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Lost in Love; Lost in Translation

7 Apr

I have a memory of an elephant.  I retain every piece of stupid, irrelevant trivia.  Quiz me on Michael Jackson song lyrics and I will leave you in the dust.

Alas, this memory bank of silly garbage also holds onto past wrong doings of others and misunderstandings.  I can’t seem to let them go.

Now, I can just write about them.  Reverting to cathartic blogging.

Around seven years ago –  in a single gal version of my former corporate self – business reasons took me to Tokyo for a 6 month stint.  There, I had befriended a Chinese female colleague.

Besides her native Mandarin, she spoke fluent Japanese while her English on the other hand, was rusty.  Meeting in the middle, we conversed in Japanese.

Miss J was a spruce, young lass in her mid-20’s.  Several years my junior, she was over-the-top keen to marry her Japanese boyfriend.


Yet, most mornings she would come to work unhappy because he was struggling with commitment issues.

Attempting to prompt a marriage proposal, she had brought him back to her hometown in the Szechuan Province to meet her folks.  Miss J had even arranged professional couple photos in preparation for the engagement and wedding invitations.

Although, back in Tokyo, he kept avoiding the topic of matrimony like it was bad sushi.

One Monday morning she came into work almost in tears.  By lunchtime, we found a quiet place to talk.  There, she opened the floodgates.

Why won’t he commit ?  We’ve already had the professional photos done, so why is he stalling ?  I want to start booking wedding venues before the wedding peak season starts, but why won’t he co-operate ?

And so the discussion continued.

I suggested that it might be better to slow things down.  Perhaps he needed more time to be comfortable with a life decision such as marriage.

Being an intelligent girl, I thought she would see reason.

Instead I found myself in the middle of an emotional firing line.

Between sobs she cried, “Grace-san, the thing is…I just don’t want to find myself at your age and in your situation.”

Wham !

I thought, maybe, just maybe, my Japanese listening ability had temporarily gone haywire and I had misunderstood what she was trying to say.

But no.  I had heard correctly.

Because she then retorted, “I know that sounds rude and terrible, but it’s true.  I want to be married before my 30’s.  Live in an apartment big enough to have a dining table.”

DOUBLE Wham !  Ker-pow !!!

I knew my single status at the time wasn’t the most ideal.  A month prior leaving Sydney, I had started dating someone.  With my impending departure, we somehow decided to keep the relationship going.  However, since arriving in Tokyo, our communication had deteriorated.  Rapidly.


It was highly probable that I was returning to Sydney to face heartbreak.  Of course, there were no other potential prospects to speak of, either.

As a 30-something lost in love, you could see why an ambitiously keen-to-be-a bride-Chinese girl would not want my life.

Later that evening, I had a dinner date with my fabulous girlfriends who were an eclectic group of married and singles.

Coming from different walks of life:  Japanese; American; Eurasian.

Calling from different fields of professions:  Lawyer;  Account Manager;  Pre-school teacher.

All confident, smart and fiercely independent.

Reassuring me that my life of singledom wasn’t dire, they were my perfect audience.  They were my cheering squad.

When I told them about my bizzare lunchtime musings, the reaction was unified.

They were aghast.  Appalled.  In disbelief.

After double checking that yes, I had heard her correctly.  And no, I didn’t have a temporary Japanese language amnesia moment, we came to some insightful conclusions.


Obviously, there was something far more deep seeded there.

It wasn’t about me.

Then, we all established another verdict.  One that simply involved cultural differences.

Although said with little eloquence, it seemed that Miss J was expressing her own disapproval of the Western approach towards finding love and marriage.

Frivilous dalliances and casual dating without a set schedule to the altar was too risky.

Originating from a culture where there were stringent rules and strict direction to reach goals and achieve social status, the Western way was too complacent.

After all, in past conversations, she had mentioned her  demanding Chinese Tiger Mother who had been hounding her to set a wedding date.

Talk about rice cooker steaming pressure.

As such, she was sticking to her agenda.

While, I was going to stick to mine.  (Or lack thereof).

Right up to my last day in Tokyo, Miss J stayed oblivious about that fateful lunch hour.  There was not even an iota of acknowledgement.

I returned to Sydney to officially end what was already a doomed relationship.

