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Breakfast at my Airbnb

A Simple Breakfast

I knocked off answers to Airbnb questions for new hosts. Yes for laundry machines. No to smoking. Yes, to breakfast—to make my place stand out. That was November 2017.

The first guests were Brits: a thirty-some couple at the end of their road trip from New York City to California. Their large rental van equipped them with a stove, dishware and a small refrigerator for camping.

Over the breakfasts I served and ate with them, we had fascinating conversations. Their previous Americans hosts chatted little with them and they were glad to hear my perspectives on life here. They delighted me with tales of their travels and lives in England. They were with me six nights.

I often asked the young man to repeat himself. His British girlfriend possessed a differing accent, so she ended up translating him when on repetition I still couldn’t understand him.  Eventually I asked what part of England he came from. He told me he had a “farmeroy” accent. His girlfriend told me that meant an aggie twang.  Later I learned his actual words were, “farm boy” accent.

I made the meal pretty, thinking of the BnBs I’d visited. Margarine in a little custard dish, fluted with roses. Milk in a little pitcher. Plates that went with their teacups or mugs. I’d invited them to make tea in their room with the microwave, mugs and bags I’d provided. Towards the end they told me they never heated up water in a microwave.  A kettle was the thing.

It was fun at first, but I wearied. Previously I prepared most morning meals in five to ten minutes and ate them in a similar amount of time, alongside a husband intent on downing his oatmeal fast before cycling off to the train station.

My hospitality endeavors needed to lessen with the following guests if I was to keep hosting. I decided to still serve breakfast but get less involved. My guests were only paying $40 a night—an amazingly deal in the Bay Area—and other work called me: novel writing, household tasks, tutoring appointments, and volunteer work.

In December—a month already busied with the Christmas season, a Korean business man, whom I’ll call Jae-Sun, walked in our doors. He’d asked to check my home a reservation of month or more. He had a harried manner and quickly assessed our space. I assumed he’d continue on with that pace and interact little with us. A few days later moved in.

The first morning I wanted to determine if he was comfortable in his room or had any simple needs. I was happy to chat while he ate the eggs, fruit, and toast I’d prepared. But contrary to what I’d done for the Brits, we ate at our breakfast bar.

The next morning, I intended to keep my distance, ready to go back to my more solitary ways. I sat down at our dining table to enjoy the eggs I’d cooked for both of us while his place setting, like the day previous, was at the breakfast bar behind me, his back towards me.  My lap top lay open so I could read.

Still he launched questions to me about my family. My answers were brief to give the idea I couldn’t talk much. For me it was rude to tell him directly that I was busy and couldn’t talk. Yet I was annoyed he didn’t process the signals I sent. My many friendships with Asians informed me that he understood, but ignored my signals.

Later that day I reflected on the breakfast time. Maybe he thought I would never mean for him to eat alone—both a Japanese and an Italian have told that is so in their countries. Maybe curiosity or loneliness drove his attempts to create conversation and connection.  But in the days following I learned to say, “I’m sorry I’m busy and can’t talk.”

On the 2nd day with Jae here, he entered the living room where I was doing my exercises – not guest territory.  He asked, “Can I call you Mom?”

I was flabbergasted. “No, thank you,” I managed to say. What I knew was this: “I’ve raised my two kids and am helping my daughter now with her grandchildren. I want to pursue my own goals.” I don’t want anyone else to take care of, was the thought I left unsaid.

I consulted with a Korean friend about his strange question of what to call me. She told me, “It means he likes you. At restaurants customers call a waitress mom.  If you continue taking good care of him, he’ll host you in Korea and show you a wonderful time.”  My friend also told me of what a normal, simple breakfast in Korea looks like: egg, sausage or other meat, a little fruit and vegetable, and rice. “You call that simple?” I said.

Though I aimed to avoid sitting down to eat breakfast with our guest, I found a compromise. I conversed with him while I washed dishes or chopped vegetables, learning bits of his life. He had no car, but an office nearby. His intent was to bring a Korean start-up to California.  He attended a Google entrepreneur class, but was saddened at making no friends—talking only with a mentor.

For eleven mornings I prepared a breakfast of varied and nutritious foods typical of Korea. I bought and served Kim Chi (fermented, spicy cabbage). It was fun at first, but, as with the Brits, I grew weary.  On mornings twelve and thirteen, I needed to depart before eight.  I’d ignore my perfectionist tendencies. I wouldn’t make a big deal of his morning meal, or so I thought

As I pulled out cold items, I wondered, what will he think of a hardboiled egg still in its shell, sandwich meat, bread and leftover green salad? I lectured myself. Stop it. You don’t have to please him completely.” Another morning I left out for him a bowl of yogurt and some leftover angel-hair pasta to which I’d added Asian-style salad dressing. Simple enough and the variety of colors and textures and food groups gave me joy. Then from a tin I took one home-made persimmon cookie and added it, because it was Christmas.

We got used to each other. We exchanged kind good byes, but after he left me the key and closed the door behind him, we’ve had no words. Many other have slept in our bright guest room since then, but I’m at peace as I start my morning, feeling no need to restrain my urge to please nor guess at what a stranger needs to start a day.

Sex—They’re Doing It Less Part 2

Grab sleep where you can–a salaryman

Sooo tired.

My previous post reported on sexual apathy in Japan, not only among older people, but the youth. It threaten the country’s economic future and, some would say, the world. The assessment comes from a Japanese population center survey where a quarter of the population expressed no interest in romantic relationships and a sharp decrease of desire to bear children.

These reports triggered reflection on my amazing immersion experience in Japan (1999-2005). Japanese women–met through my children’s playmates and neighborhood English classes–told me details of their lives as wives and mothers. I heard surprising stories that few foreigners are privileged to hear.

