Sunday, January 30, 2011

On Again, Off Again

One of the challenges of living in two places and two cultures is that just when I think I've got a handle on things, I realize that I don't.

For Peanut's birthday this year, (her 3rd!) I was determined to bake a birthday cake. This is fairly uncommon in Japan from what I see, and I felt strongly that since this is the 3rd time we've celebrated her birthday here, she deserved better than a store or bakery cake. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that, but she won't get a party with all her friends, birthday crowns, etc. like many of her American friends are used to getting. Birthdays here in Japan seem to be pretty low-key (at least in my husband's family) and that's not what I want for Peanut. When I was a child, my parents didn't do anything extravagant for my birthday, but I was the special one on my birthday. My mom baked me a cake, and I'd often get to choose what we ate for dinner. It was little things, but things that let me know I was super important that day.

Anyway, I set out to find all the right ingredients and baking supplies including cake pans, sprinkles for decorating and even a "3" candle. I was surprised to find everything I needed, thanks to a friend who pointed me in the driection of a fabulous baking supply store. I came home and started to bake the cake. Not only did it look weird and puffy while baking, but when I tasted a sample, it just Metallic or bitter might be the words to describe the aftertaste. I had carefully measured and calculated everything because I've made mistakes before when converting measurements from English to metric units.

And yet.

When I asked Gboy to taste the cake he said he could taste a hint of something but didn't know that he'd complain about it. Still. I was hesitant about whether or not to serve this to his family. We went to the kitchen and double checked thee ingredients. Yup. I had used baking soda instead of baking powder. After all this time, I still couldn't remember that "tansan" is baking soda - NOT powder.

I was incredibly disappointed. I wanted it to work out for a change. I wanted to be successful at this. In the end, the cake was frosted and sprinkled and Peanut licked the frosting and sprinkles off not giving one whit about the cake anyway. And we did buy a back-up cake just before others arrived. Everyone was happy!

And lest this be a total downer of a story, I should mention that the piƱata we set out to make was a huge success with Peanut and her cousins and the adults got a real kick out of watching the kids try to smash it. All's well that end's well!

Monday, January 17, 2011

There's Bento in Our Future!

One of the things that Peanut will need to take with her to yochien/preschool starting in March, is a lunch - specifically a bento. I know what bento is in theory. And I've even seen a lot of neat ideas for multicultural and fusion style bentos, but I'm certainly no expert on strictly Japanese bento making. But this seems to be pretty important to people (i.e. the school director, and our sister-in-law who sends her children to the school and in her opinion the other children at the school). Now I'm not sure how to address this.

I'm all for learning how to make Japanese style foods and making a bento for Peanut each day, particularly since I know that my husband, an excellent cook, will help me. But I'm concerned about how that will happen since my mother-in-law is in the kitchen all morning (most mornings) making a big farm-style Japanese breakfast with miso soup, broiled fish, assorted vegetables, tsukemono, and the like and if she's done with cooking breakfast she's often starting on lunch or dinner preparations. With only one modest kitchen, I don't foresee an easy way for me to get into the kitchen as I often have to dance around her just to make myself a cup of coffee in the morning. However, I don't want her to feel that she should (because she's most experienced) or must (because I'm unwilling) make Peanut's lunch every day. And yet, I suspect it may go that way if we don't figure something out in the next month or so.

At least I've got some lead time to start practicing making these fabulous and elaborate lunches! Honestly I'm sort of excited about the possibilities, especially if I get to mix it up and toss in some Western style (or at least non-Japanese) foods now and then. One of the things that I don't want to force on Peanut is a mostly Japanese diet. I know that's something that a lot of people around us feel comfortable with, but it's not something that I'm comfortable with doing. We don't expect her to eat a mostly American or Western diet when we're in the U.S. - she's used to eating foods from all over (Indian, Greek, Mexican, Italian, Thai, Japanese, and on and on). If I can sneak in the occasional samosa or couscous or macaroni and cheese I'll be happy!

