Sunday, August 30, 2009

Welcoming the Trash Queen

A moving van makes the final turn into a cul-de-sac and anchors at a pristine barefoot grass lawn to unload the new family's dreams from the truck into their new home. The neighborhood is full of manicured shrubs, gardens with a rainbow of tulips in full bloom, children playing on tire swings, and white picket fenced-in dogs fetching bones. The scene is a surreal, cookie cutter pastel, and the background music light and foot-tapping catchy. The workers in jumpsuits hop to task and as the unloading work progresses, a now new neighbor pops over with a basket of covered muffin tops, still warm from the oven. The newcomer to the block graciously accepts, and invites her now friend inside. They clear a cardboard box or two and dust off two seats at the kitchen table. The kettle goes on the range and the neighborly bond is born. From this moment on there will be cups of sugar borrowed and dozens of eggs lent, backyard barbecues together and float-building for the fourth of July. It's all so "Dream Life in America" story book simple. But then I wake up.

As a public servant, my first two apartments in Japan were owned and partially subsidized by the city of my employment. It was a blessing in the early years when I couldn't speak the language, and thus relieving me of the challenge of finding a place to live out of a newspaper I couldn't read, or going into a real estate agency office where they used a language I couldn't understand, on my own. After 4 years in those 2 places, the "I" moved and "my" apartment became "we're" moving and "our" place, as Bob and I married and accepted positions at a college that had housing written into the contract. The complex was called the International House, since it was a provision for the foreign faculty. The IHOP, as we affectionately dubbed it, was still a semi submersible bubble from "real" Japanese society. Sure, we were in Japanese housing in a Japanese neighborhood, but somehow we were still on the other side of hidden responsibilities in our host society, hence the "International House of Pancakes" marquee seemed to fit just right.

When our 3 year tour wrapped up at the junior college, we found jobs at four year universities found on an apartment at a semi-hub in Kawasaki. That was our first "we're on our own" housing search, which brought us on walk troughs of countless straw mat rooms with no view before settling on a bright "2LDK" (denoting 2 rooms, plus living, dining and kitchen) on the 4th floor of a building clustering into the landscape of more tall buildings. A year later and 2 more permanent job offers later, we were packing it up again. This time, Dorthy and Toto landed in a "two generation home" in Hasuda, Saitama. We added a daughter at this address and called Hasuda our home for a total of 7 years. The two generation home sounds something like an Archie Bunker set up, but it's quite a common set up in Japan, where locals set roots deep in their soil, an guard their premium priced land with the family name. There are two completely separate entrances, one (usually the grandparents) stakes home on the first floor the other (usually the married oldest child with children on the way) on the second floor. They are mini homes, one on top of the other, under one roof. It is just a chapter in the continuing story of tight housing in Japan. Our landladies, the homeowners, were two older sisters who never married, and lived separately when they first built; however, soon after they saw the perk of an income in the form of rent. They moved in together on the first floor, and let the the upstairs "house" to us.

Relations in that area were good. We had Kobayashi san across the street, and everyone deserves a Kobayashi san in their lives, (hopefully within a Japanese rock garden's stone's throw away). It wasn't the simple benefit of how generous she was with her tomatoes, eggplant or tangerines in season from her garden, or what a friendly baseball talking, dog walking husband she had, but her built-in neighborhood watch superpowers. You had to get through Mrs. Kobayashi, and we were protected. If anyone were to even look twice at our door, or if we were to miss a package delivery, or leave a light on when we left the house, she would be the dependable informant, whether you asked for it or not. Even though is wasn't the same kind of comfort you get from a welcome tin of home baked cookies, she was certainly more of a comfort in an unfamiliar land than an invader, and we always welcomed her solicited and unsolicited reports. You had to get through her, and we were protected. The landladies brought us a New Year meal every year in traditional Japanese style, down to every little serving dish, and they brought Ashley a present on her birthday every year. It was a good taste of the culture, of the neighborhood, and a pleasant place to live. However, we still felt somewhat like guest stars on this made for TV family movie since we were still excused from some of the underlying neighborhood expectations on us that the Japanese have in their daily lives. Perhaps the reason why we were skipped over was because since we were not only just on renting status, but also because the homeowner was on the same land -- but the real reason remains a mystery. However it came to be, it was a free pass awarded to us that we didn't demand in our tenants' agreement.

Those first 14 years saw 5 different housing contracts, a wedding certificate, 5 job changes each and a birth certificate. We finally uprooted for our last move within Japan, which is a relevant term since I have claimed "last time" at least 2ce before. We moved into a house. A two story house, with plenty of rooms and a Japanese garden (in the States we call it a backyard, but that comes with a more sizable understanding). We are still renting, but from a ghost landlord this time. That is not to say that the landlord is scary, but more like a silent investor that we haven't met, and thus not an avenue for us to run to when we have questions about turning the gas on or what to do if the sink clogs up. This round, the house is independent, and gradually, we are learning to live and feel that way too. This is the real housing world in Japan. We don't turn rent in to someone who in turn signs our paycheck, furthermore, for the first time, we don't share walls, floors or property lines or even a persimmon tree with anyone but us. So, for the first time in our life in Japan, we have to be real world Japanese. No, we're not entertaining applying for citizenship here, it's just that we don't have the blue passport green light that has resulted in being skipped over for nuanced neighborhood duties for so long.

It's all very tricky. The neighborhood relations game starts before you've ducted taped shut the last boxes from the previous place. It's the trip to a mall to go to a fancy over-priced boutique outlet in order to buy the "I'm moving into the neighborhood please be good to me," gifts. There are actually displays for this purpose. Daily items, household goods, and foodstuff such as rice or soba noodles are big sellers. I figured towels were a safe route, and settled on an iris print. I was thinking, the two houses on either side, and maybe one for the house directly across, rounding off at an odd 3. I asked the salesperson how many households were usually appropriate. She asked, "how many houses are in your block?" Well, Japan is one big sprawl, so she was not referring to American blocks of neighborhoods, she was talking about the block as in number of family units that make the world around us tick everyday. I replied that I didn't know. She persisted, well how many families rotate trash day duties? There it is, the defining backbone of neighborhood status. I could distribute towels with solid gold woven monograms but it still would be a meaningless gesture next to my performance of taking the trash duty seriously.

I settled for more towels than I needed (I could always use extras to polish the trash), which come in a specified gift wrap that actually read, in too many words "I'm moving into the neighborhood please be good to me," (our family name in a Japanese phonic are written at the bottom). We packed these gift sets for the new neighbors with our luggage and drove over to the new property for the unloading process. We distributed the towel-gifts in rounds when things settled down a little on the box front. The next day, the neighborhood bulletin, in the form of a clipboard in a bag was in our mailbox. Moreover, it was in a "Harrods" vinyl bag, most likely retained from one of the neighbor's trips to London years ago (it is showing wear and tear, but too good of a brand to discard, and no place for me to take charge of the bag-swap). Certainly she used that bag to distribute tea to everyone in the "block." The drill is to read through the material, stamp the space by your address with your signature stamp, and pass it on to the mailbox next door. I looked through the tips on earthquake kits, a collection of goods for the upcoming elementary school bazaar, and a violin recital at the senior center and a neighborhood weeding day for the local park before "stamping" my name. It was there that I noticed that there are 18 families in our "block," or, more importantly, on the trash duty sharing roster. I didn't distribute towels to my 17 immediate neighbors, but I was pretty secure that being 10 under wouldn't require damage control. Sure enough, I was going to break into the good books just two weeks later.

My ice breaker was not in the form of accepting freshly baked banana bread, or inviting someone in for iced tea, rather, a bristle broom and 2 signed placards that hang on chains. My holiday greeting card list grew by 17 the day I took those in. They were the name tag for the front gate that stated that I was gomi to-ban. Yes, I was the woman in charge of our trash pile that week. The accessories were simple: A broom to sweep the area after collection, and a sign to pop up on its designated post by 8:00 AM reminding people to check what form of garbage or recycling goes out on that particular day. I eagerly accepted my duty, in rotation, as one of the "group." Besides, I am in my 15th year in Japan now, and I have never been elected trash queen. It felt a little bit like being "line leader" in first grade, the one in charge of paving the way to the library for reading hour, or to the gym for physical education class. I think even then I had a sign around my neck designating the honor. As trash queen, I hardly wore a tiara, let alone lipstick, but the sign that said I was the one in charge that week was to be displayed with pride for public view. I'm still not convinced that going that far is necessary, however, I did notice that as the trash pile shrunk and I swept away the remnants of each day, I got warm invitations to chat, goodies in baggies on my door, fresh garden produce, and well, simply the foundation of good neighborhood relationships and budding friendships. The welcome wagon comes in different shapes. I guess it took this many years to be incorporated, and finally here with my bristle broom, my climb through the ranks of the neighborhood network is a Cinderella story.