Friday, October 31, 2008

I've done everything

Mou zenbu yatta

When I decided to marry the Pumpkin Daddy, I was not 100% sure it was the right decision. I had figured out he was funny and nice to his girlfriend (me), but that that didn't always mean that he would be funny and nice to his wife (should it be me?).

I'd entered my 30s and I had dreams of having children. Biology had a time limit (I know, not a statement that would go over well with some feminists, but it's a scientific truth), and I wasn't getting any further away from it. I figured that since I was financially independent, I could afford to take the chance. If all else failed, I could leave and go back to taking care of myself. So I decided to take the risk.

Tonight, I came home very tired. After I put the Pumpkin Princess to bed, I more or less collapsed on the couch. He said to me in a very casual, matter of fact way, "I've already done everything. The dishes are washed and the floor is swiffed. Why don't you go shower and get ready for bed?"

We have been married four years now. He is still funny and nice. So far, so good.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I learned a new word.

Atarashii kotoba wo oboemashita.

We have three African visitors at work this month. One is from Nigeria, one from Ghana, and one from Ethiopia. In all three of these countries, all higher (high school and above) education is done in English. In Ghana and Nigeria, all formal education goes on in English. I am wondering how much this has to do with the length of colonial rule (Ethiopia had a few years of occupation by Mussolini era Italy, but that's it) and ethnic diversity (all three nations consist of multiple nations/ nationalities/ tribes/ peoples with distinct cultures, but I think the lack of colonial rule resulted in a "dominant" local nationality/ language).

Sorry about that sidetrack. I'm utterly fascinated by the idea of English as a common language used by people who don't acquire it on their mother's knee. The point I'd wanted to make for purposes of this blog entry was that all three of these gentlemen speak grammatically correct English with mild accents that are neither American nor British.

Anyway, I was talking to the Ethiopian, and we were discussing a very new, very expensive drug used to treat certain types of cancer, and he said "the efficacy of the drug is without a doubt, but so is its financial toxicity."

Financial toxicity! What a dismally descriptive phrase!

I wondered if perhaps this was an African phrase (it doesn't seem to be used in the US. If any of my Brit friends could comment, I would appreciate it) and asked the Ghanaian and the Nigerian. The Ghanaian said "oh, we would say the drug causes 'pocketitis'"

Pocketitis. A severe inflammation of the pockets. The inflammatory process can be reversed if in its early stages. Or something.

I'm hoping to learn some more African English while they are with us. Keep in touch?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What did you do last weekend?

Shuumatsu nani wo shita?
This is a picture taken by the Pumpkin Daddy this past weekend. To my American friends, the background scenery probably looks just downright wrong. To my Japanese friends, the view of Tokyo Bay and Rainbow Bridge probably looks familiar. The Pumpkin Family went to Tokyo this past weekend. It was a bus tour sponsored by the Pumpkin Daddy's workplace. We went to the Edo Museum, which shows life in Edo. Edo is what Tokyo was called before the Meiji restoration in 1868. The scene shown is of childbirth. You can see the midwife giving the baby its first bath. The new mother was supposed to remain in a sitting position for seven days, to prevent excess blood flow to the upper body. Many mothers would become sick after giving birth (well, I don't think I'd like staying in a sitting position for a week, even while sleeping, and that I'd become at least a little sick if I did. Thank goodness for modern obstetrics...) The museum looked pretty interesting, but we spent most of the time chasing the Pumpkin Princess and making sure she didn't crawl on the exhibits you were not supposed to be crawling on. Next stop, Tsukiji, home of the largest fish market in the world. And the freshest sushi in the world. There are two pieces missing on this platter. The Pumpkin Daddy and I both started eating before remembering to take a picture. It wasn't cheap, but totally worth it. The only drawback was that the place wasn't all that kid-friendly, and there was no good place to change diapers. From there, the bus took us to the harbor where this boat came for us.

This looks like a futuristic protozoan. It's a new vessel, designed by Leiji Matsumoto, a cartoonist popular in the 70s who has done mostly SF type stuff considered classics. The Pumpkin Princess spent much of the ride asleep. We got to Odaiba, where the above Statue of Liberty was to be found, did some walking around, and watched a street performer. Then it was a mad dash to get to the bus on time. We got home too late for me to start cooking, so we headed to our usual pasta place. Pretty exhausting day, and I was really amazed when the Pumpkin Princess got up at 6 the next morning.

"You're overdoing it!""


After Grandmother's funeral, my brother stayed at my parents' place, so we all had dinner there. The Pumpkin Princess was a bit shy at first, but after a while, she started to show off, doing the song and dance she did for the Pumpkin Day Care field day. She was so enthusiastic, she fell over while dancing a couple times. She would fall over and get back up without missing a beat.

