Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Reading Into It

When our eldest was four years old, we ran into the parents of another foreign child who attended nursery school in a neighboring town. This little girl, also four, was the apple of her parents' eye and, while not necessarily smarter or more accomplished than other children of her age, was widely touted by her proud parents as the brightest infant in Japan. As you can imagine, we got a little tired of hearing about it. Marie could tie her shoes weeks before anyone in her class could. Her hand-eye coordination was a marvel. She could pick out Twinkle, twinkle, little star on the piano like a regular little Rachmaninoff. Whenever we met Marie and her parents, we were invariably treated to a long recital of her various talents and accomplishments.

So we braced ourselves now -- waiting for it. And sure enough, it didn't take them long.

"Marie can already read hiragana!" her father enthused.

"And kanji too," her mother quickly put in.

My husband and I stared at each other in amazement. Hiragana and kanji? Wow.

Written Japanese is different from English in that it that starts off easy and gets progressively harder the longer you study it. Hiragana is a syllabary: one symbol represents one sound, either a pure vowel or a vowel plus a consonant. There are fewer than a hundred hiragana symbols and it doesn't take long to learn them. Kanji, or Chinese characters, are far more complex: each symbol is a pictogram, and there are tens of thousands. It can take you a lifetime to learn them all, and you will probably still find plenty that you don't know.

"Is your daughter reading Japanese yet?" Marie's father now asked.

"No," my husband and I said simultaneously. My husband looked a little peeved; he finds braggarts a sore trial and Marie's parents taxed him beyond reason. "But we're starting to teach her how to read English," he added lamely.

Unfortunately, Marie's parents didn't want to hear about our daughter's progress with English. The mother nodded smugly and smiled. "Our Marie is very advanced, after all."

In all fairness to them, I should point out that Marie's parents were good, kind people. Other than this awful tendency to push their daughter and brag about her achievements, no matter how petty, they were not at all offensive. But every meeting was a challenge for us and to this day my husband and I marvel at our fortitude.

Only an hour or two after this, we were sitting in a restaurant when our daughter picked up the menu and started reading parts of it out to us -- in Japanese. She only knew bits here and there, but it was clear that she knew at least 50 percent of the hiragana and even the odd kanji. We could have gnashed our teeth in frustration. Why hadn't she said anything earlier when Marie's parents were bragging about her so insufferably?

"How did you learn them? we asked. We hadn't taught her.

Our eldest preened and pointed to the hiragana symbol み, reading it out in a clear voice: "'Mi' is from 'Minami,'" she piped -- Minami being her best friend. She went through all the other hiragana she knew and in all cases, they were from the names of friends. The only ones she didn't know were ones which did not appear in her classmates' names. She had learned hiragana from reading her classmates' names printed on labels over their coat hooks and shoe cubbyholes.

We were astounded, but we needn't have been. A lot of Japanese kids pick up hiragana this way -- and the odd kanji too. By the time the going gets tough, the kids are in elementary school and there are teachers to help them learn the really difficult things. Little Marie wasn't necessarily a genius; we just hadn't realized that our kid -- like all kids -- could do this too. Neither had Marie's parents.

A few months later, my husband was sitting in the pediatrician's office with our daughter. He pulled one of the Madeline books our daughter loved out of a bag and started reading it to her. Our eldest has always had a photographic memory and she snuggled up to him happily and began reading out loud with him. She could not follow much of the text, but she knew all the words by heart.

A Japanese mother sitting nearby leaned forward, watching her. "Can your child actually read that?" she asked, her eyes wide.

My husband shook his head. "No way. She's just memorized it," he assured her, but the woman continued to watch, spellbound.

"Your little girl must be awfully smart," she breathed respectfully.

"No, really, she's memorized it. She couldn't read it herself."

When they were called in to the doctor, my husband heard the woman talking to her friend. "That little foreign girl can read English already. You ought to have heard her."

"That's incredible," her friend whispered in awed tones. "English is supposed to be really hard to read at first."

What he would have given to have Marie's parents there.

Friday, 25 July 2008

But Do You Get Paid?

I know this one has been done to death, but I still can't resist it.

This afternoon, our eldest came home from her part-time job as a chambermaid and flopped into a chair. "I'm beat!" she moaned, recounting all her morning's labors. Poor kid: I know she works hard for her money. She has worked part-time for ages now because we don't have the wherewithal to give her a generous allowance, but speaking as an unpaid full-time slavey, it is sometimes hard to be sympathetic.

My husband struggles to find compassion too when he hears her talk about her work-related woes. He comes home from a long hard day at work and has to cook dinner occasionally. When he gets stuck with the dishes as well, how is he supposed to commiserate with a kid who has just made a small killing changing sheets and cleaning toilets, but argues she is too exhausted to do her chores?

Today she passed a weary hand over her forehead and began to sigh about how hard her morning of (paid) employment had been. I had just hung out two loads of laundry and a washed a sinkful of dishes. I'd swept out the patio, watered the plants, fed the cat, made my bed, put away someone else's clothes, taken in the trash, and rewritten a chapter -- all for free, of course! -- and that was just for starters. My kid had cleaned five rooms. I don't deny that this is tough work. I know it is, because I used to do it myself. For a mercifully brief time, I was once responsible for cleaning up to eight rooms and a guest cottage on a daily basis -- in addition to cooking for up to 18, both breakfast and dinner, and doing enough laundry to outfit a small army. I cleaned out so many toilets every day that I used to get dizzy; I'm no stranger to hard work.

"My back's killing me!" whined my girl. "I had to clean out the bathroom of a 95-year-old." She pouted. "Who had a bad aim, if you know what I mean."

"I do," I said. "And so does Dina."

Our friend Dina is a carer. She has cleaned up messes that would make your head swim. Do you ever wonder who cleans up after terrible accidents? Who gets to wipe up after someone's jumped off a building and hit cement? Well, Dina knows people who do this for a living. And she's done it herself.

