the tune. "You know," I say, drumming my fingers on my desk: "Dun-dun-duh-dun-dun-duh-duh-DUN- dun." I do things like this all the time, can’t stop myself. I think it’s some kind of mild schizophrenia: part of me is horrified, part of me just has to do it.

Teramoto-san is on me in a flash. "You like?"

"I still have the album somewhere," I say, pounding in the last nail.

Two days later I'm sitting in a classroom, waiting for a businessman who wants to learn the Theme from Shaft. Isaac Hayes is an obsession of his, Yoshino-san, the school secretary has informed me. The man phoned Bright Horizons a few days ago, asking for private lessons with a teacher who knew – and better yet, liked – the music of Isaac Hayes. He’s going to be attending a convention in Chicago, and before he goes he is determined to have a party piece. A song, perfectly memorized, the pronunciation and delivery one hundred percent.

"He wants to sound like Isaac Hayes," said Yoshino-san, rolling her eyes. "He wants to go to a karaoke bar and sing the song exactly like Isaac Hayes in the movie." She hands me a tape with the Theme from Shaft on it and grins, shaking her head. "The things you gotta do, huh?" she says sympathetically.

I’ve been teaching English at Bright Horizons for a year now. During my time here I’ve been asked to put on a furry red and white Santa Claus hat and read Christmas stories to bored five-year-olds who barely understood a word of English; I’ve been obliged to accost shoppers in a mall by asking them their names in English, all the while wearing a sandwich board with the message LEARN ENGLISH NOW AT BRIGHT HORIZONS!; I’ve judged a speech contest at a convalescent home; I’ve presided over a spelling bee for ten-year-olds; I’ve looked at the ‘poetry’ of retired airplane mechanics. I’ve taught my fair share of songs too: My Way and Long and Winding Road being especially popular with Japanese businessmen. But there’s a first time for everything, and this is the first time I've had to teach anybody the Theme from Shaft.

I have a few problems with this. First of all, I’m not really a music teacher. Secondly, I’m not a guy. Thirdly, I’m identifiably Caucasian. Accordingly, I'm not the least bit confident about teaching someone the Theme from Shaft, no matter how well I may know it.

Ushio-san turns out to be a slight, bespectacled fellow in his thirties. He speaks hesitant but grammatical English and is anxious to hear what I think about the genius of Isaac Hayes, his music and his artistic vision. Worrying that my Isaac Hayes credentials may be found lacking, I tell him the truth: that I liked the music well enough to buy the album, and that I particularly enjoyed the song 'Soulsville.' Ushio-san’s eyes light up and he begins to quote in a tremulous, reedy voice: Black and bad / Born free / I guess that’s the way / it’s supposed to be… I listen to him, spell-bound. He’s got it memorized! True, his pronunciation could use a little work, but this man is passionate about Isaac Hayes. He has something that every teacher dreams of finding in a student: motivation. This might not be the nightmare I’ve been dreading after all!

"Okay, then," I say, having already listened to the Theme from Shaft some eight times today, "The first line’s got a really quick, rapid-fire delivery, and it’s crucial to get it right." Ushio-san licks his lips nervously and nods as I pop the tape into the machine and we wait through the long instrumental introduction, for the moment where Isaac Hayes starts off with his one-tone monologue.

If you’re not familiar with the Theme from Shaft, let me tell you that even if you’ve never seen Isaac Hayes, who is a large, powerful-looking black man, when you hear the song you just know that it’s someone like him who’s singing. You don’t for one minute imagine the guy is going to look anything like me, for instance. Or like Ushio-san, for that matter. Great. I have to teach a Chihuahua how to bark like a German Shepherd.

Ushio-san grasps a Styrofoam cup in his hand, a pretend mike. Who’s the black private dick acts like a sex machine with all the chicks? booms Isaac Hayes from the tape recorder, Ushio-san singing along earnestly with the music in a clear, though reedy, tenor. He manages to start almost on time – Whoozuh black ply butt – but he garbles the words in his nervousness and cannot finish. Tongue-tied, he peters out before he manages to finish up with "all the chicks."

I don’t know why he’s picked this song to sing; it is by far the hardest one. I point out the difficulties as politely as possible and ask Ushio-san if we can’t do something else instead – something easier. But he is quietly insistent: it’s got to be Shaft. Next time he'll bring a special tape with the musical accompaniment and chorus. It’ll be okay, he assures me – he knows he can do it – all he has to do is practice. I have grave reservations, but he’s the boss here. So we continue.

