The Cringe-Factor: Ways I am Socially Awkward Living Abroad

This is the first of many parts as I write honestly, not even with deprecation, just with honesty.

Vulnerability, if you will. I am socially awkward, but I try to cover that up with hopeless, er hopeful, smiles.

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This smaller Lady Liberty stands (awkwardly) in Odaiba, Japan, not knowing whether to hug or bow.
At least her hands are busy.

The first of my awkwardness is this:

A. Hugging

I am in Japan, as you may know. This is the land of enthusiastic waves and bows. I have, I believe, mastered the head nod or more casual bow. I practically curtsy in my sleep. Bows are done in many an exchange, from thanks to apologies, to simply acknowledging with respect an elder or someone who is your senior. It is wordless and conveys a wealth of meaning. I can also turn into a waving machine at train-sendoffs. (Very Japanese, you know). I wave, wave, wave until everybody is really gone. Then I look back, smile, and wave some more, for good measure. I have all this down; no problems there.

However, when I get closer with someone, I want to hug! That American thing in me rises up and it wants a hug! I’m not so touchy-feely, really. I’ll never be one of those grown women walking around, touching her best friend’s hand or holding it. I hold my children’s’ hands and my husbands. That’s enough–but if a friend or “more than acquaintance” and I are parting, I need to hug!

Fine, right? Maybe? Thing is, if they are Japanese, my hug is absolutely awkward, not met, or I am just doing some weird dance where I am wondering what to do. I am suddenly a geeky twelve year old on a first date, with a girl. Eew. And the last five minutes of our coffee time, or lunch date, or meeting, or whatever, is spent with me wondering, “What will I do?” Ugh. You can see how gross and energy-consuming such a lifestyle is.

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What’s on the other side of the shoji? To hug or shake? I choose screen number two!

I have countered this social floundering by going the other way. Turning off the warm and giving only handshakes or pats on the shoulder. Not me, either! You don’t pat the arm of a true friend, do you?! No, way! A hug firms-up all you’ve discussed, all you shared in words and in thoughts. It leaves you feeling the warmth of your very friendship, having that connection. I am obviously not ready to cut this part off from me. I am desperate for a Dear Abby post to get this all sorted out. Or better yet, bug me! I’ll wear wires or a thingy in my ear. Give me access to some lovely, sparkly socialite who moves effortlessly, gracefully through Japanese Chanel-wearing circles, to intelligent Brits and Americans, Aussies and Germans. Give me the code, people! Give me social-Siri! Or Siri-san!

The most awkward exchange to date is this, still seared in that part of my brain that cringes with each awkward memory:

I recently met up with a colleague/cool boss. Socially, it is already tricky, as he is my boss of sorts, but he’s young. Has traveled the globe. Isn’t Japanese. I figured (wrongly) that a quick pseudo/European kiss on the cheek was somehow appropriate! What the hell! Freaking terrible, can’t take that back. Why, o why, can’t I err on the cooler side of things?! Be aloof for once in my life, or merely professional, instead of all tweeny-dramatic to sensitive flower-rainbow-girl where I have to be touchy-feely, acknowledging everyone’s inner child, or something. Please, Melissa, can’t you just be city-cool, wear cashmere, excellent leather boots, a messy chignon, and stride off into the subway-sunset with an air of sophistication? Learn this already, girl.

It’s easy to remember such an event with a bit of mortification.

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Hubby’s cool. I’m the dork.

Exhale, deep breath.

So this morning I witnessed my own daughter be socially awkward with her friend, too. Maybe this is just what two and three year olds do. Maybe, socially, I am but a toddler.

She wanted to chat with her long-time friend, who was working in the sandbox. This was just after we arrived at the school’s playground and before going into the genkan (or foyer with shoe-cubbies).

Well, he tried to go in for a hug and nearly scratched her cornea. Her cornea didn’t like being mauled, so she backed away. He was still trying to hug her. When she wrestled through her feelings and then wanted to hug too, she got too close to his eye and there they were bits of sand, fingernails, hugs all awry and…floundering, with the teacher working her pre-school magic to help them along. I couldn’t do so much but think how I, too, am a bit of mess. I am that kid standing in the sandbox, wondering who to hug, who to handshake, who to give a friendly nod.

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Living abroad only pronounces any awkwardness that was already there, with more rules, more misappropriations, more wonderings of who to squeeze and who to kiss twice or three times on the cheek. See, it is all up in the air. A foreigner who has lived here for a while may not be a hugger. Or, they may be more than happy to get back to their roots and go in for a hug. Or handshake. Or high five. I dunno. A Japanese person married to a foreigner may have adopted certain social habits. Or not. Dunno!

Maybe they have another spot in my daughter’s class. Or étiquette school. Or maybe I can just keep my hands busy. Hold stuff and just smile.

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if i worked at …

if i worked at product placement,

my life would be sponsored

by honey, maple syrup,

pre-diabetic meds,

the color orange, & smiles.

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the impossibility of moments

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how do I even try to record, batten down, pin like moths still flapping

the moments in a day

when each joy, each glance from my boy,

each NEW THING sings, yearns in me

electric curly neon, “REMEMBER THIS.”

 

This is love, important,

in an instance sandwiched on other incidents

indenting me, embossing my soul

even carving out a den.

 

Each squeeze from my girl goes somewhere.

A storing up of together.

 

This peculiar little cave

is enough to fill volumes or at least, bottles

like sand and sea glass

and wave to the wind, a lighthouse

hourglasses, eternal.

