Saturday, 29 March 2008

Hong Kong Elvis

A blast of exhaust-scented steam enveloped us as we stepped through the terminal’s sliding glass doors. It was almost midnight, but the heat was a living force with a throbbing pulse of its own. The air terminal had been air- conditioned, so the heat and humidity outside came as a shock. I shifted my heavy pack on my back; I had only just put it on and already I could feel the sweat beginning to collect around my waist and under the shoulder straps.

From the plane, Hong Kong at night looked like a string of brightly-colored jewels scattered on a background of rich black and blue velvet. Up close it was all blazing neon and sky-rises, and I was mightily impressed.

“My God, it is hot,” breathed my new friend Lorraine, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. “It’s got to be hotter here than it was in Minneapolis,” agreed her cousin Maureen.

I’d met Lorraine and Maureen on the plane. Fresh-faced Minnesota farm girls, they were on their way to India and Pakistan via Hong Kong, and I was on my way to Tokyo. Like me, Lorraine and Maureen had not made hotel reservations, but at least they had a guidebook.

A dozen taxis idled in a long, smoky line, the drivers scanning travellers’ faces for potential fares. "Whoa, look at that,” said Lorraine, pointing to the stream of traffic that rushed past, "they’re driving on the left side of the road!" We were young and not particularly well travelled, and we’d never been to any place like this before. We shook our heads in wonder.

"And they’re driving awfully fast too," murmured Maureen. This was also true. Taxis in particular seemed to go at an alarming speed, tearing into the terminal parking lot and only just managing to avoid collisions with other taxis.

We had looked through Lorraine and Maureen’s guidebook and after careful deliberation, decided that the Y.W.C.A. hotel would be our best bet. It was a bit more expensive than the youth hostel, but it was our first night in Hong Kong, after all, and we were willing to pay for a little extra security.

Maureen was the bravest one of us. Walking up to one of the taxis, she showed the driver her guidebook. "Y.W.C.A.?" she asked nervously. The driver studied the book for a few moments and nodded, and we all piled in.

Kowloon was a tangle of signs and billboards. Fascinated, I stared out of my window and breathed in the heady perfume of fried garlic and ginger. Cantonese and laughter vied with blaring pop music and traffic noises. I was thrilled to see that I could read the characters on a few of the signs already. I had spent the past two years studying Japanese, which uses Chinese characters, and I was delighted to find that my efforts had actually begun to pay off.

Twenty minutes later, our driver turned into in a dark, trash-filled alleyway in a worryingly seedy neighborhood. He stopped the car in front of a mess of garbage-filled crates and boxes stacked alongside a filthy, crumbling wall.

"Here lady," he said, pointing to the fare displayed on the meter. "You pay me now. Y –W- C- A."

"But this can’t be the Y.W.C.A.!" we all protested, looking around in dismay at the stained walls, the garbage piled high in overflowing cans and boxes.

He shook his head stubbornly. "Yes. Y-W-C-A. You pay now."

We protested, but our driver was insistent: "This Y.W.C.A.!"

Finally, we had no choice but to pay him. And maybe he was right – what did we know, after all? We were in a foreign country, and things were obviously different here. Perhaps the Y.W.C.A. really was just around the corner in a more salubrious looking neighborhood. Pocketing the fare and rolling his eyes at our cluelessness, our driver disappeared in a cloud of exhaust.

"Well, this is creepy," I ventured.

"Mmm, it sure is," agreed Maureen, looking in her guidebook and trying to find a street sign that gave us an indication of our whereabouts. There was a skittering noise: a large rat poked its whiskered face out from one of the boxes and we all jumped half a foot. All of us fought the urge to scream, but only Maureen won.

"What do you think we should do?" I asked, once we had all calmed down.

"Well, I’d say we ought to wait for another taxi, but we’re not going to find one in a place like this," said Lorraine, anxiously scanning the boxes. They were obviously riddled with rats: we could hear them squealing and scrabbling about.

The alley was just off a street that looked completely deserted. Washing lines stretched from one side of the alley to the other in a seemingly never-ending zig-zag: sheets, shirts, and babies’ clothes fluttered overhead in the fuggy summer breeze.

The second taxi appeared miraculously only a few minutes after we had come to the conclusion that we were nowhere near our destination. We were all profoundly relieved. How fortunate that another cab had come along when there were no other taxis in sight, especially at this hour and in such an awful neighbourhood! We all climbed in.

"Y.W.C.A.?" Lorraine said hopefully, proffering the guidebook. The driver, a gum-chomping Elvis look-alike, scowled at it briefly, then nodded. The taxi took off in a great burst of speed and we all clung to each other.

"Don’t you think it’s kind of a coincidence that he showed up so fast when there weren’t any other taxis in sight?" murmured Maureen after a few minutes. Actually, we’d all been thinking the same thing.

"It’s a coincidence all right," agreed Lorraine. "A little too much of one I’d say."

I was looking out of the window at the signs and buildings that seemed to rush past us in a multi-colored blur. I have practically no sense of direction, but it seemed to me that we were going in circles as we kept passing buildings that seemed to have exactly the same characters on the signs.

"Hey! We passed that building a few minutes ago," I said finally. I was positive that I was looking at the same sign we had passed three minutes earlier.

