Blogging about Japan, food, parenthood, music and life!
Over the years, I have noticed the way people interact with each other is changing. It is probably partly due to the massive influx of mobile phones and other digital appliances, rendering virtual communication almost more important than interaction between real live people.
Is it only me who finds it weird that people will sit hunched over their phones at a party – completely absorbed in their own little world – when what they are ACTUALLY doing is updating their social media to advertise the fact that they are ‘At a party!’ ‘Having a fabulous time!’ ‘Drinking wine with so-and-so!’ ‘Feeling amazing!’ *smiley face*…
The danger of these cheery soundbites we post on social media is that it gives a completely unrealistic image of us. We assume that our neighbour is ecstatically happy every day because he posts photos of his family smiling at the seaside. We assume that a friend isn’t suffering from depression because she checked into a Wetherspoons yesterday with 6 other tagged friends. These assumptions threaten our sense of community. We don’t bother to meet up face to face, because we already think we know everything about them.
Conversation is an odd one too. When meeting new people, it feels natural to ask questions – what do they do for a living? Are they local? How do they know the host?
And more often than not, I find people simply answer the question. No questions asked in return. No elaborating and allowing the discussion to grow, tree-like, into other branches, other spheres.
Maybe I should take this personally! Maybe they just don’t want to talk to me! But I find this tends to happen even between good friends, loved ones and family.
Sometimes weeks can go by without having a proper, challenging, interesting conversation; weeks during which the essence of my personality – the living spirit which makes me ME, and not someone else – seems to drain slowly into the ground. It may not even occur to me why I’m vaguely dissatisfied, disappointed and flat. I will wonder why I feel isolated and lonely, even though I’m surrounded by people 24/7.
Being a teacher mitigates this somewhat… After all, each day with a class is totally different, unpredictable and exciting. Each lesson is a blank canvas upon which I can paint a picture, with varying degrees of clarity.
The best lessons are the ones where children ask me questions. When I am asked a question – whether about music, a skill, an event or a concept – it challenges me. It makes me plunge into my personal resources of knowledge, stir things up, and see what rises to the surface. Providing an answer that can shed light, stimulate new avenues of thought in a way that is relevant and interesting for the pupils keeps my mind sharp – it allows me to be the unique person who was employed to do this unique job.
Whether we are working, in whatever field of employment; whether we are at home doing the chores, we are constantly doing things that any warm, able-bodied human can do. In fact, our itinerary of driving the kids to their various clubs, cooking endless meals, grappling with a bottom-less basket of laundry, and emptying bins over and over, could be done by anyone, or even a robot! It doesn’t have to be me. It doesn’t have to be Hubby. Anyone with the requisite number of limbs and a driving licence could do these daily tasks.
So if we do these humdrum tasks, and we don’t take part in ONE SINGLE THING that gives us the opportunity to be individuals, day after day, how can our lives feel fulfilling and special?
This is partly why I blog.
I have been asked many times already how I can think of something to write about every single day. I know it’s only day 30, but I can still sense that all these words so far are only the tip of the iceberg.
Blogging gives me the chance to tell the world what I think about. With a blog, you don’t even have to wait to be asked. And even if those words fall into the void of cyberspace without being heard, it doesn’t matter. It relieves a very profound need inside me to articulate what I feel and think about the world – about life. It reminds me that I am an individual. It reminds me that I am more than a breathing, moving human automaton.
What if our conversations started, not with ‘What did you do today?’ or ‘Did you like the film?’ – dead end, closed questions with specific answers – but rather with ‘What do you think about [insert subject]?’, or ‘Why do you think [insert event] happened?’; what if we asked questions that indicated a wish to understand someone better, or made people feel like their opinions are important and relevant?
I think we would realise that all the people we connect with, on a daily basis, have a plethora of memories, experiences and emotions that we simply don’t give them – or us – credit for. That our lives would be richer and more meaningful if we could find out something new about them and about ourselves.
A member of my extended family is often teased for her tendency to give new acquaintances ‘The Spanish Inquisition’. She can have someone’s life story out of them within 10 minutes of meeting them. But her superpower is knowing what questions to ask. People like telling her about themselves, and she has a prodigious memory for recalling the minutiae of their lives. That’s not a skill to be mocked. That’s awesome.
I think we should all ask more questions. Why not ask someone a question today? See if you learn something edifying, or start a satisfying conversation…
It’s worth a try.
I am shaking off my half-term-induced coma, crawling out from underneath three blankets and two cats, getting off my weighty, overbroad backside to go dancing for the first time in MONTHS.
As I blearily look around for a way to dispel my lethargy (without involving any form of exercise at all) I suddenly remember something.
Until recently, I’d been drinking this magic liquid nearly every day, but somewhere along the way, it completely slipped my mind and fell out of my routine. Time to resurrect the habit.
Matcha is powdered Japanese green tea – as precious as gold dust, potent as unicorn’s blood (I imagine) and more nutritious than spinach and broccoli put together.
It has been imbibed for centuries by Buddhist monks and the upper classes – valued for its restorative and calming properties. There are ceremonies dedicated to the correct serving of matcha – involving bamboo whisks, priceless tea cups and a sequence of graceful, fluid movements more complicated than any dance.
I, however, sacrilegiously dump a teaspoon into a pyrex jug, whisk a couple of tablespoons of hot (not boiling) water into it, and then top up with a litre of very cold water. This is probably distressingly inappropriate to most born and bred Japanese, but I end up with a beautiful, startlingly green liquid that I can pour into a clean bottle and drink throughout the rest of the morning/afternoon. It’s particularly good to take to crossfit or to the gym. There is scientific evidence that matcha improves the efficacy of the muscles AND helps them to recover quicker after a workout.
And, most useful of all, it can bring a noisy class to pin-dropping silence within seconds. All I have to do is pull the bottle from my bag, undo the cap and take a swig. By the time I’ve replaced the lid, there will be 30 pairs of eyes looking at me solemnly, and you can GUARANTEE that one of them will raise his/her hand and ask, “Er… What are you drinking, Miss?”
