Wednesday, 30 January 2008


The young couple in the elevator with me had on enormous backpacks. They were tall – both of them easily over six feet – and blonde. When I asked them where they were from they said West Germany. They were on their honeymoon, the woman told me. Both of them were newly qualified doctors who hoped to volunteer for Medicins sans Frontieres and they had just been on a tour of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They had visited the Peace Park and met with Japanese doctors who had treated patients with radiation sickness.

The more I talked with this couple, the more impressed I was. As important as it is, the Peace Park in Hiroshima is the last place most people would want to visit on their honeymoon. They were on their way to Vietnam, and their final destination was Cambodia. They had worked for Amnesty International, of which they were both members, as well as various other humanitarian organizations. They were young and idealistic, compassionate and – amazingly enough, considering all their accomplishments and the fact that they were doctors – humble.

After checking in, we sat down and waited in the reception area, as we were a bit early. A young Japanese teenager joined us and asked us where we were from. ‘America,’ I said, and she nodded. She knew America, of course. She had been to Los Angeles. She’d liked Disneyland so well that she’d been there twice in one week. She then asked the young couple where they were from. ‘West Germany,’ answered the wife with a smile. The Japanese girl nodded, then saluted smartly: Heil Hitler! she cried cheerfully, beaming at us.

All three of us knew that she didn’t mean any harm by this: she was just young and silly and almost heartbreakingly innocent in her wholly unintentional cruelty. But it was an excruciating moment. The young woman left soon after this, and there was a short, awkward silence.

‘Wherever we go, we take it with us,’ remarked the wife quietly. ‘Our country's past. The War. It is our constant companion.”

There was nothing I could say to this. Given their height, their extreme blondness and their strong German accents, when we first met, I too had thought -- however fleetingly -- of Hitler's Germany. I just had more sense than to say Heil Hitler.

I have thought of that young couple often, over the years. With all their good work and high ideals, they had the bad fortune to come from a country with a dreadful past -- one which few people are not well aware of. I have often thought with shame about my reaction to Germans: Wonder what they think about the war? Wonder if their parents were Nazis? and how that reaction, whether I like it or not, is based on prejudice.

I ought to know better. While I don't think America's evil empire has come close to Nazi Germany's, my country has certainly been responsible for atrocities and a misuse of power, and as an American I resent being stereotyped as racist, shallow and xenophobic. I'm tired of being questioned about my politics and my social awareness, and I know that people whose countries have a troubled past must feel the same. But when I hear a German accent, the Second World War invariably springs to mind. I have a veneer of politeness -- unlike that young girl I'm not gauche, ignorant, or callously honest -- but deep down inside, I too judge others on their outward appearance, the way they speak. I try to suppress this, but I find myself doing it anyway. And I know I'm not alone. I'm not prejudiced! I've heard so many people say whenever the subject comes up. I know what they mean, but I wonder if they really know what they're saying.

Virtually all of us born in this day and age have learned to pre-judge others. Like it or not, prejudice is part of our human condition. It is so easy to categorize people by accent, nationality, clothing, skin color, class, occupation, choice of words -- you name it. We don't have to be Nazis or card-carrying Klan members; we all have this in us to some degree.

But acknowledging the problem is the first step towards getting rid of it.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Collective Wisdom

A friend of mine has a teenage daughter with more than seventy-five pairs of underwear.

My friend made this shocking discovery one day when she went into her daughter's room to look for the scissors. Like my children, hers regularly help themselves to her belongings and she has been reduced to fumbling about under their beds for her hairbrush and scanning their cluttered desk tops for her stapler. Silly woman: she still keeps her stapler on her desk. I gave up years ago and started hiding mine in my chest-of-drawers. My kids still find it, but at least I make them work for it.

Desperate to recover her scissors, my friend quickly rifled through her daughter's top drawer and found a great quantity of panties, but no scissors. So she opened the next drawer down -- and was surprised to find yet more underwear. Imagine her shock when the next two drawers revealed nothing but underwear. Seventy-five pairs of knickers later, my poor friend staggered out of her daughter's bedroom. Without the scissors, I should add.

I mention this interesting fact, because both of my daughters have collections too. The youngest has collected rocks for ages and has more than I care to report here -- let's just say that when we moved, my compassion wore out faster than my muscles after the five boxes I carted up to her room.

My eldest has nail polish.