 

it’s enough, I say, each moment

and yet, I crave remembering–

telling stories that won’t go down with me.

I crave monuments

erected in shadows and open windows.

 

cement mixed and poured into messages

traced with a stick in the sand.

not even “wet”,

not any wave

or storm,

shipwreck will disappoint this girl

this family of thieves, robbing death

because they herald truth and the ultimate hope.

 

Oh, see that sanded deck.

you are more than conquerors,

more than temporal.

See that seed and plant it deep.

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This is a little thought as I approach my first ever writing group, as an adult. as a mom. 

Even now, as I feel so “behind” in recording our life–birth stories, how I got to Japan, every morning & bedtime. 

Anyway, no sweat. feeling exactly where I need to be, even in my imperfections & sometimes-overwhelm.

Boyaboyaboya

I cannot wait until this starts

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my first online writing course

with all us women far-flung, writing here we go

& then maybe I can get a better grip on what I want to say,

how to say it, record all the wonder.

All the ceaseless chatter & the way people say it,

how it goes down. 

 

This online start-up, this wonderful time-capsule. 

Coming this week. 

O boyoboyoboya.

 

Someone has pencils to sharpen, nails to chew. 

Notebooks & coffee cups

Here we go. 

Better stocks up on whole beans,

erasers, vitamin c, & my favorite pens. 

!!!

On Fighting Sentiment: Writing While Mothering

I never repost, but this spoke to me.

This is where I come to write

An extract of an interview in the Paris Review with Louise Erdrich (highlighting is my own):

By having children, I’ve both sabotaged and saved myself as a writer. I hate to ­pigeonhole myself as a writer, but being a female and a mother and a Native American are important aspects of my work, and even more than being mixed blood or Native, it’s difficult to be a mother and a writer.

INTERVIEWER

Because of the demands on your time?

ERDRICH

No, and it’s not because of hormones or pregnancies. It’s because you’re ­always fighting sentiment. You’re fighting sentimentality all of the time ­because being a mother alerts you in such a primal way. You are alerted to any danger to your child, and by extension you become afraid of anybody getting hurt. This becomes the most powerful thing to you; it’s instinctual. Either you end up writing about terrible things…

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Because She is Your Girl

She knows all of your tickle spots,

that you don’t like, despise cold, wet hands.

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She wants to whistle, longs to snap,

is learning to cut-cut with big kid scissors, (awayyy from you, the order of fingers).

She has a leggy tendu & sweet, pointed turnout.

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one ballet-girl, one Daddy running around with baby=awkward background

Because she is yours,

she whines for croissants,

says, “May I”,

& often goes shy

unless there is candy involved,

a sort of treat to speak-up for.

 

Remarking about the moon,

watercolors spreading in streaks of sunshine & murky-chartreuse

puddles of love.

She squeals for her daddy & welcomes bear hugs.

 

Because she is a character, a wise daughter, a love bug.

 

And then there is the coming out of our bathroom

with a great tail of toilet paper

that I didn’t see until she rolled over at tuckintime.

A peacock, goes my joke. Hee-hee.

 

There. That’s it.

Quite assuredly, she is your girl, methinks.

Tacos & Tacos

A couple of weeks ago, my daughter looked at me pretty funny. I said we would be having tacos for dinner that night.

To me, “tacos” involve crunchy shells, great handfuls of cheese, refried beans, terrifically spiced beef, lively salsa, the works, all rammed into that shell, daring you not to slop-up your sleeves or look toooo uncivilised about it. Basically, the best non-first-date food ever. Did I mention it’d been a while since I’d had them?

Back to the funny, raised eyebrow-are-you-serious-mom-look. To her, taco=octopus. This is a fun Japanese-English, er, Spanish overlap.

And her mama was so excited about eating tacos!! Huh?

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In her sweet, pigtailed mind, she pictured long red tentacles, white suckers, and she, being fully aware, that as Jews, we don’t eat octopus (or squid, shrimp, pork, scallops, mussels, etc, etc), was obviously confused.

Here in Tokyo, octopus is quite relevant. Everyday, we pass outdoor fish markets and a small mom and pop market on the way to and from our hoikuen/preschool where the sweet little taco is wrapped in cellophane, its tell-tail bumps and color all the rage. Here, they come sliced in salads; here,  marinated taco is on many-a-menu.

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I once witnessed a gorgeous eight-legged guy fished out of a large live tank, jut behind our sushi bar. The chef flung him onto plexiglass where the octopus was a bit of a show, sliding and roving on “dry land” until being thrown into boiling water. All this while I sipped my green tea and added another dollop of wasabi to my small plate. Of course I looked up to see that same poor octopus pulled out of his pot of death, its now purplish body immediately sliced-up. “Ding ding ding! Special taco available right now!!” Everyone called out for their share. It took me a few good swigs of my nama beer to get through the piece of sushi I’d been working on.

Side-note: The first time I visited a Japanese aquarium, I was taken aback. I am used to placards and conversation around tanks involving words like, “endangered, threatened, overfishing, beautiful, nature, wow.” You get the idea.

It was a very different experience at this aquarium in Shizuoka, Japan. Everywhere I turned, no matter the tank, I heard peals of “Oishii so! Tabetai! I want to eat that! That fish looks delicious!!!” Forget nature and preserving.

Sometimes taco=lunch.

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Following up our deliciously messy dinner, the famous father-daughter duo cracked open another shell–

and dove into our new hardcover book, Dragons Love Tacos.

It was so good.