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.
If you had asked me a decade ago, what I’d be doing this year I would have most likely told you , “Working as an occupational therapist, of course”. Sadly, it has been about a decade since I have been able to work in my chosen and hard earned profession due to all this moving about my credentials have not been easily recognized.
However, you can take the girl away from the therapy job , but you can not take the therapist out of the girl. As I make my way around Japan I have been fascinated by dichotomy of what I see here. The Japanese people are smartly dressed , walk with an erect and purposeful posture, and seem to always be on a very serious global mission. Whether it be to get a coffee from a vending machine, get to their next meeting or reportedly take their nap at work after the bells have chimed.
However, what I ALSO notice, is just how hard they “play”. In a 24 hour span I went to two different city parks where I watched grandparents, parents, babysitters and other folks chasing children around trees, going down slides, and catching balls. I saw a group of elderly people sitting on a railing while their caretaker passed a giant blue ball back and forth as they played volleyball while giggling their heads off.
Play truly is a universal language, and somewhere along the way many of us lose our ability to do this spontaneously. We loose our ability to speak. We need bigger and better toys. We need it to be structured. Our children need to be scheduled and have instructions on HOW TO PLAY.
Yesterday, my son and I walked up to a group of total strangers. We had no words in common. They had a ball. We wanted to play. My son kept saying, “I don’t understand them mom” ,and I kept saying, “You don’t need to”. In short order, he was climbing on balance beams and playing “rock paper scissors”, each boy the king of the high castle as the other had to jump off or proceed accordingly. They made up their own dodge ball type game, with rules that changed in each moment, communicated through gestures, giggles, and grimaces.
They played for two solid hours without really understanding a word each other said. At the end, one of the little boys ran over and in very broken English said, “What is your name?”, with the proudest look on his face.
It reminded me so much of the way things used to be. The way things should be. The things we have forgotten as adults in this overscheduled crazy world we live in. Today, I challenge each and every single one of you to take a moment to play, wherever you are. Jump. Skip. Giggle. Tickle. Smile. And even better, invite someone to join you!
I was living in a place where no one understood me. I walked about my days with a big smile on my face as if I had suddenly stepped through the rabbit hole or drank some fizzy green punch that I was unable to identify. Everything was clean and sanitized and people were speaking in whispers. All kinds of creatures from the sea were present in shrink wrapped packages calling out to me, “Eat me, if you can figure out what I am”.
I once saw a quote that said, “I did not end up where I wanted to go, but I ended up where I needed to be”. Through each step of this journey I am trying to stay open and see what it is I “need”. And how can I help fulfill the “needs” of my family and also find a purpose to help those I encounter each day.
I never once dreamed of living in Japan, or Montreal, or England for that matter. As I walk a bit dazed and confused into this new life I remain open to learning something new each day. Maybe it is to purify my hands before entering a Shinto Shrine, maybe it is that I don’t like green tea cakes with bean paste that look like a cast off from Ghost Busters, maybe it is that it is okay to walk silently through life sometimes rather than be larger than it.
When life throws you into an unknown river , you can either go into the cold water kicking and screaming or submit and float along trying to catch hold of a safe branch now and then. My last move , to Montreal, I went in scratching like a cat who had just had her last piece of food stolen. This time I am trying to take it easy. To appreciate each encounter and each moment. To share the images with you, so you can live this with me. I promise to be both honest and shameless.
My journey here of shedding the long cold winter of Canada has begun. The cherry blossoms are beginning to bloom and hopefully , so will I!