Wednesday 30 December 2015

A Marriage Made In Japan

     My wife is Japanese. She is clever and can be sweet and funny. She is beautiful and has a cute accent. Her name is Junko. (June•koh) 
     Sadly, that’s about all I knew, going in. 
     I had been married once before—too young, but for fourteen years—so I thought I knew a lot about women. Clearly, I was deluded.
     And, I knew absolutely nothing about Japan. In fact, when she first mentioned that her father owned a farm and lived far from any big city I wondered, but was smart enough not to ask, if he used an Ox to plough his fields. His house, I imagined, might be a flimsy construct of paper and bamboo, perhaps with a roof thatched from palm fronds. Maybe her brother was a ninja; their neighbour a geisha. There would be sushi.
     I’m sure that more ignorant people have blundered into marriage, but we’re not here to talk about my father.
     Sometimes, our differences make life extra fun. Sometimes, not so much. Often, we are both on the same page but, sometimes, it seems like we’re not even reading the same book. Also, the library’s on fire. 
     I keep a list of words that Junko has trouble saying: Rural, juror, refractions, reflection... And, for a while, I insisted we name our first-born Lilith, just because she couldn’t pronounce it, and it would be fun watching her friends and family try. Junko vetoed this idea. The fact that our first-born was a boy may have also been a factor. 
     On balance, Junko has an entire dictionary filled with words that I can’t pronounce. For instance, doitachimashite (you’re welcome), atatakakata (it was hot), ikitakunakata (I didn’t want to go)
She does all the grocery shopping and, as a result, the inside of our fridge is a montage of cheap horror flicks with all the claws, scales and tentacles. It’s a scary place where fish still have heads on them, as if they were once alive! 
     And then there’s the Natto; a stinky, gooey paste made from fermented soybeans. Like Haggis in Scotland, Vegemite in Australia, Millennium Eggs in China and Spam in America, it’s that gastronomic bridge that only the rare outsider can cross, and the reason I always offer my wife a Tic Tac before a kiss.
     To Junko, this is comfort food. Her comfort food makes me uncomfortable. As does seeing her lips ringed with pitch-black squid ink after pecking at the meal that she’s preparing. She’s certainly broadened my gastronomic horizons but, ten years in, I’m still not sure if she’s a good cook. 
     Food issues aside, Junko and I are very comfortable in our married life and I sometimes find it strange to think that only three years before, I was dating a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian.
     How did I end up here from there?
     Well, it all started, of course, with the blond and I going our separate ways.
     We’d broken up and gotten back together so many times over the previous five years that I guess she felt this time, she had best pack up her horse and other worldly possessions and leave the country in order to make it stick. 
     She moved to Oregon.
     It stuck.
     At about this same time, Junko was back in Japan. She had been in Canada but had been forced to return when her visa expired. She was resigned to remain there, to marry by arrangement of her family and to spend the rest of her life as a traditional Japanese wife and mother, comforted by fond memories of her adventurous, globe-trotting youth. Her parents had endured four years of her wanderlust, but now forbid her to prolong this unproductive indulgence.
     Junko was not happy. She was conflicted by duty and desire and a friend recommended she consult a psychic. It was not something she would ever normally do, but her friend persisted, and in her anguish, Junko agreed. The fortune-teller proclaimed that she absolutely must return to Canada. Junko was startled. The fortune-teller’s advice mirrored Junko’s desires but flew in the face of all she had been taught about being a good Japanese daughter and citizen. 
     The friend was also startled. In all the years she had been consulting the psychic, she had never been told anything so emphatically, nor had she ever been given a personal card, a token of good fortune—and, incidentally, a reminder to bless your fortune teller with a financial gift, once your good fortune has come true. It is interesting to note that, to this day, Junko has never revisited the fortuneteller with a gift. Either she feels she was shortchanged by marrying me, or that the very fact that she never gifted her proves that the fortune teller was not good enough at predicting the future to deserve it.
     Junko packed some bags and stowed them at a friend’s house. A few days later, in the darkness of early morning, before her father rose to tend his fields of green onion, Junko snuck away, and boarded a train headed for Tokyo airport.