Sunday, January 16, 2011


I had a near meltdown the other day. I thought I'd lost my wedding ring and then I couldn't find a gift for Peanut's birthday. Neither instance in and of itself would normally cause me to lose it so easily. But mash it together with re-entry culture shock? Yup.

Just that morning I'd gone to look for my ring and couldn't find it where I would "usually" keep it here in the bedroom we stay in at my in-law's place. But I couldn't find it. Which would not surprise you if you could have seen the stuff all over the place. Piles of my stuff -the girls' stuff - my MIL's stuff - my SIL's stuff. Because all of us have to use this space throughout the year and it collects everybody's stuff until there's no clear space for my stuff or the girls' and I just end up snagging a spot on a shelf if I can. Until 2 days ago, most of our stuff was all over the floor or on tabletops in the room where I could at least see it and knew where it was even if it wasn't what anyone would reasonably call "organized". (We have since then seriously reorganized and cleaned up and started to box up really old stuff from grandma and great-grandma to make some space.)

Anyway, on this day last week, we left for the store in search of a birthday present for Peanut and I was struggling to cope with the possibility that I'd lost the ring for good. We got to the store and headed for the toy department. And found nothing. Oh there were aisles and aisles of branded, flashy stuff for older kids especially. But I was hoping for something that didn't have Disney or Hello Kitty or other countless Japanese brands/characters all over it. I was hoping for something age appropriate for a 3 year old. There may have been a few items in the store that met this criteria, but as my Japanese is fairly limited (particularly when reading it) I was totally unsure. I became more and more discouraged about finding anything I wanted and finally gave up.

At this point, the re-entry crash and burn occurred. I'd reached that seemingly inevitable moment when my frustration with my own limited language abilities collided with the limitations of the living situation in which we reside etc. and suddenly I was nearly weeping in the middle of a large train station as the culture shock rocked me. I always know it's coming at some point, but never know exactly when or how it will manifest.

Ugh. In the end I came home and dug around under piles of stuff and finally found the ring. What a relief. And the gift itself isn't that important. Peanut will survive without. It's the process and the accompanying frustration ("Why can't they just describe everything in English?! Ohhhhhh. Because we're in Japan. Duh.") that really messes with my head.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

BlogHer 2011?

Wow would I like to go. So many fascinating people to meet. A chance to have a mini-getaway which I haven't had since the girls were born. And the location is on the West Coast meaning it wouldn't even be that far for me to travel. And Sweet Pea will be over a year old by that time. What to do? Certainly the cost is something that we could just barely manage making it a definite luxury. And it's not as though I'm the most prolific blogger these days. But maybe that's why I need to go? Am I rationalizing? I think I could actually benefit from the inspiration of others attending.

What to do oh wise internets??

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Urban vs. Rural Living

Watching Peanut play in the dirt at the farm today, I was reminded of how much she enjoys playing in sandboxes, dirt piles and the like. The main difference is that here on the farm, she's able to use real potatoes when she plays at gardening. We don't really have a lot of space, or the time frankly, to garden at our home in Seattle. This makes being here in Osaka and extra special treat. The girls get exposed to an entirely different way of life.

I confess, when I'm here, I miss the easy access to coffee shops and parks and playgroups that we enjoy at our home in Seattle. But we absolutely have the advantage of being closer to some aspects of "nature". The ironic part is that where we're located here in Osaka used to be truly rural, but at this time, development continues to encroach more and more as industrial businesses move into the neighborhood without, as far as I can tell, any real "urban planning" or design. As a result, the kids in the neighborhood now play in empty parking lots where fields used to be. I think it's a sad thing.

