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Bonding for Beginners

September 2006

By Suzanne Kamata

“Why does our daughter have to take a bath with her teacher?” Christine Uno asked her husband. “As a Japanese teacher, please explain it to me.”

They were driving along the mountains of western Shikoku, returning home after a weekend spent at a spa. They - Christine, her husband Hideki, and the twins, Emily and Ken - had indulged in a “family bath,” a private hot tub under the stars. Bathing as a family seemed intimate and appropriate. But with her teacher and unrelated kindergartner boys?

“Do you know Dewey?” Hideki asked.

“As in John, the philosopher? Yes.”

“Dewey said that education should occur in all areas of life.”

“Hmm. So you’re saying it’s an American idea.”

She pondered this, while thinking that the following weekend’s school sleepover was a quintessentially Japanese activity. No one in her native country would think it necessary for a four-year-old to bond with her classmates, at least not to the degree that was intended. Emily would be cooking, eating, sleeping, bathing, and doing just about everything else with her group, the Stag Beetles.

The weekend was intended to be a family event, but Christine was supposed to stay out of the way. She and her son would be eating at another table, sleeping in another room, bathing at another time. It seemed odd and unnatural to Christine to let the teacher help Emily brush her teeth and shampoo her hair instead of her mother.

When she’d first told Hideki about the sleepover, he’d said, “You should cancel.” He wouldn’t be going himself because he had a game. He was a high school baseball coach, in addition to being a P.E. teacher, which meant he had virtually no time off. He certainly had no time for deaf school events or events at their son’s preschool.

But it quickly became clear that everything at Emily’s school, the Tokushima School for the Deaf, was geared toward the sleepover. Three weeks before, the first orientation meeting had been held. The kids, three-, four- and five-year-olds in the school’s kindergarten, were divided into groups the children named themselves - the Ghosts, the Melons, the Stag Beetles. From that moment, they ate lunch in their groups every day. Almost every school activity - making curry and rice, cutting bamboo shoots for Tanabata - was conducted as a group.

The mothers were suddenly spending all day together, too. It was Deaf School policy that the mothers of the three- to five-year olds hang around until their kids were ready to go home. “In case something happens,” Nishioka-sensei, the head teacher, had explained. Most of the mothers whiled away the hours in the designated Mothers’ Room where there was a coffee maker and a microwave and a long low table surrounded by cushions. Christine wasn’t used to kneeling for hours at a time, and besides, she didn’t want to sit around chatting when she could be doing something more useful. What did she have in common with the other mothers anyway, besides a deaf child?

Most of them were at least a decade younger than Christine. They’d all been born and raised in Tokushima. Only a couple of them had ever been abroad - one to Guam, on her honeymoon, another to Hawaii with her family the year before. Another woman’s husband frequently traveled for business - to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and India - but she had never left the country herself.

A fourth of them had gotten married because “they’d had to,” or maybe they’d just hurried the inevitable along. In the mothers’ room, the youngest ones bragged about their youth. Once a week there was some conversation about sex (birth control, or maybe frequency of) and another about dieting, although they were mostly as slender as bamboo.

Christine had lived in Europe for a while before she came to Japan. She’d traveled in Third World countries. Before that, she’d lived in four different states of the U.S. She’d had a lot of boyfriends in her twenties, a few tumultuous relationships she thought she’d never get over, but when she met Hideki, something had gone still at the center of her. Her decision, after four years of knowing him, to marry and settle in Japan, had been careful and deliberate. They hadn’t wanted kids right away, or at least she hadn’t; Hideki had gently proposed starting a family as they downed a bottle of Dom Perignon on their first anniversary, but she’d wanted to travel a bit more and write a novel. When the twins were finally born, they had been planned and wanted.

Christine had come to Japan originally to teach English. Her students had been eager to wring every possible bit of native-speaker syntax and American culture out of her. They asked her opinions about Japan-U.S. trade friction, the bases in Okinawa, and 9/11, and they wrote down what she said. The mothers, though, did not seem at all interested in Christine’s point of view, and she avoided referring to her previous life in Michigan or France because she didn’t want to appear pretentious.