2 weeks later, I met my future husband.

Meanwhile, I heard she ditched her Japanese bloke, moved to New York and is now happily married in suburban New Jersey.

I’m sure there’s a nice big dinner table involved too.

It’s a shame we don’t know each other now.  I do wish her well.

Leaving cultural contrasts aside, I would remind her that when it comes to the confusing maze of finding love, heartbreak is universal.

That the journey isn’t as straight-forward for some.

I would tell her that maybe back then, my life was pretty wayward.

But it’s not these days.

It’s actually pretty good.  Awesome, in fact.

Okay, now, I can let it go.

"Double Happiness"



Japan: Crying on the inside and the out…

28 Mar

I was talking to a good friend the other weekend about my blogging.  As much as she enjoys reading my posts about family and parenting, she mentioned that perhaps, I branched out a bit.  You know, talk about something else other than baby poo and DIY disasters.

With the extended time I’ve studied, lived and worked there; Considering it’s the country where I’ve made life-long friends; She suggested I write about Japan.

(Geez, I might as well start up an entirely new blog, in that case).

But, for now, I will talk about one important aspect about the Japanese people:

The expression of emotions.

There is a popular belief among Westerners that the Japanese people do not show much emotion.  If any.  We picture Japan to be a society where bowing or kowtowing is as expressive as it gets.  Very rarely are there hand-shakes.

Hugs and kisses are totally out of the question.

Furthermore, within the Japanese language, there is a particular verb, Ganbaru

It means:

‘to bear’; to persist’;’to hang in there’; ‘to do your best’, ‘to persevere’.

It’s a term you use during sporting events to cheer on a team; to encourage a school child to do well in an exam; to wish someone luck when venturing out a new project or challenge.

It’s a way of telling someone to stay focused, to keep your personal feelings at bay and concentrate in achieving the task or challenge at hand.

It seems that it is a word used broadly.  Yet, ironically, for Japan, it’s also used under present excruciatingly difficult times.

Indeed, the devastating past events of the earthquake, tsunami and continuing nuclear power plant nightmare would be testing an entire nation beyond human control.

In the nine years of living there, I have only seen my Japanese friends cry a handful of times.

This earthquake has been one of those harrowing moments.

Four months pregnant, a dear friend of mine was on the 20th floor of her Tokyo office building when the quake happened.  Scared, frightened, seeking protection under her office desk, she watched her entire office sway with her roller-wheeled chair cart itself from one end of the office to the other.

In a brief moment of calm, moving quickly before the next after-shock, my friend found herself walking down the 20 flights of the emergency staircase to reach safe grounds.  Then, as all trains had stopped, she was left with no choice but to walk two hours to get home.  Picking up her little girl from pre-school on the way, she had to wait the next morning for her husband – who was on the other side of town – to make it back home.

In the meantime, her younger sister, who was on a business trip in one of the hardest hit cities in the north, was stranded.

Talking to my friend on Skype soon after arriving at home, she broke down.  Seeing her so devastated was not only so hard for me to witness, but made me feel so stupidly helpless.

Yet, as terrifying as her story was, she and her family are more fortunate than countless others.

The long standing effects of all these disasters have taken its toll for many homeless and destitute families.

And as we all know, the harder we try to cling on, to keep going; We will eventually crack.

After all, we are  just human.

This is when we discover that the notion of Japan being a nation of mysteriously ‘closed books’ is misconstrued.

During my time in Japan, what I have learned about its people, is that it’s not about the inability or the social taboo of exhibiting one’s true sentiments.

For a nation known for its resilience and super-efficiency, I think, it’s in their nature to be able to stay strong.  Through the thick and thin. Fleeting, fair-weather problems or inconveniences barely get a mention.

For the Japanese people, raw emotions are reserved for circumstances that have reached the pinnacle of trauma and tragedy.  When something is completely breaking their heart .  When it’s hurting them beyond repair.

It is in fact, about holding onto intense grief until all that is left, is to open up and reveal – in all its pain – that the burden is finally too much to carry.

Please keep praying for Japan.

A nation who can no longer go through this ongoing crisis on its own.

Wooden Prayer Plates, 'Ema' at Meiji Jingu, Tokyo. (Photo taken during a trip in 2007).

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