Monday, 24 August 2009

To Have Or Not To Have

The kindly old man smiled and put down his tea cup. “So how many children do you have?” he asked Shizuko.

I felt the shock of this question like a fist in the gut. I didn’t know Shizuko very well, but I knew that she and her husband, though childless, desperately wanted children: she’d said as much. But if Shizuko was upset, no one could have told from her placid expression. “I’m afraid we haven’t been blessed with children.”

The old man’s eyebrows shot up. “Even though you’ve been married for eleven years!”

Shizuko shook her head. “No, it’s a real shame, isn’t it?”

I held my breath and watched the old man surreptitiously. Oddly enough, he didn’t look the least bit embarrassed or contrite over his gaffe. “Have you been to a doctor about it?” he wanted to know.

I cringed at this, but Shizuko looked perfectly blasé. “Oh yes. He says we’re both normal, though.” Shizuko took a sip of tea. There was nothing in her face that registered mild irritation, let alone the outrage I felt.

“You ought to try a doctor in Tokyo, a fertility specialist. Have some proper tests done.”

“Perhaps in time.”

The old man shook his head. “Or you could try one of those fertility shrines. My niece went to one and less than two years later she had a baby boy.”

Shizuko smiled. “Good for her! She must have been so pleased.”

“She was, she was. You and your husband should try it!”

Shizuko said that that was a very good idea.

When we left the old man’s house a few minutes later, I turned to Shizuko, aghast. “I can’t believe he said that to you!” I spluttered.

“Said what?” She looked genuinely surprised.

“All those things about having children – what you ought to do!”

Shizuko frowned. “But he was trying to help me. He was being kind.”

“But he was so nosy! What business of his is it whether you have kids or not?”

Shizuko still looked puzzled. “But I do want children.”

“So saying those things was potentially hurtful.”

“He was just being kind.” She patted my hand. “I’m over thirty, Mary. In Japan, if you’re married and over thirty, you’re supposed to have children. Everybody asks – it’s not rude.”

All I could do was shake my head. If I’d been Shizuko, I’d have been enraged. The way I saw it, the question he’d asked was a real powder keg. Do you have children? was bad enough, but How many children do you have? took it to an entirely different level of callousness in its blind presumption. If the person you asked did have children, of course, you were okay, but if she didn’t, it was almost certain to be a sore point. Suppose, like Shizuko, she wanted them but couldn’t have them: the question would remind her afresh and cause her pain. Suppose the woman didn’t want children: the question would irritate. Suppose the woman wanted them, but her husband didn't -- or vice versa: the question would be all the more hurtful.

But Shizuko could not agree with me. Neither did most of the other people I asked about this later. “He was definitely being kind,” the majority said. “In Japan, you get married so you can have children – it’s the same all over Asia.” Only a few career women agreed with me that this question was potentially obnoxious to childless women.

Sometimes I found it so hard to understand the Japanese way of thinking.

I had my first baby not long after I got married, so I was spared this question, but when my eldest was about two, people began to ask me when I was going to have my next one. “Better not leave it too long,” the check out lady in the supermarket cautioned. My daughter’s nursery school teacher was even more blunt. “This would be a good time for you to start the next one,” she said flatly, pointing to my belly just in case I didn’t catch her drift. “Children who don’t have any brothers or sisters are so lonely,” the lady down the road warned me. “And sometimes they’re just plain spoiled!”

My reproductive life, it seemed, was everybody’s business.

In the successive years I spent in Japan, I reserved the How many children do you have? question for people who obviously had children. I cringed to hear people using this as a conversational starter with strangers and I heard it a lot. I heard it so often that one day it finally slipped out of my mouth. I was talking to Inoue-san, a kind, motherly woman in her middle fifties. We were standing in the locker room of a health club and without even thinking, the question just popped out. Inoue-san smiled and touched my hand. “You know, Mary, I had one child, a little boy. He died in an accident; he was almost a year old.”

To this day, I cannot get over my carelessness in asking this question. Or my phenomenally bad luck, asking Inoue-san, of all people. I was so horrified by what I’d done that I burst into tears. Inoue-san was terribly concerned: she tried to cheer me up. I was so mortified that she felt the need to cheer me up that I could hardly stand myself. In fact, I'd only done what I'd heard everyone around me do for the past decade and a half, but what a time to do it.

Not only did Inoue-san forgive me, she didn’t even seem to feel I’d done anything wrong. She continued to be my good friend over the next few years. Every time we met, she looked happy to see me.

Truly, the Japanese way of thinking can take some getting used to.

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27 comments:

Charlie said...

So can the American way of thinking. Martha and I have been asked that question a thousand times, and when we reply "no children," we get "the look" that says there is something seriously wrong with us.

