Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Pool Side Chat in Hawaii

Pool side yesterday between "Mama, look at me!" demands of four children which translates between a lot of interruptions, another mother and I had a bit of a chat. It was the first one I have had here as when we went to the Luau we sat next to two deaf families with four hearing boys; it was very loud but lacking in conversation. This mother seemed a gentle sort. She asked me, "Do you know Kahlil Gibran?" "Yes, mm, but I can't remember the quote," I said thinking of children and longing. She said, "I can't remember the exact words either, but they are not our children. They are on their own path." "Mm, so they are," I said, "but in the meantime they wear me out." She said, "Sometimes when my husband comes out of his office, he finds two children waiting to see him." I laughed, "You really do that?" She replied, "Oh, yes. Don't you?" I replied, "It doesn't really work like that in the Navy." We chatted on about this and that.

"In Japan, have you ever experienced unkindness or coldness?" she asked. "No, I haven't, but some experiences frustrate me." "Really?" she asked. "Really," I replied. She wanted an example of what frustrated me in Japan. I told her that in Japan when you learn the way to do something, even as a foreigner, it may irritate you that there is no deviation from that way, but that everyone experiences the same way. "It's better than what I experience here," I said. "What do you mean?" she asked. I told her about coffee shop experiences- the yellow cup Vs. the total lack of eye contact.

The "yellow cup" story was a profound moment in my understanding of the Japanese way. Mr. Donut is one of the few coffee shops where you can get refills in Japan. On the particular day our order was a cup of coffee in a red cup, a cafe au lait in a yellow cup, a hot chocolate in a white cup, and an orange paper cup with ice and milk. The Moose, then two years old, had the white cup, but he wanted the yellow cup. In the way of a worn out mother who is sick of negotiating and just wants peace, I poured the liquids here and there and managed to pour the Moose's hot chocolate into my yellow cup. Satisfied, he sat there quietly. I was then happy to chat with my husband without interruption. The waiter approached to offer us refills, I held out my now white cup, pointed to the yellow cup, and asked for a refill as all that shuffling left me with lukewarm cafe au lait.

This was the moment that I learned my lesson. "So sorry. Cafe au lait only in the yellow cup" said the waiter. No amount of pointing to the yellow cup or trying to explain that the kid was two and stubborn would help. It was my first glimpse of "Rainman Nation." There is only one way to do things in Japan and in these kinds of situations, you will not prevail. I did my mama magic and shuffled about the drinks to get my cafe au lait (I'm not one to let obstacles stop me) and then reversed shuffled to satisfy the Moose. Yes, I was annoyed, but in accepting the way, I got my cafe au lait.

In contrast to the yellow cup experience, my coffee shop annoyance in the States comes from the lack of engagement. Setting: any coffee shop. Issue: employees who do not look at me, see me, talk to me while taking my order, or generally appear that they want to be working in a coffee shop. The employee's vacant eyes and lack of engagement in taking an order seem to be about being better than the work they do; they are not present.

In contrast in Japan, work is valued in and of itself- there is no shame in having a job whatever you do. Having a job is valued in a way I do not see widespread in the States. Perhaps the case could be made about industries like fast food and coffee shops being less than humane, but I am merely contrasting experiences in one culture's fast food industry with another in the sense that how we see ourselves comes through.

Personally, I prefer the way I am treated in Japan where I am greeted with Ishamaset or a "Welcome" and then, with eye contact, the employee looks at you to take your order. I also like that when I pay for something in Japan, my change is always counted out sometimes with dramatic flair that makes me smile. In the States I'm handed a wad of money and change with a receipt- no one counts out the change- it is dumped in my hand. I'm dismissed unprofessionally.

The other mother at the pool side nodded in acknowledgement. She understood my experience. We talked about Pearl Harbor as well. Perhaps later, we are going there, I will write about it. I thought her question about Japan reflected a general impression people have of Japan that for me is not true- every culture has some history in which is less than stellar. I liked her reminder of the children not being ours- can't say I have heard that from another mother before, but I have read the poem many times. Here it is for you.
On Children
Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.