Categories
Slices from Life

Serve the People

By Danielle Legault Kurihara

My father-in-law’s passing, when I was pregnant with his grandson, served as a sort of personal consecration. The Japanese family entrusted me with tasks and responsibilities from the moment of his death to the moment, three days later, when we picked his bones out of the ashes. All differences of nationality and religion flew out of the window.

Being married to the third son of a Japanese family, you could say I’m very low on the totem pole. When my mother-in-law married the eldest son of this clan in 1947, she had prestige but she lived to serve. She gained some measure of glory by giving birth to all those boys in the tatami room, but she was still the last one to use the bath water after her parents-in-law, her husband and her three young sons had soaked in it. She laughs about it now but when I asked her about Great-Grandma’s antique hand-painted silk kimonos, she said she made a big bonfire in the garden after her death and burned them all.

We got the call in the middle of the night. Otoosan had passed. As soon as my mother-in-law stepped into her husband’s room at the Veterans Hospital, or Veteru as it is called in Japan, she put everybody to work. His body had to be washed and his face shaved. My husband took me to the other side of the curtain and offered a chair. “You don’t have to do this”, he said. I could hear my mother-in-law instructing her sons. They worked in silence. I sat in the dark.

Otoosan, an architect, a father of three sons and a former soldier and prisoner of war, lived the final years of his long life in the Veteran Hospital. I had only met him once before in his home where he was spending the day as an outpatient. This man, whose powerful physique held memories of a four dan black belt judoka, was strapped in a chair, being fed by his wife. My husband said in a loud voice: “Otoosan, this is my wife. She’s Canadian”. He looked up, showed no reaction on seeing my Caucasian face and the family giggled: all in a day’s work. His son, a three dan black belt himself like a chip off the old block, took over feeding his Otoosan spoonfuls of lukewarm miso soup, their knees touching, their eyes meeting.

First Task

For my first task, after the family finished taking care of Otoosan, I was asked to sit at his bedside and wait with him while the family filled out paperwork in the office. Before leaving, my mother-in-law turned to me and said gently, “He should not be alone, you understand”. They left in the wake of two black clad white-gloved funeral employees who had appeared on cue from the shadows. There we were together, and it seemed like a moment to reacquaint myself with Otoosan, now wrapped in a pristine white sheet, only his tranquil face showing. I stared at him for a long time and finally whispered domo. It can mean hello or thank you or a mix of both. I read once that this greeting was used during the Edo Period to express a feeling of confusion or unsureness about the person one was addressing.

Second Task

For my second task, to my great surprise, my mother-in-law asked me to accompany Otoosan in the van transporting him to the family home while the others went to the funeral support company. Why me, the foreign wife married to the third son?  But everybody had a part to play in this family event and at that moment, the responsibility fell to me. I climbed into the white van to do my job.

My father-in-law and I could never have imagined making this trip together. Not in our wildest dreams. Not only were we practically strangers to each other, but we came from vastly different worlds, him an elderly Japanese man and me, a thirty-something pregnant French-Canadian. Together we crisscrossed the empty streets in the cold white van, side-by-side, his body wrapped in a shroud on a futon near me. In winter, three am is a dark and deep hour but I was told Otoosan was still here among us, in the realm between two worlds. He had just begun his last pilgrimage. Knowing this, I somewhat felt less forlorn traveling through the winter night, so far away from my country and my own cultural bearings. But that’s beside the point. I had a responsibility to fulfill.

Third Task

The porch light was on, the house already wrapped in black and white stripped cloth swaying in the dark as Otoosan was carried inside his home through the front door. He was laid to rest on a futon in the tatami room, two decorative lanterns like fancy bookends framing his bed. A black-and-white photo of Otoosan looking strong and serious sat in the middle of an altar among candles, chrysanthemums and fruit. In the pale yellow light of the lanterns, we dressed him in his white pilgrim garb for his 49-day journey to the Pure Land, following a hierarchical order. His wife put a white cap on his head and rice in the small pouch hanging from his neck, his sons smoothed out the white coat folded in reverse, and I slid, as best as I could while kneeling on the tatami, white cloth slippers over his feet. This was my third and last task of the night. The wake would start tomorrow. My husband, looking sad and exhausted, said, “We will sleep here next to him. Go home to get some rest.”