It’s also delicious. I didn’t think so the very first time I tried it, but it has certainly grown on me. It’s mild, sweet, grassy and profound. It’s very popular as a flavouring for chocolate, biscuits and cake in Japan. I LOVE cooking with it – though it’s a rather expensive hobby!
Is there anyone out there who drinks matcha – either the proper way (tea ceremony) or my way? Anyone tried a matcha latte from Starbucks in Japan? I love it! Let me know how you drink yours…
Have a good weekend people!
As a child, I’d say I had a double life. Maybe I still do have a double life. I think many people who have foreign nationality or are 2nd generation have multi-faceted lives.
When I was at school, I tried (probably a bit too hard) to be like everyone else. I made every effort to speak in the vernacular, sometimes even peppered with swear words, just to really cement my sense of belonging. I forbade my mother to make me Japanese packed lunches (was I MAD??) – the more pitifully boring the ham sandwich on white bread, the happier I was. I mastered the dry art of self-deprecation and the cynical British one-liner. I was like the poster child for ‘Very British Problems’.
When I got home though, I could take off that Britishness, almost like one takes off a hat. I’d throw it in the corner where it could lie unheeded until the next morning. At home, I could breathe out and just be the strange not-Japanese/not-English hybrid that I was.
And the benefits of being me were sometimes quite huge. Unappreciated at the time, maybe, but still huge.
For example, I’d come home to different snacks. A little thing, but while my friends may have had a rich tea biscuit after school, I might have had a selection of delicious, crunchy rice crackers, speckled with shiny black nori…or a few sticks of pink, fragrant strawberry pocky.
Oh yes. I’ve been eating pocky for YEARS before you even heard of it.
As I mentioned yesterday, I had the BEST socks and selection of bags and stationery sets (although they sometimes had hilariously weird Japanglish written all over them. My favourite was a tin of colouring pencils which was decorated with a cute rabbit and a cute bear holding hands, emblazoned with the slogan “Poofield. Little Rabbit Pu and Little Bear Poo are best friend in Poofield.” Honest to god.)
I loved my selection of books. Not only did I have Enid Blyton, E. Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett and L. M. Montgomery, I also had Japanese books and comics galore – some of which I couldn’t even read, but I loved them all the same.
I had a particular favourite – a glossy book about the history of Japanese anime – which was crammed with amazing film stills from the most influential, prominent manga artists in Japan, like Osamu Tezuka. I pored over the page dedicated to G-Force for hours. Remember G-Force – also known as Battle of the Planets?? In Japan, it was called Gatchaman, but it was awesome in either language.
I was also an adoring fan of ‘Ribbon no Kishi’ (known in the US as ‘Princess Knight’) – an anime about a dashing, sword-fighting, cross-dressing princess who pretends to be a man so she can fight her own battles, and find her long-lost parents. Hot. Very hot.
Doraemon is a giant blue cat without any ears, with a terror of mice. He is a robot from the future, and has been sent as a companion to Nobita – the weak and pathetic school victim – to improve his life. Doraemon has a magic pocket full of useful gadgets (a shrink ray gun, beanie hats with helicopter rotors, space ships, potions that will double the quantity of food they have etc), and they get into terrible scrapes – usually as a result of gadget misuse
The ever popular Anpanman is a series about a superhero who has a bean jam bun for a head. Yes, really. And when people are sad or in trouble (or hungry, I guess), he pulls a chunk out of his head and offers it round. He has a whole host of friends, most of whom also have various food items for heads. Apparently, Anpanman’s creator, Takashi Yanase, faced starvation many times during the war, and used to fantasise about food – cream buns, croissants, melon buns, sweet rolls – all walking about on little legs, and thus the concept behind Anpanman was created.
No blog post about anime would be complete without the mention of Studio Ghibli, of course. Legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, and his team, have been responsible for some of the most beautiful, uplifting, devastating, fascinating films ever created. Not only are the colours and textures bewitching, but the stories manage to speak to the soul – touched as they are with nostalgia, suffering and human strength.
My children have watched films like Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo, Laputa, Nausicaa and Spirited Away so many times. They never lost their appeal. The combination of the story, the music and the visuals seemed like pure alchemy, on every viewing.
If you’ve never watched a Studio Ghibli film, you really must. They are timeless classics, and your life will be richer for it. (Top tip though – Watch in its original form, with subtitles. The dubbed versions are face-rakingly annoying.)
One of my favourites (although I love them all) is the mysterious, jewel-hued Howl’s Moving Castle. It is, of course, enchantingly surreal like many of the other Ghibli films, but I particularly identify with this female protagonist – a young girl called Sophie, who has been turned into an old lady by a wicked sorceress. I found it interesting that, when Sophie was relaxed and unselfconscious, she would unwittingly return to her young, fresh-faced self. The instant she became aware of herself, the years would raddle her face and she’d turn back into a bent old crone again. (This reminds me of the way my eczema behaves.) Sophie had to travel a tough road of self-discovery before realising that she held the power to change herself, and always did.
If you have the desire to see the sadness of a whole lost civilisation in the slump of a gigantic robot’s shoulders – a metal titan who exists in abandoned dereliction like a clock that has wound down forever - then PLEASE visit the Ghibli museum in Mitaka, Tokyo.
Make your way up to the wild rooftop garden, where a robot from Laputa (Island in the Sky) waits patiently for the universe to end, oblivious to the tourists who swarm around him. Walk through Miyazaki’s cosy studio, where sketches and artist’s materials lie strewn about in true creative chaos. Climb up the quirky spiral staircase, seemingly hewn from the trunk of a twisted tree – the Faraway Tree, perhaps. If you can bear queueing, then let the kids jump about on the huge, pillowy Nekobus (many-legged Cat Bus, to clear things up for those not in the know).
I found this place so magical and inspiring that I visited it twice, and will probably go again – a necessary pilgrimage to pay homage to a genius.
Japanese manga and anime is an art form rich in diversity - spanning iconic children’s cartoons, cult stories, pornography, educational material and global box office-busting films, to name but a few genres. It is a well-spring of unending leaps of imagination and fantasy.