Way back when I was a teenager, nail polish was expensive. One bottle cost you the equivalent of one hard babysitting job, say, or delivering a day's newspapers. Girls with rich parents might have as many as five bottles, but those of us who got a pittance for an allowance were lucky if we could afford two. One shade was always clear, for painting on the runs in our stockings. The other -- the fancy one with color in it -- was always chosen with great care as it had to be something that could be used on a variety of occasions. When I was 17, mine was a shiny magenta that made me feel like hot stuff. It took me years to use up that bottle.

Nail polish for my daughter is entirely different. It is no longer expensive -- one bottle can be bought for well under a pound -- and this, combined with a natural tendency on her part to overdo it, has resulted in her current collection. She has dozens upon dozens of bottles, and she can afford to paint her nails a different shade many times a day. Fire engine red, smoldering crimson, black-and-blue onyx, morning glory purple, gold-flecked platinum -- the color changes according to mood or whimsy. I'm not crazy about it, but like my friend's daughter, she has a part-time job and it's her own money. My friend and I both believe in letting our kids learn from their mistakes. So far, our foolish daughters have been having a great time spending their hard-earned cash on nonsense, and if there's anyone learning anything, it doesn't appear to be them.

"Seventy-five pairs," my friend said glumly. Seventy-five."

"That is a pretty amazing number," I commented. "I've only got a dozen, tops."

My friend grimaced. "I've got ten. I counted today. Seventy-five! What was she thinking?"

She looked so dejected, I had to tell her about my kid's nail polish collection.

She perked right up. "My God! I think I've got maybe three bottles, tops."

"I don't have any," I told her.

"You're kidding!"

"I am not," I said, blushing at the state of my bitten-down nails. When my daughter is feeling magnamanious, she gives me the full treatment. But lately, she hasn't been forthcoming and what with gardening and housework, my nails have become atrocious.

"Come on," said my friend, "I'll do your nails." And she walked right over to a drawer and took out a bottle of nail polish and a nail file, just like that.

My jaw dropped. She still has a nail file! And she knows where it is!

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

What I Get From Blogging

Merry Monteleone has tagged me for a meme, and this one is a lot harder than it sounds: You have to explain what it is you expect from your blog and why you chose to write a blog in the first place. My reasons for writing a blog are many, and I have been pondering them for some time now, so this meme has given me the chance to deal with this subject in depth.

(1) Writing is Easier than Talking: Like a lot of other bloggers, I suspect that I am better at writing than I am at speaking. I have a rather convoluted, long-winded speaking style (what? you can't tell?) that lends itself better to the written word than the spoken. Writing a blog means I can get my point across without any embarrassing mess-ups as I flounder for the right word or compete unsuccessfully with more glib or charismatic people for speaking time. Participating in a many-sided conversation, I often feel like a timid driver trying to merge in heavy rush-hour traffic.

(2) Natural Show Off: This is embarrassing to admit, but true: I am a terrible show off. I was a nerd in high school and almost pathologically shy to boot, but my show-offiness has been there all along, lurking behind a meek, dorky personality, desperate to get out. Blogging gives me a chance to get up on my hind legs and hold forth, and very satisfying it is. You, dear readers, are all my enablers.

(3) Letter-writing Addict: Blogging is, for me, very similar to letter-writing, which I am crazy about. I get a thrill looking at my commenters' names and picturing all the countries you come from: Australia, Scotland, U.S.A., Japan, Singapore, India, England, Korea, Malaysia -- the more the better, and my only regret is that I cannot rip the stamps off your postings and stick them in my stamp collection. Yes -- I'll admit it! -- I've got one. I suspect if I'd had the technical ability, I'd have been a ham radio operator, too.

(4) Shameless Self-promotion: Friends who knew that I had written a memoir about learning Japanese told me that a blog would be the perfect way to showcase my work. Just start a blog they assured me, and you'll get agents writing and begging you for your memoir. No, of course that hasn't happened. But I live in hope.

(5) Keeping my Hand in: I tell myself that even if I've turned out only a few indifferent paragraphs of my latest manuscript or muddled through a little lukewarm revision of some past work, by keeping a blog I am at least getting some writing done. Sure, I know: I am only fooling myself. But there is still a grain of truth in it.

(6) Learning Opportunities: One month before I started this blog, I didn't know what blog meant and I didn't know what an internet presence was. The first time I saw the word meme I thought huh? I was unfamiliar with such internet-related terms as URL and hits, did not know the word friend could be used as a verb, and had no idea what Facebook meant. In fact, I still don't really know what Facebook is, but look how far I've come!

