Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Preface

Empty Suitcase:
An End of the Year

“All I want is Christmas is you,” was playing from the radio in my car. It was a rainy day, past midnight. The windshield wipers swept with raindrops reflecting red signals on Ironwood. On that night, I received the first email about my grandfather. He had been suffering from senile dementia (like Alzheimer’s disease) for a couple of months. His memories were like withered leaves; falling apart from his brain. He is nearly 90 years old, so it may be natural for him to forget about some memories.

My family had been hiding his health problems from me because they did not want me to worry about him; because they were busy taking care of my stubborn grandfather in a wheelchair; because I did not call them for two months with the excuse of concentrating on writing stories. My family and I have a distance between us. The distance seems to be longer every year. It is no longer just between South Bend and Nagoya, Japan. It is somewhere between a local coffee shop and Halley’s Comet. My family and I need a space shuttle to shorten the distance; perhaps, to cross our minds.

My grandfather was like a despot raising his fist on a Japanese traditional dining table when he talked. My brave sister was always against his orders and she slammed her door in his face. But he kept a crumpled picture of my sister and a little sniveler, me, in his wallet. When I sneakily switched the picture to a nicer one—my sister and me in kimono—, he immediately asked my grandmother about the old picture, raising his fist on the table. He was grouchy because someone found out about the secret picture in his wallet. Five years ago on Christmas, my grandfather was taking French and ballroom dance classes. But, last Christmas, he was in bed suffering from a broken hipbone. Since then, he became a small, crippled, and old grandfather. He lost some gray hair, a lot of weight, and his hearing. He no longer raises his fist. Now he is losing his memories.

I could see that my grandfather and death are closer to each other year by year when I visit home. Not only my grandfather but also my other grandparents, mother, and father quickly move toward the end of their lives. Only my memory is stopped at the last time that I met them. Every time I come back to America, I persuade myself that people will eventually die, so I cannot do anything about it. So I wave at them from the Halley’s Comet irresponsibly when they need me in Japan.

My grandmother said that she never had enough moments together to enjoy falling love with him, even though they are always together. Maybe all people do not have enough moments with someone special in their lifetime. Maybe it is too late when they finally find out that the person is really special for them. I scream “Life is too short! I want to do whatever I want! But how can I make everyone happy?” Unfortunately, I cannot answer the question. I still look for the best answer between my family and me. Maybe I am chasing a mirage-like dream in America. When I reach the mirage, something starts falling apart like my grandfather’s memories.

The night that I received the email, I was thinking about my grandfather, so I needed the rain and the reflections of signals. At least those things made me feel calmer than staying in my cold room. I picked up my phone. I dialed to my family to tell, “All I want for is Christmas is the gifts and some delicious dinner…caramel popcorn…cashew nuts…and…you.”

I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year with someone special,
Naoko Fujimoto

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The IUSB Vision

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

By Naoko Fujimoto

Santa Claus, reindeers, fir trees, illuminations…Christmas is coming! You wonder what gifts you are going to give your family. For your sister’s baby, you may give an Elmo with Pizza toy; for your brother you may give a Nintendo DS if you have a big enough budget; and for your mother, you may buy a cake plate set because they were at a great price in an after Thanksgiving sale. On Christmas holidays, most American people have a wonderful dinner, exchange gifts, and stay together with family.

Unlike American people, Christmas in Japan is not family oriented. Most young Japanese people do not celebrate Christmas with their families when they go to high school. Children in elementary and junior high schools are, of course, looking for Santa Claus. They are seriously worried about how Santa Claus will get inside their Japanese style homes. Because most Japanese people live in apartments, they do not have chimneys.

So their parents make the excuse that “I gave a house key to Santa Claus,” “I will open the windows when I go to bed,” or “Santa Claus does not need the chimney because he is magical.” Before Christmas, the parents need to answer any kinds of questions about Santa Claus such as “Yes, Sweetie, Santa Claus parks his reindeers on the street or the rooftop. He is not going to get a parking ticket. I told you that he does not need the chimney on the rooftop!”

Most Japanese children know that Santa Claus is from Western culture, so some children believe that he comes at dawn after that he delivers all of the presents in Western countries. However, it does not make sense because of the time zone; Santa Claus should travel to England and the rest of Europe, the Middle East, Russia, China, Japan, the Pacific Ocean countries, and then America. If Santa Claus does not mind different religions but works for children’s happiness, there are more than 2 billion children in the world, so Santa Claus makes more than 822.6 visits per second in 31 hours.

Some Japanese college students and office workers celebrate Christmas with their boyfriends and girlfriends. The boyfriends make reservations at restaurants on the top floor of skyscrapers or restaurants in a trendy spot. It will be beautiful to have dinner looking down at the night view in cities, but the average cost of the restaurant is about $300 for a couple. The couple may exchange their gifts at the restaurant. Even though they are not going to marry, some boyfriends give rings to their girlfriends. The girlfriends may give a scarf, perfume, or wish tickets, which are more reasonable than the rings. Japanese men need a large budget for Christmas. While they are dating around Christmas, they may not think anything about their families.

