Another Indian or Bangladeshi or Nepali or Vietnamese at a cash register punching away at another story of us But not before heartbreaks and mixed feelings and remittance slips pile up like concrete blocks for houses of trust and dreams on show Not before strange freedom then confusion and at last mastery of the ways of a new land Not before bone tiredness and itches for something still more known all become like clothes (the fabric of us) shall the first word be written
diaper, changing sheet, wipes armed with my three-pack i’m safe
except do-do don’t always work like dat
sometimes it just runs.
its own course
swiftly saturating all white space
super absorbent polymer my ass
flooding elastic gathering yellow
squeezing from sides
pushing past tape
sloshing around baby’s back
streaming down baby’s legs
But waterproof changing sheet can put a stop to this do-do don’t learn how to go through dat yet but do-do know to make the baby wiggle at the wrong angle and land where the sheet don’t cover
then wipes alone can’t help
soak baby clothes and bed sheet now now
in hot hot water
tackle this bright, stubborn, staining yellow
bathe naked, screaming, sleepy baby
fresh clothes fresh sheets put baby to sleep change soaking water wash stained clothes once?
Many days I leave work as an English teacher in Japan wanting to hold a reasoning with my high school Spanish teacher. In a reasoning, you ask your partner searching questions, listen to their honest answers and opinions, and you yourself are equally frank and open.
I really want to reason with Senorita Blake on many things like the taste of words in a foreign language, when she first got interested in Spanish, her experiences in Spanish speaking countries, her favorite Spanish words, and so on.
But most of all, I really want my high school Spanish teacher to tell me how exactly she got through every class teaching a language to students who just didn’t understand that they were being taught a language.
How come you didn’t tell me to try tasting the words? I might ask her. To become so intimate with this language so much so that I could decide by taste that I didn’t like some words. Like I just don’t like the taste of the word ‘boob’ in English, so I don’t use it.
Maybe she would tell me that she did tell us those things, that I just don’t remember. And she would probably be right. In Spanish class, all kinds of tastes were on my lips– patty, or bun and cheese or rice and kidney for dinner that evening. Many things, but not Spanish.
What was Spanish? Spanish was the subject I chose instead of geography. Spanish was something my dear friend was good at, but I wasn’t. Spanish class time was a time I felt lost. Spanish was songs or performances in Spanish by bright students at school events. Spanish was a thing. It was many things, but it wasn’t a language. It was not something used by people somewhere to organize their lives. It was not something actually used for communication. It was like a code. A code that if I could decipher I would get high marks on the CXC exam. Like Maths.
I live in a country where I’ve mastered daily conversation in the language. In
Japanese, I can order my food, tell the doctor what’s wrong with me, buy sugar
instead of salt. It often feels like a bothersome set of rules and patterns,
but it’s not as indecipherable as I saw Spanish, and I don’t associate it with Maths.
Most days. The obvious difference with this situation and my Spanish class is
that here, I am immersed. The people around me speak the language I am aiming
But it’s neither my fault nor Senorita Blake’s that I never actually met and spoke with Spanish speakers all the five years I studied Spanish. Or that I was never in a setting where Spanish was the only or primary means of communication. That didn’t even occur to me as a possibility. Because, like I said, I didn’t even know I was studying a language.
How Senorita Blake must have felt like she was on a failing mission sometimes. Or perhaps it was enough for her to be able to use a language she loved every day. Of course, all students weren’t like me. For some, Spanish was Spanish, not Maths. Its sounds were musical, its rules logical, its patterns predictable, and where they were not, caramba, that was exciting, not frustrating. Maybe those students went on to meet Spanish speakers in their lives.
eventually did meet one Spanish speaker, who was my second Spanish teacher. He
was from Cuba. One of the benefits of my teaching job at the time was that you
could enroll in one course per semester. I chose a beginner Spanish course.
this time, fear was worse than anything. Fear of speaking up in class. I felt
that what I said would sound completely wrong to this native speaker. Plus by
that time, I had already lived in Japan for a bit, and all the foreign language
signals sent to my brain were Japanese. So a lot of Japanese came out in the
Spanish class. Now Spanish was like Japanese. Again, I’m sure not all students
were like me. But I think for a good number of them, for whom it was a
compulsory course, Spanish was like Maths. But I was in that class with the
understanding, finally, that Spanish was a language. However, I still had no
practical setting in which to try using the language.