Lorraine and Maureen looked in the direction I was pointing, at a high-rise that looked like all the others in the middle of a concrete jungle of shining, neon-accented glass-and-steel.

"I thought we were going in circles!" cried Maureen. "But how can you tell?"

I pointed out the window. "You see that sign? The large one with the blue border and the big red bit on top? It says ‘yellow gold’ in Chinese characters, and underneath it are the characters for ‘world.’ And on that sign next to it, those big red characters mean ‘pearl.’ Anyway, we passed that building earlier. I remember both of those signs because of the characters."

"How can you read Chinese characters?’ asked Lorraine. ‘I thought you said you were studying Japanese."

"The Japanese got them from the Chinese," I explained. "Even in Japanese they call them Chinese characters."

We all stared at the back of our taxi driver’s neck.

"Excuse me!" said Lorraine, leaning forward.

He ignored her.

"Excuse me, sir!" she and Maureen chorused loudly.

He half turned around to look at us, causing us to shriek and clutch at each other, as he hadn’t modified his speed in the slightest. ‘No English,’ he said curtly, negotiating a sharp turn with a breath-taking nonchalance.

"Would you please stop going around in circles?" said Lorraine. "We don’t have all night, and it’s going to cost a fortune!"

The driver shrugged.

Lorraine sighed in exasperation and tried a different tack. "Take us directly to the Y.W.C.A.! We don’t have much money!"

"No English," the driver insisted stubbornly.

"This woman reads Chinese!" Lorraine persisted, pointing to me. "We know what you and your friend back there were up to! We’re not some dumb hicks, we’re from Minneapolis!"

No response.

Maureen began a fresh assault. "What’s your name?" She craned her neck and pretended to be reading the man’s license, then turned to me. "Mary, can you read his name?"

I cringed and tried to shrink down into my seat. I hate conflicts. Besides, I couldn’t have read the man’s name for love or money: understanding easy characters on signs is one thing, reading names is quite another.

"Elvis!" cried Maureen. "We’ll write down the characters for your name and tell them you look just like Elvis!"

The taxi driver shrugged and continued to ignore us, but the game was up: he’d definitely registered Elvis. He took us to the Y.W.C.A. without any further detours.

As it happened, we never did report Elvis or his probable accomplice. The people at the Y.W.C.A. were wonderful, and we happily toured, shopped, walked, and ate our way through Hong Kong. Nothing else remotely unpleasant happened to us, and who feels like writing a letter of complaint when they’re having that much fun?

We stuck to buses and trams for the rest of our visit, though.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Looking Forward

When I first visited Keiko, I didn't see her picture of the Pope. It was small; it hadn't been given pride of place. I only spotted it on my second visit to her house and even then I didn't recognize the great man. He was in the middle of a group of bashfully smiling Japanese housewives, including Keiko, and at first I thought it was a photograph from some sort of pantomime.

"This guy looks like the Pope!" I said, with typical gaucherie. I don't know what it is about famous people, but I never do recognize them in pictures, especially when they happen to be in the snapshots of friends.

Keiko ducked her head. "Well, that is the Pope. A few of us met him when he came to Nagasaki." She looked embarrassed. "I helped interpret."

I stared at her; we were speaking in Japanese, and I had no idea that Keiko could speak any other language. "Interpret? What language...?"

"English," she replied shyly, in beautifully enunciated English.

I was thunderstruck. Although the Japanese are famous for being modest and unforthcoming about personal accomplishments, when it comes to speaking English, this reticence goes right out the window. On an almost daily basis, I met countless people with very little English who were anxious to show off how much they could say.

"So, you speak English?" I said now, redundantly.

Keiko nodded. "To some degree." Her pronunciation and intonation were completely natural. I'd had any number of conversations with her in Japanese, but there was no doubt about it: her linguistic skill trumped mine.

"But -- you've only spoken Japanese to me!"

She looked embarrassed. "Shizue told me how much you hated it when people started speaking to you in English."

Now it was my turn to look embarrassed. I had bent the ear of Shizue, our mutual friend, on this subject. There were few non-Japanese in our area, and even fewer Caucasians. People saw me as someone who would be willing, even eager, to listen to their halting attempts at English -- or worse still, to their children's. At first this had been something of a novelty, but in very little time it wore thin. I'd been approached by strangers whose lack of ability in English never stopped them from trying to engage me in conversation -- in the supermarket, in restaurants, on my way to take out the trash, and once, memorably, when on my way to the doctor's, dizzy with a fever, I was commanded to listen to the virtually incomprehensible recited poem of a high school student. After a while, I developed zero tolerance and feigned incomprehension -- Excuse me, no English, I am Russian! -- or I simply told them in Japanese that I was in a hurry and could not chat.

But Keiko was obviously a different case. I found out that she had studied in Sweden for several years, living on her own away from other Japanese speakers. The more of her story I heard, the more impressed I was. Her stock rose even higher when a neighbor dropped by and she quickly flicked back into Japanese. Keiko didn't just have impeccable linguistic skills, she had impeccable manners and a real sense of humility despite her impressive accomplishments.