However, New Year is the most important holiday in Japan. Most people celebrate the holidays with their families having a nice dinner and gifts. Japanese New Year’s dishes have different meaning and some dishes are unique in each city. It is similar to the symbols of Thanksgiving such as turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, etc which have different meanings from the pioneer and colonial periods. For example, people from different cities have local styles of Ozouni, which is rice cake in a soup. Tokyo’s Ozouni is based on soy-sauce; however, some people use miso in Nagoya; in addition, some cities by the ocean use seafood for the base. Therefore, each Ozouni has different colors of soup.

With those different styles of celebrations, people celebrate the holiday season with family and someone special. No matter where people come from, what they exchange gifts and people love spending time with their family. They will smile at each other and have the happiest moments in a warm, cozy house. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Picture : Christmas in Kobe

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Preface

Empty Suitcase: No.10 (Wow I already have 10 stories!):
The Pink Washtub

When I came to America for the first time, I was sixteen years old. Escaping from my high school in Japan, I was in Portland, Oregon for the summer of my senior year. The summer was the most important season if I wanted to pass Ivy League-like universities in Japan. Unfortunately, I could not wake up at 7:00am, take a subway at 7:45am, and run in to a private women’s high school before the teachers started to take attendance with a ruler.

In my high school, there was an appearance examination every morning. Students cannot wear their uniforms like characters in Japanese manga do; but of course, the students change their outfits after school just like Sailor Moon. But in the summer, I did not have any chance to wear my uniform because no matter how early I went to bed, I woke up at 3:15pm. My poor mother was stressed out about me, who was failing all her classes.

So, my father bought a one-way ticket. My mother kicked me out of the apartment.

I had no idea about real American life. One week before I left Japan, I watched American TV shows like “The Simpsons,” “Full House,” and “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” I observed and studied their lives. I especially looked for a washtub in their bathrooms. I desperately needed to know whether there was a washtub in American bathrooms or not through the shows.

Any sized washtubs are available in Japanese houses. The Japanese style bathroom is very different from the Western style. There is a big bathtub for keeping bodies warm and the tiled floor for washing their bodies. After they wash their bodies on the tiled floor, they use the washtubs for rinsing off soapy bodies. In addition, the toilet is not in the same room.

Anyway, I decided to bring a large, pink washtub with me three days before I left Japan. My mother and I picked up the perfect size of washtub for my suitcase, but she kept whispering that it was made in the USA. My host family just got married a couple weeks prior to when they had me. Their honeymoon was kind of destroyed by a Japanese girl with the pink washtub. They were speechless when they found it in my suitcase. They told me that I can get one at any place in America. There are tons of reasonable washtubs, which are made in China, in any store.

I brought my washtub because I thought that I could wash my clothes in it. I also thought that I could put my feet into hot water because I heard that there were no comfortable bathtubs in some American bathrooms. I needed the portable, private, pink bathtub.

I asked my friends who always visit foreign countries, “What do you bring if you are going to stay in a foreign country?” My friend brought supplies for washing cars including special 20 foot hose even though he did not have an American driver’s license and car. My other friend brought a real coconut for her religious ceremony. In her religion, she needs to float it on a certain day on the river; however, the St. Joseph River is not clean enough, so she went back home with her coconut for the next trip.

Now, I can collect washtubs from all over the world using the internet. All I need is my passport, driver license, visa, and some paper documents—they are just like a thick survival encyclopedia—, I do not need to import washtub-like things for living in America.

In the end of summer, I went back to Japan to graduate from my high school. My pink washtub was left with the family in Oregon. While it was used for their tropical fishes and dogs, I was reduced to take thousands of make-up exams—most of them were English and Japanese classes—and I really forced myself to be in classes on time. I was a nearly high school dropout, and now I try not to be a graduate school dropout.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Preface

Empty Suitcase:
A Favorite Day

I cannot wait for November 21st—my most favorite day of the year—when I think about the day, I want to waltz around on flaming leaves by the St. Joseph River. The day is not my birthday or another special day with someone that I know. I just like the sound—November twenty-first—as if I have rum raisin ice-cream in my mouth.

November sounds like a sweet vanilla ice-cream before adding the rum. A young miss in an accordion pleated skirt under the autumn sky must have it. But the 21st is wild like bottles of rum. So, the day represents the combination of sweetness and wildness in a year. The sound melts into my ears and makes me feel romantic.

But November 21st is not just another romantic day in autumn. I have important steps to make it the perfect day. I prepare my list for grocery shopping because I deviate from my normal breakfast menu for this particular day. I usually go shopping on Saturday evening. The Saturday before the 21st is November 17th, so I have to carefully follow the list—milk, fruits, scarf, etc— on Saturday.

In the morning on November 21st, it is the first time for having my autumn salad. Just for wondering thoughts of the readers, during May 25th to November 20th, I obsess over eating smashed strawberries in a bowl of milk with honey every morning. Without it, I cannot start a happy day during those months. In addition, the milk should be 2%, fortified with Vitamin D, of my favorite brand, and seven strawberries must be in the bowl. With more than seven, the bowl will overflow and the kitchen cloth will stink like my grandfather’s socks.

