Tuesday, January 31, 2006

And the Winner Is...

In case you were wondering where we decided to send Jio to school in April, I'll tell you.

A little over a week ago, we drove past that private school I mentioned where some of the classes are taught in English. I'd pretty much resigned myself to the local public school, as it's cheap and Jio would have a chance to make friends in the neighborhood, but my husband noted that the school was still taking applications. There was a huge banner in front about this. He suggested that we apply. I went in on Monday. The head teacher came out to meet me and informed me that the entrance exam took place at the end of November, but they would be willing to accept Jio's application anyway. I rounded up some money for the application fee and an interview was scheduled. I told the moms at Lilia's school that I wouldn't be around because I had to take my son to an entrance exam. They were appalled that I was planning to go dressed in black slacks and a sweater. "You have to wear a suit," they said. "And make-up!" So I slipped out of a presentation on reading picture books to deaf children, earning the disapproval of the head teacher at my daughter's school, and rushed home to dress up.

At the school, Jio went off with the teacher who was going to administer the exam. I was left to wait in an empty room. I almost always have a book with me, but I didn't yesterday. I sat there 40 minutes waiting with nothing to do but daydream. Finally, Jio and the teacher came back. The teacher said that he did well on the test. She noted that he can read and write in Japanese, but not in English. I asked about the jump rope portion of the test, but she said they didn't do that. I was a bit relieved, because Jio has yet to master jump rope.

Later, the principal came to speak with me. She was very nice. Jio was misbehaving, opening drawers and walking around with a chair on his body, but the teacher assured me that it was good that he was so active.

Jio's acceptance letter was hand-delivered yesterday evening.

So he's going to Seiko.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Run Away!

Periodically, there are emergency drills at the deaf school kindergarten. During earthquake drills, the children crawl under tables. During fire drills, they press handkerchiefs or towels to their faces and leave the building. During fushinsha drills, they are instructed to run away.

Fushinsha means "strange person," and refers to the kind of pervert who might come onto an elementary school playground with a knife and start stabbing children. Which is what happened in Osaka a few years ago and which is why the children have these drills.

The first time they did it, someone dressed up as a fushinsha by wearing dark glasses and a hood or a scarf or something. The kids were outside playing and they were supposed to run to their homeroom teacher when the stranger came. Many children were frightened by this. Understandable, right? I thought that it might have been better if they worked to help the children feel secure at school and had parents or teachers patrolling the school grounds. We mothers have to wear name tags at school so everyone knows we belong there, and the gates are always closed, though they can be easily opened. The principal recently supplied every kid with a buzzer that can be pressed in an emergency. It gives off a high keening sound meant to surprise a would-be attacker.

A few days ago, another fushinsha drill was held at the kindergarten. This time, there was a skit in which familiar teachers pretended to be the bad guy. So it was kind of funny for the kids, but they got it: Don't take candy from strangers! Don't go off with some stranger just because he/she offered you a toy! The kids participated in the skit, too. Lilia was worried about the whole thing days in advance, but she was called to the front of the room. Boy did she scoot to me quickly when the "bad person" tried to give her candy. After that, the teachers reviewed everything again, writing key points on the white board. Then all the kids practiced yelling. It was a good drill.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Wandering Star

Just finished reading the gorgeously written Wandering Star. It was easy to forget that this book was written by a sixty-something French man, as the young Jewish and Arab women were so well portrayed.

The title refers to Esther, whose name means star in Hebrew. The novel follows her and her mother, Elizabeth, as they wander in exile. When the story begins, they are living with Esther’s father in St. Martin, a French town occupied by Italian soldiers. These men, from just over the border, are in control of the village, but the real enemy, the German Gestapo, has not arrived yet.

Esther’s friend, Gasparini tells her, “if the Germans come here, they’ll kill all the Jews.”Esther hides her identity behind a French name, Helene, and has false papers, but she and the other Jews in the village live in fear. Knowing that her future is uncertain, Esther is especially appreciative of the world around her – the sun on her bare skin, the taste of a wheat kernel, the coolness of the water as she dives into the gorge. Meanwhile, she and her family dream of Israel, a land promised to the Jews, where they will be free and safe.

When the Germans finally do come, Esther and her mother flee to Italy and then to Israel, where they witness the raising of the Israeli flag for the first time. Of course, they encounter many complications on the way. On the road to Jerusalem, Esther crosses paths with Nejma, a 16-year-old girl who has been driven from her home. Esther and the Arab girl experience a moment of empathy, though they are supposedly enemies. They exchange names then go their separate ways in search of home and safety.

Nejma winds up in Nour Chams Camp. She and her fellow refugees wait for the United Nations truck bearing food and medicine that never comes. The camp becomes infested with disease and Nejma must flee again in order to save her life.

Although the lives of these young women are filled with suffering, this novel is infused with hope. As one character points out after the birth of a child, “the most beautiful thing can appear in the most vile place, among the refuse.”

