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When I teach drama at school, I make a big deal about how communication is much more than just speaking words. I draw attention to body language, to facial expression, tone of voice. We do exercises to help the children express themselves without talking – we play games where they convey a word on a card, like “puzzled” or “apprehensive”, simply by walking across the room in a certain manner.
Of course, this is all true, and makes for a great lesson…but some people need words more than others.
I need words.
I remember a time before I had words, and I also remember a time when I lost them.
I wasn’t born in Japan. I’ve never lived there. I came to the UK at the age of three but I was born in Denmark.
Danish was my first language. A language spoken by very few of the world’s population.
I adore watching the dark, twisty Scandi crime dramas like The Killing and The Bridge – not just because I love crime dramas, but because listening to people speaking Danish is very soothing. The dramas are gory and bleak…but soothing for me…
When I hear Danish spoken, it’s like coming home. I remember a much simpler time - when life was all about the smell of good coffee and cigarette smoke; the sound of voices laughing; the cosy glow of candles; the silhouettes of family members relaxing on the couch. ‘Hygge’ is a word bandied about these days with gay abandon, but it’s real. And ‘hygge’ is what I feel when I hear Danish being spoken.
Sadly, I don’t understand the words anymore.
When we moved to the UK, my grandmother came over from Japan and stayed with us for a while. During that time, Danish slipped from me like a child’s forgotten blankie, and Japanese became my new language. But only a few months after my grandmother returned to Japan, my parents realised I would soon be starting at the local primary school, and I barely knew any English.
They encouraged me to play with other children in the neighbourhood, and tried to speak English at home. And within weeks, my Japanese was also lost.
I remember my first day at school. It was a positive experience. I started on the same day as another girl who lived a few doors down from me, and who had become a good friend. We played at the sand table. We played at the water table. We ate lunch together, and held hands in the playground. No communication issues that I recall.
I obviously picked up the language quickly, and the teachers seemed to have no concerns about me. In fact, I have a clear memory of being given a vocabulary test when I was still in the Infants and being asked the meaning of ‘opportunity’, and I answered, ‘I’m not sure. I think it means chance.’
However, I’ve thought very hard about that time, and I’m pretty sure now that there was a lot I didn’t understand. Understanding is not just about words. There is something which I call cultural understanding, and when your parents aren’t British and you’ve only just moved to the UK, you definitely DON’T have cultural understanding. These are the things that other children JUST KNOW. Their parents know it, their cousins and grandparents know it, and these children also know it, simply through osmosis.
Example. Not long after I started school, a little boy had a grand fancy dress birthday party.
I can’t remember what I went as, but I saw a girl from my class there wearing the most fabulous pink fairy outfit, complete with gauzy wings and a shimmering wand. Nothing in my life up until that point had ever seemed so glamorous. I remember being open-mouthed with wonder…and slightly jealous.
A couple of weeks after that, it was Halloween.
I think you can probably see where I’m going with this. We didn’t know what Halloween was, but I did latch on to the fact that the school Halloween party was going to be fancy dress. Yes! Fancy dress!
My mother looked rather dubious when I insisted I wanted to go to the party dressed as a pink fairy, but she was persuaded by my utter conviction, and she concocted a wonderful outfit – including wings and a wand.
You know the ‘naked at work’ dream? Well, that’s how I felt when I walked into the school hall, which was heaving with black cats, black bats, witches in black, wizards in black and the odd monster – in black. I was the only pink fairy in the hall. Obviously.
Oddly enough, I don’t remember anyone commenting on my attire. I saw a few teachers (dressed in black) looking at me askance, and now I think they assumed my parents had a really twisted sense of humour.
Have I been scarred by the event? Well, no. But there were lots of little events. Maybe not all as eye-popping as PinkFairyGate, but they were frequent, aggravating and embarrassing.
I remember being handed a blank exercise book in class once, when I was 5 or 6 years old. As I waited for the other children to receive one too, I opened the front cover and saw the pages had tiny squares on them. Cool!
I took my pencils and started drawing an intricate pattern of flowers on the page, until suddenly, the face of the girl sitting next to me loomed large and she hissed at me.
“SSSSSStop doing that! Oh! Um! I’m going to tell the teacher!! You’ve ruined your new maths book!” she crowed triumphantly, her piggy eyes gleaming with Schadenfreude.
I looked around, and everyone else was sitting with their legs crossed, their books untouched.
Although I was a quiet and polite child and hated any kind of confrontation, I remember feeling a huge wave of rage and frustration sweeping over me. Why didn’t I know what to do?? Why did everyone else know what to do? What the hell even was “Maths”? Why couldn’t this stupid, ugly girl mind her own business? And then came misery. I didn’t want to be told off. Being told off was the worst possible thing that could happen to anyone, but especially to me.
But I didn’t have any words to explain the misunderstanding. If my teacher got angry, I’d have to stand there, mute and sorrowful, because I had no words.
I realise as I write this that I’m just scratching the surface of…what exactly? A Pandora’s box of bad memories, possibly. I will need to investigate more thoroughly – after all, if I didn’t have words, how exactly was I forming thoughts? Interesting…
At least now, I have words – and for me, that’s like having armour, a sword and a strategy. It’s like having a delicate tool untangling a whole lot of messed up threads. One day, I will put all those threads in order and make sense of them…
One day, I’ll be proud of being the Pink Fairy in a room full of witches.
I have found, to my honour and delight, that I have already gained a few readers from Japan and other far flung countries.
Now, this blog should not only give an insight into my strange Anglo/Japanese life, or an overview of Japan for an English audience… it should also occasionally give an overview of England for my non-English readers.
As it happens, I witnessed a vignette yesterday that perfectly encapsulates the British ethic, so let me share it with you.
There is a coffee shop that I frequent in a town not far from where I live. Hubby and I dropped in there yesterday morning, as I still hadn’t had any breakfast and we needed to kick start the day with a hot drink.