In a country where many aspects of life are regimented, uniform and rigid, Japanese Anime has a fiercely original, visionary independence that dares to be different; dares to grab the world’s conformism by the coat lapels and shake very hard - and that makes me a fan.
The first house I remember living in had a neat, small garden that backed on to a railway line.
The frequent blast and whoosh of passing trains was just part of my daily life. Sometimes, I’d wave at the passengers sitting in the London-bound trains, and they’d wave back. I thought E. Nesbit’s ‘The Railway Children’ had been written especially for me.
The trains never kept me awake at night, although the distant, never-ending rumble of a freight train might sometimes seep into my dreams.
We were often warned about the dangers of the railway and how we were NEVER to climb the fence – not that this had ever appealed to me. Sticking our hands through the diamond links to grab a particularly pretty flower or a butterfly was as daring as we would get.
I remember the hair-raising, crawling horror I felt when I’d heard about a silly teenager who fell off a local railway bridge that he’d been clambering on as a dare, and landed on the tracks with a broken back, only inches from the electrified line. I had also been suitably impressed by an oft-told family story about a distant cousin in Japan who had been walking close to a railway line on a rainy day, and had been sucked under its deadly wheels by his umbrella. (I'm sure it's true.)
To summarise, living by the railway was like living with a lion in a cage – I knew it was deadly, but as long as I was on the right side of the fence, I could coexist with this threat quite happily.
As an employee in the hotel and travel industry, my father used to travel frequently – often to Europe, and sometimes to more far-flung places like China, Japan and Egypt. The downside of this, was his, often lengthy, absences from home (the longest one I recall was about 3 months). It could not have been easy for my mother, coping with two young children and an absent husband, and in those days, there was no such thing as email, skype or facetime.
The upside was the presents. Every trip, no matter how short, would culminate in his return; he’d breeze in, smelling of airports, cigarette smoke and city fumes, and there would always be a present. It might be Lindt chocolates from Switzerland; chewy, spicy pfeffernusse cookies from Munich; the kooky Mad Libs books from America; sometimes no more than a keyring engraved with the logo of a hotel, or a car sticker extolling the delights of Vienna. However, the best present generator, without a doubt, was Japan.
Although his trips to Japan tended to be longer, they’d be compensated by the bags and bags of exotic sweets, toys and top-of-the-range stationery that would spill from his suitcase on his return. I was the envy of my class mates for my unusual ‘kawaii’ socks, my coloured pencils fragranced with grape, orange and melon, the colourful animal-shaped erasers (that no one was allowed to actually use). I had a Smiggle-style pencil case with umpteen compartments and buttons when I was SEVEN. DECADES before they were cool.
One time, after such a trip, he brought home a small green rubber football for us each. It was just a ball, but it was NOT just a ball. I loved the size, the colour, the weight of it in my hands. It made me smile with delight, just to look at it.
Later that afternoon, after he’d changed out of his suit into jeans and a t shirt, my father asked me if I wanted to play with the ball outside.
Joyfully I rushed out and we ran down to ‘the garages’. Our garage was in a block of garages a hundred metres away from our house, in front of which was a fabulous large space – the size of a car park – much beloved by children on roller skates and bikes.
On this particular day, my dad and I were the only ones there. We set up a rough rounders course - I was bowling; Dad was batting.
On the very first bowl, Dad hit the ball so hard with the bat that the ball went flying over the row of garages, sailed over the railway fence and, much to my horror, landed in a clump of dry grass between the rails. Filled with dismay, I ran to the fence and stared at my brand new ball - only a few feet away, but practically in the jaws of hell, as far as I was concerned.
Is there an event more ‘Dad’ than buying your child a new ball, then getting all competitive and whacking holy hell out of it FOR REAL, and then losing the ball forever right in front of your child’s distraught eyes before she’s even had a chance to play with it??
Well, yes. I learned that things can always get worse.
He laughed sheepishly and ruffled my hair as we stood by the fence and tears ran down my face. But I had already started the process of grieving for the ball and leaving it behind mentally. I just felt bad for the ball. Have I mentioned that I anthropomorphise everything? I was worried that the ball would feel abandoned and unloved, but I also knew there was nothing we could do about it.
At this point, Dad kicked off his clogs and started climbing up the fence.
My jaw dropped. Suddenly my seven year old brain, which was already burdened with quite a lot of unchildlike thoughts, zoomed up several gears to a level of adulthood that I did not want and wasn’t prepared for.
I was speechless with fear that my dad would be hurt. I was horrified that he could break the rules we abided by religiously. I was also furious that he would take such a RIDICULOUS risk for a rubber football without giving a thought to the consequences – without appreciating how MY life would be ruined if I had to watch him getting smashed into hamburger by an unexpected train.
I literally couldn’t speak. Tears gushed from my eyes as I struggled to say something, but the roaring confusion and conflicting emotions in my head effectively strangled me.
Dad was on the wrong side of the fence. With the train. The lion.
He wasn’t even hurrying. He looked at me, smiled reassuringly, and told me not to cry.
I wanted to scream into his face, “I’m not crying because of the BALL! Do you really think I care about the BALL?? I care that you might DIE, you stupid, stupid, irresponsible, hopeless man!!”
He grubbed about in the grass, taking FAR too long – every terrifying second was hell for me – before picking up the ball, holding it up and actually grinning at me (FFS), looking very proud of himself, and then hoisting himself easily back over the fence.
I think a little piece of my heart broke that day. Because I couldn’t see my father in the same way ever again. I knew he was loving and earnest and kind, but my heart was heavy with the responsibility of knowing that he was also reckless, thoughtless and unreliable.
And although the rescued green ball rolled around in the toy box for years, and seemed to pop up now and then under the bed, I couldn’t bring myself to play with it again. Not once.
We watched Lego Batman at the cinema yesterday – a family Valentine’s treat.
I do love seeing children’s films, especially the ones with multiple layers of meaning, but (‘and this is a BIG BUT’, as my unfortunate colleague once said in front of her class) I don’t enjoy sharing the theatre with hundreds of tiny, wriggly, wailing, sugar-hyped, crisp packet-rustling kiddies whose parents have no clue about the attention span of a 2 year old.