She realized that she could have tried harder to fit in, but that she didn’t really want to. When there weren’t any meetings about the sports festival or the bazaar or the sleepover or whatever, Christine would sometimes slip away and go for a walk in the park, or even duck into a café and read a magazine. She always felt a little guilty when she returned. The mothers would look up in something like surprise when she pulled the door open. Sometimes she wondered if they talked about her when she wasn’t there.

The day after the family trip to the spa, after spending half an hour wandering among the blooming roses, she felt a little guiltier than usual. She opened the door to find all of the other mothers cutting out felt shapes and threading needles. She nodded a greeting and made an effort to wedge herself into the circle. They were making name tags for the sleepover.

“What should I do?” Christine asked. If she were Japanese, she would know. She would just plunge in.

Miki’s mother handed her a few scraps of felt. “Stitch these brown pieces onto the yellow one.”

image Christine craned her neck to see what the other mothers were doing. One had almost finished sewing a brown felt stag beetle onto a small square of yellow felt. “Oh, this stitch is too big,” she said. She began to tear it out.

Christine wanted to roll her eyes. Who cared if one teeny tiny stitch was not exactly the same as the others? Wouldn’t this time be better spent studying sign language or lobbying for an elevator? (There were several students, including Emily, who couldn’t walk, but the three-story school didn’t have any ramps or elevators.) She could already tell that this was going to be a week-long project. They would spend more time making the name tags than the children would wearing them. But that was the wrong attitude. She should admire them for their attention to detail, for their insistence on perfection. They were doing this for their beloved children, after all.

“What’s the stitch?” Christine asked.

“Chain stitch.”

“So does everyone here know how to do the chain stitch?” Christine asked.

“We learned it at school,” Miki’s mother said.

“Incredible.” Christine had to have someone teach her. She tried, but her stitches weren’t even. Everyone would know which one she’d made.

Later in the day, after they’d all had lunch followed by green tea, the head teacher, Nishioka Sensei, appeared with a stack of printouts about the sleepover. As usual, she handed out copies to everyone, then proceeded to read every single word aloud, something that never ceased to annoy Christine. With the exception of herself, they were all literate, and responsible enough to read the pages on their own.

One of the sheets featured a chart showing the names of the participants and every father’s estimated time of arrival. Some would be dropping by after work, others were coming after the bonfire on the beach, in time for a parent and teacher drinking party. Next to Hideki’s name (actually, “Emily’s Father”), there was an X.

Another paper listed participants’ duties. Every task had been designated, down to who would put the smallest children’s hearing aids in airtight cases at bedtime and who would wield the hair dryer after the bath. Christine had volunteered to spread a blue plastic sheet on the ground before dinner, thinking it was something she wouldn’t mess up. They were all going to eat outside, under the tall pines in front of the Youth Hostel.

The next page was the bath schedule. Emily, Christine noted, would be going in just after dinner. Everyone was allowed twenty minutes in the bath, from start to finish.

A final sheet listed exactly what items the children should bring and exactly how they should be packed - each outfit in a separate see-through plastic bag, each bag labeled: pajamas, change of clothes, after the bath. They were to bring a small pack of tissues, a handkerchief, and a plastic bag for the shells and stones that they collected at the beach. The plastic bag was supposed to go in a pants pocket.

On the one hand, Christine was impressed by this attention to detail. On the other, she hated it. Living in Japan brought out her inner adolescent. She often felt that the teachers were trying to control her daughter’s entire life and she wanted to rebel.

Even before Emily was born, she’d had a pretty good idea of how involved teachers were in their students’ business. After all, she’d taught English as an extracurricular subject in public schools and she knew about the yearly visits teachers made to students’ homes (and just how nervous this made the mothers, who spent days cleaning and fussing over what sort of snacks to serve). Plus, her husband was a teacher. More than once he’d been called away near midnight to deal with a student caught drinking in a karaoke box, or shoplifting at Lawson’s. If one of his forty homeroom students was in the hospital, he was obliged to visit.