In the prior post, I told the story of my friend Maya who confided of her husband’s disinterest in sex and believed it due to his long working hours. But more is at play I believe. Consider what happened when Maya planned a family vacation, and not just to the countryside or to relatives. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip to California and Disneyland, sure to delight their young children. Air flights were purchased, but her husband pulled out. How could that be?

It was not due to illness. Not because of a relative’s death.

It was because Taro’s boss informed him he was needed at the office as a deadline approached. No discussion. No consolation given (like refunding the cost of their already purchased tickets). No suggestion of a future time period he could safely take off.

This unquestioning loyalty and sacrifice for the job is what is expected of a sarariman (i.e., salaryman—an employee of a large corporation obligated to work long hours without complaint). Not only did Taro stay home, but so did his wife and kids. After that Maya gave up planning vacations with her husband. At least not trips requiring costly reservations in advance.

Her children have watched their mother foregoe traveling pleasures and center her life around cooking and her children’s growth and education. Her husband has brought home money, but not much solace or pleasure. I wonder if my friend’s children will desire marriage. With them out of the house now, Maya feels alone, depressed.

Working long hours and putting a salary or company loyalty ahead of your wife’s interest diminishes sex within marriage—this is a problem Japanese think tanks are scrambling to address. They’d like to incentivize sex so as to right the population trends and fuel the industrial economy.

Six years ago Canon in Japan thought they had an answer. They took remarkable measures. As CNN reports, “In a country where 12-hour workdays are common, the electronics giant has taken to letting its employees leave early twice a week for a rather unusual reason: to encourage them to have more babies.”

I wonder how those Canon bosses, and also the employees getting let out early, phrased their hopes. Was it a subtle way, as is typical of Japanese culture? Canon’s gift of releasing employees “early” was not primarily about making marriage more enjoyable or loving, but making it fruitful for utilitarian, economic reasons.

I wouldn’t want to be the wife waiting at home and readying his slippers, as I saw my Tokyo friend do. That is taking her husband’s slippers off the shoe rack and placing them at the threshold with the toes pointing properly—towards him. A friend I knew in Kobe always waited up for her spouse–no matter how tired she was, no matter that her children might awaken her during the night and that she be up at 6 to prepare a hot breakfast while her husband slept until after the children left for school. She’d wait up and then, on his arrival pour his sake, warm it and bring it to him on a platter with snacks. That’s caring for your husband in a healthy, traditional marriage of that culture.

If I had married Japanese (as some American women I know have done), could I have done all this service and happily hop into bed with my husband for the expected intimate contact although we’d had little communication, little connecting of our souls all the weeks previous? Could I make “love” because his employer has granted a rare three hours together—alone!-before kids come home?

No, sexual passion requires more than that for me. Sex by company-order addresses only the surface—not underlying issues of what makes a marriage thrive.

To what priorities does a couple need to commit in order to create a home life nurturing of both the couple and, secondarily, any children?

It requires believing that a marriage is first of all about the commitment of two people to love each other. That’s a contrast with the view of marriage common in many countries, what some label the “garden” view of marriage. Here coupling is primarily about ensuring a man’s seed is propagated, that his line continued.

Contrast that to this view of marriage: a decision to leave one’s parents and their ways of thinking and living in order to create a new thing. To become psychologically close, where the other is remains more important than all else, whether job or birth family or child. It’s a sticking together—glued as tightly as two pieces of paper.

In this kind of marriage, the physical coming together in sex serves both as an outcome and means to the goal of loving union. And when a marriage embraces this kind of love as the primary concern, then a commitment to nurturing romantic passion follows–for example,”date nights” where babysitters allow the couple to enjoy tim as a two-some again. Or, continuing to nightly share a bed together as a couple, not giving that up for the sake of the baby sleeping next to mother and her husband’s undisturbed rest.

Dual working couples in America face similar issues to Japanese marriages. Caitlin Flanagan in an Atlantic article (February 2003) marshals evidence that even here in the U.S.-—where a marriage spiced with romance is the ideal—when both husband and wife work long hours outside the home during the very busy years of parenting children, passionate sex often dies. And this despite employing nannies and housekeepers.

I’ve adored my lovely Japanese women friends and, at one far away time, was infatuated with a young Japanese man (a teacher of English studying with me at San Francisco State University). I’ll also say there’s much I admire about the Japanese culture and I’ve oft regretted that American friends weren’t as sensitive and giving as the Japanese women I’ve known.

Yet I’m glad I married an American man. I’d rebel against marriage to a sarariman. Japanese women I know admire the western romantic ideal of marriage, but, for the most part they have resigned themselves to the extreme dedication of a sarariman husband.

Sources outside Japan recommend a restructuring of their economy—changing the culture of work and gender roles. Can it happen ? Will it happen soon enough? Unanswered questions.

Sex—they’re doing it less


An American friend recently expressed her shock about a Japanese social oddity. She’d read an article in The Guardian asking, “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” After that October headliner, a similar Washington Post title followed. It warned, “Japan’s sexual apathy is endangering the global economy,” and reported a survey regarding this modern Japanese phenomenon – a lack of interest in marriage, childbearing and even sex.

The population decline itself is not news. During the six-year stint we lived in Japan, a neighbor and university professor told us of his academic research into the lessening birth rate and what to do about it. That was my first to hear of the problem, a surprise to me back in 2003. My husband and I came to Japan in 1999 (living first in Tokyo, then Kobe), and in both cities most of the adults we knew in our immediate surroundings were married. We socialized with parents of our children’s friends, engineers and a secretary in my husband’s workplace and both couples and singles from our International church. Singles from both workplace and church dated and married during our stay.

