Thursday, June 11, 2009

Final Thoughts on our 3 Year Excellent Adventure in Japan

The time has come to say Good Bye to Japan after 3 wonderful and crazy years living here. Even tough I knew our time in Japan was limited, I have to admit that leaving has been quite bittersweet. Like I told one of my friends who went back to the US last month, Japan has been the best and worst time of my life all rolled into one. It has been the worst because you can’t read, write or fully communicate with the people around you, so off course there where very stressful and frustrating times. On the other hand, it has been the best time because I had a chance to explore a new country and travel all around the world. In 3 years we went all over Japan, explored Europe, relaxed in the island of Bali, hanged out in Thailand and saw how 20 million people live in very close quarters in Shanghai, China. I think me dad expressed it best when he told me that I have seen more of the world in my 30 years that he has seen in his whole life!!! Since I am a glass half full kind of girl, I will concentrate on the good aspects of our experience in Japan.

I can summarize the various stages that I went through while living in Japan using the Japanese suffixes which I have grown accustomed to, these are:

Iddya-san -> San is an honorific ending for names that indicates acquaintance. The Japanese equivalent of Mr. or Mrs.. This suffix definitely expresses my first year or so in Japan. When I first arrived in Japan everything was new and I would spend my days exploring Hiroshima and coercing my friends into taking day trips to nearby towns. Every weekend we would get together with our friends, who where like us young married couples with no kids and hang out all over town. These where really good times, it was like being in College again but this time you could afford to buy a round of beers for everyone. This all changed once I began working as an Engineer in an all Japanese male office. On top of being the only female engineer there, everyone was 65 years + and spoke absolutely no English. The up side to this situation was that I learned allot of Japanese really fast!!! Out of total and complete necessity!!! Everyone there called me Iddya-san, mostly out of respect but also because I was an acquaintance, someone who they did not truly know. At the beginning this bothered me, but with time and as my language skills got better, they began to accept and trust me. Recently I meet one of my old friends who worked in the same division as me but in a different office and she asked me point blank “How in the world did you survive working in that office a year and a half?”. My answer was very simple “Sheer and utter will”. In retrospect this was an excellent experience for me because I learned how to navigate the Japanese business world and truly had the complete Salary man (Japanese white collar worker) experience.

Iddya-chan -> Chan is an honorific ending for names that mostly indicates someone who is extremely close or someone who is much younger. It is mostly a female ending, and rarely used for males. I used to be called Iddya-chan in my second job in Japan which was working for a German based automotive supplier. The best part of my second job was that it was only 5 blocks from my house, so I walked to and from work everyday. At my new office everyone was around the same age as me, half the office was composed of hard working women and everyone was required to speak English in order to work there. Needless to say, I found everything to be so easy that I had trouble adjusting in the beginning. You mean we can have an actual conversation out of the blue? I don’t have to plan ahead my 3 Japanese sentences and try to figure out what the response was or call a translator? Am I in Japan anymore? I fit in really well here since I was able to combine what I already knew about the automotive business worked with the correct way to act in the Japanese business world. I made really good friends at this job. The girls in the office really went the extra mile for me throughout my pregnancy by translating my tests results and even helping make appointments at the doctor. I was happy to be accepted and called Iddya-chan by me peers. Here we are the last that I worked:
Diego-kun – Kun is an honorific ending for names that mostly indicates friendship or someone younger. It is usually used for boys or male colleagues. The good thing about using -kun is that when people ask what is the baby’s name I always answer Diego-kun so they automatically know I have a boy. As you have already heard from everyone who recently had a child, having a kid changes everything. Since Diego was born in January, there was not much to do since it was cold out and the majority of the families completing an international assignment when home in December of 2008. To give you an idea, there where about 60 families at the beginning of 2008 and now there are only 11 left. This did not really bother me in the begging because you can’t really do much with a newborn anyway. I did not interact much with the outside world the first 3 months or so of Diego’s existence, which is pretty normal in any country. Once Diego was sturdier I did start going out and doing stuff with the friends that I had left. I quickly learned that it’s not the quantity that counts it’s the quality, since these gals where there for me every time I needed help with the baby or just needed a piece of mom-to-mom advice.
It’s kind of ironic that recently I have been meeting a lot of really nice people from other walks of life (besides the automotive business). I’ve met some young Japanese moms whose husbands are American and some nice Japanese ladies who wanted to learn Spanish, among others. It’s a pity that I just met them and I have to leave, but that’s life. I actually think it has been somewhat easier to take care of Diego in Japan because I just put him in the stroller and walk around downtown, no need to fiddle with a car seat or drive everywhere. The thing that has been the hardest is that our families are too far away and they have not met Diego yet, so in that aspect I’m glad we are going back to the US and both our families can be in Michigan within a day’s travel.

