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Despite the breath-taking whirl that has been the first term back after the summer holidays – with the 11+ test, the suspense, the results, the school visits, the extra dance coaching sessions in preparation for exams, the launch of a new choir at my school etc etc – things have been remarkably calm in this household.
The daughter had ceased to slam doors; the son suddenly paused his descent into teenager-dom (for how long, we don’t know… but we’ll take it); I have been undertaking my role as taxi-mum with surprising tranquillity; even the cats seem to purr and sleep more than usual.
However, something has gone badly awry in my battle against the flab.
Yesterday, I spent the whole day grazing on absolute crap – taunting and baiting the prissy little voice in my head that was yelping with indignation every time I stuffed crisps, cake and cheese in my mouth… and ended the day feeling bloated, lethargic and black with self-loathing.
At that point I felt like grabbing myself by the scruff of the neck, and screaming into my own face with frustration and fury, “What on EARTH is wrong with you??! Are you ACTUALLY INSANE??”
I am middle-aged. No getting away from that, and I don’t even mind. But what I find crazy is that I have been struggling with self-image and self-control for over three decades. THREE. DECADES. And there have only been very brief moments during that time when I have been happy with the way I look, or when my body has been the weight I think it should be. That’s a long time to be messing around in that despicable cycle of self-assessment, hope, self-sabotage and despair.
Now, be very clear. This is not a blog about what size people should be. Everyone is walking their own path. But I have always had a clear picture in my head of who I should be – what the best version of myself would look like – in fact, never mind LOOK like – I think I mean ‘what being the best ME should feel like.’
And it’s not even rocket science. It’s just science. Eat a bit less. Choose wholesome food over empty calories. Exercise and stay active.
How hard can that be?
Well, obviously very bloody hard. Three-decades-worth-of-failure hard.
Interestingly, I am more successful and focused when I am angry. For several years now, I have poured my energy, resentment, rage and sense of injustice into my training – into fighting for my right to concentrate on me. There have been many reasons I have been angry lately and, due to my previous tendency to bottle emotions up until Armageddon ensues, there was plenty of fuel to help me through my weakness. Some of that fuel was hate. Hate for everything that held me back in life; hate for the obstructions and tragedies that kept blocking my journey; and even hate for people who should have loved me but made me feel worthless instead.
The good news is that I’ve made a lot of personal progress and worked through most of those negative issues. But the bad news? I’ve looked inside, and there’s nothing left – I don’t know how to generate the energy I need to work on myself… and I feel lost.
At this rate, I’m going to get old and die without ever having reached my potential or enjoyed being the person I think I could be.
I have two choices now:
1 – Stop believing that there’s a better version of me. Stop trying. Let it all slide. Accept that I’m a weak, greedy slob and stop fighting it.
2 – Get some discipline. Accept that I have to love myself to look after myself. Accept responsibility for myself. Concentrate on ACTION, not analysis.
The truth is, I could spend all night writing about this – analysing my history, and my motives – and still may never get to the bottom of why I do this to myself. My mistake is to try to understand it. I have to stop thinking, and just DO.
I don’t NEED to know what’s going on in my head – in fact, I really ought to climb out of there. I spend so much time wandering about aimlessly in the dusty attic of my mind, sifting through piles of crap, trying to attribute false importance to boxes of junk and looking for answers. All this pondering, this introverted scrutiny, the self-absorbed diagnosis… they achieve nothing.
Action is the key word. Switch off brain, eat well, train well – it’s all perfectly possible. It doesn’t need psychoanalysis or explanation. It really is that simple.
When I start to overthink – when I start auditing what I’m allowed to eat, what I can’t eat, whether I can keep this up for a sustained period, or visualise myself saying no to crisps and cheese and chips for ever – it’s like glancing down when halfway up a steep ladder. The dizzying view freezes me to the spot; it reminds me of all my fears and of all the potential disasters that could befall me. The paralysis convinces me to backtrack; to scuttle down the ladder to a place where I felt ‘safe’ – even though it’s not where I wanted to be.
All this time, I believed that I could THINK my way to a better future and, clearly, I can’t. Weight loss, fitness and strength does not rely on inner peace and mental tranquillity. If it does, then I’m buggered, because THAT is the epitome of the Swimming Costume Conundrum, no?
I can’t wear a swimming costume until I lose some weight…but I can’t lose any weight until I’ve been swimming.
Because, rightly or wrongly, there’s no inner peace for me until I have a clear view of my feet, unobstructed by a muffin top.
So, I shall henceforth embark on Phase 1 of a new approach called, “Stop bloody thinking about it, and just get on with it.”
No doubt I will report back and bore you with more self-flagellation in a couple of months, OR bore you with smug reports of success. I hope, for my own sake, that it will be the latter.
*Who knows if Bruce Lee actually said these words. Anyway, can't go far wrong with a pithy quote, accompanied by a picture of a martial arty Asian guy.
I have noticed in the last couple of weeks or so a new campaign on Facebook going around called ‘Me Too’.
It involves simply changing your status to ‘Me too’ if you are a woman who has ever experienced sexual harassment of some kind. The idea is to highlight the enormity of the problem – to communicate the extent of the pervasive demeaning behaviour of some men within the community.
It has been interesting and distasteful to read the testimonies of my friends, and their various experiences ranging from casual rudeness, or uncomfortable inappropriate ‘flirting’, to horrendous violence and life-changing confrontational situations. And that’s just the women who chose to speak out, because doubtless there will be those who still feel unable to share, or whose experiences are ongoing and so close to home that their future “safety” would be threatened by such public disclosure.
It’s obviously important to acknowledge that this kind of unacceptable behaviour is by no means limited to ‘men towards women’, and that the subtext is NOT that all men are arses and women are dainty victims – an argument I have seen igniting on many threads. It’s hard to know how much to share with friends and acquaintances and strangers, because we are conditioned to believe that sexual experiences are private and even taboo.
