Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A tale of two mothers

please excuse the typing and editing. this japanese computer is tricky to use.

Yesterday, my real mother and I wandered the streets of Kobe with my host mother and her best friend, whom i remember well from high school. they are both about 70 years old and are very difficult to chase. Nakafuji:s pedometer reported that we went about 8 miles. That is only one measure. if you were to measure the level of silliness, we would have been off the charts.

After breakfast, we went to see a Japanese flower garden. It was lovely and we took lots of pictures. We took pictures of the flowers, each other, and the gardener too. My host mother kept taking pictures of me when I wasnt looking. I told her that she could have a picture of my behind if she wanted it. we were silly. It was fun.

After the garden, we enjoyed lunch at kaiten zushi. That is the word for those sushi places that deliver plates on a conveyor belt. This was a special place in as much as my host mother wanted to show us that if you order something special, they will deliver it on a special high speed train track (a second level of conveyors). The food was only okay, but the entertainment was priceless. We were pretty silly. I bought a toy train in the vending machine on our way out.

After lunch, we visited a karaoke bar coffee house where my host mother:s friend works. I remember Tanaka san from high school, and of course she remembered me. We traded gifts appropriately, took pictures with people we didn:t know, received gifts from strangers, and I even sang some Elvis. If you have ever heard me sing, you will understand that the patrons were clapping loudly mostly to drown out my voice. When I was finished, I bowed deeply and used a typical Japanese expression which roughly translates to - that must have been very hard work for you, and you must be so very tired. They clapped louder and laughed heartily. We were silly. It was fun.

After karaoke, we went to Motomachi for shopping. Motomachi is sort of like NY 5th avenue, except there is a lot more shopping, a lot more restaurants, and a lot more people. After wandering through the maze of covered streets, I suggested that we go to Diamaru. Diamaru department store is sort of like Neiman Marcus. They carry Burberry, but mostly we were enjoying the excessively high end shopping - Hermes, Tiffany and the like. My mother and I fell in love with a purse that did not have a price tag, but was matched with some Japanese traditional shoes which were marked at about $1500. To be fair, I never saw any outfit for more than $7000, but I suppose I stopped looking. I think my Japanese mothers enjoyed it too since they probably don:t bother going in there very often. We were pretty silly in there, but I suppose the shop owners didn:t mind too much. It was fun.

After shopping, my Japanese mother decided to take us to the top of a tall building to see Kobe from above at night. Since it had started raining, they decided to keep us under roofs the entire way. That is not an unreasonable goal in Japan, but it is still a little bit tricky. We went on quite the tour. My host mother was very polite as we ran past the security guard at a local company and ran into the building. We moved quickly through various hallways and even through the company cafeteria. We all bowed quickly in everyone:s direction and tried hard to not laugh heartily until we were clear of earshot. It was very rediculous. We had fun.

After our office building tour and view of the city, we returned to the house to talk to my host sister via skype. My japanese mother wanted to introduce her grand daughter and give my sister and i time to talk. So, we did. My Japanese mother does this very frequently and showed us how her granddaughter in Australia likes to watch her grandmother in Japan play with a balloon. It was a very serious use of technology. And, it was nice to see my host sister again, even in that way. She explained that we were story book characters to her daughter, so I insisted that she start considering us movie stars. It was silly. We had fun.

After skype, we went to dinner at a local place. We took pictures of each other and different combinations of everyone in the restaurant. The food was good and the sake was warm. My mother received oranges from the shopkeeper. It was fun.

After dinner, we went to a local karaoke place. After all, we hadn:t sung in at least a few hours. By then I had moved to whiskey and was singing in Japanese. Our proprietors encouraged that heartily and I thus acquiesced to what I told my mother were silly foreigner tricks. But, even so, I did quite well with my oral Japanese character exam and surprised everyone with how much I could read. When asked where I learned Japanese, I explained noisily that I had spent 12 weeks with my host mother and she must be brilliant - much laughter. The proprietor also asked my host mother if it was very difficult for her when I lived in her home not speaking any Japanese and how she managed to feed me American food. My host mother laughed.