My daughter pouted. "It's different if you know the people, though!"

I gave her a look. "Dina does it for total strangers. And I've done it for people I didn't know. Remember how I used to work in the hospital? All those bedpans and filthy sheets!"

She frowned. "Did you work there? I didn't realize."

This irked me. I've bent her ear half a dozen times with tales of my fascinating stint as a teenage hospital volunteer. I've been keen to promote volunteer work to the kids. My feeling is that this will earn them valuable life skills and make them look good too. "Of course I did!" I snorted. "I emptied bedpans and cleaned them out afterwards. I changed diapers and braided hair and fed people and wiped their faces and stripped sheets with all sorts of junk on them and--"

She gave me a long-suffering look. "But you didn't work there."

My mouth dropped open. You can probably see where this is going, but I swear I could not.

"Oh yes, I damn well did!"

She furrowed her brow and waved one hand. "But you didn't you paid for it, did you?"

Yes folks, that is what she said: You didn't get paid for it. Which I didn't. And I don't.

And I wonder why I get no respect.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Pairing Up In Japan

My Japanese colleagues were an interesting bunch.

Yagi-san was very bright -- and independent. Even though she was almost thirty, she was still happily unmarried and had every intention of remaining so. Her English was breathtakingly natural: she had studied in upstate New York for several years, managing very well on her own.

Otani-san was in his thirties, a prissy, fussy man. He had studied linguistics at a big-name university in Kyoto and spoke meticulously grammatical English. He talked a lot about practicing English, as though it was a musical instrument or a sport. I hated the idea that someone would speak a language merely to practice it – but oddly enough, I always got the feeling that this was exactly what he was doing: trotting out his considerable English speaking skill like a show pony so that people would ooh and ahh. Unlike Yagi-san, Otani-san was obviously looking to get married; he kept up a running commentary on the various attributes of the ideal wife.

The contrast between Yagi-san and Otani-san was striking: she had lived by herself in a foreign country, managing to rent her own apartment and deal with all the headaches of expatriate life singlehandedly, but Otani-san had coddled mama's boy written all over him. An only son, he still lived at home; every day he brought a boxed lunch his mother had prepared for him. This is not at all unusual in Japan -- especially in the Kanto area where rents are sky-high -- but a man in his thirties who still lives at home is a poor match for an independent woman who has braved life in a foreign country. Given their differences, I was astounded to learn that he had set his cap on Yagi-san as a possible marriage partner.

Otani-san once told me how important it was for a wife to learn to prepare her husband’s miso shiru, the bean paste soup most Japanese have every day, just the way he liked it. He claimed that when a wife could do that, her husband knew she truly loved him. Then he turned to Yagi-san and asked her rather pointedly what she put into her miso shiru. Spring onions? Tofu? Pork, perhaps – or potatoes?

Yagi-san bristled. "I don’t make miso shiru," she said tersely. "That’s my mother’s job."

"Oh, but every young lady should learn how to make miso shiru!" he parried unctuously.

Yagi-san and I exchanged a disgusted look and she mouthed oink-oink over Otani-san's head. Then she picked up her books and hurried off to teach her class. You could practically feel the scorn and revulsion dripping off her as she left the room, though Otani-san seemed perfectly blasé about her reaction.

Later, when we were out of Otani-san’s hearing, she vented her rage. "Since when does he get off thinking that I am going to be in the least bit attracted to him? I’d rather die than make his miso shiru! God, I can see him looking at me, thinking, Hmmm, she’s a little old perhaps, but she might just do." She shivered. "I’ll bet he thinks I took this job just so I could meet someone like him and get married. Gag!"

"What do you mean, you're a little old?" I asked. "You're younger than he is!"

"Oh, but that doesn't matter: I'm almost thirty! Practically damaged goods here in this country!"

"What he asked you just now – did that really mean that he was interested in you – just asking you how you made miso shiru?"

"Oh, take my word for it -- he's definitely interested." She shuddered again. "Just as long as he doesn’t get his parents to call mine and try and arrange something."

"Do you think he’d really do that?"

"It’s happened before. The lady down the street arranged a couple of omiai for my sisters; now she wants to do one for me and my parents are encouraging me to accept. You should see some of the guys’ pictures. Yuck."

I'd had omiai explained to me on numerous occasions, but I never tired of hearing individual opinions on this fascinating custom. Yagi-san insisted it wasn't so bad as long as no pressure was put on either of the parties to accept. "It’s basically a way to meet someone – usually when you’ve graduated from college and you’re supposed to be the right age to get married. Someone who knows your family and the guy’s family brings over his picture. And they give your picture to him. If you both like what you see, then there’s an omiai. If you don’t, you make an excuse."

"What if one of you likes what they see but the other one doesn’t?"

"Well, then it’s embarrassing, but there’s no omiai. Both people have to agree to it. Unless the person’s parents can manage to convince them not to care so much about looks."

"Can’t you just go out on dates with people that you like?"

She smiled. "Some of us don’t have a lot of chances to meet people. Or perhaps the people we meet with aren’t the right people."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, if our parents don’t like him, say. Like if he’s a foreigner. Or maybe his family’s not rich enough, or they are rich, but they’re not really educated."

"Even if you love each other?"

"Love isn’t that big a deal in Japanese marriages. It is not necessarily a plus to love someone you plan to spend your life with."

I did my best to hide my shock.

I have often thought of Yagi-san and how hard it must have been for her. She had excellent English skills, had been to a good university and managed on her own in a foreign country for several years. And yet her salary was lower than mine, her chances of promotion were slim, and she was probably expected to get married to someone eventually. Such as Otani-san. If she had been bitter about this – and I often suspected she was – I certainly couldn’t blame her.

