Monday, 27 July 2009

It Takes A Village

One rainy Saturday I had to take our two daughters to the pediatrician’s for shots. The doctor’s office was a twenty-minute walk from our house, across the train tracks. This meant that I had to collapse the baby's stroller and wrestle it up the station stairs, my baby clutched under one arm and my four-year-old clinging to the other, a diaper bag slung around my neck. On the trip back down the stairs after the visit, my four-year-old decided that she too needed to be carried. Somehow I made it down the stairs, my jaw clenched, a kid tucked under each arm, half dragging and half kicking the collapsed stroller. As I neared the bottom I suddenly saw another foreigner standing there staring up at me, a censorious look on his face. I’m guessing his expression was due to the odd expletive I felt perfectly justified in using. Here is what got me: this man watched me struggling down wet stairs with two kids, a stroller and a diaper bag. At the very least, I deserved a smile and a thumbs-up, but all he could do was frown -- and peg me as a Bad Mommy for swearing.

It takes a village to raise a child, but it's a sad fact that not everybody knows what that means. Some people don't realize that a kind word or the offer of help at just the right moment can make all the difference in the world. That sometimes helping the child means helping the parent.

And yet some people know exactly what this means. Like our neighbour, Murakami-san, who I used to see almost every day, usually on her bicycle, bags of shopping balanced on her handlebars. Night after night I would see her, out for her evening stroll, walking briskly down the cherry-lined lane in the park. Murakami-san was a few years older than I, a woman with five teenage children, all at home. Her husband had suffered from cancer and I knew she’d had a tough time while he was in the hospital having first surgery, then chemotherapy. But even while he was recuperating and she was commuting to and from Tokyo to visit him in the hospital, Murakami-san always greeted me with a wave and a smile of pure, genuine serenity. I envied her calm manner, her effortless placidity. With small children and an almost full-time job, I often felt like I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Murakami-san, it seemed, was a wife and mother who had it all worked out.

Raising kids while going out to work every day is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. At six thirty every evening, I’d arrive at the childcare center, tired and hungry. It would take me a full thirty minutes to get the kids packed up, then another fifteen minutes to walk home. Another twenty minutes went to shopping for dinner – always with the kids in tow – and if someone threw a temper tantrum, which she very often did, that might easily turn into forty-five. There were many times my husband or I ended up cooking dinner as late as eight o’clock. When bedtime came, only two of us were ready to pack it in. And it was never the kids.

One evening, after a particularly rough time on my own with the kids, I left the house as soon as my husband got back from work, telling him I’d be back as soon as I’d cooled off. It took me a good five minutes to get my breathing down to a normal rate, and as I walked, my hands were still clinched into fists. After fifteen minutes, as I was summoning the courage to turn around and go home, I ran into Murakami-san. She took one look at my face and hopped off her bicycle, her friendly smile morphing into a look of concern. “Are you okay?”

“I am now,” I told her, “but fifteen minutes ago I could have kicked a hole in a fence.”

“Kids or husband?”

“Kids. They were driving me insane!”

“Oh, you poor thing!” She smiled. “You’re doing the right thing.”

“What, you mean going for a walk?”


“My husband’s with them,” I told her, struggling to keep my voice steady, “because if I’d stayed, I would have hit somebody.”

“Well, I’ve been there and done that!”

I stared at her in amazement. “Really?” She always looked so calm, so relaxed, so good-tempered.

“Of course!”

“But— you never look upset!”

“You’ve seen me out on my bicycle?”

I nodded. “With your shopping bags—”

She laughed. “I go shopping when I can’t take another minute of my kids. When I can’t stand their bickering or their wilfulness for one more second. That’s when I go.”

“But…you always look so relaxed.”

She looked astonished. “Do I?”


“Well, believe me, I’m anything but. Sometimes I tell them that if they don’t get out of my way, somebody’s going to get hurt.” She smiled. “The oldest ones hold the door open for me when that happens. Because they know.”