This survey reporting Japanese sexual apathy was taken a short six years after we departed. The 2011 report comesfrom Japan’s population center. It found, among adults, that more than half remianed single. Why were our experiences so different?

Did we not see the rise of singledom because we lived in upper income settings? First a large apartment in Tokyo and later a suburban setting in New Town, Kobe. In Tokyo, when Japanese friends visited our 1500 square feet, they often remarked, “Ooki!” How large were our quarters, how amazing that only our family of four occupied such spaciousness. Families of professionals whom we met lived in homes a 1/3 of the space or had grandparents living with them. Still our neighborhoods were such that only well-off married professionals could afford to live there.

The survey indicates less interest in sex or producing children—quarter of Japanese do not want a romantic relationship (23% of women and 27% of men). And, “since 2006, Japanese women have given a name to their complaint of men who aren’t interested in sex, “herbivore men.” What is it about the perspective and system in Japan that has produced this dismal situation?

I got an inside look when my feet were grounded in Japan, particularly through “Maya,” a Japanese friend and mother. Our six-year old children enjoyed play together. Maya confided that her husband “Taro” no longer desired intimacy. Their two children—now of grade school age—no longer impeded the couple from sleeping in the same bed. (Japanese mothers sleep with their infant and with other children nearby, while the father sleeps in another room. An arrange dictated by custom, parenting practices and space constraints.)

A professor of mine once said, while interpreting a student’s short story, “If a husband is not interested in sex with his wife, their marriage is virtually over.” The group of writers gathered nodded their heads in agreement. Like that group, I took Maya’s words to mean that her marriage was doomed and Maya’s husband must have a lover she knew nothing of.

But after my initial shock at Maya’s story, I heard it repeated—in plural—via an American leader in an ESL discussion group in Tokyo. The Japanese wives, as a group, told her that they no longer had sex with their husbands. Each woman parented a few children. Sex was no longer necessary.

Such an admission is all the more remarkable considering how a typical Japanese shrinks from telling of a personal failure, or talking about sex in any form. I suspect these Tokyo women were not embarrassed to say, “We don’t have sex,” because it was “normal” in their milieu.

When Maya had divulged her husband’s sexual aloofness to me, her eyes pulled together in sadness. I asked, “Why do you think he’s not interested?” She’d never asked him outright—that would be confrontational or trigger embarrassment and shame. Her explanation was intuited or gathered from women’s magazines.

“Perhaps because he is too tired.” Understand that this is a man who slaves away at the office six days a week. The seventy or eighty hours of work he racks up weekly is not just for emergency deadlines, but continues month after month. Year after year. This taxing work schedule is typical for high-income earners, those in the corporate structure.

But does that differ any from the Silicon Valley engineer working in a start-up? I’ll consider this further in part two. Look for it in a few days.

When Her Father Died in Alaska’s Wildlands

68b_3I’ve cruised and hiked in Alaska, and marveled at its land and people. but until recently my knowledge of this amazing state was quite limited–gleaning from Michener’s ALASKA: A Novel and musings of store keepers or guides on “shore visits.”

In NORTH OF HOPE, A Daughter’s Arctic Journey Shannon Huffman Polson opens up Alaska’s geography, lore as she literally navigates its wild lands as well as her father’s death by grizzly. A journey of finding healing and faith in the midst of profound loss. It’s a book of adventure and hope, a memoir rich with research and knowledge gained from years of Alaska-life.

Cultures fascinate me. Every land and people group has its own, and Alaska–vast state that it is–is also rich in cultures. I read this true account with an eye to how Polson poignantly, with gorgeous turns of phrase, reveals much of the ferocity and ethos behind the beauty of this great land and otherness of its peoples.

Alaska is not contiguous to fifty states–like its comparable partner and near opposite, Hawaii–and neither is its ways of life and thought. On my visit there a decade ago, a guide on a mountainous hike told how she and her partner “lived off the land” as many do, foraging for berries, catching fish and supplementing this with occasional work. They’d built their small abode from trees they’d felled, walked to an outhouse they’d made for toileting, and in their kitchen used water they’d carried in from the river nearby. My guide was an educated, articulate professional. Someone I’d expect to be teaching, researching or staffing a park. Someone comfortably living with running water and a toilet. Instead, what she valued was independence, a rugged life intertwined with nature, and a commitment to gather what they needed directly from nature–far removed the stores and glam of dense urban areas.

The sharp spice of such distinct values also comes through in Polson’s story. One particular incident she tells of stayed with me. As she and her brother and his girlfriend paddle a river in the back country, his girlfriend loses an oar. Polson is irritated by this carelessness, and–worse yet–the culprit’s unapologetic attitude. But Polson says nothing. They pull out their one spare. Later, the girlfriend drops yet another oar and it swirls away in the river, unattainable. Now they are in real trouble since steering this strong and wild river with only two oars will prove yet more difficult. Still cordial relations are key, and must be maintained, as they depend on each other in this environment so far from stores, phones, autos, and help. Polson struggles with her anger and how to direct both her emotion and this ignorant woman. Read yourself to see what Polson decides needs to be said what is best to leave unsaid.

In story, we city-dwellers can start to comprehend the culture of Alaska where everyone is responsible to take care of him or herself, a mistake can mean a death, and one must not rely or take from others carelessly.

The memoir explores another geography as well: Polson’s journey from fierce mourning (at the loss of her parents to a grizzly bear attack) to a misty resolution. It’s clearly and subtly articulated through jumps in time and location. This probing look into her relationship with her dad, other family members, Nature and God made sense of her proud independence and risk-taking ventures. Polson is an unusual and brave high-achiever. How many young women want to become a helicopter pilot for the armed forces?!! I loved as well the way the author describes her involvement with music – both its great comfort but the limits of what it could do for her inner well-being as she mourned her shocking loss.

