Friday, January 29, 2010

And I thought Boy Scouts were Prepared

I carried more gear to pre school for my kid on any given school day than I checked on to the plane on my initial flight to Japan. You would think that a 25 year old relocating to a 4 season climate would haul more than a 3 year old starting pre school, but once again, Japan pointed and laughed at my not so common sense. Thanks to catching wind that it was competitive to get a slot in the public preschool system, which unfortunately was not the wind that brings Mary Poppins, I dug my geta clog heels down and started campaigning early.

Before I even knew if I'd be potentially enrolling a girl or a boy, I made phone calls, visited the city hall, the target school, and one backup school in the private circuit in case there wasn't an opening for him. Or her. Or them - for all I knew at that stage. My zeal was absolutely more of a direct result of my American in Japan paranoid side of bumbling around and getting it all wrong than it was my Japanese kyoikumama paranoid side of failing to pave a clear path to the Ivy League from the womb.

Flash forward to the birth of a baby girl. After a generous maternity and child-rearing leave from my post at the university, it was time to start step one of more than I can count in any language flights of stairs to get my daughter into the system. I headed to the city hall, took a number, and finally picked up the 3 inch thick application packet for entrance in to the schools. Loaded down with the instructional guidelines, I crunched my way through the falling leaves in the parking lot to make my way to the car. I consulted the calendar on my cell phone and book marked the strict application deadline -- November 30 for an April 1 school start. Turning the key to the car, I voiced a rhetorical, "What in the world takes 4 plus months for the application process for a spring start? We haven't even had our first snow yet!"

I had visions of having to provide an elaborate reading list that my just-graduated-from-the-toddler-milestone prefers. Fortunately (and/or unfortunately?), it turns out that the application kit has less to do with the child's skills than it does of the home environment and family background. Filling in the details of my husband and me was just a good warm-up. Next I found myself drudging up from memory the birth dates and colleges attended by my and my spouse's parents and siblings, as well as their occupations. If parents were working, we needed to submit an official certificate from the employer detailing our job title, the date work commenced, the average amount of hours required per work week, as well as the length and method of commute. (Later I floundered through the related "draw the map" part of the forms, with my chicken like scrawls illustrating the distance from work to home, and home to school. I wished my kid was old enough to excuse its amateur look by claiming, "oh, I let her draw that!")

If grandparents live in the household, a common arrangement in Japanese families, you must submit information on their states of health as well as their general role in the child's daily life. All of this, we are led to believe, is for the purpose of providing necessary details for the school to better set a nurturing environment for the kids. Page 23. Grandma and Grandpa live in America. (Luckily I did not have to draw a picture to their house. The Great Lakes always end up looking like asparagus when I attempt to scrawl the Midwest). Grandma and Grandpa are healthy (maybe from eating all that asparagus). Grandma and Grandpa are Santa and Mrs. Claus. It's a big role. The kid has a healthy home life. Siblings' dates of birth? Thanks for the reminder. My sister's birthday is coming up. Let's see. She graduated from Northwestern, and I'm pretty sure she fared well on her SATs in high school. Call her. She doesn't speak Japanese, but during your fact check, please wish her a happy birthday anyway from me. That's right, there is truth to the rumor that they are thorough over here. But what I was about to learn is that they can probably pop tents around the preparation motto the Boy Scouts of America hail as well.

If you pass the screening process, in mid-winter you are greeted with an invitation to the appointed school for an "interview." Thankfully, the interview was less of a skills test for the toddler and more of a straight forward, albeit a 3 inch thick, explanation of what the parent needs to prepare before entering the school (did I say "thankfully?"). We entered the Principal's office through the back door, off the school playground, promptly removing our shoes. I sat across the table from her, and there was a little play corner set up for the accompanying child candidate. Luckily, she gravitated to the toys and picture books and didn't help herself to the teacher's supply kit and write on the walls. The Sensei was warm, in an all business way, which made me feel like she balanced the Mrs. Cunningham welcome with the Catholic school teacher strictness. It helped ease the tone that it happened to be nap time at the school, and even though there were concrete walls between the slumbering children and us, she carried on her dictating with grace in a whisper. Somehow she had the notion that she could have confidence in my ability to fulfill all the necessary preparations she was firing off, page after page, calendar after calendar, and schedule after schedule, in her sweetly hushed way. Maybe it was a test. The kid played attentively and didn't interrupt our session, nor did she create a commotion that would wake her future schoolmates. Perhaps we both passed? I walked away from that meeting asking myself, "How in the world is a measly 4 months going to be enough to prepare for this process? The cherry blossoms will be blooming any minute!"

Two and three quarters of the thickness of the instruction packet was the list of items to have ready. This was not the kind of list that would come to my parents' door in the form of the neighborhood news in time for back to school shopping -- crayola crayons, safety scissors, thick lined paper. Rather, this was a detailed account of what we needed to make by hand, and other than the required set of kiddy chopsticks, there wasn't much that the likes of a Wal Mart could save me from. Enter, guardian angel. Yes, thankfully I had a Nakamura san as my wild Karuta card. Every bumbling American trying to survive abroad needs one. She is that one of a kind, willing, and been-there-done-that retired mother of 2 from the system that remembers the drill as if it were 2 and not 20 years ago. We sat over pot after pot of green tea, which helped me come back from sheet what do I do white, and plowed through the material. She even dropped by the school to plow through the nuances within the mapped instructions, to ask questions and to politely demand to see hands on examples of the required materials. I had a native ally up my kimono sleeve, which made me feel like my American handicap was reduced to XYZ. (XYZ is a non numerical cop out -- this is where I would insert knowledgeable golf stat reference. I just know that the higher the handicap of a player, the poorer the player, and I don't know how low to go without losing effect here.)

In first grade, I had a Raggedy Andy nap mat, which, given the choice, I elected over Raggedy Anne. That much I remember. My parents did not weave it. They bought it, in a store, with currency, and I am confident that they truly loved me. Yet I had to prepare a futon, with fitted hand made sheets with two blanket options: one for summer and one for winter, each requiring different specified hand stitched dimensions. The futon and the seasonal blankie went into a futon bag (also handmade), which is a large fitted cloth duffel which was to match the hand made sheets to the given dimensions, all representing my thimble thumbed love for my child. The rule was to bring the futon bag (and more to come) every Monday, and back home every Friday for weekend laundering and fluffing. That Raggedy Andy mat stayed at school all year. And I still love my parents. (Just recalling all that labor makes me long to spread it out and take a snooze right now.)

Also in the category of hand made demands, two other cloth bags, of varying but specific dimensions, were required. The slightly larger of the 2 was a "pajama bag," and the other, a "book bag." Japan prides itself in preparing youngsters to be good citizens and in turn contribute to society. I quickly learned that this life training can start before potty training is even complete. At the same time, I wondered how I missed the sign up for the crash course for first time mothers of preschoolers. The tie in here is that the PJ bag was to put kids on the path to learning that there is an appropriate dress for every activity. They actually had a complete costume change for nap time. After lunch, they'd set up their own futons, put them away when they woke, and change out of their pajamas, putting them back into their PJ bags, and access their drawers to choose fresh clothes for the rest of the day. The book bag was for Thursdays. The book bag was to match the PJ bag fabric, but it didn't have to be the same as the futon bag, which had to be the same as the sheets. On Thursdays, they could "check out" a book from the school library, carry the book home in its bag, and then they returned it on Monday, of course, in the personalized book bag. I love my child enough to go to the fabric supply store with Nakamura san, and choose the appropriate materials to match her 3 year old tastes for at least the 3 hand made bags and the 3 sets of seasonal sheets. Nakamura san took the needle from there, and from that day, I realized that I just might love Nakamura san almost as much as I love my daughter. In the least, I think I needed Namamura san as much as my daughter needed me.

She also filled in all the excess trimmings. She stitched on the loops for the hand towel for the towel rack by the rest room, which was sent home daily for washing, as well as the swim season towel, of a different pattern and size. What did I do? I ironed on and labeled the name patches for every little item until the room filled with enough steam to perma starch my shirt. That's love. I labeled. I got away with buying the swim bag, (and order the uniformed swim suit which, even for the girls, was only the bloomer-like bottoms!), as well as the "mud play" bag, (hey, even if you have a rainy season, you've got to embrace someway of enjoying the outdoors -- mud it is!) since those called for more of the semi-waterproof bag, as opposed to the cuddly cloth hand stitched variety. We were also off the hook on the back pack. That we were permitted to rely on manufacturing and purchase. I don't know how I could have survived the guilt of having Nakamura san whip up something that required multiple zippers. Why does a 3 year old need a backpack if the book bag is a separate bag anyway? Well, it was to host part of the remainder of the list of 57 things to bring to and from school on a daily basis, which I'll get into later. What struck me is that I was teaching 260 university students a week at the time and never equalled this school supply load.

Everybody loves snack time, so I'll continue from there. Morning snack time required the first of three towels per day, of a specific dimension. The second was for lunch, and the third for afternoon snack. The kids put them under a faucet briefly and wrung them so that they could wipe their mouths and hands as they ate. Because these were wet and dirty in the end, they went into a daily vinyl bag that each kid had, labeled, and hung on one of the 2 hooks at their cubby hole (the other was for the backpack). If you are keeping count, we are up to 5 towels a day, everyday. Lunch was slightly different. They had a hot lunch provided for the main dish and soup, but the kids brought their own rice. Rice rules were rigid. The rice could be spread in the tin, or formed into 2 balls with salt or a pickled plum, but with no other additives to spice it up (no smiley faces made out of seaweed or secret favorite filler ingredients stashed in the center of the rice ball) and finally placed in a specific dimension of a small oval aluminum container made for this purpose.

I had a Holly Hobby lunch box and thermos in elementary school and loved it. As I am writing this I am hoping that my parents still have it somewhere. Maybe the rules will loosen up one day and I could sneak my daughter an off sized item in her school supplies so she could enjoy a retro hand-me-down from Mom. She chose Anpanman, an extremely popular bread superhero in Japan and I could safely say arguably the most popular of all the bread heroes worldwide. The rice tin had to have an elastic cloth strap, also with an Anpanman logo label. The tin was obviously to be washed daily, but the strap could go through the laundry weekly. That was the honor system. The rice container went into a matching Anpanman bag with a draw string. There are 2 more small bags with draw strings in the line up. One is for the chopstick set. They required a spoon, fork and chopstick set, and each item was labeled. I can't believe I still have my eyesight after trying to carve a name on baby sticks, but I made it through. Labeling the toothbrush, which we brought every Monday, and home for "inspection" on Fridays, was a snap after my chopstick drills, even considering that waterproofing was part of the process. (If you take inspection lightly, you will get a post it note requesting you to change it when the bristles wear down. Like any American, I dreaded the "note sent home" from the teacher.) The remaining bag was for the gargle cup. In Japanese tradition, they gargle to prevent colds after every time they come in from outside. They also used this cup after lunch when they brush their teeth, and it came home to be washed everyday. I was able to get away with allowing Hana to bring her Hello Kitty cup, even though it threw off the color pattern of the Anpanman lunch set. I guess nobody could deny the friendship of an honorable carb superhero and a cult worshipped kitten. I did, however, question why we couldn't just combine all of the above in one draw string bag, but I suppose it's a life lesson for the kids that their is an appropriate dress for you personal effects just as their is your personal clothes.

Besides the 2 hooks at the cubby hole and 2 drawers for seasonal changes of clothes, each of the 57 items in the back pack and duffles had a specific drop off point in the morning. We would enter the classroom together, removing shoes at the entrance. The futons went in the closet, the cup and toothbrush went into a basket on a small table. In a separate basket went the rice tin. Underneath the table, there was a basket for the book bag. In the hallway, there were 3 racks with hooks. The first was for the coat. Next was the bag (depending on the weather or the season), was for the swim or mud play set. Down the hall a bit were the restrooms, where a rack was to hang the hand towel. Each kid had a sticker with a cute character on it representing their personalized hook. It was more pleasant to be Pikachu than a social security number I suppose, and until every kid could read names in Japanese, it was a pleasant ID system.

Delivering all of the above in the morning, and then reversing the drill and picking them all up in the afternoon doesn't sound that tedious. However, it did dictate my shoe choice for the 3 years she was enrolled at that school. I will never master the amazing slip on and slip off when entering and exiting rooms as the natives do. But it keeps me on my toes, so to speak, bare or not. We lived a few minutes walk to the school, but with all that gear, I drove her to school. I marveled at the moms who were transporting their kids by bike -- the child on the back seat and the futon in the front basket, and sometimes they'd be maneuvering with one hand as the other was holding up and umbrella. (And on those days, they'd have the added baggage of the mud play kit!) I have fond memories of walking to the corner of our street to wait for the bus to Our Lady of Bethlehem for preschool. I don't think I carried anything. I did wear shoes that said "Right" and "Left," so perhaps I think I had my walking cheat sheet and that was enough. I can't compare my daughter's daily supply load to my own preschool experience at all. Indeed, it parallels more the experience I have at the airport when I have to tip the luggage caddy when I check in as a family of three traveling overseas. Come to think of it, I better get back to Nakamura san, and tip her for a lifetime, and lifeline, of help for my daughter's over sized load, and never under loved load.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Driving Miss Kathryn

Driver's Education was a one, 9 week term course offering in high school. A quicker route, for a fee of $80, AAA offered a 2 week class, plus driving time. After putting in my time, I skimmed the rules of the roads, familiarized myself with the less obvious there-to-trick-young-drivers road signs, showed up for my written test and got the ticket to pass go. With temps in hand, and the help of a short list of volunteer patient and experienced drivers shotgun, I set off for road practice. I performed some dry runs on a make-it-yourself obstacle course fully loaded with chalk markers and orange cones at a forgiving local church parking lot. Before long, I took the driving portion of the test, graduated to the official laminated version of the coveted license, and was hitting the highway solo. So simple. So sixteen.

I wish there was such a sweet sixteen story in Japan. I spent my first decade here overjoyed with public transportation. It's clean, efficient and even invites passengers to indulge in double tasking -- reading and texting while riding is no longer a no-no when you're not the one behind the wheel. I was delighted to ride trains and buses for long hauls, and was more than accustomed to mounting a push bike for local trips around town. I can't equate myself to the graces of the women pictured on travel posters from say, Bali Island. They are crossing a creek, knee deep, balancing a basket on their heads that is stacked 2 feet high with a fresh crop of bananas and even and a pineapple on top. In each hand is a full bucket of drinking water, and often a small child clinging to each hip. I was less amazing, yet I did master a front basket packed full of groceries, including the excess bags balancing out on each handle bar. It became a way of life for me here, but my husband drew the line at adding an infant to the 2 wheeled mix. You can guess where this is going - unfortunately (and fortunately), Mother Nature butt in and ended my train day tolerance, to the tune of the first trimester of pregnancy. The once unnoticeable combined scent of men's hair wax, ladies' perfume, and the contents of whatever the high school kids on board had in their packed lunches, literally drove me to the roads. I could no longer stomach the train, and had to gear up to getting my Japanese licence.

I've never hid the fact that I'm American. I mean, it's obvious, even without flashing a passport, that I'm not Japanese. However, I've met more than a few of my country folk during my travels throughout Asia over the years who go so far as to put a "Canada" patch on their backpacks. The reality is that the North Americans north of the States have a better reputation as travelers, or at least one that doesn't include "ugly" in the stereotyped nickname overseas. I don't consider myself an "Ugly American," and thus have never felt the need to disguise myself in maple leaf logos. However, the lure of faking a passport for one of 20 countries other than my seal with proud eagle tempted me for the first time when I looked into the licensing process in Japan.

Australia, Canada, and South Korea are among the chosen 20 lucky countries that embrace a gentleman's agreement with Japan, which numbs the pain of converting a valid foreign driver's license into a Japanese one. Australia, I can understand, and thus I'm less envious of our Aussie friends. After all, in Australia, like Japan, you drive on the left side of the road, and the steering wheel, in turn, is on the right side of the car to match the natural rhythm of the roads. But the same is not true of the drive on the right side of the road nations like the States, Canada or South Korea. But based on the logo on the cover of your passport, if you hold a valid driver's license from one of nations in the exclusive inner circle, you can get a Japanese license without taking a written or practical exam. Sure, there's some fees, paperwork, an eye exam and maybe some waiting in line involved, but I imagine (and I do dream) that it's a relatively pain free process by comparison. Unfortunately, if you're like me and have a driver's license from a country that didn't make the cut, you will be subjected to the agony, hair-pulling stress, humiliation, and financial defeat of having to take both a written and practical exam in order to "pass go" and collect your pass to the freedom of the Japanese roads.

This process, like the language, is designed to victimize foreigners. Passing requires several attempts, even for experienced drivers. Fortunately, the first hurdle, the written test, can be cleared. It's the only portion of the exam process where you feel that "holding a valid license from your home country" is semi-honored. The exam consists of 10 non-trick questions, illustrated. Imagine a 10 page booklet with a big cartoon-like picture covering 80% of each page with one "true or false" question at the bottom. It went something like this: Number 1. "I had 3 beers, it is safe for me to drive." If you are wrangling at all for the correct answer, a glance at the picture reveals a classic cartoon type character with a cloud of bubbles above his head, apparently indicating some kind of hazy brain fuzz. Beer bottles are tipped over, and he appears to be trying to get up, wobbling from the bar stool. Oh, OK then, "False."

Yes, I got a 10 out of 10 on the written exam. A proud moment. The group of test takers waited 10 minutes while our answer sheets were graded. Those of us that passed proceeded to the next step (those that didn't, probably proceeded to the bar pictured in Number 1, above). We were escorted up the stairs to a large room with a full panoramic window view of the practical portion of the test in process. We took a number and and seat overlooking the testers circling the "obstacle" course below. In 40 minutes, I didn't see one candidate complete the course. Car after car was forced to take the short cut back to the starting point. Failed. You don't get to complete the run through for practice; instead, you are halted where you bombed, return to the start, and are left with nothing but trying to free another day to come back and do it again. And again. And again.

The entire driving course was more than three times the size of that church parking lot I used back in Ohio. This was a not a quaint "Little House on the Prairie" sized church. This was one that could house and populous community for Christmas or Easter Mass. The course was complete with simulated train tracks, single lane, double lane, as well as freeway like conditions. It tested every speed and turn a car could possible face on the road, and the hardest part of all is demonstrating the necessary neck tilt to the proper degree in an effort to check for imaginary cyclers before your every move. You take the test with a Prefecture owned car, to full capacity. The tester mans the passenger side, and 2 other testees take refuge in the back seat. Even after you fail your run, you have to serve as a passenger for the others - that's part of the test: can you handle the nerves? One driver in my first group only advanced 5 feet before having to return to base. He later confided in me he had never driven; in his country, "getting a license was a straightforward right at a certain age." The latter was news to me, the former? My shakes figured that out all on their own.

I've heard it takes even the best drivers 4 tries to pass, and it took me about that many tries until I slapped s good chunk of yen down on the short cut. On Sundays, for an approximate $80 one-shot lesson, you can execute an hour practice session on the test course with an off duty tester. Unlike the puritan test, the instructor lets you complete the full course, and he actually talks to you, answers questions and offers advice throughout the practice, detailing your marginal mistakes. I was enlightened to the fact that my failures boiled down to being over experienced for the job. I was "too good at the tight left turn that required a backing out maneuver." Too good? Yes, I was overconfident. Showing some nerves would help me appear to be taking extreme caution. So unexpected, so worth the eighty bucks.

The following try was my golden day. I appropriately faked some anxiety and nailed that back out turn with a 9.1 degree of difficulty. At the end of my banner run of the course the tester asked me what motivated me to get my driver's license after all these years in Japan. I told him it was because I was 6 months pregnant and I anticipated hauling more gear than just a purse. After I noted the non-faked expression of empathy on his face, I realized I probably should have opened with that on test run one, thousands of yen ago. Meanwhile, the two gentlemen in the back seat for me that day were on their 7th and 11th tries, respectively. I can only hope I see them in line behind me at a gas station one day (I'm not selfishly trying to ditch here and claim first in line, it's just think I'd only recognize them in the rear view mirror).

That was the first end to my sweet sixteen story, at 35, of getting my license in Japan. Wisdom at this age should have warned me that being licenced on the narrow network of Japanese roads would only leave me longing for the days of tooling around the controlled roads of the obstacle course. Yes, I have had more than my fair share of bumps, bruises and near misses. Two way traffic often shares one lane, taking turns. Drivers are generally friendly about yielding and letting the bigger car go first. The more daring, or less patient drivers try to squeeze by each other, and they literally kiss at this first meeting. Most cars on the roads have a hickey scar on the front side of the car. That classic brush with another car is inevitable, and somewhat of an initiation into the driving fraternity. Often times, drivers don't kiss and tell. They don't need to involve the police or insurance companies, they just exchange business cards, and carry on their ways. Twice have the police entered my love triangle.

They arrive in pairs, on their mopeds, with clipboards. They take a statement from each driver, encourage us to exchange personal information, call our insurance companies, then they wish us well and take off. The insurance companies enter the picture (via phone) and take over as negotiators and lawyers. I have 2 such friendly mishap experiences under my belt, 2 hickeys on the car, and a not so bad taste in my mouth about the process. On 2 other occasions, I've been stopped. Once was by a flat tire soon after I started driving. I was on my way home from work in the dark when a popped tire jolted me into a spin. I managed to pull over into what looked like a dark ally and was approached by a man who could have been mistaken for a Yakuza descendant. He snapped his fingers towards the house, and a crew of 4 or 5 men in construction jumpsuits ran out to his, and ultimately my, aid. Eight months pregnant, guilt free for not trying to join in the fix it job, I stood by and watched in grateful awe. Three of the members flashed open their cell phones. Calling for help? Why didn't I think of that? OK, I didn't have one. Getting a mobile phone would be the next step,right after learning how to change the spare on this Suzuki myself. On second thought, nothing worked faster than this team. They weren't making phone calls on their mobiles. Rather, they were providing light from their phone screens to assist the appointed Spare Tire Changer of the group. I was back on my way home faster than that nail popped through the rubber in the first place.

The other time I was stopped was soon after the "no cell phones while driving"
rules went into effect in Japan. As I mentioned during my flat tire chapter, I didn't have a cell phone. But somewhere in between the previous paragraph and now, that baby was born and a little girl in a child seat joined the act. We were on our way to a park when she was playing phone with her banana. Passengers, I believe, are exempt from the no phone in the car law, and, no, she does not have a record for baby talking into a piece of fruit. But I had her Elmo phone, talking back to her meaningful babble, which was lifelike enough from the view from the cop's speed trap to put the lights on and pull me over. They only needed to hear one chorus of an upbeat "da da da da, da da da da, Elmo's World" to be convinced that this was a real tool of 2 way communication. They didn't pass up the teaching opportunity, however, and they sent us off with the friendly advice, "not to take part in any distraction on the roads." Elmo went in my bag, and the banana went down her hatch. We said our thank yous and goodbyes and continued en route to the park, while a feeling of peaceful irony made me start appreciating the whole sweet part of the innocent sweet sixteen driving experience all over again.