Konichiwa everyone! I’d like to introduce you to my new friend Hiroko. He is a rice paddy farmer in the small town of Magome. I met him while walking around in a daze of amazement and love for Japan. He climbed right out of his rice paddy to come talk to me and my two friends right after he nodded that it was okay to take a photo of him. Then he promptly told us while flashing his tobacco stained smile to get the f&*k off his street.
Okay, that isn’t exactly how it happened if I’m being honest. He did swiftly climb out of his rice paddy, ask us where we were from and then point repeatedly at the tourist village we had just dropped down from while talking rapidly in Japanese. We asked him if he wanted us to go there and each time he smiled and nodded vigorously. So, there are a few options here, a) He was trying to be kind and thought we were lost, b) he is completely sick of stupid white women trying to take photos of him, or c) He was trying to recruit us to go get some more hoes and help him out. We decided it was b, and politely said “excuse me ” while bowing our way back up the hill.
Once again, I have no idea what happened there. And this is the story of my life lately during a large percentage of my day. Yet, weirdly, I have never been happier. I think I am living proof of that old saying that “ignorance is bliss”. It’s like living in a bubble where you can just automatically assume that people are saying nice things to you because they are smiling. And if they happen to be calling you a trash smelling, meat eating, jolly rotten cow, you can feel just as good about yourself than if they were saying you seem like a supermodel who just won the nobel prize for peace.
In an effort to be polite to the locals, I started Japanese classes last week and am really getting into it. Hopefully this is going to slowly help me understand more. Okay, maybe I’m not really THAT into it, but I can say about 5 things now. Every morning I pass by a hundred school children or so and I ramble on and on saying, “Ohayo gozaimasu” and they giggle in my face and yell “HELLO” while poking at one another. I truly love the pride on their little faces when they realize they know how to say something to me in English. They giggle and jostle in their little yellow hats before they get onto the bus while pointing at the weird western lady, probably wondering why I’m so round.
I thought I’d try and use google translate at the supermarket the other day to find out if I needed a store card to get sale prices. A frustrating 10 minutes later, the poor woman at the service counter looked like she wanted to use a samurai sword on herself and we were no closer to solving the issue. The thing is though, people here will continue on and on and on and on with you until they have helped you or answered you the best they can. I can’t say I had this experience living in Montreal where if people found out I did not speak French they would hang up on me sometimes in an abrupt manner and I’d be left with my mouth wide open. I spent countless hours on the phone with utility companies where they would pretty much act as if I were blessed to be giving them my money.
There are times, when this lack of communication is really troubling though. For example, my landlady (who lives next door) popped by last weekend to tell me there were “dangerous children in my windows”. This later turned out to be my son and his sleepover buddies (who were apparently way more danger seeking than my son who usually needs encouragement to cross a monkey bar…. unbeknownst to me). They had found their way onto our roof while I was downstairs cooking pancakes. This poor woman was terrified looking on from next door while the boys yelled “Konichiwa” at her.
Being unable to fully understand her, I assumed that the boys were just yelling out the windows and, of course, this is what they said they were doing. No confessions were forthcoming. Not until two days later when I got a letter from my management company in english telling me children on my roof were strictly prohibited, did I realize the seriousness and the terror of what had happened. I’m pretty sure she thinks I am on drugs, to say the least, and now I have to climb 25 stairs every 5 minutes when there are kids over so they don’t plummet to their death or give her a heart attack.
Every day is a school day, and every day I’m figuring it out a little more. But, for now, I’m happy to stay in my little air conditioned bubble and smile and wave boys….smile and wave! I think I’ll go up to the roof and have a few drinks now.
Go with the flow. Roll with the Changes. Keep Calm and Carry on. One day at a time. And so on, and so on, and so on. For those of you who have been expats , even when you love the place you live (which I do) from the start, there is always those extreme ups and downs in your mental state. The moment you realize you are literally half way across the world from all the people you care about. The moment you realize you truly don’t speak the language and that no one understands you either. The moment you realize that, yes, you have to walk another 3 miles even though your feet are blistered because YES, you TRULY do not have a car!
Then there is this, imagine waking up one day only to realize that not only do you have the biggest mouth within a five mile radius, but you also have the biggest feet? Your feet are so big that when you go out to a local shop and pick up the XL flip flops your entire big toe is still hanging off the end. And lets not even talk about how big your ass is. You already knew it was bodacious and bubbly, but then you held up a pair of XL pants and realized you might need TWO pairs of those stitched together and they would probably still be snug? And despite the fact that you walk 13KM a day most days and up various San Francisco sized hills, it seems to be getting BIGGER???