I had show off tendencies as a child (maybe I still do, but at least now I realize just exactly how, or rather, how not, talented I am). Perhaps this is hereditary.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Let's go home.

Ie ni kaerou.

(TMI alert!)

My grandmother was a tiny woman, so her ashes fit in the urn without much trouble. My maternal grandfather, on the other hand, was a bit tall for someone his generation. When he passed away, and the family passed the bones from one pair of chopsticks to another, and the crematorium attendant had swept everything off the gurney, the lid would not fit. So the attendant did the only thing he could do, which was take out the skull bones, pack everything down a bit, resulting in a distinctive crunching sound, and put the bones of the skull back.

(end TMI)

After the ashes are, ahem, placed in the urn according to tradition, they are taken back to the ceremony hall. When you go back to the ceremony hall or temple, you must never go back using the same road, because the spirit of the dead might follow you back. (This presents an interesting problem in rural areas where there are a limited number of roads.) Back at the temple or ceremony hall, more prayers are offered. According to tradition, more prayers are supposed to be offered on the 7th day after death, but these days, it's so hard to get everyone together so frequently, you'll just pretend seven days have passed and offer another set of prayers at this time. After all that chanting about how life sucks is done, the family will share a meal. and then go home with the ashes, and the ashes are placed at the family alter or some other safe place. They're kept at home for 49 days, according to tradition, during which the family goes into mourning. Mourning is a relative term. You give offerings of food and sweets and whatever else the deceased liked, but you don't cover all the mirrors or dress in black or stop singing or playing the piano the entire time or anything, at least not these days, anyway. I know of a family who went skiing during their period of mourning when their dad died. They put the urn in a backpack and skiied down his favorite slope.

On the 49th day, (these days, however, it might not be exactly 49 days because the 49th day might not be on a weekend) prayers are offered again (with the same reminder that life sucks but it goes on) and the urn is placed in the family grave. The family is left with a tablet-like plaque on which the deceased's new name is carved. This plaque (ihai) is very important, and is the third thing you grab in case of a fire (after the baby and the bank book).

Graves are supposed to be visited regularly, but tradition requires visits on the 1st, 3rd, 7th and 13th anniversaries of death.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

I want a car like that.

Aaiu kuruma ga hoshii.

When a Japanese person dies, you pick a good day for the funeral. According to the Buddhist calendar with 6 day weeks, some days of the week are better for funerals than others. "Tomobiki," or "draw friends in" is a bad choice for funerals (but a lovely day for weddings). "Butsumetsu" or "Buddha dies" is a good choice (but bad for weddings). Usually a compromise is reached in terms of proximity to time of death, Buddhist calendar day of the week, and time needed for family travel arrangements.

An alter is set up with a picture of the deceased. They used to use only black and white photos, but these days, color photos are quite common. Around the alter, there are wreaths sent by family and friends. The wake is held in early evening. The Buddhist priest chants about how although it's well established that life sucks, we are still deeply saddened by our loss and how the deceased is now safe in the arms of Buddha. After he's done telling us life sucks, the people who've shown up at the wake offer incense and prayers one at a time (or two at a time or three at a time, depending on the size of the ceremony hall and the number of people who are expected to show up). Family stay with the deceased the night of the wake, and make sure the incense stays smoking until the next morning.

At the funeral, there's more chanting about how life sucks, and you offer incense again. Then the casket is filled with flowers and the deceased's personal belongings and things they liked (cigarettes, candy) and closed. Depending on your sect of Buddhism, the casket may or may not be nailed shut. Then it's off to the crematorium. The hearse is usually a very elaborate gold gilt affair topped with a laquered roof. I have a feeling it's just an urban legend, but apparently Elton John saw a hearse while he was touring Japan and commented that he'd love to have a car like that.

When the deceased and the attendees arrive at the crematorium, incense and prayers are offered one last time, and the priest chants one last time about how life sucks, and the casket (which is wood, btw) is slid into the cremation chamber. During the cremation process, you sit around drinking tea and chatting. When the ashes are brought out on a stainless steel gurney, many of the bones still hold their shape. The family transfer the bones into an urn. Custom dictates that two people grasp either side of a given bone with chopsticks and work together to carry it to the urn. (This is why, in Japan, you never, ever pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another.) The attendant will usually try to steer you clear from selecting bones from the skull and also the 2nd cervical vertebra. The 2nd cervical vertebra is significant in that it is shaped like Buddha sitting in meditation. After most of the bones still holding their shape are transfered to the urn, the attendant will show the family the 2nd cervical vertebra and place it in the urn. Most of the remaining ashes are swept into the urn with a brush and a dustpan. The bones of the skull are the last ones to be placed in the urn, insuring the deceased is right side up in their new home.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

I didn't plan this!