But we are talking about living in a culture where this happens on a daily basis to SO MANY people - to the point where it is normalised and viewed as an unpleasant but incontrovertible fact of life. Being able to discuss these outrages publicly, as you would a robbery, a road rage incident, a racist attack or fraud, for example, would be a large step forward for everyone.
So… Here goes… Me too.
I’ve been subject to countless catcalls, leery shouts from white vans, bizarre marriage proposals from complete strangers (who want a Ting Tong Macadamdam of their very own), inappropriate flirting, and Russian fingers on the dance floor… but I’m not even interested in telling you about those frequent and pathetic minor irritations.
I had an experience which makes me seethe with rage, thinking about it now – and the rage is not just directed at the perpetrator, but at the adults in a position of responsibility who did not protect me, or practise the most rudimentary elements of child safe-guarding.
When I was in the first year of secondary school I was asked by a visiting musician (let’s call him Mr D – not his initial, because I have integrity, even if he didn’t) who required a young singer – preferably with an ‘exotic’ appearance – for a show he was directing in a prestigious venue near my home town.
Apparently, I was exactly what he was looking for.
Mr D dropped around to my house, to meet and charm my parents, explain the rehearsal schedule, and impress us with his brilliant piano playing. Rehearsals began, and I found myself quite enjoying the process, despite my usual aversion to the lime light.
Weirdly, a couple of times at school, I was asked by several different teachers how the rehearsals were going – one teacher gazed at me with a speculative intensity that made me a little uncomfortable. But I told them it was going well and forgot about it.
And it did go well. Until one weekend.
Mr D offered to pick me up from my house, and take me to the rehearsal venue to save my mother a 20 minute journey into town. However, when we arrived at the venue, there was no one around at all – it was completely empty. He laughed self-deprecatingly and said his watch was an hour fast… but as we were early, would I do him a favour?
He brought out a handful of jumbled leotards and explained that he was trying to sort out the costumes for a dance group but he hadn’t been able to get them to try on their leotards. I was about the same size as the girls, so would I try them all on, one by one, so he could discard the outsize items?
Immediately I felt my skin crawling down my back. This was definitely not right. I shook my head shyly and said I didn’t want to do that.
He gave another jovial laugh, but his eyes held a steely glint as if to say, “Don’t be a silly girl. I am the teacher and you must do as I say. Did you forget that?”
Then he actually said, “Oh, don’t be shy! There’s no one around. I’ll put you in that classroom over there where no one will be able to see you changing. Go on! It really would be so helpful to me!”
In the end, the conditioning to obey was simply too strong. I mutely took the handful of leotards and went into the classroom. I looked carefully around to see if there were any windows shared with other rooms, but it really did seem completely deserted. I stood in a corner where I felt the least exposed and looked at the leotards with a slight sneer of disgust. I was almost as revolted at the thought of touching other people’s leotards as I was at the thought of taking my clothes off in this apparently empty classroom. It only took 5 minutes or so, but I felt utterly soiled by the time I had my own clothes back on.
Mr D thanked me casually, took the leotards back and never referred to it again. The other children and actors started arriving for the rehearsal and things seemed to go back to normal.
But in my little world, something had gone bad. I had an amorphous, black tumour of self-loathing, fear, guilt and poisoned innocence festering in my belly. I couldn’t tell anyone about it because I knew I would castigated for being so stupid and gullible. I knew no one would understand how persuasive he could be. I knew that I was a quiet 11 year old girl with no authority, power or proof of his misdeeds whatsoever. I told myself that it could have been worse. That I hadn’t actually been TOUCHED or physically hurt in any way… So I swallowed it down and went on with life, even though I was certain that I had somehow been violated.
The show went well and, despite everything, it was a very memorable and thrilling occasion. I had the standard after-show blues for a few days, and then life went back to normal.
Several months later, I overheard Mr D’s name mentioned at school in a conversation between 3 or 4 girls much older than me. My head whipped around and, uncharacteristically boldly (for me), I asked them how they knew him.
“He was a teacher here – music and drama. Dirty bastard…” she added as an afterthought.
“What happened? Why doesn’t he work here anymore?” I asked, my mouth dry; my heart already knowing the answer.
“He hid a camera in the girls’ changing rooms and then asked some girls to try on some leotards, and secretly took pictures of them. Disgusting pervert.”
My body felt cold and hot, and every inch of my skin was prickling.
“Was he fired?” I asked.
The girl shook her head and shrugged. “Nah… He was just asked to leave quietly, without making a fuss.”
They knew, I thought dully as I walked away. Those teachers who asked me how things were going…they knew. And that’s why they asked – to check Mr D wasn’t up to his old tricks.
But no one prevented him from working with children. No one warned my parents not to leave me alone with him. Nobody took responsibility for what happened, because – heavens above! – no one wanted a fuss. What could possibly be worse in 1980s Britain than making a f***ing FUSS?? How would it be FAIR if poor Mr D was haunted by his insignificant earlier mistakes forever?? Doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance? A third, a fourth? Even if every failed opportunity has a litter of female casualties in its wake…?
I took my 11 year old shame, betrayal and impotent rage, and buried it in an unmarked grave – because I felt I had no options. The system designed to support me and keep me safe had failed on every level – why would I trust ANYONE with what I knew? I realise that this man’s actions are more suitably categorised under Paedophilia – not ‘mere’ sexual harassment, but I wanted to illustrate the head-in-the-sand, scandal-averse, androcentric society I lived in when I was a little girl. A society where it was MORE important to safeguard the future career of a young talented teacher, and therefore gloss over his ‘misdemeanours’, than protect young, vulnerable female students from his calculated predation.
Has our society changed? I hope so.