Hence, welcome to my life in Japan, where I am officially a giant. This weekend my husband, son, and I went to a teeny little local noodle shop. The owners looked rather perplexed to see us sitting on their little stools hunched over. In a shop where there were only about a dozen stools, we seemed to take up a majority of the space and that included the 8 month pregnant woman sitting behind us. After we paid our bill and were making to leave the elderly noodle matron walked us to the door and continuously mimed “watch your head” to Paul, for fear that he might tear straight through her support beam on the way out. People often stop in the street to stare at him and little girls on the subway hide their faces.
I can’t help but constantly hearing a Godzilla like roar in my head when I walk through a crowded area trying to navigate around people. I also feel like when I sit down on the train a huge crashing sound might occur and the bench may tilt. The people next to me shift ever so slightly to give me enough room. Are they worried that I might eat them? As Westerners we sure do love some good red meat after all?
Of course I am joking, sort of, kind of, to some degree. However, it has been fascinating being the biggest person I see each day. It has also got me thinking about our obesity problems in North America. Living in a country which thrives on small portions and walking and riding bikes everywhere , I take note that literally less than 1% of people I see are even slightly overweight. I suppose good genetics have something to do with it, but it does call into question the sedentary lifestyle most of us lead in North America and those giant restaurant portions. I am as guilty as anyone.
A “typical” Japanese breakfast consists of small portions of rice, grilled fish, miso soup and pickled vegetables. Compare this to eggs, toast, bacon, hash browns, and toast or a big bowl of sugary cereal. It might tell us a few things? Vending machines contain coffee, water, and green tea with no sweetener. Yes, you can get a COKE if you want, but these seem a lot less popular. It truly is “food for thought”.
Do I hope to become “smaller” in my years here? Of course I do. I am a woman, who like, every other woman is never truly happy with their bodies. Sure, I’d love to get back to my smaller self. But the other bad news is, every single dish I run into is chock full of carbohydrates. Noodles. Rice. Mochi. Pancakes. I wonder, if I eat all this instead of the normal salad lunches I am so fond of, will I actually LOSE weight? I truly feel like Alice in Wonderland where black is white and white is black. I am curious how this will all turn out and if drinking the tea is going to solve everything.
The other day I realized that I have no short pants or shorts and I have been sweating profusely in the newly humid weather. I went out to see what I could find, knowing full well that nothing in this country will fit me. I came across a shop that had lovely light cottony drawstring pants. Just looking at them made my body temperature drop at least 10 degrees. And low and behold, they fit me! I scooped up three pairs. Later I put them on , they were so comfortable and cool. Suddenly, I realized that I might be wearing the Japanese version of pajamas. But then again, I might not be? This is the moment I decide I will be “the dumb foreigner” because I will NOT part with wearing these pants.
At the bus stop this morning I was describing the pants to the lovely Japanese women who send their kids to my son’s school. I had them in stitches with my explanation about how I wore them all day wondering if people were staring at me. And they kindly reassured me that Japanese people do not care at all what I wear. That is EXACTLY what they said. Then they asked me if I liked “Jazzercise”.
This got me to thinking about the strange couple I saw this weekend wearing pink animal pajamas with a giant tote full of stuffed animals between them. And then there are the dozens of little bo peeps I’ve seen, the cherry blossom drag queen, the lady I saw in the 100 yen store who was grossly overweight, wearing a pink wig with a tiara and a sparkle dress (she was the 1% but she looked like she was not from here). And what I realized was this, no one was staring (no one except me). No one cared. This was “fine”.
So, perhaps what I realize is this. I am okay. I can be a giant in a land full of tiny people. I can wear pajama bottoms. I can let my flesh hang out if I choose. No one is going to care, and even if they do , they are WAY too polite to talk about it. Bring on the turquoise wig, the tiara, and the little bo peep pants! Momma’s going dancing in her pajamas!
Ohayo gozaimasu ! We officially made it through our first two days of living in our new home. I thought it would be a perfect time to introduce you all to a few things that have been puzzling and torturing me for the past 48 hours. First off, please take a long look at these photos. I don’t think I ever truly understood the word “dichotomy” until I moved to Japan. No where else have I seen such complete contradiction within the same moment, space, or culture.
