Reluctant babysitter

My youngest niece and nephew - a pair of Taiwanese kids 11 and 12 years old - have been staying with us in New York for the past week. They speak no English, and their families sent them here hoping that they would somehow pick some up with us. Taiwan parents can be terribly neurotic about getting their children into college, and my wife and I don't want to be part of this. Or maybe it was to get some breathing space. (parents? children?) Well, anyway, we couldn't refuse the request, at least not outright. The original plan was to have just the nephew here for two weeks, but somehow his younger cousin was added to the itinerary without our being consulted, and the time extended to two months. I can't say I took that gently. I am supposed to come up for early tenure next Fall, and must make substantial headway on a book this summer if that plan is to come to fruition. Having children under foot all summer would be a superb way to kill that project. So YSJ (my wife) and I fought about it a bit, and finally formed a united front: we called Taiwan and insisted that we could not take the kids for more than two weeks. They arrived with full-fare tickets and a scheduled stay of 4 weeks. We immediately phoned China Airlines and changed the return to the 18th day after their arrival. Today is just about the half-way mark, and I'm ready to start committing reflections to the keyboard.

I suppose my brother-in-law and sisters-in-law think we are wasting the family's money by sending them home so soon. But I expect our expenses these two-and-a-half weeks to approach a huge sum of money and little research to get done on my book, and no one can really expect us to do more than that. The families live in the Taiwanese countryside, where kids are mostly left to play by themselves in front of the TV or with other children. Little attention is paid to them and little trouble is taken unless they do something seriously wrong. But my in-laws should have realized that we do things differently here. We don't know where to dig up other kids, Chinese-speaking ones, on short notice in New York. YSJ and I have reached middle age with no children and no TV, and when we turn our minds to something - a movie, some music, a game, a meal - we give it full and sustained attention, something I think most young people and even most parents have difficulty doing. And so the past 8 days have been deeply draining - for the kids as well as for us.

It has been a crash course in child-rearing. We take turns so as to give each other rest time, and try to trick the kids into getting tired out as soon as possible. I generally take them out for breakfast - such exotic fare as omelettes, bagels with cream cheese, waffles - and run them through Riverside Park and up and down Broadway or Amsterdam Avenue on foot as often as feasible. Why not bound up the stairs to the apartment instead of waiting for the dumb elevator? We spend a certain amount of time each day playing board games together at home while listening to music, and schedule one big activity a day. The kids have been hauled off to see Blue Man Group, the Empire State Building, De La Guarda, the musical 42nd Street, the Museum of Natural History, the 4th of July Macy's fireworks over the East River, a boat ride up the Hudson River to the Rockefeller estate Kykuit, and so forth and so on. A puppet show is on tomorrow's menu, and Coney Island, Pilobolus, and the Bronx Zoo loom next week.

Compromises we have made:

  • They are now fed Chinese food at least once a day, since multi-ethnic New York fare seems to freak them out.
  • We don't actually test them on the English vocabulary words we are trying to teach them, although YSJ does make them copy the words out a couple of dozen times.
  • Although we'd like to dispense with all disciplinary activities, it's clear that the kids need a certain amount of arbitrary rule-enforcement to make them feel secure - this was a real eye-opener for us.
  • The greatest things about New York - window shopping, rubbernecking at the architecture and the people, conversations with strangers on the subway - all leave them cold; we are leading a far more insular life with them than we ordinarily do here.