If Hubby and I had to sacrifice cinema visits for 7 or 8 years until we could trust our kids not to spoil anyone else’s viewing experience, then those parents surely can too. Grump, grump.
Anyway – complaining aside – I rather liked the film’s message today.
Batman was afraid of becoming close to anyone because he couldn’t cope with the pain of losing his family.
He trusted no one except himself, and therefore lived in a pitiful state of isolation.
Batman’s worst enemy was not The Joker, Penguin, Bane or any other comic book villain – the real enemy was HIMSELF.
Now, I totally relate to that.
After having children, I suffered from PTSD. I know that probably sounds ridiculous, but the births were both pretty traumatic and I was NOT prepared for how our lives would change. I stopped being able to sleep, and I had horrendous nightmares when I did sleep – nightmares where members of my family were in peril, or even died.
Then this terrible phenomenon started following me into my waking moments. I could be chopping an onion and thinking of nothing in particular, when I would suddenly be assaulted with a slow-motion film in my head of my little daughter running up to me, putting her hand on the chopping board, and I’d watch in sweaty horror as my knife descended and sliced off her finger.
Or I’d be descending the stairs and a bloody image would flash before my eyes, of my young son teetering at the top of the stairs because I’d forgotten to close the stairgate, and then crashing to the bottom in a broken heap. Or it’d be ME who fell and died, whilst Hubby was away on tour for 5 days, and the kids would starve. Or I’d run them over by accident. Or neglect to cut up a grape, which they’d then choke on.
Morbid, haunting and appalling. But I couldn’t make it stop.
When the situation became intolerable, I sought help from a wonderful counsellor, and I’ve never forgotten what she said.
She said that pain is the darker face of love. It is an inextricable part of the experience of loving someone or something. If you love nothing, you have nothing to lose. She said I should embrace the fear – in fact, trust the fear – because it was all part of the same complicated but beautiful phenomenon we call love. She said that the future was obviously unknowable, and that terrible things do happen, BUT that I should concentrate on the now, convert the nervous energy I was wasting on my anxiety into positivity, and love my family with every fibre of my being.
Easier said than done, but it did help.
I still get mild attacks of this kind of anxiety – a common symptom of a vivid imagination and moderate intelligence – but it is manageable. No doubt, it may intensify again as my children grow older, I give them more independence, and hand them over the responsibility for their own safety.
But the alternative – building a wall so strong and so high that no one could get close to me; forming a tough carapace around my heart to prevent love from infecting me; isolating myself on an island of arrested development and oblivion – does not appeal to me.
So yes. Having a family or well-loved friends IS sometimes upsetting and frustrating, but this specific pain is a privilege denied to so many, and I ought to remember that every day.
Like Batman, I am my own worst enemy.
I sabotage my attempts to stay healthy and fit; I put myself down and I criticise myself harshly; I overthink situations until I feel trapped in a thorny cage of my own making; I cling on to the past, allowing good memories to become inundated with melancholy, and bad memories to continue controlling my current behaviour. I set goals that are too high, and forget to appreciate the little triumphs and joys along the way. I stay up too late at night, and then feel like crap in the morning. I forget to celebrate any of my achievements*.
However, Batman has also reminded me that knowing your weaknesses is the first step to dealing with them… and that it’s OK to ask for help.
Pretty astute teachings for a plastic lego figure.
*So can I just say, I got up at 6.30am this morning to attend a Crossfit class at 7am EVEN THOUGH IT’S HALF TERM. The WOD (workout of the day) was Fight Gone Bad – and it’s as brutal as it sounds. Go me! Batman would be proud...
Last year Hubby and I spent Valentine’s Day in the US. I was mega organised and made him a card in advance so that I could pack it in the suitcase and surprise him with it on the 14th. In the event, I forgot and left the card sitting in the hallway at home. Thankfully, it was too exciting a trip to get bogged down in obligatory stuff like Valentine’s Day cards.
Hubby was on tour with his band, and I was privileged enough to be invited along.
I had never been to America before but I’d always desperately wanted to go. Seeing America on the TV and in films and reading about it in Stephen King books, it was like an alternative reality – a parallel universe, similar to the UK in so many ways, and yet fundamentally different. I’d always wondered what it would be like to lose the uptight British reserve, and let it all hang out like these American people.
Was it really like that?? Did people actually eat waffles for breakfast, and take lunch to school in a cute brown paper bag? Did people actually say “Have a nice day” every 5 minutes, and order complicated coffee and sandwich combinations? Did they REALLY hold eye contact with strangers, eat ‘donuts’, and believe in the American Dream??
What was a Hush Puppy? What was a chicken-fried steak? A Slim Jim? A Twinkie? I had so many questions… (OK. Yes. Mainly food related.)
When I was 17 years old, my county youth orchestra toured Austria to celebrate Mozart’s bicentenary. It was a fabulous tour, full of well-attended concerts and memorable sightseeing trips to Salzburg and Vienna. One of the events that stuck in my mind was a joint concert we did with an American youth orchestra and choral society from Philadelphia.
We had a rehearsal on the afternoon of the concert to smooth out any issues, which began with the customary wary glances at our unfamiliar counterparts, and the awkward ‘desk dance’ (a hyena-like prowling of the best seats in the orchestral hierarchy, whilst saying things like, “Obviously I don’t care where I sit,” and “I’m sure you’re much better than I am – why don’t you have the end chair?” through gritted smiles). But after we’d all settled and were more or less happy with the seating plan, relations warmed up considerably.
As a double bassist, I was absolutely in awe of the way the American bass section had swanned into the rehearsal room. Their basses were encased in enormous white coffin-like structures with wheels on, which were being carted around by henchmen! This seemed impossibly glamorous to me – me, with my scruffy soft case, purplish bruise on my shoulder where the strap was rubbing my skin away, and the beginnings of sciatica that would plague me for years!
The other thing that had me in thrall was the fact that, out of 4 bass players, two of them were Chinese. Except, they weren’t Chinese. They were American. They had American passports, American names, beautiful American teeth, and American confidence.