Fourth Task

The next day I stepped over the rows of slippers now crowding the spotless entrance step of the family home like a military parade. My mother-in-law, in her formal black silk kimono stamped with the family crest on the back collar, glided between the tatami room and the adjoining kitchen on her blinding white tabi socks. A diminutive powerhouse, married to an eldest son. I looked down at my rather homely nondescript black maternity dress.

For my fourth task, she directed me to take down from the cupboards the fancy sets of dessert dishes and tea cups, wash them thoroughly, dry them rigorously and set them out on the table. “Don’t break anything!” she chided with a smile in her eyes. I also had to wipe clean the large decades-old bone china serving platters and stack them with oranges, the locally-grown fruit. I took a certain pleasure in displaying them in a Jackson Pollock style. One way or the other, I knew they would be rearranged.

Early evening, relatives and acquaintances arrived in black suits and dresses to whisper condolences to my mother-in-law who bowed deeply to each guest. The mourners filled the tatami room, all sitting seiza before Otoosan. Leaning in, they greeted each other quietly.

Suddenly there was a commotion. The priest strode in like the phantom of the opera, his magnificent black kimono robes and glitteringvestment swooshing around him. We snapped to attention, backs straight, holding our Buddhist rosaries between clasped hands.  He greeted us, kneeled in front of Otoosan and started chanting in a loud sonorous voice. I was sitting on a stool in the back. I could never sit seiza and being pregnant did not help my cause.

It seemed like the chanting lasted forever. Just as I started dozing off in the stuffy incense-filled tatami room, my husband began to heave. I realized with horror that he was trying to suppress what looked like a maniacal laugh. Eyes staring ahead, his mouth half-closed, he repeated several times in a strained voice, “Snoopy, look, Snoopy!”. From the ceiling lamp a small plastic Snoopy wearing a red fireman hat was dangling from a string just above the bald head of an old uncle. My husband left the room to bawl in the bathroom. I sat on my stool thinking about the Japanese character in the movie Snow Falling on Cedars, how his stereotyped stoic face had changed his fate.

Fifth Task

After the service I strolled into the kitchen to get a drink. There stood one of the elder female relatives, erect in her black kimono. She had now officially taken over duties while my mother-in-law was busy chatting with the guests. I had met her only once and this time she looked at me with what seemed like shiny panther eyes, ready to pounce. In a flash I was thrown into the deepest end of the hierarchical senior-junior relationship: Cinderella, the wife of the youngest son. Serve more tea! Boil more water! Offer sweets! Wash these dirty cups! I was learning humility on the spot, my only stunned response being a weak Hai! I began shuffling around in my black stockings, looking busy and alarmed, set on doing my duty.   A Mao slogan popped into my head: Serve the People, for I was living a cultural revolution of my own. I just could not imagine this scenario happening in my country.

The wake lasted two more days. People came and went, and we ate our meals together just two meters away from Otoosan. We re-arranged flowers, sat near him and chatted. He was never alone. Some family members talked to him. On the morning of the fourth day, the family lined up from the house to the hearse. Otoosan exited his home feet last to the mournful sound of the car horn. No birds, no wind.

For the ceremony at the large funeral hall, the priest recited the sutras in front of Otoosan’s photo and a magnificent flower display. So many mourners, in slippers, paid their respect with incense and prayers at Otoosan’s casket. Each person brought incense grains three times to their forehead before finally depositing them in the incense burner. After the eldest son gave the customary speech, we lined up in order of importance to receive condolences. I was last of course but wholeheartedly included. “You must be Yoshiro’s wife,” some of Otoosan’s elderly friends exclaimed, naturally mistaking me for the second son’s spouse, the one working abroad. 

We followed the hearse to the crematorium and, huddled together in front of Otoosan, we said goodbye to his earthly envelope before he was sent off for cremation. In the meantime, we all gratefully sat down to a feast of large bento lunchboxes filled with rice balls, potato salad, fried chicken and pickles. Relatives from far and near sat close to my mother-in-law, some lay back on the tatami, some loosened their ties and belts and others had loud conversations over the long low tables. I sat on a stool devouring my food. Pregnancy made me hungry.