Want to take a bath? You THOUGHT you knew how to do this. Plug tub, turn on water , fill tub, turn off water. WRONG!!!! Now, there is a very complicated system of digital buttons you must press in a precise order. Want to call your husband and ask him to bring you a glass of wine? No problem, press the “call button” and you can blast your voice throughout the whole house. Want to reheat the water once you are in for a few minutes? SURE! Want to have your bath ready for you at 7.am. ? It does that too?
This is all really great, with the exception that there is a small Japanese lady in there (and they do make them small here) who is constantly talking at you in a language you don’t understand. Also, sometimes you just want to get it over and done with and taking the time to figure this out is mind boggling (as I heard yesterday while Paul cursed in the shower while accidentally pressing the intercom button and then proceeded to curse in Dutch because the Japanese lady would not shut up and let him be the whole time). Note to self, NEVER take a bath when guests are in house.
Oh, and lets not forget, you need to also have a control for the tub in the living area. Yes, we would not want to be unable to access the tub temperature when you are getting ready to sit down for a little bite to eat or to read a book!
Now, lets talk toilets. You know you want to. I’m sure many of you have heard about the very complicated toilets here and YES, they do everything but make you a sandwich. Try going into a public rest room and being in there for a small eternity because you need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out where the flush button is. But good news! If you are the easily embarrassed type, you can push a button and have a little ditty play to cover up the fact that you are taking a dump (but really? everyone KNOWS what you are doing once the music starts).
Here comes the “dichotomy” . You may also encounter a “squat toilet” when you are out and about. And this is exactly what it sounds like. Squat over a hole and do your business. Many of these do not come with toilet paper and lets just say that aiming takes ALOT of practice.
We have come to name our new household toilet “SHARKNADO”. This thing has a motion sensor, so any time you walk by not only does the lid open in a menacing fashion, but a blue light comes on inside the toilet bowl and lights it up and then the thing “prewashes” (no one wants a dirty bowl). It truly does bring the theme of “Jaws” to my mind each time. I will not even BEGIN to tell you how many buttons are on the panel to try and control SHARKNADO. Lets just say that I am starting to appreciate the term “you are so anal”.
When one of us forgets to close the bathroom door, you inevitably can hear another one of us screaming in mock comedy as you hear the toilet start up because we walked by. Cry’s of , “It’s trying to eat me”, or “HELP, it’s attacking”. Devon has even drawn a picture of the toilet with us running away screaming, “I HATE SHARKNADO” and posted it on his bedroom door. It’s all pretty funny I must say.
There are other surprise electronics, but I don’t feel like talking about them at the moment. Remember, I am a woman who did not own a smart phone until I moved here and would prefer to be alone in the middle of the wilderness to a casino, so this is all kind of mind blowing for me at the moment. I am tired.
Let me end this entry by inviting you into my new dining area, the tatami room. There is nothing in here but a table and legless chairs and a place to hold a simple flower arrangement. Apparently you can perform a tea ceremony in here , the act of meticulously and artfully making and pouring a pot of tea which could take up to several hours while you and your guests kneel.
Anyone seeing the contradiction yet? Okay, it’s six a.m. and I feel a strong need to visit Sharknado. If you hear music playing, stay far away. Sayonara 😉
I was brought up Catholic. Period. I wore the frilly white dress and promised to give myself to Jesus when I was eight years old. I sat in a scary confessional booth in the dark, confessing my sins of eating too much candy and taking the Lord’s name in vain. I did 10 hail Mary’s and started again the next week.
All through my youth, and into college, I went to Mass and I learned all about the creeds and the prayers. I studied the bible, I learned and mostly believed the reasons behind the rituals. When I was young, I found a lot of comfort and sense in it all. I was also perpetually scared that I was a sinner and I was going someplace dark and scary.
There are of course , all the jokes about “Catholic Guilt” which are sadly not jokes, but harsh realities. Having married a man who knew nothing about the Catholic Church or about growing up in an Italian /Irish/American family, he is to this day puzzled why I even utter the words, “I feel kind of guilty”. Apparently, people who grew up in Holland and participated in Dutch Reformist religion did not have such guilt shoveled upon them. Nor does he understand the concept of the hell and brimstone that I was exposed to. He never had to go to confession with sweaty palms or to worry about dropping the body of Christ and potentially damning himself on a daily basis. He finds it all a bit weird.
