A life of courage, joy and independence.
It’s New Year’s day which means lots of traditional activities for our family. One of these is a visit to the extended in-law’s place where we can sit and catch up with all the clan on the Japanese side of my daughter’s family tree. It’s a lot like Christmas dinner might be in the West, only there’s sushi, rice cake and prayers at the Buddhist alter instead of turkey, pie and the saying of grace. The formalities of these events are usually handled by the women who ensure that proper greetings are made, gifts given to the lady of the house as well as traditional money offerings to all of the children. Women also typically stay more sober and make efforts to escort and guide their men through the necessary steps such as lighting candles and incense at the family Buddhist alter. Like any good Japanese husband I typically eat, drink and relax with the men in front of the TV while all this is going on. This year however, things would be different and was I in for a surprise.
Shortly after arriving my wife and her sister (the other matron of our extended household) were immediately called away to care for their mother at home. This left me alone with my father-in-law and young daughter Emily. Oh no, I thought, someone’s got to take care of everything. What the heck am I gonna do? Before leaving my wife took care to hand out the money gifts to the children and gave me the gifts to hand to her aunt, so that part was covered. But what about everything else? How can I do the obligatory social interactions and catching up which my wife always does? My Japanese is limited, I don’t exactly know the protocol or even who is related to who? I’m in trouble. Somehow sensing my dilemma my daughter moved in to rescue her poor papa.
Without being asked Emily promptly stepped forward to fill the role her mother occupies at such events. Emily is twelve and nearing the end of her last year of elementary school. This is an important transitional period and in some ways marks the end of the more childish years of childhood, as adolescents in Japan ere expected to dress and behave like young adults as well as begin to carry a significantly increased burden of responsibility. Emily has lately been acting differently in anticipation of this change; behaving more grown up, taking things more seriously and acting less a child than ever before. To be honest I’ve been having a bit of a hard time with this as I’ve enjoyed so much the playful, silly years of Emily’s youth, which I’m not quite ready to give up. Emily though, seems ready, willing and quite capable of moving into the experience of being a Japanese teenager.
When I began to fluster with the focus of attention which came my way in my wife’s absence, Emily immediately stepped forward and willingly, almost eagerly, fielded the full brunt of questions, comments and social niceties her numerous aunties had in store. I was astonished to watch her answering queries with what seemed a very appropriate level of Japanese feminine grace, politeness and humility. Offering questions in return and making observations about the meal spread on the table, the playfulness of the younger children in the room and even helping answer questions asked of me which required a level of Japanese response which Emily knew was over my head. She even had the non-verbal stuff down: hand gestures as well as sitting uncomfortably on her knees upon tatami in formal fashion as her mother does at such occasions. She ate cake and drink tea like an adult and even safely deflected a careening two-year old boy with enough finesse to ensure the child did not trample her cake or injure himself during his fall. Emily truly rose to the occasion and I sat in mute awe of the result of her mother’s efforts (I certainly had very little to do with this) as well as the collective effect of Japanese society on the understanding and character of its young people (it really does require a village).
After an hour my daughter (who had been tugging on my backpack strap like a playful child as we walked in the park a few hours earlier) tapped my shoulder gently and asked if I was ready to go. I could almost hear her mother’s voice as she spoke the same words my wife would typically tell me in the past when our time at such events was over. Emily then gathered her slightly inebriated father and more slightly inebriated grandfather and directed us to the door where we men clumsily put on our shoes and then offered our expected perfunctory goodbyes. Grandpa and I then made our way out into the cold where I thought Emily was following. When I turned back I could see my little girl turned young woman silhouetted in the doorway, nodding, bowing, and talking pleasantly as she completed the more formal goodbyes to her gathered aunties. As we three walked home I held my daughter’s hand and thanked her for helping her grandfather and I and for behaving in such a grown up fashion. I found myself wishing that my wife could have seen this though I suspect this more grown-up Emily would not have appeared if my wife were around to carry the weight of representing our family at this event.
I’m writing this blog not necessarily to brag about my kid, though I would like to thank my wife for the wonderful job she has done in raising Emily to this point. I do however wish to specifically thank Japan for the part this country and community have played in shaping Emily’s thinking, behavior and expectations. Japanese are a very social people whose great aim in life seems to be the facilitation of community and family harmony and peace, which task is made difficult by the cramped conditions and very demanding work expectations and lifestyle. That they have succeeded in this aim is apparent to me and I’m very grateful that my daughter has had a chance to be exposed to these influences which I feel will benefit she and others throughout her life either here or wherever she chooses to settle and make her home.
Happy New Year everyone! 🙂