Wednesday, 30 December 2015

A Marriage Made In Japan

My wife, Junko is an import. She’s Asian; Japanese, to be specific.

Sometimes, our differences make life extra fun. Sometimes, not so much.

I keep a list of words that Junko has trouble saying; rural, juror, refractions, reflection. And, for a while I insisted the name of our first-born be Hilary, 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 was also 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).
Junko does the grocery shopping and, as a result, the inside of our fridge is like 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 out of fermented soy beans. The last time I encountered stuff this ugly was on a bathroom floor, after a frat party. 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 why I always offer my wife a Tic Tac before a kiss.

To Junko this stuff is comfort food, though it generates a lot of discomfort, in me: As does seeing my wife’s lips ringed with pitch-black squid ink after she’s been pecking at the meal that she’s preparing for me. I’m still not sure if she’s a good cook or not, but she’s definitely broadened my gastronomic horizons.

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 in Japan, pretty much 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. Conflicted by duty and desire, she did what many Japanese do in time of crisis–something she had never done before–she visited a psychic. The fortune-teller asked her name and birthday, assessed her palm and told her 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 who had recommended the psychic was also startled. In all the years she had been going to her, she had never been told anything so emphatically, nor had she ever been given the psychic’s personal card, a token of good fortune—also, a reminder of the good karma that can come from returning to 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 fortune teller with a gift. Either she feels she was short changed by marrying me, or that the very fact that she never repaid her proves that the fortune teller got lucky, and was not actually very good at predicting the future.

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.

Because she tends to sleep late, she was half way 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 wild and crazy, commitment-free living: Extreme singlehood!

It was because of this personal vow that my wife and I 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. In the one year she sold sushi to us, she made many friends—a lot of them members of my family—and after her work visa ran out, we still bumped into each other at social gatherings. I was barely aware that she had ever left the country, when I saw her again.

She was sweet and demure and I had always been attracted to her, but had never asked her out. Now, I was very committed to not being committed and though I instinctively knew that she was the “marrying kind,” I also knew that her visitor’s visa would expire in a few months. She seemed little threat to my singlehood pledge.

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 one last 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 finally 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 one “extreme single” 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 Victoria, Canada. For convenience’s sake, we spent our last night, in a hotel near the airport. Junko and I shared a room with the honeymooners, whispering our goodbyes to each other in the dark.
When it came time for us to part at the airport I felt like something very important was getting away. I felt sad and empty. But I couldn’t commit to her based on our short history together. So I waved goodbye.

Junko did the same, but showed no emotion. Very Japanese.

I had promised to call her, so I did.

We were in the early stages of a blossoming love, 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, that made her an “old maid.” The 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 accepted a marriage meeting at Junko’s earliest convenience. He was young, handsome and well-off. The family was excited and relieved.

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—searched for some way out of the servant life of a spinster, some escape plan that did not include marrying for convenience, rather than love.

Our phone conversations were not joy filled. Junko tried, but couldn’t get a job. The work-culture in Japan is different from here, and so are the hiring laws. She was well schooled and when she was younger, she had found several very 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 understood 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 pile of other red-circled resumes, 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 desperately 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 thoughts 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 ones are luxurious—long and deep, the water temperature automatically maintained. They are made for lounging, relaxing. Showers are for washing.

But my soap-bubble dream quickly burst. As I said, the Japanese bath is not for washing. Japanese families share the bath water. Traditionally, the father goes first, followed by the eldest son, youngest son, mother, eldest daughter and so on. The father may allow an honored 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. It was Junko’s nephews; Kazuki who was nine and Hiroki, seven. Two diminutive silhouettes slipped along the paper walls of the hallway, then dark eyes peered in through rips in the paper. I sat up in bed and 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 slept late, as was her habit, and none of Junko’s family spoke English, so breakfast was pretty quiet. Her father was polite, but distant, and quickly left to tend his green onion fields leaving instructions to try and keep me in the yard. He didn’t want all the neighbors talking. Junko’s mother fussed to make me something I recognized. I had 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 stereotypical stoic Japanese, answered her parents’ questions in one word or less, offered 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 unpublished novels, that I was divorced, that we were not committed, let alone engaged. There was nothing redeemable in my present circumstances, it seemed. The only real communication between her father and I was through eye contact. And 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; my strange skin, my hairy body, my inability to speak their language. They brought friends around to see me. 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 neighborhood, 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. Somehow, through only observation and eye contact, he had taken stock of me and judged me somewhat-less-than-evil.

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 “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 during 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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