Try living outside your comfort zone

Susan Flanagan
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For me it was Japan — a learning experience that is with me still

The year is 1993. It’s winter and the temperature is about 0 degrees outside as well as inside.

I wake and roll my belly up off the thin futon and thick grass mats. My husband stirs and does what every doting husband should do: he carries the kerosene stove out to the balcony to light it so his wife can keep down her morning glass of water. We are in Hitachi, Japan and we are expecting our first child. Who knew that very few homes in Japan have central heating or that the smell of kerosene would turn the pregnant me into a hot water exchange?

Memories of being pregnant in Japan flooded my mind two nights this week as I read Glenn Deir’s wonderfully entertaining book: “Sick Joke: Cancer, Japan and Back Again.”

Of course, Glenn wasn’t pregnant in Japan, but his description of his adventures cracked me up and made me reflect on my own weird and wonderful Japanese adventure.

It’s been 19 years since I left that amazing country and the Made-in-Japan baby is now in university looking for a first work-term that will take him out into the world. I hope he is able to venture somewhere completely out of his comfort zone, even though I suspect job offers won’t come from anywhere as culturally isolated as our experience with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme in the days before social media, Internet, email, cheap long distance rates and even cellphones.  

March 1, 1993 was the day for my monthly visit to my English-speaking husband-and-wife gynecology team. I bid sayonara to my hubby as he heads for the train and I install myself in our gokiburi (cockroach) car. The car is a Toyota Celica, brown and so low to the ground I feel like my rear end is riding on the pavement — a loaner from a friend named Michiharu. Michiharu, generous as a bayman, has also loaned my husband a motorcycle.

I had spent the better part of two years in Ibaraki-prefecture commuting by train, but once I got pregnant — my boss, who for all intents and purposes was my Japanese father — insisted I drive. It was not the train that bothered him. It was more the several kilometres by bicycle that I travelled on either end of the train ride on the black upright clunker bicycles I strategically placed at either station.

If something happened to me, it would be my boss’s head. So that is why I found myself in a brown cockroach car, on the wrong side of the road driving a standard for the first time in my life. This, in a country where road signs are in Chinese characters called kanji, motorcycles ride on sidewalks and traffic is so bumper-to-bumper it makes Higgins Line at 8:30 a.m. look like a country road. Safer indeed. At least the dark brown gokiburi car stood out in the sea of a million white ones.

“Piss in cup,” my doctor said as a greeting when I entered the private maternity clinic in Mito, the capital of Ibaraki. I did as I was told and then lay down for my monthly ultrasound exam which was conveniently videotaped so I could bring it home to my husband for later viewing on the VCR. I had explained to both doctors how I wanted the baby’s sex to be a surprise. They both nodded their heads and uttered words of agreement.

“Yaparri, otoko desu.”

“Just as you expected, it’s a boy,” said the excited female doctor, cyber circling a critical area on the screen.

So much for the surprise, I thought. It wasn’t that they misunderstood my request made in Japanese, a language I could speak well within six months. It just would have been rude for them to disagree with me. They thus agreed, and then disregarded what I asked. A normal occurrence in Japan’s super polite society where lying is OK as long as it saves face. (Note: The monthly cyber circles on the ultrasound made it easy to distinguish a boy from a girl and we thus later knew the sex of our other four children beforehand whether we wanted to or not.)

It was on the Chinese Day of the Dog in my fifth month of pregnancy that I got my belly blessed. My husband and I were accompanied to the Buddhist temple by a co-worker who warned us that this was a serious matter and no matter what happened we were absolutely cross-our-hearts-and-hope-to-die not to laugh. All went well until a monk who had quietly entered the temple behind us suddenly struck a gigantic gong that woke the baby and made my kneeling body jackrabbit into the air.

You all know what happens when you attempt to stifle a laugh in a solemn setting. My co-worker could hardly drag our giggling gaijin bodies out of there quick enough to avoid offending the officiating monk. We did manage to pass over our envelope of yen just in time to make room for the couple coming in behind us. Rather than a pregnant belly, they were getting their new car blessed.

Back to work I went at the kyoikuinkai, or city hall, where my 900 co-workers knew my every movement. They collectively gasped when I brought raw carrots to eat for lunch. Yet they uttered not a peep when they served me live lobster trying to claw his way towards my peas. Poor thing was running out of energy. You can’t blame him for not being overly energetic when someone is dining on his back.

I should mention in this politically correct era of not clubbing seals that it would have been a grave insult for me to decline the delicacy.

That day after my appointment, Yano-sensei passed me his aisai bento. This was his loving-wife’s lunch, complete with sushi and onigiri from the previous supper’s leftovers. He made little devil horns with his fingers to show what his wife would think if she found out he was feeding his lunch to the resident gaijin while he went out to a restaurant with the boys.

Ever since our first lunch, when I chopsticked a marble-sized lump of wasabi into my mouth and tried to pretend my sinuses weren’t on fire, my co-workers took particular interest in my feeding habits. They also couldn’t believe my tolerance for sake. They had reddish rectangles on their cheeks after two shots whereas I could more or less drink a bottle of the stuff without getting too tipsy.

I was such a wonder that different departments at city hall would invite me to their after-work drinking parties. The taxation department became my favourite. I have to say it was somewhat of a relief, however, once I could use my pregnancy as an excuse to go home after work once in a while and take a breather from the parties.