She was also patient. While I was visiting once, I met her only child, Hiroko, a girl in her teens. From what I'd heard about her, she was undoubtedly a handful, and I couldn't help but feel that Keiko and her husband must have spoiled her. A pretty girl, Hiroko had a typical adolescent girl temperament: she flounced, she pouted, she sighed, and she had a good line in eye-rolling. Even in those unenlightened pre-kid days, I recognized Keiko's gentle tolerance and wondered that she could keep her temper so well.

I moved away from Kyushu just before Hiroko went away to college. As it turned out, it also happened to be the year Keiko had her second baby.

"She's thrilled," Shizue told me. "After all those years, they'd given up, and now Hiroko is going to have a baby sister or brother!"

Shizue and I agreed that Keiko's situation was unusual, but also ideal: Hiroko was just the right age to help! In retrospect, my own ignorance, though nothing to be proud of, still wasn't as bad as Shizue's naivete. She was a mother, after all; I wasn't.

To make a long story short, Hiroko didn't help her mother at all. On her brief visits home, she declined to change diapers or do any other housework. She saw her baby sister as an interloper who had come along and spoiled her first visit home as a college student. And no wonder: Her mother, instead of listening breathlessly to her stories and cooking her favorite meals, was suddenly preoccupied with a baby.

Keiko took it with her typical patience. "Hiroko tells me that when she becomes a mother, she'll do it the right way," she sighed. "She says that she'll make sure to have her kids when she's still young."

"I hope you set her straight!" I said, thinking that if I had a daughter like that I'd show her who was boss.

Keiko sighed. "I just tell her I look forward to her becoming a mother. She paused as a slow smile transformed her tired face. "Which I do."

I thought about Keiko the other day when my eldest, so similar to her Hiroko, made an interesting statement.

"I hope I have twins someday," she claimed breezily. "It just seems so cool."

"I'll look forward to that," I said.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Goodbye, Old Pal

Yesterday, our car died. Spectacularly, and in the line of duty.

My husband and I were only a few miles from home, on our way to the big town for a clinic appointment and perhaps to do some shopping. An elderly Vauxhall we bought secondhand in 2001, our car has been showing signs of age and making a shrill, protesting whee whee whee sound in low gear that our kids can now imitate with eerie perfection. We were overjoyed and amazed when it passed its annual road test last year, but deep down inside we knew its demise was near; despite repeated trips to a mechanic, the engine light has flickered on and off for the past eight months.

Quite suddenly, the car began to make an entirely different sound: first a whap, whap, whap -- giving us hope that it might be something annoying but innocuous like a faulty fan belt -- then an ominous clunking junk-a-junk-a-junk as black smoke began to billow out of the tailpipe. Miraculously, we were within a few minutes of the car's doctor, a local mechanic. Heads turned as we limped along in second gear, our car's dying voice now an agitated thump-thumpa-thump. Everyone knew where we were headed.

We've been in denial over the possibility of our car giving out. Since New Years, we've been having rotten luck with machines: first, a computer exploded on us, then our audio system refused to produce the right sort of sound. Before Christmas, the seal broke on our washing machine, requiring the judicious placement of a dish towel to prevent leaks, and our oven, like the stove top, must now be lit manually, the person lighting it on all fours, one hand thrust into the bowels of the beast, the other stretched in the opposite direction, to simultaneously press and turn the gas knob. Our vacuum cleaner bit the dust ages back and only does its job with grudging inefficiency, and don't get me started on the blender.

I am a Luddite. I hate machines. I don't even want a computer, and I resent feeling as though I have to have things because everyone else does. The more energy things use or the trendier they are, the more I loathe them: I have never owned a tumble drier; I towel my hair dry, generally ignore my iron, and up to this point, have managed to resist buying a cell phone. But although I walk, cycle, and take the bus whenever possible, I have given in on the car. We have to have one. We don't have to use it for little trips all the time, but we do really need one just the same. And I'm not ashamed to say it: over the years, I fell in love with ours.

I'm not a car conscious person. I once had a boyfriend who drove a fancy sports car (if I could remember the name, I'm sure you'd be impressed), and I didn't even realize what a big deal it was until after we broke up. I've never cared one way or the other what sort of car others have; never even cared whether they had one. But this car, with its rattling doors, ugly grey upholstery, and dull-as-dust blue paint, this car has won my heart. Sure, the gears have always stuck a little, the acceleration is crap, and it has to be locked manually -- a real pain for arthritic old fingertips. It's the sort of car you see everywhere, so it's not even special. Notice how I'm using the present tense? Because I can't bear to think it's really gone.

That car has driven us all over the U.K., from Somerset straight up to the Highlands. It's taken us to France and back twice now, proudly sporting a UK sticker on its tail, waited patiently by the side of country lanes while we scrambled about looking for blackberries and collecting grasshoppers with the kids, had its wing mirrors and antennae savaged by the local youths, and been our little refuge from the elements on countless occasions.

"Dad, can we go back the pretty way?" a kid would murmur wistfully, and my husband would turn onto a side road and drive us carefully, respectfully through a forest of aging oaks. We would gasp as an owl suddenly fluttered overhead or a deer stepped quietly out of the mist. Our car was a warm, snug little coccoon. "I feel so happy and safe in this car," our youngest once said.