It is not a fashionable, edgy or sophisticated coffee shop. In fact, I like it because stepping inside is like travelling back in time about 25 years; the décor, the baked goods on offer, the prices – are all from more innocent times.
Upon our entry, a uniquely British expression of ‘polite lack of interest’ and panic crossed the faces of the people waiting to be served. They instinctively shuffled into a neat line to ensure there was NO misunderstanding about who was in the queue, and the chronology of service. The ‘lack of interest’ thing is just good manners. Looking at a stranger for more than a millisecond is a sign of deeply rooted psychosis. Probably.
We ordered a bacon sandwich and a couple of hot drinks without too much trouble… although I did feel slightly bemused when the lady at the serving counter said, “Was it a bacon sandwich, love?”
“Yes, please”, I nodded.
“And was that with sausage or with bacon?” she asked, as if it would be perfectly normal to order a bacon sandwich and expect her to put sausage in it, not bacon.
So, the food and drink was ordered. Hubby sidled up to me and whispered out of the corner of his mouth, “Erm. She charged me £4.50 for a bacon sandwich, a coffee, a doughnut, and a peppermint tea!”
A swift look at the menu board and prices confirmed that this was several pounds less than it should have been. Now I’m not saying that people are worse at mental arithmetic in England than, say Japan, but… Oh what the heck! That’s exactly what I’m saying.
And no, we didn’t tell her. Yes, we’re terrible people.
Next challenge – to find seats.
This isn’t a café. It just has a shelf table up against the plate glass window, with a row of 6 high stools, for those who have the temerity to stay instead of taking their food away with them.
Nightmare scenario. First stool – free. Second stool – taken. Third stool – obviously free, because only stalkers sit right next to you when there are other seats available. Fourth stool and fifth stool – an elderly couple. Sixth stool – free.
It looked as if we weren’t going to be able to sit together! Horror!
However, there is a clause in British Public Seating Behaviour that allows you to sit next to perfect strangers, as long as it is to allow pairs or groups of newcomers to stick together (and as long as you arrange your face into a suitably apologetic hybrid of a grimace and a smile).
The seated customers shuffled, moved bags and coats, and smiled modestly without meeting our eyes (psychosis -remember?) and we sheepishly accepted the two seats together at the end of the row. We kept our heads down while the disturbance we’d caused subsided and normality was restored, and then the door opened to usher in a little old lady in a tweed coat.
She came up to the counter, rubbing her gloved hands together, and she was making that peculiar swishing/blowing noise, through her teeth and pursed lips, that people make to convey how cold they are.
“Ooooh! It’s chilly today,” she exclaimed, rather cheerfully, given the subject matter.
The server stared at her customer with a cold and steely eye for a shocking couple of seconds. (Please see my theory about psychosis) Then she actually tutted, in the manner of an old-school teacher hearing a wrong answer, and snapped belligerently, “It was colder yesterday. MUCH colder.”
The stern gaze continued to bore into the little old lady, until she dropped her eyes, breathed out slowly and conceded, “Well, yes. Yes, I suppose it was. Yes… of course you’re right…”
Grimly satisfied with this, the serving woman turned away to pick up tongs and a paper bag.
“What will it be?”
“Oooh! I do like those lardy cakes – is that what they’re called?” Little Old Lady twittered with embarrassment.
The stony countenance of the serving woman softened for a moment and she replied, “Yep. Lardy cakes. The ones with raisins and sugar. Yep, they’re nice, they are.”
“Oooh! I’ll take a couple of lardy cakes then. Do you have any today?”
I snorted some bacon sandwich into my lungs at this point, so I missed the rest of the exchange.
I hope you’ve learned some things:
- Queues are sacred
- Don’t stare at people unless you have issues
- Don’t sit next to strangers
- Allow people to sit together, however, or you come across as an arse
- Do NOT engage people in weather talk unless you know exactly what you’re talking about
- Bacon sandwiches are lush
On the whole, Hubby and I have a very democratic relationship. Important issues are discussed thoroughly, and we make sure we’re on the same page before taking a leap into the unknown.
Our big decisions – buying houses, new cars, bringing children into the world, changing jobs, planning our wedding – were tackled with admirable harmony. We haven’t always agreed on everything (because that would be weird and creepy) but we’ve had lively discussions and reached sensible compromises.
Except one memorable time… I took off for an impromptu visit to my mother’s, and came home with, not one, but TWO kittens.
To this day, I’m not really sure how it happened. We just went to visit Mum’s friend, to drink tea and pet the kittens. Then it transpired that they were looking for a home. Then I discovered that they were utterly adorable. I considered taking just one, but only for a few minutes. I couldn’t choose ONE and leave the other one! How would it feel?? And after all, having two cats was no harder than having one, right?
One was fluffy, like a baby raccoon. The other was long, orange and stripy, like a sock puppet tiger. I HAD to have both.
I’d had two cats long before, when I was a teenager, although we adopted them when they were already quite elderly cats. Badger was a skinny seal-point Siamese, and Stoat was a portly blue-point. Very silly names, but they were rapturously welcomed into our household. We’d never had pets before, despite frequent nagging from me. My parents had said they might consider it one day, if I ever managed to keep a plant alive for more than a month.
I didn’t even know I was a cat person until I had cats. And then it seemed ridiculously obvious. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed that I actually was a cat in human form. I like to eat, sleep, stay scrupulously clean. I love being warm, and hate getting wet. I love attention and petting…until I suddenly don’t – then I bite, viciously and with no warning (and no particular remorse).
I loved Badger and Stoat fiercely with my whole heart and soul, and when they died 3 years apart – one of bowel cancer, the other of renal failure – I grieved heavily, and never really stopped. When my daughter borrowed ‘Goodbye Mog’ by Judith Kerr from the library recently, my heart sank into my boots. It sounds ludicrous but I knew that, 25 years after Stoat’s death, I was not capable of reading a children’s story about a cat dying without completely falling to pieces.