We chatted during the rests (probably shouldn’t have), and I remember being flabbergasted by the difference between my experience of life, and theirs. When I tentatively asked whether they were ever teased about having parents of Chinese origin, they looked horrified and offended in equal measure. They told me that no one in America would dream of calling you out on account of your colour or heritage.
I thought gloomily about the misery I’d suffered at school – about the names I’d been called, the faces that had been pulled, the scorn heaped on my head if I pronounced a word wrong – and America seemed to glow like the promised land; like a haven of acceptance, equality and riches.
We exchanged addresses, and even corresponded for a while, and inside my head, America grew into this huge symbol of tolerance and multiculturalism.
The reality was interesting.
First of all, I had NO IDEA what a huge country it was. Although I knew it academically, it is one thing to see the boundaries of the US drawn on a political map, and a completely different thing to travel on a coach from one snow-covered venue, to another hot and sunny venue in 10 hours, when on the map, it had looked like a hop, skip and a jump!
A lot of my experiences in America last year did correspond with my expectations (the waffles, the fried food, the smiley faces), and a few encounters with the locals were straight out of a Simpsons episode.
Visiting Washington DC and having our photo taken outside the White House was thrilling (alas, it would probably be less thrilling now, dare I say) - Washington was one of the few places we visited that gave us a sense of America’s history.
The places on our tour itinerary weren’t particularly multicultural. I still felt like a tiny minority – which is fine; I’m used to it, but I had expected something different in America. The food stocked in the convenience stores seemed to tell their own story. The odd burrito was as multicultural as the food offerings got – it was mainly burgers, sandwiches, hot dogs and pastries.
I thought of our local store back home, in our easy-going, unsophisticated village which stocks sushi, quinoa, halloumi cheese, samosas and spring rolls…and realised that maybe our British society is much more multicultural than I gave it credit for. Eating healthily on tour was very difficult. We tended to frequent fast food joints, and the breakfasts were heavy on bread items and greasy meat (?). I once asked the shop we stopped at whether I could buy an apple, and they looked most confused. Apple pie, yes. Raw apple, no.
The best thing about the tour, though, was my husband’s band. They did 6 concerts in 7 days, and played like the consummate professionals they are, every single time. It sends a shiver down the spine when you see such a collection of talent, commitment and class in one place. The American audiences were absolutely blown away by the sheer brilliance of the playing – it made me proud to be part of the whole experience. Many of the audience members agreed that they’d never heard anything like it – quite a feat for a band from a small community in Wales.
I can’t wait for the next tour. Hopefully, my CD sales figures were high enough that I’ll get asked back…
Little children can be unpredictable and unfathomable.
Many adults lose the ability to empathise with a childish mind, and fail to understand their motivations. We adults forget what it is like to be learning something new about the mechanics of living every day. We forget that what we think is ordinary and obvious, can be completely befuddling to a human who has only existed for 5 or 6 years on this earth.
In all my experience as a primary school teacher and a parent however, one child stands out as being the most unreadable, the most inexplicable, the most detached from reality…
Now that I’m grown up, I can look back more objectively at my early years, and can see that my perception of the world was bizarre. Superimposing my current common sense over the very clear memories of my childhood is an odd, destabilising experience.
I flew under the radar at school, because I performed well in English, Maths and the other curriculum subjects. I had friends, I was happy; I probably seemed perfectly normal.
However, read this anecdote and decide for yourselves…
My primary school was a 5 minute car ride from my house, but when I was about 6 years old, a new estate opened around the back of the school, providing a shortcut that was easily walkable. Most mornings and afternoons after the new road opened, we walked to and from school.
One morning, I said goodbye to my mother at the gate. She told me that she would be five to ten minutes late picking me up, but that I was to wait inside the school gates for her. I nodded and probably even repeated the information back, but it basically flew straight out of my brain the instant I turned to greet my friends, and never returned– not even at home time when my mother didn’t appear to pick me up.
My best friend and her mother waited with me for a few minutes, and then they offered me a lift home. I accepted without a single qualm – after all, she was my best friend’s MOTHER and they lived a couple of doors away from us.
We drove home in their splendidly dilapidated car (the brakes didn’t work, so it was handbrake turns all the way back), I thanked them for the lift, ran cheerfully to my house and banged the door knocker. I was utterly flummoxed when nobody answered. What was I to do now??
I think I sat on the front step for a few minutes feeling like a balloon with its string cut. I absolutely couldn’t cope with the unexpectedness of the situation. I had never been alone in my life. Everything in my existence was controlled and orderly. And now, I found myself locked out of my own house with no parental supervision, and no idea what to do next.
Just to put my next actions into some kind of context, I lived in a cul-de-sac – a cosy half-moon of houses overlooking a green semi-circle of grass. We knew ALL our neighbours. There were 3 or 4 children from my own class within a few doors of my home – we often played together and practically lived in each other’s houses during the summertime.
So did I go and ask for help from my neighbours? Did I go back to my best friend’s house and explain the situation to her mother?
What I decided to do was drift across the road (yes, the road I’d been told never to cross under any circumstance) and start wandering aimlessly away from my house, and into completely unfamiliar territory.
I walked until I could no longer see my house around the bend, and then I selected a house at random and ran up its front path. I rang the doorbell and waited.
A middle-aged lady answered the door, and looked down at me with some surprise.
“I’m lost,” I said.
She gazed at me myopically, peered behind me, and then with an air of helplessness said, “Well, you’d better come in.”
She led me in to a tiny lounge – predominantly brown, with a gas heater, a brown and beige floral sofa, and a carriage clock on the mantelpiece. In front of the heater, a man sat in a brown armchair, a pipe clamped in his teeth, frowning ferociously at the newspaper on his lap.
“Dear?” the lady said tremulously. “This little girl is lost.”
The man didn’t look up. He grunted irritably.
The lady looked at me nervously. “Where do you live dear?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
The lady’s hand went up to her throat. “Oh dear. She doesn’t know where she lives.”
The man grunted again, turning the page of his newspaper.
“Would you like a glass of water or something?” she asked, a little desperately. I nodded mutely.
She turned and left the room, and I heard her footsteps moving deeper into the house.