And now, here we were, listening to the mechanic tell us our car was nothing but a piece of junk. I stood there with my hand resting on its side, willing myself not to cry. I remembered stepping out of the car after passing my road test. How my husband, seeing my astonished, over-wrought expression, had given me a sympathetic smile, which quickly changed to an expression of astonishment as I gave him a triumphant thumbs-up. I remembered my first successful hill start; the first time I backed the car out of a muddy ditch; my recent trip with our eldest to Stirling and back.

That car was my very first car, and now it's gone. And I am convinced that it had, if not a soul, something like one.

Because it could have been so much worse. The car could have died the night I drove my daughter back from Edinburgh, in the midst of a sleet storm. We could have stood there freezing, shuddering as the road gritters sprayed gravel over the soon-to- freeze highway, waiting for help. It could have played out when we were on the motorway, passing one of those huge articulated lorries, or the day we rushed my youngest to the hospital for a broken arm. Instead, it picked a tame road on a sunny day, a convenient distance from its mechanic, when we were using it for no pressing errand.

I can't believe I'm mourning a car, but I am, so there it is. Our Vauxhall did us proud, folks. May it drink deeply from the great petrol bowl in the sky.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Glad To Have You Here

On Friday, I did it: I took our eldest up north, to see another university.

We set out later than I'd hoped. This is because eldest daughter has a problem with time management. I have a very slight problem with this as well, but next to hers it is as nothing. I am thus infuriated when she gets me up early, then goes back to bed herself, after having warned me to wake her up if she oversleeps. This way she can be sure of a warm house, hot cup of cafe au lait, and a mother who is fully compos mentis.

There is also the issue of grooming. Up until recently, our eldest has spent virtual ages on her hair, her make-up, her selection of clothing and accessories. Whenever we've gone up to Edinburgh together to attend our Japanese chat session, she and I have been the most mis-matched mother-daughter pair imaginable. In my servicable but beat-up shoes, decent but obviously past-it clothes and slapped-on-at-the-last-minute make-up, I make a very poor show next to my gilded lily of a daughter. Not only does she possess the beauty of youth, but her hair is a slick, shining helmet; her nails are meticulously polished and filed; her clothing is all state-of-the-art stylish, and her make-up is the stuff of glossy women's magazines. Never -- not even in my own youth when I was supple and svelte -- did I look remotely as good as my kid.

Amazingly enough, this whole dressing/grooming thing changed a couple of months ago after she attended her first applicants' day. She had gone to it in full regalia, but when she came back, she allowed that she had been overdressed. When I took her to the last applicants' day a few weeks back, she was horrified to find that she had under compensated. So on Friday, she was determined to get it just right: the perfect sweatshirt (brand new and trendy, of course), the perfect pair of trousers. The right kind of shoes and socks, too, and unobtrusive make-up.

"What about your jacket?" I asked, putting mine on. "Which one are you going to wear?" She has six.

"It's not cold," she sniffed. I stared at her: Oh yes, it was!

For the next five minutes we bickered back and forth about the jacket -- You'll freeze! -- Not I won't! -- then we finally reached a compromise: a windbreaker that could be bunched up and put in a bag should the need arise. (It didn't: her pride would not let her admit to being cold.)

This time we were armed with several maps, and my husband and I had been over the route several times until I practically knew it in my sleep. We did get off at one wrong exit 35 minutes early courtesy of my eldest screaming "Mom, it's this one! Turn now!" but we still managed to make it to the university in one piece, on time, not too badly shaken, and still on speaking terms.

My daughter loved the campus. All the professors were nice or quirky; the other students looked like people she might enjoy knowing; even the dorms, which struck me as claustrophibic, struck her as potentially cozy and welcoming. I loved the surroundings: green, tree-studded hills, verdant forests, and a loch on which people were already out, before ten in the morning, in kayaks. I don't aspire to much in life, but I love kayaking and would give anything to be able to do it even once or twice a year.

"Just think," I said longingly, "if you went here, I could come up to visit and we could go kayaking."

The eldest gave me a funny look. "Mom, if I come up here, I'm not going to want you to, like, come up and visit me all the time."

"I'm not talking about all the time; I'm talking about maybe once every couple of months or so."

Strained silence.

"Mom, people go to college to get away from their parents."

I had a sudden flashback of a night spent holding this stroppy young person as an infant with a high temperature. Of the eleven times she vomited in the span of that long, horrible night, and how the washing machine ran eight hours straight the next day as I stumbled about pegging out laundry and making chicken broth.

I could tell her all about that, I reflected as we drove home, but it would not make a blind bit of difference.

"Mom?" she said finally.


"When you visit do you think you could maybe bring some of your mabo dofu?"

Mabo dofu is a Chinese dish that my daughter would just about sell her soul for. "Sure," I said, trying to block the image that suddenly sprang to mind: my eldest, greedily accepting my garlicy, gingery offering and forgetting all about me and my aching desire to kayak. And then a road sign loomed ahead of us and I glanced up at it and forgot all about kayaking, mabo dofu, and my all-too-often ungrateful child. Dunblane.

It breaks my heart that the name of this pretty little town should conjure up such a sad and horrific image, but there it is. My daughter is sixteen years old, and here we were, out looking at universities. I know that there are mothers and fathers in Dunblane who should be doing the same thing with their sixteen- and seventeen-year- olds; who would be happy to have my gripes.