Seamlessly translated by C. Dickson, Wandering Star is both a coming-of-age story and a powerful tale of survival. For readers hoping to better understand the world we live in, this book also helps shed light on current events in the Middle East.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Junk Food for the Dead

For the past few mornings, I've had to drive by a roadside shrine for someone who was killed in a traffic accident. There are a few bouquets of flowers wrapped in cellophane,and also a few cans of beer and bags of chips. Call me crazy, but I've always found it a little strange that people put out packs of cigarettes for those who died from lung cancer, or bars or chocolate for someone who might have lived longer had they followed a healthier lifestyle. It seems like a bowl of brown rice and some steamed vegetables would be better nourishment for the spirits. But then again, it's more about appeasement than nutrition, I guess.

Taiken Happyo

Yesterday was Lilia's taiken happyo, which means she had to get up in front of all the kindergarteners, teachers and mothers and make a presentation about what she did during winter vacation. Lilia wanted to talk about the beautiful pink Barbie-as-Rapunzel dress that she got for Christmas from her American grandparents. Normally, Lilia is excited about making presentations, but she doesn't want to practice. One point of the exercise is that the kids have to memorize their little talks. My girl balked quite a bit in the days leading up to the real deal, but yesterday morning she really wanted to practice. She wound up doing a great job, even though she didn't eat a proper breakfast and she had to wait an hour and a half while the four kids before her did their presentations (on kite-flying, a stay at grandparents' house, playing karuta, and bowling). Afterwards, the boy she really really likes asked her a question and she was able to answer it. That is the first time she has been able to answer a question about her presentation. I was very happy.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Quote of the Day

"The children of gangsters are well-behaved."
-spoken by one of the mothers at Lilia's school who apparently observed a yakuza family in the restaurant that her family runs.

Friday, January 13, 2006


I didn't set the alarm last night, so we wound up sleeping till 8AM! The exam for Fuzoku Elementary School was at 8:30AM!! We dragged Jio out of bed, threw some clothes on him, shoved a toasted bagel in his hand, and then put him in the car with his dad. It was drizzly and a bit dark, so I worried a bit about Yoshi racing along the levee road. They came home about an hour and a half later. Yoshi had forgotten an essential piece of paper, so Jio wasn't allowed to take the test, never mind that he was late. While I did not intentionally sabotage Jio's chances for getting into the school, I can't say I'm disappointed. Apparently 98 percent of kids at that school go to cram school, and I'm not about to have some teacher try to pressure me into sending my boy to juku. So now we're down to two options - public school and the bi-lingual private school.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Shogakko Boy

Tomorrow my son has his first ever entrance exam. He will be testing for a competitive public school slot. The school, called Tokushima Fuzoku Shogakko, is academically oriented. It is not my first choice for Jio, who is bright, but not precocious, but his best friend is interviewing as well so we are keeping our options open. My husband thinks that Fuzoku attracts well-educated open-minded families whose children would be disinclined to bully our boy. Also, there is a certain amount of prestige and the school is near the Deaf School, so I could just drop him off. Also, there is no homework. The kids, who are self-motivated, work at their own pace at school. The downside is that there are 40 kids in a class, and no sports.

I would like to send him to Seiko, a private school not too far from here. Half of the classes are conducted in English by native speakers. The classes are quite small, with no more than 20 kids per class. I think the second grade class this year has 16 kids. My husband thinks it's too expensive. Depending on whether Jio rides the bus to school and eats school lunch, it could cost up to 80,000 yen per month, which would take a huge chunk out of Yoshi's high school P.E. teacher salary. Obviously I would have to make some money, but it would be worth it to maintain Jio's English. The older he gets, the less time he will spend with me, and the less he will speak English. I've been reading Waking Up American; Coming of Age Biculturally, a collection of essays put out by Seal Press. Most of the essayists write about not being able to speak one of their parents' languages, or at least not being able to speak it well. It would be nice to be able to speak to at least one of my children in my native language.

The local public school is about a 40-minute walk from our house and there may be up to 39 kids in a class. Also, there is no English. If he goes to that school, it would be easy for him to make friends with kids in the neighborhood (I do believe that building community is important) and he can play sports on the school teams. And it's free.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Speaking of kids caught between cultures, my own story on the topic is now up at Literary Mama .

This morning when I dropped Jio off at school, one of his friends asked me why, since he was born in America, Jio could speak Japanese. I tried to explain that Jio was born in Japan - in Tokushima, in fact, at the same hospital where many of his classmates were born - and that he is Japanese, but the kid wasn't buying it. He kept calling Jio a gaikokujin. I assured Jio that he is indeed Japanese. I hope that's enough for now.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Once Upon a Cuento