I mourned them and missed them every day, even as I went off to university; even as I met my future husband and started building a life with him. Life didn’t feel quite complete without a cat.
Anyway. Wind forward a few years, and I’m getting out of the car with a cardboard box full of kittens, two small litter trays and a few tins of whiskas. The look on Hubby’s face.
This was my first really serious transgression. I was sent to the dog-house. I tried to justify myself. I said it would be good practice for having kids. I said they’d be no problem.
He reminded me we lived in a rented flat where pets were strictly forbidden.
I remembered that, actually, Hubby didn’t like animals. Any animals. But especially not cats.
Oops. Things were frosty for a while. I assured him that they were my babies – Clovis (fluffy one) and Hobbes (stripy one) – and I promised Hubby that they’d be no problem, and his life wouldn’t change a bit.
So I was inwardly cringing when Hobbes had diarrhoea for 3 days; they were both spayed and yowled NON-STOP for 3 days and nights; Clovis worked out how to sit on the (very high) window sill while we were at work, and was spotted by another resident, who complained bitterly; both kittens were sick frequently – usually under Hubby’s chair so HE would be the one to discover it with his sock feet… Oh, the list went on.
We moved to our first house soon after the kittens’ arrival, but I think Hobbes found the whole house-moving thing traumatic. We all did. She developed a love of dark, hidden places and would often eschew the litter tray for other, more surprising places.
Once, after a long hard day of painting ceilings and stripping wallpaper, we fell into bed, exhausted and closed our eyes. I took a deep breath in…and my eyes flew open. There was a terrible smell in the bedroom.
“I can smell poo,” I said, sniffing urgently.
Hubby groaned and smelled the air obediently. “Nope, can’t smell anything.”
Now, my superpower is my sense of smell. I wasn’t taking that as an answer.
I started tiptoeing around the room, looking under wardrobes, chests of drawers, the bed … I even flung the wardrobe doors open. After all, Hobbes was found behaving suspiciously in our bedroom a few hours previously. What if she’d left us a 'present' in there??
Hubby pulled the duvet covers over his face and left me to it. My search began to flag. And admittedly the smell had faded somewhat. I got back in to bed and pulled the duvet over me – whereupon the most noxious, evil smell assaulted my senses. I leapt out of bed shouting, “HOW can you not smell that??”
Like a sniffer dog, I began systematically nosing the duvet cover – it was ghastly! And as I worked my way towards Hubby’s side of the bed, it got progressively more unbearable. Eventually, I discovered the culprit INSIDE THE DUVET COVER, right by Hubby’s FACE.
Turned out, Hobbes had crept inside the duvet cover, got tangled, panicked, done her stuff… on Hubby’s side… and then bolted out of the room. I remember laughing till I couldn’t breathe, and tears were pouring down my face. He wasn’t quite as amused.
We put the whole job lot – covers, duvet and all - in the wheelie bin, found a couple of blankets, and shivered through the rest of the night.
I guess Hubby is a patient man. He has accepted these incidents and countless others as part of the tapestry of our daily lives. He knows our lives are richer for having our beautiful cats.
I think he even understands my belief that we don’t choose our children, or our animals – they choose us.
I feel honoured that they have privileged us with their presence for 15 years, and they’re still going strong.
Not bad for a woman who can’t keep a plant alive for longer than a month.
It is said that babies have no real understanding of the world around them until they turn two. Up until then, they’re just rolling from day to day, building pathways in their brains that allow them to pick things up, point, make deliberate sounds and eventually crawl.
That’s quite a lot to handle right there. Emotional development supposedly kicks in when a child is 2 or 3, and can already do many practical things – feed themselves, talk a little, walk and run and jump. Suddenly they become aware that the other people around them are separate beings, not extensions of their own existence. They start having to deal with other people’s wants, needs and emotions; they are asked to understand rules, to develop a moral conscience and self-control.
No wonder tantrums often begin at this point. It’s a heck of a lot to ask.
I actually remember being this age; not with any real clarity, but as snapshots of sounds, smells, voices and colours.
I also remember the very moment this new higher-level awareness exploded onto the scene.
It was as if I’d spent my first couple of years in a warm, insulated bubble; submerged in muffled sounds. It was like looking up at the surface of the ocean from 15 feet below, dreamily watching blurry shapes and colours rippling soundlessly above…. And then suddenly, with shocking and offensive abruptness, the world came into focus.
It was loud, busy, too bright, jarring. There was constant movement. People’s faces loomed alarmingly close – looking distorted and alien. And above all, I felt a crushing weight. The world was so heavy. The emotions and thoughts of other people seemed to rush out of a yawning gap in the universe and engulf me. I didn’t know that these thoughts had names – disappointment, expectation, guilt, hope, anger, frustration – but I could feel them pressing down on me, and I knew they were never going to go away again. Trying to push those thoughts back into the dark hole they expanded from would be as futile as trying to stuff a double duvet into a coat pocket.
It’s probably not a coincidence that this is the age I started getting eczema. It was bad. All over my face, neck, hands, wrists, arms… My parents were told by many experts that I would probably ‘grow out of it’.
Obviously, I have yet to grow up. It’s still here.
Eczema has been my constant, unwelcome companion since I was a tiny child. I have spent much energy and money trying different remedies, creams, potions, and treatments. The worst thing is the roller coaster effect on my emotions when a new cream seems to work like an absolute dream… for about one week. And then I’m back to unsightly rashes, interrupted sleep, dashed confidence, AND I’m also angry with myself for being stupid enough to believe it was going to work.
The state of my skin is in constant flux – sometimes the eczema is almost invisible, and at other times, I have been hospitalised. I am fully aware that there are people out there with much more severe, life-changing disadvantages, but this is my disability.