When we were here last spring, some of Gboy's friends' kids came over one afternoon to pick some carrots and daikon. They were incredibly excited to see where the vegetables came from and to actively participate in gathering their own food for dinner. This is just one more reason why I hate to say, "Let's just sell off the land and the farm and live in the U.S. 100% if the time as we had planned once upon a time." It seems more and more vital to keep this slice of life intact, not just for our family, but for the community at large. I'm not sure what the future will bring or if I'll ever really be able to adapt to living this more rural lifestyle even part-time, but for now I keep wishing that we'll be able to find a way to make it work.

Friday, January 7, 2011

They Paved The Cherry Blossoms

While you can't really see it in this photo, after you cross the street at the end of this path, there used to be a section of the road straight ahead lined with cherry blossoms on either side. They're in full bloom in this photo and mostly a blur of pink in the distance. I walked home this way today and was amazed yet again at how barren the area looks now that all those trees have been removed to make way for some sidewalks. Because I'm a pedestrian and public transportation rider, this works in my favor. But the cherry blossoms sure were prettier.

Even worse, the field that used to take up half the block on one side has now been turned into an industrial building (very common in this neighborhood) and a big parking lot adjoining the building. I'm not even sure what or who the parking lot is intended for since it was empty today - the first time I've seen it.

*sigh* Change can be hard to witness.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Language in a Transition

The transition from living in the U.S. to living in Japan (and vice versa) never ceases to amaze me. Once again we're back in Japan and things are different once again. I think living with a toddler (okay Peanut is really a preschooler now!) only highlights differences that I wouldn't otherwise see. Because she is constantly evolving and growing as a person, each transition thus far has been a unique one. Upon arriving here in Japan just last week, we once again reminded my in-laws that they could speak Japanese and Peanut would have no trouble understanding them. It may take a little while for her to feel comfortable enough to reply to them in Japanese as English is currently her dominant language (no surprise since we've spent the last 9 months living in the U.S.). But Gboy has continued to speak to her in Japanese and comprehension isn't an issue for her. Still, my MIL and FIL attempt to address her in English (neither of them is particularly comfortable with English) and to admonish her to speak in Japanese. Luckily this isn't an issue with either of my sisters-in-law or brothers-in-law; they simply address her in Japanese.

One of the frustrations I have is that my FIL in particular can't seem to understand that Peanut understands Japanese. He had friends over yesterday and when they asked if Peanut understands Japanese he said, "a little". "No. Not just a little," I wanted to say. She understands as much Japanese as she understands English. But he seems to think that since she speaks mostly English that's all she can understand. I sort of see why he would think this, but we do live with her every day and have a pretty good sense of her abilities. If we say she understands Japanese, then she does!!

But ultimately what this post is about is how difficult it is to be a parent and to stand by and watch your child struggle to master something. Peanut is learning to master two languages and in a sense, two cultures. Each community and culture has a set of social protocols that she has to adapt to in addition to becoming proficient in each language. On the first day we were back, a friend of Gboy's came over to the house with his daughter who is just a year or two older than Peanut. They've played together in the past, and Gboy seemed to think they'd fall immediately back into a rhythm. But the older girl now has a 1 year old sister to tote around and play with and the language barrier was clearly an issue. Peanut stood to one side and looked on with some trepidation and I could tell that she was frustrated because the girls couldn't understand her non-stop English dialogue. Also, while playing with her cousins, she gets frustrated when she asks them to share with her or explains to them that she'd like for them to wait for their turn rather than take her toys from her, but since she's speaking in English they don't understand. And I know that allowing Peanut to be frustrated, to a point, can be a good learning opportunity particularly when we explained the situation to her (i.e. "your friends don't understand English"). In time, it will come. Peanut will figure out how to use her Japanese with more folks here. In fact, just a few days after this incident she was playing with a group of girls of a similar age and language didn't really seem to be an issue at all.

However, in the meantime, watching Peanut struggle to communicate with my MIL and FIL and to communicate with her friends is a new parental milestone for me. I didn't grow up as a multilingual speaker and don't really have first-hand experience with what this all feels like from a child's perspective. I just have to trust that it all makes sense to her (or will in time) and that the benefits far outweigh the costs.