March 25, 2005
Love and Marriage - Japanese and American
I went to a wedding in Tokyo last weekend. It was beautiful. The bride and groom (both Japanese) looked great together. We've known the bride for years, and we were very happy for her. I loved the food! During the reception the hotel staff opened the window shades along an entire wall and revealed a panoramic view of the Imperial Palace grounds below. Wow. The wedding ceremony took place before the reception on another floor of the hotel, and (as the invitation said) it was optional. Shinto wedding ceremonies are private, so the reception party is traditionally considered the main event. But this couple, like many Japanese couples, chose to have a "Christian" style wedding. Why? Brides often say they want to wear the white dress. Many want a public ceremony where they can invite their family and friends. It's romantic; western, now. Few Japanese have faith in Shinto or Christianity, and they don't seem bothered by the religious trappings. When I asked my friend if she were having a "Christian" wedding, she said, "Yes, well, a fake Christian wedding." And indeed it was, with a robed priest (either a fake or real Catholic, I don't know), two robed singers in the choir, and robed musicians and ushers. The Bible was read, prayers were prayed, and crosses were displayed in abundance.
Japan certainly doesn't have a monopoly on fake Christian weddings, by the way. I've been to fake Christian weddings in the USA. But seeing the whole shebang in Japan -- the mini version -- is uniquely perplexing.
I've said all of this in order to say that I have a Christian view of marriage. Not a "fake" Christian view (and not necessarily an American-cultural, Bush voting, gun toting, red state Republican point of view). But my best attempts at love and marriage come out of a relationship with Jesus. One of the Biblical writers, Paul, once wrote that, "If Jesus was not raised from the dead, then we are the greatest of all fools." I agree. As you read, please keep in mind that my faith in God is behind what I think, and you might consider me a great fool if you really stop and think about it.
Now that I've got here, what I'm about to write seems so simple. I'm tempted to stop now. Not literally "tempted" -- but, ok.
I met my wife in 1996 in the USA. We were both studying in the same graduate school, and we often studied at the same coffe shop on campus. I had talked with her a few times. One day, in a spontaneous moment, I invited her to go kayaking. I owned a big, yellow kayak for two. She agreed to go with me, we had a great time, and we got married one year later (to the day).
I was not pursuing a Japanese wife. I wasn't even pursuing her -- not yet. I didn't learn until later about guys who go looking for a Japanese wife. I wouldn't say that's always "bad," though it may be an under-developed idea (how's that for a sensitive phrase?). I think Japanese women find these guys kind of spooky though (no offense), and I don't really want to be seen that way. In terms of dating and marriage, I wasn't that hopeful at the time. I had spent the summer working in a community center in a poor neighborhood, and I had just returned to school with no real prospects. Perhaps I had given up on marriage, for the time being, and shifted my eyes off myself a bit (just a bit). At any rate, I thanked God that Hitomi came into my life, and for once I didn't engineer the process.
We had a few things going for us. My wife is basically bilingual and bicultural. She lived in the USA for four years during elementary school then returned to Japan and stayed there through university. She came to the USA to attend our graduate school in 1991, so she had been there for five years before we met (getting a masters and starting her Ph.D.). We both shared the same "foolish" faith in Jesus that I mentioned above, along with a common sense of purpose. I had never lived in Japan and didn't speak a word of Japanese, but I had spent a lot of time somewhat outside of my own culture (at the time I was living in East LA). I thought that I was pretty adjustable and good at learning new cultures and languages. To an extent, that was true, but I've honestly been stretched further in the past few years than I anticipated.
Practically speaking, marriage is hard work. Of course, you can hear this a thousand times, but when you're "in love" you'll know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it doesn't apply to you. That's a mistake. It applies to everyone who wants to build a great marriage. There will come a day in the future when you look at the other person and think, "Who is this that I have married?" "What have I done?" And that's when you really begin something extraordinary. Or it's the beginning of the end. Hopefully, you'll be ready when that moment arrives.
