Mr. K turned two months old yesterday. He spits up more milk than I would have imagined possible, cries and cries and cries when his tummy hurts, and has taken to headbutting me surprisingly painfully when he is being burped. He also loves his mobile and the lion on his pram, stares at the lights, has taken to “talking” at me and smiling toothlessly when he wakes up properly in the morning, and he’s going to be too big for everyone’s much loved Cookie Monster suit soon. I love my time off from parenting but really, I don’t know what I’d do without him anymore.
By the time I got to the shops on December 26th, the Christmas decorations were completely gone and it felt like a mercy.
I’ve been homesick often this year. There are always times that trigger it for me, but this year has been particularly bad for prompting it. There were the friends flitting in from summer last February and the morning sickness in March when the only foods I really wanted were from Australia. There was my uncle’s death in April and the funeral I couldn’t attend, the challenge of moving in May and the alienating prenatal classes in July. There was the partial bedrest in September, where I binge-watched “Offspring” and saw scene after scene featuring the streets of my home city. Then, October gave way and there was the shock of November, of feeling lost and oh so alone as I clutched my newborn and wished desperately that I could be finding my way as a mother in Melbourne instead of realising yet again the impossibility of picking up mine and R’s lives here and putting them down in my homeland instead.
And now, December, and with it has come its own difficulties. December is Christmas and Christmas is huge for my family. Normally, this is when I actually do go home and I have watched the dates tick by, remembering what I might usually be doing. Now I would be flitting off to an Asian city, now I would be landing in Melbourne. It’s Christmas Eve and I would be bored and restless now, and then I would be shaking my head with my family at just how crap Carols by Candlelight has become. Christmas Day itself was a bit of everything. This is when I would be opening presents. The carols would be playing. This is when we’re having Christmas lunch. By now we’ve all retreated to our rooms to rest and it’s all effectively done.
All of that is what I think of when I think of Christmas, and this year I haven’t had it. I did try. I sent some Christmas cards, bought presents, and eventually put up the tree. I even wrote about Christmas in Japan, more than once. The problem is that my baby is only just turning two months old tomorrow and we’re all still adjusting. If November was about learning to cope, December has been about pulling some threads of normalcy out of the chaos and setting about carrying out what is now regular life. While I have wanted badly to get into the festive spirit, actually planning to do so kept sinking beneath the dishes and a mountain of laundry and sleep on what feels like a neverending to-do list.
It’s easier now that we’re on the other side. It’s the 28th now and that means I would normally be focused on getting ready to return to Japan, rushing around organizing whatever it is I need that I won’t have ready access to for another year. On the 30th, I will imagine packing and panicking and crying through all the goodbyes I must clear before I can even get near customs.
Maybe I’ll feel some relief at that point. If there’s an upside to missing out on a trip home this year, it’s not having to go through the dismay of having said trip draw to an end. December will give way to January and then I can focus on next year and the trip that may, can, must happen then instead.
Prior to this year, I have
endured enjoyed precisely two Christmases in Japan. They were enough for me to determine that Japan’s idea of Christmas and my own are quite different.
As a result, my policy in the years prior to this one has been to hightail it home to Australia for Christmas. This year, though, I find myself with a new baby who hit the seven week mark right before I would typically fly out. Fortunately, I figured well in advance that doing a long-haul flight with him in the heart of the holiday season might not be a great idea, both for immunological and child-management reasons. Given I would say I’m still less than confident right now in my ability to manage even a trip to the local shopping centre with him minus back-up (i.e. my partner), this was probably sound reasoning on my part.
And thus, I am spending Christmas 2015 in Japan.
If you just look at the surface of things, you would gather that Japan is pretty enthusiastic about Christmas. In the absence of any other holidays between it and Halloween, decorations appear in early November and the carols start blaring over loudspeakers. Festive merchandise becomes readily available.
When you look a little deeper, though, some differences become quite apparent:
- Christmas Day isn’t a holiday. It’s a regular day, business and school carrying on as usual.
- In fact, Christmas Day itself isn’t even the main event here. The main day for observing Christmas is actually Christmas Eve.
- The meaning is also different. There are absolutely no religious meanings attached to Christmas in Japan. For the general public, there is “Santa-san”, his reindeer and some snowmen-laden winter landscapes.
- Along with the lack of religious associations, there is a lack of association with family, goodwill and being charitable to your fellow humans. Instead, Christmas Eve is considered a day for couples… or, given it’s still a regular day, the night. It’s an evening for dates at fancy restaurants and expensive gifts exchanged between couples, romantic viewings of the Christmas lights. It’s also one of the most difficult nights of the year on which to find a free room at a love hotel. As R once charmingly put it, Christmas Eve is basically a “big sex day.”
- If you are having Christmas dinner – again, probably on Christmas Eve – the food is different. Courtesy of a very successful campaign by KFC some years back that continues to this day, the main Christmas meal is fried chicken.
- This is followed by a dessert of elaborately decorated strawberry shortcake. Not actually being a fan of rich plum puddings and Christmas fruit cakes, this is the one Japanese Christmas tradition I’d happily get behind even in Australia.
In the spirit of fairness, I want to point out that I don’t think this way of celebrating Christmas is wrong. It’s not you, Japan, it’s me. It’s different and Christmas being such an event laden with fond memories and meaning for me, I want to celebrate it in the spirit I always have. It’s also not all bad/weird. I made an effort and wrote this article about the good things about Christmas in Japan here a couple of weeks ago.