I really think I had a very FULL life experience in Japan. I went thru periods where I was at home, I worked and I had a baby – what else could I have possibly done? I learned how to navigate the immigration, health and work systems in Japan in a short period of time. The funny thing is I meet so many people in the process that I can barely keep track (Facebook is helping out with this) and some of those people have became life long friends.

Japan will always hold a special place in my heart, not only because my son was born here, but because it opened up my eyes to a whole new world (yes like the song). I sincerely encourage everyone to go out and see the world; it is smaller than it appears. Here is the latest picture of us in the Tokasan (summer kimono) Festival:
I do have one message that I would like to point out: If you or a family member ever have the chance to live abroad via an international assignment or a student exchange or simply by traveling, I would encourage you to go and see what happens. As you can see from this blog you WILL SURVIVE and grow as a person in the process. If someone where to ask me if I would do it all over again my answer is simple: ABSOLUTELY.

Reporting from Japan for the last time,

PS. I’m happy to report that some people have contacted me after finding my blog online about life in Hiroshima as a foreigner. I have been more than happy to answer all their questions and help them out, after all that was part of the reasons for writing this blog. If you are one of these people just leave a comment

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Raising a baby in Japan

As you can see from my previous post having a baby in Japan was full of “challenges” to say the least, but little did I know that the birth was the easy part!!! I have not written anything the last few months not because I have nothing to say, but because of absolute lack of time, the baby takes up every minute of the day!!! The 3 weeks my mother-in-law came to Japan to help me out where absolute heaven – news flash to anyone who is thinking of having a baby you need HELP!!! Now that I’m taking care of the baby full time, I try to rest any time I have “off” because guess what? I have to do the same thing all over again tomorrow!!! It’s like the movie Groundhog Day but in Japan. I am just trying to figuring out how to be a mom in the first place, in addition to surviving in a foreign country …how lucky am I? Let me count the ways:

1. Completely different health system – The other day I had an all out fight with the pediatrician (who barely speaks English so I have to go with my Japanese teacher in order for her to translate) because of the kid’s vaccines schedule. It turns out they are different from the US and the ones that are the same are given to the kids at a different frequency (it took me a good month of investigating to figure this out). I refused to give him a vaccine that is given in Japan every month since it’s given every 2 months in the US. The reason I did this was that one of my girlfriends who lives in Japan had her kid vaccinated the Japanese way and then had to re-vaccinate the kid again in the US because of the incompatibility of the frequency the doses are administered. Fighting with the doctor was supper hard because I could tell the translation was very “soft”, in other words my Japanese teacher was trying to “keep it polite” and I was all out loosing a casket. The doctor kept insisting that since I’m living in Japan I have to follow their rules and finally I just told him I was going to follow the American system PERIOD. I’m certain the doctor thinks I was super rude and I’m sure he secretly roles his eyes back every time I walk in the door but seriously why would you put more vaccines into a child if it’s not necessary? I put my foot firmly down and that was the end if the discussion.

2. Who do you call when you have a mommy question? – For a normal person this would be easy just pick up the phone and call your mom, family member or friend. In my case I can only talk to the internet or look it up in the index of my Baby 411 book, since everyone who has a clue as to what is going on with the baby is currently sleeping on the other side of the world. Luckily I have a few fellow mom friends here who have been my angels the past few months. They had recommended doctors and given me lots of advice. I have definitely learned that being a mom is 100% universal.

3. Medicine – If I need medicine for the flu or something and I don’t have it I simply suck it up until it goes away, but what am I supposed to do if the baby needs something? Unfortunately I have to call home and wait for someone to send it to me 1 week later…yey. This is true for all baby products. When the baby was born he had diaper rash and we tried to go to Babies R Us at the local mall to find some type of cream, but guess what? It was a total bust, because there are lots of different kanji kanji kanji brands to choose from and you can’t read any of the labels, what if your kid was allergic to a specific chemical? You basically have no idea what your given and/or applying on your newborn child. Therefore we just had my father-in-law bring as many Johnson and Johnson baby products as he could fit into his luggage when he came to Japan. I’m hoping I won’t run out of baby products before we go back to Michigan in June.

4. Curiosity factor – It turns out that the Japanese people are very curious to see what a non Japanese baby looks like. I’m used to people staring at me basically because I’m tall (5 foot 6 inches) and have curly hair but my kid is another thing. They always stare at the baby while I’m walking with the stroller around downtown Hiroshima and even stop me in the middle of crossing the street just to take a look at him!!! People there is a street car coming, don’t you think we could get out of the way first and then stare at the child on the sidewalk? I got so fed up with the whole thing that I placed a blanket (not as bad as Micheal Jackson’s son nicknamed blanket) on the stroller in order to cover the kid up while walking.
Now you see him:

Now you don't:

Well, guess what it worked but it does not stop people from getting in the middle of my way and trying to take a peek at the baby through the sides!!! If a Japanese person wants to see a non Japanese child then they should look it up on the Internet or simply look at all the American Stores’ advertisements (Gap, Banana Republic etc) which all have blond, blue eyed people posing their clothes!!!

