Saturday, 8 September 2007

The Matushka

“You’re not the only American member here,” said the receptionist at the YWCA. “Mrs Hashimoto uses our swimming pool regularly. Perhaps you’ll get to know her; she’s about your age.”

I smiled. You hear dopey comments like this all the time in Japan. Such as “You’ll just love our neighbor – she’s an American too!” As if a shared nationality is a sure-fire basis for friendship.

“I suppose she’s another English teacher,” I commented, handing back my completed registration form. In Japan, it is rare to find a resident American who doesn’t teach English.

“I’m not sure,” said the receptionist, “but I know she is a clergyman’s wife.”

A clergyman’s wife? Immediately I pictured a smug, sensible woman spouting Christian platitudes and oozing respectability. I made a mental note to avoid her at all costs.

Although I kept my eye out for the clergyman’s wife, I never spotted her. In fact, there were practically no non-Asian foreigners there at all. Then one day in the changing room I noticed a woman about my age with wispy light blonde hair, her jaws working furiously on a piece of chewing gum. When I heard her curse as she dropped something on the floor, I felt pretty sure she was an American. On one foot she sported a cast that was obviously weeks old. I watched her out of the corner of my eye as she struggled to thread her casted foot through her trouser leg. She had a certain off-putting, un-American look about her that seemed to suggest she wasn’t given to quick conversations and easy camaraderie. When she shrugged on her black leather jacket with its Harley-Davidson patch on the sleeve and slid on her shades, if I’d had to guess her occupation, ‘Hell’s Angel’ would have been at the top of the list. When I saw her in the parking lot a week later, climbing off her Hog, I was further convinced.

Two days later an elderly lady in the changing room did a double take upon seeing me and threw up her hands. “My! Your leg is healed!” she cried out in Japanese. I was taken aback by this: I had pulled a muscle two weeks previously, but I didn’t remember telling anyone about it.

“It wasn’t all that bad,” I assured her, but she continued to shake her head in astonishment. “But that cast you were wearing!” she countered, staring at my leg in wonder, and I suddenly realized the source of her confusion. I was a good five inches taller than the Hell’s Angel, with darker, shorter hair, but this lady obviously had little experience with Caucasians and she’d gotten us mixed up. The next time I ran into the blonde with the cast, I worked up the courage to tell her that someone had mistaken me for her.

She let out a hoot of laughter. “Well I’m flattered,” she said dryly, “but I hope it didn’t ruin your day.” Which was how Jenny and I met. Jenny’s husband was Japanese, and she taught English at a local university. Although we were roughly the same age, Jenny had married at eighteen and had a grown-up son and grandchildren back in the States. She hardly seemed like the grandmother type to me, and I couldn’t picture her in front of a classroom either. When I asked her about the motorcycle she shrugged. “We can’t afford a car.”

It turned out that the dark glasses, which I seldom saw Jenny without, were on account of her diabetes. “I’ve had it all my life,” she confided. “I wear the shades to protect my eyes. Diabetic retinopathy, you know.”

“We live in a fish-bowl,” Jenny complained one day. “Right smack in the middle of the Cathedral complex. Everybody knows everybody else, and you can’t do anything without everybody else finding out about it.” We’d been talking about housing and how hard it was to find a decent apartment in Tokyo. Somehow I pictured Jenny and her Japanese husband in a small, stylish flat with trendy furniture and parking space for both their Harleys. During the course of an earlier conversation she’d mentioned a class on the Byzantine Empire he was teaching, and I pictured a bookish, intellectual fellow – albeit in motorcyclist’s black leather.

When I asked Jenny how she’d managed to find housing in the middle of the cathedral complex, she laughed. “Oh gosh. Didn’t I tell you? My husband’s an orthodox priest.”

All I could do was stare at her – Jenny Hashimoto, the clergyman’s wife. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a comfortable-looking woman with a crucifix around her neck was laughing her head off.


Carolie said...

Too funny...I love the image of the biker babe preacher's wife! I've been lucky, I guess...or I have managed to really stand out (not sure that's good!) here in Japan. I have yet to be mistaken for anyone other than myself.

Kim Ayres said...

I've such a terrible memory I've no idea if I'm mistaken for anyone else. I often get people nodding and smiling or sayiing hello as they pass and I have absolutely no idea who they are. They might be mistaking me for someone else, or I might have met them and utterly failed to recall their face.

Sometimes I wonder if they've read my blog and recognise me from it, forgetting I've never actually meet them. But more often than not it turns out that they all know I'm Meg's father. It seems everyone in Castle Douglas knows my daughter.

Anonymous said...

I love people who keep me guessing.

Your story reminded me of a story of my own. My mom is Filipino and a really good friend of mine wanted to introduce me to her friend's mother because "she is just like your mother!" I met the woman. She was Japanese, and looked and acted nothing like my own mother and when I commented on that to my friend, she said "well, you know, they're both little, and both make those Asian food dishes."