"Oh, I didn:t do that. Are you kidding? I didn:t even really want to have an exchange student at first. I thought it would be a hassle. But, it wasn:t a problem."

"Oh, but I suppose it was probably a problem for her." she finished with a smile.

I replied on cue.

"Yes, can you imagine how horrible it must have been for me! I had to live with this woman who is always speaking in local dialect and making jokes. I couldn:t understand anything and the food was terribly strange! It was so so horrible. Can you imagine?"

"Oh, do you understand our local dialect?" she asked.

And, I answered in the only possible way.

"No, I don:t understand it at all," spoken with great drama, in perfect local dialect.

It was silly. We had fun.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

My mother called

My mother called me in the Spring.

“So, Honey, what are your plans for this summer?”

“Well, Mom, we have a lot of travel planned, but we’d really like to see you. Do you have some time to come up to Cleveland?”

“That isn’t exactly what I had in mind.”

She was vague. My mother is vague occasionally, like anyone, but I wasn’t following her this time.

“Will you be at home long enough for us to come down?” I offered. “If we’re around, I could probably come to you.”

My parents travel a lot. My dad works out West. My mother works on the East Coast. They travel more than your average grandparents, and are thus rather difficult to visit.

“That would be nice. I would like to see the kids, but that isn’t what I had in mind.”

“What did you have in mind?” I finally asked. My kids were beginning to get restless, in spite of the fact that I had only been on the phone a few minutes.

“I have quite a few frequent flyer miles. You know, your father and I travel quite a bit.”

“Yes, I noticed that. What did you have in mind?” I was trying to think ahead. Maybe she would suggest my sister and I meet her in Vegas. That might be fun. Hmm.

“I was thinking we might go to Japan.”

My reaction was visceral. I started to sweat.

“Japan? Really?”

“Yes. Well, you haven’t been in quite awhile. I thought it would be fun, but maybe you don’t have time.”

“Um, I could probably work that out,” my mind raced, my heart pumped, my body sweated. I started going through the weeks of the summer. They were pretty full. I tried to start switching things around in my head. I started imagining who would watch the kids. What would I do? I couldn’t say ‘no.’ I couldn’t say ‘yes.’

“Maybe in the Fall? Would the Fall work?” my mother asked calmly.

She was serious.

“Um, the Fall?” Yes. My husband had to take a week off every quarter. I might even be able to do the Fall. “Yeah, the Fall. Are some weeks better than others? I’ll call Jay.”

And thus our trip planning began, all those months ago. My head has spun in disbelief ever since. So much has changed since I left in 1999. So many plans must be made before I go. What will we do? What will we bring? Where will we stay? What do you say after all these years?

We are on our way. By Saturday night, I will be bowing in salutation to Kawa-san in Kyoto Station. I will tuck myself into a futon under his roof. I will smell the reedy smell of tatami mats and the smoky, salty grease of tako-yaki at the stand near the Station.

I remember standing at Hiroshima Station in 1994 on the day I moved to Japan.

The smells in the air, the background noise, the high-pitched woman on the train imploring us “wasuremono ga nai you ni go chui kudasai” – “Don’t forget anything.”

In 1994, I remembered Japan as it was in 1987 during my exchange student days in high school. I remembered Japan as it was in 1990 during my days as a college student interning at a Japanese company. The emotions returned, as clear as you would expect if you could travel through time. Standing in the Station in 1994, seven years after my high school exchange experience, I felt the emotions of a high school student, thrust into a country without her parents, barely able to introduce herself – excited and anxious and alone and proud.

I remembered the book I was reading on the plane in high school. I expected to look down and see my old shoes.

And now, in 2009, I remember my going away party in 1999. The most poignant memory of my last days in Japan was that I did not feel like I was going home.

I felt like I was leaving home.

I grew up in the U.S. I spent my childhood in the U.S.

I became an adult in Japan.

If you have ever lived in a foreign country, you know that repatriation is far more difficult than orientation. If you have never lived in a foreign country, I’m not sure I could adequately explain it.

You can’t go home again. It won’t be the same. I’m not the same. But I can’t wait to get there.

Thanks Mom (and Dad)