When Martha worked for a design company, someone always came up with a "creative" idea for the Christmas card. One year, it was decided the card would have photos of the managers' children. "What about me?" Martha asked, an equal manager with all the rest.

"Use a photo of your dogs," the big boss said. Martha wanted to punch him.

The point is, our decision not to have children isn't anyone's business, and being questioned about it is totally inappropriate.

Robert the Skeptic said...

The number of children people decide to have is a thorny issue for me. The planet is fast approaching 7 Billion people. Families who decide to have 3,4, or even more children, I have to ask how much do you think the planet can bear? Wars fought over dwindling resources, water becoming a more rare commodity... what type of life do we want our children to inherit? Having children should be involve considerations beyond viewing our own selfish desires.

Charles Gramlich said...

This reminds me so much of something that bothers Lana down here. She's not used to southern ways yet and down here you are constantly asked what church you go to. It really irriates her while to me it's just part of the culture and I don't give it a second thought. It's almost exactly the same kind of situation isn't it?

MG Higgins said...

Mary, you're such a terrific storyteller! I'm just sorry I didn't have a cup of tea to go with this one. And regarding the subject matter, yes, it's amazing the cultural differences that exist when it comes to what we find embarrassing or intrusive.

Marian said...

I had major flashbacks to Sri Lanka while I was reading this. People there seem to think that it takes a village to conceive a child, so everything from a girl's first period onward is a matter of public concern and opinion.

It drove me nuts, but only because I wasn't used to it. For my extended family, who live there, it was quite normal. They didn't approve of me very much, since I had (have) a more Western mindset and didn't feel the status and use of one's reproductive organs was anyone's business except one's own.

Vijaya said...

Oh, yes, Mary, there is definitely a cultural difference. It has taken me years not to ask about people's kids and I still mess up once in a while.

laura said...

I know how you feel. I tend to not ask ANY kind of personal question upon meeting someone new. I try to let them lead the way but wouldn't you know it, just a few weeks ago I blew it! A woman and her boyfriend were talking about taking their kids on a blended vacation. The man mentioned his ex so I asked the woman how her ex felt about this. Only there was no ex! Her husband had died. I felt like an idiot! After all not everyone is divorced. And I really do try to be careful! I just don't always succeed.

kara said...

i am the ironic product of my father's comment. and so's my sister.

Eryl Shields said...

There are so many potential stories here! And poems. All those little cultural chafes. And it links to your earlier post on taking a village to raise a child, I think. Japanese people are, it seems, interested in the whole reproductive caboodle, and not afraid to show that interest.

I'm sure we used to be like that here too but now we've become little isolated units: jealous of our individuality, and, no matter how interested, afraid to pry.

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- I really do feel for you. Childless people who've been married for a long time get this the worst, whatever country they happen to live in. But believe me, though your decision not to reproduce may generate discussion in the States, that is as nothing compared to how tirelessly you'd be grilled in Japan. I was friends with half a dozen childless couples and privy to many 'helpful' comments made to them by concerned neighbors, acquaintances, and total strangers. It always amazed me that nobody got punched in the face or even given a modest earful.

Robert -- I think it's wrong to expect that everyone should have children when there are many people who don't have what it takes to be good parents. And yet, when people ask me if they should have kids, I always find myself wanting to tell them yes; I can't even imagine how much less of a person I'd be if we'd made the decision never to have kids. But 7 billion people is no joke. 7 billion would be fine if we had the resources -- and more importantly, the infrastructure -- to accommodate everyone, but we don't. What we do have is bad roads, natural disasters, disease, and war and, as you say, dwindling water sources and fuel. And an unjust distribution of wealth doesn't help anything.

Charles -- Ooh, I remember that church question! My mother was from the south and every time we went down to visit her family, that question came out right away. People need to know whether you're Church of Christ or Baptist so they can get a handle on you. And you might just be something totally bizarre, like Catholic or Jewish, so the question does have its uses. When people ask me what church I go to here, I always tell them I worship in my garden, which is absolutely true. Maybe that will work for Lana?

MG -- Aw, thank you for saying that!

When my husband and I were first married and lived in Japan, I used to ask British people we met where they were from in the U.K. I had no idea that by doing this I was being intrusive and potentially offending them. All these little details are useful to learn -- and they take ages to accrue.

Marian -- Your comment made me laugh out loud.

I have learned that the whole issue of pregnancy and childbirth is treated very differently in Asia than it is treated in the West. When I first got to Japan, I found the whole public involvement thing bewildering. Now, I can jump right into a full-blown discussion of pregnancy woes, labor, and infertility with total strangers. After Japan, I think I might do okay in Sri Lanka -- as long as I didn't have to ask anyone how many kids they had.