My disability is having skin that doesn’t function as skin. Skin that can’t cope with the demands I make on it – after all, it’s just SKIN; it can’t change, like a chameleon, to camouflage me from my environment. This is a condition that frequently brings me to tears, stops me from going out (especially out dancing), isolates and humiliates me. When the mere act of picking up a cup can cause fragile skin to crack and bleed, and Hubby has to gather up my angry, weeping form and put me back together again…then it’s a disability. It’s just so relentless. I know it’s not life-threatening, but the itch – like a swarm of bees, or acid on a burn – hasn’t let up...for decades.
Recently, I have tried a more holistic approach. After all eczema in itself is not a disease. It’s a symptom. It’s a symptom of an imbalance in the body. It’s so frustrating because, like many cases of asthma, there isn’t always a good reason for its existence.
Believe me, I tried dairy free and gluten free diets; I had allergy testing - horrific experience. Couldn’t wash for a week, due to a huge matrix of little metal discs stuck to my back with surgical tape, each one smeared with a different allergen. Result? I was allergic to the surgical tape. Seriously.
I tried Homeopathy. I went to a chiropractor. I tried massage, meditation and aromatherapy.
These things helped. But in the same sense that eczema isn’t a disease, these treatments weren’t cures.
Referring to yesterday’s musings about hard-wiring… I now realise that eczema is hard-wired, not just in my body, but in my soul. My inability to be clear about where I finish and other people begin, has been reflected with perfect symmetry on to my skin.
After all, the skin is the boundary between you and the outside world. When the skin works effectively, it keeps out foreign bodies, infections and intruders, whilst holding in the various precious liquids our body needs to survive.
What if you’ve never been certain about your boundaries? What if you never learned to enforce a firm line between yourself and others? What if you let negative, damaging presences in, when you should be shutting them out to protect yourself?
It’s pretty radical, I know, but after many years of treatment, frustration and analysis, I have come to believe that the eczema won’t go away until its function is no longer required. In other words, it is fulfilling a need to warn me that I am not respecting my boundaries. When I stop caring what strangers think of me; when I take a stand against disrespect; when I learn to deal with the dichotomy of my two nationalities; when I understand that some things cannot be changed; when I learn to stop fearing failure…that’s when my skin will become whole and fully functional again.
Now, THERE’S something you won’t read on a doctor’s prescription pad.
Here’s a top tip for any readers who suffer from eczema - the conclusion of ‘trial and error’ experimentation spanning many decades; and you can have it for nothing.
The ONLY thing I’ve found has a consistently positive effect on eczema is exercise. True change needs physical energy. A change of state requires exertion, movement, muscular effort, sweating and swearing.
OK. Possibly not the swearing, though I think it helps...
But how ironic is THAT?? If you read Day 7, you’ll know that I deliberately refused to do the one thing that could have eased all my symptoms over the years… Running!
I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘hard-wiring’.
Sometimes we have such profound experiences that they become embedded in our psyche, thereafter changing the way we process the world. The odd thing is, we don’t really know when we are having those experiences. They might seem quite trivial at the time; not necessarily something that makes us say, “Wow. That was harsh/life-changing/raw. I’ll never forget that, as long as I live.”
If we were aware of the things that change us, we’d have a lot more control over our future behaviour. We’d be able to differentiate between the things we do deliberately, and the things we do subconsciously - utterly unaware of the series of events that laid down steel roots in our brains and now dictates everything we say and do.
I know I over-think everything, therefore I expected to be more clued up about my subconscious directives, almost smug because *I know that what I’m doing is stupid, but at least I know WHY I’m doing it…*
Turns out, I don’t know why.
About 5 years ago, I met an amazing woman who has become one of my best friends. She wasn’t really like anybody else I knew. One of the first things she told me about herself was her ‘love of the gym’. The translator installed in my brain glitched momentarily, and then intoned robotically, “I. Do. Not. Understand…The. Words. ‘Love.’ And. ‘Gym’. Have. Been. Used. In. the. Same. Sentence.”
Looking back now, I can see that I instantly started to reject the notion that we might be friends. The hard-wiring in my brain told me that I’m not a ‘gym person’, that it was a sure sign we would have nothing in common, and that she probably wouldn’t like me anyway, once she found out what a frumpy, lazy potato I was. I don’t think I even owned a pair of trainers. I would have felt like a fraud, buying trainers. In fact, I was convinced that walking into a sportswear shop would set off the alarms; that the sales staff would apprehend me, look me up and down with hostile eyes, and tell me that I had no right to be there.
Stupid. And yet it was a real fear…buried deep, where superficial analysis couldn’t reach.
Now that I’ve had five years of experience, and have managed to completely crash the hard-wiring, and reprogramme from scratch, I can tell you exactly why I’d developed the way I did.
Secondary school was a challenge for me. I played three instruments, I had Grade 8 piano at 14 years old, I was pretty good at most subjects (apart from PE), was popular with the teachers, had high levels of emotional intelligence and sensitivity, and looked neat, tidy and middle-class. And those are all the reasons I found secondary school difficult. Those things buy you absolutely zero street-cred at school. In fact, you get minus points. The only thing that counted was being good at sport. And I was not good at sport!
I never seemed to know the rules of netball or football or hockey. Were English people born with the knowledge lodged in their genetic makeup?? Sometimes I thought maybe they were.
Long distance running made me feel like I was dying – DYING, I TELL YOU – within the first 30 seconds. ‘Ah’ – I hear you say – ‘That’s because you aren’t an ectomorph. You have short twitch muscle for brief bursts of power.’
Nope. My 100 m PB was 20 seconds. For the love of god.
I remember running that 20 seconds. We had to go in groups of 3 or 4, and I was absolutely dreading it. Proper ‘sweating, dizzy, panic- attack’ dreading it.