If nothing else, I hope that we understand that ANYONE can be a predator, and ANYONE can be on the receiving end. I hope we understand that there are certain ways we should treat people – not specifically because someone is a man or woman or child – but simply because it is decent and respectful. I hope we understand that we are all responsible for our own actions – that observing disgraceful behaviour at home or whilst growing up doesn’t give you a free pass to be an asshole.
As a society, I hope we have progressed from Victorian times, where a woman who made an allegation of this kind would more likely have been imprisoned herself "for her own safety", or incarcerated in a lunatic asylum for her hysterical megrims.
So, more than anything, I hope that victims of ‘Me Too’ – regardless of age or gender – feel able to communicate with others, to deflect the transgressions back to the perpetrators, and refuse to absorb the poisonous negativity or shame generated by this kind of offense.
I have no words.
Actually there is ONE word… The question on my lips today, and probably on the lips of many others, is “WHY?”
WHY target children enjoying themselves at a concert and wish to kill them? What on earth can one hope to achieve from such a heinous, cowardly and senseless act?
Regardless of one’s religion, nationality, beliefs and ethics, nothing positive or constructive can be found within such behaviour.
Is it some primitive, vestigial need to CHANGE people? To react against our individuality and independence? Is it a wish to convert ALL people into the same way of thinking? To enforce a blanket rule of oppression and control over an entire planet of people?
Maybe there is an instinctual desire for uniformity – a throwback to our long-vanished ancestors, who relied on a rock-solid community of like-minded tribesmen and women; whose very existence and survival could be threatened by change or a single rebel. And yet, it was the ‘rebel’ – the person who thought of different ways to do things – who ignited progress; who would lead the way into new pastures and new developments.
We are a planet teeming with different cultures, histories and visions – we have migrated to all corners of the earth and have created myriad ways of living, shaped by our passions, our habitats and the resources available to us. That is the way of things. That is human nature.
It saddens me that some of these corners are still subject to the iron rule of outdated despotic autocrats but, generally, there has been progress.
Who, but the most tunnel-visioned, ignorant bigot, could want to halt such progress?
I have NEVER been able to understand that glitch in human nature – that need to mind other people’s business; that need to make EVERYONE see their own way of thinking; that unshakeable belief that one way is right, and all others are wrong.
Even as a child, it puzzled me. Why did we have to wear the same clothes? Why was one child ostracised for speaking, thinking or acting differently? How could the expression of one child be so threatening to the ‘clique’ that they needed to thoroughly quash, humiliate and punish the ‘odd one out’? What did it take away from the others? Nothing. Why can’t people mind their own business?
And the bigger question – what kind of immense insecurity and weakness lies at the root of the person who feels the urge to change others?? Only those with a gaping chasm where their personality should be would need to fill that whistling hole with endless campaigns to radicalise those around them. Only those who cannot find their own contentment can be so enraged by the happiness of other people.
I know something else about human nature though. If you threaten to remove someone’s freedom; threaten their liberty to express their individuality, to create, to follow their passions; you will only deepen the rebellion. You will only galvanise them into defending their independence to their dying breath.
Some of us may be happy to be ‘sheep’ on the conveyor belt of life, but even sheep will rise up if you tell them they can’t be sheep any more.
A threat to our safety – worse; to the safety of our children – will only fan the fire in our belly. Such abhorrent and despicable violence will never subjugate those who value their freedom.
Relationships are hard, aren’t they?
Not just ‘significant other’-type relationships, but all relationships – friends, colleagues, family…
The more I think about it, the more I see a mental image of people bringing enormous suitcases of personal histories, experiences and injuries to every meeting; dressed in camouflage or odd disguises; toting a dictionary of exclusive definitions (no two dictionaries are alike… “I’m fine” ranging in meaning from “I’m absolutely ok,” to “I’m utterly unable to address my myriad problems and I don’t think you’d understand anyway,”) and covered from head to foot in plasters, under which cuts and bruises fester in varying degrees of severity.
Given that many of us don’t even realise that we carry all this stuff around with us every day, it’s not surprising that sometimes it’s damn hard to get out of bed of a morning – our limbs feel heavy, our brains thick and slow like a computer struggling to process too many background programmes, and our spirits raw and painful to the touch.
It’s frustrating and inexplicable when we try to interact with our loved ones and each word seems to take us further and further away from the intended outcome, until what started as an insignificant comment turns into a screaming match of devastating proportions.
How does that happen? How do two people who have chosen to be together, think of each other all the time when apart, and want to grow old together end up reinforcing such destructive behaviour time after time?
I can only speak for myself, but I have gradually realised over the years, that I often view the present through a filter – a filter of ALL the memories I have ever retained; a filter of all the people I’ve ever met and known; a filter of both positive and negative interactions with the world out there.
For example, I remember my father used to be notoriously unreliable in his time-keeping. He would tell my mother that he’d be back at 7pm. She’d cook dinner, lay the table, make sure I’d had a bath and was all clean and scrubbed in my pyjamas…and then we’d wait, and wait…and wait. And wait some more.
I recall one particular occasion when he was so late that the dinner was ruined. I’d been sitting patiently at the dining table for over an hour, watching my mother’s face sag and blanch; warding off a fizzing, uncomfortable sting of anxiety, and wanting desperately to make it better but not knowing how. The sight of my dad’s empty seat and clean, untouched dinner plate would always cause a sensation of butterflies and internal pressure.
Eventually my mother dished up – after all, I was only little and needed my bed. As I started to eat (though I wasn’t hungry any more) my mother caught sight of my father’s car rounding the bend and heading towards the house. An odd expression crossed her face – a glint of frustration and fury, disguised as a tight smile.
She scooped me out of my seat and said, “Quick! Let’s play a trick on Daddy. Let’s pretend we’ve been abducted by aliens!”
I was a little bemused by this uncharacteristic ‘playfulness’, but willingly ran upstairs with her, and we dived into her bedroom cupboard and pulled the door closed.
Ensconced among dresses and ironed shirts, I heard the muffled sound of the front door opening and closing, and Dad called out, “I’m home.”