A few months after I started working at our school, a new teacher was hired. Mizutani-san was a practical, fashionable young woman who had studied at a posh university in the U.K. and spoke English with a proper British accent. She had been married for a little less than a year. One day when we were having coffee together, the subject of philandering husbands came up.

"Japanese men are the worst!" she raged in her crisp, clipped diction. "They have so many affairs! They expect the wife to be perfect and do everything for them – pick out their clothes, do all the housework, balance the household budget – then they still go out and have girlfriends! They are – well, they are quite beastly. Male chauvinist pigs."

That Japanese men had affairs wasn’t exactly news to me, but I had thought that the men who did this were generally older ones. "Younger men don’t have affairs, do they?"

She put down her coffee cup, her nostrils flaring. "Oh, yes, they jolly well do!"

"Still, I think men being unfaithful to their wives is pretty much an international thing."

"Be that as it may. But Japanese men are the worst. So after we got married, I told my husband, go right ahead and have an affair. Be my guest. But if I catch you, I will divorce you immediately."

"And what did he say to that?"

"He didn’t say anything. But now he knows he’d be in big trouble if he did. So I know he’ll be careful."

"You mean careful not to have an affair?"

She shrugged and looked at her fingernails. "Careful not to have an affair, yes. Or careful not to let me find out."

What I thought was interesting was that although she would have preferred him not to have an affair at all, an affair that was well concealed was not out of the question.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Close Encounters Of The Worst Kind

"Hey!" the middle-aged housewife in front of me cried, "I was next!"

The line at the post office was depressingly long; both the woman and I had been waiting in it for at least fifteen minutes. I had a package I wanted to send to the States for my sister’s birthday, and when the man suddenly appeared from nowhere and cut in line, I’d thought of saying something too. But my Japanese wasn’t up to it, so I held my tongue -- which turned out to be a good thing.

He was a big, florid fellow, well dressed, in a tailored grey suit. He looked eminently respectable: roughly fifty, clean shaven, with a salt-and-pepper crew-cut and expensive-looking shoes, and there was nothing in his appearance to send off any alarm bells in my mind. Obviously, the woman who’d complained about him cutting in front of her hadn’t sensed any danger either; if she had, she was foolhardy or had a death wish.

What happened next was completely unexpected. Instead of muttering an excuse or apology or simply ignoring the woman, the man began to shout and kick at her. He shoved her against the postal counter with bone-breaking force, then began to kick her repeatedly in the chest. Throughout this attack, he shouted and cursed, presumably voicing his rage that she should have dared to complain about him cutting in front of her.

All of us who had been standing behind the woman watched in horror as this large, strong man continued his vicious attack on a woman half his size.

I don’t know who summoned the police, but mercifully they were there within thirty seconds. Both the man and his victim were taken to the station police box. Still shaking from the shock, I managed to post my sister’s package.

I couldn’t imagine how the woman was feeling; I couldn’t stop thinking about her. What if I’d been the one he’d cut in front of? I would absolutely have said something. I might not have been as sassy as she was, but I’d have said something all the same. The woman had a right to be angry, didn’t she? You were supposed to wait your turn in line, not push in front of others. You learned that in kindergarten, for God’s sake! And this was Japan, after all – a place where manners and etiquette mattered!

"That was awful!" I commented to the postal employee. "Poor woman!"

"Mmm," he murmured noncommittally, fixing a postal strip on my package. He would not meet my eyes.

On my way to work after this incident, I passed the station police box. I expected to see the man being arrested, the woman being comforted and her injuries treated. Instead, I saw that the man was sitting, holding forth in a loud voice. The policemen even seemed to be listening to him as though he were a reasonable human being and not a vicious thug who had attacked a defenceless person smaller and weaker than himself. The woman, too, was being questioned – and none too kindly from what I could see. She was protesting and gesturing, her voice quite hysterical, the tears streaming down her face. What bothered me the most was that the policemen listening to her account were shouting back at her almost as though she was the one who had started it all.

At work, I told Asano-san, the school secretary, what I had seen. She was suitably horrified.

"How old was he?"

"About fifty."

"And what did he look like?"

"Well, that’s the amazing thing! He wasn’t scruffy at all, he was dressed really nicely – in a tailored suit!"

"Good haircut too? Kind of stylish? Dark glasses?"

I nodded.

Asano-san narrowed her eyes. "Oh man, Mary, that was a yakuza."


"Yeah. Gangster. Listen, if you ever see guys like that, don’t ever think about doing what that woman did. She was crazy-crazy."

"But he cut in front of her!"

"I don’t care what he did. You let yakuza do what yakuza want to do. You don’t say Hey cut that out to yakuza, it’s like sticking your arm in the bear’s cage. I mean it."

A short time after this, I was taking a bus to Kamioka Station to do some shopping. There were about twenty people on the bus, a handful of housewives, high school students and retired people. I was staring out the window watching a group of giggling high school girls in their navy blue uniforms as they flirted with a group of boys, so I didn’t see the drunk board the bus. But I certainly smelled him.

The man looked like a day laborer, one of the really poor ones you sometimes saw sleeping it out in the station at night. Japan’s homeless population has grown considerably in the past decades after the bubble burst, but even during that first year I sometimes saw obviously poor people, badly groomed and in threadbare clothes. They would spread cardboard or newspaper on the ground on which they would then sit, their shoes always placed neatly side by side on the ground outside the cardboard or newspaper, the heels just touching the edge, for all the world as though they were in the genkan of a house and not on a cigarette butt strewn, chewing-gum studded patch of concrete at the station. There was something about that detail – the way the shoes were carefully placed outside that little home-space the vagrants made for themselves with their cardboard or newspaper – that always got to me.

This man’s longish hair was matted and his eyes were bloodshot and wild. Drunk out of his mind, he was wearing cheap work trousers and a filthy shirt and he reeked of stale tobacco and alcohol. As he passed the people in the aisles, he muttered angrily, causing them to quickly avert their eyes. I made myself as inconspicuous as possible. Gaijin are often magnets for drunks and crazies, and I was anxious not to stand out any more than I already did. But the man wasn’t interested in me; he was obsessed with his own demons and holding an animated conversation with them.