She’d thought the teachers’ involvement excessive and ridiculous then, but now that she was on the other end of it, she found it unbearably intrusive. The deaf school produced reams of memos telling parents what time to put their children to bed, what they should eat and drink, what kind of books they should read, on and on, as if the parents themselves had no common sense. Meanwhile, among themselves, the mothers were hypercritical of everything the teachers did. This one only used finger spelling as opposed to proper sign language. That one had no idea of how to discipline unruly four-year-old deaf boys.

When Christine had brought Emily to the school for early intervention, back when she was three, she’d packed a lunch - sometimes sandwiches on whole wheat bread with a side of potato chips, which she quickly learned were beyond the pale. Snack food.

“What does she drink with her lunch?” the teacher asked one day, eyeing Emily’s imported Bob the Builder thermos.

The teachers ate in their own room. Christine, Emily, Miki, and Miki’s mother ate in the classroom together.

“Water,” Christine answered, pouring out a cup.

“Mineral water?”

“No, just tap water.”

The teacher frowned. “You really shouldn’t give her tap water. She could get food poisoning.”

Christine glanced at Miki’s mother, expecting a look of mutual disbelief. Akaishi-san quickly looked away. What was the big deal? She knew that the local water was potable; she’d been drinking it for ten years. It’s not as if the Ganges were gushing through their pipes. She was too taken aback to argue, though, so she said nothing. Red-faced, she listened as the teacher complimented Akaishi-san for giving her daughter cold barley tea: “I hear it’s really healthy.”

After the teacher had gone off to her own lunch, Miki’s mother leaned forward and said, “You don’t give her carbonated drinks, do you?”

Remembering all this made Christine want to rant about the caffeine in the o-cha the kindergartners were given at lunch. Instead, she sipped her own green tea till she felt calm again.

They finished making the felt name tags with a few days to spare, but then the mothers had to rehearse a dance. On the evening of the sleepover, everyone would perform by the light of the bonfire. The children were practicing skits. The mothers, it had been decided, would sing and sign an Okinawan song. The mother of Rai, a five-year-old boy who’d recently gotten a cochlear implant, was choreographing the whole thing. Miki’s mother had designed costumes - hula skirts with strips of colored plastic hanging from the waistband.

It was July, hot as dragon’s breath, and humid, too. The deaf school, like every other school in Tokushima, had no air conditioning. In the Mothers’ Room there was an oscillating fan, but it gave only the suggestion of relief. It was in this room, in this heat, that they pulled the plastic skirts over their clothes and practiced moving in unison, hips swaying as their fingers formed words.

Christine could feel rivers of sweat soaking her T-shirt. After they’d run through the song a couple of times, there was a discussion about the final moves. Should they drop to their knees and throw their hands in the air - “ta da”? Twirl? Bow? None of this mattered to Christine. All she wanted to do was throw herself into the cool pond across from the rose garden.

That Saturday, Christine packed the car with bags, thermoses, and twins. Then, with gritted teeth, she set out for the sleepover. Although she jammed a reggae tape into the cassette deck, the only song in her head all the way there was “Kamehameha,” the one that she’d heard over and over in the Mothers’ Room for the past few days.

The Tokushima International Youth Hostel was at Omiko Beach, a popular spot for barbecues and ocean swimming. “Don’t think hotel,” the head teacher had warned. Christine told her son it would be like camping. When she entered the building and made her way up the dark stairs, she had a flashback to all the five-dollar-a-night European hostels she’d slept in on her junior year abroad. The stained pillows and futons make her cringe now. These days she was more of a Nikko Hotel kind of person.

Christine and Ken were sharing a room with Miki’s mother, her five-year-old sister and baby brother. Emily, of course, would be sleeping down the hall with the other Stag Beetles, and her teacher.

After stashing their bags and thermoses, they returned downstairs for a meeting. Emily was already with her group. Christine tried to catch her eye, but her teacher seemed to be blocking her from sight on purpose. Well, she was supposed to be paying attention. This was an extension of school, after all. Christine sat down at the back and pulled Ken onto her lap.