After talking to Murakami-san that evening, I went home with a spring in my step and renewed confidence in my parenting skills. By letting me know that her patience had limits, she made me feel like I wasn’t alone. She told me I’d done the right thing, getting out before I flew off the handle and let someone have it. Every time we met after that evening, we winked and smiled at each other. It was like we had a secret handshake.

When I look back on those early parenting days, I remember many other women I am indebted to. The receptionist at our local swimming pool who saw me struggling with my temper-tantrum prone youngest daughter, for instance. “You know, the really smart ones give you so much trouble at first,” she whispered, as soon as my daughter had quietened down. “You wait and see: one day that child will be as good as gold, your best friend. I guarantee it.” Amazingly, she was right. And even if she hadn’t been, her words on that occasion were like a soothing balm. Or another neighbor, Takahashi-san, who caught me in tears, just outside the house, after a nasty spat with my eldest daughter. “Hang in there, Mary!” she said, taking my hands in hers. “We’re all in this together, you know, all of us mothers! And don’t worry – it gets easier!” Her kind words made me burst into fresh tears, but they comforted and fortified me no end.

Being a parent is the single most difficult and rewarding job I have ever had and my husband feels exactly the same. Our girls are teenagers now, very capable and self sufficient. We look at them and shake our heads just remembering all we’ve been through with them. And we will never forget the village that helped us raise them.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Telephone Korean

For the better part of fifteen years, I was a telephone Korean.

It all started the third year I was in Japan. By this time, my Japanese language skill had progressed past the run-Spot-run stage and moved into True Communication. One day, I called the Tokyo YWCA to ask about membership. There was a brief silence as the woman at the other end registered my non-native Japanese, then all of a sudden she started speaking to me in Korean.

I interrupted as soon as I could get a word in edgewise. "Sorry, I don't speak Korean."

This was followed by another brief silence as the lady at the other end absorbed this information, then she rebounded. "Oh. You are Chinese?"

"No, I'm--"

"From Taiwan?"

"No! I'm American and I just want--"


"No!" I spluttered, wondering why I had to account for my race. "I'm hakujin." This is white person in Japanese and it finally got the YWCA lady to hush up and listen.

"Really?" She sounded provokingly skeptical.


"Well, you certainly sound Korean."

This was news to me: I'd been to Korea four times and not one Korean person had ever told me my Japanese sounded Korean.

"Are you Korean?" I asked her. There are a lot of Koreans who live in Japan.

"No, but I'm studying Korean." She sounded a little disappointed.

When I met this woman at the YWCA a few hours later, she shook her head and looked even more disappointed. "You really sounded Korean, you know!"

A few months later, I called a travel company in Tokyo that arranged ship voyages. My boyfriend and I were planning a trip to Europe and wanted to book tickets on the ferry from Norway to England. But as soon as I'd said "Hello, I'd like to book--" the woman who answered the phone interrupted me. "I'm sorry, but our lines don't sail to Korea."

"Well, that's fine, then, because I don't want to go to Korea, I want--"

"You'll have to call a different number for the ferry to Pusan. Shall I give it to you?"

"Please listen to me! I don't want to go to Korea, we want to sail from Norway to England!"

The woman sounded puzzled. "Ah. But you are Korean, right?"

Not again! "No! I'm an American and my boyfriend is British and we want to sail from Norway to England."

Fifteen minutes later, I'd managed to book two tickets from Esbjerg to Harwich and I'd given the lady our names and passport details. But I could still hear the doubt in her voice: I got the feeling she would have to see my actual photograph before she'd give up thinking I was a Korean national.

Over the next fourteen years, I don't think I could count the times I got mistaken for a Korean over the telephone. Pizza delivery places. Telemarketers. Exterminators. Plumbers. Receptionists at swimming pools, restaurants, and cinemas -- all of them wanted to speak to me in Korean or know how long a Korean like me had been studying Japanese. My husband thought it was hilarious. I thought it was a pain in the neck.