For the next five minutes or so, the drunk muttered to himself and occasionally his voice would rise to a shout. His stink was so powerful, that a few people actually got off the bus; I was tempted, but I was also in a hurry, so I remained in my seat. All of a sudden the man lurched to his feet with a roar and made his unsteady way to the front of the bus.

“Lemme off,” he ordered the driver, none too politely. We were nowhere near a bus stop.

“I can’t,” the driver said, concentrating on the road ahead of him. “You’ll just have to wait until we get to a bus stop.”

Reeling, the drunk leaned closer to him. “Lemme off the bus! NOW!”

Even from where I was sitting, the man’s stench was almost overwhelming. I pitied the driver from the bottom of my heart.

The driver did his best to concentrate on the road ahead of him. “Sit down! You know you’re not supposed to bother the driver!”

Now the drunk leaned in closer still. “STOP THE BUS!” he roared. We were in fact now almost at a bus stop. Several people had risen from their seats and made their way to the rear exit. I got the feeling that this wasn’t their stop, but they knew trouble when they saw it and wanted off.

Just as the bus driver was getting ready to pull into the bus stop, the drunk began to strike him about the head. The bus driver turned to fight him off and that was when it happened: the drunk vomited. Copiously, all over the driver.

To this day I give the driver credit for managing not to lose control of the bus – and so much more. The drunk continued to retch and heave, and the vomit flowed down the aisle of the bus in a long, reeking stream. Somehow the driver parked and set the hand brake.

At this point, almost everyone on the bus got to their feet and made their way to the exit. Three of us remained. We watched as the bus driver, now beside himself with fury, lurched out of his seat and grabbed the drunk by the collar. The drunk was larger than the bus driver, but the driver had the advantage of being sober. And mad as hell.

The driver, covered from head to toe in vomit, strong-armed the drunk off the bus, then climbed back on and shut the door. We could hear the drunk’s oaths and curses interspersed with the splash of his vomit even as the driver started the engine and we roared off.

If I’d had the words for it, I would have commiserated with the driver and complimented his driving skill under such extreme conditions. All I could do was give him my most sympathetic smile as I finally got off. He didn’t see me, though; he stared straight ahead, his face the picture of long-suffering misery, his formerly pristine bus driver’s uniform stained with the drunk’s vomit. Even the poor man’s white gloves were spattered with it.

I still find it amazing that those two incidents occurred during my first two months in Japan. In all the years after that, I never saw anything to match the yakuza in the post office or the violent drunk on the bus.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Good Hair Day

We've just returned from an overnight trip to England. We had fun -- or as much fun as a family with an angsty, brooding 13-year-old can have, which is a surprising amount, actually, even with the odd sulk -- or two.

Our youngest is a champion sulker. I can't help but brag here: she has always been well ahead of her age group, having started sulking at seven months, way before the average onset during the terrible twos. People told us she wasn't really sulking, but believe me, you had to be there -- she was.

She is also contrary. Bear in mind that like every other adolescent, this kid can go through hot water like an SUV chugs fuel; if I don't come banging on the door, she will happily spend up to an hour in the shower. Once we got settled in our hotel room, my husband and I agreed that for once we could take a break: we didn't have to monitor the kids' shower time so rigidly.

But she wouldn't take a shower. Why not? Because she didn't have her hair straightener with her and could not risk getting her hair wet.

Words almost fail me here as I struggle to express how much I hate hair straighteners, hair straightening products, hair irons (or whatever they are called) and all the advertisers who promote their consumption and use. I hate all of them with a burning passion. I hate them on behalf of every poor deluded female out there who thinks her hair ought to conform to some stupid beauty standard someone else thought up. These products are noxious and fiddly and hair-damaging and expensive -- and largely ineffective, as if you've got hair that is bushy, curly or kinky, it can be beaten into temporary submission, but it will never be sleek. And I could kick myself all over Scotland for ever allowing my eldest to buy an electric hair straightener.

When I initially said yes to a hair straightener, I figured it was just a stage. I thought that our eldest, who is lazy, would soon tire of all the fuss and bother of daily hair straightening. I reasoned that the reactions of others -- "Ewww, what have you done to your hair?" -- would make her see reason and persuade her to leave her naturally curly hair alone. Boy, was I wrong: she still uses it. What did happen was that the youngest started thinking that her hair, also naturally curly, wasn't slick and sleek enough. She began begging her sister to straighten her hair -- and bellyaching on the days that she didn't have time to do it. Quarrels began in earnest: "You promised you'd straighten my hair!" -- "Buy your own straighteners, you little freak!" And so on.

I come from a family of bushy-haired people. My sisters and I used to take turns ironing each other's hair, which was silly, because no sooner did we get it wet than it went right back to its natural state: bushy and untamed. I am largely Caucasian, but it was Angela Davis who first gave me the idea that hair didn't have to be sleek. My apologies to Ms Davis (I know it infuriated her to be known mainly as a hairdo), but I'm betting that along with the musical Hair, her Afro inspired thousands of other bushy-haired women of all races to just let it go. To forget all the muck they put on their hair -- the permanents and cream rinses and the endless chemical preparations and compressions (I slept with a headscarf on for a solid year when I was 14) and just let it be.

When I was 17, I gave up. I grew my hair out and stopped putting Dippity-do on my cowlicks and ironing my hair and having it thinned at the hairdresser's. And to my joy, it looked just fine.

Two years later, I got on a cable car in San Francisco and saw a girl I hadn't seen since high school. I recognized her right away, but also registered what I'd never before realized: how beautiful she was. Her hair was a mass of ringlets and it was as bushy and wild as mine. We both gasped and exclaimed, simultaneously: "Your hair!"