When the whistle blew, it all went into slow motion. Except, after a few seconds, I realised with horror that it was only ME in slow motion. The other 3 girls had raced off, while I was churning laboriously through treacle. My muscles let me down so badly that day that I never tried running again. I was already hard-wired, for many reasons, to believe that failure was worse than death, so instead of trying again and again until I improved my time, I built a Trump-esque wall around running and all things athletic, locked the door and threw away the key.
In fact, I put MYSELF in a box. I regret being that person. I wish I’d had more resilience. I wish I could have had the confidence to say, “Yup, that was crap…but I’m not settling for that. I’m going to challenge myself.” School life could have been very different.
Shortly after our first meeting, my new friend and I manned a stall at the school Christmas Fayre together. As the hall filled up, it got very warm and stuffy, and she stood up and pulled her jumper off, revealing a black sleeveless top. When I got my first good look at her physique, I had a revelation.
I’d wanted to be thinner for all of my adult life. Thinner, lighter, skinnier. But suddenly, I realised I wanted to look like her – smoothly muscled and strong. I had no idea that strength could look so powerful, feminine and attractive. Being ‘thin’ seemed irrelevant.
Shortly after that experience, she suggested that I teach her to dance in exchange for personal training sessions at the gym. And I agreed.
I’d love to say that, five years later, I’m an absolute butt-kicking, ripped, fitness goddess – Tomb Raider style - but that would be a lie. However, something fundamental has changed. Because she looked at me and made no judgements whatsoever. Because she gave me support and the courage to push myself way out of my comfort zone. Because the process gave me permission to change my hard-wiring.
My first fitness session with her is a hilarious tale for another day. We trained quite often together until I felt confident about being by myself; until I knew what all the machines did; until I lost my fear of the weights and of sweating like a pig. These days I get up at 6.30am twice a week to go to Crossfit at 7am.
He he. Even now, I look at that last sentence and cannot believe that I wrote it. I’ve been doing Crossfit since last May. It’s not just brilliant, varied, sociable and hugely challenging… It has shown me that the things I believed were impossible are nothing of the sort.
And the most powerful revelation of all: If I’d been hard-wired to fail at this, how many other things am I capable of achieving that I don’t even know about yet??
I am not a morning person.
You know how teenagers suddenly become sluggish and lethargic, and can easily sleep past noon? Apparently, they can’t help it. Their brains and bodies are going through such drastic changes that they’re basically wired to sleep all the time.
Now, I am no teenager. (Although I DID get asked for ID last week when buying booze in Asda. *grins… *remembers the salesperson’s aghast face when reading my date of birth on my driving licence, and his stammered apologies… Why was he apologising??)
However, I have never grown out of this teenage phase. Hubby is a much better morning person, thankfully, otherwise our kids would be arriving late to school every day, flapping frenetically, clutching a shrivelled lime and a bag of unpopped corn for their lunch.
This was morning was different though. My daughter is involved in a very special event at school and will be travelling to a concert hall and not returning till late at night. She was thrilled when she heard these plans last week, but then a little frown crossed her face.
“So, if we’re on the coach at lunch time….and at the concert hall at tea time, then I have to take TWO packed meals?” she asked. I agreed that this was so.
“But I have to have a hot meal at least once a day!” she protested. I asked her to consider all the people in the world who would be grateful to have one hot meal a WEEK. She didn’t consider it.
“OH! I know!” she said, “There are THREE meals a day. So I could have a hot breakfast!” She looked very pleased with herself.
And this is how I found myself making bacon, omelette, mushrooms, tomatoes and baked beans at the crack of dawn this morning. To be fair to her, she is perfectly capable of cooking all this herself (she is a young, but perfectly formed food connoisseur) but I didn’t much fancy coming downstairs to a kitchen that looked like the aftermath of a tornado.
A cooked breakfast is surely the pride of England. There’s nothing quite like it. I don’t think I ever feel quite as English as when I’m experiencing another country’s efforts to put on an English cooked breakfast.
Japanese hotels will always give it a good go, but the result can be bizarre and frankly, quite alarming. Once, we stayed at a delightful spa resort hotel in the Japanese mountains. The onsen (hot baths) were stunning – a steaming, fragrant delight; huge pools set outside, where you could soak your tired muscles and gaze at the mountain vista, the forests wreathed in mist. The rooms were comfortable – minimalist, zen and yet luxurious.
The breakfast seemed promising at first. Obviously, the Japanese breakfast buffet was amazingly well-stocked. There were huge vats of fluffy steamed rice, tureens of miso soup, piles of delectable grilled fish fillets, natto (sticky fermented soy beans – the nemesis of many a westerner travelling in Japan, although it’s my favourite!), simmered vegetables in a savoury broth, quivering cubes of tofu swimming in a sharp ponzu sauce… The Japanese were well catered for.
Sadly, in the days of my callow youth, I had not yet developed a taste for Japanese food. I know! Ridiculous, and heartily regretted now.
I breezed past the Japanese banquet and headed straight for the snow-white cloth covered table labelled ‘Western-style Breakfast’. Top tip for travellers in Japan: the only Western-style service you should welcome is the Western-style toilet.
Let’s start with the bread… Not crisp, nutty toast or a brown, crusty roll; rather, a thick (as in two INCHES) slice of pure white, oddly sweet, cotton woolly PRETEND bread and plasticky margarine. Bread is a huge industry in Japan, but they have created their own hybrid bread – characterised by its insanely thick slices, sweet almost vanilla aftertaste, and Stepford-esque uniformity. I remember discovering that bread is available there in packets of…one slice. One.
I found that hilarious at first, and then suddenly, it seemed unbearably sad.
Anyway, moving on. Bacon and eggs – the spirits lift. But no! It isn’t actually bacon – it’s perfectly semi-circular slices of pink ham. Puzzling... Though not as puzzling as the crock of milky, thick creamed corn soup.