Sixth Task

Finally, we were called in to pick Otoosan’s bones from the ashes and transfer them to an urn. As he handed me a pair of large chopsticks, my husband said, “You don’t have to do this”. But I wanted to do it. By that time, I had had four days to acquaint myself with Otoosan and with death while going about my tasks in the living family home. The family put Otoosan’s bones in his urn in a matter-of-fact way. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

On the 7th day of his passing, a sunny winter day, we stood in front of the imposing family grave while the eldest son placed Otoosan’s urn alongside those of his forefathers, under the heavy slab of rock at the foot of the stone monument. Only first sons and their wives are included. It looks like my husband and I will have to find our own resting place in Japan. 

I think my mother-in-law worries that her eldest son’s eldest son will not be able to carry on the tradition of caring for the family grave. He doesn’t have a son to continue the lineage, only daughters. But then again, my mother-in-law stoically goes with the flow of life and change. I was part of this flow. Twenty-three years after Otoosan passed on, she apologised for imposing on me the task of riding with him from the hospital to the family home. On the contrary, it was an honour.

I fulfilled my role as the third son’s wife the best I could to assist the Japanese family mourn Otoosan. On my next trip to the home country, it wouldn’t kill me to brush leaves or snow off the headstones of my loved ones, bring flowers or have a look at their urns through the glass. I might linger and tell them about me, my son, the Japanese family. I also need to discuss my resting place among them. Who knows, maybe my husband and my son will come from Japan to help me.

Glossary

Sieza – formal Japanese sitting posture (on your knees)

Hai—Yes in Japanese.

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Danielle Legault Kurihara, a Quebecker, lives in Japan. She writes about her expat life and her bicultural son. She writes for him.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Interview

In Conversation with Suzanne Kamata

Suzanne Kamata is different. She is a mother writing for her children, who are uniquely placed in Japan – products of syncretic lore, an American mother and Japanese father. Recepient of a number of prestigious awards, Kamata represents the best in the mingling of the East and the West. Her writing flows well and is compelling — exploring areas that are often left untouched by more conventional writers.

Kamata has lived in Tokushima Prefecture, Japan, for more than half of her life. She is the author or editor of 14 published books including, most recently, The Spy (Gemma Open Door, 2020), a novella for emerging readers; the middle grade novel Pop Flies, Robo-pets and Other Disasters (One Elm Books, 2020) which won an American Fiction Award and was recently released as an audiobook; and Indigo Girl (GemmaMedia, 2019), winner of an SCBWI Crystal Kite Award and named a Freeman Book Awards Honor Book, as well as one of the Best Chidren’s Books of 2019 by Bank Street College. Her work also appears in The Best Asian Travel Writing 2020 (Kitaab, 2020),  The APWT Drunken Boat Anthology of New Writing, What We Didn’t Expect: Personal Stories About Premature Birth ( Melville House Publishing, 2020), Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan(Camphor Press, 2020), and The Phantom Games (Excalibur Press, 2020). Her adult novel The Baseball Widow is forthcoming in October 2021 from Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing.

When and why did you move to Japan? What made you start writing? At what age did you start writing?

I came to Japan to work as an assistant English teacher on the JET Program in 1988, shortly after I graduated from college. I’d wanted to experience living abroad for a year or two before I began my “real job,” which was not yet determined. I partly wanted to accumulate material for writing future stories and novels. I started writing as a child and never quit. I think my love for writing developed from my early love for reading.

What was your first book and how did it come about?

The first book that I published was actually The Broken Bridge: Fiction by Expatriates in Literary Japan (Stone Bridge Press, 1997) an anthology of short stories by foreigners who lived or were living in Japan. I’d read an article about editing anthologies, and I read several short stories by expatriates in Japan which I felt deserved a wider audience, so I wrote a letter to a publisher that specialised in books about Japan with the idea of a collection. Little did I know, I wasn’t the first person to come up with such an idea, but I was perhaps the most persistent, so even though I was only in my twenties and had only published a couple of short stories in obscure journals, the publisher was willing to give me a shot at it.

What influenced your writing? Books, authors, music? And how?

My writing style is probably most influenced by reading. Early on, I was strongly attracted to the minimalist style of Ann Beattie and I tried to imitate that. Some other influences would be Marguerite Duras, particularly the collage aspect of The Lover, and Lorrie Moore’s dark humor. As far as subject matter goes, I am influenced by confluences of culture, by travel, by motherhood, by my daily life, and sometimes by quirky facts that I come upon.

You have a book called Losing Kei, in which a child born of a mixed marriage is torn by cultural differences and the parent’s inability to adjust to each other’s heritage. It has been compared to Kramer vs Kramer. Why the comparison and do you think it is justified?

Kramer vs. Kramer is about a custody battle, so I can see why my publisher used that comparison. I don’t know of any other novels about in-court custody battles over children of international marriages published at that time, so I think it’s more or less apt. In Losing Kei, the father is granted full custody of the couple’s son, against the mother’s wishes, but the child, Kei, is mostly taken care of by his grandmother. In the movie, the Kramer father is taking care of his son by himself because his wife has deserted them, but then she tries to get her son back.

Having grown up in America, do you actually think of the Japanese culture as ‘repressive’ or ‘xenophobic’ as says author Ellis Avery, author of The Teahouse fire, while commenting on Losing Kei?

Hmm. Things are changing, a bit, but I think that there is still a lot of resistance to foreigners in Japan. During the pandemic, which is on-going as I write, for a time only Japanese nationals were allowed to leave and re-enter the country. If a permanent resident – even someone with a home, job, and family – were to leave Japan during the early part of the pandemic, they weren’t allowed back into the country. Many foreign residents have seen this as discriminatory. Laws have changed, since I first arrived, allowing more foreign workers to come to Japan, but I think a lot of people worry that an influx of people from other countries will change Japan, and not in a good way.

You often write on or for children. Is there a reason for it?

I started writing for children when my own children were small. Being biracial/bicultural and living in Japan – and disabled, in the case of my daughter — their experiences were quite unique and rarely represented in books, so I tried to write a few stories to help fill that gap.

Squeaky Wheels, your immensely moving novel that won the inaugural Half the Globe Literati award (Best novel) in 2016, explores a mother’s travels with a child on a wheelchair. Can you tell us how this book came about?

Thank you so much for your kind words! Although the book won the award for “novel,’ it is actually a memoir of traveling with my daughter. When she was around twelve, she declared that she wanted to go to Paris. At the time, I was working as an adjunct, and we didn’t have a lot of money. So, I came up with the brilliant (ha ha) idea of writing a proposal for a book on traveling with my daughter, who is deaf and uses a wheelchair. It would be, I proposed, like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, but in different countries – France, not Italy; Japan, not Indonesia – and it would explore issues of accessibility in each country. I knew that Gilbert had gotten a huge advance to write her book. I also knew of a father of a child with autism who had gotten a million dollars to write a book about taking his son to visit a shaman in Tibet to be cured or whatever. So, I thought that I had a shot. No publisher, however, was willing to give me a contract and an advance to fund our trip, but I had a pretty decent book proposal by then, which I used to apply for a grant. I was extremely fortunate to be awarded a generous grant by the Sustainable Arts Foundation. We went to Paris, and I wrote the book.

Your last novel was Indigo Girl. The Kirkus Review said it was “a lovely sequel that focuses on finding strength in one’s self and maintaining hope when all seems lost.” It was a sequel to Gadget Girl. Tell us a bit about the two books.

A lot of people think that Gadget Girl, the story of the fourteen-year-old daughter of an American mother and Japanese father who has cerebral palsy, is based on my daughter’s actual experiences, but that’s not really true. I started writing the book when my daughter was quite small. I wanted to write a book that she might be able to enjoy as a teen. The main character, Aiko, is an aspiring manga artist, who has grown up as her sculptor mother’s muse. I wrote frequently about my children when they were small, so I imagined what my children might feel about those stories once they hit adolescence. In the first book, Gadget Girl, Aiko travels to Paris with her single mother. In the follow-up, Indigo Girl, which is a stand-alone sequel, Aiko visits rural Japan in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown) to finally connect with her biological father, who is an indigo farmer.

How many books have you authored? Are they all centred around young adults or children? Which one did you enjoy writing the most and why?

