When I reached the bottom of the stairs I saw at least twelve strollers lining the hallway around an open door. Strollers!? Was there a walking portion to this class I didn’t know about? I left my stroller in the car! Should I go get it?? But then I looked at my watch and noticed we were 45 minutes late. Maybe not. I took a deep breath and entered the room.
The class was in mid-song when we entered and everyone turned around and said, “Konnichiwa! Ohayou Gozaimasu!” (Which means, Hello! Good morning!) I know these words, but I just gave a sheepish smile and waved. Ellie jumped out of my arms and walked over to another mom and said “Hiiii!” The room sheriff put a sticker on Ellie, and a sticker on me. Apparently these were name tags. At least I hoped so because I could not read these as I’ve never seen my name written in Japanese before.
We were then whisked away to the story circle with the other moms as story production had just started. I say “production” because it wasn’t just one person reading a story. There were two ladies using puppets and narrating while another woman played the piano. I had no idea what was going on, but Ellie seemed to be enjoying it. Eventually, the room sheriff came over and started translating for me. “This is story about a snake that comes out in spring with her baby snakes.” Snakes!? What kind of children’s class is this? My regular story time has giant spider stuffed animals, and now snakes. Japanese snakes. Then the snakes started singing songs about dandelions. I only know this because the sheriff told me. “Dandelion is strong spring flower, we sing song now.” Dandelions are weeds, I thought, but it didn’t feel right to say that out loud.
As they started singing other songs and clapping I took notice that no one else had a diaper bag. Everyone brought a stroller but no diaper bag? How did these ladies operate? I didn’t get it. And then I saw it. A whole table filled with neatly organized diaper bags. All lined up like on display at a fancy store. And these weren’t your regular, Baby’s R’Us diaper bags either, these were Louis Vuitton, Coach, Burberry, and Prada diaper bags. I’m not naive to the fancy diaper bags. Many of my friends have stylish fashion conscious diaper bags. Even I do. But this was a whole other level. I told Aya if I go back, I need a Marc Jacobs man bag just to fit in. (Yes, I know who Marc Jacobs is.)
That class didn’t feel like I was at Birmingham High School at all. I felt like I was in Japan. There was no sign of the U.S. anywhere. Their clothes, the babies’clothes, the teachers’aprons, the etiquette, everything. Everyone was dressed up. They all had their hair styled, and wore dressy clothes with pin heels. Not just one or two people, all of them. It was a really warm day in the 80s and they all had on long sleeves too. I was the only one wearing short sleeves. I found this strange. It’s like I was in that movie Lost in Translation, but Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson had ditched me. I never thought about this aspect of class. Aya is a very Americanized Japanese woman, so I forget about the cultural differences sometimes. I thought I was uncomfortable when I first started story time at my library, that was nothing. Swim class was nothing. But at least I was able to keep my shirt on here.
It was hard to read the unspoken rules of the room. I didn’t know what to do if Ellie wanted to go run up and play the piano. I would know what I would do at my story time, but everything seemed to be run by a different playbook here. There were three teachers that kind of acted like referees. If a kid would run, one of them would pick them up with a big smile and play with them. Eventually they would kick them back into play. Was I supposed to go get Ellie from them? Or let them have her for a bit?
And then before I knew it, we were all standing dancing in a circle and one of the teachers put Ellie awkwardly on my back. She was about to fall off as we all danced to what I can only describe as a combination of the Hustle and the Japanese Hokey Pokey. And as quickly as the song started, it was over. Everyone in unison then grabbed their diaper bags and started changing their babies and giving snacks and bottles. What? Snack time? Was there an announcement? Did I miss it? Did someone say my name!? I hope I brought snacks.
As I fumbled through my bag, the room sheriff came over and started talking to me. I was trying to get crackers for Ellie but they broke and were crumbling all over the floor and into my bag as she was trying to explain snack time to me. I felt like such a rookie. And then she said, “You sweat because they are all moms, I sweat because I need to speak English.” As I wiped the sweat dripping from my forehead I wondered, was it really that apparent that I have been sweating like a pig this whole time?
It was explained to me that the next activity was “mom discussion” and I could join if I wanted to, but it would all be in Japanese. RIGHT. When she asked if I could speak Japanese, I explained only a few words and then said, “Onaka ippai” (which means, I’m really full) while I patted my belly. I could imagine Aya shaking her head in embarrassment as I started patting my belly, which I instinctively pushed out as I said it.
During mom discussion, I sat out for obvious reasons. One, I couldn’t speak Japanese. Two, it seems that being a stay-at-home dad isn’t all that big of deal here in the U.S.A It’s not common, but it’s not unheard of. But when it comes to that kind of stuff, it seems as though Japan is still stuck in 1951. Men work, and women take care of babies and cook. As all the moms sat around during their discussion checking off items from their printed agenda on clip-boards, I couldn’t help but wonder what they were talking about. And feel that maybe they were missing out. I had just put the smack down on getting my kid to take naps, but they’d never know. I was just the sweaty white guy to them.
So I just sat there playing with Ellie among all the other Japanese and halvsie kids. One halvsie kid must have felt connected to me, because she kept bringing me things with a big smile as if to say, “Hey, it’s okay. My dad’s white like you too!”
Sometime after 12:30pm, we made it back to my truck. All I could think of was, I need to get out of here and I need to treat myself to lunch. The best reward I could think of at the time was of course, fast food. What better way to say, “I’m glad to be back in the U.S.!” than a giant Arby’s roast beef sandwich. The fast food place whose logo is a giant cowboy hat. We got buckled in and started the long journey back downriver.
I drove for what felt like three hours. I’d never been so happy to be back in my native land. I stopped at the drive-thru, ordered my sandwich with curly fries and a Dr. Pepper, and headed for the river. I needed to unwind before we went home, and down by the river seemed like the perfect spot to do this. I was to do the unspeakable, and be a car-river-sitter. By this time, Ellie was fast asleep in her car seat too, and I didn’t want to wake her. So I pulled into the parking spot, rolled down the windows, let out a sigh of relief, and took a big bite.
And that’s how I found myself sitting in my truck staring at the water down by the river eating an Arby’s roast beef sandwich…
To read more Japanese School adventures, click here.