Friday, March 02, 2007

there's always another cultural difference to be explored

Emi is starting elementary school in April and we're all really excited but this event is also bringing out the cultural differences. I can't remember clearly what happened when I started elementary school (it was a really long time ago) but all I was really expecting was for people to be excited for her. I was wrong (I'm not getting more comfortable with saying this!).

Before I jump into how much my MIL is not getting what I'm trying to tell her I would like to tell you a story about the childhood of my husband and I. Both of us, for completely different reasons, were bad at completing homework. I was clever (or so I thought) and therefore felt I didn't need to do homework (this was always a mystery to my parents who both hold master's degrees) and my husband hated school and avoided homework at all costs (he still hates any form of paperwork). Both of us wish we had been more faithful because school would've been a better experience. So we decided a long time ago that our kids would do their homework at the kitchen table where we could monitor them and also be available to help them until they had created a good homework ethic or graduated from high school, whichever came first. This sounds good, right?

What I did not realize is that in Japan when kids start elementary school there are things that every "responsible" parent is supposed to buy and that grandparents like to help out financially in this area. Without trying I have inadvertently cause my MIL major frustration by telling her that we don't need these things.

The first is a randocel (sp?). Click here to see what I'm talking about (scroll down the page). This is the classic backpack that elementary kids use to go to school. It costs between $250 - $500 which seems crazy but the bag is very sturdy and in most cases kids can use the same bag for all 6 years of elementary school. The city of Settsu (where we live) decided many years ago that instead of the randocel they would issue a backpack (also pretty sturdy) to each child for free! When I found out I woo-hoo'ed but when I told my mother-in-law she was crestfallen because she was really looking forward to taking Emi to buy one. This wasn't really my fault so she got over it quickly and we were on to the next disappointment...

Then she asked what type of desk did Emi want. Desk? I'm not planning to buy her a desk. This comment was met with disbelief (crestfallen having already been used). No desk? What will she do her homework on? Uh, the kitchen table. I explained to her what we had decided and why and she was decidedly embaressed when I mentioned that Chikara wasn't good at doing homework, like I was blaming her for the fact that Emi was going to be deprived of the joy of having her own desk. Click here to see what type of desk "regular" kids get. Yes, you read the price tag right, 500 bucks! Also, we really don't have space to put it, I told her. So she started to look around my house for a good place to put a desk even though I had said WE ARE NOT GETTING ONE. (the yelling was in my head!)

With these two major purchases off the list of possible gifts for Emi, my MIL has moved onto smaller things like school supplies, etc. This is great, I would love help in this area, knock yourself out (although I said it nicer and in Japanese). I showed her the list and she went right out and bought about half the stuff and GAVE IT TO EMI TO USE RIGHT AWAY! So basically I'm going to have to buy it all again and save it for her to use at school. Sigh...

So now, like me, you would think that this crisis would be over but it seems that my MIL is very determined that Emi also be properly attired for her New School Ceremony and has asked (through Chikara this time - clever!) if she can buy Emi an outfit for the ceremony. An outfit? What is she talking about? My husband explained it to me and you can click here to see. Did you see those prices? Just put a dot before the last two zeroes. This outfit is just for the ceremony and it will never be used again. I kind of knew about this and that parents are supposed to dress up too. That means I have to buy one of these and I just don't know if I can do it. Hannah, what should I do? Expat moms?

So this is the latest in the seemingly-never-to-end struggle between my MIL and I regarding Emi's starting elementary school. Although it seems like there couldn't be much more to explore about this situation I have witnessed my MIL's "selective memory" in action before and I also know that the disbelief that I don't know How-Things-Are-Done will continually prompt her to "help" me. Woo-hoo!


Gina said...

I'm so glad, you are posting about the "ins and outs" of elementary school in Japan. I don't know anything about elementary school in Japan, except I knew a bit of, the expensive backpacks and the desk thing! But I had no idea the prices were that high, I'm in shock over here, just thinking about those prices honestly ha ha ha! I will be reading every post you make about your experiences with elementary school in Japan, because I could use the pointers for next year for Branden! Also there is about a million of those hard backpacks and I'm not even sure which one to get. Which one is more comfortable. Ughh, good thing I won't have to think about that until next year. But in the meantime I will be happily reading your blog and learn from you. Very cool your city is giving the backpacks to the students. I wish our city did that too, ha ha ha. : )

Your mil gave Emi her school supplies already? It isn't even April yet, lol. I bet you weren't happy about that at all. Ha ha ha! I have a mil a lot like yours, so I know what you mean! : )

Anonymous said...

For the longest time, I couldn't figure out what MIL was.Maybe you don't have room for the desk, but let your MIL buy the backpack, and the starting dress. I think the little dress outfits are cute. Why don't you want the clothes?? She probably just wants to help, and this is the first grandchild to go to school Nana

coarse gold girl said...

Well, as you have all girls so far at least an entrance ceremony dress for Emi will be used by her little sisters? I definitely plan on putting DD#2 into DD#1's entrance ceremony dress! Because, as you said, they are expensive and barely worn! We had a relative die around the same time that DD#1 started elementary school so her's doubled at the funeral but I think that she only wore those 2 times before she out grew it! That said. . . she looked adorable on her big day and she and all her little friends enthusiastically strutted their stuff for each other before/during/after the ceremony!

For yourself, if you haven't already got one of the black formal dresses that women here wear to weddings, funerals, entrance and graduation ceremonies, happyokais etc. . . it could be considered an investment. My MIL got me a dress for our wedding reception dinner here in Japan with the Japanese relatives that has worked/functioned as my "black dress". I wasn't excited when she choose such a dress for me all those years ago but now I am very thankful. That said, I obviously need a new one but am eternally hoping to lose some weight before I buy a new one!

As for Grandmothers making extravegant purchases for their grandchildren here in Japan--I think it is something that she not only feels she ought to do, but probably wants to do! And she might find a way around you anyway! An example:
My MIL offered to buy a set of hinamatsuri dolls for DD#1 (this was before we had DD#2). I politely refused. The set she had purchased for the other granddaughters was sooooooo expensive. . . I couldn't imagine spending that amount of money on something that you'd only use for a very short time each year and then store the rest of the time. Then there was the space issue. No place to set up huge tiers of incredibly expensive dolls. Well. . . she agreed but then later she ended up sending us 2 dolls in a large glass case. (as predicted, they were set out ONCE and stupid cat jumped on top of glass case, breaking it and they have never seen the light of day since as DH told me that they, yes, these two dolls, are as expensive as buying the whole court of dolls on the tiers. His mother went for the 2 verses the court style as she thought I would be more receptive!

Now? With 2 little girls in house? Heck. Give us the court and the tiers and all--it's a heirloom for future generations. Now we have these 2 expensive dolls that we can't very well break up in the future, so which daughter gets them?

Plus I've heard tons of lovely stories from other expatriate mums who have embraced the whole hina matsuri thing and they have changed my mind. I would be willing to accept the gift of keepsake ceremonial dolls from MIL now. . . that it is too late to do so!

And as we've already lost a jiichyan. . . the more happy memories my children have of their obaachyan the better. I have a quilt my grandmother made me that is still one of my most treasured belongings. If a randosoru, or a picture of herself in a beautiful dress obaachyan bought her could bring your daughter warm memories of her obaachyan in the future--maybe it's okay to just breath deeply and think, "okay."

although I can't help but still see a regionfree DVD player and a new digital camera and a nice electronic dictionary that does Japanese-English and English to Japanese staring at me every time I open up the closet and see the "dolls". (^_^)

Heidi said...

Er, would it be any consolation if I said this enthusiasm would probably be only for the 1st child and you would be left alone later?

(Saying this cos in my case, MIL bought so many things for the 1st grandchild when he was born, insisted on being in my house when we brought him back from the hospital, brought along all those special things to eat for the special occasion .... and when the 2nd grandchild was born, nada. Not a drop. Not even any mention of coming to my house. Not even a single grain of that special rice)

My kids are much younger than yours, but I'll let you know if I can think of anything that maybe she could buy and it is useful.

Sarah said...

I've mentioned it before but my in-laws come and pick up the girls every Thursday and take them out for the evening. It's a really nice break for me and I had hoped that through those times together that my in-laws would get to know the girls as individuals better but it seems like that's not happening.

All the things my MIL wants for Emi (like fancy dresses and dance classes) are all things that she's not really into but that Misaki would totally love. But Misaki basically gets brushed over because she's not as assertive as Emi.

I just wish they would see the kids for who they are and also accept our family for what we're trying to become. I guess I feel like they just don't get us.

Maybe one day...

cara said...

it's probably just me, but i rather like the styles of the dresses that you are supposed to wear. a bit matronly, but i like the flip of the skirts.

Stephen Munday said...

Sounds like a good time to draw some boundaries. After all, the more she does what she wants to do and the more money she invests, the more say she will feel she should have.

Perhaps a suggested list of present ideas for all the kids would help to some extent: Things that you would actually like your kids to have and that you know they would be interested in.

### Joke ###

If you want to take an extreme approach, you can always put whatever she gets that you specifically asked her not to on Yahoo Auctions. I'm sure you would only need to do that once to get your point across.

### End of Joke ###

This is not just a cultural issue involving Japanese in-laws. It is something that my wife and I have already experienced when people (from the US and UK) have bought presents we thought inappropriate for our son. At the end of the day, you have to remember that you are the parent and raising the child is your job, so you make the decision and do what you think is best.

Hannah said...

OK, you know I know all about crazy MIL's, in fact, I have one, and I know FOR A FACT that given the chance she would have already gotten Felicity not only the desk but everything in it. Having said that, I agree with Coarse Gold Girl to go ahead and let her buy the dress for Emi and get the dress for you as well, because heck, 100 bucks for a three-piece suit ain't bad. As far as Emi's dress goes, you will definitely get the mileage out of it with the other three girls as they go through this. The truth is, your girls are going to be so non-Japanese in so many ways that you will be glad in the long-run that you kept up with these little traditions. BTW, can I suggest the black ensemble? GORGEOUS!!