Friday, June 8, 2012

The Bridge Between Two Cultures

I've been asked, "Why did you choose to live in Kamakura?" As well as, "Why didn't you live on the base?" And recently, "If you had to do it over it again, knowing what you know, would you still do it?" I realized with this bundle of questions that I mainly saw the choices along the way as opportunity. Choosing Kamakura was an opportunity to tip destiny in the direction of learning about Japanese culture.

When we found a house to rent in Kamakura five years ago, I told the agent, "I'll take it if you can find a yochien Japanese preschool that will enroll my children." As agents go, he was motivated and called back with, "You have an interview scheduled." Having arrived in Japan from Washington, D.C., I was not surprised at needing an interview for preschool. My husband's new co-worker supplied us with a contact for a translator and so our adventure in Kamakura began. Choosing yochien was an opportunity to learn another approach to childrearing.

Our daughter took to Japan like a fish to water. It was if we had been depriving her of rice, tofu, and giant concrete slides her whole life. She had previously spent a year, at the fine age of three, attending the French Maternal Preschool in Georgetown so immersing in Japanese was hardly cause for alarm. She hadn't known any French when she started.

I was pretty clueless to the ways of yochien. Months went by before I finally asked at the bus stop one day, "Why do they keep bringing their shoes home on Fridays?" The laughter was because I was supposed to be washing them every week. Tissue and handkerchiefs were supposed to be tucked into the children's smock pockets. I meant to sew velcro buttons on the pockets to hold stuff in, but never did. No one commented on the obento lunch box meals I packed and sent off daily. Over the years as I learned more and was schooled by my ever wiser daughter, I learned that putting packages of any type into an obento was verboten. I had been putting packets of tofu into her obento for two years at that point.

After yochien graduation, we expected to enroll our daughter into the local shogakko elementary school. Being American, I thought every child in the neighborhood was entitled to a local education, but being here under the sponsorship of the U. S. Navy meant that we were supposed to attend the American elementary school at Yokosuka Naval Base, forty-five minutes away. Explaining our desire to send our blonde, blue eyed daughter to the local elementary school in the end resulted in a meeting with the Kamakura City Board of Education. Other Navy children that attended local elementary schools either had a Japanese parent or were in the school district near the base. Kamakura had never had a Navy family, without a Japanese parent, attend a local school. Choosing shogakko was an opportunity for our daughter to expand her Japanese.

The Yokosuka Navy Base, around this time, had created a job for a school liaison coordinator. She suggested that I contact the base legal office to discuss the issue with the base Japanese lawyer. He told us that the city was not obligated to educate our daughter, thanks to the S.O.F.A. (Status Of Forces Agreement for you landlubbers), but that they might consider it if we asked. We went to the school board meeting knowing we were going against the tide.

My husband and I put on our darkest suits, de rigueur in Japan for any formal event. A good friend and fellow yochien mother, who knew us and more importantly our children well, offered to translate. Another friend had insured we got the meeting scheduled in the first place. It was all about a little girl with pigtails who had earned the chance, nothing more, nothing less. I was nervous but earnest.

There were four members present for that first interview with one being a translator. I was sweating inside my suit. They asked us if there was a bus to take our daughter to the American school. "Yes," we replied. They asked us if there was a school for her to attend on the base, "Yes," we replied. They asked us a lot of stuff that had me confused because it wasn't about our daughter. Sensing that the point was being lost I spoke up and told them that we were there because our daughter deserved the chance to go to school with her friends and neighbors, that this wasn't about money or funding or transportation, but it was about a little girl who came to Japan, learned Japanese, and took to Japan like a native. One member looked up at me and said, "She is a bridge?" "Yes!" I replied, "She is a bridge, she is the link between Japan and American already and in the future." I knew then that they got it. Not long after we received the all important post card in the mail; her entrance ticket into shogakko elementary school.

That little girl, the bridge, is what has carried me across the cultural divide, the obstacles of being a gaijin in Japan. Turning back was never an option. Though I have not made a great effort to learn the Japanese language, too overwhelming, I have sought mightily to learn the ways of the culture. I will never blend in here, with my pink skin, blue eyes, and unmanageable hair. I do love the connection this bridge has made even if building it has meant that I lost touch with some of my own cultural comforts, the main one being the chance to be smarter than my children for a while, but I can't read, write, or correct their manners or homework.

I have often thought of myself as somewhat of a pioneer here in the wilds of Kamakura, which excepting the spiders, bugs, and green plant life that take over, is quite civilized. The term pioneer may not be entirely accurate as there are plenty of other gaijin about, just not mothers at school, and I never intended to blaze a trail for others to follow.

I played a small part in building a bridge, and I can't take back one iota of this experience without dismantling that and so, no, no regrets.



1st Day of Dai Ichi Shogakko for "the bridge"