If being married to someone from your own culture is hard work, then being married to someone from another culture is harder work. Committment and communication (not the warm feelings of first love) are the keys to making a marriage that will last. But effective communication will require overcoming language and culture gaps -- and you may not see the gaps in advance (even if you should). These gaps are significant even for my wife and I. She is fluent in English and quite attuned to American culture, but we still have different ways of seeing and saying things that have deep roots in our identities. We must make an intentional, ongoing effort to communicate to overcome the gaps and communicate well. I can't imagine where we would be if we didn't share at least one strong language and culture between us. Or where we would be without our committment to marriage and our common faith?
What does all this mean? I think most marriage counselors would encourage a couple to spend time before marriage learning how to communicate, working through some conflicts and talking specifically about the future. Common sense says that a cross cultural couple should spend more time and effort working through these and other practical issues -- at least enough time to get past the feelings of "falling in love" and find out what's really there.
My wife and I got married after just one year. Did we break the rule? Well, it's not really a rule, but yes. We had a lot going in our favor, as I said above, but we took a risk deciding to get married early in our relationship. We have learned so much together in the midst of being married, and our marriage is very strong. But the story doesn't always have a happy ending. Honestly, the majority of American-Japanese marriages that we've seen have been difficult. Some have ended in divorce, and others just don't thrive. We know a few American-Japanese couples that DO have strong marriages. I'm pretty sure they have all worked hard at their marriages, and in all cases either the husband or wife (or both) speaks the other's language well. I should add, the people who I'm thinking of also share the same faith, but that by itself isn't enough to make a marriage work.
Before wrapping this up, I think I should write out a few practical ideas that anyone can take or leave. I feel under qualified, but here goes.
1) Talk specifically about marriage and the future. What does marriage mean to you? What about fidelity in marriage? How many kids do you want? When? What language will they speak, where will they go to school, etc? Where will you live? (One of you will be separated from his/her parents, and the kids will be separated from one set of grandparents.) Who will cook, clean the clothes and wash the dishes? How much income will you need, and how many hours will one or both of you work (a big deal in Japan)? Preferably, talk through all these questions with an experienced marriage counselor. If you have "Christian marriage values," (e.g., even if you don't have faith in Christianity) why not talk with a Christian counselor or pastor and get his/her perspective?
2) Don't get married on the basis of a long distance relationship. Somebody move to the other country and spend a long time getting to know each other in real life. Don't say, "She can't get a visa unless we get married." People work out visa/immigration problems every day. If you love each other, find a way.
3) Spend time together with each other's families. You will learn a lot about each other this way. If one or both of you come from a family that is so unhealthy that this is not possible, then delay getting married for an extra year or more, and get counseling. I'm not trying to be hurtful, but coming from an unhealthy family means the challenges will be even greater.
4) If you are a Japanese woman reading this, be careful about any guy who thinks Japan is perfect. Give him time to really figure out the good and the bad. And be super careful about any guy who constantly looks down on Japan (because he WILL look down on you, too, once it sinks in that you're really Japanese).
I'm going to stop now. Not because I think that I'm done. I'm tired of thinking, my wife is cooking dinner (this time), and I'd like to do something useful. Please feel free to write a comment or question. Or tell part of your own story (good or bad) and what you've learned from it. I'd like to think we could learn from each other.
March 18, 2005
Yoshino Baigo Plum Festival with KidsUdon making class a year ago, came with us and brought his son. He often goes to Ome with his family and seemed very positive about the place. Then again, we got a late start, and it looked like rain... (can you sense I was a bit stressed?).
We drove a little over an hour and then passed by Hinatawada station on the Ome Line. A flood of people were coming out and crossing the road, heading for a bridge across the Tama River. I leaned forward to see where they were going. But first we drove another 100 meters and parked outside a "famous" restaurant where my friend wanted to eat. Everyone who has lived in Japan has been to "famous" restaurants. Places featured on a TV program or in a magazine. Some famous places deserve the title, others need to be retired; you never know until you sit down and eat the food. This place specializes in kamameshi (rice and stuff baked in a clay pot). All the ingredients are natural, etc., and the place has a view of a truly beautiful stretch of the Tama River below (and I don't say "beautiful" lightly). It was all very good. It tasted very natural, as it was, and eating there was a cultural experience. Kind of expensive though. I'm the type that gets all excited about loading up on 100 yen ($1) sushi at a cheap kaiten place (where you grab your sushi off a conveyor belt, hoping it hasn't been circulating around the room for too long). Our whole family can eat raw fish and nato (for the kids) for about the same price as one of these trays.
After eating we drove across the river (we didn't pause long enough to look though) and came into the town. It was decked out for the plum festival, and every home or business with a bit of empty space was selling parking spaces for 800 yen a car. We took one of them up on the offer. Then we walked about 10 minutes to the park itself. On the way we weaved through narrow streets past vendors selling takoyaki (fried octopus balls), plastic masks, omiage and a variety of crafts. Some local restaurants (and a couple of houses) had placed low chairs and tables outside (under plum trees if they had any) to entice passersby to stop for a meal. It all had the feeling of a quaint local fair. It never rained, by the way, and by this point we were relaxed and enjoying ourselves.
We paid $2 at the entrance to the park, which spreads out into the hills with a dirt path meandering up and around. We quickly abandoned the strollers -- too many steps -- but it wasn't a problem. It's a spacious area but small enough for a family to enjoy. The biggest challenge was keeping the twins (2 years old) from running away.
I tried not to spend the whole time taking pictures. Some things you just can't capture in a still image. But it was a great place to be with a camera!
We spent over an hour slowly working our way around. Just before we descended the last hillside, I looked up at the surrounding mountains and noticed the misty haze. I thought about taking a picture the hills disappearing in the haze, but it didn't look THAT promising. Then my wife gasped out that the "mist" was actually a cloud of pollen descending down from the cedars up slope. It seemed harmless enough at the moment, but by the time we reached the bottom of the park my eyes were watery, and I could hear loud sneezing erupting nearby. We rushed to the car and escaped, with a plate of takoyaki for the road. Very big takoyaki, by the way. When I bit into mine I was very surprised to find an egg inside, alongside the customary piece of octopus tentacle. Not a full size chicken egg, but one of those miniature eggs I've always eroneously attributed to pigeons. My wife corrected me, saying they're grouse eggs, or something like that -- NOT pigeon eggs. At any rate, I don't want them inside of my takoyaki again. But I ate it anyway. I never pass up anything dipped in batter and fried in oil. All in all, it was a great day!
March 13, 2005
Vicious Puppy Dog Wearing Kimono in Higashi Tokyo
In my last post, I said that I would post more plum blossom pictures. But I didn't want you to lose all respect for me, so here is a picture straight from the mean, gritty streets of Tokyo. The higashi gawa. I know what you're thinking: "It's a dog wearing a kimono." But this is not just any dog, and that's no ordinary kimono. This is a Yakuza lap dog, bred for a cute face and inner rage. Don't mess with this one or he'll get loco. How do you think the first Yakuza lost his pinky finger? The colors of the kimono symbolize the owner's Yakuza gang. Next time you see a dog like this, move quickly in the opposite direction. Don't be a fool and go in for a picture like I did. Again, just for the record, the JapanWindow isn't all about flowers and cute puppies.
In case you're scratching your head wondering, let me clarify that this is just a joke. It's supposed to be funny. If you think so, then thank you. Maybe we share the same sense of humor. :) When I told my wife about this post, she said, "Really, he was a yakuza?" That confirmed my suspicion that some people might think I'm serious. But no, it's really just a picture of a cute dog wearing a kimono. I'm guilty of posting pictures of blossoms AND a cute puppy all in the same week. For those of you who are getting tired of this break from urban reality photos, I'll get back to that after the last Cherry blossom falls. In the meantime, there really is a dark, mysterious world lurking inside my blossom pictures, not to mention inside these puppy dog eyes. Look closely and you'll find it.
Next up: Rumble at the Plum Festival
March 11, 2005
An Ethical and Proper Greeting in Japan
I wrote this a couple of days ago and then decided not to post it to the blog. But my wife and her friend got such a kick out of it that I decided to go ahead and share it.
My wife just proclaimed the following the image of the day, so I thought I'd should share it with you before going to bed.
I was returning to the house after just parking the car when I saw our neighbor ahead. She had her dog. A big dog, like a retriever, standing with it's paws on her shoulders. A thought crossed my mind, "She's dancing with the dog." Right then she caught my eye, so I nodded. And then I really looked at her and realized the dog wasn't dancing. Maybe dirty dancing. Dare I say, "Lambada."
She said, "Konbawa" and gave a slight bow. She was holding both paws in her hands pushing slightly to the side. But the dog wasn't moving. Not to the side anyway. I turned toward the door shielding a smile with the back of my head and finally making it through the door where I ran into my wife.
Our neighbor is a very proper woman. All our neighbors are proper, really, but she is a member of a nationwide Japanese ethics movement that stresses the utmost appropriate behavior in relationships. She is well schooled about how to act in all sorts of daily encounters, starting with the formal way she greets her husband every morning.
Pardon me, but I had a stressful day, and I really needed some comic relief. I burst out laughing as I told my wife and couldn't resist asking, "What is the appropriate way to greet your neighbor when your dog is...
There was no need to complete the sentence.
Allright, I've got that out of my system. I took some more plum blossom pictures yesterday that I'll post soon. :)
March 04, 2005
Japanese Plum Blossoms and Pre-Spring Impressions
This morning we woke up to a "spring snow." My wife called it that. I'm no weatherman, but I can't help but see some humor at this new sign of spring. We have three inches of snow on the ground, and it's still coming down. The plum trees are completely clothed in white. But spring is right around the corner. In fact, it's starting on Sunday, according to a real weatherman on TV. Yesterday the same guys on TV predicted that Cherry blossoms will appear in Tokyo on March 30. We're all looking forward to that. My parents are coming at the end of the month, so it's great timing.
On another note, I carry a digital recorder around with me for learning Japanese. I was thinking of recording thoughts (before I forget them) and posting them here sometimes. I gave it a try a couple of days ago at Starbucks. I held the recorder practically inside my mouth so the person at the next table wouldn't be disturbed. Today I listened. It sounded like a psychotic killer rambing to himself in a prison cell. The actual content was ok, but it's more raw than what I usually write here.
Here's an example...
Every thought that I have, I have to think in complete sentence. Maybe people like that are the ones who become bloggers or writers. We need some way to get it all out on paper, to talk, rather than keeping it inside.
Life here hinges on the testing system. People who do well go to the right colleges, get the right jobs and are promoted to positions of "power." [Not sure that's the right word.] Those who don't do well don't expect as much. They accept lower positions, content to be followers under a leader who probably did better on the test. It's less likely that people will compete. The workplace is not a place to compete but a place to accept your standing, the track you're on, and the promotions your likely to receive. It's not likely that you'll aspire above your standing. Competition takes place between equals [people who see themselves as equals anyway]. Once you find your standing in the hierarchy, you're not equals [in that context], so you can't compete. You do your role, and together you make the whole machine work. Your company competes against other companies (because the companies are equals). If you find that you are equal to another person within your company/circle/family (e.g., when the system breaks down), then you compete. It's a (benevolent?) caste system. You test into your "place" and then stay there (moving along the appropriate track) for the rest of your working life.
Like I said, these are raw thoughts. I have changed the order and edited some of the rougher spots, but I left the contect basically the way I recorded it. I don't always think in complete sentences, and the real world is complex and changing. In the past, though, Japan was a kind of caste society. These impressions partly came from wondering how well that past still explains the present.