Let me say this, before anyone gets offended, I totally respect my family and friends who still give their hearts to the Church and who are heavily involved with it’s message. I get it. I also have the same respect for my friends who are Jewish, Muslim, Islamic, Protestant, Wiccan and so on and so on.
Like many people of my generation, perhaps, I fell out of love with the Catholic Church a long time ago. It started off selfish and slow. There was college, theology classes which had me questioning things, and Sundays where I would rather be in the mountains hiking or canoeing than inside a church. Then there was the fact that my brother “came out” and I realized that not only was he “unacceptable” but also that they had “special programs” for people “like him” to try and convert them into being UNGAY.
Needless to say, I found this very upsetting and highly ridiculous. I think the final nail in the coffin for me was all of the scandal that happened in Boston at the turn of this century. I could no longer believe in this institution that had so many rigid rules and judgements, yet was protecting monsters. I just could not find the love any longer.
For many decades, I have felt a bit adrift. I have found myself a visitor of many different religious groups, fascinated by all but belonging to none. I was a bit of a religious “peeping Tom”. Nothing made sense to me so completely that I could commit. I kept thinking about how religion causes most of the pain , most of the war, and most of the misunderstandings in this world. I kept thinking how people who commit to one, often think that their way is the “ONLY ONE” and how this causes them to become blinded or to put judgement upon others. I tried, maybe not hard enough, but my heart was not in it. I could not find my way back to any church or any one religion.
Having always been an addict of anything that takes me to the woods, or the mountains, or the ocean, I began to feel that maybe Nature was my religion. Maybe, my prayers could just come from the heart and be given up fully under the sky or beneath the trees, and that would be enough? Maybe if I lived by the basics of “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” I could fulfill my need to give something to “God” or the “powers that be”.
In the hundreds of hikes I have done and in the thousands of hours I’ve been blessed to be outdoors, in the quiet beauty of nature, not once have I ever failed to take a moment and Thank the “powers that be” for allowing me that very moment. Not once have I failed to stop and think about how I can be kinder, or better and how I can give back for having been given the gift of one more day on this earth. Each time, I find myself stopping and feeling the power that surrounds me. The power of those who have passed from this world, the power of nature, and the power of Karma. So, as I got older I realized, it was okay for me, as myself, not to be part of a “church” or an organized religion. I decided to accept Nature as my church and basic kindness, gratitude, and consideration as my religion.
And now, I find myself in Japan, in the middle of a very big and very bustling city. Yet, I find that at every corner there is a place of nature, in the form of a shrine. A pocket of Peace and tranquility. I will be honest, the first time I walked up to one of these Shrines, I felt tears in my eyes and I felt a strong sense of love in my gut. I felt respectful and awestruck. And I had no idea why. So, I went home and I began to research the Shinto Religion and I realized that low and behold, it’s basic principals were in line with what I have been practicing for decades. And more beautiful to me, is the importance of combining religion with a heavy dose of respect and love for nature.
Yes, I get it, I’m not Japanese. And , yes, I realize I am not a practitioner of this religion …not officially. However, in my short time here, I have been invited more than once to come and to pray with total strangers. Strangers who speak not a word of my language. I have had people share their knowledge with me about the rituals and the meanings behind them, with pure love and without judgement. Not to convert me, but to inform me. To simply share with a stranger. I have been allowed to not feel ashamed if I want to try a ritual, and I may not get it right.
Below, you can read some basic Beliefs held by the Shinto religion. I find it amazing that Japan is a country with barely any crime. People leave their purses unattended while they go pick up a coffee. Cell phones and wallets are immediately returned to the owner should they drop them on the metro. And, Japan has one of the lowest homicide rates in the world. Call me crazy, but there is something to be said for taking to heart the simple nature of what you read next:
“Those who are sincere will naturally tend to behave in ways that cohere with the great, official ethical traditions of the world’s religion. Sincere people don’t steal from others, or lie to them, or try to murder them. Sincere people do not do things that undermine the fabric of society or bring harm to the community or family. Sincerity is the grounding of all ethical thought and behavior, in this view. Even were the religion to have long lists of dos and don’ts in its archives, only those with sincerity in their hearts will be prompted to live the rules.
