Tokyo moms are back to the grind

By on August 21, 2017

School is back in session and we parents can heave a sigh of relief. It isn’t that we don’t enjoy having the kids around all through summer vacation… it’s just that, well, sometimes it can be too much of a good thing!

Japanese School Mom
For those with kids in Japanese school, there is an added reason that we’re anxious to see them safely back in class—it means that we’ve survived another bout of the annual summer homework battle. The Japanese summer vacation falls between terms one and two of the school year, and the kids always have homework projects of some description. At best, they help kids to retain their academic edge over the summer; at worst, they are mindless busy work that drives kids and parents to distraction.
Children in the lower grades of elementary school typically have to draw and write about a plant that they must care for over summer, such as a morning glory or tomato plant. Older children may get worksheets or drills for math and Japanese language, and all kids have holiday reading. Even preschoolers are not exempt! My American friend’s four-year-old was given a calendar to color in for ‘every day that you help Mommy’. Needless to say, it remained stuck on the fridge at home for the duration of their trip back to the USA.
This past summer, my fifth grader’s teacher declared that every student must complete a science project to enter in a Tokyo-wide contest. Not the easiest thing for my daughter to do while on the road, but we have survived worse.
There was the time when Daddy, who stayed home, went on a business trip and forgot to ask a neighbor to water our first grader’s all-important morning glory. There isn’t much you can write about a dried up, dead plant! And my scatter-brained oldest invariably leaves some part of his homework at the grandparents’ house, leading to desperate international calls.

“Nana, can you please courier my math notebook to me?” I suppose this affords him a novel excuse for not having completed all his summer projects come September. Rather than, “The dog ate my homework!” he can claim, “Sorry, I left it in New Zealand!”

International School Mom
“This suitcase is very heavy,” the airline clerk said to me. “What’s in here?” “Shoes,” I said. “21 pair of shoes to be exact.” “What are you doing?” she asked as she looked over my ticket to Japan. “Opening up a shoe store in Tokyo?” “No,” I said. “Just a little back-to-school shopping.”

For me and my family of five, back to school means back to Tokyo. After a summer in America speaking English (no pantomiming!), mini-golfing with grandparents (and pretending we don’t see Grandma cheat), driving on the other side of the road, swimming in the ocean, indulging in the American sandwich, and showing my friends how I can now ride a bike while wearing high heels while holding an umbrella while speaking on a cell phone… it’s time to once again pack up, gear up and head back to our Tokyo home.
To prepare for another year overseas, like other expat families, we have our to-do lists. First, we start practicing some of our favorite Japanese traditions: using chopsticks, saying favorite phrases (“Moshi moshi”), brushing up on kanji, wearing slippers and noodle slurping. “What are you doing?” my mother asked me. “It’s a bow, Mom,” I said. “It’s a traditional way to greet someone. I love it.” “Oh,” she said. “I thought you lost a contact lens.”
Next, we try to pack anything that is too hard for us to find in Tokyo. This list includes American- size clothes, sports gear, and, of course, shoes (the first time I tried on shoes in Tokyo, I felt like Cinderella’s stepsister). This year, I’m also bucking the trend and bringing back a non-conbini, non-inverting, non-clear umbrella. And, I am also definitely packing items that are just too darn embarrassing for me to ask for in my limited Japanese. Although I’m quite successful as a “sumimasen” shopper (“Sumimasen… chicken?” “Sumimasen?…soba?”), there are some items that I absolutely will not ask for or try to pantomime ever: deodorant, body soap, undergarments, and a bikini.
So, warn the ¥100 store, warm up the Toto seat and start grilling the oishii yakitori. We’re packed. We’re ready. We’ve got shoes. We’ve got wa. And, we’re on our way “home.”

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