     She was halfway to Canada before her family knew that she was missing. When she landed in Vancouver, the immigration officer stamped her passport granting her one more year of visiting privileges.
     Meanwhile, I was suddenly, truly single again and I promised myself at least one entire year of a wild and crazy, commitment-free, bachelor life.
     It was because of this personal vow that we never dated, before marriage.
     Junko had arrived at the periphery of my life a few years before. She had a working holiday visa and started a small business wholesaling fresh sushi to the catering company that is our family business. She quickly made many friends—a lot of them members of my family—and we often bumped into each other at social gatherings. I was barely aware that she had ever left Canada, when I saw her again.
     Junko was sweet and demure, and I had always been attracted to her but was reluctant to ask her out because I instinctively knew that she was the “marrying kind” and I was committed to not being committed. On the other hand, I reasoned, her visitor’s visa would expire in a few months and she’d be forced to leave. She seemed no threat to my pledge of singlehood so, Junko and I started spending more time together. 
     Whenever we went somewhere, we asked for separate bills, and I often reminded her “just so you know, this is not a date, right?” And she agreed. I’m not sure why. Perhaps she wanted nothing more than a fling before returning home forever. Now that I know her better, I’m more inclined to believe that she was being very, very devious.
     In December of 2001, her visa expired, and Junko prepared to fly back home for the very last time. “We” would surely have ended there but for a series of last-minute coincidences. 
     It was Christmas time, and she was going back to Japan, via Hawaii, for one last week of exotic vacation before settling back into rural Japanese life. My family was headed to Hawaii for my brother’s wedding and our accommodation included one extra bed. My family all knew and liked Junko so, without asking me, they invited her along. It shouldn’t be a conflict for me, they reasoned, as we hadn’t been “dating.” She would just be one more friend in the wedding party.
     Coincidentally, my bachelor year ended at Christmas. We finally dated—for five days. We fought for three of them. What I thought would be our last fight, turned out to be our first.
     Our entire group was scheduled to depart the same day; my brother and his new wife for another week of honeymooning on another Hawaiian island, Junko for Japan, and the rest of us back home to Canada. For convenience’s sake, we spent our last night in a hotel near the airport, sharing a room with others, and whispering our goodbyes to each other in the dark.
     When it came time for us to part at the airport, I felt sad and empty, like something very important was getting away but I couldn’t commit to her based on our short history so, I waved goodbye.
Junko did the same but showed no emotion. From this, I could deduce only that she didn’t care or that she did care but was Japanese.
     I had promised to call her, so I did. 
     We were in the early stages of a blossoming relationship, but without the dating history to justify it. Strange territory. Stranger still, for Junko. She was over twenty-five years old and unmarried. In Japan, to many, she was an “old maid.” Some Japanese refer to them as “Christmas cake;” something that everyone wants before the twenty-fifth but is difficult to give away on the twenty-sixth. 
     Her relatives were anxious to arrange a marriage for her. Her aunt’s friend’s son had seen Junko’s picture and invited her to a marriage meeting at her earliest convenience. He was young, handsome and well-off. The family was excited and relieved. 
     A marriage meeting is not binding but it is a commitment, and the first step in a process aimed at fast-tracking a courtship and wedding.
     Junko was depressed. She could not tell anyone that her hopes, her heart, lay with a noncommittal Hakujin (Caucasian) man she had only “officially” dated for less than a week. She lived with her parents, did her chores, looked for a job, and avoided the marriage meeting, searching for some way forward that did not include marrying for expediency, rather than love. 
     Our phone conversations were not joy-filled. Junko tried, but couldn’t get a job. At the time, Japan's work culture and hiring laws were very different from Canada’s. She is well educated and when she was younger, had easily found good, high-paying jobs. But now, prospective employers skimmed her resume and asked only, “Why, are you not married? Why, don’t you have children?” 
     In Japan, it is commonly believed that by the age of thirty, a woman should be married and at home raising children and making a good home for her husband, not out getting a job. More than just a cultural issue, it’s also good business practice: Younger girls cost less than older, experienced workers. She watched as interviewer after interviewer took her resume, drew a bold red circle around her age, then pointedly placed it atop the red-circle pile, obviously destined for the trash. 
