Sunday, 15 November 2009

Back in the big smoke - Niigata 1

I arrived back in Tokyo from Niigata last night.  Through a little planning and a lot of luck Hiro, who was returning from Okinawa, and I  managed to arrive 2 minutes apart at the local train station.   Hiro enjoyed Okinawa,  the hot humid summer like temperatures were  a sharp contrast to Tokyo where the slide into winter has begun. It seems like the conference went well and what ever was supposed to be achieved was.

Niigata was fun.  I went to see Lily a Canadian friend living in Niigata. I met Lily and her husband Masahiko 5 years ago or so during the New Year holidays when they were living in Kazuno, a smalll, deeply recessed, ex mining town in the mountains of northern Akita not far from where Hiro's parents live.  When they moved to Yokohama area 3 years ago we used to meet up from time to time. We're a similar age, our Japanese is at a similar level (we're both studying for Level  2 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test), and our outlook on life is similar.  Two years ago in March, I went to Hiroshima and Miyajima with Lily and her boys Tomoya (3, almost 4 at the time) and Reo (who was not yet one). The boys were a delight. Funny, charming, and very bright and so easy to take around.  I was amazed at the Atomic Bomb Museum in Hiroshima that Tomoya could take in the information in English  - (there was no way either Lily or I could explain the events in Japanese)  - but in the evening could relate it back to Masahiko on the telephone in Japanese.   I've kept in touch with occasional postcards and in the time I have been away Masahiko - who works in the energy industry - has been transferred again to Niigata, and in August baby Sora arrived.

Time in Niigata was refreshing.  It was really good to see Lily. Tomoya and Reo are as delightful - happy, lively and engaging as ever  - and so affectionate to Sora.  It was also interesting to see how a different household operates.  Lily and Masahiko are quite remarkable.  Masahiko has been transferred from Niigata to Kazuno to Tokyo (living near Yokohama) back to Niigata.... Japanese companies have little compunction about transfering employees to different cities (or countries) with little regard for the situation of the whole family.  Some families adjust by moving the family unit, in many cases though the father moves independently of the family to the place of work and returns only occasionally. The phenomena of solo appointments where the family unit is separated on account of work has a specific word, tanshin funin, and is very common - driven mainly by not wanting to interupt the education of the children.  There is an interesting article about  Japanese household called Absent Fathers, Feminized Sons, Selfish Mothers and Disobedient Daughters: Revisiting The Japanese Ie Household if anyone feels interested enough to read in depth about the phenomenom in a broader context with analysis of related problems.

With each move a family makes usually the onus is on the mother to make it work - find suitable kindergartens, schools, doctors, activities, make friends and perhaps find a job as well.  It would be tough for anyone, but without full competence in the language it's really tough.  I marvel at Lily's ability to make it work so well.  Her positive attitude and adaptablity explain much of it. Masahiko's flexibility and participation make a huge difference as well.   In Australia I guess people take it as a given that in a two parent household both parents contribute to the household and child rasising.  In Japan it is much less like that with many fathers having negligible input into their children's upbringing.

It's fascinating to watch language dynamics in a bilingual household. The ease with which Tomoya and Reo switch between speaking Japanese to Masahiko and  English to Lily and me is quite remarkable. Occasionally I used a word that Tomoya didn't know and couldn't reasonably guess from the context. He was very quick to ask 'is that English or Japanese'. Sometimes it was neither, - ta da da da - someitmes the misunderstanding came from my imperfect Japanese pronciation.  Whatever the reason he slotted in the information, stored away for another day.   I looked up 'scatterbrain' on a English Japanese translation website.  It gave two words, one of which I was unsure about. I asked Tomoya what it meant and he could explain to me how the word was used in Japanese and gave an example sentence.   For 5 years old I thought that was quite incredible.
Sometimes there are Japanese words that are better than an English equivilent.  Oishii = tastes very good.  Oishii is much more expressive, and hence tends to be used - even by Lily and me.  The word for pick me up and carry me in Japanese is simply dakko.  Unsuprisingly Reo will use dakko when he wants to be carried.  But if he finds himself in a pickle the English 'Help' or  'I'm stuck' flow more easily than the Japanese equivilents. If I read a Japanese book on shapes in Japanese Reo would use Japanese to describe the shapes.  If I made up the words and used English, he would use English. At almost two and a half he can  already counts to ten and recognises the numbers for each in English.  (he evidently enjoys going up and down in the lift ;) )  In Japanese he counts the numbers but has yet to associate the shapes with the numbers, which for me was intriguing - I had never thought about the association being independent. (But actually thinking about it, it makes sense I can count to 8 in Mandarin but might need to count from one to work out the meaning of some of the numbers.)

Eating someone else's cooking was also a treat.  Cooking is not very interesting for me - Hiro gets home so late that we rarely eat together at night time. Although he calls to say whether he wants dinner it's often not until 8pm or so.  Breakfast we eat together but it needs to be quick. I am very guilty of making excess and having left overs to eat the next day or freeze.... I was impressed that Lily could conjur up something completely different each night with seemingly little effort.  I've come home with new recipe ideas -
* okayu with chicken stock, meat and lots of veges
* pie made meat and vegies using mirin and soy and worstershire sauce for flavour
* lotus root grated with flour  and a little miso added, kneaded till bread dough consistency and then pan fried. (I made these last night and added chopped green onions.)
*chapati with daikon grated into it and cooked on hotplate.

I was amazed that Tomoyo and Reo happily munch on raw broccoli and carrots for afternoon tea - in preference to cake.... I asked Reo what he wanted for dinner - he answered 'carrots'..... lol.  Enviable eating preferences....

I will continue this later.

BTW Lily's blog is at