Similarly, my students don’t use English outside of class, unless they are super motivated and have some goal they want to achieve like studying abroad. But some might go on to work in jobs that require them to use English. Some might end up with friends or even family from English speaking countries. Some will eventually find relevance for all this English.
contexts are different, but there is also a lack of practical opportunities for
people to use Spanish or French, the two main languages taught in Jamaican
schools. I would ask Senorita Blake what she thinks of this. Outside of
becoming a Spanish teacher, what other jobs are there where you can use Spanish
in Jamaica? A smattering, maybe. In a previous job, I was asked once in the two
years I was there to read an e-mail in Spanish. I have one friend who uses
Spanish in his job. Spanish he learnt while studying in Cuba. Or maybe you can
become a teacher of teachers, like Senorita Blake did.
the hundreds of thousands of students who study Spanish and French each year,
how many will go on to become Spanish or French teachers? And is the sole
purpose of (language) study preparing one for a job? I don’t think so. But when
it comes to practicality, that’s the low hanging fruit.
Of the hundreds of students I have taught and will teach, how many will ever meet another English speaker? How many will actually use English to communicate outside of a classroom? Of course English is different from Spanish in global use and Jamaica is not Japan.
The baby turned one recently and we bought a smash cake. He played around with it a bit, but he didn’t smash it like we thought he would. Surely, if we had put it out of his reach and told him not to touch it he would have tried everything to smash it with all his might.
In true birthday weekend style, the following day we went to have lunch with some family he hadn’t met before. It was in a private, tatami room at a shabu-shabu restaurant. Very Japanese set-up and quite comfortable. They even prepared a little futon for baby where he enjoyed a nice long nap while the rest of us, 11 in total, ate.
Before going to the restaurant, I didn’t really mind shabu-shabu. But I think I can now say I don’t care for it. My husband drew the same conclusion, and when I was telling another gentleman that we went to a shabu-shabu restaurant, he said he doesn’t really like it. I later asked a colleague and she didn’t like it either. Who loves shabu-shabu? How is boiling strips of unseasoned pork yourself and then eating it with sesame or citrus-based sauce so popular?
Anyway, the tempura, sashimi, mochi soup and bean paste ice cream were good, especially the soup and the ice cream.
What am I doing for others? What am I doing for my community? What am I doing toward a greater good? What can I do to make the world a better place?
These are the latest questions I’m trying to answer in my quest to find my calling.
I happened upon some articles I had written in the past about some amazing people seeking to better their communities through empowerment or education.
Some of the articles were for an environmental agency and others for a development aid body. So these were people engaged in tackling issues such as waste reduction, community development, sustainability, biodiversity. The big stuff.
These people, to my memory, all seemed passionate or at least committed to what they were doing. And the necessity and impact of their work are inarguable.
So my new question is, can I find a way to serve interests outside of myself and still find great satisfaction and even enjoyment in what I do?
I think curating information and contextualizing issues and data play a huge part in arriving at solutions.
I think talking to people who are affected most by issues, talking to people who are working on solutions and presenting that information in easily digestible ways is something valuable that I’d find satisfaction in.
Wait a minute, that sounds like being a journalist, and I gave that up sometime ago. Well, maybe I have to wheel an come again. Maybe giving that up was a mistake.
I’m also convinced of the capacity of fiction to reflect the human condition and allow us a better understanding of ourselves. These days, I read more and I write more.
Maybe I’m just a wee bit closer to that elusive calling. And to at least trying to change the world.
Today a student told me she slept for 22 hours straight over the weekend.
I thought she had made a mistake when she said she went to bed 9:00 Friday night and woke up 7:00 Saturday night. You mean Saturday morning, right? No, Saturday night, 22 hours sleeping.
I only want ten hours. How tired do you have to be to sleep for 22 hours? Now, I’m pretty tired after teaching four 90 minute classes today. And night feedings are a standard part of my life. So I generally exist in a half awake sphere. But I think I’d have to be dead, as some other students suggested, to sleep for almost an entire day.
What kind of people say ‘one stop’ on the bus? My husband asked me that over the weekend.
Board a bus or taxi in Jamaica, and you might hear people say ‘one stop driva’ when they’re ready to get off. But as my husband noted, not everybody says it. Also, he said sometimes people laughed when he said it. Sometimes, he said, they asked him to repeat himself a few times.
I laughed throughout this entire story, but I am really left wondering what kind of people say ‘one stop driva’.
Saw a story about brutally raped women who were turned away from one hospital, and made to wait for an extended period at another. I almost cried. The story highlighted a number of challenges in a system that is simply under resourced.