I marveled too at the portrayal of Polson’s father navigating his relationship to his bright and adoring daughter before and after divorce and remarriage. It’s rare read for me that takes me so far under the surface in a real-life situation father-daughter connection. I wondered how many of the surprises were due to the one-of-a-kindness of Alaska and how much to the uniqueness of this family–a question probably no one can answer.

Read this for a rare, in-depth look at a different mental and physical geography as well as a precious and complex daughter-father relationship.

Note: the photo above does not depict exactly where Polson ventured. It was found on

I Stand Accused in the Kitchen

How will you keep time for writing? A fellow author asked me. You appear to feel obliged to cook for many. For my friend, typical meal prep takes fifteen minutes and it’s for her only. Lunch comes from a local Saturday farmer’s market and her slice of quiche serves dual purposes: I support Hannah, she says.

Peaches and Green Beans (from our organic gardens)

Peaches and Green Beans (from our organic gardens)

It’s a legitimate question, one I’ve asked of myself many times: is cooking diverting me from the art I needs be—am called to be—doing?

Yes, sometimes. It can be my way to hide and feel useful while ignorant how fear takes me afield. In other words, if I never have time to write, then I have an excuse for not getting a piece done and exposing it to others or sending it into a publisher. But I think that’s not the primary reason. There’s much more to why I cook. More than the money saved. More than being female or others’ expectations.

I assert cooking is an art. It feeds my soul as well as others. And, as I’ve experienced summer ebbing away, I need to recognize and explore its treasures.

In July I threw my garden crab apples into a huge pot with lots of sugar and they became a glowing jar of apple butter that I hand to a friend as I arrive at her home for a party. Or the golden spread becomes a gift at Thanksgiving to a teacher. Something precious is in the touch of love and my wonder at growth as my hands form gifts for friends. I can’t call this bottle of vinegar a mere product when my friend brings it infused with herbs of his garden. These gifts hold beauty. They are a type of art.

I fell into doing something different today than intended, but it does makes sense. I’d meant to revise my story—instead I fall to sorting recipes. It’s a ritual. It’s become autumn. There are losses I must speak of. I say good by to my loves of this summer. On the 3×5 card smudged with oil lies the memory of garden-grown peaches from my friend, sauteed with green beans I’d plucked from my backyard, and enjoyed with family visiting from afar.

The recipe for “Friend Bars” (clipped from the San Mateo Times) brings to mind one of the best events of this summer. The bars (made of pumpkin seeds, pecans, egg, wheat germ and honey) were eaten after a long day’s hike in Sequoia with my daughter and her husband. Afterwards we three, seated on logs, watched flames jump and wane, and talked—more precious than a cruise. The new recipe, now proven, gets added to a yellow binder.

Summer flees away, but I catch hold of her hem in remembrances of tasty creations. As I store away recipes I didn’t use (making an Indian corn-based cobbler left no time for the old-fashioned kind), it’s as if summer turns her smiling face to me as she waves good bye. She promises rest from her bounty and a sweet return. Stone-fruit or tomatoes will again turn soft and luscious. Basil will again offer her pungent bright leaves. Green beans will again hang on my big-leafed vines, readied for a pluck and snap.

Love people, cook them tasty food reads my bumper sticker from Penzey’s Spices. It’s been questioned. “Cook people into delicious food?” is the joke. But loving this way is a serious matter for us who embrace the pleasures of this creative grace.

Once I heard a white California professional say, “If I spend more than thirty minutes in the kitchen, I ask myself why am I doing this?” She seems to want to cook but can’t allow herself to do so. I could explore that. I could discuss food and preparing it for others in several Asian contexts.Attitudes and practices regarding food and meal preparation all rest on cultural assumptions. But, I limit myself here to spelling out my longings and joys with cooking. Many may appear in language and race to share my culture, but not in the way of food. Call it insecurity you may, but in this place when feminists critique, I’m validating the time I “squander” in the kitchen.

Don’t misunderstand—I happily eat Costco pizza and salad from a kit when invited to dinner—delighted to be with friends in their home and sometimes entertain that way myself. But often I choose the joy of creation. I want to inhale and taste the meaty, buttery or tangy fragrance of what I’ve mixed simmering or solidifying in the oven.

Minimize cooking time—yes, I’m attempting that, but see no need to completely overthrow the art of cooking. It calls me from story-writing, but gives back—something more solid and sure than my writing (99% rejection rate average for the emerging writer). In it lies a purpose fulfilled, both immediate and complete. While I wait for my words to see print, cooking can replete I and those wield a fork with me.

Why Take a Tutor?

Today I had my sixth or so meeting with a very intelligent student of English, a visiting professor. He probably has more credentials to his name than anyone I’ve worked with. Soon an article he wrote—in English—will be published in an academic journal here. Amazing. How impressive that a reviewer selected it when this non-native speaker from Japan had written it totally on his own with no native-speaker edits. It means he has an excellent command of English and that his ideas are extremely noteworthy.

So why does he still want a tutor? Or English textbooks, when he knows more English vocabulary than many American college graduates?

The problem has three aspects: the professor’s ability to comprehend spoken English; to consistently speak easily-understood English; and his register—a fancy word linguists use to describe the different and limited range of words we use in various situations. It’s formal versus informal or academic versus day-to-day speech. That last category is what I’ll elaborate on here, since it’s something most people don’t consider in their own speech, let alone others’.