Next, everyone moved to the picnic area to begin preparing curry for supper.

Emily’s job was to peel the onions. Christine could see her sitting in her purple wheelchair, pulling the papery skin away. She was intent on her task, oblivious to her mother’s watchful eyes.

It was time for Christine to spread the blue plastic sheet on the ground. She found it in the meeting room and, after clearing away a few sticks and rocks, laid it out on the ground. Here and there were little hills of plastic, and Christine stamped around in her stocking feet, tamping them down. It was a small job, but she couldn’t help feeling that she had done something wrong. The Japanese mothers would lay it out perfectly and they would know if she had not.

Finally, she shook her head in disgust. She was becoming paranoid. The blue plastic sheet really did not matter so much. She looked up, then, for her son. He was nowhere in sight.

Maybe he’d wandered down to the beach, she thought. He was normally a very outgoing kid, quick to organize tag games at the playground with kids he’d never met, the class “mood-maker” at his own preschool, according to his teacher. Christine wandered through the pines, calling out his name. She scanned the groups making curry - the Melons, the Ghosts, the Stag Beetles - looking for Ken’s chestnut head. Then she looked again toward the water and her heart began to bang.

“Ken? Where are you?”

“I think I saw him go into the hostel,” Rai’s mother called out.

Slightly relieved, Christine ran toward to the building. She found him alone in their room, drinking from his thermos in the fading light of late afternoon.

“What’s wrong, sweetie? What are you doing in here?”

He dropped his head to his chest. “I feel shy,” he said.

He doesn’t feel like he fits in, Christine thought. Like me. She ruffled his hair and pulled him close. “We’ll just sit here for a little while,” she said.

Later, as they sat on the blue plastic sheet with their bowls of curry, Christine looked across at her daughter, eating with her teacher. She was smiling, shoveling in the food like it was the best thing she’d ever tasted. The other Stag Beetles signed something to her that Christine didn’t understand, and Emily nodded and signed back.

She’s having a great time, Christine thought. She wondered if her daughter understood that she would be reunited with her family when the weekend was over.

Christine watched as Emily, assisted by her teacher, washed her bowl and spoon. Then the two of them went into the hostel for a bath. Christine imagined the teacher’s fingers tangling in her daughter’s long hair, squeezing out the shampoo suds. She had a vision of the teacher’s hands sliding over Emily’s soft skin, into her crevices and hollows, the tender way she might blot the girl’s back with a towel. She remembered how, just after Emily and Ken’s premature birth, she had stood by as the nurse swabbed their bodies clean in the incubators. She hadn’t been allowed to hold them without permission. It had taken such a long time to feel like their mother.

After dinner, when they were all once again assembled in the meeting room, Nishioka-sensei announced the beginning of the Obake Taikai.

Ken looked up at Christine with alarm. “Ghosts?”

She was impressed that he’d understood the Japanese. “Just people dressed up as ghosts, sweetie. The mommies and daddies will be wearing costumes. They’ll be giving out presents.”

Ken shook his head vigorously, tears already pooling in his enormous brown eyes. “I don’t like ghosts!”

“Okay, we won’t join in.” Christine was starting to feel a little glum. She at least wanted to see Emily’s thrilled expression. Her daughter was the brave one, her son the hyper-imaginative cautious child. Sometimes, like when Hideki dangled Emily upside down over a pond, she wondered if those shrieks of delight weren’t abnormal. Maybe her lack of fear was another manifestation of brain damage. Being afraid of ghosts in the woods at dusk (or talk of earthquakes, or being swung by the ankles) seemed ordinary for a child of that age.

They watched the other kids and mothers and teachers embark on the ghost hunt, and then Ken turned to go back to their room. Christine sighed, wishing she’d brought a picture book or pack of cards to amuse him with.

The final event of the evening, before the children were sent to bed, was the bonfire on the beach. If this were America, Christine thought, they’d sit in a circle around a teepee of kindling, ready for marshmallow roasting and singing. But this was Japan, and the campfire was referred to in the printed schedule as a “firestorm.” She anticipated something grand and theatrical. Ken was biting his fingernails.