I sometimes hesitate to read these kinds of stories but I feel reading is one small way we can honour the humanity of the victims.
Because of uncertainty about my life’s path, I spend a fair amount of time with ‘what ifs’.
Recently, a short trip into central Tokyo gave me the opportunity to ponder a bit, what if I worked in the heart of city?
I live in Tokyo, but in what could be considered the suburbs. Where I work is even sometimes thought to be another prefecture, though it is still Tokyo.
I go in the opposite direction of the city centre at rush hour, so I’m never squeezed up against anyone, fighting to maintain the illusion of personal space by defiantly struggling to read a book or use my smartphone.
I also work in a school that’s quite removed from any commercial centre. No business district, no high rises, no lunch specials in dozens of restaurants, no lunch crowd.
The crowds I saw on my outing had mostly men wearing variations of light blue shirts and grey trousers.
Nowadays, there’s a lot of talk about increasing the number of women in the workforce.
There were many women too. Walking in pairs or small groups, the kind of causal but slightly urgent walk one assumes on a timed lunch break. Many of the women carried little bags on their forearms. The bigger, real work bags left tucked inside some drawer or locker or sitting on a desk.
Most of the men carried no bags. Their salaryman bags no doubt waiting patiently to be picked up in the evening to accompany their owners on the commute home.
Obviously, these things are not work. They are just made up frills around the edges of work. But I felt that these things form an important part of the sense or scene of work in a city.
Even though it felt removed from my current reality, it was nostalgic in some ways. Reminded me of a time I worked in downtown Kingston. When I was one of those women in a small group heading to a cookshop or sometimes a real restaurant. I enjoyed that part of work back then, even though it wasn’t work itself.
Still no clarity about my calling, but it looks like I like lunchtime at work. In a city. Now on to figuring out what to do before and after lunchtime.
Japanese mayonnaise giant Kewpie has a building nearby and we went for a tour recently.
This is not the factory, but the research center and some corporate offices. And the entire first floor is dedicated to this very popular tour, which shows how mayonnaise is made. I think there might have been four or five separate rooms.
One room is even like a mini gaming arcade where some little kids competed in trying to choose the correct ingredients for mayonnaise and putting them on a computer scanner.
At the end of the tour, you are seated in a dining room, given a tiny salad, a bottle of mayo and a number of condiments to mix and match and find your favorite dressing.
The result: you leave wanting to fill your life with this creamy goodness. I honestly decided to stop buying creamy dressings and just mix mayonnaise with something if I really want something creamy.
The tour, which is free and fills up months in advance, is obviously very good marketing.
Whenever I really miss home, I type ‘Jamaica drive’ into YouTube and I’m taken across the country via a camera on somebody’s dashboard.
In these videos, the sky always looks bluer, the clouds, always look fluffier, the sun always brighter than I remember. And the mountains always look greener, but undeniably at home in this shining landscape.
Oh! My words are saturated with nostalgia!
I pay close attention to the streets and the buildings in the videos. If it’s an area I know well, I check to see if anything has changed. Sometimes, without warning, a memory linked to a place comes rushing back.
But usually, there are no specific memories. I often just watch and watch until I’ve had my fill. Other times, I leave the TV while I do chores– the images of Jamaica becoming a natural part of the decor in my foreign home.
‘I’ve been learning to swim for fifty years,’ an older Jamaican woman said to me in a swimming lesson about five years ago. Yesterday, an older Chinese woman, my classmate in a different swimming class, said, ‘I’ve been coming here for half a year (and I still can’t swim!).’
It hasn’t quite been
fifty years, nor has it been a brief six months, but I’ve been learning to swim
for a long time myself. And I still can’t swim. But I’m not as bad as when I
I’ve taken many breaks over the years, the most recent being when I became pregnant. Finally being able to squeeze it in my schedule again, I recently went back to my swimming lessons at the gym.
During the first
class, I realised I just felt much more relaxed and focused than I’d ever felt
in any swimming class ever. It’s as if the constraint of only being able
to do this thing within this window of time allowed no distractions.
This is also the only time
I get to move my body and I have nowhere to be except the other end of the pool,
and nobody expects much from me. It’s really relax time. Of course the teachers
want you to learn to swim, but they are all very laid back about it, like, ‘even
it takes a lifetime, no big.’
That said, I ran into
a classmate from my first spell at the gym, and learned that basically everyone
who was in that class is now in the advanced class. Inspiration.