The professor knows obscure words like “partake” or “burdensome” but not their informal equivalents, like take “part in” for partake or, potentially, for “burdensome”(depending on the context), “awkward” or “a pain.” He would know “edit” but probably not “smooth out.” Often we can guess and learn new vocabulary like these from context, but for a non-native speaker taking in a lot of new words at once can be overwhelming.

This remarkable man knows much of the printed language, whether newspaper, novels or textbooks—formal English. Knowledge of the meaning of a word is refined through interactions; and without this: problems. Not only in social conversation, but in understanding the questions students may ask him when the prof occasionally lectures in English.

You see, American speakers, in the last several decades, have preferred informal words and idioms. That word idiom does not derive from idiotic. Nor does it exclusively mean strange expressions like, “Raining cats and dogs” or “pushed my buttons” or “back to square one.” lists an interesting but non-comprehensive list of these colorful phrases that often stem from metaphors.

Other types of idioms occur in conversation incessantly. Native speakers use them automatically without knowing they fall under the label idiom. Hard to believe? I’ve learned such from monitoring my own language when speaking to the bright and wonderful people that I tutor or in the instances that I interpret (in English) others’ language to the Japanese or Chinese people who comprise most of my students.

You see, the term idioms includes what grammarians call “two-part verbs”—such as “take off” instead of “depart”—and also expressions few textbook of English teach. For instance, “walk her to school” means “escort her to school” or “pick out” means “select” or “choose.” Or “take part in” signifies (which actually has three parts!) participate. All words we commonly use day to day.

Nuances and contexts can also stir up a hornet’s nest—an idiom not listed on the list of colorful idioms I referred to above. And we’re always coming up with new phrases. Thirty years ago I never heard anyone speak of “pushing my buttons.” Now it’s mainstream, and habitual for some. Ten years from now it might fall out of use (oops! One more idiom, fall out of).

But back to nuances and contexts. Today my student (he’s so bright it feels strange to call him that) mentioned my offer of dinner (via e-mail), and I protested, “No, I only made a proposal.”

Now I feel silly about my protest. I feared he thought I intended to pay for his dinner or provide it, so I explained that I merely wrote some ideas for how our families could meet up together. While I speaking, I realized that it was a classic case. He’d mistaken the nuances of a word in a given context and I reacted too quickly. After the confusion was cleared up, he asked if the word “overture” would be suitable than your “offer.” No, wrong register.

Language. Complicated. Continually changing. It’s amazing that anyone ever becomes fluent in another language. Or, maybe we only become fluent in certain aspects. Perhaps, to learn another language well and comprehensively, you need a tutor, a good friend or loverñand even one of these will not always be enough.

“How will you help with your grandson?”

What's a grandma crossing cultures to do?

What’s a grandma crossing cultures to do?

Monday morning, twelve hours after my first grandchild popped into the world, I visited my physician. “I’m a grandma now!” I announced to her and, contrary to my usual reserve, to strangers like the tech who drew my blood. Birth is such a world-changer—though he’s not mine, but my daughter’s—and I wanted to shout out, All is different now.

The tech’s first words, “Are you going to help take care of him?” are not the first words I hear from my raised-in-California friends. It is what I’m asking myself: when, how and how much? The tech’s accent tells me she’s an immigrant, and her implied understanding—my daughter’s baby is also my responsibility—fits with norms I hear from my friends born in Japan, China and India.

“My mother assumed I’d want her help,” explained a friend when I told her I waited to hear whether my daughter Jenny wanted help. For both this young Taiwanese woman and her mother, no question about grandma’s presence after birth. She stayed the usual duration I hear from Asians: one month. The help of Grandmother is deemed so essential that often I’ve heard of Asian women going back to their homeland to give birth so that their mothers can help. The husband remains here working.

Before my grandson popped out, my daughter asked of me a week’s stay. Of course! But the one-week hospital-stay their son required schooled the new parents in baby care and altered the timing of their return home. Both these changes make my staying with them less essential and less convenient and so instead I’m taking short trips; today is my third.

I’m still questioning myself, and her, about when to help. To try to understand Jenny, I reflect on how I felt as a new mother—a way to prepare myself. For me, a two-hour visit from my own mother after birth was enough; overnight would have been impossible.

I could only manage short doses of Mother’s presence because she was quick with advice, often ill-fitted. “Don’t waste money on diaper wipes—use wet tissue!” Now I wonder if my desire to limit our time together was as much my fault as hers. I know now—not then—that childhood anger lingered in my unconscious, partnered with fierce independence (call it pride?). I was prickly and irritable.

The relationships my Asian friends have with their mothers sound different, but I admit I’m not there to see. A gentle, helpful presence seems common in the first month’s stay: no advising or criticizing, but silently demonstrating how to swaddle, burp or soothe an infant or cooking and cleaning for them. That nurturing support is what I experienced from my Korean-American mother-in-law, Bessie, who flew here after each of my two daughters’ births.

During the months she spent under our roof, I recall only two soft-spoken suggestions: to swaddle the baby and introduce her to a love object, a “blankie,” a small, soft flannel blanket. I welcomed her words. On the afternoon I left her home with Baby while I shopped, I returned home to a hungry Jenny who’d cried inconsolably in her arms. Bessie imparted no blame. Topping that, her helpfulness with chores amazed me. One day I found her handpicking our carpet clean, on hands and knees.

While Mother moving in a for a month is the rule for the Asians I know, it’s more the exception among my friends of northern European ancestry. A blond-haired friend last night told me of her mother’s wonderfully supportive presence after birth, but the duration was one week–not a month. Why? Perhaps many grandmoms assume the freshly-formed family unit would find a longer visit stressful– not enough privacy and too much input from grandma. Perhaps the thought is, “I did this on my own after a week. You can too.” After all, if a woman has never received this kind of prolonged help from her own mother nor seen it practiced around her, it’s not a norm and can be difficult to give.