Plastic sheets were laid over the sand. They would sit there, away from the fire, and watch. When everyone had gathered, Rai, master of ceremonies, stood up at the front of the group and said, “From now, we will hold the fire ceremony.”

Four of the fathers lay fat logs in a square. A teacher directed the audience’s attention further up the beach. “The goddess of fire is coming,” she said.

Nishioka-sensei, wearing a mask and headress, was advancing with a torch and two attendants, also in costume. It reminded Christine of the Olympic ceremony. The teacher was well-disguised, and she wondered if the children believed that she was really some kind of deity.

Once the logs were lit, and the “fire goddess” had slipped away into the night, the main attraction began. Each group - Ghost, Melon, Stag Beetle - had prepared a skit.

Christine craned her neck as Emily and her group took their placed on the sand. They were wearing costumes made of strips of plastic. Emily held a tube of tightly rolled paper that was probably meant to be a wand or a sword. Other than that, she had no idea what was going on. In the dark, with the chirr of crickets and cicadas filling the night, it was difficult to make out the children’s imperfect pronunciation and to follow their sloppy signs. But no matter. Emily was smiling, pleased as ever, to be onstage and the center of attention.

For the finale, Christine and the other mothers shimmied into their hula skirts and lined up in front of the fire. With the Okinawan music blasting from a cassette player, they swished and swayed together. It was fun, after all; Christine found that she couldn’t stop smiling.

She’d meant to join the other parents for drinks in the meeting room after she got Ken to sleep, but she’d nodded off herself. When she did wake, in the early hours of morning, Ken was hogging her pillow and crowding her off the futon. For such a fearful boy, he slept in an attitude of absolute trust - arms flung open, belly exposed.

On the other side of her, Miki’s baby brother had rolled off his own mother’s futon and nestled against her back. Christine carefully nudged the children, clearing some space for herself, and tried to go back to sleep.

In the morning, Christine and Ken dressed and packed up their belongings, then headed downstairs for breakfast. Emily was already in the dining room with her teacher, spooning up scrambled eggs. Christine noted, somewhat ruefully, that her daughter’s pigtails were tighter and neater than usual, her part perfectly straight. She herself felt rumpled after a night spent fending off thrashing toddlers. Ken was sleepy and sullen.

After breakfast, the plan was to go down by the water and see what was there. Nishioka-sensei had scissored her fingers in the sign for crab and shown the kids pictures of water insects they might come across. There might be shells, too, she said, and interesting rocks.

They all set out in a loose column along a well-trodden path. But instead of continuing to follow the path, which was bordered by railing, Nishioka-sensei veered off through the underbrush, down a steep slope to some rocks below. There were no steps, but a few fathers were positioned to aid anyone who might need a little extra help getting down.

Christine was surprised to see that Emily, who could not walk, who would never be able to make it safely down such a treacherous incline by herself, was already on the rocks below, grabbing at frogs and beetles. She realized that the treads on her own sneakers were worn flat and that she would probably slip. Ken, at her side, had grown stiff with fright.

“We’ll just stay up at the top of the hill and watch,” she murmured. “Unless you want one of these nice daddies to help us get down there.”

He shook his head, already working his way back to the official trail.

Before she went after him, she took another look at her daughter - happy, curious, poking between the rocks, leaning down for a closer look at a bug.

Emily could do worse, Christine thought, than to spend her life among these people. She watched as her little girl caught a crab with her small fingers and held it up to the sun.

© 2005, 2006 by Suzanne Kamata. All rights reserved.

American writer Suzanne Kamata lives with her husband and bicultural twins in Aizumi, Japan. Her essays on being a mom in Japan appear in the anthologies It’s a Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons, It’s a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters, and This Changes Everything. Recent fiction appears in Literary Mama, and Her Circle EZine. Her blog can be found at www.gaijinmama.blogspot.com
In 2008, Suzanne also published a novel set in Japan, Losing Kei
and an anthology, Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs.