There is someone else living in our old apartment and it feels damn weird.
Yesterday, I was wandering around one of the large secondhand stores with Mr K when I saw a heavily pregnant woman buying a bunch of baby toys and was consequently hit by a wave of nostalgia.She could have been me nine months ago, albeit a small Japanese version, preparing anxiously for a baby that could arrive at any minute.
Sometimes, I still feel disbelief that this is where I am in my life, a nanosecond of shock as I remember that yes, I actually have a baby. A baby that is hurtling towards being eight months old, no less, officially an “older” baby. It is downright strange to visit baby goods stores and see the little newborn clothes and be reminded, with a start, that this is actually behind us.
We’re here and, somehow, incredibly, we’re keeping on going.
I am a sucker for sales staff, overinclined to feel sorry for them for having a job I perceive as pretty unpleasant, and that’s probably how I came to get ripped by my local petrol station.
Tuesday turned out to be one of the rare occasions when I needed to get petrol for the car (R tends to think we’re running dangerously low well before I do, and he also is more likely to drive the car for fun, and hence he usually gets it). This time, though, we were in agreement about the car needing fuel and I was driving it, so away Mr K and I went.
We pulled up at our local petrol station, and I set about filling the car. It’s self-serve and that means that no interaction with humans is necessary at all around here. You can conduct the whole matter with machines – you select your fuel type and put in the amount of money you think you’ll need into the machine attached to the fuel dispenser*, and away you go. If you need change, you can take the receipt that prints out and scan it in another machine to get your coinage. Even if it sounds a bit convoluted here, it’s actually simple enough on the ground and would be very easy indeed if you happen to be fluent or close to it in Japanese; there’s no foreign language option to speak of, it’s entirely in kanji, the most complicated lettering system, and the voiceover uses formal “I bow down to you, customer” Japanese. All of these add elements of difficulty. Still, it’s simple enough once you get the hang of it.
The issue is that it leaves the sales staff at the petrol station with very little that strictly needs doing, and thus they set about finding ways to
entertain themselves provide extra assistance to customers.
So, Mr. K was sitting in the back of the car and I was filling up the car, feeling quite pleased with myself for navigating the touch screen, when I was approached by a sales assistant offering to check the pressure in the tyres for free. They’ve done similar things in the past when R was filling up the car so I shrugged and said sure, why not.
Somehow, the free air pressure check ended up including a free check under the bonnet to test the oil, and suddenly there were three sales staff, all men, and all speaking rapid Japanese and brandishing a piece of paper illustrating that there was something wrong with the oil. They would change it, and we really had better do this urgently. I could wait in the “shop” (more of a waiting area with vending machines and a desk for the staff) with the baby.
I let myself be herded along and sat around inside with Mr K for 20 minutes before I mentally called this for the bullshit it was, politely wrapped things up, parted with 1900 yen (a bit under US$20) for an oil change of questionable necessity, and for reasons unknown got a free bottle of Febreeze.
R was irate when he found out about the whole thing, though more with the petrol station than me – he felt that them badgering me, a foreigner with a baby in tow, was the epitome of being preyed upon. He also discovered, upon researching it further, that this particular company is especially bad at feigning free services as an excuse to get under the bonnet, do unnecessary checks/changes, and possibly actually creating problems.
I shouldn’t have gone along with it. I knew it as I drove away, kicking myself, and wondering why the hell I had let myself get sucked into it. It’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened, and while I want it to be the last, I doubt it will be.
So what’s going on in my head?
Part of it is just wanting to play along and not be difficult. Another part of it is feeling that I should know what they’re talking about, whether it be the Japanese being used or just having a better knowledge of how cars work generally, and not wanting to seem too ignorant. I can see that both of these things are things I need to work on, because both of them can lead me to being exploited.
A lot of my problem, though, is just me feeling like I ought to take pity on the sales staff. This has happened so many times. I am fully aware, after all, that trying to sell people crap they don’t want and making a pittance for it is not how most people want to spend their time, ever. The thing is, the more I think about my pity for the sales staff, the more I think what condescending bullshit this actually is, something something privilege and I more than likely actually need to get over myself. I mean, really? The poor serfs are trying to sell me something, let me show them some pity and buy it, brighten their day and their miserable lives with my presence and my money.
Come on. There’s probably some customer profile somewhere that teaches people exactly how to deal with me. Female, 30s, eager to please and be seen as nice, ignorant, looks down on you. Feign gratitude, overwhelm her with information she doesn’t need, look a little sorry for yourself.
There are a few things I need to remember here. One, I don’t have as much money and definitely not as much time as I or they would like. Two, they’re probably not that deserving of my pity – they’re probably not going to stay in that job and if they do, there might some perk to it that I’ve missed and thus they automatically don’t need as much sympathy.
And three, avoid that petrol station henceforth.
Mr. K likes to nap on me, head in the crock of my arm and body sprawled across my lap. He sleeps well enough on his futon at night but during the day, ideally (for him), I get to play at being his futon.