Tonight, after watching De La Guarda, we walked up Broadway from Union Square. After many days of unbearable heat there was a cool breeze on the street, and we headed uptown past piles of trash bags that were just beginning to be collected. We passed the Flatiron Building and the funny Indo-Pak mercantile neighborhood in the 20's. The Empire State Building, lit up in the colors of the American flag, stood over us till we got to the 30's, and then we made our way up to the bustling brilliance of Times Square. The kids goggled at the giant TV screens, the only TV they'll see this trip. One of those Andean-style pan pipe troupes was performing in the middle of the square, and the four of us stood around for a long time in the breeze, listening to the wistful music and watching a black plastic bag blowing languorously around 200 feet over the heads of the crowds. It was 10 pm, and the streets were jammed. This is my hometown, and unlike some of the people I grew up with, I find it natural to overlook or even take real pleasure in sights and smells that greatly disturb others. Perhaps I've been brainwashed, somehow, but with all its flaws the city seems more perfect and human to me than anywhere else I have ever lived. Particularly, seeing the physical diversity of the people in New York always moves me enormously, and tonight I find myself hoping I can convey some of that bittersweet sensation to the kids. Or maybe it has to awaken of itself.

My nephew plays the flute and is interested in music. He watched the pan-pipes with close attention, as he did a Chinese flautist playing on the subway platform when we finally decided to head home. I can't tell what he really thinks about the music or about anything else. De La Guarda seems to have completely baffled both of them - although the little girl managed to salvage a balloon for herself, which her cousin popped as soon as they left the theatre. I'm more sensitive than usual this week to the miscarriages of communication between people. It's striking that when left alone, the kids talk to each other in a very different linguistic register than they use with us - they speak to each other clearly and articulately, but to us they mumble, slur their words together, and use terse expressions that are hard for YSJ and me to make out. YSJ is making the kids keep diaries of what they see and do here, and a side-effect of this is that it makes them reflect a little right now on what they're doing. Maybe that is the best thing that is happening this trip - that and the bonding taking place between them and us.

A few small details to remember:

  • The boy has never seen a beard grow in, so I have stopped shaving, to let him see how sandpaper turns to stubble and then to actual hairs.
  • We see how much trickier the little girl is than her cousin - we think he will have a harder time in life because he's basically honest and straightforward. On the other hand, he can find things to satisfy himself with if left alone. We feel a considerable bond with him, and he clearly does with us, too. The little girl has more devious ways, and loses interest in everything before too long. She does things she shouldn't and then lies about them, or she blames her cousin. For example, she managed to pry open our unopenable back door the first morning she was here, and then couldn't figure out how to get it closed and locked again. In my slumber I heard the door open and get inconclusively shut a few times, and when I got up and poked my head out I heard the kids talking about it, so I know more or less what happened. But the little girl absolutely denies having had anything to do with it. Well, children do lie; by itself it's not such a issue. But she has many such bad habits. We think the dirty world is more easily navigated by personalities like hers. YSJ said that she sees in the girl some of the same things that always drove her crazy about her late brother, and (especially) about her sister-in-law.
  • The little boy believes that he does not like chocolate, but when confronted with one of those rich "flourless chocolate cakes" recently in vogue, he gave a strange performance: he put a small bite of cake gingerly into his mouth, grimacing as though it was a terrible experience. He repeated this at least half a dozen times. It's clear that he actually loves rich chocolate and can't control himself in its presence, but he still believes he doesn't like it, and makes faces accordingly. We're wondering when and how this will resolve itself.
  • YSJ said, "You know they are still country kids, not city kids." Since she grew up in the same village they did, I asked her what made her become a city kid. No answer.

YSJ and I are exhausted, and no amount of sleep seems to cure that. But I have, in fact, gotten some research work done - about 2000 characters checked and 40 etymologies done since the kids arrived. It turns out to be possible to steal productive moments in the middle of chaos.

last day-log entry: July 3, 2002 | next September 8, 2002

Mantra of the day:

This morning I opened an assemble-yourself nightstand with a tag informing me it was


I live in New England - the travels and travails of this item is simply boggling.

Gary Larson's The Far Side: Last Impressions cartoon for today:

Caption: the untold ending of D.B. Cooper

Picture: man hanging from parachute strings, holding a suitcase, just above a chain link fenced pen of seven very interetested vicious looking dogs. Sign near by says Ben & Vera's Rottweiler farm.

Chamonix, at the base of Mont Blanc in France, is a truly amazing little town. I found myself there this summer for 5 days with my friend from college, Karen, and her friend from high school, Courtney. I hiked, drank, cooked and had a good time up until the last night.