Vijaya -- I've got many weird things battling inside me on the to-kid-or-not-to-kid issue. On one hand, I know you don't ask -- no matter what. On the other, when I meet people I don't know, I always wonder whether they have kids and if they don't, why not -- I can't stop myself. On one hand, I think it's people's own business whether or not to reproduce and none of mine or anyone else's. On the other, I know that having kids radically changed my life and gave me a take on it that I am keenly grateful for, and perhaps it could do that for others too-- whew. I'm really mixed up, aren't I?

Laura -- I've done this too, though: there was a man in town who just oozed divorced playboy, and it turned out that his beloved wife of many years had died. It was only great good luck on my part that kept this subject from coming up and hence, my foot out of my mouth. It's so easy to define others by our own experiences, or by experiences we are familiar with.

Kara -- Ah, but how many sisters and brothers do you have? Your dad didn't even put a dent in that 7 billion, I'm guessing.

I once had a friend who had eleven brothers and sisters, by the same parents. I felt such a weird mixture of envy and horror.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- Great minds think alike -- our posts crossed here!

It is odd that we put our privacy and individual freedom over so many other things in the West. Like you, I suspect that the issues of infertility and pregnancy weren't always off limits, though -- we've put walls around ourselves in so many ways. After living in Japan, I'm open to just about anything popping up in a conversation, but still hesitant to bring certain subjects up myself.

Anne Spollen said...

I'm getting creepy kids-are-a-woman's-job-in-this-culture vibes. I would be appalled if this happened. Sort of like asking why a plant hasn't bloomed. Human beings have choices and I can't imagine assuming anything about people in such a broad way.

Anne Spollen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
debra said...

Cultural differences are alive and well, aren't they.
When I was pregnant, I was always amazed that my round belly had become public domain. Strangers would come up to me to rub it, as if I were the Buddha whose belly one rubs for luck.

Marian said...

And here I am in Canada, thinking that it's best not to even compliment a woman on her pregnancy unless you're certain she is pregnant.

Robin said...

The Japanese sound so mellow and nonjudgmental. It makes me want to high tail it over to Japan. Your friends were so lovely.

Once we had a waitress who was wearing an interesting necklace. It was a vial. Adam commented on it, and how interesting it was. "It's my daughter's ashes," she said. "She's dead." Mary, maybe I'm a horrible person, but I had to go to the bathroom and giggle until it was out of my system. It was just such a bizarre scenario, it tickled my funny bone.

Mary Witzl said...

Anne -- Kids are very much a woman's job in Japan, and being able to have them or not is a huge issue. They're so integral to a woman's life that people feel justified in commenting on infertility or the decision not to have children. I found it hard to get used to that.

Debra -- A pregnant woman's round belly is an object of compelling interest to the entire world, it seems. People liked rubbing my belly, too, though fortunately not my colleagues, who treated mine like a time bomb.

Marian -- I'm always aghast at people who ask strangers when their baby is due. I don't think I'd ever get over being told what I had to tell a lady once, "Actually, she was born four months ago."

Robin -- My God, and I thought I was weird for wanting to put my wisdom teeth on a necklace!

Your laughter was perfectly understandable. When I first heard about 9/11, my reaction was to burst out laughing. I did NOT think it was funny; I was in shock and could not take in what I was hearing.

Carolie said...

Very, very true. We've been trying for children since day one. Nothing yet, and I'm in my 40s, so it may never happen. Not an easy question to field, but for some reason, when it comes from my Japanese friends, it seems to come from love, not from competition, so it hurts less than when my American friends ask the same question. Weird, but true.

Kim Ayres said...

It goes in the other direction too - as implied in Robert the Skeptic's comment above, there is disapproval if you have too many kids aswell.

If you have one, everyone wants to know when you will be having another.

When you have 2, no one questions anything.

When you have 3, everyone assumes the 3rd one as an accident and you really ought to get snipped to prevent any more

When you have 4 or more, society no longer caters for you - you can't all fit in a standard sized car, you have to pull 2 tables together in a cafe rather than just grab a chair from another to squeeze another one in, and the "family tickets" to various centres don't cover 4+ children.

And when you get to 5, everyone assumes you're a catholic, mormon or too randy and stupid for your own good.

Angela said...

So interesting what are taboo topics in one culture yet are not in another. Same thing for what constitutes bad manners.

“This would be a good time for you to start the next one,” she said flatly, pointing to my belly just in case I didn’t catch her drift.

I can't believe she said this! WOW. You must have really worked hard to keep the look off your face at her forwardness! Me, I probably would have burst out laughing or something totally inappropriate.

I, um, do stuff like that. :-)

Kappa no He said...

My son is an only child and I got the kawaisou for ages, just recently stopped. I always pointed out that I was an only child and survived just fine. Then they go and kawaisou my parents because I'm so far away. Can't win.