Instantly, every fibre in my being wanted to run downstairs, but my mother had a firm grip on my arm, and shushed me.
I could hear my father walking from room to room, calling our names, and the strain of not answering him turned into downright distress. I didn’t like this game, and I wasn’t sure what my role was, and whether I should be playing it.
Eventually, we heard his slow, measured tread up the stairs and into the bedroom, and suddenly the cupboard door was pulled open, the yellow light from the ceiling lamp flooding my eyes. He pretended to look surprised and amused by his discovery, but I looked between the faces of my parents…and the tension in my body just grew and grew.
I KNEW that my mother had slaved away to get dinner on the table. I KNEW she’d been expecting him at 7, and that it was now 8.30pm. I KNEW he did this almost every time. I also knew that he’d probably finished work hours ago, and had been drinking in the pub with his colleagues – I could smell alcohol and cigarette smoke on his suit jacket.
But as soon as my mother started her recriminations, my heart just broke in two. I couldn’t stand to see his guilty, sheepish face. I didn’t want to listen to the gradual crescendo of her voice, or the naked desperation revealed behind the shrewish words.
“You made your own 5 year old daughter wait for nearly two hours for her dinner because she wanted to eat with you!” my mother cried, the air between them spiky with unhappiness.
At this, I remember bursting into tears and jumping into my dad’s arms, repeating over and over, “But it’s ok Daddy, I don’t mind! I don’t mind.”
I even remember seeing the shocked, betrayed expression on my mother’s face… and thinking with a cold, little adult’s voice, “But he needs me more than she does.”
An intolerable situation for a child to be in really. And with hindsight, not so surprising that I developed into a woman who used to lose the plot if Hubby ever came home late – even if it was only a few minutes past the expected time. It was one of my ‘flashpoints’. I would fly off the handle, without any real idea why I was overreacting so badly.
It takes A LOT of mindfulness to stay in the moment – to NOT bring all your sh*t with you to the table – to treat people as themselves, not ghosts of people from your past.
Whenever I turned into the Ice Queen because Hubby was 15 minutes late getting home, all he could see was an unreasonably sulky response to a pretty mild misdemeanour. What he couldn’t hear was the 5 year old child inside me, crying, “But I married you because you’re RELIABLE! I married you because you don’t drink and prioritise the wrong things. I married YOU, and I need you to be that safe, conscientious person so that I never have to feel abandoned and insignificant again.”
I don’t believe that there’s a single person alive who doesn’t see the world through the filter of their history, but I DO believe that we can be helped. Knowing the source of our pain, understanding the deeply buried motivations behind our actions, and acknowledging and validating our responses… these are the first few steps to being able to let go of the past, enabling a change in our behaviour.
It’s not about blame. I’m not looking for a patsy upon whom I can pin my bitterness or moan, “Look what you did to meeeeee!” As a ‘grown up’, I hope I can at least begin to take responsibility for my own actions and words, and bring a more grounded personality to my interactions with my loved ones.
One day, I may even be able to say these words during an argument:
“It’s not you. It’s me.”
Sorry for the long silence. I’m not doing so well at writing every day, am I?! My excuse this time? We’ve just had our annual ‘Crazy Birthday Bonanza’, where three members of the family have their birthdays within the space of 9 days. And yes, that DOES mean that three quarters of this family are food-guzzling, earthy, moody Taureans, with severe territorial issues.
This also usually means that I put on about a stone of pure cake-weight in May, but given that I’m now hurtling towards my mid-forties, I thought it would be sensible to make only ONE cake to celebrate all three birthdays this year.
However, that doesn’t mean I was any more organised than usual, so the evening before my daughter’s Harry Potter themed party found me sitting in Lidl’s car park, as I scouted for last minute supplies.
As it was relatively late, the car park was only 30% full, and I swung into a space, with spaces on either side of me. Annoyingly, within seconds, despite 70% of a car park to choose from, someone pulled in to the space to my left… and then one of those ridiculously and pointlessly enormous 4x4s tried to pull into the space on my right. The hapless woman driving was so close to my car that she set off all my parking sensors. She sat there, her car at a weird spatially-challenged angle, switched off her engine in a self-satisfied manner, as I wondered how on earth I was even going to exit my car. And then she took a good look at me.
Suddenly, she turned her engine back on and roared off, parking on the other side of the car park.
As I pondered this, it occurred to me with a great deal of amusement, that she had caught sight of my hair! From the left, I look pretty demure. From the right, I apparently look like someone you wouldn’t want to park next to, especially with children in the back.
This past month has been an interesting social experiment. For the first time in my life, people notice my hair before they notice my nationality.
Maybe it was naïve of me to think that I could change my appearance drastically without consequences, but I’d do it again. In fact, it has taught me something very important.
It has taught me that what other people think of me is completely immaterial. It changes nothing about the person I am.
About a week after my haircut, when the shaved patterns on my head were still very conspicuous, I arranged to take my kids and meet a friend and her kids at a National Trust house.
Now, I have been a National Trust member for nearly 15 years. I love old houses and architecture; I love historical artefacts and the stories behind them; I love the beautiful landscaped gardens; and I love taking my children to soak up the atmosphere and knowledge available in these well-preserved bubbles of British history.
In those 15 years, I cannot tell you how many times I have been approached by middle-aged-to-elderly people who want to compliment me on my children’s beautiful manners, or express their approval that my toddlers drank from a proper glass rather than a sippy cup, or exclaim over my son’s ‘cleverness’ in being able to recite all the kings and queens from William the Conqueror up to the present day.
In their eyes, I could always read the same story – “What a lovely, middle-class family! Not British perhaps, but Chinese/Japanese people work so hard, and really value education…”
However, this recent visit had a slightly different flavour to it.
First of all, when I showed my house ticket to the elderly volunteer at the desk, she actually took a step back from me. She peered at the ticket warily, and then back at my face, as if doubting my motives.