I have authored 12 including a picture book, a couple of titles for emergent readers, a short story collection, a memoir, three novels for adults (one forthcoming) and four novels for younger readers, the most recent of which is Pop Flies, Robo-pets and Other Disasters (One Elm Books, 2020). The first two novels that I wrote (but not the first two that I published) were The Mermaids of Lake Michigan (Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing, 2017) and Screaming Divas (Simon Pulse, 2014), which were both initially intended to be adult novels, but which concern young adults. When I wrote those books, I was in my late twenties/early thirties, when I felt that I didn’t have enough distance or perspective to write about my adult experiences. And then later, I intentionally wrote for children and young adults. It’s really hard to say which one I enjoyed writing the most, but Squeaky Wheels was fun for me. I loved traveling with my daughter, and I loved reliving those experiences when I was writing and revising the book. And writing nonfiction is a lot easier than writing fiction.

You teach at Naruto University of Education. What is it like to teach students who have been brought up in an entirely different culture from you? How does this experience translate to your own writing?

Japanese students tend to be a bit conservative, so I am always striving to open their minds, and to help them see that being receptive to other cultures and travel can be mind-blowing as it has been for me. I also learn a lot from them, because their upbringing has been so different from mine. One very concrete way in which teaching has affected my writing is that I have started to write stories for emergent readers. I realise that a lot of my books are too difficult for the average Japanese reader of English, but many students are interested in reading my writing. So far, I have written two hi/lo books for the Gemma Open Door series. These books are short, and the level of language is a bit easier.

How has the pandemic affected Japan, you and your work?

Japan hasn’t suffered as greatly as many other nations, perhaps because it is a mask-wearing culture, and also because as soon as news of a break-out aboard the cruise ship the Diamond Princess appeared, people started being cautions. In Tokushima, where I live, there have been fewer than 400 documented cases since the start of the pandemic. Since I haven’t had to travel for conferences, and I have been teaching online, things have been pretty calm and peaceful. Surprisingly, I have written quite a bit. I actually started a new novel!

What are your future plans? Do you have a new novel/books in the offing?

I hope to continue writing and publishing! I have a couple of adult novels – a historical novel, and one set slightly in the future – in progress, as well as a few picture book manuscripts that I have been tinkering with. In October of this year, my adult novel The Baseball Widow, will be published by Wyatt-Mackenzie. I started writing it shortly after I finished Losing Kei, but I abandoned it a few times. Anyway, I am happy to announce that it will finally make it into print! It’s a family drama about an international/interracial marriage in crisis told from multiple points of view. I hope you will enjoy it!

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This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Musings

When your Child Becomes a Vegan

By Meredith Stephens

“Stop cooking meat! I can smell it all the way up here,” my younger daughter Annika upbraided me from her upstairs bedroom.

I had made a rare purchase of mincemeat as part of a packet of ingredients to be assembled for the evening meal. Choices were so limited when you had a vegan in the family. I had almost given up buying meat and chicken, but persisted in buying eggs, fish and dairy. Eventually I found words to describe myself which I could use to feel virtuous, such as a ‘pescatarian’ – a fish eating vegetarian, and ‘flexitarian’ – a vegetarian when it was convenient. Annika didn’t mind if I made vegetarian dishes, but wouldn’t partake unless they were vegan.

“It’s okay for you to be vegan,” I retorted. “But you don’t have to impose your values on the rest of us. You don’t always conform to my values either.”                                                                                                                                                        

“Like what?” she asked.

“I’m not getting into that now. It’s okay for you not to eat meat but you can’t force the rest of us to give it up too,” I repeated.

I descended the stairs to the kitchen and took in the unusual smell of cooking meat, which has been absent from our kitchen for a couple of years. Then I bravely assembled the meal, spreading out the wrap, adding the mince mixture and topping it off with some tzatziki (a Greek yogurt sauce. I folded the wrap and sat down to eat it with my trusted Labrador Tia in front of me. Tia fixed her eyes on me unwaveringly and pricked up her ears. It was my habit to share all my meals and snacks with her.

When we had bought her at the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA) I had asked the vet whether it was okay to give her human food. He asked whether I meant sharing my toast with her in the morning. When I nodded he affirmed, “Of course!” From that moment I considered myself to have official approval to share any healthy food with Tia. If I were eating an apple, I would bite off one bit for her and one for me. When I was making a salad, I would hygienically feed her lettuce leaves, tomato tops, or slices of cucumber. (I do confess to feeding her occasional crumbs from my chocolate cake when no-one was looking.) The day that Annika scolded me for cooking meat, Tia was even more excited than usual. She was anticipating that I would share the mincemeat with her. I started to ingest the meat, but the smell put me off, so I passed most of it off to Tia. Needless to say, she was delighted. However, she didn’t savour it, but rather gulped it down quickly without leaving time to enjoy it.