This is partly what is meant by the phrase kannagara-no-michi which, in the ethical context, refers to the idea that virtue is inseparable from the rest of life, especially life lived in harmony with the natural world (enlivened by kami, or the gods). Beauty, truth, goodness, morality – these are all connected, inseparable from each other. Those who live life with the perspective outlined above – with an aesthetic sensitivity, an emotional sensibility toward the world, and with a sincere heart will behave morally almost naturally”.
It is said, “one must try to see with the heart into the natural beauty and goodness of all things”. Now that is something I can get behind and try and incorporate into my daily life, how about you?
Do you ever find yourself singing a song you don’t actually know? It is a perseverant song that will not leave your head? Maybe it’s not even in a language you understand? Well, welcome to my world lately. Due to living in our tiny, ghetto type apartment with our college sized fridge, I find myself having to go to the local supermarket each and every day. As I walk in, inevitably they are playing one of two songs. EVERY SINGLE TIME.
It’s either a really catchy, really dramatic Japanese tune which is about long lost love or the love for eating cow’s tongue (I’ll tell you when I learn more Japanese). I’m pretty sure it might be the theme song for what would be equivalent to a “tela-novella”. The other song, lovely enough, “It’s a small world” on hyperspeed, in a loop, in Japanese. Yup, this is my new life people.
And if this were not over-stimulating and awesome enough, I have the added bonus of not recognizing pretty much anything in the store besides fruit, veg, and a few meats. How about those really nice looking rolls for your husbands sandwich that when you cut into have chocolate inside, or bean paste, or some sort of cream that looks like (well never mind) . Thank GOD he loves chocolate! How about that shaved pork you bought which would be just right for the stir fry, which …oops….is pig intestines and tasted like what would be inside the intestines, you know , just before it exited?
Here’s me, standing in front of a huge shelf of “sauces” with my google translate out trying to decipher just one. Awww….screw it, I’ll just buy 3 and see which one doesn’t kill us or render our taste-buds dead for a week! YAHOOOO……GERONIMO! Here’s me, Buying a snack for my son, which appears to be popcorn but in reality when I open the package are tiny shrimp that have been freeze dried and potentially soaked in hot sauce for a week. GOOD JOB MOM!
Then there is always the moment when you are dining out and you feel so proud because you have figured out that you can point to something and it shows up at your table. Then you realize that it shows up, and you are now eating a cow’s tongue. Oops, if I am talking funny for the rest of the day and find myself yelling out “MOO”, who’s to care, nobody knows me here anyhow, right?
As you can see, my culinary journey has certainly been a multiple choice quiz which varies between a) fascinating, b) disgusting, c) delicious, d) clueless, and e) terrifying. For those of you who know me, you know I will try anything once (and this applies to many aspects of life not just food). So, I wonder how my less adventurous friends would fare with life in Japan. You know who you are, I love you, but your affinity for chicken and white bread and plain pizza abounds and I’m pretty sure you may not want to visit.
I realize this blog is not nearly as deep or maybe as interesting as the past few, but I’m busy. I need to go to the Max Value and act like I am in a Japanese soap opera. I need to wheel my cart around while dancing up the aisles and while everyone looks at me wondering, “Isn’t that Gaijin in here EVERY day and isn’t she always looking at the same sauce, what the HELL is wrong with her”. And right after I do that, I am off to eat “Salad Cake”. Yes, I am going to pay money for someone to serve me a salad that is disguised as a cake.
The longest place I lived as an adult was in Montreal. I spent three quarters of a decade there. It was a bad marriage from the start. I moved there unwilling, five months pregnant with my first and only child, and with the very heavy news that my father had stage four cancer and would most likely not make it to meet his grandson. The winter was dark and I was even darker. There was no light and there was no love in my heart for this new city. It was not really Montreal’s fault. We started our relationship together and I had “une tonne de bagages”.
I barely made it, mentally, through that first winter. I watched myself grow to enormous proportions as I watched my always larger than life father, shrink in equal measure. I was trying to find joy to prepare for the new life that was coming, while my heart was breaking as I slowly said goodbye the life of the man who had taught me everything.
My son was born in January, in the wee hours of the morning. A storm was raging outside and our car broke down while I was in labour. My husband had gone home for a brief rest and ended up in a garage. Devon took three and a half days to leave my body. In the end I ended up with an emergency C section and he ended up in Intensive care for a few extra days. Perhaps he knew about all the stress and sadness that was going on for his family outside in the world.