By the end of our first session, we have managed to get through some two dozen thoroughly dreadful renditions of Theme from Shaft. I’ve never been so tired of a song in all my life, and I am someone who’s heard My Way more times than I’ve recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

Ushio-san looks happy, though, like a man who’s well on the way to getting what he wants. "Before I leave" he says eagerly, "Can you record for me? Saying the words slowly, so that it is easier for me to follow them, to enunciate them properly."

His hour is up and I feel spectacularly ridiculous, but I do this for him. I record – slowly – the Theme from Shaft, enunciating it carefully, as he begs me to do, instead of singing it.

If you should ever want to feel ridiculous for whatever reason, I strongly suggest that you do the same thing. Slowly recite the words to the Theme from Shaft and see how far you can get before your ears start to burn. Mercifully, there aren’t that many words in the song. I am seconds from the end when the door whips open and my colleague Michael is standing there, gaping at us.

"Shaft, eh?" he says later, grinning like a maniac. "Who’s the cat who won’t cop out when there’s danger all about? Hah! What a way to earn a crust, eh?" he gloats. Last year Michael had to dress up as a wolf in a pink tutu at an Easter party for pre-schoolers. I refrain from reminding him of this, however, and pretend as though I didn’t hear him.

The thing about Ushio-san wanting to be able to sing like Isaac Hayes – part of me understands. I remember watching Swan Lake at the age of eight and desperately wanting to be one of those ballerinas, effortlessly flitting about the stage, elegant, tiny, coordinated. I was a great awkward klutz of a child with two left feet, but in my heart I wore a tutu and had a neat, graceful little body. So part of me understands – really – but part of me also thinks that at some point in one’s adult life, these absurd fantasies are best laid to rest. I’ll never be a ballerina, never look good in a tutu. Ushio-san isn’t going to sound like Isaac Hayes no matter how hard he practices. I’ve buried my fantasy, wiped the dirt off my hands, done my grieving for what I yearned for but could not have. So why can’t he?

A few months go by. The Russian flu sweeps through Yokohama and I am unable to continue Ushio-san’s Shaft lessons for the better part of a month. Several times, though, he calls me at work to ask a question or two about pronunciation. He’s practicing hard, he assures me, making good progress. I express polite interest and encourage him, but groan inwardly.

Before Ushio-san goes to Chicago, he invites me to hear him performing his song in front of a group of friends and co-workers in a karaoke bar. I’ve been asked to come along to lend moral support. My heart is sinking: how I wish I could dissuade this poor man from making an ass out of himself in front of all those people!

Ushio-san mounts the stage with a practiced nonchalance that belies the terror I know he is feeling. Grasping the mike, he leers out at the crowd as the opening chords blast from the speakers, waiting for his entrance.

Who’s the black private dick acts like a sex machine with all the chicks? he croons manfully. No, he isn’t Isaac Hayes, nowhere near. But it’s a perfect delivery, the timing just right, his voice as rich and deep and velvety as he can make it. I’ll bet he’s practiced this three, four hundred times, easily. Who’s the cat who won’t cop out when there’s danger all about? he continues earnestly, his eyes sweeping the audience.

Shaft! I sing out, bursting with pride.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Too Many Roundabouts

I believe myself to be one of the most expensively educated drivers in Scotland. When I finally passed my test, I felt a little sorry for my driving instructor: I'd suddenly dried up a huge source of his income. Still, I'll bet the amount of money he saved on gin and aspirin after he parted company with me went some way towards compensating for the loss.

Having a learner's sticker on our car got to be so embarrassing. "Is your daughter already learning to drive?" people would ask me. "Is she actually old enough?" And no, she wasn't anywhere near old enough, though at one point I figured we might as well leave the sticker there until she was: I started lessons when she was twelve and proudly peeled off that sticker shortly after her 15th birthday.

One of the reasons it took me so long to learn is that I refused to listen to the wisdom of the ages (and all my women friends) and allowed my husband to give me my first few lessons. This put us both off the idea of getting me licensed for years. But I’m also an unapologetic greenie. So even though I come from California, where not having a driver’s license is like not having running water, I’ve resisted learning how to drive for decades. I’m a great believer in using public transport, walking and cycling. All my life I’ve gotten around on buses, trains, trams, bicycles and subways – and Shank’s mare.

When we moved to a small town in Scotland, though, I knew I’d finally have to crack. I made it plain to my kids that even if I did pass my test that didn’t mean I would ferry them places they could just as easily walk to. After this face-saving gesture, I signed up for driving lessons. I figured I’d have my license in a couple of months, tops.

The first inkling I had that it might take longer was on my second lesson, when I was told to turn right at the roundabout. The problem was, I did. Turn right, that is. I don’t mean that I turned left onto the roundabout and then exited on the right, but rather that I executed a right turn into the roundabout, eliciting my instructor’s screams and speedy use of the dual control steering. In my own defence, I did exactly what he told me to do; it wasn’t my fault that I didn’t get the underlying concept.

Once I got the basic idea, I still had the problem of figuring out ‘left,’ ‘right’ and ‘straight ahead’ – especially when there were more than three exits. Directions have always been a problem for me: I got lost on my way home from kindergarten, which was only a block away from our house. As a child, before shaking hands I had to do a quick mental check of which hand I used when I wrote my name. I’ve since gotten over my early dyslexia, but roundabouts helped me revisit it. My driving instructor learned to issue clear, slowly enunciated instructions to me: "Turn left onto this next roundabout, then take the third exit."

I had dozens and dozens of lessons. I drove on icy streets, through snow, and over flooded country lanes. We idled on rural roads waiting for cattle and sheep to get out of the way, and in the evenings, when I learned how to emergency brake for badgers, foxes and deer. And there is one particular corner in Dumfries that really should be named after me considering the hours I spent there – and the fact that I first successfully backed around its curve. But still I was not ready to pass my test. Roundabouts – that’s what was holding me up.

All I had to do was see a roundabout up ahead – or that horrible, telltale roundabout sign – for my heart to fill with terror. When to enter? When to exit? Which way to look? It’s no big deal now, but back then, roundabouts made every driving a lesson a misery.

At some point my driving instructor decided that I ought to take my road test in Lanark and not Dumfries due to the fact that there were fewer roundabouts in Lanark. I was all for this, of course, but during one of my subsequent lessons, I was confused to hear my instructor say that the good thing about Lanark was that it had too many roundabouts.

Having spent two hours a week with my instructor for the better part of three years, I flattered myself that I could finally understand his toned-down Glaswegian dialect. But when he told me that all I had to worry about in Lanark was too many roundabouts, I suddenly felt like we were back to square one. I’d been doing so well up until then, both with my driving and my understanding of his spoken directions, that I hardly dared question him about this. Then he said it again and I just had to ask.

"I thought that we were going to Lanark because there weren’t so many roundabouts there," I ventured. He agreed: quite right, so we were. "But you just said that there are a lot of them there. Roundabouts, I mean." My instructor gave me a sidelong glance. "I never said that."

I frowned. "You did, though, you said so just now."

A long awkward silence followed, then my instructor spoke again in a father-to-idiot- daughter voice. "What I said was that in Lanark there aren’t very many roundabouts at all. That’s why we’re going there and not Dumfries."

We drove along in sullen silence for a few moments. From the way we were quarrelling, my instructor and I might as well be married, so no wonder I was starting to regress.

"Look," he said a little shortly, breaking the strained silence, "there are only too many roundabouts in Lanark, and when we get there, I’m going to have you go over them as many times as possible until you’ve got them sussed. Okay?"

"You just said it again!" I cried triumphantly. "You said that there are too many roundabouts in Lanark!"

This was followed by a brief silence, then a bark of laughter.

"Two, as in one-two-three! And mini as in mini and maxi! Two mini roundabouts!"

Monday, 13 August 2007

Embarrassing Kids -- Part Two

Sitting in the hotel reception area one afternoon as we waited for the coffee house to open, my two children took to squabbling and play-fighting. Bored with the long, tedious wait, they decided to have some fun.

"Bakatari chin-chin," the eldest said to the youngest. Loudly. This is the English equivalent of 'silly penis' and it turned heads. Japanese heads, that is. None of the other westerners who were using the reception area understood this rude infantile colloquialism, so none of them batted an eye. But it certainly caught the attention of the Japanese guests, all of them rather staid, genteel types. Several Japanese children roughly my kids' age were sitting nearby, all of them minding their own business, and critical looks were directed at them. Who else could have said it, after all? There was no way my two children could have been speaking fluent, though foul-mouthed Japanese: obviously it had to be the Japanese kids. I found myself flushing with embarrassment.

"You stop that right now!" I hissed at my children. And they were quiet -- for the next thirty seconds or so.

Then my youngest spoke up.

"Kuso baba," she said cheerfully, giggling and prodding her sister. This is something that rather defies a literal translation -- and I don't want my Blog Rating to go from PG13 to R -- but suffice it to say that 'kuso' is one of the ruder Japanese expressions for human waste and 'baba' means 'old hag.'

Two elderly women turned to stare in open hostility at the innocent Japanese children. Fortunately, these children were engrossed in comic books and blissfully unaware of the angry stares they were getting, but I leaned forward and tapped my eldest on the knee. "You cut that out right now!" I whispered angrily. "I mean business!" They looked suitably chastised, and for the next two or three minutes both of them were as good as gold, but then the youngest pushed the eldest and it started all over again.

"Iya -- hanakuso! Kitanai na!" said the eldest, flicking an imaginary booger at her sister. The elderly ladies shook their heads and glared at the oblivious Japanese children, making a tsk tsk sound and looking around the room for the children's parents. Beside myself with fury, I stood up, beckoning to my two. "You -- stop -- that -- now!" I said from between clenched teeth. "If you've got something like that to say, say it in English from now on! Do you hear me?"

Sullenly, they nodded their assent, and I settled back in the chair and took a deep breath.

When the coffee house opened, we all went inside. We were seated in an area some distance from any Japanese people, surrounded by other Americans and native English speakers, and although I should have known better, I breathed a sigh of relief. Suddenly the eldest, who had just settled into her seat, began to move about uncomfortably.

"I'm feeling a little sick," she announced in a sea captain's voice, in English this time. "I think I've got diarrhea!"

Of course she used a more colloquial expression for it.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Embarrassing Kids -- it's a Gift

My kids are easy to embarrass. In fact, I can usually do it without even trying.

Some years back, our family visited the Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. We all found this fascinating and greatly enjoyed our hike to the cave dwellings and the excellent tour we were given. We stood with a crowd of over a dozen people and gazed at the ancestral homes of the Pueblo people carved into the sheltered alcoves of canyon walls.

At the end of our tour, our guide asked us if we had any questions. People wanted to know what the Pueblo dwellers ate, what they wore, where they buried their dead, what artifacts had been found, etc. I too had a question that I was burning to ask, so I raised my hand. "Just out of interest," I asked innocently, "where were their toilets?" I could feel my eldest, who was standing next to me, freeze.

The guide seemed to think that this was a perfectly reasonable question and he dealt with it accordingly. The concensus, he said, was that the Pueblo residents most likely gathered their waste in vessels and threw it over the side of the cliff. We all agreed that this was a perfectly handy way of dealing with the problem of waste disposal, and while there were obviously a few disadvantages to this system, it had the added virtue of helping to fertilize certain crops planted below. I thanked the guide, and we walked back to our car.

Our eldest maintained a shocked silence all the way back to the parking lot. When we had been on the road for some minutes, my husband finally noticed how quiet she was and asked if anything was wrong. There was, it turned out. Mom had embarrassed her.

"How could you?" she hissed at me.

"How could I what?"

"You know!"

"But I don't!"

"How could you ask about toilets?" she demanded, in hushed tones.

"Yeah!" agreed her sister. "It was really embarrassing! Everybody stared at us!"

All I could do was turn and stare at them in wonder. Both of my kids have frequently indulged in gratuitous scatological humor. I have been forced to listen to jokes about doo-doo and pee-pee and worse; I have heard them laughing their heads off at things that make me blush just to remember. And yet by asking a perfectly reasonable question about toilets, I unwittingly managed to embarrass them and offend their delicate sensibilities. To this day they swear that they cringe when they remember my gaffe.

Really, there are times I cannot wait to become a grandparent.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Half Empty or Half Full?

I happen to be married to a devout pessimist. I'm not really an optimist myself, but next to him I look like one. In fact, just about anyone would.

The other day, our stove broke. The little catch that you depress to get the gas to release has been giving us trouble ever since we moved into this flat. Up until now, we've just gotten out the WD40 and applied it generously, but this time no amount of lubricating oil would make it work.

For three days, we made do with frozen pizzas and microwavable meals, but finally I couldn't bear it anymore, so I went to see if I could fix it. "You can't fix it" my husband said, depressing the catch. "See? It won't work." I had to give it a go, of course. He was right: you could get the little lever to go down, but it wouldn't stay down.

But when someone tells me that something cannot be fixed or is not worth pursuing, that only fires me up and makes me determined to prove them wrong. "I'll call the repairman," my husband sighed, "We'll just have to live on salads and microwaved stuff until he gets here." I agreed that we needed the repairman, but I still felt a short-term repair ought to be possible. My husband rolled his eyes. "Come on; you can see it doesn't work. Just give up!"