This poor girl had gone through high school with hair that looked like a mess of limp, damaged fabric. I'm betting that swimming classes worried her as much as they worried me. She'd spent untold ages straightening her hair and like mine, it just looked awful. And once she got away from high school, she did what I did: she gave up and let her hair do what it needed to do. And like me, she never looked back.

All of this -- and more -- went through my mind as I tried to talk our kid out of the car where she had installed herself with a book. She had passed on the chance to have a virtually unlimited nag-free shower because of her hair, but somehow it had managed to revert to its wavy, bushy state anyway, and she was not getting out of the car lest the good people of Ironbridge see it in all its wilful glory. Provokingly, her hair is nowhere near as bushy or cowlicky as mine was, but never mind: it was not fit for public inspection, even if those viewing it were all strangers.

Sighhhh. What's the use of acquiring all this hard-won wisdom if you can't pass it on to the younger generation?

Friday, 11 July 2008

Temperature Wise

I like hot food, as in spicy. I like every kind of chili pepper ever cultivated -- from the mild bell peppers through the spicier jalapenos, serranos, poblanos, cayennes, habaneros, and Scotch bonnets. I suspect there are many I have not yet sampled, and just thinking about them makes me feel wistful. I've even tried growing my own, and you would think that at the very least, I could produce a Scotch bonnet in Scotland, but no -- this is not to be. The fiery Scotch bonnet requires a fiery climate, and however warm it sometimes gets here, it never approaches fiery.

When I was a kid, we were the only Anglo family I knew who frequented Mexican restaurants where only Latinos ate. Not for us the fancy tourist places where the waitresses were gotten up in flouncy skirts and the margueritas were big enough to put your face in. Our favorite place was a hole in the wall where they made their salsa with whole jalapenos instead of taking the usual gringo's way out and removing the seeds first. My father called this sauce, not salsa, and when he ordered tamales, tacos and quesadillas, he mangled the pronunciation despite his best efforts, but man, could he put away the salsa. He was a lean, spare, tall man who fueled his body on beans, rice and chili peppers. He grew them wholesale and we sometimes helped in the fields. The only time we didn't like peppers was when we forgot we'd been handling them and accidentally touched our eyes. If you ever do this by mistake, you'll know what I mean.

I tell you all this so that you'll know I'm not some pansy eater who dabs a little tabasco sauce on her food and thinks it's enough. We go through bottles of the stuff pretty fast in this family, as I married another spice-eater and we've been cultivating our kids. Our pantry is stocked with pepper sauce from various nations; as I write this, our refrigerator has two kinds of kimchi in it and an Indian pickle that has you reaching for a fire extinguisher.

For years in Japan, every so-called Korean, Thai, Mexican, or Indian restaurant I ate at was a sore disappointment, the level of heat geared to that of the tender Japanese palate. I'm not the kind of person who complains in restaurants, but once, having eaten at a place that promised piri-piri kimchi chige -- fiery cabbage stew -- I felt like weeping after one bland mouthful. It might as well have been stuffed cabbage -- and not Hungarian, either. I was on the point of mentioning it to the waitress -- in the politest sort of way -- when I overheard the conversation at the next table. Two customers, both apparently Japanese, had ordered the same dish. The woman had one hand over her mouth and was reaching for her glass with the other. "Karai!" she squealed, fanning her face. "Too hot! I can't eat it!"

I decided not to say anything.

Then a new Indian restaurant opened up in Tokyo. It looked promising, and hope springs eternal, so I went there for lunch one day. The waiter took my order and asked if I wanted it spicy.

Now, I had been down this road before. At every single restaurant, I had asked the waiter or waitress to spice it up to the maximum -- that I could take it -- and still ended up with pablum. So I laid it on thick for this man. I told him to make it as spicy as he possibly could -- Indian style spicy was fine.

"Are you absolutely sure?" he asked, and I assured him I was. He shook his head and went off to get my order.

Let me tell you, he took me at my word. I knew that what I'd ordered was spicy when my spoon was half an inch from my mouth: I could feel the fumes, and they made my mouth -- and eyes -- water. A large window separated the kitchen from the diners so that you could watch the cooks rolling out chappatis into paper-thin circles and peeling steaming triangles of naan out of tandoori ovens. As I took my first bite, they were all there at the window, watching. I swear they'd placed bets on me.

I took a bite and almost choked. I'd never had anything so hot in all my life. Even the sauce in my father's beloved Templo Del Sol was less spicy, studded with jalapeno seeds though it was. I took another bite and that was hotter still. They say that water will not quench the fire of chilis; that it is better to eat yogurt or rice to take away the heat, but I had no choice. I got through five glasses of water during that lunch, and I was glad to have them. And I finished every single bit of that curry, using my naan to sop up the sauce. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the cooks nudge another, a wide smile on his face. His companion looked glum -- like he'd backed the losing horse.

No doubt about it: someone made some money on me. I should have asked for my cut.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

A Wild Goose Chase

My flat in Yokohama had a washing machine that did not work.

On my day off, I packed up some of my heavier clothes and went off in search of a Laundromat. I was tired of washing my clothes by hand. Someone had told me there used to be a laundromat not far from the next station, and I was determined to find it.

Half an hour later, I was ready to burst into tears: I’d been on a wild goose chase looking for that elusive laundromat for over thirty minutes, and I was damned if I could find it. My feet hurt, and my trousers weren’t warm enough because all my winter ones were in the pack, desperately in need of a wash. I was cold and tired and hungry, too, and yet here I was going in circles, looking for a wretched laundromat. Everyone I met knew just enough to give me hope, but not enough to give me precise instructions. I felt like I was doomed to wander the streets for all eternity, humping twenty pounds of dirty laundry, searching for the laundromat from Brigadoon.

It would have been better if someone had categorically said that there was no laundromat in the area. The problem was, several people I stopped assured me that the laundromat was not merely a figment of my imagination. Oh yes, there was definitely a laundromat in the neighborhood, they were certain they’d seen it, although they themselves had never used it. When I asked them exactly where it was, though, they would furrow their brows and begin to hem and haw.

"Next to the supermarket, the new one," said a middle-aged woman with shopping bags hanging from the bars of her pink moped. She had a page-boy haircut with a striking blue rinse and a toy poodle better groomed than I was stared up at me from the moped’s basket. The woman had stopped to talk to a couple, an elderly pair who looked as though they were out for a walk.

“No,” the elderly woman put in, “that’s a dry cleaner’s.”

Her male companion disagreed. “The dry cleaning place is next to the pharmacy.”

“That’s the old one,” the woman with the pageboy said. “And it’s not a dry cleaner’s anymore. It’s a pet shop now.”

“Ah. I’d heard they were going to sell. Wasn’t that Yonezawa’s place?”

I felt like jumping up and down and screaming. “Umm, the laundromat . . .?”

They all stared at me for a moment as though they’d forgotten why I was there, in their midst. The woman with the page-boy smiled indulgently. “Have you asked at the police box?”

“Where’s the police box?” I asked, trying to keep my voice steady. This was my day off! If the laundromat really didn’t exist, I'd find some warm, quiet place and have a cup of coffee. I’d need a break if I was going to spend the rest of the day hand-washing clothes.

“Back that way,” the woman said, pointing in the direction I’d just been in. But my pack was heavy and I was loath to retrace my steps.

Just as I was telling myself that wearing dirty jeans for the next week wouldn’t be the end of the world, a young woman approached me. She looked about my age, but more tired and careworn, and she seemed distracted.

“Do you need help?” she asked shyly.

“Yes! I’ve been trying to find the laundromat.”

She wrinkled her brow. “I don’t know where it is, but I’ve got a map of the neighborhood at home.”

I was tempted to say I would ask at the police box – they were bound to know there, after all – but I decided to go with her, reasoning that her apartment was probably closer. I was relieved to know she had a map of the neighborhood: almost all Japanese neighborhoods have a map that not only shows you the name and location of every business, but the names of each resident. The trick is finding a neighborhood map when you need it. In some neighborhoods, they are handily posted where a poor lost soul can find them; in others, they are craftily concealed and only the locals can point then out. Japanese streets are generally not named; cities and towns are divided into areas, sub-areas, and blocks. Houses and apartments in each sub-area are not geographically numbered, as new units are constantly being built between old lots, and finding your way around in a strange neighborhood can be hellish. You have to pity Japanese postmen; after only a few months in Japan, I certainly did.

Unfortunately, the woman’s house was at least half a kilometre away, through a warren of dark, meandering little side streets. She walked fast, as though she were in a hurry to get home. Already tired and weighed down by my heavy pack, I had to struggle to keep up with her.

“Here we are,” she said at last, in front of a small, shabby house in a housing tract. “Come on in!”

Stepping through the door, I could smell the freshly-mown grass smell of new tatami coupled with sour milk and unwashed clothes. Looking around, you got the feeling that whoever lived there was very busy. I heard a baby crying, and when I looked in the direction of the noise I saw a child barely old enough to walk come toddling towards us, arms outstretched. The woman stooped down and picked him up.

“This is Gen, my little boy! Gen say hello to the nice lady!”

I stared at Gen. A stream of yellow-green snot ran from his nose straight down to his chin. He stared back at me uncertainly from his mother’s arms and hiccoughed, still whimpering. I looked to see who had been caring for him in his mother’s absence, but there seemed to be no one else around.

The woman seemed in no hurry to go and look for the neighborhood map. She gave Gen a kiss and joggled him a bit to get him to stop crying.

I couldn’t help it, I just had to ask. I pointed to Gen and said “Hitori de?” There was probably a better way of asking if her baby had been left alone in the house, but I didn’t know how else to say it.

She nodded, misinterpreting my “all alone?” to mean ‘Are you by yourself.’ She juggled Gen in her arms again and said to me, “His father is in America,” as though that explained everything.

“Oh,” I said as though I understood – even though I didn’t.

“He is American,” she added.

“Oh!” I looked at Gen, and suddenly realized he was Eurasian. I didn’t know what to say. She was stuck here with the baby, poor kid, but her husband was back in America. I wondered how long he’d been gone and when he was coming back. “What state is your husband from, if you don’t mind my asking?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know.” She bit her lips. “And he is not my husband.”

Uh oh.

I held Gen while his mother went to look for the neighborhood map, but he wasn’t having any of it. “Mama!” he wailed fitfully, his arms stretched out towards her.

I tried jiggling him about the way his mother had done. “Gen, Gen! Look out the window there!” I positioned him so that he could see the birds in one of the trees outside, but he strained away from me. “Mama!”

“Um…I think he wants you!”

“Oh, he always wants me,” his mother called from the next room. “You always want me, don’t you Gen?” She had the map now, I was relieved to see, and was beginning to open it.

“Would you like me to look at the map instead?” I hazarded, juggling Gen on my hip and trying to make myself heard above his screams. Poor little Gen had a streaming cold, it seemed. God knew what he’d been doing all by himself in the house before we arrived, but it hadn’t been wiping his own nose.

“No, no, I’ll look – but if you could just hold him for me while I do . . .” She opened the map and started looking for the Laundromat.

Part of me was relieved. Maps are a challenge for me even when they’re written in English, and I found Japanese maps even more confusing. But hanging onto Gen was getting tricky: he didn’t like being parked with a stranger. He’d been waiting for his mother to come home, but her attention was elsewhere. Agitated, he squirmed and fidgeted and strained away from me and I wondered why I was supposed to hold him when he'd obviously been ranging freely about the house before his mother got back.

Gen now began to struggle fiercely, and I had to put him down. He toddled off to his mother, arms outstretched. “Mama, mama, mama!”

I’m not sure how long it took Gen’s mother to scan the map and find that there was no laundromat indicated anywhere on it. Five minutes? Ten? It felt like a lot longer. I began to feel panicky. I was never going to get my clothes washed! “Maybe I should just go and ask at the police box . . .?” I said, eyeing the door longingly.

At first she insisted that it would be there on the map – it had to be. She’d find it – it was just a matter of looking. Finally, though, she gave up. Gen was hanging on to her leg and wailing for all he was worth, crying to be picked up, to be noticed, to be loved.

“I don’t understand it,” she murmured, “I’m positive there used to be one next to the pharmacy in the old mall.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the former dry cleaner’s was now a pet shop. “That’s okay,” I said, desperate to leave. “They’ll know where it is at the police box. I probably should have asked there to begin with.”

“Yes,” she said a little sadly, “they’re bound to know at the police box.”

She picked up Gen and jiggled him on one hip. “You wouldn’t want a cup of coffee, would you?”

I could see past her into her tiny kitchen, the sink piled high with unwashed dishes. I was dying for a cup of coffee, but I wanted to be anywhere else but there. “No, but thanks.”

Stepping back into my shoes in the entrance-way and shouldering my backpack, I turned to wave goodbye to her and Gen. It suddenly struck me that I didn’t even know her name.

“Come back and visit us any time!” she called out, shaking Gen’s little wrist lightly so that his hand flopped back and forth. “We’re always here! Aren’t we Gen-gen? We never go anywhere!”

I smiled and waved. I had no intention of visiting again. But to this day I wish I had.

Friday, 4 July 2008

The World's Most Boring Man

I once taught a little-known celebrity: the most boring man in the world.

I'd heard about Mr Nakazawa from three other teachers who had taught him, and they all concurred as to his world-class ranking. Mr Nakazawa's superiors wanted to send him abroad and were keen for him to improve his English skills, so they were forking out big money for weekly private lessons. And one lesson lasted two hours.

Every one of Mr Nakazawa's former teachers swore they'd do anything but another one-on-one session with him. They'd teach at the awful polytechnic college where the kids were so thick you couldn't even joke about it afterwards because you felt too mean; they'd take on the chatty group of bar hostesses whose class met in a pub where the air was blue with smoke; they'd do the 7 a.m. slot at the car manufacturing plant an hour away by bullet train. Anything but that deadly two-hour session with Mr Nakazawa.

When I first heard these teachers holding forth, I felt sorry for Mr Nakazawa. I also doubted that he was as boring as they all seemed to think he was. Two of his former teachers struck me as a little superficial; they were fine teachers, but as people they did not particularly impress me. The third was a funny, quirky man, but he could be very snide and cutting. I told them that there had to be something that Mr Nakazawa was interested in; something that made him interesting.

One snorted and the other two rolled their eyes.

"Just what is it that makes him so boring?" I asked.

"He never has anything to say for himself," answered the first.

"And he has absolutely no interests or hobbies or any kind of personality," said the second.

"Plus he's just dead boring," said the third.

I was young and stupid and disinclined to go with the flow. "I bet I could find something he'd like to talk about."

The three traded amused looks.

"Maybe you could," the kindest one said.

A few months later, the boss told me my new schedule included Mr Nakazawa's private lesson. I was excited: finally I would have a chance to show everyone that Mr Nakazawa had an entirely different side! An astutely observational, wittily spoken side that only I could expose.

Mr Nakazawa looked much like every other Japanese engineer I'd met: quiet, polite, well-groomed, and just entering middle age. I asked him what he wanted to achieve in the class, and his answer was hardly a surprise. He wanted spoken fluency in English so that when he went to the States or the U.K., he could converse.

On our first lesson, he was awfully quiet, but I told myself it was early days. For our next class, I would get together an arsenal of conversational tools: photographs from our school's extensive picture file that tended to start conversations like kindling catches fire; conversation games, fun vocabulary-increasing exercises, short, pithy newspaper articles about controversial subjects -- a whole array of possibilities to improve Mr Nakazawa's spoken English. I could hardly wait to start.

"Shall I keep writing in my journal?" he asked. "Miss Kathy assigned me a journal." (I never weaned him of this Miss + first name habit, but then I hardly ever weaned any of my students of this).

"Yes, absolutely."

I figured we would use his journal entries to kick start our classes. Talking about his week and what he had been doing would help him warm up.

On our second meeting, Mr Nakazawa brought his journal to class. It contained an entire week's entries, but I will give you a brief (lucky you) sample:

Monday -- Went to work. Five minutes late. Lunch of oyakodonburi (chicken and egg dish). Home. Watched video Pretty Lady.

Tuesday -- Went to work. On time. Lunch of o-soba (buckwheat noodles). Home. Watched video and played with cat.

Wednesday -- Went to work. One minute late. Lunch of ramen. Home. Watched video of Beverley Hills Cop. Played with cat.

You get the picture.

I immediately seized on the slim straws this presented. "Wow, how did you like Beverley Hills Cop?"

Mr Nakazawa smiled pleasantly. "Very funny."

"Yes, it was, wasn't it?" I garbled. "I couldn't believe how funny the dialogue in that movie was! I was so impressed with how spontaneous it seemed, how true to life!"


"And isn't Eddie Murphy just hilarious?"


"Wasn't his ad-libbing fantastic? I don't know if you've heard about this, but they say that he made a lot of it up on the spot!"


We then discussed his cat -- "Very cute. White." -- And his family -- "Wife, one daughter who is 11, one son who is 8." And his job -- "Very busy." And his co-workers -- "Very busy." We discussed his flat -- "Very small." And his car -- "Nissan."

Please don't imagine that I didn't try. I tied myself in knots exerting myself during these sessions. I didn't let him get away with these simple descriptions of his cat, his family, his job, and so on. "And...?" I would prod meaningfully. "Tell me a little more about that." Mr Nakazawa took 'a little more' all too literally, so I found a whole range of other conversational prods. "Please elaborate," "Don't stop there!" and "Do go on!" But he didn't go on. I suspect he couldn't. And in the end, I was stumped. I had met my conversational opposite. There isn't enough time in the day for me to say all I want to say. Mr Nakazawa took conversational minimalism to an entirely new plane.

At first I worried that he simply didn't understand. That his listening comprehension wasn't up to scratch and he was covering this with a show of indifference. But I tested this and no, he really did understand. He seemed pleased with the lessons, mildly amused by the comment-provoking photographs I showed him; he read the controversial articles I brought -- and had absolutely no opinion whatsoever.

Lessons that took hours in other classes took minutes with Mr Nakazawa. The less he talked, the more inclined I was to fill in the silence. Throughout our lessons, Mr Nakazawa sat placidly. He smiled on occasion; he even laughed once or twice. But he did not talk. I think I could have brought in cattle prods and a bullwhip and not gotten a peep out of him.

"He's just a typical Japanese male," said a friend of mine from a different school. But I taught plenty of typical Japanese men and I knew that Mr Nakazawa was different. Next to him, all the other taciturn males I'd taught were chatty and long-winded. Next to him, the most closemouthed workaholic drudges were loquacious logomaniacs.

By the time our first month was up, I found that I was counting the sessions we had left. I began to dread Wednesdays -- the day he came to our school -- with a white-hot passion. I used to bring chewing gum to our class just to jar my senses that extra bit -- and possibly provoke a response from Mr Nakazawa (ostentatious gum-chewing bothers a lot of Japanese people). I wore my weirdest, most bizarre clothing and parted my hair on the other side. I put on wacky jewelry and high heels. None of it helped.

I have never, ever suppressed so many yawns in all my life. I began to pity Mrs Nakazawa from the bottom of my heart.

Mercifully, the day of our last lesson finally came. By this time, I had exhausted every possible resource and had grown desperate. Thank God I would not have to ad-lib anymore! Thank God I would be free of my weekly trials of trying to get this deadly boring man to talk!

In the teachers' room, I had to admit to my colleagues that they had been right and I had been wrong: we had all failed Mr Nakazawa, or perhaps he had failed himself. Or perhaps he just didn't want to talk and nobody had failed anybody. But who cared? What mattered was that I was finally free!

Before I left that evening, the boss congratulated me. "Mr Nakazawa was quite taken with you, you know. He requested you for next semester too."

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Fools In Old Style Hats And Coats

Our youngest daughter came home from school the other day with a funny story. Apparently the principal at her middle school broadcast a message to the entire school about an e-mail he had received: kids with drug-laced bags of candies were passing these around the courtyard to unsuspecting students. He warned everyone to be vigilant many times over.

The entire school was shocked and thrilled by this announcement. This is a small town, and although there have been drug-related incidents, they have generally been confined to a small but well-known minority.

Shortly after this, the principal came back on the intercom, apologizing for his previous announcement. The candy-drug story, he had since learned, had been a scam -- a prank started by someone with too much time on their hands.

My daughter and her friends are fairly savvy about drug and substance abuse. In some respects, perhaps they are savvier than the principal and his colleagues, who are forced to spend all their time doing things like managing budgets, dealing with academic issues, and going to meetings. They were rather amused by their principal's admission, but I gathered from the way they were talking that they thought he was a little foolish to fall for it.

My take on this was that he acted swiftly, if a little precipitously. And he had guts to admit that he'd been duped.

And I remembered Mr Bell.

Mr Bell was the principal of our elementary school my last year there. Some of the more physically advanced girls immediately noticed his classic good looks -- he was what could be described as a fine figure of a man with broad shoulders, an excellent physique, and wavy hair -- but I found him fussy and pompous. A church elder, he fairly oozed respectability and moral rectitude in his conservative suit and spiffily polished shoes. And he had a knack for ruining our fun.

One week, someone brought marbles to school and in very little time, we were all hooked -- even me. Those who were skilled at playing accumulated marbles from others, and although I could win prizes for my poor coordination, for some reason, I really cleaned up on marbles. Mr Bell got wind of our marble playing -- "gambling," as he called it -- and outlawed this. He outlawed comic books, too, and other fun things, like yo-yos.

One day as we were walking to class, we noted that someone had written the F-word on one of the bungalow walls in lurid red spray paint. Everybody knew the F-word, of course, and we were all mildly shocked, but by the time class started, we had forgotten about it.

I was sitting with a group of others during recess (mourning the loss of our beloved marbles), when Mr Bell discovered the most recent grafitti. Even now, I remember his almost exaggeratedly horrified reaction. The spray-painted obscenity spanned a good two feet, and Mr Bell immediately stood with his back to the offending word to cover it. Extending his arms so that he formed a perfect T, Mr Bell managed to hide the entire word. He asked one of the school monitors to go to the school office and bring back masking tape and paper.

It took the monitor a full fifteen minutes to execute this order.

For the entire fifteen minutes, Mr Bell stood with his arms outstretched, covering the offending word. We all felt like telling him that we knew the word -- that everybody knew the word -- and that his actions were useless. His arms must have ached, but he stood there until the class buzzer went. Finally the monitor came back with the tape and paper and Mr Bell carefully papered over it. School monitors were assigned to guard the abomination lest someone peeled back the paper, exposing the horror beneath.

To this day, I can picture Mr Bell with perfect clarity, standing there, arms held rigidly out, protecting our innocence. Because that is absolutely what he was doing: protecting us from what he saw as the vulgarity of the world. Sure, he was out of touch and hopelessly naive, but I have no doubt that he acted in our best interests.

Thank you, Mr Bell. I wish you hadn't taken away our marbles, but I get what you were doing now. And if it's any consolation, I've used that word very sparingly all my life.