(7) Venting Opportunities! This ought to be number (1). What can I say? I am the mother of teenagers. Teenage daughters. That alone should speak volumes. I can't help but wonder what the mothers without blogs do. Frankly, I suspect drinking and substance abuse problems. Blogging has probably saved my liver.

(8) Fun, Fun, Fun: I'm not sure how much longer I'll keep this blog, but it has been such a wonderful source of fun. I never know what will garner interest, and I love reading everyone's comments and responding to them as much as I enjoy writing the postings. And visiting your blogs is wonderful too. It's free, it's fun, and I get to express myself, brother. What's not to like?

Okay -- that's why I started this blog. I now tag Kim, who got me into this in the first place.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Try As I Might, Do As I Do...

I was sitting on the bus the other day, pretending to read, but actually indulging in my habit of eavesdropping. Two women with young children were talking with an older woman -- most likely the mother of one of them -- about the importance of providing one's offspring with a good example to follow. I kept my nose in my book and tried not to smile too sarcastically, but all the time I sat there, avidly following their conversation, I found myself dangerously close to snorting in indignation.

"It's not good enough, telling them to do it, you know?" one of the young mothers commented. You've got to set an example, like. So they'll know you do it too."

"Yeah," agreed her friend. "S'right."

Whereupon the older woman echoed their sentiments, providing an example of this from her own childrearing experience: she and her husband always got up early in the morning, and now their adult offspring were all early risers. She offered this commonplace with complete confidence.

Good thing I was sitting in front of them and they couldn't see my face. I couldn't really blame the younger women, whose children were still tiny, but the older woman had either had a damned easy time of it or one hell of a case of amnesia. If only it were that simple!

When my husband and I first started out, like all beginners, we were sure we would soon have a handle on this parenting lark. We saw so many examples of bad parents around us: people who let their kids run wild and paid them little attention; people who paid their children too much attention, following their every movement, monitoring their every activity. We frowned at the snotty-nosed brats in filthy tee shirts we saw creating scenes and the spoilt, coddled mamas boys and girls. We shook our heads over the parents who ceaselessly whined, nagged and issued threats and ultimatums. We knew that our children would be as confident and independent as they would be tidy, biddable, and well behaved. How could they help but be with our good examples to follow?

We now look back on this time and laugh at our naivete, but I have come to see that this innocent confidence is a good thing and perfectly natural. As has been frequently pointed out, if most prospective parents knew what lay in store for them, they would never pass the Rubicon and elect to procreate. Most normal people do not seek out torment and hard work; who in their right mind would agree to exchange comfort and well-being with guaranteed misery and an uncertain future? I am convinced that this blind assurance that we cannot fail -- that we may even do better than the ones who came before us -- is one of the things that keeps our species going.

And I'll tell you one thing: If our kids are learning from our example, we're having a little problem with a delayed reaction.

When they were tiny toddlers, I made a big point of teaching them how to put things away. I tried to make a game out of it: See? Mommy will put three away, you put one away. Unfortunately, as soon as they tired of this (and it never took long), Mommy ended up putting away the lot and nagging them non-stop. I worked hard to keep the house tidy, taking pains to point out to them what I was doing and how they could help -- to little avail. In no time, their toys and other belongings were scattered all over the house -- and my good example didn't amount to a hill of beans.

When they were still infants, I carefully chose toys for them that were safe, colorful, engaging, educational, and durable. By the time the kids were a couple of years old, my criteria for toy selection had been narrowed down considerably: How big a mess will that make? How bad will that hurt when I step on it in the middle of the night?

The bedroom I share with my husband is virtually pristine, largely through my efforts. Our kids like coming into our room and flopping down on the neatly made bed. They help themselves to items they cannot find in their own rooms but are always sure to be able to locate in mine: nail scissors, hairbrush, tweezers, stapler, and hand lotion. I am sorry to say that their own rooms -- which I refuse to have anything to do with -- are kept in a very different state. Once in a while, one of them plunges into such depths of chaotic squalor that we are forced to issue some ultimatum: Tidy that up or you can't... Nagging and threats, we have learned, tend to work better than positive role models. Still, I always point out how neat and tidy our room is, however pathetic and futile I know this is. Some day, I tell myself, some day they will see the light of our shining example.

The other day my eldest smugly told me about her plans to teach her children how to do the laundry. I smiled and said encouraging things. After all, you never know: she might just succeed.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Body Drama: A Brave Book For Young Women

Shortly before I got my copy of Nancy Amanda Redd's Body Drama, I happened to read the obituary of Reverend Edward Chad Varah, founder of The Samaritans, and one of my heroes. After helping officiate at the funeral of a young teenage suicide victim who had mistaken her first period for the onset of venereal disease, Reverend Varah decided to devote his life to battling the ignorance and isolation that had led to the girl's death. He established a hotline that offered unbiased non-religious emotional support and, when necessary, sex education. Because of his insistence on providing the latter, Dr Varah earned himself the title of dirty old man at the ripe old age of twenty-five.

I mention this because it has come to my attention that some reviewers have found Body Drama too graphic. Just as Reverend Varah's critics felt that sex education would give young people 'ideas' (like they don't already have them!) they feel that in the wrong hands this book, with its photographs of vulvas and breasts and other body parts, may not have a wholesome influence on their daughters. These scruples seem more than a little outdated in the age of the internet, when far racier images may be readily obtained by anyone who knows how to google, and they also seem inappropriate given the sensible and positive messages that accompany the photographs: Here's what's going on with your body -- Don't worry, you're not alone! and Here are some things you should know that will help you stay healthy! There are a lot of girls for whom this book will be a real godsend: we have two women doctors in our town who are both fairly young and liberal, but I know girls who are often too embarrassed to consult them.

Let me cut to the chase and tell you about the bravest photograph in the book: a whole spread (sorry about the pun) of vulvas. Although I have heard it said that one can see this sort of thing in locker rooms, I beg to differ. Men can see what other men look like in public toilets and locker rooms; women, unless they happen to work as midwives, nurses or obstetricians -- or perhaps in the pornography industry -- cannot. A girl who is curious or nervous that her body is abnormal will have no choice but to google vagina to satisfy her curiosity or allay her fears. I know of perhaps half a dozen girls who have done this. Personally, I'm glad that my daughters have Body Drama to save them the trouble. There are mothers who voice their worries that their sons will get hold of this book and peruse these photographs. Well, duh -- everyone knows about boys and National Geographics, but does that mean that we need to keep all the National Geographics under lock and key? So go ahead and show this book to your boys. Make sure they don't skip the part about genital herpes.

This book reads a lot more like a conversation with a fun, cool big sister than it does one of those dreary volumes we were referred to by the school nurse back when I was young and desperately interested in what was happening to my body. Ms Redd manages to impart her information in a friendly, conspiritorial manner. She covers a number of controversial girl-relevant issues like smoking, tattooing, tanning and piercing, generally coming out against them in an unobnoxious but unequivocal way. Her section on tanning impressed me no end: my daughters, who tend to turn a deaf ear to my lectures on the stupidity of tanning salons, were stunned by the photograph taken under ultraviolet light on page 44. Nothing I have told them about the evils of tanning has been as effective as this one picture. And she wisely provides information about how to get pierced or tattooed safely. This is smart: if her message was Don't do it, she would lose all credibility -- and be ignored.

When this book arrived, I left it on the kitchen table quite by accident and went out for the evening. Three hours later, my sixteen-year-old was more than three quarters through it and asked me if she could take it upstairs to finish. She is not always forthcoming with me lately, but when I asked her how she liked the book, she responded with uncharacteristic warmth and enthusiasm. She had skipped ahead to the end of the book and found her favorite section: THE TRUTH ABOUT PHOTOS. Although I am sure that she studied the vulvas and breasts like everyone else, it was seeing how photographs can be touched up, creating picture-perfect bodies without moles, blotches, bulges, or cellulite, that won her over. "I had no idea!" she kept repeating. "All this time I just thought that some women were perfect, but lots of other people look like me!" Bless her: I cannot help but think that this is exactly the reaction the author was hoping for.

Sponsored by the good people at MotherTalk, but frankly I would have written this anyway.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Scents of Smell

I have an acute sense of smell.

Although this has stood me in good stead in the past -- I am everyone's first line of defense in the event of a gas leak -- it can be a real headache. At a friend's house a couple of months ago I sat on her sofa fidgeting and desperate for a breath of fresh air: she had bought a new air freshener, I later learned, which no one else in the room seemed to mind one bit. I'm pretty sure they weren't just pretending: two of them asked her what it was and I know for a fact that one of them went out and bought the same thing because when I next visited her, I went through the same torment.