As soon as we returned home, my father was eagerly awaiting our Skype date. Each day he would sit behind his computer, and sing out in his radiation ravaged voice, “the itsy bitsy spider” to my son, who would listen bobble headed and tiny. It was a bittersweet moment the first time he held him in person. We were all so happy that he got his wish, and all so sad that we knew it could be his last.
My father died in April. He left this earth as the blooms began to spring out of the ground. He did get to see his grandson after all. He held him many times. He held him every day he could tolerate it. One sunny yet windy day, he weakly stumbled down to the ocean so he could dip my son’s feet into the waters of Cape Cod. It was my father’s hope that he would love this place as much as he did , and that in baptizing him this way, he would always return here and understand a little piece of who his grandfather was . I sadly watched as my mother and he slowly walked toward the water, arm and arm, carrying my son as I clicked away taking hundreds of photos. Savouring this last ritual for all of us.
So, as you can see, that first winter in Montreal could not have been much worse for me, both physically and emotionally. And as Spring approached and the snow began to melt and my heart began to melt ever so slightly, I found myself out and about. I was finally ready to meet society and to give Montreal a chance for me to embrace it with something of an open heart. I was ready to love my new home.
I remember those first few months of Spring. I would strap my son into a carrier and I would stride out along the bike path near our house, eager for sunshine and more so for human contact after beging lonely and sad for so many months during that dark winter. I remember the birds chirping, the bees buzzing, the flowers and weeds growing to epic proportions seemingly overnight. I also remember, the people not making eye contact, no one smiling, and no one stopping to talk to me or to admire my new baby.
No matter, I trudged on, smiling away, like a dimwit and saying good morning to everyone who passed me by. The most I would get was a grumble or perhaps a head nod. But usually, the people would lower their eyes to the pavement or speed up to get by. I was devastated. I thought , “Is it me? Is something wrong with me?”. “Aha, perhaps it’s because I am not speaking French”, I thought. So then, I bravely practiced my French greetings, and went out the next day, “Bon JOUR” I smiled away. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Another event, which sticks so clear in my mind is my son being four years old and getting a BATMAN costume for Halloween. This costume was so desired and cherished that we bought it a month in advance and he could not wait to wear it. I had to make a trip to the local mall, and he asked to don it as we went. I was reluctant at first, and then thought…”why not”. Who could resist a four year old who thinks he is the real Batman once he puts his mask on.
He was SO PROUD and SO EXCITED as he walked in the mall. You could see the blush of excitement creeping up through the little eyeholes of the mask. He would walk up to people, look at them, expecting them to say something , anything. In his mind, he was Batman, and Batman was loved and needed some adoration. Nothing, literally nothing. Not one person could find the kindness to say something to him and give him that jolt of excitement every four year old deserves. He walked back to the car deflated, sad, and asking why no one liked his costume. My heart truly broke for him.
As the years progressed on, I realized that No, our neighbors were never going to take that invitation to come have a drink, a burger, or swim in our pool even though they all had kids that were dying to do so. I also learned that , No, most people were not going to hold the door open for a lady and her baby as she struggled out holding 4 full bags leaving a store. Just because I had a baby carriage and was trying to cross the street in the pouring rain, did not mean that the person driving by me was going to stop. In fact, it meant, they might just speed up to get to their all important destination and splash us both!
One day I found myself cursing inside my head as I witnessed a woman trying to lug her baby carriage up two flights of stairs in the Metro and no one stopped to assist her. I ran up the stairs and picked up the other side. She literally cried because of this small gesture of kindness. Another day I offered an elderly lady my seat on the metro, and she said to me, “I see your mother raised you right, this rarely happens”. All of these things added up and added up and became an insurmountable hatred that I could no longer climb over.
Eventually, over the many years, I made peace with Montreal and it’s inhabitants. I realized that it was okay that my neighbors did not want to cross over the fence, and that small polite chatter was all I would ever get. I made peace with the fact that no one was going to stop and ask how I was doing, even as just a courtesy. I accepted that no one would help or hold a door or wait for you to cross the street.
I learned to live with it. I learned to find things that were lovely about the place. The stunning and unparalleled nature that could be found nearby. The excellent craft beer. The delicious French Patisserie. The family oriented activities. Eventually, through all the disappointment, I started to find people who were kind and decent. I started to make friends and to realize that it was not such a dark place after all. It took years, but in the end, I would even venture to say, I loved Montreal and was reluctant to leave.
