Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ready or Not, Here Kids Come!

My yellow and orange Fisher Price shopping cart is still in my parents' basement in Ohio. At one time I even had a plastic steak, a chunk of Swiss cheese, an egg, and a slice of tomato in the set. There was probably more food that came with it initially, and although as a preschooler I doubt I was subscribing to a menu that reads like an "Atkins" fad diet, that's what I remember pushing through Kroger's on weekend grocery store trips with my Mom. She was that cool. She let me toss that cart in the back of the wood panel station wagon, and scamper with it behind her from the produce section to the dairy aisle, despite the fact that the grocery store supplied carts with seats for children. The fact that Kroger's stocked carts for kids serves as a form of an invitation, or a green light, that you may pass go with your child into this facility. There are high chair restaurants. There are white tablecloth restaurants. In the States, there is a division, and it's a red light, or a green light, with little to no room in the middle for a blinking "Caution: enter with child at your own risk," yellow light. However, in Japan, incidentally the land of rules, there are no such signals defining entrance laws. Nor is there such choice. If you have a child, she's coming with you. Wherever you go. Whenever you go. With crayons. A snack. And a sippy cup.

Sure, a trip to the market, the bank or the post office, although double the time and half the accomplishment with children in tow, can be legally (in this imaginary law book) completed in most any country that provides modern civic services. Those State-side mothers with a willing and available relative nearby, or a babysitter in want of spending money, may choose to "drop the kids off," (in quotations since it's already a distant memory in my phraseology book) during essential errands. Yet in Japan, babysitter is not only a non option, it is not even a word in the Japanese language. Like the fantasy, a reference to my early teen babysitting days, in the peak of the Saturday night line up of Love Boat and Fantasy Island, babysitter (bebiishittaa) is a borrowed word from the fiction section of the guide to American English, and the most basic dictionary definition of the concept in Japanese requires 4 lines of explanation.

I'm not going to pretend that I've lived my 6 years of motherhood in hardship, or that I actually want to hop a chopper to Fantasy Island. I have traveled throughout SE Asia, and although my backpack may feel heavier as the days footing through banana plantations, rice fields and monkey farms go by, hardship illustrates itself in one glimpse of a graceful Malaysian woman, a baby strapped to her back, a newborn wrapped around her front, a bucket of water in one hand, a pail of grains in the other, and a basket of fruit balancing on her head as she crosses a rapid stream. Now she is not crying about a toddler tugging on her pant leg wanting to go to the potty in a post office, or a preschooler protesting because there are only root beer flavored Dumdums remaining in the picked-over candy basket at the bank. Nonetheless, Japan is not one of the countries in the developing nation status column within Asia. Rather, Japan and America tend to be lumped together as comparable in categories such as economic status, technological advancement, achievement in education, and today, the ins and outs, or the tag along withs, of child-rearing.

It would be a shorter list to name which public venues do not supply a play room. I think everywhere I have been in Japan, since 2005 when baby friendly things signaled my radar, I can attest for a corner furnished with a minimum of a crib, box of toys, rack of stuffed animals and picture-book shelf. At least in what would be cultural fuzzy yellow zone facilities to me, whether or not they are geared for kids, at least there is a provision to make it easier for the escorts of the under 3-foot crowd. Airports, car dealerships, real estate offices, city halls, hospitals, hair salons, office building lobbies - they tend push the pedal into the green zone with extended recreational set ups including play houses, slides, swings and hula hoops. These recreation within reality stations are at-your-own-risk, and certainly solely under the parent's supervision. So when your number is up for whatever the transaction, the kid comes with you. Yes, even in the examination room during a delicate dental procedure, or strapped in the chair next to you at traffic school, both examples from personal experience. While a patient in high-tech practices would usually watch an examination chair-side screen of the open mouth and tooth drilling, my monitor quickly switched over from my pearly whites, while Miffy and Friends took over my screen. "The Cute Little Bunny" and friends suddenly served as (what would have been administered as standard in my home town), my Novocaine trade-off. On a different day in the life, after an afternoon at the police station renewing my driver's license, I can confidently claim to have the only American kindergartner that has walked the black bold line wearing simulated "beer goggles" to test her faculties if she were over the blood alcohol limit. Perhaps the chuckle the latter experience gave me was a form of pain relief medication for the former.

I don't hear that collective groan when a child enters a yellow zone. Parents or not, adults seem to perceive children as members of society, and perhaps all they've ever known is a bell curve of ages everywhere they've been. But when I was the only child left at home as a teenager as my older siblings moved away to college, my parents included me in their running weekly dinner date with close family friends (with a teen my age). "Mr. Ed" would ask for "smoking" without fail. None of us were smokers, but it usually guaranteed seats in a non kids section, which was presumably his way of avoiding unruly children spoiling his dinner. Come to think of it, before I moved to Japan, I did notice that on the whole, Asian children seemed so well-behaved, cordial and patient. Now I understand why. At least here, they are basically in the real world from birth, and I am the late bloomer building patience by relearning the process of going through grown up transactions in what I formerly assumed non kid-friendly green zones. This real world experience at an age before they can even count on their little hands results in children knowing that even though there is an available pop-up book selection while Mom spends the day filling out paperwork at the Bureau of Immigration, it's not a place to initiate a game of hide and seek with an unattended briefcase. There was a "cry room" in every church service I attended growing up. Though open-air temples and shrines dominate this region, there is no separation of child and adult. Kids don't need to be told when they've been sponged into the learning process naturally. Catholic Priest or Buddhist Monk speaks at ceremony, you listen. Teeter totter or swing at the park, you play.

After my Florida-based sister had a couple of little ones, she was ready to get out and get some exercise, and maybe even socialize with someone in her age bracket. She joined a gym with a nursery room, where the parents leave their children with the attendants and go workout. Granted, she was pulled from Pilates' peace if her kids got too fussy, but nevertheless, the concept was based on a possibility. I sought out an exercise class in my city. The sessions were held at a public center, in an auditorium, and combined yoga with aerobics. There were probably about 40 ladies in the group with me. All of their pre-school children were there too, in the same large room. The class was conducted as if the kids were not there. The instructor went about selecting her songs for the different stages of the 90 minute session, as the class rolled out their yoga mats or towels, actively joining in. Babies were napping in strollers off to the side, toddlers wandered throughout the rows of workout moms with the comfort toys they toted along from home. Once in a while a kid would get fussy, and the closest mom would just roll a toy that got loose toward the kid. A baby would cry, and any mom would just give the buggy a push back and forth and rock the kid back into a calm state. It was a physical and mental workout to take it all in. My American brain just thought: Lawsuit City. But that's not the culture here. Nobody was concerned about a child sliding under a back bend, or a stroller finding a downhill slope in the auditorium. It was just one, big, happy, flexible and on the way to sweaty, extended family. I not only learned how to take a new look at tolerance levels, I mastered how to change a diaper mid tummy crunch.

My parents have jumped planes out of Ohio to head to Florida or California, to stay with their grand kids while my siblings took an anniversary trip, or a just to give their married children the chance to take a getaway vacation. The coasts provide nice tourist destinations, especially outbound of Port Columbus during the gray months, so they get to see blue skies and soak up sun rays while flexing their grandparent muscles. But the point is, it is not an act of neglect in American culture to leave your children behind, with their blood relatives or a familiar nanny, for a brief sejour. However, when we took our first getaway after we had our baby, a solo flight was unthinkable: We packed our bags, diapers and a Baby Bjorn and headed to Saipan for a long weekend island tour. It's not that my parents' would have been unwilling if we called on them in a pinch, but we would shock the local culture by going anywhere without are child, especially when boarding an airplane, let alone if dusting off the passport was on the agenda. The All Nippon Airlines flight out of Tokyo was smooth, as Saipan is a short hop popular with Japanese tourists. In flight, the attendants were cart-loaded with as much kid toy and snack giveaways as they were duty free bottles of whisky and perfume for the "big kids." We were not alone as a couple traveling with a baby to a resort that included French restaurants with silver service, and a beach front bar, elegant suites with a turn down bed service complete with chocolate mints on the pillows. The add on is that the restaurant had a stash of hidden booster seats, the swim up bar stocked loaner toddler floaties, and the rooms had Hello Kitty plugs to cover the electrical outlets, as well as tasteful corner protectors on the Indonesian wood coffee table for clumsy crawlers. An American family taking the equivalent Caribbean hop from the States might not come across the same Toys R Us-style exclusive, romantic vacation setting.

Upon return, friends from Ohio were in Tokyo on business, and I was eager to show them the insider take on the sights for a day. I headed in with rush hour crunch city-bound train to meet them, with an 11 week old strapped to my front. I held her above my head during the latter stops, as more and more salarymen are physically crunched onto the train with baton assisted train platform employees. It's a typical scene - a commuter needs his briefcase shoved into the train by a third uniformed party wielding a weapon-like stick. So, a mother gently lifting her baby overhead is the protective way to avoid an unthinkable squish. Again, there is no "for shame" looks from observers, as the briefcase and the infant are in the same boat. We're all in this together and we're all equals in this (over)population. Although a college student stood on my feet most of the way, I successfully avoided the imprint that stepping into unfit mother territory would have made, and we safely made it to our destination.

The-do-it-myself walking tour included a stroll through the winding streets of old Edo, with its friendly mix of modern chaos with traditional architecture, followed by a stop at Japanese pub to cap off our time together, relax and catch up on recent years. Bar stool table for 3 with a pull up stroller. There is no "carding" IDs at the door, and the drinking crowd is quite well-behaved here. It was no surprise to the patrons that there was a baby in a bar, nor was it a shock, fortunately for me, that the newborn claimed the only "spit up" in the joint during our time inside. It was all quite civilized. It's just a cultural difference: a watering hole in the US would without question be a red light to bring kids, and if a parent runs that light, the traffic STOP signal would quickly turn to flashing sirens, with social services on board. Yet while a baby who is not exactly nursing a beer, but nevertheless is in a bar in Japan, doesn't attract looks, save the adoring cooing as if she were in a park. Rather, just being with her parent is what makes this acceptable. The assumption is that the company, not the venue, serves as the green light. It's all very warranted. And without call for a breathalyzer.