"What if we put something heavy on it," I said, "like a bottle? That'll do the trick." My husband shook his head. "Nothing will work," he muttered, "it's completely buggered." He sighed miserably. "We're going to need a new stove. And they're really expensive!" He couldn't bear watching me dicker about with it, so he marched out of the room to go and worry about our finances. Two minutes later I'd sorted it out: a full wine bottle propped up with a balled-up dish towel, and I was cooking with gas once again.

That isn't one isolated incident, either. Almost twenty years ago, when we were still unmarried, I saw an advertisement in the newspaper. Native English speakers literate in Japanese were wanted, preferably people with a good grasp of English grammar and semantics. A teaching background was a big plus. The salary, it was noted, was very good. This looked perfect for me and I showed my husband-to-be. He frowned. "They're probably one of those rip-off schools. And that business about the good salary is just to lure you in. Forget it."

I disagreed. Even if the payment wasn't great, the job sounded so ideal for me, I wanted to give it a shot. I applied for it and took a series of translation tests followed by an interview where I was told I had the job if I wanted it. When I showed my husband-to-be what my salary would be, he was astounded. "But that's more than I make!" I had that job for a dozen years and it really was perfect for me. To my husband's endless credit, he loves this story and is quick to tell it to friends. But he still hasn't learned his lesson.

"Hand me that bowl, would you?" I asked him just this afternoon. My husband stared at my colander full of sliced strawberries. "Those'll never fit in that bowl," he insisted. "You'll need one at least twice that big, and I don't think we have one that size!" I rolled my eyes at him and grabbed the bowl. In went the strawberries, filling the bowl exactly half-way.

Honestly, the look on his face.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Who Done It?

Bill Cosby once said that the big advantage to having only one kid was that when something got broken, eaten or messed up, you always knew who the guilty party was. Any parent of more than one child knows how true this is. If you have only one child, you will never need to play Sherlock Holmes, whereas if you happen to have more than one kid, you will never really know who did it unless you happen to be a mind reader or have scrupulously honest children. And show me any parents who claim to have bred more than one of such paragons, and I'll show you a couple of liars.

My mother grew up in a large, strict family. Whenever one kid did something bad and her mother could not find out who the culprit was, all six children were punished. She and her siblings grew up to be good, upstanding people, and there are times that I greatly lament that this means of dealing with misdemeanors has gone out of vogue.

When things get broken, eaten, or messed up in this household, I can make all the fuss in the world, but 80% of the time I'm just not going to find out who did it. When confronted, the eldest says that the youngest did it; the youngest passionately defends herself and swears that it was the eldest. There are times when I seriously think they are in it together: you say it was me, and I'll say it was you, and she'll never know who did it! And indeed, I never do. It really is exasperating. All I want is the truth. And, once in a while, an equal crack at the corn chips.

Here is a typical scenario. I go into the kitchen and find that all the corn chips -- two entire packages -- have been eaten. Which is bad enough, but the bags that these came in have both been shoved back into the pantry. Empty, of course. Now picture that you are a hungry and deserving parent, panting for a snack. You go to the kitchen, open the cupboard, and see the bags. At first sight, they appear to be full. You then reach for one bag and alas, it is empty. So you reach for the other one and make the same disappointing discovery. Depending on many factors such as how hungry you are, how many times this has happened in the past week, and what the recent behavior of your children has been, your reaction will vary. When I find myself in this situation, as I so often do, my reaction is generally one of apoplectic rage.

First of all, I was the one who bought the corn chips. I paid for them, packed them up, brought them home, and put them away. My kid -- or kids -- ate them, and I have no way of finding out which one, so I can't even have the satisfaction of punishing the guilty party.

There is something else about this that bothers me. When I was a kid and I did something bad, I had the good sense to cover my tracks. If I was greedy enough to polish off an entire bag of corn chips, I most certainly wouldn't have been stupid enough to leave the empty bag lying around where a parent would find it. Don't my kids have better sense than that? If I have to have kids who are thieves, can't they at least be smart ones?

I'm not sure whether it is right, but I have developed a strategy for dealing with this. Whenever I find that the kids have done something that is not only wrong, but also stupid, I tell them off, as usual. I point out that what they did was wrong -- no matter which one did it. And then I pretend that I am my ten-year-old self, and I tell them how stupid it was. That shames them, and is generally more effective than a simple telling off. For the time being, anyway, it appears to be working. If I don't see the empty corn chip bag, I might just assume that my husband has polished them all off and not be so likely to hold a grudge.

Who knows? If I keep shaming them, they may eventually figure out that it's in their best interests to throw away the bag if they can't be bothered to leave a few for me. And if they don't, maybe one of these days I'll give my grandmother's old-fashioned way a try.