My problem is that although I can smell the difference between my children, can smell when the cat has brought a rodent into the house or the next-door neighbors are brewing coffee or smoking, I can't always tell what the source of the smell is -- even when it is me. Once, years ago, I sat in the dentist's chair, waiting for the dentist, wondering why the room stank so badly. Only minutes before the dentist finally entered the room, I discovered the source of the smell: I was breaking in a brand new pair of hiking boots with a half-inch tread, and on inspection, I saw that I had stepped in a big one. Wet, too, and very fresh. That made for a pretty embarrassing encounter.

Another time, I helped a group of friends sell their daikon pickles at an open-air market in Tokyo. Every culture has its own particularly strong-smelling food, and the Japanese have their fair share. Daikon, or large white radishes, taste great but tend to smell a bit fecal, especially after they are pickled. As I was just getting over a cold, my sense of smell was blunted, and what with that and the fact that we were outside on a brisk, windy autumn evening, the pungent quality of the daikon pickles eluded me. But on the overheated train home, I looked around me in irritation, wondering whose baby was in such desperate need of a change and why everyone else was ignoring this. Two or three young couples with infants suffered my exasperated scrutiny; so did a grandmother with a toddler. Only after I had changed seats once and changed train cars twice, each time taking with me my complimentary bag of daikon pickles, did I realize that I myself was the source of the smell. Oh, the shame, when I remembered the dirty looks I had given those innocent children and their guardians.

Yet another time, I was complimented on my perfume at work, which I found odd because I wasn't wearing any -- given my sensitive nose, there are few that appeal to me. Hours later, sitting in a seminar, my perfume was commented upon again. It was only when I got home and changed out of my clothes that I realized what had happened. On the train to work in the morning, a man who had virtually bathed in aftershave had sat next to me, almost asphixiating me. Thirty minutes later he got off and my nose, duly traumatized, had grown so used to the smell that I could not tell it had rubbed off on my clothes. Even my hair still reeked of it.

I'm lucky in that my husband and I tend to like and hate the same smells. We both love the smell of lavender, cedar, oranges, garlic and coffee. Artificial air fresheners, fragrance oils, deodorants, and detergent make us ill: we'd rather put up with the odors they are intended to mask. And for both of us, a little bit of anything goes a long way.

For the past few weeks, I've been suffering from a cough. Last night I went to put a few drops of eucalyptus oil on my pillow and spilled half of the bottle on the quilt. My husband, already fast asleep, was clutching his side of the quilt so tightly that after a few half-hearted tugs, I gave up on trying to pull it off the bed. I put my pillow over my head in a desperate attempt to block the smell, but it was in vain: the eucalyptus was absolutely overpowering.

I lay there for a good twenty minutes, utterly miserable, wondering if I could die from eucalyptus overdose -- or worse still, if I were possibly murdering my husband with it, too? I rolled up the tainted corner of the quilt, which made no difference whatsoever. Finally, still swooning from eucalyptus fumes, I got out of bed and found another quilt. I rolled the affected part of the first quilt over, wedging it against my husband, and covered myself with the new quilt. This made a little difference, but the smell was still so awful I woke up dizzy from it. Eighteen hours later, I can still smell it on my hair, and our room is going to smell of eucalyptus for some time to come.

At least this time I knew I was to blame.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Three Years On A Rock

A few years ago, I had to tell a midwife in Lockerbie how to offer someone an enema in Japanese.

Shortly after we moved here, we mentioned to the librarian that we had lived in Japan and were all more or less literate in Japanese. Her sister was friends with someone whose cousin's neighbor happened to be a midwife. This is a small town and even the most piddling piece of news tends to spread quickly: when a pregnant Japanese woman with less than perfect English skills showed up in her clinic, the midwife appealed to her neighbor, who talked to her cousin, who talked to her friend, who went straight to her sister, who got in touch with us. The next day, I was flipping through my English-Japanese dictionary, translating such sentences as Are you comfortable? and How often are you getting the cramps? Then, after tearing my hair over spinal anesthesia, thrombosis, and catheters, I grappled with the following sentence for a good thirty minutes: May we shave a small section of your pubic hair?

Just in case you are interested (and even if you are not) here is how you express that in Japanese:


I count myself lucky that in all my seventeen years in Japan, I never had to say that to anyone and no one ever said it to me. But you never know what will come in handy and fortune favors the prepared. And since it took me a good thirty minutes to figure out how to say it, I feel the need to share it with someone.

Where we now live, we are virtually the only Japanese-speaking people for miles around, so that serendipitous translation job was something of a fluke. Still, the Japanese language is part of our lives and we use it on an almost daily basis. I am not saying that we always use it naturally or fluently, but we use it all the same.