Then, instead of being constantly surrounded by people – it’s a familiar moan of mine that no one is interested in a picture/statue/cabinet until I’m looking at it – there was a respectful distance around me, and mothers kept their children close. Lovely.
I wandered into the music room and inspected the Broadwood piano in the corner. Many years ago, I did my degree dissertation on pianos, and though the dissertation itself wasn’t very good, I’m still interested to see if I can date a strange piano to within 3 decades of its manufacture.
I became aware of an old gentleman staring at me hard, as if expecting delinquent behaviour. Maybe I was about to scratch the mellowed varnish, or eat a Nature Valley bar over the open lid, or even – oh horror – play chopsticks raucously at triple forte.
I noticed a sign on the piano that said, “IF you can play the piano, you may try me. But please, not for very long.”
Inwardly, I chuckled. What a very ‘National Trust’ sign.
The old man was still standing there, frowning at me.
In a moment of defiance, I sat down at the piano and played the first page of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata – 2nd movement.
I was aware of the old man visibly starting, and he hurriedly exited the room - no doubt perturbed to hear Beethoven being played by someone who looked more likely to bite the head off a live chicken.
In summary, people still look at me and put me in a box – a box constructed of their own prejudices and opinions – but the difference now is that I have stopped putting MYSELF in a box of my own making. I have absolutely no problem with the strange contradictory effect of my clothes, my appearance, my accent, my skills, my personality – it may be a confusing and eccentric jumble, but it is a glorious jumble, and I realise I don’t need to find a category to define me.
I look at my kids and I love how free-spirited they are with their appearance. Admittedly I sometimes wish that my son’s supreme nonchalance didn’t comprise fishing out clothes that are too small for him, although he looks cute in a ‘homeless waif’ kinda way. Admittedly, my daughter’s sartorial flamboyance is occasionally utterly inappropriate (woolly jumper, polar bear gloves, stripy socks, ballet tutu, and flip flops, anyone?) but I wouldn’t change her for the world.
Hopefully my children have realised, much sooner than I ever did, that other people’s opinions cannot take anything away from you – not without your permission – and that conforming to a nebulous standard dictated by a murky, hypocritical society only robs you of your individuality.
I must remember that when my daughter comes to ask me if she can have every extremity pierced, and a tattoo of a spider placed in the centre of her face… #doublestandards #mumrules
I realise I’ve been away slightly longer than I said, but life has been full to the brim.
By that, I mean I went to Belgium for a long weekend, supporting my Hubby and his amazing band at the prestigious European Championships. And by ‘support’, I mean I walked around on the beach, ate Croque Monsieur and waffles, and drank too much at the after party and had to be guided back to my room by kindly members of the aforementioned band.
Never try to outdrink a Welsh band… especially if you’re a small Japanese woman.
Our method of travel, both there and back, involved several hours of coach journey, where I had time to sit and think about the last few months; about the peaks and troughs, and my general personal development – which includes a surprising turnaround in the way I view certain parts of my own body.
Now this might not seem particularly dignified or appropriate subject matter for a blog about Japan and parenting (although the longer I do this, the more I realise I don’t really know WHAT my blog is about…) BUT I need to talk about my backside.
I am NOT the ‘correct’ shape for a Japanese woman. Whenever I’m in Japan, I notice that the women seem, not just several kilos lighter than me, but also more delicately boned, with narrow hips and shoulders… and above all, with small bottoms. Now, I don’t know what happened to my genes, but I certainly can’t answer to the above description. Very likely, a western diet (and barbell squats) have encouraged growth in that particular area.
As a kid, I was thin and brown and bony – unremarkably shaped in every way. So it was quite the shock when at 10 years old, I suddenly developed (before the other girls) child-bearing hips and a 36B size bust. Not only did this result in my mother coercing me to wear her psychedelic tailor-made outfits from the swinging sixties because I was actually able to fit in them, but it caused my already sensitive personality to withdraw, turtle-like, into my shell.
My ballet career was destroyed in an instant – one week I was a moderately successful little dancer, with a good memory for steps and a natural ability to coordinate movement to music. The next week, I was crawling with embarrassment in the shiny pink leotard which cruelly emphasised the dramatically changing shape of my body. A body more suited to burlesque than ballet.
I suppose adolescence is an uncomfortable, painful experience for everyone. I just remember feeling discontented with the way I was turning out. Maybe this is common for people who are displaced from their natural countries of origin, but I constantly wished I looked different.
I didn’t like black, straight hair – it was boring. I didn’t want brown eyes – I wanted limpid, expressive blue eyes. I didn’t want to be short-limbed – I wanted legs up to my ears, and willowy graceful arms. And I certainly didn’t want, at 5 ft 2, to have a butt almost the same width as I was tall. It was the eighties – the narrow hipped, flat-bottomed look was in vogue.
Being unhappy with my appearance was a daily struggle. In fact, it was an odd, almost schizophrenic experience; on the one hand, I would look in the mirror and my first instinctual response would be satisfaction, but then a spiteful inner voice would draw attention to all the things that hopelessly prevented me from blending in with the crowd.
I did some ridiculous things, in my youth, to convince myself that I was like everyone else – things that ironically made me even more conspicuous.
For example, I’d ALWAYS dreamed of having curly hair, but Japanese hair is rarely naturally curly. When I was 16, earning some money of my own from teaching piano to a steady stream of littlies on a Wednesday evening, I finally had the funds and the freedom to book a slot at my local hairdressers. I was given a ghastly bubble perm that made me look like a labradoodle, for the princely sum of £40… and I LOVED it! Somehow, I convinced myself that I now looked like everyone else.
Anyway, I’m done with all that now. I have accepted that I only look like myself, and I’m more than fine with that.