I just finished reading Once Upon a Cuento: Latina/o Stories for Young Adults(Curbstone Press). It's a terrific collection of stories about kids caught between cultures. There's Tuyi, in Sergio Troncoso's "The Snake" who wants to blend in but can't because he's brown-skinned,overweight and good at math and science. There's Berta, in Luna Calerdon's "Armpits, Hair, and Other Marks of Beauty," whose family keeps moving between her native Venezuela and Detroit. And then there's the girl in Malin Alegria Ramirez's story "Leti's Shoe Escandalo" who'll put up with all sorts of shit (literally) just so she can buy a pair of Nikes and be as cool as the light-skinned Latinas in her class. This book has been designed for use in classrooms and each story starts out with an introduction to put it in context. It was helpful for me, too, 'cause, hey, I don't remember that much about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Several of these stories appeared in collections of stories for adults. I loved this book and I look forward to sharing with my kids when they're a little older.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Coming-of-Age Day

Today is Coming-of-Age Day here in Japan, a celebration of those who have turned 20. It's a big dress-up chance for young women, who often go to salons to have their hair and make-up done and kimono put on. Putting a kimono on by oneself is pretty complicated and there are actually classes on getting dressed in traditional garb.

More significantly for us, today is the last day of winter vacation. Jio is especially looking forward to seeing his friends. A couple days ago he was outside by himself, tossing a football around (all those bowl games Grandpa and Great-Grandpa watched in the U.S. must have had their effect). He came in and told me that he'd been pretending to be playing with his friends. He'd been doing their voices and everything. I felt kind of sorry for him. He needs to make some friends in the neighborhood.

It looks like Lilia won't be going to school tomorrow. She came down with the mumps last night.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Divas in Limbo

So my rock grrl novel, The Screaming Divas, has been officially abandoned by the agent who took it on something like six years ago - a rather inauspicious beginning to The Year of the Dog. When she first signed me up, she was bubbling with enthusiasm, saying that she was "passionate" about the book and that she would keep sending it out. I never figured out quite where she was sending it to, although she forwarded responses from Wendy Lamb and Dutton (who called the book "unusual and powerful." Several months later, she wrote that she couldn't sell the book as it was and asked for a revision. I duly revised it and sent it back in a timely manner, but never heard if she read it or what she thought of it. A couple years later, I queried by e-mail, thinking I'd send it out on my own. She wrote back saying that the market was really hot and that she'd try it again if I'd revise it again ("Make it tighter, add humor," was all she said.) So I revised it again, sent it in, and heard...nothing. Finally, last summer I got an e-mail from one of her associate agents saying that she was enjoying it and wondering if it was still available. I wrote back that it was. Months passed. I e-mailed again in October. The associate replied, "We were just saying that we need to talk about The Divas at our next meeting!" She wrote that she'd get back to me at the end of the month. October passed, November passed, December... I returned from the States to find my reply: "I have now had three of my agents read your revised manuscript, hoping that one of them would love it enough to take it on [I thought she loved it]. Unfortunately, none feels that it is quite strong enough to take on. A few years ago, when I first saw it, I thought it had a lot of potential as edgy books were getting popular. But now, there are so many of them that this isn't special enough." Whatever. I wasn't happy with the level of communication and I think I'm better off without them.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Mothers-in-law in Literature

Although I complain about my mother-in-law a lot, I have to say that she is nowhere near as trying as Mimi, the mother-in-law in Jennifer Weiner's Little Earthquakes, the book I finished this morning. (Jet lag had the kids up at 2AM!) Mimi shows up at her only son's wedding in a wedding gown and defies her daughter-in-law at every turn. Nor is she as bad as the Japanese mother-in-law in Meera Chand's The Bonsai or the one in my own story, "Gan," which appears in Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined. And I suppose I should point out that she has served as my muse on more than one occasion. I guess a little conflict is good for the writing.

The Mother-in-law/Daughter-in-law Dilemma

After an arduous journey involving two planes and a bus, we returned home. Or to the house, rather. As we ambled through airports, my children were excited about being back in their native country. Jio immediately began talking about MushiKing and Lilia signed that she was looking forward to seeing her grandmother. Yoshi was very chipper, too. All I could think about in my sleep-deprived state was that I was going back to my mother-in-law's house and a lack of privacy.

The good thing about living with my mother-in-law is that she turned on the ol' kerosene heater ahead of our arrival so we wouldn't have to walk into a cold house. She was very happy to see us, and immediately pointed out that she'd taken down and folded our laundry. This afternoon, however, she told me that she'd thrown away my favorite jean jacket and Lilia's winter coat. Since we don't have a coat rack or closet, I tend to leave coats hanging over the little-used high chair next to the back door, near where I pile up empty boxes before I prepare them for trash. She assumed that the coats were part of my trash pile and took the liberty of throwing them away. I told her that she should ask us before she throws something of ours away, and she replied, "But you weren't here!" I understand that she was trying to be nice and doing that Japanese thing of anticipating someone's needs before the thought of needing something even occurs, but from my American point of view, she crossed some serious boundaries.And it wasn't like I hadn't tidied up the room before we left for vacation. So a note to you mothers-in-law out there: Don't go into your daughter-in-law's living quarters when she's not there unless you're watering plants or dropping off mail or something that she's asked you to do. And don't ever throw away something that doesn't belong to you!