I was working on a Whiskey Sour and Courtney was putting the finishing move on a Screaming Orgasm when Karen and our mutual friend Dave walked into our hostel/pub Gite le Vegabond from outside on the patio. The bar was empty except for us and the bartender. Dave told us that another local upscale bar was having a grand “reopening under new management” party, and that he was going and we all should too. He left to go get changed and we discussed how late we wanted to be out, as we were all getting on trains the next day. They were going home and I was going to Paris to meet my family.

Karen surprised me when she said she was going to Europe at the same time as me this summer. She suggested that we should meet up at some point, and we agreed we’d meet in Germany near the end of her trip and the beginning of mine. She was taking a tour of Europe with Courtney, and I was traveling with my family.

We all washed up and met Dave outside and began the walk down towards The Terrace, a nice multi level bar in downtown Chamonix, with a view of the river that runs down the Chamonix valley.

Dave was a Kiwi, meaning he was originally from New Zealand, but he came to live in Chamonix because of the incredible mountains and his slight zeal for snow boarding. He was about 35 years old, and worked as a construction worker, but he spent a lot of time in the pub at our hostel Gite le Vegabond so we knew him and had even visited his house nearby.

Dave knew a lot of people at the party and immediately wandered off to be a social butterfly, leaving us with a round of beer and a couple of pitchers of free wine. We partook in all, and generally moved towards a more relaxed mental outlook (ie we were getting drunk).

Karen was a sophomore at Case Western in Cleveland, and I a freshman. She was/is dating my friend John, who is in my fraternity. I knew her because she lived in my building, but not to well before we found we were going to Europe together. We started hanging out more after that. She really likes John and John really likes her.

It was an hour into the party, and the DJ upstairs was really getting into his gig. Dave wandered downstairs suitably toasted, and joined us at our table. We were all intoxicated, and Courtney pointed out to me that Dave had his arm around Karen at different points in the night. We both thought that was funny, but didn’t take it too seriously.

Karen and Dave had been close for the whole time we were there. I thought it was weird, because she would ditch us in favor of spending time with him, and Courtney and I would joke that she had a crush on him. She would always smile and say it wasn’t true, and that she was still John’s girl.

We decided to leave the party around one in the morning, and walked back down the deserted streets to our hostel / his house. It was our last night in Chamonix for probably ever. I shook Dave’s hand and thanked him for telling us about the good hiking that we had done, and said if I was ever back in town I’d stop by. Karen remembered that she had a National Geographic of his and went up to the room to get it. She had left and Dave gone to his apartment when it occurred to me and Courtney that the two had gone to his apartment both intoxicated on the last time they would likely ever see each other.

The first weekend of my spring break I supplied alcohol for a party at my strait-edge friend’s apartment in downtown Pittsburgh. It was an interesting party in theory, including all my high school friends I had never drank with before. In reality it was a disaster. My best friend and I had an extraordinary amount of alcohol, 2 beers and 15 shots each. Neither of us had done anything like it before or since, and we both don’t remember anything other than taking the last drink. My friends had never really dealt with that kind of thing, so everyone who was sober basically babied the two puking college boys all night. Other than our health and dignity, the other major casualties were my other friend and a female friend who was in town for the weekend. They both were too drunk to help take care of us two, so both got a little action in the other room. To make a long story short, during the days after that night he drifted into a deep bout of depression because he had liked her and she dismissed it as a horrible mistake. Alcohol mixed with sexual desires became bad news in my book.

Courtney and I stared out the window to watch Karen open the door into Dave’s house and enter, and all the thoughts of my spring break flooded into my head. I can stop this, I thought. I asked Courtney if she thought this was as bad as I thought it was.

Karen had a boyfriend. Dave was 35, she was 20. They were both drunk. It was as bad as I thought.

“I’ll give 'em 15 minutes,” I said.