"You find out how to rent me a kayak and I'll make sushi and chocolate chip cookies too," I said.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Braving The Bathhouse

My new apartment in Hakuraku did not have a bath.

"Just use the public bath!" everyone advised me, and they made it sound so simple. For many reasons, though, I dreaded this. I'd heard that the bandai, the person who collected your bath fee and sat perched on a little stool from where he could see out over both the women's and men's sides, was just as likely to be a man as a woman. I didn't relish the idea of some fellow being able to monitor my bathing. Come to that, I wasn't crazy about the idea of bathing with a few dozen strangers, either.

It took me quite some time to work up the courage to go to my local bath. It took me even longer to force myself to patronize the place when I discovered that our bandai was in fact a man. Once I'd gotten over these hurdles, though, the whole bathing ritual became something I very much looked forward to. In a few weeks, nothing about it seemed strange at all. Sitting in front of a spigot to shower with dozens of others not only seemed perfectly normal, it struck me as far easier and more natural than showering in a narrow cubicle, with no company at all. Getting into a piping hot bath afterwards with half a dozen strangers no longer seemed unusual either. The western concept of solitary bathing could hardly be more different than the traditional Japanese method of squatting or sitting on a small stool and showering among dozens of others in a wide open space.

Although I hated locker room showers as a teenager, communal bathing in Japan was nothing like it. Nobody made fun of me or rushed me, only a few people stared, and no catty comments were whispered about my bra size. There was something cozy and comforting about bathing with other people, watching their own cleaning rituals out of the corner of your eye. I always felt cleaner and more relaxed when I was finished, and even if I didn’t exchange more than cursory greetings with a few others, I always felt a pleasant sense of camaraderie.

“How do you put your hair up like that?” I heard an elderly woman ask another one evening, as I was getting dressed. She had long salt-and-pepper hair pinned up in a neat little bun. Only when the other woman didn’t answer did I realize that she was actually talking to me.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?” I asked, certain I’d misunderstood her. My listening comprehension still had a long way to go. I was constantly talking at cross purposes with people, getting what they said wrong and spending an embarrassing amount of time trying to sort out the confusion afterwards.

“Your hair,” she said, indicating my pinned up, inverted bun. “How do you do that? It must take you forever.”

“It doesn’t take me thirty seconds. Here – I’ll show you.” And I undid my hair and pinned it back up so that she could see.

“Well, I’ll be! You’re right – that didn’t take you any time at all! And your hair is so long! How long have you been growing it?”

“Four years now,” I said proudly.

“My! It must be a lot of trouble to wash, though – I’ll bet that takes a lot longer!”

I nodded. It did.

“And how long have you been in Japan?”

“Over ten months.”

“Maa! Only ten months, and yet you speak Japanese so well!”

I blushed and sighed inwardly. A very fluent acquaintance had pointed out that it was generally the beginning students of Japanese that got praised for their excellent speaking ability; that only when a person became truly fluent did the praise dry up. She should have known: she was working on a degree in economics in a Japanese university and I’d seen the books she was reading – in Japanese. Nobody praised her Japanese any more, but people still praised mine all the time – so much so that I was beginning to get depressed over it.

Later, when I was leaving, the same woman touched my arm. “I enjoyed having that chat with you,” she said. I smiled at her.

“You know,” she continued, “you’re the first foreigner I’ve ever talked to.”

I laughed, not knowing whether I should take her seriously.

“Really,” she said earnestly. “I’ve never had the courage to talk to a foreigner. I don’t speak English, you see, but the other evening, I heard you talking to someone in Japanese so I decided I’d ask you how you did your hair. I’m glad I did, too, or I might never have had the chance.”

I laughed again, but this time out of embarrassment. I was incredibly touched to be the first foreigner this woman had ever talked to. She was old enough not only to remember the war, but to have lived through it as a mature person, and I was seized by the desire to be able to talk to people like her about more interesting subjects than how I did my hair.

The subject of the war came up in my Japanese class when I mentioned my experiences at the local baths.

“There used to be a bathhouse just next-door to us,” the teacher said. “It was very convenient, too, having it so close. Before the war, almost no one had their own baths and we all went together to the public ones. Nowadays everyone in Japan wants their own bathroom, and it seems a little lonely.”

“Is it true they were all destroyed during the war?” a fellow student asked curiously.

“Yes, they were almost all firebombed. We figured the pilots thought they were weapons factories, what with those big chimneys. Losing our bathhouses was demoralizing, I can tell you that!”

Our teacher was one of the few older Japanese people I knew who could talk about the events of the war in a perfectly unemotional, matter-of-fact way, and she wasn’t shy about criticizing Japan’s role. At the time, I wasn’t particularly interested in the war, so I didn’t realize how unusual her attitude was.