Neratte imasen!

I didn't plan things this way, honest, but it just worked out this way. After (comparatively) meticulously describing a recent wedding, I now get to describe a funeral. My paternal grandmother died this past Tuesday, and the Pumpkin Clan (including the Pumpkin Princess) attended the funeral today. She was 91 years old and she'd suffered a huge stroke 3 years ago. She probably died of a combination of pneumonia and heart failure. No one is surprised. We miss her, but we've been missing her for 3 years. Knowing her, she's probably glad to be free of feeding tubes and i.v.'s, and happy to finally be with my grandfather (he died over a decade ago) again and to have gained the ability to watch over her 8 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren all at once. I'm sure she's somewhere where she can have all the fried pork cutlets and peanut candy she wants, with a full set of perfect teeth to enjoy them properly.

She had the standard issue hard life of people her generation. She was brilliant and loved school, but her family's finances (or rather lack thereof) decided that she would finish the required six years of education and then go to work. The job she happened to have was a waitress in the on-site restaurant of the library, which was where she met my grandfather.

Pretty and smart as she may be, she was definitely not the bride my grandfather's adoptive mother had in mind. Great-grandma was actually Grandfather's (much) older sister. She and Great-grandpa were childless, so they adopted her youngest brother to continue Great-grandpa's family line. Great-grandma was a skilled kimono seamstress, and she used that skill to pay for grandfather's university education. She also taught sewing to girls of families well off enough to afford her lessons. She'd probably planned on taking one of her students as his bride. No way would she let some girl who'd only finished 6th grade and was from a family of alcoholics marry her university educated son.

Now, this is where things get interesting. Grandpa and Grandma do get married. Grandma once mentioned that her wedding kimono was borrowed, which strikes me as a bit strange for a daughter-in-law of a master kimono seamstress. A distant aunt mentioned very late at night and under the influence that there definitely were less than 40 weeks between the wedding and the birth of their twin sons (my uncle and dad). It's not hard to imagine Great-grandma's reluctant acceptance of Grandma after receiving the news that she was pregnant with her son's offspring. And if her acceptance were reluctant, she might not have enthusiastically prepared a wedding kimono for her new daughter in law. But all that's lost to history and left to speculation.

The twins were 6 when April 15th, 1945 swung around. At the time, the family was based in Taiwan, which was a Japanese colony. The end of the war meant Taiwan was no longer a part of Japan, and Japanese had to cut their losses and leave as soon as possible or risk becoming targets of revenge. So the family cut their losses and left. They were lucky in that aspect. Grandpa had failed his draft physical (so he was still around, as opposed to having become the object of a US Marine's war story) and had a university education. He found work fairly quickly after their return to Japan. This is an exception, not the rule. When you're an exception, particularly when you're a positive exception, the general rules will come gather around you. Friends and relatives came to Grandpa and Grandma, people who, like them, had cut their losses and left Taiwan and mainland China but had not fared nearly as well, asking to stay with them a while until they got back on their feet. Grandpa almost always said yes, but the actual figuring out of what and how much to feed everyone who showed up at mealtimes, and how to pay for it, was left to Grandma. But she figured it out. And she put all three of her sons through college. And she cared for her in-laws until they died.

In Japanese Buddhist tradition, when you die, you get a new name. Grandma's new name translates into "seamless". When people came to her for help, she gave it, whether they were family nor not. There were no seams that differentiated "family" and "not family" in her compassion to help others in need.

It's getting late. I'll post about the funeral another day.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Have a safe trip home.

Ki wo tsukete okaerikudasai.

At Japanese weddings, you usually take stuff home. Make that you always take stuff home. Here's what I brought home this wedding. Clockwise from the upper left:

1. This big box contained a serving plate and four smaller plates. They were white and an interesting squiggly square shape. China is a common gift for wedding guests. Another common gift is pots or pans.

2. Small bottle of champagne. Contained gold flakes. The label was custom printed with each guest's name and during the reception, the bottle acted as a place card.

3. This box, wrapped in a red cloth, contained katsuobushi, or fish flakes. It's a traditional wedding gift, because "katsuo" can mean "the man is a winner".

4. The flat box on the far right contained rice cooked with red azuki beans, or "sekihan". It's a traditional food served on merry occasions.