These are just some of the things I have been dealing with while trying to raise a baby in Japan. On the other hand I’m sure I will be laughing about it some day when I’m describing to Diego the place where he was born.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Giving birth in Japan

My first child was born on January 3rd, 2009 in Hiroshima, Japan. I decided to write this very simple statement down because it is something that will be with me for the rest of my life. It seems surreal that 2 people arrived in Japan in 2006 and now 3 people will be returning to the US in 2009. I still can’t believe we made it, considering all the obstacles we have surpassed throughout my pregnancy.
As you already know this is our first child so we had no idea what to expect and had to get used to the Japanese way of healthcare without having full grasp of the language. Luckily we did find one doctor who “semi-spoke English” and could get his point across well. I also had a very normal, worry free pregnancy so I think that made things less stressful. I can truly say that the healthcare I received was definitely 5 out of 5 stars. The doctor was very thorough, explained to us what was happening to the baby as the pregnancy progress and answered all our questions. I did have my pet peeves off course, mainly having to go to way too many check ups and that the births are 100% natural, meaning that no drugs are used to ease the labor pains. This is not a typo, I endured all the contractions, pains and discomforts associated with giving birth without one drop of pain reliever, not even a Tylenol!!! Believe me I tried to get any drugs available. I had previously “discussed” with the doctor the use of an epidural and explained that in America this was a very widely used drug to reduce labor pains and no matter what argument I used the answer was always no. Note to self: The next baby will be born in the US or in a country where epidurals are commonly used.
The actual labor itself is quite a story. My water broke around 6 am on January 2nd but I had no pain whatsoever. We decided to go to the hospital as a precaution. The first thing you have to do is call the hospital and tell them you are on your way. I proceeded to call the hospital and read my super birth script in Japanese – “It looks like I am going to give birth soon. I will go to the hospital now”. I recited my very specific 2 sentences in Japanese and the nurse started asking all these questions which obviously I did not understand (sorry there is no going into labor chapter in my Japanese for Busy People book). I proceeded to simply say “I’m going to the hospital now”, little did I know this was a precursor for a very long day of “lady I have no idea what your saying but this kid is coming out one way or the other”. I arrived at the hospital and after checking me the nurse basically stated the obvious; your starting labor but it will take a long time. I spent the rest of the day just waiting for the contractions to begin hanging out in my hospital room with Orlando and my Japanese teacher who came to help out.
At 8 pm a nurse came and told me to get a good night sleep because the baby was probably going to come tomorrow morning. As a result, my Japanese teacher went home and we went to sleep.
At around 11 pm I really started to feel hard and constant contractions and we called the nurse, who had no idea what to do with me since we could not understand each other. The nurse actually called my Japanese teacher and told her to come to the hospital. The problem was that it was already too late, the trains close from midnight until 6 am and my teacher lives half an hour away, so there we where just Orlando, the nurse, myself and the unbelievable pain trying to communicate. In reality there is not much a translator could have done in this type of situation – everyone understands the universal AHHHHHH. I defended myself in Japanese the best way I could using the words itai (it hurts), totemo (allot), ima (now) and isha (doctor). You can actually combine these to make such beautiful sentences like totemo itai (it hurt allot), ima itai (now it hurts) and the always useful ima isha (doctor now). You too can have a child in a foreign country with a grand total of 4 vocabulary words, I am living proof!!!
Once the contractions where a few minutes apart I got transferred downstairs to what I call the “pain room”. The idea is to go into this room and “deal with your pain” until your ready to start pushing the baby out. I can sincerely say that a SAW trap would have been less painful than experiencing labor pains, but around 3 am on January 3rd I was finally a mom. The funny thing was that right after the birth one of the nurses left the room, got a camera and actually started taking pictures of the doctor with the baby, the baby with Orlando, the baby with the nurses and I’m just lying there thinking “Umm hello I’m still here”. So there you have it, taking pictures every 3 minutes is normal in Japan even if you’re in a delivery room completely exhausted and looking like you just survived a boxing match with Mike Tyson in his prime.
I spent a whole week in the hospital after Diego’s birth. I really did not need to be in the hospital all this time since I felt pretty good under the circumstances by the third day but that is the Japanese way. In hindsight this is a good way for the mom to learn how to take care of her new child and rest up a little before going home. Everyone in the hospital went out of their way to make us feel comfortable. The nurses explained things to me in very basic Japanese and demonstrated how to do things (bath the baby, feed the baby, change a diaper etc) very thoroughly. I never thought I would have to learn the words and kanji for pee, poop, diaper, bottle and so on in Japanese but there I was feeding the baby with all the other Japanese mothers who where going threw exactly the same thing. Even tough everything I have just written sounds crazy, I would go threw it again in a heartbeat because the feelings a parent has for his or her child does not need any translating.