By and large, the Japanese attitude about the war was that it oughtn’t be discussed. Whenever anyone had the bad manners to mention the air raids, Hiroshima, or Pearl Harbor, someone else usually leapt to change the subject as quickly as possible. The war had happened, it was horrible, but it was over, case closed, they seemed to feel, and this suited me fine. When I was a child, I had an uncle who had been dispatched as a soldier to post-war Japan. He had never been involved in combat himself, but was something of a World War II buff and I had consequently spent countless Christmases listening to him wax lyrical on Zeroes and kamikazes. I was bored silly by talk of the war myself and found the pictures of post-blast Hiroshima and Nagasaki so disturbing that I was only too happy not to dwell on it. Over the years that I lived in Japan, however, I learned that the war was very much part of the collective memory and the case was not closed – nowhere near.

That first year I spent in Japan, signs of the war were still around me even 34 years after the fact. There was the crazy woman who reputedly had lost her entire family in the great Kanto firebombing of March 23 and could often be found at Kamakura Station raging and throwing stones at every foreigner who was unlucky enough to get within her range (interestingly enough, I knew of two Germans who were her victims). There was the little old man who stopped me in a book store one day and tried to talk to me in English. “Japanese soldier do too much bad thing China, wartime,” he said to me earnestly. “Hiroshima very bad, but Japanese wartime soldier in China do very cruel thing, too much cruel.” I gave him short shrift; now I recognize his courage in approaching me and I kick myself for the missed opportunity. There was also the group of elderly American men I met one day outside an Indian restaurant near Akasaka. They asked if I were American and I told them I was. “You living here?” one of them asked me.

“Yes, I’m teaching English.”

“Good for you. We used to live here too, a long time ago. Boy, have things changed since then.” He shook his head and stretched out an arm, indicating the soaring high rises, the glitzy corporate headquarters, shining neon signs, and crowded streets of Akasaka.

“I’ll bet they have,” I said. “I had an uncle who was stationed here just after the war and he used to talk about it all the time.”

One of the men laughed and I saw him exchange a glance with one of his pals. “Oh, we went home after the war. We were here during the war, see. So – how do you like it here, then?”

“I like it a lot,” I burbled. “I’ve been learning Japanese and I find that makes it a lot easier to help me get to know the people.”

“Does it now?” laughed one of the men. A few of the others, I noticed, seemed edgy. In fact, all the men had a strange air about them, as though they had some hidden agenda they weren’t anxious to discuss, but were bursting with all the same. Then a middle-aged woman joined them. “I am sorry,” she said in slow, carefully modulated English, “I have found that the buildings were torn down two years ago. So now we will try one more of the locations – if you will come with me?”

I watched as the men followed her through the crowded streets of Akasaka, obviously fascinated and intrigued by what they saw around them – much more so than the average tourists, in fact. At the time, I was only vaguely aware of the fact that Japan was host to thousands of allied prisoners of war – including 36,260 American servicemen. These men were treated abominally during their time in Japan, forced to work in appalling conditions with little food and virtually no medical care. And I had just met half a dozen of them.

When I look back on that first year and my shocking ignorance of the events of the war I am appalled at myself and how little I knew at the time. I lost so many opportunities to hear the stories of people who had lived through events I could barely begin to imagine. So I have to be all the more grateful that somewhere in Yokohama a woman may still remember me as the first foreigner she ever talked to.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Losing It

Somewhere I have a photograph of my father's mother. She was a redhead, an imposing woman almost six feet tall, with hair that went down past her knees. In the picture I have, she is standing in front of a mirror, brushing it. I don't envy her the task: when I first saw the photograph, I thought she had on a veil that rippled and flowed over both sides of her body. Brushing that lot must have taken her ages every day.

The story is that my grandmother's parents met over hair. Her father was a Civil War veteran and short on cash. Possessing a good, thick head of red hair, he decided to sell it and make some money, so he went into a pharmacy and approached the young woman at the counter -- my great grandmother. I don't know if he ended up getting shorn on that occasion, but by all accounts, the meeting must have gone pretty well.

Everyone in my family has thick hair. If you've seen Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies, then you have a pretty good idea what I'm talking about. Both of my parents had great, thick manes, and my sisters and I were cursed with bushy, unruly hair in an age when straight, thin hair was in fashion. It was also an age before hair straighteners could be purchased by regular people, and we sometimes took turns ironing each other's hair -- and ruining it, too -- on the ironing board. It looked awful. It never stayed straight, either.

At some point, I made peace with my hair and stopped getting it cut short and periodically thinned. I let it grow.

And boy, does it grow.

Ten years ago, a friend told me about the charity Locks of Love. The good people at Locks of Love supply needy children who suffer from hair loss with wigs, either free, or at very low cost. She commented that with my thick, fast-growing hair, I could supply a good quantity of hair. I remembered my great grandparents and their felicitous hair meeting, and decided to give it a go.

For the past ten years, I have grown out my hair and periodically harvested it. I've sent quite a few ponytails and braids to Locks of Love in that time, but this Saturday, I really sent them a whopper. I did it in style, too: I invited the town to come and watch me get a haircut -- for a price. And I donated the money to another worthy charity, Action Aid. The hair went to Locks of Love, and I honestly don't know when I've been happier to get rid of anything in all my life. I have no idea how my grandmother could stand having hair down to her knees; I only know that since Saturday I've been shaking my head about and crying "Free at last! Free at last!"

Here are the photographs. I live in a small town, and believe it or not, this made front page of the local newspaper:

I don't know whether you can see it or not, but I am clapping.