I wandered over to his corner yard after the time had gone up, jumping over the separating wall. Silence greeted me as I knocked the first time on the patio door. The second time I heard movement and Dave’s voice asking who it was. He opened the door and I saw his bed out with the covers ajar, and Karen sitting on the corner looking annoyed at me. He asked if everything was alright, and I, trying to act more drunk than I was to save a little bit of dignity, said I was just making sure she made it over there okay, and muttered something about making our train on time. She said she’d be over in a minute, so I jumped the fence with both them watching and walked back to Gite le Vegabond. Courtney looked sad that I didn’t have Karen with me.

Fifteen minutes later I went over again, to about the same setup and reply. Twenty minutes after that I went over this time not to mild annoyance, but a fairly pissed of New Zealander. He yelled that it was “fucking two in the morning” and “she’s on her way over.” I said I was sorry and that I was checking cause I didn’t want her to get locked out (even though I knew she had a key). I felt like the biggest asshole on the planet.

I looked out the window as I saw her leave his apartment, and immediately went upstairs with Courtney. In retrospect I kind of wish I had stayed and waited for her to come in, maybe I would have said something. But I just hopped up into my bunk.

She walked in and asked Courtney where I was. Once she knew, she turned to my bunk and said “Sam, you can trust me.” Sleep didn’t come for a while.

The next day nothing was said. I couldn’t tell if I’d made a big deal about nothing at all or she was really embarrassed about the night before. With Karen I can’t tell, she masks most of the normal signs I have recognized. Our goodbye was awkward, and I took the train to Paris to meet my family and they took the train to Frankfurt for their flight home.

I just got an e-mail a couple of days ago from her. She said “thanks for your concern the other evening”. Thats it. I told Courtney that if Karen was pissed at me that she didn’t need to tell her that she was involved, she could just say it was only me who was checking up on her.

I feel like I did the right thing, but I also feel like an asshole. I hate it when people put me into situations like these. When we were looking out the window deciding if we should go get her, I remember telling Courtney that “if I don’t go get her, I’ll hate myself.”

I guess it’s just another thing to think about as I climb mountains this summer.

over the last long weekend i was forced to immerse myself in suburban voyeurs who set upon downtown in droves of capri pants, disposable cameras, ridiculous 'convenience gadgets', mostly with screaming children in again on my way to work (i suppose the good weather brings them out) i was set upon by varying gaggles of visitors, frantically trying to cram in as much socially ascribed "family fun" as possible...i'm sure some of them even had some kind of gadgets to better plan their day and squeeze out as much of this "fun" as possible...


they all seem so desperate... and they certainly don't seem to be having "fun"

parents yell at children...children cry and stomp...teenagers mope...posed photos with uncomfortable looking folk...superfluous relatives appear dejected...the whole thing puzzles me...

i have never had a "family"...i have never gone on "fun" outings with anyone who ever tried to fill the roll of "parent"...i have no siblings to speak of (apparently i have a 1/2 brother i have never met but i can't be sure he's alive) or any living relatives that are welcome in my life, nor have i ever had a family maybe i'm missing some hidden appeal here...but to me it seems so forced, so if they are going through the motions of what "fun" is supposed to be or how "fun" is supposedly achieved...

i believe we have lost the appreciation for and the ability to achieve simple be able to instinctively have "fun"...perhaps this comes from the drive to be "grown up"; to be "adult"...

never do i want to be "grown up" implies some sort of final destination; some plateau that is reached and once achieved requires no further further growth...

i don't believe anything naturally stagnates; there is always change and growth...cycles of development and deconstruction, but somehow these "grown ups" appear to be striving to reach this finale when they won't have to grow any further because they've finished "growing up"...simple joy, atrophied to the point of becoming a foreign concept...

i'll take my responsible simple joys and foolish fun...i love the child that lives inside...i try to nurture and encourage embrace the intrinsic and unforced appreciation for simply having "fun"...i will never be grown up simply because i aspire to never stop growing up...

moving forward

weill in japan: day 04

I think I might be getting used to this whole Japan thing.