Over the years, I have observed the whimsical and fickle nature of fashion. It was bemusing to find people started dyeing their hair black, and bemoaning their bad luck in having blond, curly hair; bemusing to discover that an appliance called ‘hair straighteners’ existed, because why would anyone want straight hair?? And most bemusing of all to find out that people actually WANTED bigger bums – that there were ‘butt building’ exercise routines, plastic surgery procedures for increasing butt size, and pioneering in Japan, special pants for sale with false buttocks to create a curvy silhouette under one's clothes. Ha! What?!
So, without any rhyme or reason, I find that the physical traits I once hated so much are now attributes?
It’s immaterial anyway. I have finally, finally (*weeps at how bloody long it’s taken) learned to take what I am, and make it work for me...
Hair straight and black? Undercut it. The darkness of my hair highlights the contrasts in the shaved patterns.
Limbs short? Lift weights. Deadlifts are a doddle – I’m already so close to the floor. Lol
Uncharacteristically large-ish bust for my nationality? Hm…. Actually, I’ve never met anyone who saw that as a problem.
Big ass? Forget ballet - learn to dance Kizomba – it’s definitely an asset to have a big bottom, as you’ll see from the video below.
My point? Life is too short to wish we were different. Embrace the individuality. Be proud of all the things that make you YOU. Make the decision to commit to loving yourself – because until you’ve done that, all your other relationships are just built on shifting sand.
It’s ‘Back to School’ Eve, and I’m waiting for the terror to set in.
Usually it does. For many years, my school holidays have consisted of several lovely days (although the BEST day is the FIRST one), followed by gradually escalating days of depression and woe, culminating in one last, mournful, ‘execution-eve’ Sunday.
But something has changed. I now have children of my own. And, as a teacher, although term time means I have to go back to school, it ALSO means my children have to go back to school.
I used to allow work to hang over me like Edgar Allan Poe’s lethal pendulum, but I made a liberating decision at the beginning of the holidays to spend some quality time with my family. That DOESN’T mean going to museums and picnics, with my own personal thunder cloud poised above my head. It means putting school and work in a box, locking it in a dark room, and leaving it there until I’m ready to deal with it.
Surprisingly, it worked rather well.
We did some lovely things – we sunbathed, went for long walks on a grassy common, had ice-cream, went to the cinema, received dear friends to stay, had a huge Easter lunch with family, ate out at pubs, visited friends who lived in a beautiful house right by the sea, went for long walks on the beach, jammed with friends, and made origami hats to celebrate Children’s Day which is fast approaching.
I also managed to go ‘OUT’ out, dance, and drink myself to illness with a pathetically small amount of alcohol. Not my finest hour, but interesting, in the way all new experiences are interesting! (Did I mention that Japanese people don’t deal with alcohol too well?)
With my son starting his last term in Y7 and my daughter fast approaching the end of primary school, I am aware of time speeding by with astonishing ease. It won’t be long before my children no longer want to spend much time with me during school holidays, and only a skip and a jump until they are exploring the world on their own. I don’t want to sit here feeling dazed and cheated, wondering why I didn’t spend more time with them when I had the chance.
So. That’s my excuse for postponing my work.
I’d be lying, however, if I said I wasn’t a teeny bit relieved to be going back to the routine. I like routines. I might push the boat out, and even suggest that term time is restful compared to holidays… My ridiculous need for control is thwarted when we lurch from day to day, blissfully unaware of the date or time, eating weird concoctions from the fridge, or calorific platefuls in restaurants and pubs.
I have done SO LITTLE exercise. The gibbering, rabbit-like fusspot that lives inside my head keeps trying to pop up, bemoaning the tightness of my jeans, drivelling about the muscle mass I must be losing, blubbering about the inefficiency of paying for gym membership and using it only twice this month. However, I’ve been getting quite adept at bopping that irritating creature on the head every time it starts yammering. I know the jeans-tightness is temporary. I’m not going to waste precious energy worrying about it.
The lunches are made, the uniforms are washed, the bags are packed.
Time to open that box, I reckon.
The other day, I saw a picture of a woman with a great hairstyle.
I had one of those visceral reactions I often get when I shop for clothes or shoes, and see something that I love – an instinctive gut feeling of approval and certainty.
I would ROCK a hairstyle like that! And it would reflect my character so much more accurately than the bland, mumsy, grown-out, daily ‘lack of effort’ that was my current hair.
But did I dare?
It would require a huge leap of faith – of shaved sides and back, of artistic patterns swirled in with clippers. It would be asymmetrical, anti-establishment, edgy… basically everything I’ve never been.
Being Japanese, obviously my hair is black. A deep, unrelenting, crow feather black. It’s also very straight. Straight and black. There’s almost nothing interesting I can do with it, apart from plait it, or put it in bunches, or have it lolling on my shoulders like tired lengths of string.
When I was much younger, I did have it cut very short (Hubby liked it that way), but Japanese hair is extremely unforgiving to an inexperienced stylist. After a horrendous experience where a young hairdresser gave me a haircut that left me looking like an electrocuted sea urchin with a bowl cut, and she had stormed out shouting, “I don’t cut Chinese ‘air!” I decided to let my hair grow out. It seemed safer that way.
I sported a bob for a few years. I went to Chinatown in London specially to get my hair cut by a nice Chinese lady, who was obviously used to the challenging nature of black, East Asian hair. This met with approval from family members because, apparently, I was the spitting image of my grandmother. However, when I look at old photos, I think that a bob, paired with my (then) round face, made me look childlike and simple.
Then, of course, I had children.
No one warned me that having children messed with your hair. I had lusciously thick locks while I was pregnant, but several months after giving birth, I was horrified to find my hair coming out in handfuls every time I washed it. Although some of it grew back in annoying baby-hair wisps on my forehead, I never regained the hair I had BC.