"I bet this is a sad day for you!" the photographer said. (Au contraire!) Some people seemed to believe that I wanted hair that length; that I was growing my hair because I liked the look of it. You'd think all the whining I've been doing might have convinced them otherwise, but no.

Once the hair was off my head, I was struck by what a creepy thing it was -- like a living entity. For the past couple of years, I've been dragging this thing around with me, gardening, hiking, sleeping, swimming. Swimming! I cannot wait to go swimming!

"You're doing a very brave thing, my dear," several people commented, and I was touched by this, but also mystified. Offering to have my head cut off in public -- now that would have been brave. Getting my hair cut off in public was merely a little weird, and it was also very much a win/win deal: I got to be the center of attention for a couple of hours, I sent £305 to a good cause, and my hair gets a permanent holiday in Florida, home of Locks of Love. And now I get to blog about it.

I'm working on my next ponytail even as I write this.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Drinking With Miyuki

Miyuki’s name meant ‘beautiful snow,’ but her complexion was sallow and pock-marked and she had a scrunched-up face like a Pekingese dog’s.

She had the body of a ten-year-old boy, but the voice of a truck driver. "Do you like to drink?" she asked me the first time we met. I told her that I didn’t much like alcohol, but I liked getting drunk. She studied me for a moment then nodded. "You and me’ll get on fine, then."

She loved drinking, and whisky was her favorite. Drinking with her could be scary: she didn't seem to know when to quit. She was also one of the funniest drunks I've ever met: she’d get wasted in some hole-in-the-wall bar, then want to fight any men who came on to us. It was hilarious to see a woman barely 4' 11" leap off her barstool, fists up, and tackle some drunk who'd made a pass. Nobody ever made a pass at Miyuki: no matter how drunk a man was, he wouldn't have dared. I'd have two drinks and be plastered; our other friends might have a few beers and be tipsy; Miyuki would soak up the bar and still be on her feet. After a night out drinking, we'd serenade our taxi driver all the way home with a multilingual version of ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railway.’

Miyuki told me once that she had grown up in a very strict, traditional, unloving home, the only girl out of five children. At the age of sixteen she’d done something unthinkable for a modern Japanese girl: she’d left home for good. For a year, she slept rough in parks and temple grounds, surviving by doing odd jobs like weeding, window-cleaning, and car-washing. Looking for a place to bed down one night, she met the local Catholic priest, who happened to be a wonderful man. The Church had taken her in and Miyuki had never forgotten their kindness. She converted to Catholicism and was the most devout, hard-working Catholic I have ever known.

Amazingly enough, Miyuki was married to a pleasant, conventional-looking man and they had a ten-year-old son, Kohei. Miyuki, her husband and Kohei were baseball fanatics. They would play softball together in the park, taking their respective turns at batting, pitching, and catching. If you saw them from even a short distance, it was hard to tell who was who. They were all roughly the same size, and they all dressed identically in jeans, tee shirts and baseball caps. Miyuki once bragged that she did her clothes shopping in the boys’ section -- that she was able to buy all their clothes in the same place.

Then she got ill. At first, no one would admit that it was anything serious. Some sort of virus, they maintained; she’d soon be fine. But months later Miyuki was still in the hospital. I finally got up the courage to ask our mutual friends, Shizue and Keiko, what was wrong with her. They didn't really want to talk about it. It was some form of hepatitis, non-communicable, they said. Miyuki’s fondness for whisky, beer and sake had done her liver no favors, and the prognosis wasn’t good.

We all went to see Miyuki in the hospital. She looked awful: scrawnier and sallower than usual. She was worried about Kohei and her husband, but Shizue and Keiko assured her they would look out for them.

"When I beat this thing," Miyuki boasted, "we’ll all go to Kyoto and do a round of the temples and shrines."

"What will you do if you’re still on the drip?" Keiko asked, raising one eyebrow.

Miyuki grabbed the pole her drip was hanging from and gave it a good shake. "I’ll take it with me!" she cried. "Won’t I be a sight, dragging this sucker up and down the stairs at the station!?"

Miyuki died eight months after entering the hospital. Miyuki’s friends rallied round her husband and son and took their turns looking after Kohei with the other Church ladies. On the rare occasions I spoke with Shizue, Kohei seemed to be doing well. I inherited a box of his outgrown baby clothes shortly after my youngest daughter was born and, when I thought of him at all, assumed that he was growing up happy and well cared for.

Six years after Miyuki had died, I met Shizue and asked after Kohei and Miyuki’s husband. My friend’s face fell.

Two years earlier, Kohei’s father had dropped dead of a heart attack. He was barely 40 years old at the time. After his father’s death, Kohei had suffered from severe depression. Nothing anyone said or did seemed to make it any better. All of his mother’s friends rallied around, once again. Counselling sessions were scheduled, visits were carefully arranged, but Kohei seemed to sink even further into depression.

One day when he was particularly depressed, he disappeared. This had happened often before, so no one was terribly worried at first. And he was almost a man: eighteen years old. After days had passed, however, his mothers’ friends began to worry and the police were called. A search was conducted and his photograph was distributed to police departments all over Japan, but the days turned into weeks, then months, then years.