I’ve seen it pointed out a few times this year that, actually, the way Christmas and New Year are celebrated in Japan are kind of the reverse of how we celebrate them in Western countries. New Year is the major holiday and a time for family and tradition. Christmas, on the other hand? It’s the party occasion.
Doutor has a selection of special items on their Holiday menu and I ordered two of them today. On the left is their “Roof Chocolate” cake, a sort of houseish-looking chocolate cake dusted with almonds. On the right is their “Cafe Chocolat Frambois”. It’s basically a cafe mocha with a festive topping of cream, strawberry syrup and a dusting of green tea powder. Mine didn’t quite have the crosshatch pattern used in the promotional posters, but it was still nice!
Mr K and I went to meet the mothers of some of my now former students yesterday, and they bought me a box of these okiagari monaka as a congratulatory gift. Each sweet looks like a baby, not just the wrapping but the wafer outer shell as well. Inside is anko, sweet red bean paste.
There still aren’t a lot of representations of interracial couples in the media or advertising, though it does seem to be improving a little. Even so, a lot of groups are still missing from those that do get represented. Outside of Asian countries, Asian men don’t seem to get a lot of air time generally and you especially don’t see them shown with Caucasian women. Even here in Japan, it’s rare to see such a relationship depicted; there are plenty of white men with Japanese women in advertising for things such as wedding venues, but it’s unusual to see it the other way round.
Being a white woman, there are lots of images of women like me depicted in other areas of life and so I don’t feel anywhere near as bothered by it as someone of a race that gets little to no representation at all. Still, knowing that couples and relationships like my own – me, a Causian woman and R being a Japanese man – are quite invisible can be a bit disheartening when I stop to think about it. Representation does matter, even when someone is just trying to sell me stuff. It’s validating. It’s a reminder that you are not invisible.
So, this ad by Cathay Pacific is actually pretty great to me. Not only do we have a Caucasian woman with an Asian man, but we have mixed race children too. I have to confess, Asian/white children have long been a source of interest to me, mostly so I can try to figure out what my own might look like and, these days, how Mr. K might (physically) turn out when he evolves from a grumpy baby. I already felt a lot of love for Cathay Pacific as an airline, having used them several times to journey between Australia and Japan (with a stopover in Hong Kong, always fun), but this makes me like them that bit more.
My sister has a profile picture of her posing dramatically on a pier at a beach. My cousin frequently reverts to a photo taken nearly 10 years ago on her honeymoon where she is standing in the ocean in a flattering swimsuit. Several of my friends on social media have profile pictures not of themselves but of their children. Another cousin doesn’t bother with a photo of himself at all but uses one of his car, his pride and joy.
It’s not news that profile pictures on social media might have some authenticity issues. We’re not necessarily looking to portray our real, mundane selves but some version of them that emphasises a facet of our personalities that we particularly want people to see when they look at us. I’m good-looking. I’m arty. I’m a dreamer. I’m a proud parent. I’m witty and I’m funny. I’m above all this social media crap.
Me? Like here on WordPress at the time I’m writing this, I have a photo of myself that I took nearly 12 months ago, standing in the butterfly garden at Changi Airport in Singapore. I’d flown out of Tokyo two days before, enjoyed a stopover, and was waiting for my flight home to Australia for Christmas.
I chose it for several reasons. It’s a flattering shot and I’m wearing an outfit I especially like. The greenery behind me is lovely. More than that, though, if I am being brutally honest, there were things I wanted that photo to say. I’m pretty. I’m outdoorsy, with enough money to go to new places but not superficial about it. I’m an expat traveller type, enjoying the world and its quirks. I’m happy.
The truth, of course, is a lot more complicated than that, and it was especially so at the time I took the photo. I didn’t have that much money, and that was a source of stress. It was actually my sole trip out of Japan for 2014 and, Singapore being one of the more expensive cities in the world, I’d had to budget things pretty tightly at the expense of my enjoyment of the city. I also was tired and sick, having likely picked up a virus just before I left Japan. It had appeared with vengeance the day before and only a combination of ibuprofen and sheer stubbornness had let me manage to keep trudging around the city.
It wasn’t just ibuprofen I was on, though. By December last year, I was in the thick of fertility treatments and in a less than wonderful place emotionally. I was taking Duphaston, a progesterone pill, twice a day to try and bring on a period. It made me dizzy, not unbearably so but enough to be unpleasant, When Duphaston’s goal was achieved just after Christmas, I would try yet another round of Clomid and the dark places it took me, even though it probably wouldn’t work. A few days before I’d flown out, my gynecologist had me take a fasting blood sugar test. Metformin was on the horizon and as I prowled around Singapore, I was also confronting the possibility of diabetes, if not now then in the not so distant future.
I wasn’t a happy expat traveller type at all but I badly needed to convey that I was when I took that photo, though, at least as much for myself as for anyone else. I was confronting the possibility back then that there never would be a baby, that there would never be anything more than this and I had to somehow make this be enough.I needed to remind myself that I had something, at least.
You don’t see any of the real story when you glance at my profile photo, though, no more than you do with anyone else, and it’s a pity. The story of why we took that photo, why we posted it on our profile, is so much more human and real than that one little image can convey. The storyteller in me loves that so many words are needed to explain something. The rest of me feels a little wistful, thinking of how much can get lost and how easily. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words, but they might not be the words that are intended and they certainly are not necessarily the most important ones.