I stared at the man in the armchair. I felt slightly affronted that he hadn’t even looked up from his newspaper yet. There was something intense and palpable about the atmosphere in that brown room. It smelt like a room where nothing had moved or breathed for decades. The lady who had hurried off to fetch me some water emanated odd waves of anxiety – I could almost SEE them.
I decided I didn’t like this house. I didn’t like the rude man who grunted and scowled. I didn’t even like the lady who’d gone to get me some water. She didn’t feel like an adult – she wasn’t someone who was going to take charge and tell me what to do.
I took a last look at the Armchair Man and the Brown Room, and I walked down the bilious corridor, reached up for the front door handle and let myself out. I closed the door behind me and walked away.
I re-crossed the road and finally saw someone I knew – an older girl who I held in awe for her ability to skip very fast, and eat a whole box of tic tacs in one mouthful. She let me play in her room. I wound up her musical jewellery box and listened to the plinking melody about 10 times, until suddenly, out of her window, I saw my mother walking back towards the house.
I felt simultaneously joyful and terrified. The terror was well-justified. When I rushed out to meet her, my mother gave me a roasting I didn’t forget in a hurry. But honestly, I was too relieved to mind much.
Now, as a mother myself, I cannot imagine how she felt during her walk home from school. She must have arrived to find the school gates shut and locked. No little girl waiting for her. She’d have walked home, hoping there was a simple explanation, but also imagining a hundred awful things that could have happened.
I also wonder about the couple whose house I visited briefly that time. Did they think they’d imagined this tiny, clueless Japanese girl wandering into their house? Maybe they thought I was a ghost – some kind of strange visitation. Why did it take that lady so long to get me a drink of water? Something wasn’t quite right with that house, but I was 6 and didn’t understand it.
I would hope that neither of my own children would behave in such a peculiar, illogical way. I was lucky that nothing bad happened to me that day.
I have a theory that children who are displaced – who have had to learn new languages fast or moved countries or situations – need a little extra support. Even if they seem to be fine and do academically well at school, there are strange gaps – like hastily put together puzzle pieces – through which reason can leak. There are gaps in their knowledge and understanding; there are anomalies in their perspective. They may seem a little less tethered to reality and terra firma compared to other children the same age who have had their roots in the same soil since birth.
Well, that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.
I went through a strange period after the birth of my daughter. It was a difficult and ultimately dangerous birth, and I didn’t realise until afterwards just how close I had come to the unthinkable.
On some level, though, I did know…but the psyche builds protective force shields against such knowledge sometimes. All I knew was that I felt oddly disconnected from my life – as if I were floating above myself, watching a doppelganger taking my place. I lost weight – I was thinner than I’d ever been. And despite longing to be a size 8 my whole adult life, I didn’t like the way it felt. I felt insubstantial, as if a light breeze could blow me away and sever my roots from the earth.
This went on for the best part of a year, but after my daughter’s first Christmas, I made the decision to start dance lessons.
This wasn’t a sudden whim. I’d always wanted to have dance lessons, and went to a few ballroom dancing lessons with a couple of friends when I was a student - a rather frustrating experience due to a significant lack of men. I’d also had many years of ballet lessons from the age of 7 or 8, but I didn’t count that somehow. It wasn’t ballet I wanted to do. I wanted something less structured, less rigid, more sociable… I wanted to learn salsa. WHY though?
Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, in my history should have given me any hope of being good at salsa.
I had horrible, awkward memories of school discos where I felt physically paralysed by pop music, and stood at the side of the room, envious of my friends who looked so relaxed and natural as they danced. I didn’t listen to pop music as a kid. I’d always assumed that was because I was being classically trained in three instruments, and it didn’t fit our family ‘ethic’ – but I'm not sure that was the reason. After all, when I became obsessed with A-ha in the ‘80s, my parents were perfectly accommodating, and allowed me to transform my bedroom into a ‘Morten Harket Grotto of Worship’, worthy of any dedicated stalker.
No, I just didn’t like pop music much. It didn’t make me want to dance. There was nothing about the tempo or style of the music that urged me to move my body. The only numbers I liked were the slow ones, because I could find an obliging boy and just sway with him until it was over.
I don’t know why the idea popped into my head that SALSA was going to be the dance for me. I didn’t even know anyone who danced salsa.
So here is a list of reasons why it was a ridiculous idea
1. I couldn’t dance
2. I didn’t like touching strangers
3. I was very shy and hated meeting new people
4. I had a 9 month old daughter and a 3 year old son
5. It was a new thing, and new things are BAD because I might FAIL at the new thing
I found a local class, signed up and just did it anyway. Quite out of character for me, thinking about it now.
I’m glad I did though. From the very first few seconds when I heard the music for the warm up, I knew instinctively that I could do this. Something that had been asleep for my entire life just woke up.
I swiftly learned the steps and the routines. That was no particular surprise to me – I’ve always been quick to memorise sequences. But what surprised me was the joy that bubbled up from a profound and previously undiscovered well-spring inside me every time I danced. It’s difficult to explain – it’s a feeling of power, of happiness, a very primitive but pure gladness.
It was utterly addictive.
I started going twice a week whenever I could. So on the rare nights Hubby wasn’t out rehearsing, I’d don my skimpiest outfits, grab my dancing shoes and swan off to some nightclub. I attended every workshop going, I spent a lot of time with my dancing friends, I even went to a salsa weekender (a kind of holiday, with lots of lessons, parties and fancy dress), started learning other types of latin dance (bachata is my favourite), and I was actually at a dance masterclass on my daughter’s first birthday. I told myself she wouldn’t know the difference. (I’m a horrible mother. It’s ok. I know.)
There is no doubt that it was cathartic for me. Dancing made me feel alive and vital. It reconnected my feet with the ground. It helped me to forget that I’d felt like a ghost since my daughter’s birth. Spending the evenings laughing and talking with students (who thought I was also a student!) and cranking out those endorphins on the dance floor, really was the best therapy I could have chosen.
Slowly, the bruised and traumatised girl – the one who’d been expecting an easy second birth – began to recover and regain some control over her life.