Look… a tempting pile of pristine boiled eggs. But when you crack them, instead of a shiny plump hardboiled egg, a semi-transparent, gelatinous blob slops onto the plate. It was, in fact, onsen tamago – which translates as ‘bath egg’; it basically gets cooked as much as it would if you took an egg into the bath with you. Not much, in other words. Raw eggs are a common breakfast in Japan, cracked over rice and sometimes eaten with a dash of soy sauce. This wasn’t raw though – it was semi-cooked… Semi-raw, if you’re a ‘glass half empty’ kinda person.
I recovered from my dismay and continued to investigate the buffet. Silver salvers of lettuce, sliced tomatoes, onions, melon, a bowl of spinach…
Hm. A filigree platter of chips (French fries). And is that….? Is that….? Wow, it is. It’s a dish full of … er…spaghetti and meatballs, accompanied by a platter of mini frankfurters.
I am recounting an experience from a while back – maybe 15 years ago – and things have obviously changed in Japan. However, I still wholeheartedly believe that you won’t find a proper English breakfast anywhere. After all, if you load a plate in the manner of the picture above, most native Japanese, with their dainty appetites and health-conscious obsession, would probably feel quite faint – and that’s BEFORE eating it.
No such qualms in this house. After all, this meal has to last my daughter until tomorrow’s next hot meal!
Note: Full credit to Hubby for getting up at 6.30am, making the packed lunches, taking Sleepy Son to the bus stop, and concocting the delicious kale smoothie in the photo above.
He's a morning person.
I am easy going. Except when I’m not. I don’t relish confrontation (unless I’m at a restaurant and the service or food is below par). I am very happy to mind my own business unless anyone tries to interfere with my convictions. One of the things I have always been rather earnestly evangelical about is staying at home with my children.
Hubby and I had five child-free years of marriage before our first baby landed. Those years may have been child-free but they weren’t care-free. I went through some traumatic family issues, moved to be with Hubby, got married, acquired a good job…and then pretty much deconstructed to the point where my depression was quite crippling.
Depression is like chicken pox. Although you might recover eventually, with the care and support of others, it does leave scars. It also resides forever in your blood stream, occasionally threatening to break out, like the unwelcome onset of shingles. (And I had chicken pox TWICE, so I’m truly wary.)
Sometimes, when things were tough, I’d look down and see that the ground I walked on was thin. There was a chasm, unseen during good times, but present nevertheless. When I sensed it, I just kept on walking. No point in standing and waiting for the chasm to catch up to me.
However, having a child changed everything for me. Suddenly there was a much higher purpose. Everything I had found difficult or painful or sad was negligible in comparison to the huge sense of responsibility I felt when I held my baby’s precious little form. Being able to focus on my son, instead of stewing fruitlessly inside my own inadequacies, allowed me to become strong again.
Knowing that I was going to be utterly consumed by the process of feeding, clothing, educating, amusing and comforting this little child, there was absolutely no question of going back to work.
Thankfully, Hubby saw eye to eye with me on this one. I was only part time anyway, and would barely have earned enough to pay someone else to look after my baby. There was no sense in working.
Another relevant point was the type of job I had. I was a teacher. I taught children every day. Suddenly I didn’t think I’d be capable of nurturing other people’s children every day AS WELL AS my own. Kudos to the millions of mothers and fathers who do manage to do both jobs satisfactorily, but I know my limits! So this is in no way a dig at people who DON’T/CAN’T stay at home with their children – every single family has their own way of dealing with life, and the circumstances unique to them. And God knows there were times when I felt utterly crushed by the loneliness, the intensity of 24 hour child care, and wished for the camaraderie of the staff room, and keenly felt the need to be seen as a professional person – not this primitive, fleece-wearing milk machine that I’d become!
What with the arrival of baby number 2 when my son was two and a half, all in all, it was nearly 8 years before I could consider getting a job. Both children were happy at primary school and our finances would certainly appreciate a boost to cover the karate, ballet, and music lessons.
When I received a phone call practically handing me a job on a plate, I took it as a message from the Universe that I should go back to teaching. I had been considering all sorts of other jobs but this was teaching ONLY music – part time! Perfect.
I suffered a huge wave of culture shock in the early days back at school. When I left teaching, I still had a blackboard! Now, there were electronic whiteboards, hooked up to laptops, and I had absolutely no idea how to use them in the delivery of a music lesson. I felt like a time traveller! Thankfully, instruments were still just instruments, so I got by, but I won’t deny that it was difficult initially. I tried to take up where I left off – doing the same old lessons, delivered in the same old way…but it didn’t work for me anymore.
I’d neglected to account for the fact that I had changed over the eight years I’d been away. Now I wanted the children to be more engaged, for lessons to be hands on and not just theoretical. I realised the importance of skills-based teaching, and I discovered a wonderful world of resources on the internet. I realised I could use Spotify, YouTube, Sing Up, BBC educational resources and that they would actually enhance my lessons. I didn’t have to describe what gamelan was – I could show the children authentic gamelan being played by actual Indonesian musicians in Indonesia! Magic. I had almost every song/piece ever recorded at my fingertips (and yes, I do look at my ridiculously huge CD collection now with a cold eye, and wonder if they have become obsolete).
I even took it upon myself to teach my rusty brain how to use a basic Digital Audio Workstation so that I could effectively teach units on electronic music (and even though it’s only Day 5, I’m sure you appreciate what an effort that was for me…)
So I have become evangelical about something else now. Music education.
EVERYONE should learn music. Music makes you smarter. Music makes connections in the brain that other subjects never even reach. There is hard scientific evidence to show that children who participate in regular musical and creative activity not only have better mental health, levels of happiness, and sense of community; but they also achieve more in other academic areas of the curriculum.