No trace of Kohei was ever found, and to this day he is still missing. The money in his bank account was never touched. There was a point when his mothers’ friends began to pray that he had been kidnapped and that someone would call asking for ransom. Or that he’d made friends with the wrong kind of people and they were trying to dupe him out of his money -- even that would have been a relief. But no calls ever came.

When I remember Miyuki, I don’t see her as the sallow woman in a hospital bed tethered to a drip. I see her dressed in her jeans, tee-shirt and baseball cap, one point of a triangle, facing her boy and her man. She is swinging her bat, roaring at her husband to just pitch that damn ball again – with or without a spin – to pitch it just one more time – and by God, she’ll hit it, she’ll send it sailing over his head and wipe that smile off his foolish face. Perhaps, in the pocket of her jeans, she has a small flask of her favorite whiskey.

I hope she does.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Driving Each Other Crazy

Recently, I did something that was reckless, selfless and brave: I drove my eldest to Edinburgh and back so that she could attend applicants' day at a university there.

I am not an experienced driver and part of me wants to keep it that way. I believe in taking public transport and keeping my carbon footprints as shallow as possible. I'm not someone who needs to be behind the wheel; I vastly prefer being a passenger and enjoying the scenery. But the university in question, located on the outskirts of Edinburgh, was not easy to reach by train or bus and in either case involved many inconvenient changes. My daughter has gone to other applicants' days by bus, but in this instance unless someone took her by car, she would obviously not make it in time. When she pleaded with me to drive her there, I gave in and said yes.

As it turned out, the weather was awful. It was rainy and windy to begin with, but on the way back, it got much worse, with gale-force winds and driving sleet. But the weather inside the car was truly horrendous.

My eldest daughter is sixteen, and bless her, she was born knowing more than I. It is possible that there are sixteen-year-olds out there who aren't bossy, willful know-it-alls who diss their mothers and treat them like imbecile handmaidens, but I wouldn't know about it. I love my girl and she loves me, but sharing the same car space for hours each way was a sore trial for both of us.

Whether she will admit it or not, my eldest has inherited my poor navigational ability. Neither of us could find our way out of a paper bag. Our relationship has always been a stormy one, so please imagine the two of us on the Edinburgh ring road in the pouring rain, not knowing where the hell we were, unable to comprehend the maps that my husband had thoughtfully provided. Just to give you an idea, here is an example of our conversation as we tried to find the road to Musselburgh.

Daughter: (Gesturing vaguely) Umm...turn here.

Me: (Shouting) Left or right?

Daughter: Don't shout at me!

Me: (Raising voice) LEFT OR RIGHT?

Daughter: (Hesitating) Left!

Me: (Not turning, as massive articulated lorry veers into our lane and sprays us with muddy run-off) £%+&$-ing truck!

Daughter: I said turn LEFT!

Me: (Maneuvering car around roundabout again; waving desperately to apologize to driver behind me; speaking with clenched jaw) If I'd turned left there, we'd be toast. In order to turn left, I have to be in the left lane, and that truck made it impossible.

Daughter: (Huffily) Well, I didn't know that!

Me: You have to tell me well before the turn or I cannot turn safely. Got that?

Daughter: All you had to do was tell me!

Me: Actually, I was counting on you to be able to figure that out.

Daughter: Don't talk down to me!

Me: (Turning left) Okay, what now?

Daughter: (Stricken silence as she studies map) Umm...actually I think you were supposed to turn right back there.

It could have been worse: I could have made a stupidly quick lane change into that lorry's path and you would not be reading this blog posting. And in my own defense, I didn't curse or yell (or at least not on that particular occasion). In my daughter's defense, she's only sixteen, and she doesn't have a driver's license. But it wasn't a fun moment, and there were many more like it. Dozens, in fact.

The fact that we got to the university safely and almost on time still amazes me. We got through applicants' day successfully, and finally it was time to go home.

We started quarreling. I won't bore you with the quarrel itself; suffice it to say that she, being herself, started it and refused to accept culpability, and I, being myself, wouldn't let it go. An hour later, we were still sitting in the parked car, thrashing it out. In the middle of our angry dispute, a woman with a toddler got into the car in front of us, strapped her little girl into her childseat, then drove off -- but not before I heard a snatch of the child's sweet, innocent prattle and saw the happy smile on the young mother's face. This brought tears to my eyes. For one awful, fleeting moment, I felt like gesturing to the young mother; pointing out my obnoxious, sulking adolescent and yelling out the window "Mine used to be just like yours!"

But just as the weather can go from stormy to sunny, our quarrel finally ran its course and we reached a shaky, exhausted, temporary detente. We took the long way home, driving over rushing rivers, along winding country roads that cut through forests and fields. We oohed and ahed when we saw birds of prey, were delighted to find an abandoned lime kiln, and my girl clapped and cheered when I managed to reverse the car out of a muddy ditch I'd gotten stuck in. We stopped for a meal at a restaurant and enjoyed baffling our handsome waiter by speaking entirely in Japanese (we don't normally do this, but we felt it was important in this case: if he'd understood us, he might have blushed or gotten stuck up to hear all our compliments). And best of all, we enjoyed each other's company and made it home safely.

Next week I'm driving her up north for another applicants' day. Wish us luck.