For instance, it comes in handy when we are in public and one of us decides a trip to the toilet is in order and wants to inform the others in an unembarrassing way. No one else will understand our references; no obviously euphemistic Number 1 or 2 for us when we can say it in Japanese! Or when one of us needs to leave a note to tell the others that we'll be out for a few hours and the front door key is in a certain empty paint can in the potting shed: we write our notes in Japanese, and no one in this town could crack our code. Japanese is what we use when one of us has noticed that someone's fly is open or has a runny nose. Both children used it when jumping rope or playing paper-scissors-stone; and all of us still mutter the obligatory O-jama shimasu -- "I'm invading your space" -- when entering someone's home. We can't help ourselves.

The other day, I took the bus to Edinburgh. It was Remembrance Day, and the bagpipes were shrilling away as I passed the crowds on my way to the bus stop. I was to meet three Japanese women at a bistro and I had in my bag four Japanese sentences that I wanted them to check:

Souten shiro! (Load your rifles!)
Ugoku yatsu wa ute! (Shoot anyone who moves!)
Hoi shiro! (Form a circle!)

I intended to send the sentences to a man I've been corresponding with in the States, a former POW of the Japanese who is writing his memoirs and wants to make sure his Japanese is accurate and natural. The more I thought about it, the more ironic it seemed. Me, an American housewife, walking through a Scottish town with those three sentences in my pocket, off to meet Japanese friends in Edinburgh. It seemed especially weird as I passed the war memorial, a monument dedicated to the Scots who died in both World Wars, some at the hands of the Japanese.

Last night I did my damnedest to explain to my twelve-year-old what the Japanese proverb Three years on a rock means. I'm not the world's best teacher, so it was tough going.

"I don't get it," she said flatly.

"Don't try and translate it literally. Just tell yourself it means Patience wins the day."

"How come it's three years?"

"It just means a long time."

"And how come it's on a rock?"

"It has to do with meditating. Priests used to go and sit on rocks for a long time to try and achieve nirvana. So Three years on a rock means that you find a rock, you sit on it for three years - and that's not an easy thing to do after all - but after you've done it, you've arrived. Gotten what you wanted. " I looked at her hopefully. "Get it?"

She shrugged. "I guess. Whatever."

She was born in Japan, and Japanese was her first language. In fact, she used to speak it so well that I could hardly keep up with her, and I sometimes feel guilty for taking her away from Japan: she has forgotten so much. So every once in a while I sit her down and try to teach her as much as she can bear. I do this with both kids, and it hasn't been easy. I'm probably one of the few parents in Scotland who has read through the first two Harry Potter books in Japanese (with my eldest) but the youngest -- less literate in Japanese and far more stubborn -- was much harder to motivate.

A few years ago, I got a big break. The author Alan Temperley came to our youngest's class to talk about his newest book, Harry and the Wrinklies. Holding up a Japanese translation of his most recent novel The Brave Whale, he laughingly asked if anyone in the class could read it -- almost a miracle, since even the youngest's teacher was unaware of her tenuous bilingual status at that point. My youngest raised her hand and read out the first three lines of the long Japanese title, thus earning the awe and respect of her entire class -- and a free book from Alan Temperley. A book that came in pretty handy for me, too: we had finished Shiro Yamada's Hare Tokidoki Buta -- (Fair, Then Partly Piggy in English) -- and I had been wracking my brains for something new. It took us a good three months to read the Japanese translation of The Brave Whale together. Three hard months that might as well have been years...

Three years on a rock, they say. Sometimes I feel like I've been sitting on my rock for a whole lot longer than three years.

Saturday, 5 January 2008


I never felt much like an American until I first visited Mexico and Guatemala in my early twenties. In the market in Oaxaca, I suddenly saw it. Everything about me and the friends I was travelling with said American. Our obvious health and height, our well-nourished bodies and superior dental hygiene: all of it screamed our nationality and privilege. Anyone who looked at us could not help but see the patently obvious: a group of people born with more than their fair share of advantages. Up until that moment, I had been happily haggling with the market vendors, trying to get the best possible deal for my purchases. Once the reality hit me -- that I could go back to the States, and, student that I was, still live better for less work than 99% of the people around me -- I stopped trying to get bargains. If a lady took one look at me and said she was selling something I wanted for sixty pesos, then sixty pesos it was.