Without any school obligations today, I was free to do as I pleased. A couple of new adventures and several thousand yen later, I'm back at home. It's good to be back.

meet my family

I don't know how I've gone through three updates (July 3, July 4, and July 5) without introducing my host family and describing my accomodations. My host family consists of two parents and four children, although two of the children are away. One of my brothers is working in Kyoto, while the youngest child -- Rei, a 19-year-old college student -- is spending her summer abroad in America. As I've mentioned before, I don't see too much of my other two siblings due to their late-skewing schedules. This evening I got to sit down for dinner with Toshi and his girlfriend, but I've still only seen Kei once as he popped his head into the kitchen.

My homestay is set in a small but comfortable house in Suginami-ku. The first floor has an almost-impossibly-small garage, the genkan (entry room where shoes are stored), the "piano room" holding a grand (!) and upright piano, the kitchen which also contains the clothes washer and dryer, my host father's office, and a full bathroom. On the second floor is a sink, toilet, my bedroom, the tatami room, and bedrooms for my parents and brothers. Everything is small, but I don't feel claustrophobic about any of it. The hardest part is getting around Nene, our golden retriever, who sits guarding the genkan at all times.

Because space and energy are expensive in Japan, everything is designed to take up as little of both as possible in the home. For example, my host family has two Sony Trinitron TVs that would be considered luxury items in the U.S., but their relatively low cost and small size make them preferable for Japanese homes. Many refrigerators, including the American-made GE fridge in our kitchen, have a cutout in the door to access beverages and other small items without swinging the whole side open and wasting cold air. Air conditioners are about half as tall as their American counterparts and run much quieter. PCs are much smaller, from so-called "slimtop" home computers down to miniscule laptops like the Sony VAIO U series and the Toshiba Libretto. Cars are built smaller to use less gasoline (about $2.50-$3.00 a gallon here) but that doesn't stop families from buying the occasional minivan or luxury import.

My host family has been tolerant of my Japanese so far, and I've offered to help out with their English where possible. Sometimes, mistakes completely alter the intent of a sentence. When explaining that I was full after dinner, I offered "Zenbu taberareru mono o tabemashita," for what I thought was "I have eaten everything that I can eat." However, that second "I" isn't implicit like I thought it was, so it came out as "I have eaten everything that is edible." The word "I" is almost never explicit in Japanese, so these sorts of slipups are possible.

My host mother is best described as "multitalented." In addition to raising four children, she also runs a baking class, prepares meals, and teaches children at a nearby juku (cram school) once a week.

Odd moment tonight: after dinner, we were watching a baseball game on TV. All of a sudden, my host mother reaches into a bag and starts asking me if I like toumorokoshi. Not knowing what that word means, I ask if she knows the English translation. "Kon" she says, with a long 'o', which sounds like "cone." Cone? Koan? Kona? It's "corn," as she pulls an ear out of the bag. I pronounce it the English way and have a nice laugh as everyone in the room tries to mimic my exaggerated 'r' sound. The corn was fine, although (1) we ate it about an hour after dinner, and (2) my host mother has the unusual habit of manually pulling the kernels off the cob and eating them or distributing them, while my host father eats corn like I've seen most Americans do -- straight off the cob. Was it dessert? I don't think so, but it was good.

more japanese fun

Today I finally got to Akihabara, Tokyo's "Electric Town," and I was not disappointed by what I saw. I did forget my passport, forfeiting my tax refund on purchases of more than 10,000 yen, but that didn't sour my trip too much. The first department store is accessible from the station platform, and so I was able to browse shelves of toys, games, and other fun things even before reaching street level. Leaving the station at ground level, bright neon colors burst from everywhere, brightly advertising what is on each floor of department stores that stretch eight or more levels up. Many of the large stores have escalators up, but only stairs and slow-moving elevators down, to seemingly discourage people from leaving right away. In addition to the department stores, where I got a few small things to send out, there are also countless stalls along the streets: some legit, some not. Most of the stores are open to negotiation, but I didn't feel like negotiating over anything today. There were some prices that were just silly, like a posted price of ¥10,000 ($83.33) for a bootleg 40-in-one Game Boy Advance cartridge. I remember my friends in elementary school and middle school had similar carts for the NES, which they got from similar stalls in Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens, N.Y. Only stupid tourists would pay more than $80 to get several semi- to non-working games hacked into a cartridge that could potentially damage a game console.

