Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, July 14, 2005

In the Same Boat

(Cue sad cello)

I am Hiroshi the Moody Minstrel.

Why do I keep getting suckered into these things?

Today is the day of the Aso Kindergarten Summer Festival (cue kazoo fanfare). It will be a day packed full of action and adventure. Oh, and also cuteness. Lots and lots of cuteness. In fact, it is going to be cute overload…enough to separate the men from the boys in terms of cuteness tolerance.

The trouble is that, while there are lots of little boys, there is a decided lack of men. It’s wall to wall mothers, which makes perfect sense (as long as one is a diehard traditionalist, chauvinist pig, and/or religious fundamentalist). This is definitely geared to be a mother-child sort of event.

So, why am I here?

Well, my wife was supposed to be here with our son. She was also supposed to help out with our neighborhood’s (cute) contribution to the (cute) festivities. Then, only a couple days ago, she suddenly announced that she had a (rather ugly) business trip. That left mom-in-law ready to go…till she found out that I had the morning off from work. And, of course, it’s only proper that a little boy should go to his kindergarten festival with his father, so here I am, one of only a handful of fathers among all those mothers and (cute) children.

Since I have to go to the school immediately afterward, I am also the only one present wearing dress shoes and a tie.

Moreover, as everyone is reminding me in all sorts of surreptitious ways, I am the only foreigner.

It’s not so bad when I go to events at my daughter’s elementary school. It’s much more local, so a lot of people there are from my own neighborhood. Regardless of what they might think of me and my foreignness, they still know me, and they’re more or less used to dealing with me by now. The kindergarten is a totally different story. It covers all of Aso, so people are here from all over the small but scattered population of this chronically rural town. I know very, very few, and vice versa. It’s easy to spot me in the crowd because there is always a big hole in it wherever I happen to be. It’s actually funny the way the people try very hard to pretend I don’t exist while at the same time carefully keeping their distance. In fact, it’s funny for at least five minutes.

Well, those five minutes are long since up, and right now I’m wishing I were doing something much more pleasant, such as getting a root canal.

The opening ceremony was, well, cute. (No surprises there.) The four classes of the kindergarten took turns reciting addresses. The kids seem a lot quieter and more subdued in general than they did when my daughter was in kindergarten. They also seem shyer…at least in the presence of their mothers. I guess that’s why their recitations were too soft to understand at times. At any rate, I decided to make it easier on the mothers by staying at the rear of the group. That way, all of them were able to stand near their children and indulge in their cuteness.

After that was what they refer to as a “folk dance”. Actually, it was two Jewish-style circle dances, and it was a parent-child-participation event. Those are actually kind of fun, and I wound up enjoying myself a lot more than I intended. My son, on the other hand, seemed totally lost. He couldn’t keep right and left straight, and his sense of rhythm was nowhere near as good as his big sister’s. It didn’t seem to dampen his enthusiasm, though. He stumbled and flopped around with a big smile on his little face.

Now the children are in their classrooms preparing (i.e. coloring) the tickets they’ll need to use in the game and concession stands. I’m stuck outside waiting with all the other parents, a lone, tie-clad gaijin father in an open space surrounded by all those chatting mothers, many of whom were no doubt my students once upon a time.

One of the teachers comes up to me and says, “Mr. Kevin, you’re in the Odaka-Minami district, right?”

“Yes, that’s right,” I reply.

The teacher gives that “ah” and sucking of air through teeth that I’ve learned to dread. Then, in an apologetic tone of voice, she says, “Um…your wife was supposed to be on the staff for your district’s event, but since she isn’t here…”

I indicate my understanding and smile pleasantly, but the fact of the matter is that I would probably rather clean the toilets with a toothbrush than help run an obnoxiously cute concessions or amusement booth together with a frightened clique of young mothers that would rather I weren’t even in the same prefecture, let alone the same event spot.

In and amongst all the bright pinks, yellows, and greens that surround me like a sea of happiness, my mood is definitely going into cumulonimbus mode. I’ll have to do my best to keep this rising storm hidden. My son is pretty excited to have me there, and I’d really rather not spoil his fun.