Even when I generally paid the first price someone asked, I still got some very good deals. When I went back to San Francisco and saw the same shawl I had bought in Chichicastenango selling for over ten times the price I had paid, I tried to imagine how the woman who had woven it would feel seeing her work in a fancy boutique in North Beach, selling for more than she would spend on a couple months' worth of groceries.

But being an American is more than economics and better-than- average nutrition: it is attitude. And this attitude is manifest even in the most trivial details.

Once in Tokyo, I spotted a cluster of people standing together at the station. I was a hundred feet away from them, but I knew they were American even before I heard them speak. How? They were all Asians; physically they resembled all the Japanese around us. I watched them discretely, trying to figure out what had given them away. And then I saw it: the casual way they stood, the broadness of their gestures, the loudness of their voices. Nothing says "American" like the brash confidence that comes from living in a country where opportunity and the pursuit of happiness are taken as much for granted as the necessity of a car and the right to a daily hot shower.

I have been an expatriate American now for as many years as I have spent in my homeland. Frozen in a time warp, every time I go back, I feel a little more distant, a little more conscious of how long I have been gone. Where are you from? a cashier asked me some years back, when I went home for my father's funeral. America, I told her, and her response was, Yes, but where were you born? Somehow, among my fellow Americans, my natural brashness and sense of privilege has worn off: they take me for a foreigner, or at least foreign-born. After two months in America, I stopped counting how many times people asked me what country I was from.

That last trip back was an eye-opener for me. In many ways, I felt like a stranger, but I knew that I could fit right back into the world I had left and be perfectly happy. It was wonderful to be able to strike up conversations with perfect strangers; to be spoiled for choice in restaurants, served with friendliness and kindness, and surrounded by people of all different nationalities and backgrounds. "Americans are so nice!" my husband and children kept saying, and I could have burst with pride. I did not leave the States for ideological reasons; I left to see the world and have adventures, and my expatriate status has more to do with serendipity than it does with making a conscious decision not to live in my country of origin.

Over the years I have met other American expatriates who irritate me by railing against the shallowness and over-indulgence of Americans and who claim that they prefer to live in countries where there is a greater sense of history and 'more culture.' While I certainly agree that most of us could learn to get by on less energy, I think the rest of this is nonsense. As far as I can see, we're no more shallow than the rest of the world. We've got plenty of history and culture, too -- we just need to learn how to preserve it better. And we ought to appreciate and support it more, too -- especially those of us ignorant enough to deny its existence.

In Japan, and now in the U.K., I have gotten used to my status as spokesperson and (sometimes unwilling) interpreter of all things American. Here my accent -- which I have never made any attempt to hide or change -- gives me away every time. You're American! people say to me, as though they have discovered something I'm anxious to keep under wraps. Even when many fellow expatriate Americans muttered that they were going to buy shirts with Canadian flags on them after two embarrassing and disappointing national elections, I have never denied my nationality. Yes, I am an American. I don't plan on changing my passport, and although you'll never catch me waving a flag or beating up someone who disses my country, I'm every bit as fond of America as the next guy -- probably more so after all these weary sessions explaining and defending from abroad.

Being an American doesn't mean that I will defend everything Americans do or stand for. It certainly doesn't mean I'm behind our president or his war, and although I share the national passion for a decent hot shower, thank God being American doesn't mean that I have to be a super-sized gas-guzzling consumer who wolfs down her weight in hamburgers. No, I'm the worst sort of American: the kind who's convinced that she's as good as the next guy and has a right to fight for her ideals. Who firmly believes in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. My country was one of the first places where anybody in the world could find a home and prosper: I've done my family's genealogy, and I know for a fact that this really happened.

Now if you will excuse me, I need to do some research on how to fit solar panels onto a Victorian style roof. Our hot water supply needs a little help.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Outside The Comfort Zone

A good friend who is roughly my age came to visit this morning, fresh from a family ski trip she had been dreading for months. Her husband and teenage sons had booked the holiday for themselves, and at the last minute she surprised herself by insisting on going along with them.

"But you're not into sports!" her sons said. She smiled. "And you can't ski!" her husband reminded her, though he didn't really need to. They'd been skiing before, years earlier, and it had been a disaster.

"If I don't learn now, I never will," she countered.

To make a long story short, she had a blast -- and she can now ski. The best part of the trip was when her three men skied up alongside her and did a double take when they realized who she was. She had exceeded their wildest expectations, but better yet, she had exceeded her own.

"It was so beautiful," she said. "It would have been worth it for that alone. "

A few years back my cousin Bonnie turned fifty. Her son, a university student, told her he had gotten her a surprise birthday present -- something really special.