Annika had always shown a sensitivity to the feelings of animals, even rodents. When we first moved into our house we would sometimes see a sudden movement as a mouse darted between the sofa and the fireplace. It was embarrassing to have a well-to-do guest suddenly ask you, “Was that a mouse?”

I wasn’t sure how to get rid of mice without killing them, and tried sonic deterrents which you could plug into an electric socket. Once Annika spotted a mouse in the house. She thought it was a native mouse, a marsupial, because its forelegs were shorter than its hind legs. She could even see the mouse’s heart beating through its chest as it trembled. Then she felt sorry for it and left it alone. After that I asked my husband to deal with the mice, and didn’t ask any more questions. The mice disappeared.

Until Annika became a vegan I had disassociated meat from animals. The packets of neatly wrapped meat in the supermarkets had nothing to do with the animals that you passed on farms in drives through the country. One day Annika drew a connection between Tia and meat, asking if I would eat Tia. From then on I could associate meat with living animals. The meat shelves in the supermarket became distasteful and I had to look the other way as I passed.

A friend has a business selling kangaroo meat overseas. She made a post on social media explaining why kangaroo meat is better than meat from farms; kangaroos are game, and they are not killed in the abbatoirs. I hesitated over the ‘like’ button as I read this. I was convinced by her argument but reluctant to agree with the notion of killing Australia’s national symbol, featured in our Coat of Arms and decorating the tail of the national carrier.

A kangaroo in the countryside

I work overseas and return to Australia every holiday. My pleasure in Australia’s fauna and flora is enhanced because of my long absences. When I return I am delighted to spot kangaroos in the countryside, possums in tree hollows, and koalas sleeping in trees in the neighbourhood.

Possum

A koala on a tree

Every morning is a visual and auditory feast. I spot rainbow lorikeets on the balcony, and cockatoos feeding on neighbouring lawns.

Cockatoos on the neighbour’s lawn

I listen to families of kookaburras cackling, and magpies serenading me. I am enjoying the fauna more than ever, and I can understand Annika’s feelings for them.

Not only that, times of global turmoil when movement is restricted are ideal for slowing down and appreciating nature. As Alain de Botton says on his homepage, “You normally have to be bashed about a bit by life to see the point of daffodils, sunsets and uneventful nice days.” In these tumultuous and uncertain times there is an exquisite pleasure to be had in communing with animals and birds. Now I can find the time to still myself for long enough to enjoy watching the sulphur-crested cockatoos squawking as they land on the lawn to peck for their dinner.

Nevertheless, my dietary resolutions are more due to the impact of the younger generation than the enhanced appreciation of wildlife afforded by the time for reflection in the lockdown. I will probably remain a pescatarian, or even a flexitarian. I won’t become a vegan and I will respect the choices of my friends and family to eat whatever they want. However, I do understand the younger generation’s commitment to veganism, and am prepared to admit that older is not necessarily wiser.

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist in Japan. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Blue Nib, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ MagazineReading in a Foreign Languageand in chapters in anthologies entitled What’s Cooking Mom? Narratives about Food and Family, The Migrant Maternal: “Birthing” New Lives Abroad, and Twenty-First Century Friendshipall published by Demeter Press, Canada.

Categories
Musings

Distant Worlds Converging on Screens during the Global Pandemic

By Meredith Stephens

Adelaide is half an hour ahead of Japan, and today while in lockdown in Adelaide I keep an eye on the clock so I can join a meeting over 7000 kilometres away in Japan. Ten years ago this would have been a scene in a science fiction novel (at least for me), but now I just have to click a link and I can participate in meeting in a distant place and in a different language. Until now my worlds of Australia and Japan have been hermetically sealed. It has been impossible to be simultaneously present in both, but this crisis has brought them together for the first time. I can sit in front of the screen and attend a meeting in Japan, with the comforting presence of my ageing Labrador snoozing at my feet in Adelaide.

