Friday, May 30, 2008



It is our turn, this year, to be the leaders of our block for the neighborhood community association. It is not a major responsibility, but it does take some time. There is a monthly meeting (which Toshi attends), weekly patrol, distribution the community newspaper once a month, organization of the summer festival, collection of the community association annual fees, and the request for a donation to the Red Cross twice a year. When Toshi attended the first meeting, he realized that his childhood friend is the leader of his block this year, a happy coincidence that has lead to a BBQ at their house and a taco party at our house so far. Toshi started off doing the patrol, but then he went on a business trip and asked me to do it while he was gone. I agreed. He has been back for two weeks now, but somehow, I am still doing the patrol. Hmmmm. It is good for me though, a quick walk around the neighborhood after dinner, the leader announcing the patrol is making its circuit, reminding people to turn lights on, gas off, lock doors, holding a red flashing light or, if I am lucky, they might even let me do the kachi-kachi. My first night on patrol one member asked me how to say "kachi-kachi" in English. I had to honestly reply that I had no idea. I told him that this kind of patrol is not something we do in America. I realize this is a broad generalization and I can't speak for every neighborhood in America, but people ask me to speak for all of America on a daily basis. Sometimes I explain that America is a huge country and really I can only speak for myself, but other times I am too tired and I just tell people that, sorry, we don't have "kachi-kachi" in America. Please correct me if I am wrong. So, what the heck are "kachi-kachi" anyway? Well, they are a pair of long wooden blocks that you strike together to punctuate the announcements the leader makes. Like this: "This is the neighborhood patrol." CLACK CLACK "Please remember to turn on porch lights to keep the neighborhood bright." CLACK CLACK "This is the neighborhood patrol." CLACK CLACK "Let's keep our neighborhood safe and lock our doors." CLACK CLACK! Toshi says these have been used throughout Japan for ages to remind people to put out fires, turn off gas stoves, etc. before sleeping. If anyone knows how to say "kachi-kachi" in English, please enlighten me.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


On Being Out of the Loop

We got of the subway with Yamada-san, changed trains and met up with Takahashi-san on the platform. Mrs. Takahashi immediately leaned into Mrs. Yamada and started whispering fervently. She barely even said good morning to me. The train approached, we boarded and Mrs. Takahashi continued her discussion, in hushed tones, closing off the normal circle we would make around our daughters and effectively cut Mina off from the other two girls. I was so appalled at her rudeness that finally, I turned myself and my children around to look out the windows of the closed train doors behind us. I was shocked and I didn't know how to respond. I thought these women were my friends, we see each other every day, we have lunched together, shared information with each other - what was going on this morning? I have to admit that tears of frustration stung my eyes and I was grateful for my habit of wearing my sunglasses on the train simply because I never have a free hand with which to change them. After dropping the girls off at school, on the turn-around trip, I noticed the same two ladies had joined two other women and they were still going strong, yak-yak-yak-ing, nodding, whispering, talking over each other. Something was going on; I had no idea what.

This is how it is for me. I can exchange niceties, hold my own in surface conversations, understand the basic gist of the usual morning chatter on the trains, but when there is some burning topic, when people are speaking to each other with rapid fire urgency, I am lost. I miss all the good stuff.

On the field trip earlier this month, one senpai mom with a daughter at the high school was telling some story, all the mothers were laughing and making exclamations. I could not for the life of me follow what she was saying. Just after she finished talking, one of the other mothers turned to me and asked, "Isn't that amazing?" I had to admit that I didn't understand. I can talk about the weather, answer the same five questions that every other person on the street seems to ask me, but when it comes to the truly interesting tales that have the other mother's laughing, 95 percent of the time, I am wearing a plastic grin. This I was able to express to the mom to whom I had admitted my failure to comprehend and she sympathized with me, even took the time to explain it all to me, something not everyone is willing to do. I appreciated her help, but it didn't stop me from being sad about my limitations.

I am not even sure that studying more would help me. In Japanese, people often speak indirectly, circle around issues, rely on non-verbal cues, assume the subject is understood. If you grew up around this system of hearing what is unspoken, it might be easy for you to understand, but where I come from we say what we mean.

In Japanese, it is difficult to ask directly for help. If you want help with something, you voice a complaint and expect the other person to take action. This means that I have to be very careful when trying to make conversation with my in-laws. I was telling my in-laws, in passing, how I had stubbed my toe on the window frame when hanging out the laundry (yes, I have to step out of a window to get to my balcony, and no, I don't have a dryer, but those are different posts!) The next thing I know, my father-in-law is on the phone with a contractor looking into having the wall knocked out at our house! Wait! Stop! I was just filling in the uncomfortable silence with babble!

Still, my obliviousness does have advantages. Another friend was down because of the gossip that had been going around the school. I can't follow any of that nonsense. It all circles around over my head and that means I don't have to hear it, worry about it, think about it, spread it, believe it or even care. That right there saves me a lot of energy, energy I can use to try to send an e-mail in Japanese to Mrs. Takahashi to find out if there is something I need to know.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008



California Pizza Kitchen is in Japan. I knew this, but I they are not conveniently located for me, so hadn't made the trip. One of the online groups I belong to decided to have a gathering there and that provided me with the reason I needed to hop onto a train. I dragged my dear friend with me, the two of us and four kids, on a mission. We arrived late and I ended up seated next to my friend (whom I talk to all the time) and the kids. So much for putting faces to the names on posts. When the Thai Chicken Pizza arrived, I took a bite, leaned over and whispered in my friend's ear, "I can't hear a thing anyone is saying and I don't even care! I am happy!" Now I am a maniac, telling everyone - we have to go! I have two lunch dates with mother's from Mina's school set up, my private student and I are planning to have a lesson at the restaurant soon and I am pretty sure that is where we will be headed to celebrate my birthday this summer. This might make it possible for me to survive the summer without that trip to California. If food is love, then true American food in Japan is unconditional love! On the train home, I said to my friend, "That was so good! We have to go again!" She replied, "what are you doing tomorrow?"



The Library Upstairs

It is said that you can tell a lot about a person by the books they read. What about the books a person doesn't read? Today, I was cleaning out the tatami room upstairs and counted forty-seven books piled up next to the stereo. This is the room where we sleep and we don't keep much in it, but forty plus books have managed to find their way up there and never made it out. Most of the books are unread, pulled from the bookcases downstairs and taken to read in the quiet moments before sleep. Some, like Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, are tomes too cumbersome to toss into my purse to be consumed on the train. There are books that failed to call out to me to be picked up the next night, now buried beneath other titles that remain unread, yet are still in that limbo land of the ever multiplying "to-be-read pile." I found a few self help titles and weight loss guides; books I finger when, at the end of the day, all I can think is "something has got to change." A few books are old friends, like The Simple Living Guide, whose ideals and philosophy I admire, but accept that I am far too much a lazy, materialistic glutton to ever live up to. Some parenting guides are there, books whose advice makes me laugh at myself when I follow it. "Are you feeling angry?" just doesn't role of the tongue in the same satisfying way as "Don't you speak to me that way, young lady!" Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth is there, a gorgeous, fascinating book that is, unfortunately, too depressing to read in its entirety within a week. Then we have the Harvard Psychologist Carol Gillian's The Birth of Pleasure, on loan from a friend, highly recommended, thrice dipped into, a book that taunts me with the reminder that no matter how I wish it to be so, I am not an intellectual. I am not giving the impression that I love books here, but I do. I can't count the number of books tucked into all the cupboards downstairs - the books I really want to read, the books I have yet to sample, and perhaps most importantly, the books that have the distinction of being titles with which I cannot part and are nestled in their permanent home in my bookshelves. No, the books upstairs are kind of like leftovers - you don't really want to eat them, but you can't bring yourself to throw them away either - the waste! Presently, I am reading at the pace of about a book a week. Perhaps I will count them again at the end of the year and if the number has grown to fifty-two, I will make it my resolution to read all those books next year. For now though, I am going to tuck back into The Woman at the Washington Zoo, who knows in which pile it will end up?

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