May 25th is my sister’s birthday. My family used to celebrate for her birthday with strawberry shortcakes. My mother made a cake and my sister helped decorate it. The cake had her age in strawberries on the top. I ate a strawberry secretly. So, my sister was always one year younger than her actual age on the cake. Maybe that is the reason why I want to buy strawberries from May 25th on.

Strawberries are not quite as fresh and a bowl of milk becomes too cold for my lips during November 21st through May 24th. My breakfast changes. I toss lettuce with grapes and tomatoes and a sprinkling of crushed honey almonds. The grapes must be three white and five black grapes with three miniature tomatoes. The different colorful dots are just enough on the fresh lettuce with the almonds in a salad bowl. I microwave a cup of milk for two minutes and ten seconds—more than that my kitchen cloth will stink with boiling over milk—and I add two spoons of cocoa powder and brown sugar into the warm milk.

After breakfast, I wear a Turkish green pleated skirt with a pinkish silk scarf. I choose especially feathery materials. The skirt and scarf stream in the pale wind with withered leaves on November 21st. As winter blew around the corner, I hum Scherzo No.2 in B flat minor by Frederic Chopin. Autumn is the perfect season to listen to Chopin. I imagine that I walk with a Chopin-like man by the river. I watch all the leaves dive into the river from the bridge by a whirlwind.

The day must be cold. So after I walk by the river, I open my freezer and pull out a pint of rum raisin ice-cream. I scoop—just a scoop— with a small spoon. I enjoy a spoonful of ice-cream until water boils for spaghetti. I heat a frying pan with tomato sauce and basil. When I see the first fragment of snow from the window, my favorite day will be almost over. The spaghetti becomes al dente. I put my small spoon in the sink. I drain off the spaghetti and steam covers my face. My glasses will be steamy.

This is my kind of November 21st.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Preface

Empty Suitcase:
Dear Mr. Black Hair

“You fall in love with…someone…dark…jet-black hair,” a fortuneteller told me last November. It was actually a great suggestion because I had no longer made any mistakes on Friday afternoon while having cups of coffee; perhaps Saturday morning lying next to blond, brown, or bald heads. Every night, I have just meditated on my future black haired man in my mind on a Yoga mat with my drink in a plastic cup.

A year, two weeks, and three days passed. Where is the black hair?

“You have already met the men with dark…jet-black hair!” said the fortuneteller again last week. He looked at me with his bloodshot eyes and added, “Naoko, you need to look carefully.” Before I complained to him, I went to every place for possibilities to meet the black haired man. So I ended up heading toward Club Fever, the Landing, and etc.

“Shall we dance?” a guy took my hand—black hair—actually I met him last November in a club. Since then, when he found me, he surely came to me. My friend gave him a nickname—a boy with a cockroach spirit— the cockroach has an eternal one-sided favor; perhaps, a deadly, challenging love.

When the cockroach shows how much it likes me, I hold my roommate’s slippers. Even the cockroach tries to be cleaner—it takes showers with antibacterial gels in the drainage. But it blames me when I dump my horrible cabbage soup into the drainage. The cockroach applies the gel again—it becomes shiner and blacker— but it will never be enough for me. The cockroach has sleepless nights with its broken heart under the moon. It still believes that the slippers are obstacles.

The guy has never been smashed like the cockroach on the dancing floor by my pointy high heels. Before I held my high heel, he usually tried to find another girl for a Saturday morning. A girl held a cigarette in front of him and he immediately lit it. He whispered in her ears. He put his arm around her waist, but soon her boyfriend came. The guy dropped his shoulders and he played with his Lord of the Ring accessories. He leaned against the handrails for a while, looking at the dance floor. The floor was like beer in a stained glass, but his eyes were like a plastic cup; the pieces in the dark corner.

But he has never forgotten his cockroach spirit even though girls directly rejected him. Finally, he found a girl in a short skirt. They left into the dark parking lot. I heard that she shut her door in front of his nose. He had a passion for taking drunken girls home, but most of the time, his mission was incomplete. Over one year, he repeated the same attitudes again and again.

He needs the fortuneteller—“You will have a great night with a girl who cooks perfect cabbage soup… red hair!”—so he does not have to do useless approaches with his eyes like the broken plastic cup. In addition, there are tons of red-haired girls—natural or dyed red— so all he needs is to ask how well she cooks cabbage soup. From the conversation, he might find that she actually loves Lord of the Ring.

I commissioned the fortuneteller about additional information—the black hair instead— so I could have more consideration to choose right one. The fortuneteller told me, “Tall but not that tall…skinny…green…trashcan…” He explained that those images had symbolic meanings. I was sure that I would take one more year to analyze “trashcan.”

Perhaps, all boys may be disposable into the green trashcan. Like plastic cups, I can pick up whatever I want and throw them away if I wish. They eventually meet their friends—dark…jet-black cockroaches— by the drainage but in the meantime, I wish that they have happy moments with somebody special in their near future. From this November, I will meditate on my Yoga mat with a ceramic cup instead of plastic cups. Moreover, I will put an advertisement in a newspaper, “Wanted: Black hair. Must be recyclable.”