Often, I get tired of this, itching to have my hands free and wishing I had at least worked harder to use a baby carrier. In the mornings in particular, at least when we’re here together, I’ll work to get him settled in his futon instead, where he should be. In the late afternoons, though, I lose the willpower for that fight and we end up just sitting here together for as long as we can. At those times, he is content. I am what he wants, what he needs. I am enough.
Sometimes, instead of feeling resigned, I remember how this cannot last. Seven long months have somehow slipped by already, and soon he will need so much more. It won’t be long at all, really, before I’m no longer enough . I have this fear of an unspecified time in the future where, surely, he’ll realize just how useless I am, and he’ll wish I was something else. Less tall, less obstinately foreign, more inclined to blend in. Someone who just inherently knows all the kanji and the unspoken social norms, someone like the other mothers, someone who actually cares about things like character bentos and properly sewing on nametags rather than someone whose interest in these things only extends to an uneasy awareness of how not interested I am.
But none of that is happening yet. I can hope it might never be, but eh… for now, I’ll sit here and let him sleep on me for as long as he wants and enjoy being enough for him for as long as I can.
Yesterday was Father’s Day here in Japan. For the most part, it actually went reasonably well.
I had a couple of mercies, for want of a better term, with this Father’s Day stuff. One is the calendar. In Australia, Father’s Day isn’t until September, and thus I’ve never really celebrated this one before. I’ve only vaguely noted it, even, as simply an opportunity to buy a Father’s Day card for the Australian version and observed what sorts of gift boxes were available with idle curiousity (lots of beer, meat and golf). Seeing the celebrations of fathers and fatherly matters has been saddening, but it doesn’t quite have the meaning attached that it might if this were actually the day I had celebrated with Dad.
The other mercy was that I’m kind of sick. It’s a cold exacerbated by tiredness, so it’s nothing to really worry about, but it’s meant that I’ve been functioning by focusing on the basics and not thinking too much.
So, the focus was on R. I took Mr. K out on Saturday and organised gifts (a box of cakes he likes and a new clip to fix his beloved pouch – yes, rather low-key, but that’s how we did Mother’s Day too), I ensured we had a card, and I stressed that R could do what he wanted.
Mostly, that meant sleep… because, alas, R is sick too. Still, we went out to breakfast with one of R’s old coworkers. It wasn’t a Father’s Day thing; it was just something they wanted to do. There’s a family restaurant not far from here that does breakfast buffets and it’s actually pretty great. We all wandered in, and I was quite looking forward to it.
Except there was R’s old friend, the Chimp, and that’s when I was reminded this day isn’t what I would like to be anymore.
The Chimp was there with most of his family. I say most because there was a new, permanent absence. His own father passed away two weeks ago. A heart attack, while he was at a bar somewhere – in other words, the same way as my father, though at least Dad went in his sleep.
So there we were, newly inducted members to a club nobody especially wants to join trying to get through Father’s Day by not thinking about it too hard. Normally when we encounter the Chimp, some ridiculous happening ensues, because the man is strange and hyper (“Is he on something?” I’ve found myself asking R incredulously more than once. “Like, drugs?”). Indeed, I got paraded before the entire family, which was weird and awkward while I was trying to juggle a breakfast tray, but not unexpected – I am the token foreigner amongst R’s circles of friends.
Otherwise, it was all very subdued and he cornered me when I was heading back to our table.
“I heard about your father.”
“Yes. Yours too… it’s very hard.” (Taihen deshita is the go-to saying for Japanese people to say to someone who has just lost someone, I’ve discovered – taihen translating to something like “it’s very tough” and deshita shoving it into the polite past tense)
And lots of awkward bowing, because even if we didn’t have a language barrier, what else could we even say? I retreated to our corner table and got to sit in silence aside from juggling Mr. K, not expected to try and join in R and his buddy’s conversation, and gradually got on with my day. That seems to be the theme so far to this grief, really – to gradually get on with things except when something unexpected rears up.
I work part-time and this means, with a couple of notable exceptions, that my seven month old is elsewhere while I’m doing so. “Elsewhere” for us means a nice childcare center less than 10 minutes from where his father works. We were lucky to get a place at all, let alone in one that’s vaguely convenient, new and modern, complete with largish, airy rooms, kids grouped by age, outside space, and a carer-to-child ratio of 1:3 for the babies.
For some people, that’s still not cool, though. Childcare at all for a baby is just. not. right. He’s too young! He should be at home with… well, me! Or a family member, at least. Or someone like that, I don’t know, you figure that part out, but still!
What are we thinking?
A simple answer that, actually, childcare seems to suit Mr. K reasonably well and I don’t think it’s so bad for him to be looked after qualified individuals who, so far, seem to be taking exceptionally good care of him when he is with them may be the best solution for my own peace of my mind. It doesn’t really give my life-commentators the explanation they’re seeking, though, and even though they’re not really entitled to such, I still find myself wanting to provide one. A defense, a justification, an explanation, something.
The only socially acceptable answer really seems to be a sudden admission of abject poverty. That raises a whole new problem, though, in that we are suddenly talking about money and that is a bit of a taboo. Do they really want a breakdown of our household income? Or the details of the financial mess caused by my father’s unexpected death (another taboo!) and how I would like to help my mother? Do they want an in-depth discussion about university debt, rent prices, the coat of fresh food? Perhaps I can explain, in depth, what starting unpaid maternity leave early cost, or the expenses that a baby generally accrues.
I’m doing part-time work, so things can’t be too bad. I must only want money, not really need it. Maintaining a certain quality of life, pfft. Perhaps if I cut out some of those expensive extras… my idea of an expensive extra is a 500 coffee set? No, that can’t be it. Those expensive overseas holidays… visits to my family? Huh.
Do I need to I explain that no, my husband doesn’t make enough money to cover this? Shall I explain why it works that way? And that I also prefer him having a job where I actually see him as opposed to a more financially-lucrative job where he’s absent for six days, sometimes 7 days a week? Perhaps I need to stick to more general comments on money? But then, I doubt they really want to hear my extensive and largely negative commentary on the full-time wage, Japan’s “Abenomics” version of neoliberalism, Japanese work culture, gender roles, men generally working themselves into the ground?
Talking about politics and criticising the esteemed Japanese culture, yes. That’s going to go so well, don’t you think?
Should I tell them that I actually enjoy my work and, on the days I don’t, that I still get satisfaction from doing it? That’s just selfish, though, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter how I might feel about work or staying at home, or how well I know my mental state. Nothing is as important as being a mother and being a mother means being there all the time, duh.
If I need help, I could ask my mother… oh, right, Australia. Well, my mother-in-law, surely? She must be so excited about her grandson! Should I then explain how strained that relationship is, the now non-existent support on that front, and how non-interested she is in Mr. K at all, especially compared to her daughter’s baby girl? Hell, perhaps we need to discuss the weirdness of my husband’s family generally, and exactly why my sister-in-law is getting a divorce too.
Or, you know, we could discuss where the fathers fit into all of this and we could branch into my thoughts on your somewhat outdated notions about gender roles to boot. That sounds like a bit of fun too, doesn’t it?
In short, the more I try to think of appropriate responses and explanations, the more I realise that just about every line of conversation these supposedly innocent remarks about childcare could take us on touches on something taboo. All of the explanations that are expected of me lead to topics that have the potential to be scandalous, interesting… and absolutely uncomfortable. It’s generally accepted that these are things people might not want to talk about, and we’re generally not expected to do so.
Since these people are fairly often well-meaning students, my inner troll sometimes sticks its head out and I find myself fighting the urge to tell them that my God, they have shown me the light! I see the rightness of their words! I’ll quit my job right now and hurry home to resume childcare duties at once!
Oh, what? That leaves you without an English teacher? Well then.
Since trolling is definitely out, the only acceptable response to an unsolicited comment on what was not an easy decision about raising my baby is… no response. I am supposed to simply take this throwaway criticism in my stride, maybe act appropriately ashamed and sad to top it off.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I don’t entirely want to do that. What I wish instead is that we could all add another taboo to the list of those I’ve outlined above, that being the offering of unsolicited criticism, however throwaway the comments might be, on people’s parenting decisions.
The simple fact is that, unless the child is obviously being neglected, it’s fair to assume that no small amount of thought went into the decisions about his or her care. It’s also reasonable to assume that the decision isn’t up for review right now and that the parents don’t need to add a little dose of pointless negativity to their days… so try not to offer it.
Last night, I dreamed about an old…friend? No, that doesn’t quite cover it – an ex “it’s complicated” might be better. The Internet was involved, as were unrequited feelings, hurt, confessions of love, a lot of intensity, some very nice writing, and a couple of online games.
I have, admittedly, been thinking about his old blog recently. He was – presumably still is – an extremely good writer, and his posts were both compelling and entertaining, tackling miscellaneous topics. It was the sort of blog I still wish this one was.
Somehow, though, I had managed to think about his blog without thinking all that much about the author, hence the surprise value of seeing him in a dream. I mean, I’ve encountered men with the same name as him without thinking of him. It once seemed impossible that I would ever be without that jarring mental association.
I don’t regret the direction my life took instead – not currently, anyway. Touch wood. I don’t know, 2016 is proving so rough already and there are still six months left, anything could go down yet. But I did get wondering about him, the what ifs of it all, and what he’s doing now.
One thing I do regret is no longer being the person I was when I knew him, or at least the person he believed I was. I was so keen on anthropology and research back then. I doubt he remembers telling me that I should turn my thesis into a book, but I do, and I wish I had taken his advice.
I’ll probably end up Googling him shortly just to satisfy my curiousity and not find much, because that’s how it tends to go with him. The other thing to take away from that random mental occurrence might be the reminder of who I used to be, and who I wanted to become. Who I still want to become.