Interfaith

I Felt Like an Outsider Living in Japan, Until I Befriended Another Mom

japanese tea

You know class meetings, yes? The place you should feel vivacious confidence springing up like wildflowers, the cool ability to discuss bisecting lines of home and school? OK, maybe these meetings expose everyone’s insecurities and heebie-jeebies, but I am an educator, a fiercely loving mom, and yet, all I felt was deflation.

We sit in communal design: moms, principal, teachers, and tables orbiting a wooden table and basket of hydrangea—five painterly varieties. They even serve cool tea. Lovely, right? A real open circle!

Problem: This is Japan, and I can’t speak or read most of the handouts next to my tea. I haven’t even practiced writing my boy’s complicated, though gorgeous middle/kanji name, just the much simpler hiragana form. For two hours, I alternate between blinking back tears, smiling tight-lipped, and every emotion from gratitude to bitterness, even anger. For two hours, I feel alienated, mad at the sweet, over-giggly moms who make the whole room erupt in kawaii/cute giggles. I am sullen 10th grader, wincing at the cheerleaders’ affectations.

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Why does she have to gush in laughter at every exchange? I mean, really. I probably shook my head. I can never show them my charm; they will never toss their heads at my wit. How unfair—without voice, they won’t know me. Not as educator, not as loving mom, not anything more than what brims to the surface. They won’t know me. How can they, really?

By Friday evening, hours after the big meeting, I am in shambles. My mono-lingual brain hurts after so much trying. We are not meant to have to struggle with language for so long, maybe. We aren’t made to have to apologize for our slow pace of learning. Needless to say, I feel resentment at having to shell out my money for more language lessons, and yet, I’m hopeful. I want to have a real voice here.

After eight years living in Japan, I am getting better at understanding what is being said. I can shop for groceries; converse with waiters; talk briefly with other parents at ballet. I can read some children’s books. Somehow, I befriend strangers everywhere we go. I am, by nature, talkative, though. I want connection. I want the freedom to talk and laugh and tell other women that I get it, that I see them and their wonderful children.

Instead, I get stuck in the beginnings of base conversation. How does one balance having an adult, inquisitive mind with the expression of a 5-year-old? This is cause for breakdown. I am stuck, again, like a fuming car on the side of the road. I can’t budge and I don’t understand the maps or the Triple A dude.

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The day of the class meeting, my husband gets home early enough to bless the children for Shabbat, and even though he prays God would strengthen and encourage me, and even though he’s rubbing my neck, I trudge listlessly through mucky exhaustion. My son spills three separate liquids and breaks a ceramic cup. I literally stomp my feet. It is all because of today. ”Why did you even go, hon’?” He cannot understand why I’d do that to myself. It seems cruel. My husband is Japanese, but having grown up in the States, the culture can be just as foreign to him, Japanese name and features or not.

“I am a mother. I thought my effort would be good. I care about my kid and this school, but I am just severely limited.” I sat at that meeting, for two hours, on the verge of tears, mad at myself, and mad at everyone who could not help, dilapidated.

It took Saturday morning Shabbat service for my own walls to fall down: the opening of my voice to song, the seven shofar blasts in keeping with the portion on Joshua and the walls of Jericho. Discovering the goodness, the faith, in Rahab, a prostitute. By blast three, I began to see that I, too, could step on, step over my hindrances, the linguistic battle over my emotions. I am not my limitations. I don’t have to be so stuck. Every beam, every stuck splinter was loosening up.

I sailed into Saturday evening, a new woman, a whole body lighter, my countenance not stuck in the meeting’s disappointment and a wider fear of flailing. I’m learning that I feel things deeply; I need encouragement more often, especially when my confidence wobbles. I remember that I’m a bit wedged in a gap, like Rahab needing a way out, a better footing to stop living in the actual wall.

Yesterday, at preschool pick-up, I ran into my friend, the one who sat next to me in the meeting, translating a loose handful of words about mosquitos, the need to open the gate, not cheat and climb over.

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While her kids struggled to put on shoes and keep the congested entryway moving, this friend cupped her hands around my face and told me how proud she was, saying, “What a great mother, so brave.” I felt so alone that Friday, but she had been thinking of ways to support me.

We are all seen, better yet, known. Felt by friends, shy mothers, cousins, and teachers who want to help, and who are, maybe, watching to see when we’ll say, “I want out,” or, “I want in,” or, “I need help.”

They’ll cup our cheeks, note our bravery, and say, “Meet you at the gate. See you on the walls as you climb over all the reasons for being stuck. See you strong and not looking back, sister.”

For now, I’ll learn new words, internalizing a basic script for the next class meeting, to feel the freedom to even wing it. I’ll crawl out and marvel at the walls falling down. I’ll certainly laugh.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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