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- You and I have been blogging pals for a long time now and although we've never met, you sound like prime mother material. I had my kids late, and while I got off comparatively easy on the question front because I was also single for a long time, I know how those "Don't you want to have children?" questions sting. I used to feel as though people were trying to smite me with their own domestic bliss or taunting me for having had an interesting, child-free life.

And after all those years in Japan, the awful thing is that I too would send you to a couple of those fertility shrines, with my love and best wishes. I'd be your kid, Carolie -- that much I can tell you!

Kim -- This is especially true for Japan, where space is such a luxury and even a tiny little house that any westerner would sniff at is considered palatial by Japanese standards. One kid gets you 'kawaisoo!' ('oh, poor thing' comments -- see Kappa below); three kids gets you raised eyebrows and 'I'll bet your house is lively!' comments; four kids means you're Catholic or insane. Everyone I knew in Japan who had over three kids was Catholic or an ex hippie. Two kids is the Acceptable Norm. We used to wish we'd had more kids just so we wouldn't conform so obligingly, but we never wished that enough to do anything crazy. Two, it turned out for us, was just right.

Angela -- That particular nursery teacher was a real piece of work, and for three years, my own particular Bete Noire. She said that to me and much, much more. Believe me, during those three years I went around with a smile pasted on my face when I had to deal with her -- which was a lot of the time, as my husband spoke little Japanese then. (So glad to know I'm not the only one with that horrible way of bursting into socially inappropriate laughter!)

As for what is good and bad manners from country to country, I could write an entire book. Seriously.

Kappa -- Just reading your comment, the first thing that went through my mind was "Aaa, kawaisooo!" But don't worry: it's nothing to do with the only child thing. If we'd had our second child first, she'd have been an only child. And I used to wish to God I'd been one, and I'm sure my sisters felt the same.

Chris Eldin said...

This kind of cultural difference can take a lot of getting used to. I face this because of our back and forth between the U.S. and Dubai. Oddly, people in *both* places have no shame in asking "Aren't you worried you're harming your kids?" Wow. Just...wow. This question, word for word, has been asked of me countless times, by people from all over the world. I used to be polite, but now I look for something rude to ask them about in response.

Mary Witzl said...

Chris -- We still get this, all the time. "Don't your kids have problems socializing, what with being pulled all over the world?" and "They must be very confused, not knowing which country they're from." The thing is, there are advantages and disadvantages to our kind of lifestyle -- we are aware of that. But just because you stay in one location does not mean that your kids will find the whole social scene smooth sailing. When I was a kid, I knew what country I was from and we stayed in one place all the time, but I wasn't terribly well socialized.

Sometimes, even the kids' friends do this: "My Dad says he doesn't want to go gallivanting around the world like yours because he likes to stay in one place and put down roots. And he'd feel sorry for us." Pah! I could understand this better if we went around bragging about how clever we were, living like nomads, but we've never done this.

Our kids now handle this very well. They aren't pompous, but they can field these questions artlessly. It's not easy to do this without sounding like you're bragging about how cool you are, being multi-cultural, but I bet over the years, your boys will learn too. They'll probably have to...

Carolie said...

As for the "many countries" question -- I hope and pray that if we are blessed with a child, we are able to move as much as possible, especially overseas. I think the many moves I experienced growing up were character-building experiences. I definitely want any children I get the chance to raise to have many and varied experiences!

Thank you for the kind words, Mary. You made me weep (but what else is new?)

Susie said...

Yep. This is a touchy one for me, too. I've been blessed with a two year old but recently had a miscarriage. I can't tell you the pain I felt when asked by someone if we were planning to have another while I was still waiting to hear whether I was officially miscarrying or not.
Uff. I cannot imagine being a Japanese woman dealing with infertility or a loss of a child(ren). Although the people of course mean well I imagine that every time a woman gets asked that question another part of her heart breaks. Thanks for your insight as always :)

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- Nooo -- I didn't mean to make you cry! I hope that like me, you find crying cathartic -- please tell me you do!

We'll never know for sure whether our kids would have been better off in one place all their lives, but we definitely think our international moves have helped them build character. Sometimes we worry that we're just making a virtue of a necessity, but when our kids talk about how much they've enjoyed certain aspects of their lives and experiencing different cultures, we feel somewhat justified.

Susie -- Your comment is exactly why I cringed every time I heard anyone ask these kid questions: there is such potential to hurt. Although I'm sure the people who asked you this question did not mean to wound, it really does seem intrusive. And in your case, it caused you such pain. I am so sorry.

The women I knew in Japan just got used to this somehow. I think they closed part of themselves off and went onto automatic pilot, so to speak, when people asked them the "Why haven't you...?" question. I would personally find that so hard.