We are still friends, but I mercilessly ridicule her for this.

Christy said...

Oh, I love it when people defy my expecations! It's always nice to be surprised.

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- I don't think I could count the times I've been told (in Japan) that I look 'just like someone' who is pounds lighter or heavier, pinker, blonder, more buxom, more brunette, etc. I have been told, variously, that I look like Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, 'Mrs Hughes who teaches my son,' the lady on t.v. who advertises tomato sauce, etc. I think I just have one of those faces...

Kim -- When our eldest was ten months old, she entered a state-run Japanese nursery school and I became, very quickly, 'Hana-chan- no-okaasan'-- in other words, Hannah's mother. The school was for kids from five months to six years, and within a week, my husband and I were celebrities and would hear various infant voices referring to us as Hana-chan's mom and dad. It took me ages to realize they were referring to us.

AllRileyedUp: I have a friend whose mother is Filipino, and he would no longer be on speaking terms with anyone who confused her with a Japanese. A housemate of mine once told me all about a Japanese friend of hers she couldn't wait to introduce to me. It turned out he was a third generation Chinese- American. I told her off (nicely) for her gaffe and she accused me of acting like I a know-it-all.

Christy -- I love this too. I am amazed that this happens to me time after time. You'd think I would learn not to hold stereotypes after so many of these experiences.

kathie said...

God, that's funny. And so true. Even when a person is aware of stereo-types and tries to avoid allowing them to create a construct before knowing someone, it happens anyway. Thank goodness you are open enough to push past the obvious. I love your tales of "foreign Americana." Priceless, sister.

Kanani said...

Did you keep in touch with her?

A long time ago, I met a gentleman who'd been born in 1920 in Shanghai. He was white, spoke fluent mandarin, and had wonderful memories of his childhood. His parents had been Quaker missionaries.

Since then, I've met other missionaries and their kids. They tend to very interesting persons, quite unlike any stereotype put upon them.

Danette Haworth said...

Good story--so true how we box people in with our preconceived notions.

My church has a biker ministry, and the pastor of it shows up in leathers!

Carole said...

I enjoyed your post much, possibly because I am a preacher's wife. I rarely tell strangers though because they instantly sanitize their language and conversation. I suddenly only hear great theological thoughts and wisdom. I like people to be themselves (which is why I like blogland) but somehow my pastor's wife forcefield must block all attempts of normalcy.

Mary Witzl said...

Kathie -- I have an almost endless stream of foolish tales like this, and I am so happy to know that you find them funny! The awful truth is that I still manage to stereotype people, but now I can usually catch myself.

Kanani -- I got to be good friends with Jenny (whose real name is Robin). My kids loved her and her husband, Father John, and they used to come and visit us on their Harleys, making our landlady very nervous. I tried to tell the landlady that Father John was a priest, but I know she never believed me. He had longish hair and a beard, and that hardly helped.

My psycholinguistics professor grew up in China, the son of missionaries, and he was also fluent in Mandarin and a very interesting man.

Danette -- I love the idea of a minister in leathers! The reason that Jenny and her husband rode motorcycles was because they could not afford a car in Tokyo and often had to travel great distances from church to church.

Carole -- I am so tempted to start quoting Scripture now! I was actually a little leery about posting this because I felt ashamed about having type-cast Jenny and I hoped you wouldn't think less of me for having done so... I always want to make myself sound a little better than I really am.

KL said...

When I lived in China, I ran into many Chinese who basically thought that every shade of hair that was NOT black was blond. Imagine my dark brunette husband's great confusion when the thin blond American he heard being described turned out to be himself.

Mary Witzl said...

Kady -- My husband has (or used to have) very dark, curly hair and brown eyes. Whenever his Japanese students drew pictures of him, they had him looking like he could fit right into Hitler Youth, with big, blue eyes. On his bicycle in China, he used to fear that he would cause accidents as crowds of fellow cyclists turn to gape at him in wonder.

Chris said...

Expat life has been such an eye-opener for us. We meet the most fascinating people, and tend to form friendships much more quickly (out of necessity, really) than we would have in the US. Of course it's tough when those friends move on to their next posting, but it's fun to say we have friends in Geneva, Sydney, Shanghai, etc.

Many Filipinos here are fascinated with light skin and "Hollywood" noses. I've always hated my rather prominent nose, but here I get compliments on it all the time. I covet their beautiful dark skin, and they covet my pasty white complexion. Life overseas is definitely full of surprises!

Mary Witzl said...

Chris -- Given how many different kinds of people appear in movies, you'd think that ANY kind of nose could be a Hollywood nose, so I am intrigued to know just what this would look like!

You are right about expatriate life: it tends to be even fuller of surprises than life back home. But when you go back to the States, you may find yourself going through reverse culture shock. I still remember how much bigger and taller everyone looked when I first went back; how wide the roads were, and how huge the supermarkets...