Home for the holidays (Part 2)


As I wrote a couple days ago, I’ve been spending the New Year’s holidays with my wife’s family in Kagoshima for a decade now. In that span of time, there have been five children born into the immediate extended family, which includes our own, my wife’s sister, and my wife’s cousin on her mother’s side. Her cousin got married right after we did, and her brother also got married recently. I’m from a large family (= 9 siblings, a dozen plus aunts and uncles, forests of cousins) so I have many memories of huge family gatherings. After the first couple of somewhat quiet holiday dinners, however, the last few years have seemed extraordinarily hectic and noisy.

Given the talents and histories of my wife’s family, the more people have just made things much more interesting, especially for my kids.

To start with, my sister-in-law now has three children. The oldest carried our wedding rings down the aisle when she was roughly the age of my own eldest daughter. This girl is now preparing for high school entrance exams and eagerly sought the English grammar advice of my wife this afternoon. Talk about time flying.

My sister-in-law’s youngest was born a few weeks after our marriage; in fact, we deliberately moved up the date of our ceremony to make sure there would be no conflict with the anticipated birth. Together with his older brother, this boy is now making extremely complicated origami presents for family members: a waterplane, a grasshopper, a stag beetle, and a moth were among the presents this year. That is to say, the origami we brought with us (presents from family in the US: morning glories, sea horses, angel fish, lilies) he found so easy that he barely even glanced at the directions.

As for me, I discovered that not only am I completely hopeless at origami, I can’t even understand the simplest directions — in English — even in a video.

My wife has two close cousins, one man and one woman, who are the children of her mother’s sister and grew up nearby. The man became a medical doctor, avidly studied English in short-term summer programs in Hawaii, and shortly after we were married, decided to do an unpaid two plus year post-doc in San Francisco. He then went directly to Singapore for a year as a sort of unofficial prefectural medical representative. His family followed him the whole way, meaning that his then-4-year-old son went overseas speaking no English whatsoever and now is back in Japan having learned virtually no Japanese outside of daily conversations with his parents. When I was in Singapore in March 2013 with colleagues from my former technical college, chaperoning a school cultural exchange trip, I was able to arrange for them to meet this cousin of my wife. Over bratwurst and beer, he launched into an impressive dressing-down of the Japanese educational system and explicated in specific terms what he planned to do to change the medical system as well.

My wife’s family does not pull punches. I loved every moment.

My wife’s other cousin married shortly after we did, to a college sweetheart who happened to land a job making engines for Toyota and was immediately told to improve his TOEIC scores. During the past few years, he’s been sent overseas to the US, Australia, and Africa, and starting this April, the entire family will be living in Belgium for at least the next three years, possibly (probably) four or five. In the meantime, the cousin has had two children and is on maternity leave from her job, determined to work again once they return. These are the two role models that my former tech college students need: one to show how Japanese engineers need to — and can — communicate globally, and one to show how women can — and should — have their jobs and children, too.

So what happens when the kids from these families get together?

They read. And write. And draw. And of course run around making funny faces, lots of noise, and generally being creative as possible. Reading is the key, yes, but it takes a concerted effort by families who get it in order to create an atmosphere in which kids want to learn about the world and to express themselves.

Which is why I let them make origami flowers, sea animals, and bugs, even though I’ve totally given up on making them, myself. Because it’s totally not about me.

Happy Holidays, from Satsuma!


About MThomas

Long ago, I gave up my high school dreams of becoming the next Carl Sagan and instead wound up working (in order) at McDonald's, a '60s-themed restaurant, a video rental store, a used bookstore, a computer seller, Kinko's, a Jewish newspaper company, and an HR firm. I eventually became a teacher of intercultural communication in Kyoto, where I vainly attempt to apply quantum mechanics to language teaching, practice martial arts and Zen Buddhism, and always keep one eye on the sky. And yes, I know my profile photo's backward. I just think it looks better this way.
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