5. This box on the front right contained pound cake.

6. This cute little box was given to me by the bride as I left the reception (she had a great big basket of them and passed them out to everyone in a "receiving line" fashion). It contained sugar coated almonds.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The most beautiful in the world

Sekai de ichiban kirei

In Japan, the reception is the main event of the wedding. For Shinto weddings, traditionally, no one outside family is allowed in the shrine during the wedding ceremony, and even for Christian weddings, it's common for many guests to skip the wedding and just show up for the reception. Receptions are usually carefully planned, starting with the couple making an entrance into the banquet hall. Then the guests of honor (usually a workplace boss or former teacher) make speeches and propose toasts, and the multi-course meal begins. While the meal is served, there may or may not be one or more of the following, with a costume change (oironaoshi) or two somewhere in between.

1. Kagami biraki, which is breaking open of a barrel of sake (rice wine)
2. Speeches by friends of the bride and groom
3. Cutting of the wedding cake (no face smashing, thank you)
4. Performances by friends of the bride and groom (usually a song and/or dance of highly variable degrees of skill)
5. Letter from the bride to her family read out loud (usually a very emotional, teary event)
6. Speech by the groom thanking the guests for coming
7. Speech by the groom's father thanking the guests for coming

(btw, the Pumpkin Mommy and Daddy's wedding had 2, 3, 4 and 6.)

There is usually no dancing unless it happens during 4.

Of course, no one actually cares about anything except the food and alcohol and checking out what the half of the couple they don't know looks like.

Today's phrase was spoken by the groom in reference to his bride. It is rare for a Japanese man to say something like that about his wife in public, and I thought it was sweet.

Monday, October 6, 2008

"Is it real?"


So the wedding was held in a ceremony hall.

The building was built like an old European mansion, and there was a chapel inside the building. The ceremony was standard issue Japanese ceremony hall chapel wedding, which means that a non-Japanese, Caucasian English speaking male in minister garb presides over the ceremony. Note that I said "male in minister garb" and not "minister". The man, whose English had a standard American English accent, may or may not have been an actual minister. It's common knowledge that most of these people, who are always Caucasian males, are often English conversation teachers looking to make an extra buck or two. The ceremony is supposedly modeled after American Protestant ceremonies and is conducted in a mix of American English and Japanese (sufficiently accented for an exotic touch, regardless of the "minister's" proficiency in Japanese). The legality of the wedding ceremony due to its being performed by a fake clergyman is not an issue. From a legal standpoint, the wedding ceremony is unimportant, and what matters is going to the local city office to get your marriage registered. (It's rather difficult to commit bigamy in Japan, since if your marriage is registered, you end up on a national database)

The hymn "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" is always sung, which strikes me as a strange choice for a wedding, so if some of my Christian friends could inform me of hymns sung in actual American Christian wedding ceremonies, I would really appreciate it.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Got new bills?

Pinsatsu aru?

My net friend Jilly mentioned on a different part of the internet that she loved hearing about customs in different countries. I just got back from a wedding and I went to a wake last week, so today I'm going to talk about money.

The above mentioned bills are not bills as in what I owe the electric company, but bank notes, as in a dollar bill or, in this case, a 10,000 yen bill. In Japan, when you are invited to a wedding, you don't ponder what you are going to get the new couple as a gift. You just give money. In new bills. Something about everything being shiny and new for weddings. In a pinch, I have been known to iron out slightly wrinkly bills to use as wedding gifts. Par is 30,000 yen (slightly less than $300 USD according to this past Friday's exchange rate), and it always has to be an odd number of bills so that it's hard to split (like a marriage should be). You wrap it in special paper packaging called a shugibukuro. The picture is of the one I took to today's wedding. The gold character is "good fortune" or "happy occasion" (sorry, it kind of gets lost in the translation, just know that it means well). The cords are always tied in a square knot or some other knot that can't be untied easily, as a symbol of how a marriage should be. The black blotches are not runny ink, but me trying to blot out my real name, so that you can't come stalk me or something.

The opposite works for funerals. You have to give your "condolence money" in old bills, because new bills suggest you were prepared for the death, which is considered rude. This is kind of ironic, though, because most people who've lived and worked in Japan know that wrinkly bills are actually harder to get than the crisp ones. And yes, I've crinkled and stomped on new bills in a pinch. There is also a "condolence money package" that's very plain and white tied with black and white cords that you must use to wrap your old crinkly bills in. The ties are also in a square knot because square knots signify things that can't be re-tied, i.e. repeated. The rule is that the square knot packages are used for events you don't want to happen again (like weddings and funerals) and the bow ties are used for things you do want to happen again (like birthdays and babies).