Monday, December 06, 2004


Yesterday evening as I was waiting for my train on the platform in Kyoto station I saw a pale American-looking fellow in his early twenties, well over six feet tall, sticking way out from the crowd in his surfer shades and a gaudy backpack, standing there amidst a small cluster of folks over whom he towered, holding a newborn baby.

With him was a Japanese woman, her head not reaching to his shoulder, apparently his wife; the small crowd comprised her parents and siblings and a lot of luggage, and it soon became clear that the husband and wife were visiting her home in Shiga for the first time together, probably met at college.

The parents, plain old country folk, were in a kind of culture shock daze at having suddenly thus - and with no alternative - to deal with a foreign husband who spoke no Japanese and had never even been in this country before, where he stuck out exactly like the tall foreigner he was, the parents looking sort of numb at what their daughter had wrought out there in the world and brought home, they were just local folks, courageously trying now to embrace these sharp new facts, but they didn’t seem to know how. They were still living in what they’d thought had been reality.

In them I beheld the tremendous shock it can be for a provincial person’s child to go to a foreign land and come back home with a foreign spouse; it added to my own insight and sympathy for what Echo and I had wrought upon her parents, who, though they were not exactly simple country folk, were small-mountain-town folk; the shock for these people before me was perhaps even greater. They had no choice whatsoever but to confront it, and the imminent reactions of their neighbors, the entire neighborhood, indeed the whole village; there would be many ‘tsks’ and head shakings in the rainbow of attitudes that would befall these stunned cultural pioneers even now learning how to greet what was to come, how to do what must be done... may all good come to them all...

How different it was nearly 30 years ago when Echo and I, having met in Tokyo (there were few foreign expats there then), were living together in Spain, and in the Japanese way Echo hinted at the fact to her mother by writing to ask that she send two sets of Ohashi (chopsticks); her mother wouldn't acknowledge the cryptic request, but sent three sets instead.

Then when our daughter Kasumi was born, Echo wrote of the fact to her mother; when the news reached Echo's father, he struck her name from the family book and threatened to kill us both with the family sword if we ever came to their house. But Echo's mother sent baby gifts on the sly, and over the next couple of years things were slowly acknowledged, but from a distance. When at our Shinto wedding ceremony in Kyoto four years later I first met Echo's father, he bowed before me, touching his head to the floor; from then on I was part of the family.

Now that I think of it, I never did get to see the family sword...

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