You can imagine how freaky I was being Caucasian in a seaside town an hour and 10 minutes northeast of Tokyo, where many of the older folk had only seen white people on TV. Heads turned and Asian eyes widened whenever I came outside. I had daikon ashi (huge white radish legs) and a takanohana (a high nose that rose off my face). Children and adults pointed. One little lady tipped over into a ditch while she rode by me on her bike. I couldn’t stop to see if she was OK as I feared I might cause a heart attack.

Before my boss laid down the law about not commuting by train, people talked openly about me on the train, discussing such things as where I sprouted body hair and where I did not. After a few months in Japan I started sporting a homemade shirt that read: don’t stare at the gaijin. It’s rude. I wore it whenever I took a long train ride. I’d install myself on the seat and once the inevitable conversation and debate began about my alien-like qualities, I would open up my jacket and show off the shirt.

This cracked them up. They would then feel comfortable enough to practise their English on me. I might hear the same five sentences 20 times over on a train ride to Tokyo, but I loved when they talked to me rather than about me. “I am Setsuko. What is your name?”

All this sounds like me versus them. That was only when I wasn’t with my friends. People like Michiharu were perfectly relaxed in the presence of foreigners. My immediate co-workers, although constantly amused, were a little less relaxed.

One day one of my co-workers presented me with two 8 x 10 colour photos of me from when I had dressed as a samurai warrior in a festival. Unbeknownst to me, they had been on display at a nearby shopping mall frequented by all my students for a couple of months.

The thousands of junior high school children in the six schools where I taught treated me like a rock star. They used to pluck “golden” hairs right out of my head because they couldn’t believe that someone could sprout blond locks. In an attempt to combat this, I asked if I could eat lunch in the classroom with the students rather than in the staff room with the teachers. The children were excited to have a gaijin dine with them and constantly asked if I could use chopsticks even as I skilfully used them while they asked. They used to play paper-scissors-rock to decide who got to sit closest to me.

Memories of huddling around the classroom stove with the children, eating delicious mild curry rice remain as strong as submerging my body in our neck-high ofuro or square bath that is filled with cold water, heated up and serves as bath and refuge. The closest we have here to an ofuro is the hot tub on our back step. It’s not quite the same as the fish-plant-like insulated tub we had in our bathroom in Hitachi, however.

If your children ever get a chance to apply for the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (jetprogramme.ca), be assured that it will be a wonderful experience. They’ll need a university degree and have to go before they’re 30.

They’ll probably end up out in inaka (equivalent to around the bay), and they will experience the full effects of a wonderful society from which we Westerners can learn a lot — not to mention a tax-free salary, subsidized living accommodations and health care, and a boss who’ll make sure they stay out of trouble.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be the JET Programme. There are dozens of great exchange programs out there for high school, university and post-university level young adults. And while not all will be able to disconnect the young adults from our own culture, my experience indicates that getting out of your comfort zone provides an invaluable learning experience that will stay with you for life.

If you’d like to share any exchange program information, email me at susan@48degrees.ca

 

Susan Flanagan gave birth to her first son in August 1993 and she and her husband named him after their good friend,

Michiharu, who had died of a brain tumour just months before at the age of 30.

 

Foot feedback

The note below is from Andrew Goff, podiatrist and owner of The Podiatry Associates Inc. No. 1 had several partial surgeries at this clinic. Phenol was used on his nail beds for three minutes, but I have no idea if it was diluted. I think No. 1 has a strong ability to regenerate.

“… Interesting perspective on the ingrown nail!

I have to admit though; I did feel as though podiatrists in this province were being generalized. Although there are cases where the surgery isn’t effective, it has a high probability that it will be successful (actually, around 97 per cent!)

I have been practising podiatry since 2000 and have performed around 500 nail surgeries where I removed the nail root (exact procedure is phenol matrixectomy). I have only had 2 patients who had any regrowth!

I figured it was a good idea to give you the ABCs of what makes for a successful nail matrixectomy.

Firstly, there are various procedures practised. Each has varying results. The most successful is with the use of Phenol (liquid acid). The reason for this is that the liquid can reach all of the crevices of the nail bed (matrix) and therefore will accurately eliminate the nail matrix (and prevent regrowth!)

The key to success is that the Phenol has to be applied directly to the nail matrix for 3 minutes. If there is a little bit of nail left, blocking the Phenol from reaching the matrix, the result is regrowth. The other factor that decreases results is if there is blood present. I use a tourniquet on the toe before I apply the Phenol. The excess blood is removed and the Phenol is applied. When blood is present it will dilute the Phenol and it will not burn effectively!

I was a sufferer of ingrown nails too! I had my right big toe done by my instructor when I was in school for podiatry in 1998. The left big toe was done by my best friend (and also a podiatrist!) in 2002. I have not had one problem, or had regrowth, since!

The reason No. 1 had regrowth? Either the procedure was done with dilute Phenol (or it wasn’t used long enough) or he has a thick layer of nail matrix cells which require a longer than normal Phenol application.

It is interesting though, that almost every patient who comes to me for an ingrown nail is terrified of the procedure! I tell all of them that I guarantee they will leave and say, “What was I worried about, there was nothing to it!” And, they all do!

Hope this helps! : )”

Organizations: Japan Exchange, JET Programme, The Podiatry Associates

Geographic location: Japan, Hitachi, Ibaraki Mito Tokyo

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