My job brings me a lot of joy. I love seeing children enjoying the process of music making – of singing, composing, acting, playing instruments and co-operating. It saddens me that we have a government who cannot see the value of this subject, and are constantly cutting the budgets and time allocations of the creative arts. However, as I have no control over this particular aspect of my job, I will just continue to make sure that every minute counts. Every second.
OK. I’ll get off my soap box now and just treasure the daily achievements of my classes, enjoy the music they produce with such gusto… and gloat over the memory of the little girl who mentioned that she LOVES Music because her teacher looks like Pocahontas. :-)
My daughter is a bit of a character. She’s hilarious, talented, gregarious, incessantly on the move and, just sometimes, absolutely exhausting.
This was evident from her first hours on earth.
Instead of being a wrinkly, spaced-out or screaming bag of fragile bones and poo, she was terrifyingly alert. Hers was not a bleary gaze of confusion; her demeanor was not the primitive rage of a hungry baby.
No. She popped out and then stared at people. If she could have spoken, she would have asked questions. She would have had the midwife’s entire history within the hour. Her funny eyes bored into ours with bright curiosity. She mastered moving her head within days (unlike her loll-headed older brother) purely so she could whip around and investigate any new sounds/voices/faces with razor sharp interrogative accuracy. Breast feeding was agony – she wasn’t interested in food. She was interested in PEOPLE, and if she had to turn violently around (boob still attached) to look at something, then by God, she would do it. Placid older brother was safe in the middle of a bed for 7 months – yes, SEVEN. Dear daughter had inchwormed across and fallen off her first bed at 2 weeks. WEEKS.
(Note. Do not try this at home. Obviously. I accept no liability for bad decisions based on our bad decisions)
This is purely setting the scene for the subject I plan to ramble on about today – a subject very close to my heart. Reading. (As in, books. Not the commuter belt town in Berkshire)
There is nothing like a book. Nothing as beautiful, alluring, mysterious, life-affirming or mind-expanding as a book. Growing up into an adult has robbed me of many pleasures (eg. Holidays. Who can honestly enjoy all that preparation, packing, organising, travelling, sick-mopping, itinerary-enforcing, unpacking and laundry? Not me.) but a good book remains one of my favourite things.
Leaving my local library with a big hessian bag bursting with a great haul of books, makes me gleeful and gives me something to look forward to every day. You will never catch me buying a kindle or similar. I adore the feel of books – the heavy paper, the intriguing covers, even the smell – and I can’t part with a single book I love. Marie Kondo (the batty “Does it bring you JOY?” lady) claims you should only keep a handful of special books. Because, she asks, who ever reads a book more than once?
Er…that would be me. I tell people we moved house to be near good schools for our kids, but really we moved because the book collection needed a bigger home.
Some of my favourites have been read so many times that I wonder how I’ve had time to go to school or hold down a job. Mind you, I read FAST. Super fast. And it turns out my son has inherited my love of books (and the ability to read ridiculously fast).
As a baby, he was the polar opposite of my daughter. Quiet, solemn, placid, thoughtful. He would sit and observe. It would take him months to decide if he liked someone or something. When he was 3 years old, he picked up a big book of nursery rhymes, took himself to the sofa and pretty much sat there for two weeks looking at it fiercely. He didn’t want us to read them out loud; in fact, he didn’t want us to disturb him at all. At the end of the two weeks, he got down, put the book away and announced that he could read. And he could. And did – every chance that he got.
What I love about my son being an avid reader, is that we can read the same books – we can have our own freakin book club at home!! We discuss characters and plots, debate subtext, scoff at plot holes…or sometimes we just sit side by side and read our own books, together but alone.
It always upset me a little that my daughter was too lively, too energetic, too sociable to want to sit down and read. Although she loved (and still does love) having stories read to her, she just never had that shiny, obsessive look that my son and I get when we walk in to Waterstones.
A few weeks ago, Hubby and I decided that the best thing for our daughter’s academic progress would simply be to give her an allocated time when she HAS to read – not negotiable. We gave her Poppy Pym, Malory Towers, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…and announced that 8.15pm is silent reading time. She was completely agreeable to this, and obediently read every night for half an hour.
This, in itself, was quite a triumph. Usually ‘alone time’ of over a minute results in some kind of bizarre costume being donned and an improvised noisy dance being performed, whether we’d like to see it or not!
But sometime in to the second week, a miracle happened. She caught the bug! She started disappearing off to her room the second she got back from school. She’d bring her book with her everywhere we went. She had that distracted, dreamy look during dinner, as she thought about the characters who now seem real to her. Hallelujah! She went through about 5 books like a voracious worm, and has now started on Harry Potter – and LOVES it. Within a couple of days, she’d finished books 1 and 2.
I brought her the 3rd as she lay in bed, waiting for her goodnight kiss. I placed it by her bedside and said, “This one is the best one. You’ll love it! And you can start it in the morning if you wake up early enough.”
So, this morning, she was up at 7am, deep into the world of Hogwarts and magical creatures. She impatiently went to school, put up with learning all day, and then raced home to carry on reading. She did break off for a snack though. As she sat chewing an apple, her eyes far away and obviously pondering a plot point, she suddenly said, “It was really scary when the Denominators got on the Hogwarts train.”
Ha. Glad to see she hasn’t been neglecting her fractions…
These are the building blocks of a slow cooked beef stew that I’ll set at 1pm, simmer away for 6 hours, and then eat with the kids when we get back from our crazy rounds of extra curricular activities.
One of the biggest passions of my life is FOOD. I spent the first 10 years of my life picking morosely at my meals; fussily rejecting anything white, anything with a sloppy texture, anything too strong flavoured/too bland, anything with fat or stringy bits on, anything too hot/cold, anything on the wrong-colour plate… etc. You get the picture.
