I’ve been taking Ellie to a Japanese school for toddler time once a month for a little while now. I’m an outsider not only because I’m a dude, but also because I’m not Japanese. I know this, and I accept it. I’ve become used to these awkward situations I encounter. They do their best to include me in the group though. They added a picture of a dad next to the mom on the class schedule for the “mom discussion” part of class. And instead of just saying “Okasan (Mother)” when pointing at the picture, they also say “Otosan (Father)” too. I don’t speak Japanese so I never participate in that part of class, but I still appreciate their effort. Anyway, I’ve accepted the awkward two hours as part of my job when raising a bi-lingual child. But sometimes in addition to the language barrier, the cultural differences become so apparent.

At class the other day, they brought out drums and sticks. Real drums and real sticks. Uh oh, where is this going? Mind you, this is a toddler class, ages 18 months to 3 years old. Half of the class got rubber mallets for the drums, and the other half got sticks. The intent was for the drum half of the class to go “ton ton ton,” and then the stick half of the class would answer with “click click click.” This was supposed to be all in unison. But can you imagine what happens when you give a group of 20 toddlers drums and sticks? Chaos.

The group that had the drums wanted the sticks, and the group that had the sticks wanted the drums. All you could hear was a mass of clicking and banging, and faintly underneath that glorious “music” was the teacher counting, “Ichi, ni, san! (one, two, three!)” It took me awhile to figure out what was going on, but when I realized the teachers wanted all the kids to play in unison, I said out loud to myself, “Are you crazy?”

Ellie tried, and I tried helping her. But by the time I’d get her to stop clicking her sticks, it was time to actually click them. And when she started clicking again we were supposed to stop. While she was happily clicking away and I was trying to direct her. “Not yet Ellie, ichi, ni, san, go!” The teacher scolded me, “Please hold her in your lap.” Huh? The room was in anarchy. They were like Gremlins who stormed the stage after a Wiggles concert. Kids, drums, mallets, and sticks were everywhere, and the teacher singles me out!? I wanted to cry in defense while pointing at some other wandering kid and say, “But Yuki-chan isn’t sitting down either!

Aya would always tell me stories of how things were in elementary school in Japan. All the boys had black back packs and all the girls had red back packs. Each grade had matching hats and they had to march single file by gender either by height, or in alphabetical order for everything they did. Kids walked to school (they don’t have public school buses) every morning in groups assigned to them based on their address. Everything was about falling in line and respecting being a part of the mass.

Is this what she was talking about? I’m used to story time at my local library which is pretty relaxed. Kids participate in the songs and activities when they can, and if someone can’t sit still and wanders off, it’s not a big deal. We all do our best to keep the kids focused, but at that age group, sometimes it just doesn’t always work. So when I go from that environment to Japanese school where everything is so orderly and all the kids are sitting in their mom’s laps, I just think, Ellie is so not a 100% Japanese kid.

At the end of one class when it was time to sing the goodbye song, Ellie, instead of sitting in my lap like everyone else, ran up to give the teacher a hug and said “BYE!” And then she hugged all the assistant teachers, and then made her way around the circle of moms and kids saying and waving good bye to everyone. “BYE! See you later! Yuki-chan, I love those pigtails! Have a good one. Nice to see you. My name’s Kokomi, see ya next month, I’m out!

Japanese people are extremely polite and friendly, but mostly reserved.  Greetings are respectful, and hugging in public is not common. So to see Ellie all affectionate and excited like that, all the parents and teachers smiled and giggled quietly, but seemed stunned at the same time. “This kid is so not a 100% Japanese,” they were probably thinking. Yep, there’s definitely a cultural difference.

But last time we were at my local library story time I noticed something. All the kids were sitting in their parent’s laps watching the teacher intently except for mine. She was all smiles, happy and excited standing in the middle of the circle checking things out. Maybe it’s not a cultural thing. Maybe it’s just Ellie.

I’d like to call her “happy and free spirited.” Yeah, that’s it.

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