"Will I like it?" she asked anxiously. There was something about his manner that made her uneasy.

He smiled. "I'm not sure. But you know how you keep saying you're in a rut? That you don't try anything new?"


"Well, this will help you get out of that rut."

Quite understandably, she was filled with foreboding, especially when, on her birthday, she was driven fifty miles out into the desert.

"Mom, lighten up and you'll enjoy it," her son reassured her. "I've already done it, and it's fantastic."

Like most teenage boys, her son is a bungee-jumping daredevil, so this did not make Bonnie feel much better, especially five minutes later when she saw the large sky diving sign. My cousin has terrible acrophobia.

To make a long story short, she went through with it. Got into the airplane, allowed herself to be fitted with a parachute, listened attentively as the instructor ran through the drill. She had to be pushed to the door of the plane, then pushed off, but she let them do it, and no one got injured in the process.

"I was fine once I resigned myself to dying," she confessed. "I told my son that I loved him, and that I forgave him. Then, I really did forgive him when he just laughed at me. I knew that I was jumping to my death. Once I'd gotten past that, I was fine."

I've seen the film of her doing this, and it filled me with respect. You can see her digging her heels into the floor of the plane, almost prying off the hands of those 'helping' her exit the plane. And you can see her face during the jump -- her expression of awe as she hurdles through layers of blue, floating through depths of sky to the glittering desert sands beneath her.

"It was fantastic," she said. "I can't even begin to describe it."

Her son was phenomenally proud of her, of course, but that was as nothing compared to her own sense of pride and accomplishment.

I can't ski, and I've never gone ski-diving, but I too have operated outside my comfort zone: I was a squirrel, or more accurately, an ecureuil. We were visiting friends in France, and with five kids to entertain, chose an adventure playground that had sounded pretty tame: an outside play area with tarzan ropes and steel cables strung from tree to tree that people could swing on. We'd visited similar places in Japan when the kids were tiny, and pictured something even toddlers could handle. Maybe even something I could handle.

Now I'm fine with heights and I love flying, but I'm not fine with the idea of falling and the subsequent trauma involved. It might sound odd, but I don't mind walking across rope bridges and looking down into the gaping gorge below; I just hate the idea of hitting the rocks. I am also woefully uncoordinated, though reasonably fit and strong, and lack a sense of balance. So when I decided to try the squirrel experience, I amazed myself. I let the young French guide fasten me into my safety harness and felt an almost surreal sense of horror: it was bad enough that my kids and husband were going to be doing this, but was I really joining them?

Yes, I was, though as I stood in line, waiting to climb my first tree, I almost felt as though I was already out of my own body.

The trees were almost all three-storey numbers, and the heights were such that if you fell, you knew you wouldn't suffer much: the impact would ensure a swift, though messy, death. All that stood between oneself and The Great Mystery was a worryingly small steel clip, securely fastened to the harness by one end, and to the cable by the other. I know that it was securely fastened because I tested and retested my own -- and my kids' -- by tugging on them as hard as I could. Intellectually I knew that the steel clip was strong enough to hold my weight, but as I soared Tarzan-style from tree to tree, I just knew it was going to snap, causing me to plummet to my untimely and tragic death. But my sturdy little steel clip did not let me down. When we finally left the park, I felt like shaking its hand or embracing it, so deep was my respect and gratitude.

That steel clip supported me as I climbed steeple-high trees, as I teetered along rope ladders that soared over the treetops and merrily bubbling rivers below. It reassured me as I hurled myself at rope nets and struggled to negotiate them, enduring the running commentary of interested young Frenchmen (hope they couldn't understand my English!) and chewed my lip to a pulp as I watched my children soaring along their own cables, at impossible heights.

And when it was all over and my family all rushed to congratulate me, clearly amazed at my bravery, their praise was as nothing next to my own sense of accomplishment.

There is something about getting older that makes us all too prone to be sedentary, to stop trying new things and new sensations. Partly from a horror of becoming too tame and set in our ways, there is also something about the ageing process that makes us want to challenge this awful inertia. The trick is to push ourselves just enough -- to live outside our comfort zone, so to speak and not allow discretion to take over valor entirely. Once in a while, it is good to attempt something so completely out of our range that the thought of it almost takes our breath away.

Speaking of which, my friend who has learned to ski told me that one of her New Year's resolutions is to stop whining. Personally, I'm leaving that one for next year.

I too was up this high! Picture found at the following site: