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.

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