Until now my worlds have been separated by distance, language, culture, friends, acquaintances, food, pets, seasons, flora and fauna. Despite these innumerable differences we share one important commonality — the time zone. Adelaide shares its longitude with Japan and is only thirty minutes ahead in the Australian winter, and ninety minutes ahead in the Australian summer. Few have shared my two worlds other than family, a few friends, and a few students. When I go to check in at the airport in Adelaide the ground staff have never heard of the Japanese city where I live. I am the sole person regularly making this particular commute. I rarely tire of having parallel lives in locations which don’t intersect. My work is in Japan, and when I am there, I commute to the workplace, visit the shops and go to the doctor by bicycle. In spring I can enjoy plum blossoms, cherry blossoms, azaleas, irises and hydrangeas. What’s more, nothing rivals the stark beauty and symbolism of Japanese gardens.

I have Japanese friends, so I can enjoy daily conversations in their beautiful language. I can exchange emails in a language which is flexible enough that it can be written both horizontally or vertically. I also have English-speaking friends, mainly Americans and Canadians. It’s very exciting to make North American friends from such distant places as Arkansas, South Carolina, Philadelphia, New York and Spokane in the US, and Quebec, Ontario and Vancouver in Canada. I could never hope to meet such friends in Adelaide, which is in the southern hemisphere and faces the Southern Ocean. So my world has expanded not just because I am in Japan but also because of my ex-patriate friends.

In Adelaide my world is characterized by immediate and extended family, my doggie, and native birds with distinctive birdsong that you will not hear anywhere else. It is always a great pleasure to arrive in Adelaide back from Japan and be woken early in the morning to a family of cackling kookaburras, magpies, and lorikeets.

In the older suburbs, the spaces between houses are wide enough that you can forget that you have neighbours and imagine you are living in the country. Japan has taught me to be alert to seasonal change, and has enhanced my enjoyment of the Australian spring, when I can enjoy golden wattle, bottle brushes, eucalyptus flowers, jacaranda and roses.

It’s gratifying to participate in two different cultures and landscapes as I commute between Japan and Australia. However, each side is pulling my allegiance in a different direction. My colleagues in Japan think that I take off to Australia too often, and my family in Australia tell me it is time to come home. Each side seems to be unaware of how important the other side is to me. I feel guilty that I cannot please both parties, but I can give up neither. I hope the decision will be taken out of my hands. There is a word in Japanese to indicate the struggle between two children when they fight for a toy and neither will let go- toriai – and I feel like that toy which is being pulled in two directions.

It has taken a global pandemic for these two worlds to converge. Protecting people’s health has led to Australia’s international and state borders being closed. International flights have been cancelled. My lifestyle of commuting to Japan has come to an abrupt halt. Social distancing has been imposed. Shops, other than supermarkets and pharmacies, are closed. Most medical appointments are now by telehealth. Meanwhile my employer has entreated me to return to Japan and I feel guilty for refusing, but I am frightened of both the trip and being marooned in a country where I have no family.

A hurried solution to this has been online participation in meetings. This has been facilitated because of sharing a common time zone. If I were in America or Europe I might find myself participating in meetings during the night. My hitherto mutually irreconcilable worlds are finally converging. I have been able to click on a link and hear the familiar voices of Japanese-speaking colleagues from the comfort of my Adelaide sofa, with my faithful doggie at my feet. Never has participation in a meeting been so pleasurable. I can listen to my sweet Labrador’s regular deep breathing, progressing to gentle snoring as she rests, oblivious to this international communication. When I rest my eyes on the computer screen during the meeting I see the familiar Japanese writing, and watch the movement of the mouse as the moderator indicates the progression of the agenda. Meanwhile the intense Australian sunshine forces its way through the slats in the blinds. For the first time I might be able to hear kookaburras competing for my attention during a meeting which is being held in Japan. The hermetic seal between these two worlds over 7000 kilometres apart has been punctured, and I feel a sense of relief that the familiar voices of Japanese colleagues can reach me not only in the southern hemisphere, but also on the southern coast of this Antipodean continent.

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist in Japan. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Blue Nib, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ MagazineReading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies entitled What’s Cooking Mom? Narratives about Food and Family, The Migrant Maternal: “Birthing” New Lives Abroad, and Twenty-First Century Friendship, all published by Demeter Press, Canada.