Perhaps it’s also because, these days anyway, American husbands are expected to fill in where grandmothers can’t. I hear more companies are allowing generous time off for fathers. A Stanford University researcher I know is taking a proffered six weeks of paternity leave. Good changes from twenty-five years ago, when my HP-engineer husband felt the need to return to work ten days after I gave birth.

Across the Pacific, it’s different. Surprisingly, in Japan a mother can receive a lengthy maternity leave. The government recommends three years, but whether that’s actually given is up to the individual company. One female employee of a Japanese medical technology company received three years’ unpaid maternity leave—with a promise to receive her job back. As for Japanese fathers, their wives laugh at the idea of them taking time off from work to help after a baby’s birth. They say the reason is both cultural and business related, but many wish for change.

And so I ponder my role. Given all the variables, precisely what is good in this particular situation? The father is there, eager to help. Our grand-baby is an hour away over a winding mountain road, a route clogged with commuters and beach-goers at key times; plus I have part-time work here and anticipate I couldn’t sleep well in their apartment. Yet I keep remembering my mother-in-law’s gracious gifts of time and work, along with others’ examples. Inspired, I want to help a lot, not merely in these weeks soon after birth, but when my daughter returns to her graduate studies.

Older women frequently tell me that grand-parenting is such fun. True, but there’s more. Wise grand-parenting calls for reflection. Generous grand-parenting requires listening for when and how to help.

Working our Differences

Cathy still sleeps up on the 10th floor. A half hour ago I left my bed situated besides hers to sit outside wearing lounge wear doing double duty as pjs. Last night, thinking that my roommate’s hours would differ from me, I prepared to go out the door without waking her.

We’re both here for a writing conference and before my seat in the Seattle Westin mezzanine fashionably-suited businessmen and woman parade by, fortunately not noticing my stained drawstring pants and fleece meant to conceal nipples poking through a tee shirt underneath.

Yesterday I and Cathy talked a lot, catching up on involvements in church, our kids, and relationships with others. The free flow of conversation was wonderful—both in little tid-bits as we unpacked and walked eight blocks to check-in and over dinner, then in a concentrated, lengthy form over dinner, both ways renewing to my soul.

At 9:15 when I was repeatedly yawning and saying, “I so tired,” she called her husband to exchange a few sentences and good nights.

When Cathy got off the phone, I said, “I wouldn’t dare do that.”

She stared, arrows of surprise arcing my way.

“I mean, Collin doesn’t like to talk on the phone. Because I need to keep in touch with him when I’m away, he’ll talk to me. But not because he actually wants to and how much do I ask him to do that?”

This lack of him wanting to listen with attention or to express himself to me has hurt at times. Hurt deeply.

I’ve cried. I’ve prayed. I’ve journaled. I’ve ranted (to him). I’ve vented (to girlfriends) about him not wanting to engage deeply or have my chattering interrupt his concentration at home. He cares. Some. He’s conceded to my going with him to counseling.

He’s changed some, but not to the ideal companion I wanted.

He’s not always available at the time I want to talk, but consider this: I don’t want him to talk to me when I’m busy fixing dinner for guests and he would never dream of dumping a full-detailed account of his day when I was obviously stressed. Or even when I’m openly exhausted, preoccupied, or stressed out.

So, I have to admit it, this holding back of my words is not a one-way deal. Perhaps you can even call it mutual consideration, though the time periods I want to talk probably exceed his desire by three-fold.

Yet, it’s still a mutuality such as Cathy exhibited last night. She thought to call her husband for their good-night conversation when I was yawning repeatedly. She realized I’d be turning back bedcovers soon. And I’m showing that same consideration as I sit in my bed clothes, an ugly duckling among the swans, rather than rustling around our room or tap, tap, tapping on my keyboard as she tries to catch more zzz’s.

What I have learned is this—I don’t need, and won’t get, all the connection my nature desires from my husband. I’ve discovered too that my chest-heaving pain is not about him, but the vestiges of the little child in my soul, the memories of a mother often depressed, angry or withdrawn. Or perhaps of the father busy teaching night classes, withdrawing behind his newspaper, snarling at my mom and not noticing me.

I’ve discovered that instead of pointing a finger outwards, or inwards at my own failings, or continuing to lament how my spouse and I differ, I can embrace our differences in rhythm. When I accept rather than pity myself or vent, I can create a jazzy syncopation.

I’m also choosing to ask myself questions.

Do I actually need this conversation with him? Is connection now, in this immediate time and space, important for our relationship? What might be his physical and mental condition now?

Can I express what I want on paper? Talk to a girlfriend?

Am I feeling hurt by him not wanting what I want at this instant?

Sometimes it’s painful to admit that. I’d like to think I’m a bigger girl than that. But if I am hurt, I need to let go of that pain and forgive, but not just pretend I don’t feel anything and don’t need him.

Assuming I do need interaction with him, when and how is best to invite that?

Perhaps the last question is key. Contrary to what I used to think, imagination, planning and skills are needed to bring connection that bring joy for both of us.

Last night, at 9:15, I dared not call because he was tired. And—once I employed my imagination to think about it—I could see he had plenty reason for exhaustion, having gotten up at 4:30 AM to be my airport shuttle. While I’d enjoyed three naps, he none. Plus, I know his routine: while I like to wind down by talking, what he likes—and perhaps it’s not too strong to say needs—is to pencil in a crossword or unscramble the letters of the paper’s daily Jumble.

So this morning I called him at 7:20, what I thought might be a good talking time for my early bird. His voice was cheerful, not rushed or tired. We spoke only for two minutes.