Of course, there were many times when I wanted to go out but couldn’t, and I spent a lot of energy regretting my late initiation into the dance world. If only I had started before we had kids! If only I had appreciated how much spare time I had in those days! But I believe that dancing came into my life exactly when it was supposed to – when I needed it to.
These days, I’m lucky if I average 3 dances a year, but that’s ok. Someone once said to me, “Dancing will always be here, waiting for you,” … and it’s true. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend away or how rusty you feel when you step out on that dance floor, you soon discover the joy is still there.
That list I made - the one detailing why I couldn’t possibly start dance classes – it’s all irrelevant, and I’m glad I ignored it. And yet, when I encourage others to try dancing – people who might want a form of exercise that doesn’t involve the gym, people who like latin music, people who want to meet new friends or learn a new skill – most of them say the same thing: “But I can’t dance!”
Well, duh! You’re not supposed to be able to dance yet – that’s what the lessons are for.
Despite my status as a music teacher and musician, I don’t listen to live music on a regular basis – in fact, the opportunities to listen to music at all are few and far between.
I do love listening to music in my car. I listen to latin dance music (although it has a tendency to make me drive too fast), compilations of songs, and my current favourite - my Sons of Anarchy playlist, to help me feel mean and dangerous, as if I might one day ride off with some leather jacketed Hells Angel. I did also painstakingly compile a playlist of all the piano pieces on the diploma syllabus, but it’s just not ‘car music’ – most of the time, it’s too delicate and subtle to be heard over the sound of potholes ruining my car’s suspension.
However, this week, I’ve been to TWO live concerts – very different from each other, but exciting and rousing nevertheless.
The first was my friend’s band, playing in a popular live music venue – teeth shatteringly loud, in a dark room on the second floor of a pub. It brought back memories of being a student, going out on a Tuesday night, sticky floors and cheap beer (although the beer is no longer cheap).
As I watched them playing and singing, it impressed me that they had not only written their own songs, but they were performing them LIVE – and that’s a kind of magic. Hubby and I were also fascinated at the sheer physical stamina of the drummer, who had a proper, hardcore cardio workout for 45 minutes!
Yesterday’s live music offering was a night at the opera – Madame Butterfly in Cardiff – the tickets, a Christmas present from Hubby.
I realise that this was only the third or fourth time I’ve seen an opera. On one memorable occasion, we went to see Tosca but, being poor students, could only afford the £5 crappy ‘reduced visibility’ tickets; our seats LITERALLY faced away from the stage, and we could see NOTHING.
No such problems today. We had great seats, and the production was very slick indeed – I especially loved the innovative stage setting, and the atmospheric lighting.
But…I have an issue with the story of Madame Butterfly.
Here’s a brief synopsis if you aren’t familiar with it. (Taken directly from the programme notes provided by the WNO. Although I proof read it and changed the bits that didn’t make sense.)
‘A young Japanese woman, Cio-Cio san (Madame Butterfly), has agreed to an arranged marriage with Lieutenant Pinkerton of the United States Navy. She takes the marriage seriously and falls in love, while he sees it simply as an amusing diversion during his temporary posting to Japan. Leaving his bride behind, Pinkerton goes back to the US for 3 years, during which time Cio-Cio san gives birth to his child and is gradually reduced to poverty, but faithfully believes her husband will return. In due course, Pinkerton does return, but with a new, American wife. When they hear that there is a child, Pinkerton and his new wife decide to adopt him. In despair, knowing that the Pinkertons will be able to give him a better life than she, Cio-Cio san bids farewell to her son, then kills herself.’
OK. So you can see, this story isn’t exactly the best marketing tool for cross-cultural marriages.
I get it. Inter-racial marriage is difficult sometimes, for all sorts of reasons. In fact, marriage is difficult – full stop. But there may be greater compromises and deeper levels of empathy and understanding required to make a mixed race marriage work. Often, the happy couple don’t even have a language in common that they are both equally proficient at. This must surely distort the balance of power…if marriage was about ‘who has the power’. There are often sacrifices to be made – after all, you can’t live in two places at once; one person must give up his/her country to be with their spouse.
In this case, Madame Butterfly sacrificed her religion and contact with her friends/family to marry a Westerner, believing that her new husband and LOVE is all she needs.
WRONG! Oh dear. The naivety of the girl is stunning. Mind you, she’s only 15… which makes Pinkerton a pretty creepy guy.
Why did her family overreact and shun her when they discovered she had converted to Christianity to please her new husband? What did they expect? They arranged her marriage to a Westerner, for goodness sake - trading her away for 100 yen, as if she were a bag of rice.
Most annoying of all is the way Pinkerton is portrayed as a dashing, irresponsible cad; while Madame Butterfly is the lovelorn, blubbering, hysterical victim.
The lovelorn, blubbering, hysterical, JAPANESE victim.
Japanese women are often portrayed as weak, obedient wives – subservient, deferring to her husband in all domestic matters.
I once heard that the definition of perfect happiness was a man who had an American salary, an English home, a Chinese cook and a Japanese wife.
This joke pisses me off. I just don’t find it funny.
I have had plenty of experiences where people have assumed that I’m some kind of mail-order bride. (Which Hubby might find hilarious – he’d probably want his money back, for starters. ‘Obedient?? Subservient??! This wife is defective…’)
And get this – by the time I was 18, I’d already had 4 or 5 complete strangers (westerners) ask me to marry them. For real. Which I think is more a commentary on the weirdness level of the men out there, than on my magnetic personality and irresistible exotic allure.
I know lots of Japanese women who are also wives – and not a single one of them is a stereotyped, bowing, meek and mild wife. And not one of us would have fallen desperately in love with a (frankly portly) middle-aged lieutenant (with short arms), mooned around for three years while he went off and found a ‘proper, American’ wife, agreed to give up Beloved Son to Faithless Husband and a strange woman, and then topped herself, wearing her wedding kimono.
Lose the drama! I think we’d all agree that a new pair of shoes (for us), a crippling law-suit (for him), and rotting prawns in the curtain rails of his new house would be a more appropriate response.