The trip wasn't a total bust: in addition to some postcards and a World Cup pin (all World Cup goods are discounted now), I picked up an electronic dictionary on the street for ¥10,000. It was on sale from ¥14,800, and also features handwriting recognition. It's not as advanced as some of the other dictionaries I saw, which ranged in price from ¥5000 ($41.67) to well over ¥40,000 ($333.33), but it should help me get through this summer. I plan to sell it to someone on campus in the fall since I won't be taking any more Japanese language courses.

If you've ever played the game "Shenmue" or been in an American supermarket, you've seen capsule vending machines. For ¥100 (in Shenmue; about 20 cents by the 1986 exchange rate) or 25 to 50 cents in the U.S today, you get a little toy in a plastic bubble. The toys don't do anything and are typically cheap plastic trinkets, but might calm down a crying young child. Akihabara features rows after rows of capsule toy machines that charge ¥200 ($1.67) or even ¥500 ($4.17) and dispense very large capsules containing toys to assemble. The machines aren't confined to Akihabara, but are still pretty impressive.

I'm still debating whether to invest some money in a mobile phone while here. The throwaway $20 models on sale at department stores have as many features as a top-of-the-line model from most American providers, but are cheap because fickle Japanese consumers have tossed them aside in favor of the latest and greatest. Thousands if not millions of Japanese consumers are getting phones with color displays and digital cameras built in, to communicate using multimedia on a network becoming increasingly capable of 3G speeds (144 kbps). One of the stores I visited had a clamshell e-mail device for ¥1800 ($15.00) that, if it can access any IMAP server, could be a great bargain. I'll have to investigate.

I've been looking forward to schoolchildren randomly coming up to me and trying their English out. Today I got my first chance, but didn't realize it. After exiting Ogikubo station, a team of elementary school soccer players were getting on a bus. One of them looked at me and said "harao." Not understanding him, I said nothing. The child said it again. "Harao! Harao!" Only after he had gotten on the bus did I realize what he was trying to say. "Hello." Maybe he was learning English from someone with a strong Australian accent.

There are thousands of 7-Eleven stores in Japan, but they do not have Slurpees or any of the other items that an American might associate with them. They do have PlayStation games, lunch boxes, and a variety of snacks and drinks.

Japan has embraced baseball to the extent where it is displacing sumo as the national sport. Some say that it already has, with stylish baseball players commanding millions in endorsement deals and hoping to make it big in America. "Ichiro" has become a colloquial adjective for something really cool, from the name of Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki who played for nine years in Japan with great success and is still doing very well in the U.S. There are many things about Japanese baseball that differ from the U.S. version. Fences surround the stands even in the outfield. When a foul ball heads towards the fans, an alarm horn is sounded. The foul ball is expected to be returned by the fan who catches it, even if it's from the fan's favorite team. The one thing that got me, though, is the home run prize. Any player who hits a home run is rewarded with a prize when he touches home plate. In the case of the Yomiuri Giants, each player gets a large plush toy of the team's mascot after each home run. That's one toy per player per home run. After the game, the players who hit home runs come out of the dugout -- with prizes in hand -- for interviews. I thought that the prizes only apply to home teams, but my host father noted that prizes are given out by every team in every game, home and away. Of all the things that could have caused Japan's long-running economic depression, don't consider low discretionary spending.

Sunday will probably be spent working on this one job application test that I have, and possibly some Internet connection time. I will likely only be able to check mail while on campus, and I won't have my laptop on me to push front page updates. We'll see how things work out over the next few weeks.

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