I notice in the corner of my eye that one mother is looking at me rather intently. That’s actually not so unusual. As long as my own gaze is safely averted, I tend to get stared at a lot. However, when I throw a quick glance in her direction she doesn’t casually look away like they always do. Instead, she actually meets my gaze for a second or two before lowering her eyes with embarrassment. Her name tag identifies her as the mother of a child in my son’s class, but I don’t remember having seen her before. There is definitely something kind of unusual about her. I’m not really sure what it is, and I don’t look at her long enough to judge.

The fact that she comes over and stands next to me most definitely marks her as unusual, as does her asking, “Do you understand what we’re doing?”

“We’re waiting for the kids to finish coloring their tickets,” I reply. I take a closer look at her and notice that her complexion seems a bit darker than the rest. Her facial features seem stronger, too.

“Do you know that we’re supposed to help with the events?” she asks.

“Yes and no,” I reply, smiling. “I know we’re supposed to help, but no one has told me what I’m supposed to do.”

She gestures at the nearest booth. “I think our class is doing this one,” she says. Then she smiles sheepishly and adds, “I don’t really know, either.”

I chuckle and say, “I guess it’s not just me, then.”

She looks at me intently. “I’m just like you,” she says. “I’m not Japanese. I have no connections here. No relatives.” She gestures at the crowd. “They all know each other, but no one wants to talk to me at all.”

My mouth starts to drop open, but I catch it in time and put it back in place. “It can be hard sometimes, can’t it? Where are you from, by the way?”

“I’m Thai,” she says with obvious reluctance, and a lot of things come clear. It’s sad, but Thai are very negatively stereotyped in this country, mainly because so many of them are brought here illegally by the yakuza to serve as barmaids (i.e. sex slaves), while many others are mail-order brides. To many Japanese, saying, “I’m Thai,” is akin to saying, “I’m uneducated, HIV positive, and I’m going to pick your pocket.” Truly sad.

However, her visage changes in a snap when I greet her in Thai. In fact, she jumps with surprise, bursts out laughing, and then quickly catches herself, putting her hand over her mouth modestly.

“How long have you been in Japan?” I ask.

“Five years,” she replies. In other words, since the birth of her child. “How about you?”

“Fifteen years as of this month.”

Again she jumps with surprise. “Your Japanese must be fantastic!”

I shake my head and smile. “My students still make fun of it.”

We share another laugh. Then she says, “Just a moment,” and hurries over to a much older woman, who then comes walking over to me with a copy of the schedule and an understanding smile.

“Kevin…,” says the old woman thoughtfully. “Right. Hatakeyama’s husband. You’re in the Odaka neighborhood, right?”

“That’s right,” I reply.

She points at a booth across the field. “Your group is over there.” Then, to the Thai woman, she says, “You’re here.”

The Thai woman looks puzzled. “We’re not in the same group?”

“No,” explains the older woman. “Everything is grouped by neighborhood, not by class. He’s over there.” She looks at me and gestures again. “You’re over there.”

The Thai woman smiles at me. “I guess you’re over there, and I’m here.”

“It seems that way,” I reply. “Thanks a lot.”

As I turn to leave, the Thai woman says cheerfully, “Do your best!”

I turn back and say, “Thanks. You, too.”

As I turn again and head away, I overhear the older woman saying, “See? He said, ‘Do your best,’ didn’t he? So do your best! Don’t worry! You’ll do fine!”

The Thai woman mainly just laughs in reply. She definitely sounds a lot happier than before.

I guess I am, too. No matter how bummed you get with your circumstances, it always helps a lot to find there’s someone else in the same boat.

I walk over to my neighborhood’s booth, and the cluster of mothers immediately moves a few steps away and pretends to ignore me. The lone father that is standing there promptly leaves (and stands staring at me from a distance).

“So,” I say as pleasantly as possible, but in a loud voice, “what would you like me to do?”

Two of the mothers look at me, smile, and move a few steps back while the others look on uncertainly.

“You’re on the first shift,” says the apparent leader. “Just do what you like.”

“You’re a teacher and a performer,” says the other brave mother. “You’ll know what to do. Just do your best!”

“Sounds fine to me,” I reply, a little bewildered. Then I start looking over our booth, which is a squirt gun target-shooting range.

I don’t know; this looks like it’s going to be fun!


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