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.