In crowded Japanese cities like Tokyo, vast numbers of people use the underground trains, the buses, the roads and throng the shops. For someone like me, brought up in a very quiet English suburb where the population’s average age was 72, it was a huge culture shock.
Even London has nothing on the sheer speed and density of the crowds in Tokyo. Tokyo station is HUGE – a mini underground city, in fact. Trying to walk from one side to the other is exhausting – like crossing a twelve lane motorway with your eyes closed. It’s even scarier when you are carrying a baby, and all the paraphernalia associated with babies – a folded up pushchair, a nappy bag, various bottles and jars of food and three contingency sets of clothes…
Our son was seven months old when he visited Japan for the first time. We were quite anxious about all the practical aspects of the trip – a 12 hour plane journey is no fun for anyone, but probably the least fun thing I can think of if you have a heavy, squirmy baby on your lap, and everybody is looking daggers at you for daring to bring a child on board. Also, you tend to favour a certain brand of nappies, of food, or creams and lotions…but with a 20kg luggage limit each, bringing all that stuff from home wasn’t really possible. Of course, Japan stocked similar products – after all, there are babies in Japan too (although not nearly as many) – and the differences were interesting and strange.
For example, the Japanese brand nappies did up at the back. Our son had to patiently sport a few odd-looking nappies before we worked that one out! They had little jars of baby food that resembled the ones you could buy in Sainsbury’s – jars I tried to avoid back home (I was the Ice Cube Puree Queen) – but instead of being called butternut squash flavour, or spaghetti and tomato flavour, they had sardines, sweet potato, seaweed and rice flavours. Our son LOVED them.
In fact, he loved everything about Japan. In Japan, he came to life. His eyes were round with wonder. He gazed into people’s faces; he laughed out loud; he tried to grab the (pornographic) comics from the hands of commuters. He smiled all day long, and ate with gusto. He turned over for the first time in Japan. He started to hold his head up high. He babbled constantly, communicating with bright, enthusiastic animation.
I found this utterly amazing. It seemed to prove that he had some kind of genetic memory of Japan – as if something dormant in his blood, woke up joyously and recognised the place, even though he’d never been there before.
Usually, Japanese strangers don’t talk to each other in public places (in that sense, they’re more British than British people), but quite a few strangers - usually elderly ladies, who were old enough that they didn’t give a crap about social convention any more – spoke to us, simply to tell us how cute our baby was. ‘Half’ babies are considered the holy grail of cuteness in Japan, apparently.
I had another encounter on a Japanese train during that holiday – one I will never forget, because it haunts me. Even now, 12 years on, thinking about it makes me tearful.
We were on a fairly long journey, and Hubby and I hadn’t been able to sit near each other due to the crush of people. Someone stood up for me, so that I could sit down with my son on my lap, and we were reasonably comfortable for 10 minutes or so. However, he started to get restless and, very unusually for him, started to cry and fuss. I knew he was probably hungry, but I wasn’t really sure whether I could breastfeed him on an incredibly crowded train.
Just as his wriggling and grizzling was starting to escalate, a large young man who had been standing like a slumped potato a few metres away, sidled up to me and handed my son a soft toy panda to fiddle with.
He gestured at my son and said, “He’s cute.”
The panda had super long arms and legs, with Velcro at the ends, and was designed to fix around your arm or back pack like a sloth hanging off a branch. My son was concentrating on doing and undoing the Velcro, and his crying had miraculously stopped. I thanked the man cautiously.
I was puzzled though. I knew convention. I knew it was very unusual for a stranger to make contact in this way. I looked searchingly at him, and I sensed instantly that something wasn’t quite right. He had a red cap on over scruffy hair, and his moon face looked stubbly and somehow unhealthy – as if he rarely went outside. He was, unusually for a Japanese youngster, quite overweight, and there was something odd and awkward about his posture.
Now, I have improved a LOT, but in those days, I was terrified of Japanese strangers, because I had no confidence in my ability to communicate. But this guy started speaking to me, using simple, stunted sentences rather like my own.
“I had an accident,” he confided, gazing steadily at me. I glanced around the carriage and saw everybody was concentrating on their books, or handbags, or pretending to sleep.
“My friend was driving. He was alright. But my head got squashed.”
I murmured an appropriate commiseration, feeling hot and uncomfortable – the double whammy of my Britishness and Japaneseness making me break out in a sweat.
“My head swelled up. The doctors had to put in a shunt.” He took his red cap off and leaned in towards me to show me a shocking hole in his skull, just behind his left ear. The edges were healed over with skin, but I could have put a pencil up this hole – it was that big.
“How terrible for you,” I said sincerely. “I hope you’re feeling a bit better now.”
His face was impassive. “I’m not quite right any more. I hurt my brain. I can’t do much. I can’t get a proper job.” He slowly replaced the cap on his head, covering up his catastrophic injury.
I didn’t know what to say, but oddly enough, I didn’t feel embarrassed or awkward any more. We smiled at each other in comfortable silence for a moment.
Then he said, “My family think I should have died. They are ashamed of me now.”
My jaw dropped in horror, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was staring out of the window placidly, as if he’d been commenting on the weather.
The train drew to a stop, and the young man hauled his ruck sack onto his back.
“Well… My stop. Goodbye,” he said, turning to walk away.
“Wait!” I cried. “Your panda!”
He smiled at me and he smiled at my son and said, “Please keep it.”
And with that, he stepped off the train and disappeared into the seething mass of people on the platform.
I felt oddly disconnected from reality for a few hours after that encounter – as if I’d had an out-of-body experience, or maybe interacted with a supernatural being. I was left feeling incredibly privileged somehow, to have had contact with that brave, stoic man – honoured that he shared his story with me, sad as it was.
On a train crammed full of people, the only person who showed me any kindness or empathy as I struggled with a crying, fitful baby was that young man. And yet his own family wished he had died in the accident rather than continue life with brain damage, BECAUSE IT BROUGHT THEM SHAME?
That memory STILL breaks my heart today.
We have that gangly, long-legged panda still. I have told this story to my children many times, and we can’t bear to part with the panda. It was a gift from someone special.