I asked him about checking in briefly tonight. Ahh, he reminded me of the phone bank he’d be doing from 6:30 to 8:30. He’s an introvert. Imagination and memory teamed to warm me that calling strangers would exhaust him. A brief good night would be all he’d want. So that’s all I suggested and all I hoped to get at 9 PM. Later, with expectations under control, hearing his voice and a few sentences from him at that time proved sweet.

He in turn honored my desire to stay connected on his way home on the train earlier in the day. He wrote and sent an e-mail about whom he talked to at work and what his day was like. We’re both working at this.

Over the years our differences have become more apparent and argument more heated. Both of us have changed considerably. Face to face with differences, we’ve both questioned at times if we married the right person. It seems having the nest empty and changes in our minds and bodies with aging requires a new level thinking our way through our differences and coming to terms with strong emotions.

Yet, with help from outside and a commitment to marriage for the long haul, we keep rebounding. What we may think to be ñ in the heat of the moment ñ “irreconcilable differences” have become counterpointing drum and flute. We’re reconciled. We’re working it through.

Hibiscuses and Roses

Hawaiian Hibiscus

Hawaiian Hibiscus

Today I admire white roses instead of hibiscus blooms or white plumeria festooning rounded trees, enchantment of the past ten days. I’ve come back, from Hawaii, to my California home with its roses. Now I sit beside the white roses of Cocola Cafe’s front patio. Cocola makes and supplies delicate, French-style pastries to its large eatery at Stanford Shopping Center. The Redwood City storefront and patio are tiny, designed for workers who carry their pastry, coffee, sandwich or salad back to an office, machine shop, or flooring or furniture store. No tables inside; outdoors, two tables stand. Only four blocks from my home, this Cocola Cafe lies closer than any Starbucks and, more importantly, it’s local.

Oak leaves and acorns pattern the golden mosaic table by which I sit. Gone are the chirps of lizards that I heard in our rental home in Kailua. Here the zoom of cars buzzes my ears, but this is my neighborhood. I’d rather be here than at Stanford Shopping Center among the well-heeled toting huge bags or others lounging near fountains, among abundant roses.

I think of the lovely people of Hawaii with whom I spent vacation time before my return home last night. People showed grace in big ways, and sometimes small, but always meaningful. At the Honolulu airport the worker who brought me a wheelchair (I’m still struggling with after-effects of bunion surgery: inflamed sesamoid bones) offered to let Collin push it out to the gate, whereas—here at the other end in San Francisco—the worker curtly refused my husband’s offer to wheel me. Was it because of the tip she would earn or airport policy—we don’t know.

On a more personal side, I appreciate the elderly Auntie and Uncle who made five beds available to us on our last night in Hawaii and “talked story” with us evening and morning. I’m grateful for the sister-in-law who treated all five of us to lunch. I’m amazed at the other sister-in-law who, after giving two fifty-dollar bills to my daughter as a grad present, wanted to give yet more—a book on Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams in Hawaii (the current exhibit at the Honolulu Museum of Art). I remember, too, the flower leis given to me and all the other Park relatives who traveled across the Pacific for the 90th birthday celebration of Collin’s father. So much generosity from those we knew and from many we met only briefly.

Coming home to Hawaii brings out the Hawaiian in my husband Collin. It’s fun to observe.

When I was contemplating whether or not to wear hose for the birthday party in a restaurant banquet room, I asked Collin whether there’d be air conditioning. “Probably not.” He called the place and his Hawaiian intonation, so different from Standard English, immediately kicked in. He doesn’t talk this way with his family in Hawaii. They all speak in standard English to each other. But, when out and about, he frequently switches the pitch pattern of his speech to a more lilting sound. Sometimes the grammar, vocabulary also change as he talks to locals. So when he phoned the Treetop Restaurant, he didn’t blurt out, as I would, “Do you have air conditioning?” Instead he phrased the question differently. “We’re coming to dinner tonight. You folks don’t have air conditioning, yeah?” His question, phrased in the negative, conveyed to the staff person that he’s not expecting AC. Collin presumes that the personnel care about their guests and would feel badly about not supplying what they desire. Such gentleness and sensitivity to others’ feelings prevails on these islands.

Another example of this manner: at the Honolulu airport, the service staff person noticed how I’d seated myself in the wheelchair: from the front, angling myself in over the foot rests—rather an awkward action that could lead to a fall for an elderly person. He raised the chair’s armrest out of the way and said, “If you come from the side and sit down, it’s safer. You can’t get tripped up by the foot rests. It makes us feel more comfortable.”

In contrast, on an earlier trip, SFO personnel told me, “Don’t sit that way—it’s not safe. Sit down from the side.” It didn’t stick. The Hawaii approach—less confrontational and appealing to my empathy for the staff’s concern for me—worked better. My defense mechanism (I can handle doing it this way. I’m agile) didn’t kick in. So, after this gentler mode of instruction, when I debarked our plane in SFO and again seated myself in a wheelchair, I remembered to do it the “safer” way.

Lovely people in Hawaii with lovely manners. Their flowers don’t have thorns.

Often I’ve regretted my words to people during my time there, feeling myself an awkward, brash white American whose passionate and direct way of speech exudes sharp points. I’m comforted by knowing my husband’s family still extends kindness and warmth to me. I don’t deny the strengths of my background and culture: sometimes a more direct way relating brings needed clarity to the table, but I want to keep learning from the manners of the beautiful people of Hawaii.