But now, I face another spring, in another continent. In another place and time in my life. What I have to say is this, I realize now, that it was NOT okay. None of it. I may have had some sort of Stockholm Syndrome or maybe I just gave up?
Since arriving in Japan I have come to realize that living in a place where you have to constantly MAKE yourself feel okay, is never…well…okay. Though I will gladly go back and visit friends and see the gorgeous places I cherished, I do not miss living in that particular social emotional climate one bit. To me it was a desolate landscape that even after 7 years of trying, I could not navigate. It was sometimes as cold as the temperatures outside.
Each morning I wake here and I walk my son to the bus. People smile at me. They nod their heads and bow and say good morning. The other day a new friend and I were completely lost, and three school girls stopped, took out their phones and attempted to find where we needed to go. Though none of us spoke a word of the other’s language, they managed to sort out our destination, they got off their bicycles and walked what may have been twenty minutes out of their way to make sure we got to our kids school. I was awestruck. I could not bow enough times.
Each time my son is on the subway, something amazing happens. Once, I was standing, and he was sitting next to a woman who then got up to allow an elderly lady to sit in her chair. The elderly lady began to have a conversation with the other woman in Japanese and the woman informed me that she would like permission to “get to know my son”. She asked him questions through her newly acquired translator. As she left the train, she gestured that we were both beautiful and she asked if she could give him some candy. On another day, a college student got on and had a twenty minute conversation with my son about his LEGO book. These incidents seem to be endless and each one amazes me.
This morning, I passed by a random stall selling fruits and vegetables. It literally just popped up out of no where as I took my son to his bus. I stopped to buy some things. The man was having the time of his life trying to talk to the Gaijin lady. But through gestures and counting and smiling, we got the job done and he sent me on my way with five or six bows and a beaming smile. It was before 8 am and I already had my fill of neighborhood friendliness.
People hold doors, they help children in the park that are not their own to get across a zipline. They stop to tell you they like your beautiful eyes, and they do it with respect. They make sure you are not lost in a train station, before you even ask. They help you count out the correct change when you are still a bit silly on what coins are what. They talk to your child and are truly interested in what they have to say.
Yes, I realize that we are “special” here and we are a bit of a curiosity. I also realize that this may wear thin, and there are things that I may grow to dislike and that frustrations will come. But, truly, right now I could not be happier. All I can say is I am so filled with the love of Spring and I am so filled with the love of basic human interaction and basic kindness. Every day here I feel like I receive 1,000 acts of kindness. And every day I hope to at least give a small percentage back.
P.S. – For those of you in Montreal who read this, you are part of the reason I was able to find the love, so MERCI BOUCOUP!
Let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very fine place to start. I grew up in a fairly average, smallish, and typical American town. My father was the son of Italian immigrants. They came from Italy for various reasons, most of all to have a “better life”. This is the story of most immigrants, is it not?
It was rumored that my grandfather was a trouble maker in his late teens. He was booted out of his tiny village for his own good after some liasons with a few of the married ladies. He was not so polietly warned to go somewhere else, somewhere very far away. I will never know the truth on that story since he died when I was a mere two years old. But, I do get a sparkle in my eye knowing that I probably get my most mischeiveous qualities from him.
My grandfather, Pasquale Grasso, was a tough cookie in every sense of the word. He did not mince words. He came to America and he toiled putting down railroad spikes. His forearms were so big he made Popeye look like a wimp. He reportedly had a glass eye, which he would take out and polish after drinking a few glasses of homemade grappa and accidentally drop on the floor, and I , his beloved granddaughter would chase it around squealing, “Oh no Papa, you lost your eye again!”.
He had an enormous garden in our suburban back yard. and a beautiful grapevine He had no mercy on his sons should they get in any trouble or talk back to their elders. Basically, he was a gentle soul with an exterior of steel and he was not to be messed with.
My grandmother, Serafina, was a spitfire. She made beautiful lace with the tiniest of needles. She had great passion for food, love, life, her family, and my grandfather. I remember my mother showing me her “Trousseau” many years after she died. It was scandalous that she had created her own lingerie out of sacks and lace. They were the most modest of garments and they were clearly made from little income, but lots of imagination. When my grandfather left this earth, my small family consisting of my mom, dad, and myself moved swiftly into her home. My mother gave up her newly earned place as “lady of the house” in her first ever home and moved into her mother in law’s home.
I am sure this was not easy, but my mother was lucky enough to have a matriarch in her house who helped her with all things. She taught her how to cook, clean, love, discipline, and also just how to be an adult woman. My mother was one of the few women who considered her mother in law to be a mother and a very good friend.
After Pasquale’s death, my grandmother became the independent woman she always was inside. She traveled, she went to events with her friends, she giggled while she ogled good looking men on the street. She laughed, she flew, she joked and she embraced life with a great passion. But still, she always put her family first and insisted we have a Sunday dinner with as many of us around the table as possible.
So, this is a small window , a tiny peek inside of who they were. They lived in a neighborhood carefully selected. Their neighbors, not surprisingly, were also Italians. Next door and across the street lived another very large Italian family. They had oodles of kids and I could walk in any time and be either fed or given a head crushing noogie, depending on who was around. My uncle, who was 20 years older than my dad, lived diagonally across the street and had his own family who loved and tortured me in equal measure.
My neighborhood was pretty amazing, now that I look back. It was filled with children and teens. We were let loose in packs to roam the nearby woods and we were trusted to run in the streets until darkness fell. We felt both free and entitled to walk into most homes on the street and be taken care of. It was a wonderful way to grow up.
The other thing about my neighborhood though, was it was clear who was Italian and who was not. There were open discussions about the Portuguese neighbors next door. How they were loud. How they did not speak any English. How they drank too much sweet strange wine. How they seemed obsessed with soccer.
There was the man who lived behind us. His name was Manny. He was possibly from the Dominican. He had a huge garden and we would play in his corn field, even though we were not supposed to. He did not speak English either. He would give us strange candy and had milky eyes. He was wonderful.
Up the street lived a Polish family. I’m ashamed to say, to this day I am not sure they are from Poland or somewhere else in Eastern Europe. They had many children and their house was seemingly not large enough for them all. They had a great big porch and we would often spend our afternoons sitting there spying on all the neighbors nearby. Making up stories like kids do. The father was a very stern man and we were somewhat terrified of him, as children have vivid imaginations. The mother was the sweetest kind of woman and would take us on picnics in the woods with delicious sandwiches. This family was a mystery to me, as they had “strange” smells coming from their house and they spoke a language I had never heard.
One of their son’s was jsut slightly older than me and we often played together. He was incredibly smart and went on to Harvard and became a doctor. Looking back, I realize that he huge influence in my early success in school because he was always asking me how I did on tests and assignments. He and I shared our first paper route together. I can vividly remember counting the money after we had been paid and tipped, sprawled out on my parents living room floor. He would fight me for that last penny because it could not be split. These were the joys and the cunning of coming from blue-collar immigrant families.
I suppose I could ramble all day about this, but I will attempt to get to my point. As I was walking this morning I realized that I am an immigrant. I have been an immigrant since I left America nearly a decade ago. When I was a kid, in my town, “Immigrant” was seen as almost a dirty word. And now today it is even worse, given the current political climate. I grew up in a house full of immigrants. Our neighbors were immigrants. Our friends and family….immigrants. We were all American Citizens, but every single one of us….immigrants.
Though my neighborhood was lively , fascinating, and loving, there was a clear line of distinction between first and second generation immigrants. The second generation looked upon themselves as Americans. They were better than the one’s “fresh off the boat” who could not speak English. They took pride and taught their children to take pride in the fact that they belonged to the USA.
This was not done out of hurt or malice. It was done out of the fact that they were a product of parents and/or grandparetns who worked their tails off, who left struggle behind, who made the tiring journey to belong to a new society and a new way of life. But it was, nonetheless, an “us versus them” mentality at times, however subtle and discreet it was. “They” looked funny, they ate weird food, they did not have the same values as “us”.
Now, I am “they”. I walk around this strange place with oblivion. I don’t know if people are laughing at me or curious about me. I don’t know what they are saying. I don’t know what they want. I don’t know if I’ve offended them. I try not to stare at my son’s bus driver, who is sitting cross legged in his socks eating dried fish in the driver’s seat when we arrive 3 minutes early. I try not to take it personally that everyone seems to be staring at my crotch because I am wearing pink pants, not the black ones every woman here seems required to don.
I am a stranger in a strange land. I am obvious. But, yet at the same time I have the comfort of knowing that my struggle is temporary and I have all the resources of safety, money, and help when I need it. I am living a life of luxury though I only have one knife, no dryer, and thread bare towels to dry my ass.
I have much less food than I ever have. But I have far more food for thought.