I don’t DO enhancement. I am so incredibly lazy that I hardly wear makeup, and I’m lucky if I remember to brush my hair in the morning before whipping it into a messy bun on top of my head. I just can’t be arsed with hair products, blow-drying, straightening, curling, spraying and primping – it bores me to death. AND I never look better for it anyway.
Just as well really. Once you’ve got kids, the amount of time (and money) you have to spend on yourself is absolutely minimal. There are so many other things that seem more important.
I think I’ve spent a good decade looking an absolute mess – wearing old, ill-fitting clothes, and going to public places with a scary, bare-naked face. However, my children are 12 and 9 now… and I’ve started taking a little more interest in myself.
I’m beginning to understand that denying myself attention, and belittling my importance is not helping anyone at all. My children need to understand that I am an individual with my own skills, personality and desires. It’s vital for their empathetic development that they see me, not just as ‘Mum’, but as a PERSON – a person with history, with talents, with faults, with opinions.
Especially as they grow into adolescence, really SEEING us as people, as well as parents, will help to smooth the bumps and dips in our communication.
Since I started writing this blog, I have a much better idea of who I am. And I LOVE the new sense of stability and confidence it brings.
I already knew that I was going to get this haircut. Why not?
I have a great shaped head (apart from the weird hollow at the top – which my family tease me is deep enough to hold water if I’m out in the rain), and nothing to lose. So what if people think it’s not ‘me’? I can tell them that the hairstyles in the previous 42 years of my life were not ‘me’ – and I should know. My image of myself was just a projection of how I THOUGHT I should look.
Anyway… I’ve gone and done it now. And I love it. A few people have exclaimed, “How BRAVE you are!” – but I didn’t need to be brave.
I just needed to be me. That me-ness needed an outlet, and so here it is. On my head.
My kids were not fazed by my new look. In fact, when my mother-in-law asked them what it was like to have a ‘cool’ mum, my daughter immediately replied, “She was cool before her haircut.”
FINALLY, after what has seemed like a very long term indeed, school has broken up for Easter holidays.
I am really looking forward to a couple of days without structure – where we don’t have to be someplace at a certain time. No doubt, after a week, I’ll be longing for the routine again because I’m contrary like that, but tonight the two weeks ahead stretch out invitingly.
I may even take some time off writing my blog. I’m sure people will be too busy going on holiday or visiting friends to read it anyway.
By the way, if anyone wants to tell me that teachers get too much holiday, or similar sentiments, please DO make your views clear to me – because that is one battle I am ALWAYS prepared to fight!
I know I shouldn’t let it bother me, but I read some stupid comments on Facebook last night, posted by a pedantic ignoramus, baldly stating that “teachers get way too much holiday.”
I always think it’s interesting how the sectors with the most demanding, responsible jobs receive the most criticism, and are subject to careless judgements by people who know NOTHING about the challenges of the job.
Every teacher and teaching assistant I know works incredibly hard. I think back over the years I have been in this profession, and I honestly can’t name a single colleague who didn’t work hard. In those years, I have seen the workload and demand on teachers grow to monstrous proportions – it is a never-ending job.
There will never be a minute when you suddenly think, “Oh. I’ve done absolutely EVERYTHING I can possibly do. I’ve completed every form, marked every book, planned every lesson, organised every trip, completed every target on my professional development plan, created every resource I will ever need, written every report, moderated all my class’s work in every subject… I might as well have a glass of wine.”
That’s not to say teachers don’t drink wine unless their job is complete, but you see my point. It’s just a demoralising situation when your constant battle to keep your head above water is a losing one.
When I was an NQT (newly qualified teacher), I arrived at school at 8am, used break and lunch times to work through my marking, and usually didn’t leave till 5 or 6pm. Then, back in my flat, I’d spend the rest of the evening planning my lessons for the next day, making resources for it (no internet resources then…), before falling into bed at gone midnight. And repeat. And repeat.
During that year, I remember visiting a colleague’s house straight from school. We picked up her two children from the child minder on the way home. They were cute as buttons and very talkative, but I was almost horror-struck to observe my friend’s routine when she got home. She ushered her kids through the front door, supervised their hand-washing, rushed straight into the kitchen to prepare them a meal…all accompanied by their incessant questions and demands for her attention.
I remember thinking, “There is NO WAY I’d ever manage to teach AND have kids.” It was hard enough keeping on top of my work when I was free and single. Not to mention the fact that I couldn’t imagine wanting to see another child once I’d left the workplace – even if they were my own!
Unlike many other professions, being a teacher DEFINES you. It’s not a job where you can turn up every day and go through the motions. Impossible. Each day is an unpredictable brewing pot, filled with surprises, adrenalin, thinking on your feet, and requires open access to every emotion and human sensitivity. Because we aren’t dealing with paper and figures here. Our raw materials aren’t planks, steel girders and plasterboard.
We are dealing with real children – each one someone’s little person; each one a member of a family; each one with their own strengths and insecurities. Each one is going through a process – their own personal experience of the world. Those experiences can range from positive to utterly horrific; supportive to heart-wrenchingly sad; and we teachers have to create an environment where every single one of those children feels safe and able to learn, regardless of their family history, ethnic background and academic ability.
It’s not for the fainthearted, and there are times when it can turn life inside-out and upside-down, but we do it because it’s our calling. We do it because it can also be the most rewarding job in the world. In any society, nurturing and educating the minds of the next generation is surely one of the most important. Important, but draining. Draining because each teacher draws on their own personal store of raw energy, empathy and passion in order to do the job well, and give those children the understanding they need.
So every teacher needs to recharge occasionally – especially after a long term like the one we’ve just had – without hearing snide remarks about our general laziness and over-indulgent holiday allowance.
Making negative presumptions that belittle the work that teachers do is totally unnecessary and a waste of breath. By all means, if those detractors have the energy spare to campaign for changes to a system that ill supports our teaching professionals, then they should apply themselves to that.