During our last few months in Japan, I had to arrange for a company to ship our household goods back to the U.K. I called half a dozen companies to get that many estimates, and I was a telephone Korean many times over, gently explaining again and again that we were sending our effects to London, not Seoul or Pusan.

In retrospect, I know my Japanese pronunciation didn't really sound Korean. Some of our friends in Japan were Korean and they all confirmed this. Being mistaken for a Korean was really a compliment: it meant that my Japanese, though non-native, was at least in the ballpark. It also showed a little prejudice: there is a strong feeling in Japan that if a foreigner speaks Japanese reasonably well, he or she must be an Asian. So whenever strangers heard my foreign-but-intelligible Japanese over the telephone, they envisioned an Asian face at the end of the line. They could tell that I didn't sound 100% native, so they figured I must be the closest thing to a Japanese person: a Korean. When my husband spoke Japanese over the phone, no one ever took him for any kind of Asian. And when our daughters spoke Japanese on the telephone, strangers always assumed they were Japanese.

No, I was the one and only Korean in our family. And who would have thought how much I'd grow to miss it?

Here in Scotland, whenever I have to telephone a stranger, I will often hear that same short pause I used to hear in Japan as my foreignness is registered.

"American or Canadian?" the stranger will ask.

"American," I always tell them. And sometimes, I just can't help myself: "Korean-American, that is."

Friday, 10 July 2009


A few nights ago, my foolish cat turned her nose up at a perfectly good dinner and went out into the night to catch her very last mouse. A plump, freshly killed rodent in her mouth, she then attempted to cross the busy road in front of our friends' house, where she had spent the past nine months. She didn't make it. This happened exactly one day before we were due to bring her back to the place where we will spend the summer.

I can't get over this: one cat -- one not very smart cat -- makes a stupid decision and breaks all our hearts. One foolish cat plus one speeding car in Scotland, and our entire household is reduced to tears; our eldest daughter in Tokyo cries herself to sleep.

We got her over four years ago. We wanted a kitten to begin with, but one day, our friend Dina told us she had found a peach of a stray cat. She described her beauty in detail: green eyes, dense, snowy-white fur, and pink accessories. "Is she a kitten?" I asked. No, but she was pregnant. We agreed to look after the cat until she had the kittens, then take our pick of the litter. Dina promised to take back the cat and the remaining kittens. We bought a cat carrier and went to collect her.

I didn't much like the look of her at first: she was indisputably beautiful, but a little coddled looking and snooty to the other cats she was sharing a house with. But we took her home, fed her, and set up a litter box inside the kitchen. She really liked that litter box. Even if she didn't manage to do anything in it, she seemed to enjoy trying. We spent the first month sweeping cat litter off the kitchen floor.

One month later the cat hadn't had a single kitten. Two months later, it was obvious she wasn't going to be a mother. We got rid of the litter box and let her go outside instead.

Dina was apologetic. "I'm so sorry! I could have sworn she was pregnant. Do you want me to take her back?"


We'd all fallen head over heels in love with her.

In no time, she was the queen of our large garden. She slept in the bird-feeder and stalked mice in the borders. She charmed the little old lady downstairs into giving her extra cat food. When she napped on the garden wall, she invariably attracted the attention of passersby with her considerable charms. "What a beautiful cat!" I could heard people croon, "She's so friendly!" And inevitably, "I wonder if she's hungry." She was. No matter how much we fed her, she always had room for more.

She was a quiet cat. Some cats meow and yowl all day long; ours only did this to announce a successful hunting venture, which she generally had two or three times a day, 365 days a year. When she was hungry, though, she didn't make a peep. She would merely seek out the person closest to the kitchen and weave in and out of their legs until they were forced to give up and feed her just to get some peace. Watching her do this, all pleading eyes and swishes of her tail, was like observing a mime working a crowd expertly.

She was the most efficient feline killer I have ever met. She once brought home a stoat that was easily half her size -- a dead stoat. She was especially proud of that kill: on that occasion, her meow was deeper, richer, and more drawn out. When I came into the hall and found it, she did everything but scrape, curtsy and bow. The fact that she was so ruthless and single-minded in her killing always amazed me because she was such a dainty, graceful, well-groomed cat. It was like watching a ballerina wielding a pick-axe or a society matron gobbling down a sloppy hot dog.

Like all cats, she had established rituals. At night, she slept at the foot of our bed, but she would only jump up after kneading the carpet for a good long time. My husband and I would lie stiffly, wondering just when she would make her leap. I counted: she had to knead the carpet for 25 seconds, minimum. If I lost patience and picked her up before she'd finished her kneading process, she'd jump back down and finish it. When she brought back a mouse, she would always announce it, then wait breathlessly in the hall for me to come and exclaim over it. My angry curses never fazed her in the slightest. She would follow me excitedly to the kitchen door and watch as I flung the mouse -- if it was still alive -- into the hedge. When I had my writing group and could not use my hands to pet her, she was especially generous with her rodent offerings. I took to locking her cat flap.

She was my cat. If she was on someone else's lap and I came into a room, she would jump off and make a beeline for me. When I went out to work in the garden, she followed me everywhere I went, darting along the garden path, rubbing up against my legs. If I wasn't attentive enough, she'd cut to the chase, flipping over coquettishly and inviting me to rub her stomach. Whenever I wrote, she invariably sat on my lap, the keyboard, or the desk. She sat with me through rejection after rejection, always purring and worshipful. She didn't care if I ever got published as long as I kept scratching her under the chin or behind her ears.

When we left the U.K., it was hard to say goodbye to her, but we knew she would be in good hands with Dina. And she was. But having finally decimated the rodent population around the house, she decided to go further afield to find prey. Her own lust for hunting finally did her in.

Today, instead of going to Dina's to collect her and bring her back, we buried her in the back garden under an elder tree, near the place she loved to sun and play. We decorated her grave with bouquets of ladies' mantle and catnip, and watered it with many tears.

As we drove home, my tears would not stop falling. I could see myself objectively: a foolish middle-aged woman torn up over the loss of a mere cat. This world is full of sadness and horrors: famine, floods, massacres, endless wars, and cruel despots fighting for power, yet here I am mourning a cat. But anyone who has loved an animal knows the depth of the love they are given back, the incredible attachment they can feel. And if you can't mourn the loss of unconditional love, I don't know what you can mourn.

I hear and see her everywhere. At the foot of my bed, kneading the mat, waiting until just the right time to jump up. I feel her fur against my shins, the warmth of her hard little head under my hand. I see her sunning herself under every bush, on every windowsill. I picture her smiling up at me, her green eyes filled with sleepy adoration. She had a breathy, eager, fine-grained purr like a well-oiled machine. I keep thinking I can hear it; I want so much to believe I really do.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Do You Kankokugo Biliyor Musunuz?

“Apricot!” my youngest daughter bellows, a note of challenge in her voice. I cringe and gulp, but I’m not going to stop her from teaching me Turkish. She’s like a one-person language boot camp and I need her.

“Ka—” I stutter, frowning. “Kai—”

“Jeez!” my daughter hisses, rolling her eyes. “I don’t get why you can’t learn apricot!”

Neither can I, really. I’ve managed numbers up through 100, including some subtraction, addition and multiplication. I can say hello, please, thank you, bon appétit, good morning, and gezundheit. I know the words for the rooms of the house, most of my vegetables, and loads of fruit, including watermelon, apple, orange, peach – even persimmon. But not, for some reason, apricot.

“Try it again!” my daughter encourages. I prop my legs up against the dashboard and try again. “Kay—” All of a sudden, I know the next syllable and I almost choke in my triumphance “—Kayuh—”

My daughter leans forward, her arms around her legs. “Yes! Go on! Kayuh-what?”

I freeze, my hand over my mouth. Damn it, it's gone!


She praised me for my skill with numbers earlier and flattered me for my pronunciation of the lyrics to the national anthem, but I appear to have run out of steam. “My brain isn’t as flexible as yours,” I whine. “Anyway, this is weird – learning Turkish in a parking lot in Scotland.”

“You’ve got to learn it sometime,” my daughter rejoins, but even as she says this, it strikes me that this isn’t weird at all, it’s the way I’ve done it all my life.

Most of the major language breakthroughs I’ve had have been in unlikely places, with unlikely people. I developed fluency in Japanese by speaking it with Chinese and Brazilians. We all studied together, and when we took the train home, we’d have short conversations in our broken Japanese. Our level was still so elementary that we exhausted the patience of native or more fluent speakers, but weirdly enough, we generally managed to amuse and entertain each other. I studied Japanese with a woman from New Zealand and an American man too, but we could never have had the same crazy conversations I was able to enjoy with my Brazilian and Chinese pals. One of the Brazilians could never remember the difference between yasui ‘easy’ and yasai ‘vegetable’. I can remember laughing myself silly over this on a train from Shinagawa to Yokohama, while the Japanese around us stared as though we were crazy.

Even though I learned how to read Japanese in the States and Japan, it wasn’t until I was living in Amsterdam that I really developed fluency. As a student bumming around Europe, I found a job washing dishes in a Japanese restaurant right in the heart of Amsterdam. The manager kindly allowed me to live there, in the attic room where the waitresses changed into their kimono. Libraries in the Netherlands cost money to join and most of the books are, naturally, in Dutch. Dishwashers don’t make a lot of money anywhere, so I had a real problem during my time off when I’d finished the few paperbacks I had with me. I began to read the Japanese comic books and graphic novels left there by the waiters and the odd customer. I had my Shogakukan Japanese-English dictionary with me and I would spend my days in Amsterdam gripped by some Japanese murder mystery, feverishly consulting my dictionary for words whose meanings I couldn’t manage to guess. To this day I can still remember specific plots and characters.

A few years later, I spent almost a month traveling around Korea, relying on Japanese to communicate. Due to Japan’s past colonial history in Korea, many older Koreans still speak Japanese fluently. I felt awful doing this: Japanese rule in Korea was harsh and cruel and I was always nervous about stirring up unpleasant memories. One kindly old man shook his head as he directed me to the post office. “Never in my life did I imagine that I would one day be conversing in Japanese with a young American lady,” he murmured. I heard more about World War Two than I wanted to, but what I learned has stuck with me. And I know that I was greatly privileged to learn about history from the people who lived it.

In Japan, I converted my pitiful schoolgirl French into limited fluency by using it with my husband to talk about things we didn’t want our kids to understand. I’m awful at French, but I’d be even worse if it weren’t for being forced to crank out fractured sentences like Ou sont les galletes? and J’ai achete beaucoup de chocolate, c’est sous le bunk-bed des enfants.

Our kids do this too, come to think of it. This past year, when all three of them should have been learning Turkish, our girls have been feverishly absorbing Korean home dramas and movies. This has led to hours of Korean language study. My girls feel a little disgusted that I managed four trips to Korea and have to show for it only a handful of phrases in Korean. They are determined to make up for my deficit. They can sing whole songs in Korean. I get home from work to hear them discussing the writing system, and exchanging words and phrases in Korean.

“Which one is go in peace again?” one of them hisses to the other. “And which one is stay in peace?”

So what if they should have been learning Turkish? There’s plenty of time to go over their Turkish. Like when we’re killing time in a parking lot back in Scotland...

“Kai-yuh-su!” I cry out triumphantly and my daughter cheers. Suddenly I smile. “Hey, do you remember how to say apricot in Japanese?”