Then suddenly, a revelation! At age 10, flavours began to zing, textures became interesting, the salt/sweet/sour/bitter combinations became fascinating. From that moment on, I ate as if I had to compensate for my early pre-epiphany years.
Now I have a complicated relationship with food. My biggest food battle these days is all about BALANCE. Of course, there’s the usual healthy food vs junk food and plenty of exercise blah blah…. But my particular challenge has been preparing Japanese food.
I should DEFINITELY eat more Japanese food – hell, we ALL should. It’s just so healthy, nutritious and tasty. But it’s not my comfort zone food. Although I have got better recently, cooking Japanese food usually leaves me in a sweaty, stressed mess. You can’t just stick a load of stuff in one pot and then dish it out later. You have to think about the balance between crunchy, silky, sticky and chewy; the salt, the sweet and the sour; the colours need to complement each other; even the plates should please the eye. And traditionally, an evening meal would consist of a protein (grilled fish, stir-fried slivers of meat, sliced chicken), a bowl of rice, a bowl of soup, a vegetable dish and pickles. And that’s the MINIMUM really. Minimum.
My mum can do all this with her eyes closed, but I painstakingly plan every Japanese meal, write down a list of ingredients, haul myself to the Chinese shop and buy Japanese stuff at great expense, only to find that I have been hoarding bagfuls of Japanese ingredients for ALL that Japanese cooking I don’t do at home (and a lot of it has gone out of date). Then I find the process of putting a meal on the table uses EVERY saucepan, every hob, every work surface, and sometimes even involves running – from cupboard to hob, from hob to fridge, from fridge to bin, from bin to utility room etc.
When the food miraculously arrives on the table, delicately arranged on several hand-painted plates, the family make all the right noises…and then it’s all gone in 10 minutes.
This is why making Japanese food tends to be more of a special occasion in our house, although I AM trying to up my game in this area! Whereas give me any European ingredients, and I’ll whip up a tasty dish in 30 minutes, and even wash up the one pot and spoon while the dessert chills in the fridge.
Well, today is definitely a ‘comfort zone’ day. It’s very cold, my feet are like blocks of ice, and by 4pm it’s going to be dark. Hence the beef stew.
One of the things I hope to achieve by blogging is gaining some kind of clarity about my identity.
It's difficult being Japanese ALL THE TIME. Sometimes I'd like a little rest from it. Or maybe it's being too English that bothers me...
I'd hoped that I'd feel more 'at home' when I visited Japan as a teenager, but actually I just felt utterly alien - like a dodo amongst a flock of pigeons. It didn't help that I couldn't read or write fluently; that I was a corpulent UK size 12, and couldn't fit in any clothes except in the 'baa-chan' (old lady) section; and that I didn't much like green tea or Japanese food (unless it was deep-fried).
When I had children of my own, I vowed to ensure that they would never experience that desperate sense of displacement, or have to develop a bizarre split personality to cope with the nausea-inducing contrasts between East and West.
When my son was 5 I enrolled him in a Japanese school over an hour away from our home.
I'm not going to go into the experience in detail (mainly because I actually JUST DID. Yes! I wrote a lengthy, anguished essay about my torturous Year at the Japanese School of Doom... tried to change a full stop into an exclamation mark, and somehow lost the whole damn thing! Rookie mistake - writing directly onto the blog page instead of word processing first. Did I mention I hate technology? I know lots of swear words though, and now my new laptop does too) - suffice to say, the struggle to help my children without tearing myself in two was traumatic, isolating and depressing.
In 2011, we moved house. We continued going to the Japanese school even though it was now even further away - and we were both out of our depth, drowning in Japanese protocol; horrendous, fussy little forms; homework I couldn't help my son with; but mainly an unsettling lack of conviction that I was doing the right thing. I was forcing myself to face my worst fears - my helplessness when confronted by Japanese people, mainly - for the sake of my son's education, but even now, I have no idea how beneficial this was. I think we, as parents, make mistakes when we can't separate the needs of our children from our own needs and baggage. (Over the course of time, you will discover that I carry a staggering amount of baggage! Some of it's not even mine!)
To cut a long story slightly less long, we BOTH had to be interviewed to see if my son was capable of moving up to the first proper class, aaaand we failed. I can't deny I was a little relieved.
Not long afterwards, I found a Japanese club that met once a fortnight - a wonderful little group that helped the children learn about the language and culture, celebrated special events on the Japanese calendar, and gave parents the opportunity to support each other and discuss mixed-race marriages and culture shock.
From the very first day, the other mothers were welcoming and completely accepting of us and our situation. They didn't think me odd because I couldn't read or write properly. In fact, they were full of praise that I could even speak Japanese at all, given that I grew up here and have never lived in Japan. To my great surprise, these mums were hilarious, wild, warm, unfailingly accommodating, and interested in discussing EVERYTHING.
My kind of people.
We've been going every fortnight for 4 years now. We had a meeting today, in fact. It was a lovely session, comprising a Japanese class (both children are learning kanji now. If you don't know what kanji is, imagine that someone invented a language where INSTEAD OF USING LETTERS, he created a different symbol for every frickin word in his vocabulary. And he had a big vocabulary. And some of the symbols look soooo similar... and yet the meanings are tooootally different), had delicious snacks lovingly prepared by the mums (in fact, one boy had a birthday today, and his mum made an enormous Malteser cake, AND a Japanese style strawberry shortcake, covered in snow white whipped cream and decorated with kiwi slices and glossy strawberry halves. Why on earth didn't I take photos?), we played New Year games, read a story, and sang the 'goodbye' song.
Happy New Year everyone! I know we are already deep into January, but it never feels like New Year until we've been to Japanese club and played Fukuwarai. This is a pretty amusing version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey - more like 'Pin the Features on the Face'.
I'll put a link below to a YouTube video of some children playing this game so you can have a go yourselves if you so wish.