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.

1 comment:

  1. Loved this, Kathryn! My brain is a bit too fried at the moment to comment coherently on the possible cultural or psychological reasons for this, but it's an interesting point you make that kids and grown ups are seen as "equals." I think the non-babysitting culture - which symbolizes the culture's view on children as a whole - is very Asian (or maybe other cultures too; I'm just not familiar), as I grew up in the same kind of household. My parents never for once entertained the idea of hiring a babysitter. The attitude is that children are too important to be left behind. They are important enough to sacrifice dates and romantic vacations for. There is this belief that once you have children you become parents and every other role becomes a distant second. I imagine that the whole concept of being a stay-at-home mom is the embodiment of this attitude: you don't leave your children to the care of others.

    Hilarious about the beer goggles!

    Thought provoking topic, K!