On trips back to the States, friends and family often ask, "How do dates work?" The inference is that my husband and I would go to an establishment, in the evening, as a couple. The short answer is, dates don't work. They aren't broken, there is simply no fixing what doesn't exist. Without a bebiishittaa, there is no da-to post child. I guess it's not an accident that "date" is, like its vital component, "babysitter," a borrowed word from American English. I wonder if this culture could consider borrowing the babysitter, and not just the word? Rather than the American instinct to see a child enter a non child friendly venue - a candle-lit restaurant, or a dance hall perhaps - and sigh in "my night is ruined" exasperation, the act is oddly accepted, and more expected in Japan. Instead it's the romantic parent-couple on a date without their children that would invite disapproving looks of, "did you abandon your child?" In 2006, I tried to import the custom when we had tickets to a Billy Joel concert at the Tokyo Dome. With the help of an American friend in Japan, who has a daughter the same age as ours, we pulled it off. But I'm convinced that coordinating the 2 hour outing took more time, planning, and energy than it did for Joel to create 16 platinum albums.

Granted, there are day care, pre-school and kindergarten facilities for young children in Japan. However, none of the above resembles a play room with a rolling time line, with or without a talking dinosaur or guest clowns. Instead, they are run on a tight school-day format, with a structured "class" schedule. And when school's out, the kid's out. System rules dictate that the parents' working hours (which workplaces certify with a grand stamp featuring raised seal as proof) serve as the perimeters of the drop off and pick up times. The bylaws gently remind us in their nuanced-laden language that frivolous detours such as picking up milk, stopping home to change, gassing up at the pump, or any other child neglect-like activity en route is strictly prohibited. So like it or not for the parents or other co-errand running customers in society, kids go everywhere moms go.

It's not unusual for American working parents to have a framed family photo on their sturdy oak desks at the work place. Maybe a school aged child's artwork is professionally framed on the wall, or even a calendar with some recent vacation snapshots on each month drapes the back of the office door. These are the display-model children caught on film, clean and pressed. I have a bi-cultural, or you could call it a two-faced, office. The American mom professional has it furnished with a conference table, 6 chairs and a whiteboard for student counseling. By the window sits my desk, swivel chair and computer station. The scene is rounded out with framed Monet, Renoir and Degas on the walls, impressive dictionaries, encyclopedia sets, literary works and various hard back texts line the bookshelves.

Meanwhile, my dual personality side, the kid-in-tow nutty professor living-in-Japan, has a closet with no hangers or umbrellas, rather a stash of indoor racket games, a pogo stick and romper stomps. A life sized play car is strategically covered with a batik cloth in the corner. Colored construction paper stacks and crayons fill my file cabinet, while puzzles and children's books line my bottom desk drawer. Flip the white board around and uncover stick figures in colorful dresses, tulip gardens and rainbows sketched from top to bottom by a five year old's hand. Open the video cabinet under the TV, and you are greeted by Sing Along with Barney and Dora the Explorer DVDs. Alas, if kindergarten has a day off, but the university is in session, my students and I have the benefit of a teaching assistant that works for gumdrops. Yet it is no surprise, instead it's simply the cycle of life, education and play growing up in Japan. These 18 to 22 year-old students grew up in the same kids come along environment, so it's no wonder they are fantastic with children (even when their grades don't depend on it). When I was an elementary school student, I always liked the children's educational program and theme song of the same title, "Kids are People Too." I suppose their was a hidden message in their for adults to respect us little ones. However, motherhood in Japan has taught me an even greater lesson: Kids are Grown Ups Too. Now I'd also like to keep the cliched American fantasy of "Being a Kid Again" alive, although I'll admit I probably won't go as far as reviving my retro Fisher Price shopping cart to do my groceries, even as a shameless mom in her 40s. Yet I'd like to keep spinning the cycle of acceptance, and assume that this idea that kids and grown ups are on some level created as equals, could be an educational program with a catchy jingle that both American and Japanese "Grown Ups" could sing along to, karaoke style.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Have a Baby in Japan. Obey the Rules.

The Blunder

I strategically forget what grade in elementary school I was in when I was called on to read aloud in class. I came across, "Virginia," in the passage, and boldly voiced, "Vagina." My friend Jeannie, sitting next to me at the time, erupted with a case of the giggles that never really subsided. Even though I successfully blocked out what grade that was, I didn't exactly recovered. In an evil twist of fate, that loyal friend moved to Northern Virginia in 8th grade, and we remain in close touch. The only change in our friendship representative of the geographical distance, is that I refer to her residence as "VA" in writing, and "NoVa" in conversation. That verbal typo from the 70s would come to be some spooky foreshadowing on "baby grand" scale (Jeannie is a professional pianist after all, but this would be a different kind of baby). Perhaps it was a sour-note signal that I just might be better off one day going through my "real life" education of anatomic and gynecological terminology in another language, culture and country.

The Clinic

Fast forward however many years it was between my elementary school gaffe to 2004. We lived in a flat accommodating enough, in American terms, for one more tiny person, say in the 7-9 pound range. Our place was conveniently situated within a 10 minute walking distance from Narita Ladies Clinic in Hasuda City, a quaint off-spring of urban sprawl north of Tokyo. Approaching the entrance to the clinic, I was greeted by several tastefully ostentatious statues in the lot, and upon entering the foyer, I was overcome with the fragrant waft from the fresh floral ikebana display. Soothing music piped throughout the building, impressionistic art draped the walls and a formidable ceramic statue leaped out of the fountain through the bay windows as viewed from the plush waiting room sofas. Based on my medical education concerning what to look for in a hospital, outside of location, location, location, I concluded that this could be a place to wait and see for the 9 (although they count 10 here) months of my pregnancy.

The Handbook

"It takes a village to raise a child," so goes the African proverb. If that's the case, than it takes a country to see a woman through childbirth. This soon became everybody's business. I had a team throughout the first trimester, seeing me through my "education." Really, not much news in the twice weekly required ultrasounds, but it was my duty to bring a child into the local community in the Japanese way. Suddenly voicing "vagina" in a room full of curious elementary school kids was a much less public (I just read that three times to ensure I didn't write pubic) memory. After the first trimester, I was required to register my pregnancy with the City hall. This would be one of the first of many requirements that came with the elective course of childbirth in Japan. I registered at the Hasuda City Hall, was issued the required text, the Boshi Techo, or, Mother and Child Health Handbook. This bible of pregnancy, child birth and child rearing, chronicles my blood work, bi-weekly urine test results, daily weight fluctuations, "breast feeding" potential and performance, the child's development and immunization records until she enters elementary school, where I hope that she will become a stronger reader than her mother.

For 6 years, this booklet is as valuable as a passport and is actually more public and revealing than you'd suspect. Nobody likes their passport photos, but hanging on to it throughout its expiration date is the sacrifice we make for international travel. What I considered culturally confidentially details of my insides is inked, stamped or stickered into the Bochi Techo for the world to see. And by world I mean the 77 intuitions and counting that for their own reasons require I hand it over for their review on demand (incidentally, never on my call). Come to think of it, I should consider Googling my record on the internet from time to time just to see if it's posted out there for the cyberworld to see as well (if you are toggling away from this page now to find out, kindly update me the results of your search in the comment column).

The Rules

My parents visited me in Japan for the first time in 1995. They disembarked at Tokyo's Narita Airport and followed the flow in jet-lagged sheep mode with the masses toward customs and baggage claim. The billboard sized sign hanging above the escalators leading down to immigration read, Welcome to Japan. Obey the Rules. We laughed about it at the time, especially in their jet-lagged fortified punchy state. Japan has since polished its politesse in that department and at least in writing has cropped the second sentence from that larger than life poster. Nevertheless, I have been living the mantra every day since. Off to the city hall was I, obeying the order to fetch the handbook assigned to be the official record of my pregnancy progress reports, the child's development, immunization records, and everything else that you would only email the grandparents. No. You don't question it. You set off to the city hall, Obeying the Rule to get your handbook.

Along with the coveted booklet, the city hall representative handed over my warm welcome kit of necessities: laundry soap, a set of bars of body soap, a 5 kilogram bag of rice, a box of tissues, a towel, a set of "I'm With Child" stickers to wear on the train in order to alert others of my condition so that they obey the rule to give me a priority seat. And finally, my favorite, a "Maternity on Board" tag for the rear windshield of the car. It's interesting that I walk out of registering with the public municipality that I am pregnant, and they in turn load me up with multiple heavy items to carry, but I'm going to take the high road and focus on my gratitude for all the near accidents that would have happened if drivers weren't alerted that they should not plow into my "With Child" compact car.

Now that I was officially registered a la national rules, I could legally make a reservation to give birth at the clinic. Party of one coming in, hoping for party of two by the end. That's right, you make a reservation, with a non refundable deposit of roughly $1,000 to hold a room for the mandatory full week stay. I was given a basic schedule of how my visits would play out until check in: Bi-weekly during the the first half of the second trimester and 3 times a week in the latter part. By the third semester, it was 3-4 times a week third trimester, that bumps up (and out) to four times a week from 36 weeks and finally daily from the week before the due date. I wondered if there was an easier way, like wearing one of those monitoring anklets that convicts on house arrest wear, but equipped with ultra sound technology to alert the midwives of any fluctuation on my progress. The city hall probably installed an echo powered camera in the soaps anyway.

The Education

Alas, there were no short-cuts: Attendance was mandatory and there were 5 required classes along the way. Classes. The class record actually got its own chapter in the handbook you're chained to for 6 years. Not one report card or transcript followed me for more than four years in my life up until this point. So much for the auto-instinctive American exit strategy: "how do I get out of this?" There was no playing hooky, and not even my own mother could write me out of class. There were spaces for instructor signatures as well as stickers upon completion. Indeed, if I did well, I would get a sticker. Short term reward: smiley face. Long term reward: wailing face.

I remember the first class. I signed in at the door, collected the handout materials, which included a juice box sized Oolong iced tea (so much for the reduced caffeine rule I'm familiar with in the States). I entered the room and slipped into the back row of too small for pregnant women chairs. Growing up as a Z in the alphabetical seating chart world, I was programmed to warm the back corner seat, so this scene was putting me back into an 8th grade school zone mindset. Obey the rules: Be polite to the teacher. Don't talk out of turn, and respond when called on.

I had a pen. Those around me brought notebooks. I covered that botch by putting my handouts on top of my handbook to "write on." The doctor entered the room, everybody stood, bowed to him with respect, and he began his power point presentation of the process of childbirth. This was the first such lecture I was a part of that didn't require me to submit a permission slip from my parents to hear. I don't think I noted any major changes since the sex education lessons during elementary school in the 70s, but power point was a techno step up from waiting for the film strip to "bleep" for the next graphic.

The Dos and Don'ts

In another culture and language, I was at an advantage since I tuned more into cultural differences then I did to the fact that the actual process they were illustrating was going on inside me. That part, including potential complications or assured pain and discomfort didn't bother me. Instead, I really never got past the fact that my classmates were down to the sucking sounds at the bottom of their tea packs by the second of three hours of the session while I was still stuck on, "we can really have caffeine?" That was the first of many cultural myths I was to throw out the window.

It took me a few months to stop cross referencing all the dos and don'ts I got from Japan with those in America. One friend passed on a reference from the UK, which also had some different game rules. I found the way to Obey the Rules was to just pick one from each country whose language you can read and ignore remaining don'ts in order to find peace. World Peace. That was my justification. If only someone would buy what I was doing was any more than rationalization I would have one whopping sticker in the milestone handbook for striving that mark.

Realistically, my temporary solution for information overload was to run any questions directly by the doctors and nurses that were actually seeing me, what, three times a week by now? That should be enough live consulting to justify not having to read all available print media in my native or host tongue. I was soon scheduled to return to the States for a few weeks and do some traveling for my In-law's 50th wedding anniversary. "Are there any precautions I should be aware of?" I really don't know what I was looking for, but it was just the Japanese nuanced way of leading into the fact that I needed an excused absence from my weekly attendance chart for a family occasion. But he was reassuring:

"Don't worry about anything. Stress is that last thing you want. Why not pour some green tea, and relax in a hot bath?" There they go again with the caffeinated green(tea) light. And a hot bath? Another fundamental NO from the US websites. "Oh, but one thing," he continued. "Fulfill your yen for sushi pre-departure. I wouldn't trust the freshness in the States." Now I got a kick out of that one (or maybe it was the baby). Nonetheless, I stuck to my true red, white and blue when it came to breaking "sweet" rules. They eliminate sweets completely during pregnancy, which includes limiting fruits and juices, as not to exceed the Japan standard ideal of an 8 kilogram weight gain. In the end, I opted to pull the information I needed based on which country's reference told me exactly what I wanted to hear. I gave myself the big sticker and an A plus in Cross Cultural Referencing, and bonus points in Cop Out Research.

The Bag

The final test (you think it would be delivery) was to prepare your hospital bag six weeks in advance, to insure that there was ample time to fail the test and have a retake. The list of things to bring was size and quantity specific, including hand drawn pictorials for clarification. Some things I had never heard of and still don't understand, but like any school supply list in the States where you can just show your print-out from the teacher to a Kmart attendant and be pointed the way to the jumbo crayons, I was guided by the hand holding, soft-spoken maternity store clerk. Leg warmers for my tummy, Velcro waist bands to "snap my shape back," and other gizmos straight out of pink and blue laced mythology filled that bag to the decaffeinated rim.

It only took two bag check appointments to pass the test, so we just kept it in the entrance way in order to avoid the temptation to over-edit, crossing "t"s or dotting "i"s, or worse, reduce the hand luggage by half the way we do just before international flights. When it is time to pop that bag in the car to go to the hospital for labor and delivery, they require that the mother calls. They claim that they need to hear the mother's voice directly, so no cheating by having the father call to say, "we're on the way." Part of that rule is to force the mother into her endurance test, by putting her into her first situation of being the only one who could possibly be qualified to troubleshoot a situation.

The Forbidden

After all, the fathers didn't have any stickers to show for their responsibility at this point. The other part of that policy is a mystery to me, and I didn't dare cut corners on this one since I had already once been accused of cheating. Far enough in when it should have been obvious to the doctor on the other side of the thrice weekly ultrasound screen, we inquired if we were expecting a girl or a boy. Dr. Narita was ready for me, the picture of an impatient American with a bulge. He had pre-pared a photocopy from a Japanese medical journal on why it is wrong to flirt with fate by knowing in advance the sex of your child. This was god's path, and I am not worthy to interrupt, which includes intercepting knowledge of, its course. Feeling small, even at 6 months pregnant, I nodded along and accepted my handout.

A few visits later, I had a different doctor at the clinic. I gently hinted in a round about Japanese way that I would be open to be given a pink or blue clue. That doctor looked at the screen, nodded in a way that revealed he was in on Dr. Narita's god's path for me, proceeded to page through my 3 inch thick file. He noticed that I had been seen last by Dr. Narita, the man on the marquee of the hospital, and likely, the name at the bottom of his paycheck. He nonchalantly confirmed, "you saw Dr. Narita last?" which turned out to be his "round about Japanese way" of saying, "stock up on pastel yellows and greens."

I accepted my twice rejected fate and did what any impatient, hormone-fortified American would do. I turned to the world wide web for self-diagnosis. I took an on-line quiz consisting of 10 Yes or No questions which would lead me to score 9 out of 10 that pointed directly to pink booties. (One of those questions had to do with craving citrus, which I really shouldn't have known since I should have been off the oranges, but allow me to confess...) In sum, I would eventually confirm that the 90% test result handed down by the not-worried-about-fate-internet-gods was correct. Obviously, there was no page for a sticker for that research project in my Mother and Child Handbook, but I kept it under wraps anyway to protect myself from being docked a box of tissues or a city issued gift towel for cheating.

The Check-In

Even though I wore badges on my lapel on the trains, there was a sign on my car letting the world know I was pregnant, and by now more people had seen my Mother and Child Handbook detailing ultrasound photos than had seen my high school senior yearbook picture, as the only Americans in our area and an ocean away from family, we felt somewhat alone in the process. When it came time to wonder if it was time to go to the hospital, I called a good Irish friend, and a young mother of a baby boy who lived in Tokyo, for wisdom. The conversation was deep, and loaded with medical jargon:
Me: Hi Nicola. How did you know when it was time?
Nicola: Now. If you're calling me, it's time for someone else to take care of you. Just go check in the hospital.

Never ignoring the sage Irish, I was at the hospital within minutes, maneuvering around what I thought at one time to be a soothing floral arrangement as if it was an orange construction cone creating a road block on my path. I reached the midwife station and before they glanced in my direction, they nabbed the coveted bag from my husband, confirming the contents were properly assembled. It was like the passport check at immigration. I guess some things just come first. Rules again, and I wasn't in a position to care. We checked in and were escorted to a corner suite on the second floor of the 3 story building. I put my bag down and changed into the gown on my bed. Floral gowns were declared en vogue uniform for the pregnant ladies, and upon delivery, "the mothers" are changed into a solid pink gown for their new lead roles.

The Exam

I donned the slippers issued for the hallway and dining room and headed to last minute examination room, situated adjacent to the delivery room. Purgatory examination might have been out of a scene from the 70s cult classic, Xanadu. Before I was asked to stretch out on the neon bed, I was given an AV lesson on operating the technology, ironically designed for my relaxation. I was free to choose the color of strobe lights and the angles and shapes of lasers that zipped around the room. Alternatively, I could select a rotating rainbow on the ceiling with a virtual rain forest on the walls, accented by a waterfall image trickling down the door. There was a dial by the bed to operate the accompanying soundtrack. Again, surfing those channels brought me from Xanadu to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds: Olivia Newton John, the Beatles, followed by Karen Carpenter. I stopped short of ABBA when I realized I'd prefer silence to having "Dancing Queen" running through my head for the rest of this process.

I made it back to my room, but not before gingerly exiting the roller derby purgatory room, since I still felt like I would be caught in some kind of infamous Who concert crowd traffic. I'd like to think that my delusional state was due in part to the meds, but that was not on the full course dinner menu that was served in my room when I returned. With a tap tap on the door, and the server entered in a white tuxedo shirt, bow tie, black skirt, pantyhose and hospital administered slippers with 2 trays carrying my dinner, which I gauged to be about double my baby weight. My husband started flipping through the channels, encouraging me, "not to ignore these shish kabobs, they're delicious!" The chicken kabobs, calamari, Chinese dumplings, rice, miso soup, marinated tofu, seaweed salad, pickled plums, melon wedge and green tea did not appeal to me at the time, a time that my sister would later tell me was "transition." Well during this culinary "transition," I gummed some tofu and one sip of miso before turning my attention to the TV show my husband landed on during his surf session. It was some sort of cryptic puppet Star-Wars-eque type animation on a NHK (Japan's answer to PBS), so bizarre it may just one day be modernized and remade into a 3D film starring Johnny Depp.

The "Time"

The server tapped back in to clear the meal, leaving coffee and cake on a sliver platter in its place. Either the absurdity of the extravagant caffeinated meal service or the inane entertainment selection sped up my progress and we were soon to set off down the hall to the delivery room. I "buzzed" first, as protocol (read: rules) dictated and let them know we (all three of us) were "ready." I thought they would wheel me down or at least send an escort, but apparently wheeled carts were reserved for shish kabobs. Women delivering babies in floral gowns were expected to gut it out down the corridor, which I was picturing to be similar to the slow motion sobering impact of the lead up to the climax scene straight out of Dead Man Walking. In retrospect, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that I had to hoof it myself. After all, I ignored at least 3 calls to take walks around the halls and up and down the stairs of the clinic during my "wait." Somehow, the puppeteer cartoon was the better option, which shouldn't surprise you that media won the coin toss, given all of the above Hollywood references.

We approached the entrance to the delivery room, and Bob was immediately sent back to the room for "the bag." Three months of preparing that step and we dropped the baton. Meanwhile, I was on my own in the agony of being told to change my slippers. I had to remove my "hallway" slippers and change into "delivery room" slippers. Regretting that I had a sip of miso soup in me at all, I awkwardly crouched down to change the footwear. I put my other slippers on the appointed shelf, stepped up from the entrance into the foyer, and took 6 steps to the delivery table where I, in turn, removed the delivery room slippers. That was the most painful memory of the next 18 minutes. Perhaps that was their strategy. Put me through the culture shock torture of changing slippers to cover 2 meters of ground in my weakest moment in order to erase what was to come. Instead, what followed was comic relief. Bob entered the room wearing a white doctor's coat that was at least 3 inches short up from the wrists. "Do you like my jacket? They said I could keep it." I was focused on how he wasn't issued scrubs, a mask, or hairnet/cap, and how he really had an uncanny Mr. Bean gone wrong on Halloween look about him. Suddenly, my required floral print gown felt Milan runway ready to me.

The Delivery

The clinic rooms were like the Waldorf suites, but next to me in the delivery room, a humble linen/poly blend pleated curtain divided me from the woman at the next table. She was saying, "I can't do it." The midwife scolded her, "if you say you can't do it, you can't. Is that how you want to start motherhood?" Whoa. I thought we were naughty for lapsing on the delivery room bag. She won't get the labor sticker in her handbook. But I was more relieved that she got to the room first, and that seniority dictated her rule-enforcing midwife. It turns out the the midwife assigned to was famous in her circle, as I would hear for the 3 months to follow at the various city administered health checkups how lucky I was since she makes "the best bellybuttons." Up until this point in my life, I thought I brushed fame by frequently hearing that my Mother in Law makes "the best spaghetti marzetti." Nevertheless, she works quickly and silently. There is a Fuji film commercial that spoofs a Japanese birth. The couple deliver the baby in seconds, without a peep, and the baby comes out with a camera and takes their photo. That scenario seems more believable than the Laser Show Examination Room, I realize, but it does ring somewhat true. It was quiet. I was instructed to hold my breath three times. After three intervals of breathing cycles and 18 minutes, we had our daughter. She didn't have a state of the art camera loaded with Fuji film, but she had a world renown bellybutton.

The Role

As one midwife was changing me into my titled pink "mother gown," another resumed my education. She approached me with a silver platter, of no less quality than the room service tray, this time serving a different purpose. The deep dish housed the placenta. She was holding the tray with one hand, and kneading it like dough with the other as she spoke. My reaction at the time was probably what you are experiencing just reading that line, screaming a mental, "WHAT?" My assignment was to touch it myself to say "goodbye" to the assist. Its job on the inside was over, and now the life of this child is in my hands, on the outside. This responsibility will outlive me, take it to heart, obey the rules. I didn't give it the same gentle massage as the preaching midwife, but I followed through by caressing it, the way you would approach a snake at a petting zoo, and incidentally have been off baking home made bread dough making ever since.

The Baby

I returned to my room, where it was my job to recover for the first of the 7 night stay. In-service Mother School would resume the following morning. There was a midnight "snack" delivery, in full formal, "after 5" clad staff, but other than that, it was to be my "uninterrupted time." The babies were cozy in bassinets behind an elegant ceiling to floor glass wall in the midwife station. There were 18 newborns at the time, 5 born on "my day." Those 5 mothers would become my mother degree cohort. We spent the next week in classes, monitored feedings, and meals together. Ashley Hana was the only baby with a name, and I was the only one using it.

In Japan, there is a 2 week rule to naming your baby after birth. That's the deadline to register the baby's birth, including its name at the city hall. Until then, they tend to keep it a secret, or they really haven't decided. There's an unwritten cultural rule that the baby's parents have to seek the approval of the grand parents, great grandparents, and extended family before the name goes public. Next comes the bigger job of making sure the amount of strokes to represent the first and last name in kanji characters does not add up to an omen number, which could doom the child, family and future generations. Also, part of me thinks that since the mother and child's lives will become national record for the via the handbook until the child's 6th birthday, they are simply living dangerously by enjoying the 2 week window of having the freedom to guard anything, if only a name, in seclusion.

In the meantime, the babies are labeled with black permanent marker. The mother's name is inked down its arm and leg. As if the only American baby ever born in the clinic wasn't obviously mine on her looks alone, the phonetic Japanese lettering to write my foreign name totals 15 characters to the average 4 in kanji for the Japanese. The only baby with a real name, was a poor little graffiti child for her week in the display case. The least we could provide was longer than local average limbs to lessen the only cluttered look at the ornamental clinic.

The Gourmet

Breakfast call was a classical Mozart selection piped through the room speakers. Mothers took their places in the dining room, where a full breakfast was served on our pink linen and multi colored floral patterned Noritake table settings before the classes kicked off that would take us up to lunch to a different composer. We had a week schedule which eased us in with basics like feeding, burping and bathing newborns then graduated us to detailed challenges like mastering the perfect sushi roll fold of a baby in a blanket. The only one without a secondary education in the art of origami paper folding, I had to retake that test several times a day during my stay. On the bright side, I was better prepared for my post natal education compared to my prenatal lessons, adorned with a full set of shiny, labeled school supplies thanks to the rigidly monitored checklist of the conspicuous hospital stay bag.

Babies moved in with the mothers mid-week, since we needed to learn that 3 PM children are different from 3 AM children. That may be, however, no matter what time of day it was or how many times I had cleared the bath test, this kid still had my name branded across her twentysome inches in bold black pigment. The ink in my pen, in contrast, was the only thing to my name that was fading. I followed the lead of my cohort and filled an entire notebook throughout our daily lectures. For the most part, I doodled during the "birth control" chapter since I thought the deep dish silver platter visual post delivery was more effective and economical than considering purchasing any alternative forms of prevention.

On the final night, our usual full course dinner service was upgraded to a feast worthy of three Michelin stars, including a champagne toast, several elegant Chinese appetizers, lobster as the fish course and Kobe beef as the main dish, followed by mochi ice cream and a dessert tray of tarts and cakes that appeared cuter and even more delicate than the newborn Kodak moments. We took photos and exchanged contact information, even though the hospital would be keeping us together on a twelve month follow-up agenda that led to our final graduation from child rearing education, a celebration on the babies' first birthday a year later.

The Goodbye

The next morning was check-out. I saluted my one week stay goodbye as the front desk collected the remainder of the balance in cash-only fashion. In return, I was to pick out a souvenir gift for the child from the "girls'" clothing rack. Every baby also received a package including a hooded towel robe for the fresh out of the bath baby, which is appropriate for February newborns in a country lacking central heat, along with a "sandbox suit," which is appropriate in a country that actually keeps their kids neat and pressed whether it's 3 PM or 3 AM. They didn't forget about the mothers. I was given a parting gift as well. A small cedar box, containing a dose of cultural shock. The Japanese keep a part of their baby's umbilical cord, which I accepted with grace. After all, if she got the midwife that "makes the best bellybuttons," I should have a keepsake to commemorate the craft.

With my hospital stay bag now full of study materials, parting gifts and perfectly folded baby blankets, we loaded the car with a car seat, waved goodbye to the staff, and the cultural experience and headed home as a family of three. I headed inside, plopped my goodie bags down with cautious relief. I glanced around and thought it felt like I was away longer than just one week. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of the empty pizza boxes stacked in the kitchen and instead of a feeling of dread the housework ahead of me, the feeling of solace got the better of me. After an intensive 10 month education session Japanese style, ordained a "mother," and set off on my way, I should have enough confidence to read "Virgina" in a public forum with pride. But yet I don't think I'll have the chance to visit that buddy Jeannie in NoVa anytime soon. At one time bedazzled by the overwhelming scent of the clinic's floral arrangement, my senses grounded and I found myself overcome by the welcome bouquet of leftover pizza. Suddenly, instead of wishing I still had 3 AM and 3 PM access to the Narita Ladies Clinic Iron Chef, I thought, "Ahhh...a taste of the American way. Home and on our own. Without a rule last."

Sunday, May 9, 2010

John, Jacob, Jingleheimer, Schmidt are My Names Too

We bought a hat rack when we moved from our rented condo to our rented one floor house. Our first couple of places in Japan were far too small to spare even the slightest of an I don't know how many yen per square inch of space to place a hat rack, let alone hang anything. In my first apartment, two steps in the front door meant one step onto the washing machine. The hat rack splurge from 2002 survived the move from that first flat we had where I could stand in the living room with outstretched arms, and spin without hitting anything (assuming I was alone in the room). It made it through the following 8 years of graceful aging and finally set its legs in our current 2-floor rented house in semi suburban Saitama. It started tipping last week, and thus is now hanging on by one symbolic thin coating of wood glue, wobbling with every swing of the front door.

Well-rounded people talk about wearing many round hats on their well-rounded heads, each representing a different role in the life the wearer plays. Well, this rack wasn't exactly falling apart because of the weighty hats decorated with medals of honor for all the award winning roles I play. Not even a close second or a distant third. The safe immediate action to take in order to prevent it from toppling down and crushing the uninsulated walls that surround, or the not-hard-so-hard wood flooring beneath it, was to reduce the rack load to just one hat. This exercise jolted me back to my early years in Japan when I had to wear, carry, or seriously reconsider anything I took in, or on, due to lack of space. Perhaps the roundabout metaphor is that I am the hat rack, and I will tip over if I continue to take on too much. Underlying meaning or not, it was time for the rack to be recycled and upgraded, in the same way that I occasionally need the reminder to reassess, redefine, and refine my roles within this paid in sweat and tears job I call Life in Japan.

If I thin down my roles to roll myself up into just one hat, I'm best summed up by a ski mask; not because of the lack of central heat, but because of the mask part. I would design it after the cherished, colorfully striped stocking cap I had growing up. Woodstock from the Peanuts' Gang was knitted in the center in bright yellow, and it had one big orange and white tassel ball on top. I describe it as a childhood treasure, but I confess that I wore that thing from my elementary school moon boots days to my junior high school leg warmer days, and even into my freshman year of high school ski club days, when not only was Woodstock no longer supposed to be cool, but also at an age where wearing a hat for warmth en lieu of fashion would place any teenager alone on the bus.

To make a ski mask out of this prized possession, I'd have to remodel it and extend the forehead down to chin level, but I'd stick with this stocking cap since it doubles as my trusty security blanket. (Besides, Linus made carrying a blankie seem cool.) From this one of a kind ski mask, appropriate eye holes pop out, and the name of the auxiliary ego that lies behind those eyes changes depending on which role I play in Japanese society is being paged. At least physically, I'm always the same person behind the mask, yet based solely on the identity of the speaker, like a tribal native American, I'm dubbed one of at least 12 possible hat topping titled roles which I play on any given day.

My Mom always said that people should go through life wearing name tags. I concede that would be more personal method of putting names to the faces under the generic profession identifying hats, like this random sample of 12 well-knowns: Cowboy, milkman, train conductor, construction site worker, fireman, policeman, baseball player, nurse, pilot, drum major, Sherlock Holmes, the Cat in the Hat. If name tags became a world-wide requirement, I, though less-known, would need to move again just to upgrade the current limited space in the entrance way for a cabinet of laminated HELLO My Name Is tags to take root along side that hat rack, for any one of the synonyms for "me." Since moving to Japan, my collection of names to stitch on to each hat, Tokyo Disneyland style, include: Kyashii, Kyasarin San, Kyasarin Sensei, Jidonisu Sensei, Zidonis Sensei, Okusan, Schunaida San, Okaasan, Hana Chan no Mama, Mama, Kathryn, Kathy.

Kyashii, the casual cap

At my first teaching assignment in Koshigaya, I was one of 15 native English speaking instructors contracted by the city board of education. A long line of Kathryns (more likely Katherines) proved confusing to the supervisors, so I quickly became a form of Kathy pronounced in the Japanese phonetic alphabet used for foreign words, Kyashii. Unfortunately, pronouncing Kyashii was a challenge for Japanese speakers, especially children, and it was somewhat off-putting to the professional age range since it has such a sing-songy ring to it, despite the national pastime of sing-songy karaoke-ing professionals. The nickname really clicked among fellow-foreigners, thanks in part to a cash strapped friend, nicknamed after a brand of ready to drink coffee in a can that, in Japanese, phonetically mimicked his name. He always seemed to come up one or two vending machine canned coffees short just before pay day. I would spot him the chunk change, and on pay day I would have my cash back. I became Kyasii - Cardo thanks to our little ATM-like ritual and the sound alike to a Cash Card machine. He has since regulated his financial management system and certainly brews his own java by now. Both "Blendy" and I have graduated from those casual friendly name game days. And my casual Kyashii hat doesn't fit anymore, but it caps a good bank of memories from my early growing pains days in Japan.

Kyasarin Sensei, the same cap, accessorized with tassel

Kyasarin Sensei took over the casual Kyashii complex once inside the junior high and elementary schools. Sensei is the honorific title for teacher or master, so that was the tag of respect applique, and hence the slight upgrade to a tassel in my cap. Although it was standard for the staff and students to address foreign teachers by their first names, even coupled with Sensei, I was never very comfortable with it. Granted, you'd think there would be a kilo-mile long list of other things that would rank higher on the discomfort scale when it came to being a foreign employee in a new environment, such as a school building where only squatter toilets were available, for example. But having come from teaching high school French in Ohio, I was accustomed to working hard to create a professional distance between the students and me. It's not like the title, "Mademoiselle Zidonis" commanded instant respect, but culturally speaking, a necessary arm's length in the teacher - student relationship is weaved into the nuances of names.

It took me slightly more than a Tokyo minute to appreciate that the term Sensei was the catch-all chalk line drawn between the big desk in the front to the rows of desks in the classroom. It wasn't too casual or disrespectful from the students' eager eyes to use my first name, it just sounded strange to me (along with every other word in the language at first). Again, I was coming from a culture where Kathryn was a common name, and not considering that coming rolling off the tongues of Haruka, Yoshihisa and Kanako in first period English, just getting out my multi syllables, Kya sa rin or Ji do ni su, let alone saying, "hello my name is," was demonstrating a commendable A-plus effort. We were on the same end of the learning curve, as I struggled with their name tags as well. The most effective lesson this Mlle was to have was being a pseudo student of theirs at the same time during those early days. My empathetic language learning heart grew more sizes than the Grinch's in that first year.

Kyasarin, a slightly demeure beret
I traded Sensei in for San, the honorific tag-on (for Miss, Ms., Mrs. or Mr.), when I moved into a non teaching position where I was the only foreigner as far as the American eye could see, so I didn't need to work around the over Kommon Kathryn Complex. As the coordinator of international relations at Urawa City Hall, I had a casserole of duties, namely shadowing the mayor as his interpreter when he needed to mingle with foreign guests (English speaking or not, but that would bring up a different chapter all together, possibly topped with a clown hat). Kya-Sa-Rin was easy for my bureaucratic Japanese co-workers to remember, thanks to the one of the most destructive typhoons in Japanese history, named Kyasarin. I was reminded of my link to the 1947 killer Kyasarin often. I bet my parents would like to believe that they were aware they were naming me after a disastrous tropical cyclone, but they can't take that credit for predicting my personality from the womb. Japan has since gone to naming typhoons by number as not to discriminate names, but by the time I was named, I missed the polite change to "number" gesture by 22 years.

Hurricane Kathryn stuck around, and Kyasarin San followed me through my weekend community service work well after I moved from the Urawa City post. The hurricane took an interesting spin when I joined a Council for Foreign Citizens in Kawasaki City after moving to Kanagawa Prefecture. This was one of the more colorful hats in my collection, spattered with 20 different nations' flags. I worked with foreign nationals from all over the world and our common language was Japanese. With each country's representative guarding his Mother Tongue's unique pronunciation, "Kathryn" took on a melody of sounds, a harmony that had me enjoying a name that was too common for me to enjoy growing up, like an overplayed song. But it took moving across the globe to finally like donning that hat through the new found uniqueness of fresh eyes, ears and voice boxes from around the world.

Jidonisu Sensei, a graduation cap with tassel
My main hat in Kanagawa was an upgraded graduation cap from the teaching days at junior high and elementary schools in Saitama Prefecture, where I topped my semi-casual demi-cap with tassel. I transferred to a junior college, and traded up my hat as I discovered that the post-secondary level addressed all Sensei, regardless of the name on their passport covers, by last names. Ji Do Ni Su is the phonetic for Zidonis, so you could say with a slightest tone of sarcasm, "just like it sounds." The Jidonisu Sensei hat was such a tight fit that it didn't even come off when I legally became, "Dilenschneider" Sensei. The junior college, followed by the university system we were in could only handle one Di Ren Shu Nai da- Sensei at a time (who could blame them? Then again, that's a different chapter all together). Nevertheless, by birthright, my husband had first dibs.

Even now, back in Saitama 12 years happily married but teaching separately later, I remain Jidonisu Sensei at work, and occasionally Zidonis Sensei, as uttered by formidable English speaking colleagues. I approached the administration with the Dilenschenider request a few years ago, but was urged to keep it "simple" for them with the big hint head tilt gesture. That's fine, I don't mind hanging on to the gift hat from my parents some 3,000 miles across the world. Besides, the original Zidonis Sensei, my Father, taught me that closeness counts when it comes to getting a name a little bit right out of respect. Going to crowded restaurants where all the diners carried the same coupon we did growing up, we would no doubt have to wait for a table. Having experienced the name "Zidonis" pronounced every which way but right, we'd risk getting skipped over by missing the announcement, or have to suffer some awkward giggle from the host not wanting to even try. He started to leave his first name, "Frank" at the podium and that stuck for years. In a strange way, I feel I've carried on his Frank switch tradition, and "Zidonis" is finally getting its chef hat respect with no complaints from me.

Okusan, a white sun hat for sun protection
It seems every sector of Japanese society has a uniform. The housewife wears an apron as a badge, and not only for cooking. Women proudly wear their aprons to run errands, but stepping out of the house usually comes with the putting on a sun hat and white gloves ritual, both for protection from the sun. Okusan literally means wife in Japanese, but it is used as an address from strangers as a polite, "Missus," or, even better, "Hey Lady!" I don't remember how many wrinkles it took to earn my first "Okusan" from a grocer trying to grab my attention to consider the 5 kilo bag of freshly harvested rice, but he guessed right as I was married with no apron give-away at the time. I suppose you have to hand it to those that judge produce as a professional trade -- they can size up a customer's lifestyle in the same way they can pick out a good melon. It flashed me back to a time I was in a patisserie in France and I got my first, "Merci, Madame," as I was leaving. I was still single, but perhaps of a "certain age," and thus Mademoiselle may have been careless. I can accept that, and I can prove my maturity by choosing a beret as one of my hats, yet at the same time I admit that croissants have never tasted quite as sweet every since. C'est la vie.

Schunaida- San, a power red sun hat

Schunaida- San is the personalized form of Okusan in merchant's eyes. To some, I am not just "Mrs. Married Looking Lady," but I have a relationship with them (on paper) enough that they have some form of, or more like partial form, of my name. Dilenschneider (Direnshunaida-) is too long for most forms in Japan where names average 2 kanji characters for the first name and 2 kanji characters for the last name and there are no middle names. So the Japanese get their full name on every card in their wallets. Two spaces to fill out your family name vs the 12 phonetic symbols it takes to write mine, well, the math stops there. They must assume that Dilen is my first name and do what they can to squeeze Schneider in to be respectful of the name. I ordered a pizza on Tuesday, and introduced myself as Kathryn Dilenschneider. They pull up the records with a long pause combing their files for anything foreign and I finally get the Japanese equivalent of, "Oh! Schneider San, may I take your order?" My video rental card, bank book, post office, and on-line travel agency accounts also read "Schneider," for their convenience. Each representative most humbly refers to me in Japanese with this abbreviated form of a name not my own. Looking back, maybe I should have gone with the loaner "Frank" hat from my Dad after all.

Okaasan, a subtle blue sun hat that allows me to blend in
OK, you caught me on the sarcasm. With my Irish-Polish-Lithuanian look, I can never exactly "blend in" with the other mothers, but a blue sun hat is a staple Mother accessory in uniform loving Japan. Okaasan is the polite address for mother, the form that other's use as a respectful address. It would be hokey-strange in America if we referred to other Mothers on the playground as, "Mother," but in Japan it is an honorable title and stands alone (somewhat like Mothers on a playground who lost their kids to the jungle gyms). When I go to my daughter's preschool or chat with her teachers or principal, the staff simply addresses me as, "Okaasan." In a game of role reversal in this case, I am the one responding them as "Sensei," the hat I left at the office earlier that day.

Hana Chan no Mama, a sun hat with a 4 season patch work of patterns
Okaasan (Mother) and Hana Chan no Mama (Hana's Mom) are really the same person. Both are the Mom to Ashley Hana, a 5 year old kindergartner. Her classmates call her by her given middle name, Hana, along with the possessive "no" and "honorific" (in quotes since, yes, I have to stop and point out that we honor our children here too) Chan for little girls (they grow into the use of the honorable San around junior high school, when, veritably, we honor our teens. Hana Chan no Mama's hat has a patchwork of seasonal colors since I have been asked to introduce some American culture events at the school, which naturally comes on for the big ticket events that fall in winter, spring, summer and fall: Christmas, Easter, Independence Day, Halloween. For these guest teaching events, I haul in my supplies which includes the patchwork hat with a tassel tossed on (more like a clown or jester hat really), as the kids file in to the assembly hall suddenly addressing me as, Hana Chan no Mama no Sensei. A chorus of 3-6 year olds can roll that title off their little tongues and I still can't get the pizza guy to handle the 12 characters it takes to say Direnshunaida- in its complete form. I suppose as long as he gets the street address in full, I won't go hungry.

Mama, a princess tiara with pink jewels
Despite all the "honorific" name tags that come with each of my hats, this is not a royal fantasy here. Mama is simply the name kids in Japan use to address their own "Mommy." Since this is the title used by a 5 year old girl, she would no doubt want a say in the hat that comes with it, and it would no doubt come from her supply of princess dress up clothes in her favorite color pink. Unless, of course, she lets me choose and I draw the short straw (which she has trimmed all the straws she offers to the same stub length) and get Ariel, The Little Mermaid. I suppose that would suit me best in the end, not just because I could honestly use the oxygen tank to keep up half the time, but since scuba gear does come with a mask, and my versitle mask is the theme here after all.

Kathryn (Kathy), my imaginary tailor made ski mask
My simple given name, used exculsively by friends and family is the one I hear the least. Though once rejected for being far too common, it turns out Kathy only gets use during Skype sessions with my State-side relatives (in which case my trusty Wookstock ski mask is stylishly accessorized with an audio headset). Even my husband doesn't need to bother with a name for me to get my attention. When I hear a conversation starter in the American English venacular I naturally zoom in to listen, the way our old family pet Mickey perked up his ears when he sensed the jingle of his leash.

Mom was right on the name tags: I can barely keep the names to my figurative hats straight. I suspect this is less of an identity crisis curse than it is a celebration of one mulitfaceted ski mask. Woodstock now stands tall at the top of the rack, representing all 12 of my hat tricks rolled into one ski mask. Its eye holes are open to fulfill a call to duty, work or play, at the drop of a hat. I never envisioned that I'd be in Japan long enough to collect more than one touristy Samurai helmet, let alone be dubbed names mounting in the double digits. Nonetheless, I'll leave the remaining pegs of the new sturdy rack accessible for the new roles and adventures to come. I'm semi-satisfied that I've built enough endurance by now that the shelf life of the renovated stand can sustain whatever turbulance the future brings (and I hope that doesn't include yet another move within Japan). For those well-rounded veterans that can balance their roles without collapsing the rack, or at minimum can resist the need to call for a wood glue assist, I tip my 12 hats off to you. For now, I'm happy standing on my relatively non wobbly, quasi-sturdy hat rack legs.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Delivery Men Always Ring Twice

Desperate to reel in spring, I bought a large house plant last week. There were pulleys available for me to lug it out to the car myself, but the shop attendant hauled it for me. Two degrees from a light snow, he did this under a freezing rain. When he carefully assessed my compact itty bitty mini van, he realized it couldn't stand upright. He dashed back inside and returned with cardboard boxes and bags. He collapsed the boxes to line the the floor of the trunk, and cut and taped the bags to fit around the pot so the boxes, let alone the car, wouldn't get soiled. The whole time he was monkeying around with his props, the plant and my car, he was maintaining an umbrella over my head at an appropriate and steady height as I stood by his side. Now, hairdressers here walk you out to your bike or car with an umbrella over your head, but even that over-the-top gesture is a little more understood than a garden supply employee being concerned about keeping a customer's hairdo in tact. He seemed satisfied enough with his packing job to trust that I could make the 3 KM hop back to my house. At 50 KPH en route home, he somehow beat me there. A flashing light on the answering machine was welcoming me. He requested me to return the call if there was any mess due to his packing job, assuring me that he would arrange for the car to be cleaned, if necessary. "And to please feel free to return the boxes and bags for disposal if it's a cost or burden for me to wait for trash day in my neighborhood."

I'm going to keep an eye on the mailbox for a standard issued follow up gift-towel set from that Do It Yourself store where, incidentally, I did Nothing By Myself. I've learned that once I buy or install something in Japan, I've bought a relationship with the manufacturer for life. They follow up on their follow up, and their good word follows you for life. I can't seem part with money for repairs, even when it's clear that I'm the guilty party standing next to a crushed antique cookie jar with crumbs all over my face. A 2010 poll claims that Tokyo just bumped Moscow off the top spot as the most expensive city for expatriates in the world. Well, there's always more to those surveys than the rankings reveal. I'd have to eyeball the repair bills of my counterparts in Russia repair bills to check the big picture. Upfront costs are expensive, but I've come to terms with the fact that every purchase is like a debit card -- you over pay at the start, and everything thereafter comes as an accessory.

The Couchmen left a little while ago. I call them Couchmen, even though that might not be their true job title, because they were so fantastic at what they did with my old and new couches, that I have dubbed it their specialty. I must clarify that Couchmen should never be confused as a new stylish way to address a Couchpotato. The titles carry polar opposite cultural connotations. The Couchmen phoned the day before to politely inform me that they would arrive between 3:30 and 5:30 PM. The morning of delivery, Head Couchman phoned at 9 AM with an update after having assessed their loads and routes for the day. They would arrive around 4 PM, and require approximately 45 minutes from the starting blocks. My Ohio based Mother talks about losing days cooped up in the house waiting for delivery or repair men to show, or no-show up. She would have loved the idea that she would know a day in advance that she would only be on house sitting duty from 4 to 4:45 PM. She could have been at that Do It Yourself store getting plants to highlight her soon to be new couch set.

The doorbell rang at 3:59 PM. The Head entered with a bow, handed me his business card introduced his co-worker. He assessed the "already there" scratches on our wooden floors and proceeded to put down futon like tarps all the way from the outside to the middle of the living room to prevent soiling our already damaged, dusty floors. First they cleared the over-used set, then measured the area to determine the best entry with the new three-seater. After a 15 minute advanced architectural evaluation of the just a hair too low lying of a living room doorway, their strategy shifted to coming through an adjacent tatami mat room which required removing the traditional, most delicate, shoji double doors. Donned in jumpsuits, stocking feet and white gloves, they completed the removal, delivery and assembly in 15 minutes or less. By 4:30 they were rolling up the floor covers and using their dual battery powered dust busters to clean the work area without consuming my electricity. At 4:44 the Couchmen, Paperdoormen and now De-dustmen were handing me "after care" contact numbers in case I detected any malfunction or dissatisfaction after they left. I doubted I would need to activate the hot line, but I would love to see the next delivery crew shave the performance time down to 30 minutes, and I could even watch the action from a freshly installed couch. If there is a next time, I will be sure to exercise my share of the "before care" by breaking down potential barriers and clearing my couchpotato path.

Several years ago, we bought an Exercycle. One day, it seemed to go kaput. I called the store where we bought it, and the sales representative forwarded me to the company location closest to me that handles repairs. A repairman came to the house, the next day, based on my schedule, armed with a supply box that could rewire a cock pit. He spread a work mat on the floor as not to soil our carpet, and then asked me what the problem was. I explained that it had been fine, but suddenly when I turned the power on, lights would flash and the screen would freeze. He turned the power on. Power off. Used a ball point pen to push the "reset" function. Power on. Voila. Working. Over and out. I didn't know if I should be disappointed that I didn't get to see him tool around that box, or if I should have been impressed with myself that I had the supply of ball point pens that could repair a bike. The punch line? No charge. A house call, the next day, at no charge. He didn't think he did enough to justify collecting money. Well I was thinking he should at least write up an invoice for "ignorant customer," or at least, "ignorant teacher couldn't even use a pen," but funny invoices weren't part of their company policy. He has since made a trip back to replace a part that was making odd noises, and again, charged nothing. By that time, it was no longer within the warranty period, but after a block of hours taking the bike apart and rebuilding it, he just thought it shouldn't have been creaking in the first place. My daughter was so captivated for the duration while watching him work, that I really tried to get him to take what I would have charged in junior high school for babysitting, but no. He was more into the promise of the company logo on his badge than the potential room for more in his hourly wage.

My jogging stroller didn't survive a flight from Chicago to Tokyo. (I know what you're thinking: with all this exercise equipment, why not build some strength by fixing things yourself?) The stroller made it in one piece, but the shape was unsafe to use. The (State-side based) airline wouldn't claim responsibility, so I thought I would try to get it repaired before I was reduced to scrapping it for parts and replacing it. I took it to a bike shop. I figured it has the same function as a bike, and they'd have the tools, expertise, or at least a recommendation on where to take it. Instinctively, the repairman was reluctant to touch it since he would feel responsible for an infant's safety if he couldn't produce a sound repair job. I just thought, I'm trying to be resourceful here, and the alternative is the trash pile, so why not just give it a whack and we'll go from there (not the kid, the stroller). He agreed, fixed it, oiled it, and cleaned up the fabric. In the end, it looked better than the new model (the stroller, not the kid). No charge. In my mind I thought, but I got a repair on an item that I brought in. Isn't that what a labor or service charge is for? His mindset was more like, it's not a bike, and I'm not trained on strollers. I can't charge you. To try to pay back, which felt more like get back, I since have taken my 2 wheel bike in for air, break tightening, and minor adjustments to patron his business. He still hasn't taken a dime off me. Maybe he's waiting until he feels it's time to take my life in Japan training wheels off, then I'll pay a removal fee.

When we were preparing to move last year, a young company representative, smartly dressed in suit and tie came to the house and greeted me with his business card. He bowed, removed his shoes, put on the house slippers that he pulled from a sleeve of his briefcase and discreetly entered our home. His task was to provide an estimate based on how big our They Haul load appeared. We made pleasant small talk, chatting mostly about soccer (OK, I listened more, based lack of knowledge on Real Madrid's record this season, not because I'm not the chatty type) as he swiftly moved from room to room jotting notes on his clip board. He drew up a contract, I poured some coffee, we sat and signed. He gave me a gift box of soaps and a box of laundry detergent, which apparently are high on the don't bother to pack list, and thus useful in a move. I guess he was distracted by Bend it Like Beckham, because he assigned a truck just one size too small. The moving team arrived, and quickly realized they would need to make two trips. It's not as simple as it sounds (because taking two trips with a moving van sounds like a breeze?) because they had to honor another contract in between.

When the company unloaded us into our new place, two times that day, they removed their shoes, dusted the area before they placed boxes or furniture, hooked up essentials, and took their trash back with them. They loaded and unloaded everything including the traditional kick off of the shoes in the entrance way. They were cleaned and pressed, and managed to lift beds over their heads and climb a flight of stairs in stocking feet without slipping or cursing, for that matter. They followed up with a spontaneous pop in the next day in case they left a roll of bubble wrap or any debris behind for removal. Imagine the expense the company had to swallow, which the one crummy cup of Kilimanjaro that I served wouldn't cover. They did it. The same crew made three hauls that day. We thought we should offer something to compensate the underestimation. Money did not change hands. My husband got them to accept a six pack of Kirin lager, which somehow made the list of things to bring above the boxed soaps and laundry detergent that, if not a gift, we would have forgotten.

Besides the basic new furniture delivery from factory stores, electricians from each category of installment came separately in swinging-door fashion. They installed satellite dishes, air conditioning units and hooked up the water at the precise estimated time we said we'd be arriving at our new place on moving day. There must have been 6 service cars and a moving van on the narrow-I-can't-believe-this-could-be-two-way-street in front of the house at once. The service is so thorough, that I'm surprised one of them didn't provide a parking attendant or traffic cop. They set the time on the remotes, programed the TVs to the "ideal" energy saving settings, set the hot water temperatures at a comfortable setting, and even went as far as programming the bath timer to fill the tub for a pre-bedtime soak. Another electrician took the initiative to log us on to a 2 week free trial for cable on both sets. The furniture deliveries swept before they placed the items, removed the plastic dust covers, and cleaned up after themselves by taking the trash with them. All I had to do was stand in one place with the official signature stamp and stamp clipboards that rotated around me as each expert completed his task.

One minor detail that I missed, as far as not calling to make the contract transfer from the old house to the new house, was the gas company. The downside was that we couldn't call what felt like the "front desk" at our thus far luxury customer satisfaction set up and stay for a wake up call. Instead, a cold shower would do it. Oops. Hot water is powered by natural gas in this town. Although the electronic gage was set at an ideal temperature, you really do need gas hook up to heat water. I realized that in the middle of the night, when the absurd mental check list enters in and out of your slumber, like, did we pack the child? I rose in the wee hours and tried to run the "H" knob. Thinking I would get an answering machine informing me of the operating hours at the gas company, I phoned to collect information, or better yet, leave a message. Bigger Oops. A representative answered at 3 AM. This was not how I wanted to start my relationship with the indispensable gas man. Sorry that I edited the Land of the Rising Sun to the Hour of the Rising Gas Man, I stumbled through a taken-off-guard-apology, and asked when they opened. I said goodnight/morning(?) and thought I would call back at 9 AM, when the civilian world would invite incoming calls. He was at the door at 8 AM with the hook up supplies. And a towel. He apologized for somehow not reading our minds and initiating contact, and has since stopped by at least 3 times just to make sure we aren't having any problems, or maybe to make sure we haven't burned the house down.

I needed to connect a new computer to our wireless network, and couldn't crack the access codes on my own. I called our local server and they sent a representative to the house. Unfortunately, I didn't have the correct software, so instead of telling me to do my homework and then call him back, he got in the car with me and we drove to the local electronics store together. I'd call that a gold star house call, upgraded to a platinum house-to-the-store-and-back-to-the-house-call. I and my new laptop were up and running and emailing home to tell about the victory within minutes. I've been in touch with my brother in California lately about troubleshooting some techno glitches that would bring his TV cable to our home computer. It's a bumpy work in progress, so he's calling the for profit, charge by the hour "Geek Squad," an off shoot crew available through the store where he was originally over charged for the product, for a pinch hit on the job. There is no such customer service team in Japan, unless it translates simply as, "Old Fashioned Work Ethic," or, better yet, "The Right Thing to Do."

I am a split personality consumer. I have 2 sides: the US inquiry side, and the Japan inquiry side. My approach to customer service centers depending on the language and location is completely different. Something about a 1-800 number sends an auto protective vest on my delivery, semi-assuming that I need to have my defensive gloves on to brace for the catch. On the other hand of the speed dial, there is something effective on the Japan side when it comes to arranging a house call for a repair. I somehow end up apologizing in advance, as if I'm disturbing them when I make a request. Perhaps this feeling is because I know they will go overboard in their "after care," which would leave me feeling indebted to their company, rather than keeping focus on the fact that something I paid for is on the fritz. But there is a person behind the company, and that service representative and I now have a relationship, and as if they are a teammate of mine, I want to see us both succeed. The American side? Granted, but not guaranteed, things tend to be cheaper up front compared to the world record setting Tokyo prices. However, we tend to knee jerk our approach to that not-so-toll-free call: "OK, here we go, I know I'll be on hold for an hour, and then you'll find a loop hole denying my rights as a customer, so let's get this over with..." Which geographical or cultural side of this service industry do I want to be on? I think I'd skip the world that calls for a Geek Squad, and opt to bat for the team that tends to push coffee and beer as currency for awhile. I'll never win in the follow through swing or the gift giving rotation game in Japan, but I've found it to be the more dignified way to take the fall in the battle when things break down.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Service with a Smile and a Towel

I will never buy a pack of tissues or a washcloth again.

"Sorry to have kept you waiting." Bow. Tissue hand off. "Sorry to have inconvenienced you." Double bow. Towel hand off. Welcome to the pay scale of I'm sorries in Japan. Small mess up equals tissue pack. Big mess up upgrades the whoops! gesture to a white towel with a standard assembly line red bow wrapping. Neither of these "mistakes" by service representatives, mind you, are even what I would consider as my personal best effort. The customer service is so gold star in Japan, that their self-proclaimed worst trumps my self-proclaimed-worth-a-brag-best any day. I say this with at least an ounce of unleaded credibility since I did put some years in the food service industry State-side. On that note, anyone ever sitting at my station who didn't get a timely refill of coffee, a tissue pack is on the way. And if I brought you the wrong salad dressing on the side? I'll drop a towel in the mail.

During a recent trip back to my parents' house, I was beating jet-lag while relaxing in front of the TV with my Mom. Commenting on a commercial, she noted, "I don't understand why the post office needs to advertise. It's not like we have choices." The same rings true in Japan. They don't need to go out of their way to please me -- it's not like I have rivals to turn to. Nevertheless, I must have a room full of kickbacks (them kicking their backs in humiliation) from the Japan post. A purple ceramic replica of a retro mailbox I turned into a Christmas ornament. A plastic utensil and chopstick set with matching cup that my daughter now takes to kindergarten. Countless towels that I started using as disposable dust rags since it felt indulgent dedicating an entire linen closet to them. Every tear of sadness over Buckeye losses or joy from last minute victories over the last 15 years was wiped dry with a postal tissue. And finally, a plastic "Hello Kitty" coin bank I use to stash the thousands of yen I save on towels and tissues.

To wit, I must provide an unending challenge with my off the usual playbook tasks. I mail things in a non standard package, or to an obscure place, or make a postal order in US dollars that gives the innocent intern a year equivalent in training in one hour or less. They think that I am the victim when clearly I am requesting that they jump through barbed wire hoops for me in their cumbersome uniforms, and without the chance to limber or study up. And being made to wait? When they excuse themselves to work on my task, it's not a case of the cliche American sitcom scene highlighting an employee dashing to the water cooler to gab about the annoying, demanding customer. Rather, while I am waiting for the transaction to take place, which usually involves the representative consulting at least one other, followed by two assistants checking manuals, and another associate running to the man in back behind the big desk for some kind of authoritative nod. All the while, I am seated on a roomy vinyl chair, (which feels like a massage chair since the whole room is buzzing with productivity centered on my request) at a table, with a fresh cup of green tea. I hardly think "going postal" was coined in this environment at all, unless the phrase is an undercover code for High Tea at the Waldorf. In fact, all this waiting they think I'm bothered to do is most likely a matter of waiting for them to dig out a new I'm sorry gift from the crypt to ease my "troubles."

Once again Mom had a point, and I agree with her on this one. It's not as if I have ample mailing options outside of the post office, nor do I get that cut-throat feel that their work ethic is even slightly competition-based. Besides, any delivery service (postal, furniture, electric equipment, Sanrio Hello Kitty products) in Japan welcomes you to call for redelivery if you were out when a package arrived, furthermore, you can choose the day (even same day delivery) down to the hour of your convenience as a matter of customer right. It just has a genuine warm-fuzzy feeling about it. Besides, with Hello Kitty logo kick backs, how can anything feel impersonal? It's hard not to compare this royal treatment to the more than one time I've hung up the phone from dealing with US customer service practically in tears, wondering where my kick back tissues were during those times, while wishing there was a "press # for Japanese" option on the switchboard.

The standard white towel gift classifies as I'm sorry to ease a momentary disappointment. The I value you towels represent a slight upgrade. They involve colors, patterns and everything cute, just to maintain lifetime satisfaction. I've received happy patterned towel sets from book publishers, the hospital I chose for child birth, my insurance company, no less than three banks, and most recently, a used car dealer. The salesman handed me the large meticulously wrapped box with a Harrods by Hallmark logo on it, which apparently must mean, "when you care to thank, or apologize in advance for the very best." My American brain would wonder what I was set up for. Did he program a coolant explosion for when I pull out of the lot? Then I'd be grateful that I had these little dancing animal patterned towels with ribbons and flowers to comfort me? Well, I dropped the sceptic line of questioning 77 trees worth of tissues ago, which might have been in the late nineties. Again, Harrods has us back sipping high tea at the Waldorf as a matter of transaction course.

Electronic stores are equally as huggy feely with their apologetic handouts, but the gift items tend to be less of the cuddly category and more from the battery operated family. The key word is "family," since there is so much love conveyed in the service industry (mainly me just loving my personal 100% rate of customer satisfaction). I had no problem with the application process taking up what the representative thought to be too much time to get a cell phone. I had to make a trip back the next day based on my schedule. Somehow this sent the store a message that they should load the phone with a $50 value memory chip as an extra. Granted, he would probably have to make 10 more slip ups to justify giving me a semester worth of tutorial to get as functional as I would need to be in order to need high level memory. With low level cell-phone function ability, I don't know what I would begin to store with the multimillion mega bits, unless of course I could upload a room full of white towels.

Thus far, I've spent most of my time on the receiving end during my shopping experiences. When I'm actually on the gift purchasing side of the check out counter, the price tag blow is lessened by the free art exhibition that comes in watching the salesperson gift-wrap. One birthday growing up, I asked for 2 record albums. My brothers went in together and bought them for me. The went as far as wrapping them together in their hunter green bath towels. I was impressed. I got the thrill of opening, and the towels were clean. Standards here are a notch higher, and I'm not referring to an upgrade in my taste of music from those Men and Work and Blondie album requests, rather the concept of gift wrap. My daughter turned 5 recently, and wanted a Mell bath time doll. The store wrapped this up as if it were a toy intended for the young Princess Aiko, potentially the heiress in line for the Chrysanthemum throne. The standard gift wrap that comes with purchase is an art form. The Land of Origami. They don't use scissors in the process, it's all done with large sheets of paper that they fold into varying angles and sizes of triangles. I wrapped as a seasonal part time job over the holidays in high school, and with all of the fancy slicing machines and bow builders we used, I never came up with this clean and pressed look. Origami. I can't follow the fold A to B directions for one sheet. I'm grateful that my family is healthy, since I could never fold a paper crane, let alone one thousand cranes as the legend goes to wish someone well. Certainly my daughter will get a dose of culture shock of she visits Uncle Bill and Uncle Frank over the holidays. She'll be left to assume that Malia and Sasha get their Christmas gifts wrapped in Barack and Michelle's bath towels.

Between the errands to the post office, electronic depots and toy stores, eventually I'll need to fuel up the car. Stopping at the gas station is a treat, where even what is labeled "self serve" is would be more appropriately considered, "overflowing full service with a smile." Everybody with an employee name tag pitches in. They bow approaching the door, tap lightly on the glass, open the door and bow. Next, they proceed to ask, in a manner in which they feel they are invading my space, if I want "regular or super," and if I'll be paying with "cash or debit card." When the transaction is complete, the uniformed attendants, men in colorful jumpsuits and women in coordination jackets and mini skirts, dash out into traffic and halt oncoming so I can get on my way, with my fresh tank of friendly fun filled gas. I pull away from the station to the tune of Billy Joel's Uptown Girl in my head (only a slight upgrade from that Blondie's Heart of Glass request), vaguely recalling the pop video where Christie Brinkley turned heads, if not stopped traffic, at car service station of sorts. It's the closest I've come to being a super model even if only in my head. But as a customer in Japan? I'm convinced that 5 star and super star treatment are one in the same.

With a full tank in the Honda, the only thing left on the to do list is to refuel the tummy. Restaurant service is no exception to the 5 bell service standard. I'm not still day dreaming that I'm a rock star, or even play one on an MTV Video when I can state for the record I have never been unsatisfied leaving a restaurant in Japan. Even, or should I say especially, the service at McDonald's deserves Michelin consideration. Wait staffs at every scale of eatery follow a peppy, pre-programed script. When you order from the table, the server is repeating what you say while inputting it into a handheld computer, sending it to the kitchen instantly. When the party's order is complete, he or she repeats the order to confirm. When the food comes from the kitchen, there is a final cross check to ensure that that everything came out as ordered.

When all the hot plates and steaming bowls of food are attractively arranged at the table, the server scrams to let you enjoy your meal, only returning when paged. Yes, paged. Each table is equipped with a numbered, one touch push button bell which signals the staff when you want something, making it the customer's decision if they "left any room for dessert today," as opposed to the potentially invasive 5 minute rotation of questioning from US servers checking on their stations. Although it may sound degrading to "ring a bell for help," as if I'm snapping at my mother for a second helping, a habit that fortunately I have not adapted on my trips back to the States. But fortunately both sides maintain mutual manner of respect, which frankly, would be an aspect that my mother wouldn't mind at all.

Service in the States varies in both quality and strategy. I've heard expats claim that the Japanese service industry tends to follow a robotic script which could be considered superficial or insincere, whereas the American side prides itself on individuality with a personal touch when it comes to customer relations. Granted, I am proud of that national trait too. Working for tips, Americans are often chatty with customers, carefully building a 10 minute, empathetic relationship. I admit, I've made it work for me too, by reading up on local sports heroes and being up to date on big games scores in order to connect with the cocktail hour clientele. There is no tipping custom in Japan. It's their national pride to just do a job well. I "served" my time, and I tip well, but honestly, I am paying for consistency, not looking to have a deep exchange with whomever is waiting on me.

Yet, now that I've had some distance from it, and having spent some time on both sides of the menu, I realize I don't miss the trivial conversations. Maybe I'm the one who appears insincere, but when it comes to ordering a steak rare-medium, I prioritize knowing that the order gets to the kitchen, rather than hearing that the server's middle child Jimmy is doing better with his tutor in Algebra this week. That's nice chit chat, and although I wish Jimmy and others well, generally, customers are not going to start sending their servers kids' graduation gifts, nor are they looking to add shop attendants to their greeting card lists. I've "served" my time, and tip well (even when that rare-medium steak comes out as cold as this sounds), but honestly, in the end I am paying for consistency, and not asking to have a deep exchange with whomever is waiting on me, so a little "superficial" treatment if the service is outstanding goes a long way. Keep in mind, I have a sizable collection of heartfelt towels and tissue packs to show for it.

The cost of living is reputed to be high in Japan, and the consumer industry is no exception. Things are expensive. Luckily, it's easy to justify most purchases for the customer service experience. If that in itself isn't worth the money, then the fanfare attitude that accompanies shopping at least makes you feel like you have a cheering squad pepping you up while you part with your cash. The kid's meals at McDonald's is a Happy Set, boutiques advertise a "Happy Price," discount stores offer a "Special Price," and seasonal promotions come with a "Smile Price" tag. These are all large placards, usually pink, accessorized with hearts, inked in bold English lettering. It's a peppy time at the store, and when prices smile and sales are happy, how can you feel dissatisfied, let alone feel taken on a splurge?

I recall one winter vacation in Krabi, Thailand. We shared a tuktuk ride with an older British couple that have spent their past 40 Christmas holidays touring her islands. We were discussing the friendliness of the Thai people. The gentleman commented on the bargaining culture, "even if they're ripping you off, they're doing it with a smile on their faces so it's fine with me." It sounded like an absurd way of accepting being overcharged. But it stuck with me, since I've grown to share his sentiment. Bringing it back to first world, fixed-price customer service, I value a friendly smile, simply a good feeling, even if just for a minute. So maybe it's robotic, impersonal or expensive. I walk away having been given consistent and fair treatment, along with an occasional, even if superficial, goody bag for my "troubles?" If that's the case, allow me to freely quote the British sage who was my friend for a day, "it's fine with me." In fact, it's more than fine. It's smiley, it's special. It's happy with me. No fries with that, thank you. I'll take the towels, and meet you at the Waldorf.