We don’t decide how much holiday we get. And anyway, if any teacher spends the next two weeks without doing a jot of school work, then I’m a monkey’s uncle.
Going to take a WELL-EARNED break for a bit. See you in a couple of weeks (unless I get bitten by the urge to say something before then)!
When my children were babies, I was so absorbed in their daily lives, that I couldn’t imagine them being any different age.
Memorably, when Son was about 6 months old, a zoo we used to visit almost every week announced that they were going to open a sister attraction in 2010. I quickly did the maths and marvelled – in 2010 my son would be 6 years old. SIX!
I looked at his chubby limbs, squashy adorable face, at the cute vests hanging on the washing line, and I simply couldn’t picture such a time ever arriving. What would he look like when he was 6 years old? How would that round face with the rosy cheeks and toothless grin have changed?
Nope. Impossible to envision.
The funny thing is, my son has hardly changed since he was a baby. Even at 12, you’d instantly recognise his face in baby photos – much to his chagrin… though he does now have teeth. Whereas my daughter’s face seems to change every couple of weeks. If I see pictures of her from Christmas, she looks so much younger, even though it was only 4 months ago. Sometimes, she turns her head, I catch a glimpse of her profile, and she looks so grown up that I catch my breath.
It’s terrifying, sobering but also magnificent.
Dealing with babies is hard. Absolutely no question about it. It’s like being plunged into a foggy chaotic maze – you have to grope your way out of the maze with your eyes closed, hefting 16 bags of awkwardly shaped bundles, accompanied by the constant sound of screaming. Oh, and there’s a lion chasing you. In a tornado.
Even so, I’m starting to sense that the hardest part of parenthood is yet to come… but stealthily approaching.
This bit is different. After spending a decade holding my little ones close, doing everything for them, helping them succeed and keeping them safe inside the circle of my arms, I think I’m going to turn everything on its head.
The next bit is about letting them go, giving them freedom and trust, making them do things independently, and watching from a distance as they fail. And I sense that I will find that excruciatingly difficult.
As a parent, watching your children fail will be one of the hardest things to witness. And yet, without learning HOW to fail, how will our children be equipped to deal with real life? How will they learn to pick themselves up, to find the positive in a disappointing situation, and above all… to keep trying?
In the same way that mother birds will not help their chicks as they hatch - for the chicks who haven’t needed to push and struggle through their shells to freedom will never be robust enough to survive – I will need to take a step back, even when my children fall from their heavily organised paths.
This is probably harder for some parents than others. I am definitely NOT a ‘tiger mom’, despite my genetic predisposition to ‘tiger’ characteristics. I have always tried to achieve a balance between giving my children guidance and the benefit of my experience, and encouraging their ownership and self-motivation regarding whatever activity they are involved in.
However, I AM controlling in my own way. You only have to look at my clenched fists while the kids decorate the Christmas tree to know that. I have steered them, and made decisions for them, and rescued them far too often for their own good.
One time I stood my ground, and I’m pleased now that I did.
I started teaching my son to play the piano a few years back. It seemed like the perfect thing to do – after all, he was musical, we had a piano, and I was a piano teacher. Ideal!
Generally my son and I have a great relationship – we are cut from the same cloth, enjoy the same things, and have a similar sense of humour. We can sit together in companionable silence for hours, reading a book, or work contentedly side by side on a lego project.
However, the instant he’d sit down on that piano stool, and I tried to put on my teacher’s hat, everything went t*ts up.
He would get frustrated and impatient with his mistakes. I would lose my cool the 32nd time I had to remind him how to finger a D major scale. His face would close up and a mutinous frown would cloud his brow whenever I suggested an improvement he could make. I would hear my voice turning shrewish and shrill when he crashed his fists down on his legs after making the same mistake for the umpteenth time.
He turned into a sulky, unreasonable, unrecognisable boy.
I turned into a tiger mom. Or is it a helicopter mom? Some such mom, anyway. An annoying one.
I threatened to stop teaching him. He accepted…then changed his mind, obviously conflicted inside.
It puzzled me, this transformation. Why was he so reluctant to do something that I was SO SURE he would enjoy?
I thought about it for a long, long time. Eventually I realised that playing the piano was the FIRST thing that he had tried to do which wasn’t instantly successful. Unlike all his other endeavours, playing the piano was going to require an unprecedented level of commitment. He would have to practise every day to strengthen his finger muscles – there was no other way; there are no short cuts to learning an instrument.
Understanding this helped me to deal with the problem. I explained my revelation to him, and I told him that it was absolutely imperative that he came up against these brick walls early in life. I reasoned that most children experienced them at a much younger age, because most children found every developmental stage challenging – eating, dressing, speaking, reading, writing, drawing, using scissors – and were therefore better equipped than he was at dealing with failure.
As always, when faced with logic and a sensible examination of the circumstances, he accepted the situation and agreed to keep trying. He moved through a couple of grades, passing with flying colours, and can now read music fluently – a skill that has unlocked all sorts of opportunities for him.
Failing is such a contentious issue for people with high expectations and ambitions. It is unbelievably terrifying for some, because it is UNKNOWN, and of course, fear of the unknown is paralysing and pervasive.
I spent most of my life scared of failing. Getting 99% in a test felt close to failure, because I could only see the 1% that I hadn’t managed to achieve. It changed my behaviour – made me cautious, anxious, stopped me from taking the risks that I needed to progress further.
It was only recently that I realised this wary attitude was hindering me from reaching my true potential… and was therefore causing me to fail EVERY DAY. That realisation was an epiphany. It suddenly freed up my thinking, allowed all the tension I’d been holding for decades to dissipate. I had nothing to lose if I’d already been failing myself.
So I started to try.
I would dearly love my children to reach this understanding much earlier in their lives – not in their forties, like me. If that means I have to chain my hands to my side when I want to help them, then that’s what it will take.
Learning to fail might possibly be one of the most useful and enlightening skills they will ever learn.