A Drip Becomes a Deluge

A surprise met me when I stepped into the apartment of my English student. After teaching Yuka weekly for a few months, I expected a tidy room. Always before, in anticipation of my visit, she’d secreted her children’s plastic trucks, dolls, building blocks† in plastic bins or cabinets. But this time, to the left of the front door, stood large boxes with papers, shoe boxes and various unknowns peeping out. Something was up.

I took a seat at her dining table where we usually study. Looking through her kitchen I saw a wall had disappeared! An enormous piece of cardboard stood there instead. “What happened?”

“Water came,” she explained.

“From above?” I motioned upwards, towards the apartment on the second floor.

She nodded.

“When did it start?” I asked.


That’s the day we have our lesson in the morning.

How could so much damage take place? I wondered if a pipe burst while she was at the park with the kids and so the deluge of water wasn’t detected earlier.

Rather, she had promptly informed the supervisor, but no response. Why?

Shortly after our last lesson, she’d noticed their kitchen ceiling was damp and a few drips visible. Yuka phoned in the problem to the manager, leaving a message on a machine. Probably something like, “Water is coming into our kitchen” since words like “wet” and “leaking” are not part of her basic English (nor of my Japanese, despite living there six years and studying the language throughout that time).

By that night the moisture had turned to trickles. Her husband contacted the supervisor too. Still, no response.

On Wednesday no one appeared on their doorstep to see what was the problem. No one even returned their calls until Thursday morning. By then, water had flooded the kitchen, the hall and their bedroom closet. I wish I could have seen the supervisor’s face when he saw with his own eyes what had happened and imagined the cost of repairs. Due to the severe damage, drywall would have to be removed and large fans installed to below out the moisture and prevent mildew. Then the wall needed reconstruction.

How could the owner or his on-site manager be so unresponsive? I’m sure Yuka and her husband were mystified at why the landlord did not come immediately at the report of unwanted water in their kitchen. The delay allowed a deluge.

I’ve tried to imagine what happened on the landlord’s side. A picture appeared in my mind: me holding a phone, fifteen years ago. It was during the first months after we returned from six years of living, and adapting, to Japan. I was in severe pain, wanting medical help. I left a terse message at my clinic’s nurse’s station. “I need to see a doctor. My back really hurts.”

In fact, I hadn’t been able to get out of bed that morning—my husband had to roll me off. An attempt to take a six-inch step caused me to shriek from the excruciating pain.

When a nurse returned my call in a couple of hours, she offered me an appointment for two weeks later. Waiting two weeks with incapacitating pain was unimaginable, but it never occurred to me to say, “I can’t wait that long” or to explain why since her business like tone did not convey any sympathy. I took the appointment and hung up, sad and desperate.

That night I talked to a long-time friend Monika, a nurse, about my inability to get timely help. “Exactly what did you say?” she asked.

On hearing how I reported my pain in an even voice with no distress leaking through, Monika told me, “You have to say you have severe pain. You need help urgently.” She wanted me to modulate my voice, to stress the words “severely” and “urgently” by saying them in a louder voice and higher pitch.

Speaking so to a medical authority was unthinkable. Having been immersed in Japanese culture for six years, I’d picked up their predominant style of inter-relating: a reluctance to impose or demand, especially to an authority. In order not to impose or presume on others, emotions are often held in check. To express emotions loudly is childish; polite and well-functioning adults are those who hold in their suffering silently. I’d picked up this manner of interacting since ninety percent of my interactions were with Japanese neighbors, friends, school teachers and fellow churchgoers and my husband leans towards this manner of interacting.

I told Yuka, “The apartment manager probably thought it was only a little water, a drip here or there. When an American experiences a malfunction of this magnitude, they’d sound like this.” Then I demonstrated, trying to be worked-up, as emotional as a stereo-typical Italian. “‘There’s a LOT of water coming down from the second floor into our kitchen and hallway. You’d best get someone in here soon!’ We express our emotions in our voice and convey the urgency of the situation. I imagine that you and hour husband sounded polite, respectful and a bit hesitant. So they thought they could delay because it was not a big problem, not a lot of water.”

I could tell through her eyes, meeting mine, that she understood.

The supervisor likely assumed that if the situation indeed urgent, they’d say so. Their voices would sound loud and demanding. He pictured a few drops leaking in, not a steady stream. He probably didn’t know he was presuming, while Yuka and her husband believed the landlord would know the situation is urgent by the details given and the second contact.

Can Yuka (or her husband) remember and apply lessons learned here to the next situation? I wonder too about the supervisor. Perhaps the cost to the landlord will cause him to choose or instruct a supervisor more carefully.

The Japanese ways work well in a society based on their assumptions, but not here. Yuka and her husband may have read about American culture contrasted to Japanese, but written text usually deals in generalities that don’t give the specifics needed for a given situation. It’s difficult to go from a generalities to the specifics needed for a situation, like: How long do you wait for someone to return a call? What will produce the results you need without sounding rude? I hope, when another challenging situation occurs, these two intelligent Japanese will consider what they’ve learned and, better yet, ask a friend or teacher to aid them in communication strategies. If they call on someone to serve as a cultural coach, they can get what they need sooner next time.

On the other side, I hope the supervisor will ask more questions to the next visitor or immigrant living in their complex who calls with a concern. We live in a multi-cultural society and need to consider that others may not share our assumptions; they may not know (as is also true of us) that they have assumptions.

I’m grateful for my girlfriend who heard about my inability to get help for my back and coached me to do what felt so strange at that time, given my six years of life abroad. It felt wrong to ask for immediate help, but I had to change. Without adapting back to American ways, I couldn’t get what I needed. So when I called the next medical gate keeper I told her, “I have severe back pain” (with a strong emphasis on “severe”) It’s urgent.” The inflection of my voice showed my anguish. The nurse offered an appointment for the next day.