     Each day, the pressure from her concerned family mounted. Junko stayed silent, confiding only to one special aunt. She put on a brave face, tried to keep her situation from influencing me when we talked on the phone, all the while hoping that I would travel to Japan, meet her family, sweep her away to Canada; marry her.
     In May, I went to Japan.
     After fifteen hours of travel, I was tired and looking forward to freshening up. Junko promised that I would love her family’s bath and filled me with visions of a long, hot, spa-like soak. One of the many ways in which Japanese bathrooms are different from Western ones is the bathtub. Japanese tubs are luxurious—short but shoulder-deep, the water temperature automatically maintained. They are made for lounging and relaxing. Showers are for washing. 
     But my soap-bubble dream quickly burst. The Japanese bath is for relaxing after you’ve showered clean and so, families share the tub water. Traditionally, the father goes first, followed by the eldest son, youngest son, mother, eldest daughter and so on. The father may allow honoured guests to bathe first. The lowest-ranking person goes last. As a foreign stranger intent on stealing away his only daughter, I would probably rank lower than the family dog. I opted for a quick shower.
     My room couldn’t have been any more authentically Japanese; paper walls, tatami mats underfoot, a futon as a bed. In the morning, I was awakened by the giggles of children. Two diminutive silhouettes slipped along the paper walls of the hallway, then dark eyes peered in through rips in the paper. It was Junko’s nephews; Kazuki (9 years old) and Hiroki, (7). When I sat up in bed, their eyes became saucers. They had never seen a Caucasian in the flesh, and they had never imagined them to be so hairy. Hiroki asked his mother if he could take me to school for show and tell. She said no.
     Junko is not an early riser and none of her family speaks English, so breakfast was pretty quiet. Her father was polite but distant, and quickly left to tend his fields leaving instructions to try and keep me in the yard. He didn’t want all the neighbours talking. Junko’s mother fussed to make me something I recognized, finally settling on a piece of dry toast.
     Junko and I quickly realized that if we wanted more time together, she would have to come back to Canada so that we could explore our connection. But this was such a strange, noncommittal situation that there was no hope of explaining it to her family. She did her best impression of a stereotypically stoic Japanese, answering her parents’ questions in one word or less, offering nothing. When her father attempted to interview me using her as interpreter, she severely edited my answers, altered them entirely, I suspect. She didn’t want them to know that I was merely a part-time caterer, that I write novels in obscurity, that I was divorced, that we were not committed, let alone engaged. There was nothing redeemable in my present circumstances, it seemed. The only communication between her father and myself was through eye contact, yet I could tell that, despite Junko’s best efforts, he knew or suspected all our secrets.
     I spent most days reading novels on a sunlit boulder amid bonsai-like shrubs in the Japanese garden or playing with the nephews who were still fascinated by me. They brought friends around and I felt a little like a sideshow exhibit. “Step right up and see the round-eyed stranger! You’ve never seen a living man so white! Witness the hairy forearms. Witness the towering nose. Witness the deep-set eyes. Marvel at his inept pronunciation of simple words!”
     After one week, her father told Junko that he thought it would be ok if I was seen beyond the garden walls. Junko and I toured the rural neighbourhood, her father’s fields, her ancestor’s burial shrine. We went to the hardware store, and I fixed the hinges on a kitchen cabinet door. A few days later, her father let me help him plant the first rice seedlings. It was not hard work but went much faster with two, and he thanked me. That night, at dinner, we shared a bottle of beer. Maybe, I thought, we had bonded. More likely, he realized there was no stopping his daughter, and accepting me was the only way to keep her in his life. 
     When it came time for us to leave, he drove us to the train station, became quiet as we hoisted our suitcases. He shook my hand, hugged his only daughter, turned away when tears began. 
     Junko and I lived together and finally, truly, dated until the next February when she accepted my marriage proposal. We were married in my parent’s garden, in Victoria, on a sunny day in June of 2003, at the height of the SARs epidemic which prevented her family from attending. But that’s a whole other story.

Fifteen yeaers later: Junko, Bill, Noah and Rihana.

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