Category Archives: Personal Stories

Price Tower/Frank Llyod Wright Skyscraper

Bartlesville, Oklahoma was not on my bucket list.

My daughter lives in Tulsa and suggested we visit Bartlesville and stay in the Price Tower, a forty-five-minute drive from her home.

Price Tower, located in Bartlesville, is one of the only two “skyscrapers” designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

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The Price Tower caught my eye and I wanted to visit and find out more about it.

Lisa, my daughter, is not a Frank Lloyd Wright follower, but I am a volunteer tour guide at Taliesen West in Scottsdale, Arizona and she wanted to give me a birthday present. She made a reservation at the Price Tower for one night. She knows what makes her mom happy.

The tower is nineteen stories tall. It opened in 1956. FLW originally designed Price Tower as a skyscraper in Manhatten, New York in the 1930s. The project never went forward because of the Depression.

The Price Tower was called “the tree that escaped the crowded forest”. The crowded forest was Manhatten. The rooms within the building branch out like those of a tree. The trunk of the tree makes its way through the center of the building. There are three elevators and each floor. They are big enough for two people and one suitcase. Ascending the floors on the elevator feels like traveling through the trunk of a tree.

FWL installed levers on the sides of the building that moved back and forth to block the wind. They no longer work.

Harold Price owned oil pipelines and became the largest welding contractor in Mid-America by 1926. Bartlesville was a booming oil town at the time.

Mr. Price wanted a building three stories high and planned on putting a hair salon, a dress shop, and a gift shop. He proposed the price of $75,000. The ending price was much more. Frank Lloyd Wright added on features that were not requested by Mr. Price.

Frank Lloyd Wright had other ideas. He convinced Mr. Price to build the tower to nineteen floors. He told Price that he would recoup the money by renting the rooms out as living quarters, apartments. Mr. Price was not convinced, but he went along with the idea.

Bartlesville now has a nineteen-floor “hotel” in the middle of a town with a population of 36,389 as of 2017. The building is built of cement blocks, mahogany doors, turquoise carpet, and various types of chairs. The windows are tinted in a copper color. Copper represents the “leaves” of the trees. The drapes in some of the rooms are made from woven copper.

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Frank Lloyd Wright used triangles in his design of the building. Price Tower mostly features 30- and 60-degree angles, with triangles everywhere.

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The roof is made of the tectum for fireproof.  Price Tower represents the usual designs of FLW. Common materials, open planning, furniture design by him, and industrial type kitchens crammed in the corner of the apartments.

 

There were eight apartments in the building. Some of the apartments didn’t have draperies or artwork. He didn’t want anyone to be distracted by the beauty he had created. His furniture was built in, he didn’t want anyone to be moving it around. He used cast aluminum chairs. The sofas and chairs were red and diagonal in shape. Not the kind of chairs that make you feel comfortable.

FLW designed the dishes that the renters in the apartments ate from. He designed coffee cups with a red design so that women’s lipstick did not show up on the cups. He didn’t like women’s lipstick on cups.

The rents were expensive and it was hard to find tenants. The rooms were odd shapes and were not designed for entertaining your friends. Many of the tenants moved out. They couldn’t live their lives within triangles.

The Price Tower was redesigned to be a hotel. There are twenty- one hotel rooms. The room we stayed in was a suite. It was surrounded by windows.

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We spent more time in the room in the evening because it was raining. The toilet paper roll, towel rack, and lighting fixtures were copper. We had a full view of the town and of the prairie. I didn’t find the view extraordinary. There were no mountains, lakes or trees to see.

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The Price Tower belongs to the Price Tower Arts Center. Oil prices collapsed in the 1980s at Bartlesville was left with a lesser population and many of the businesses ceased to exist.

Note: Check for tour times before you visit. They are not open every day. You are not allowed to take photos of the rooms that served as apartments. You are not allowed to sit on the furniture. https://www.pricetower.org/

Outpost is the best place for coffee.

There are a few places to have dinner and breakfast.

 

 

 

The Fear of Yoga

 

Who is afraid of yoga? Me.  I am not afraid of airplanes, traveling alone, elevators, nor tunnels. I am afraid of MRIs, escalators, and yoga.

I am not a yoga practitioner. I didn’t have my first yoga class until five months after I retired. That was two years ago. The teacher insisted on physically putting me in positions that did not make me feel comfortable. Think pretzels. I was more like a tree limb that refused to bend. After the second class, I walked out and never went back.

The thought of doing yoga never entered my mind again until last week. The pain in my arms doesn’t let me lift as high as I could before. I researched how to improve my range of motion. Yoga was the answer given 99% of the time. I couldn’t put it off anymore. I had to get rid of my fear of yoga. I watched yoga videos to understand the vocabulary. I tried the yoga poses on my own, but I needed to be with an instructor to know that I was doing the right thing.

 

I signed up for the yoga class at the local community center. The day before fear set in. What do I wear? Do I need yoga socks? What do I need to take to the class? I knew that I needed a mat and a bottle of water. What kind of mat do I need? I went to Amazon but didn’t see what I needed. I went to Target and found yoga mats. I found purple and pink. Does this mean that only women do yoga? Next to the mats, I found a “beginning yoga kit”. It included a purple mat, purple block, and a white strap. I don’t know how to put the strap on. I assume it is to carry the mat around.

On the morning of my yoga class, I took the mat out of the box. It smelled new. I had this feeling everyone would know that I was a beginner. I unrolled the mat for the first time when I got to class. It made the soft sound of unfolding polyurethane for the first time. I was nervous. I walked into the class five minutes early. There were twelve women in the group. I rolled out my purple mat. I wasn’t sure which side was face up so I watched the girl next to me. I saw that her label was facing up. I quickly turned my mat facing up. I didn’t know anyone and I was afraid to speak to anyone. The girl next to me asked if it was my first time. She knew. She saw me unroll the mat, the agony in my face, and the nervousness of my hands shaking.

The instructor came over to check off our names. She said you must be Carol. I said yes. She said she remembered me from the last yoga class. She remembered I didn’t come back. She was not my instructor for the first time, but she was the one who checked the attendance. I asked her if this required experience because I had none. She said no. This will be an easy yoga class. I wasn’t sure what she meant by easy. Nothing in yoga is easy for me.

We started the class by sitting on our mats with our legs crossed. I was able to do that. I was hoping I would be able to get up later. We put our arms out in a lotus position and meditated for about five minutes. She encouraged me to think of good thoughts. Forgive those who have done you wrong. Think of flowers, nature, and animals. I am not so sure about the animals.

We did some neck holding and stretching. So far so good. I can do this. Then we stood up. I could do that too. We stood in a pose with our right leg pointed to the front and our left leg pointed to the left of the mat. We reached up with our arms and made an arch. This was hard for me because it was painful. That’s ok. I told her ahead of time and she didn’t push it. My goal is to make my arms reach higher.

In one of the poses, we were required to stretch in a child’s pose and touch our faces to the ground. I could not get my face to touch the ground. I observed others who were using the blocks so they could touch their noses to the blocks and not have to reach the floor. I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t put her face to the floor. Now I know what the blocks are for. I left mine wrapped in plastic sitting on the kitchen table.

The last pose was to sit back on the floor and lay down with our shoulders flat on the mat. The instructor came around and applied some smelly stuff on my shoulders.

The class was over. The instructor told me I did great. I have no yoga fear from this class.

I will go back again.

7 Things Japanese Men do not do for their Wives

Japanese men do not open the car door for their wives.

They open the car door for their mothers. The wives are left to open their own door. The Japanese man will help if his wife is carrying a baby.

Japanese men do not babysit their children.

Japanese women rarely go out when their husbands are at home. They spend time with their friends during the day when the children are at school and their husbands are at work. A Japanese woman will leave her children with her mother if she needs to go to work or socialize with her friends. A Japanese woman does not go out at night with her friends to socialize.

Japanese men do not share in the housework or care of the children.

They don’t do laundry, cook, or clean the house. Their day to be with their children is Sunday. The parks in Japan are filled with fathers and their children. This is the day the mother can do something on her own.

Japanese men don’t sleep with their wives after children come into the picture.

Japanese women sleep in a separate room with their children. Her husband has his own room so that he is not disturbed by the noise of the children. He has to get up early and go to work. He also comes home late.

A Japanese father does not change diapers or feed the baby.

Japanese men do not cook for their wives.

This is a women’s job. A Japanese woman takes bed rest when a baby is born. She stays in the hospital for one week. She stays in bed at home for four to six weeks. Her mother moves in to clean, cook, and help take care of the baby. The husband goes to work.

Japanese men do not hang out with their wives.

They don’t go to dinner or socialize in the same groups. A Japanese man hangs out with his coworkers. They meet after work for drinks and food. A Japanese woman will socialize with other women. They go to coffee shops or local restaurants for lunch. Japanese couples don’t entertain at home. The home is for the family and a very private place.

Japanese men don’t wait for their wives to sit down before they start eating.

The Japanese wife sets the various dishes on the table and the men dig in. She is the last one to sit down to eat.

Japanese culture and American culture have almost nothing in common. I was the wife of a Japanese man and fortunate to find a husband that did not have all of these characteristics, but he did have a few.

He never opened my side of the car door. I never expected him to because I wasn’t raised that way and I was very independent. I didn’t need any help in opening my side of the car.

He was a very good cook but had no time because he left for work at 6:00 am and came home at 10:00 p.m. He cooked on the weekends.

He always waited for me to sit down before he started to eat. His father and brothers never waited for his mother to sit down.

The first time I went to my in-laws’ house I waited for my mother-in-law to sit down before I started to eat. Everyone else had already begun to eat. I asked my husband why they didn’t wait for his mother to sit down and he said it wasn’t necessary. He knew I was not going to eat until she did. He asked her to sit down so that I would eat. She sat down for two minutes and was back in the kitchen preparing another dish to bring out to the table.

My husband never really cleaned the house, but he did help to keep it in order and uncluttered. He washed the dishes on the weekends but never did the laundry.

He never took care of our daughter alone. The times I did leave to go shopping he would take her to his parents’ house for his mother to look after her. He never changed her diapers. When she cried he passed her to me.

We did hang out together by frequenting restaurants in the evenings when he came home early and I was too tired to cook. We never went to bars together except for one time. That is when I found out that going to bars is not what married women did. Bars were for men to drink and for the hostesses to flirt with them.

We did not sleep separately. We always slept together with the baby next to us in the other room.

Adapting to a different culture is not easy, but is possible.

The Misplaced Passport

I am never late. I arrive thirty minutes early for lunch, dinner dates, lectures, doctor’s appointments, and classes. I arrive at the airport two hours before my flight is scheduled to take off. I want to avoid possible traffic tickets, flat tires, traffic jams, and car accidents. Today I am thankful to arrive early.

My flight from Heathrow airport was scheduled to take off at 8:30 am.

I got a hotel near the airport. I had to check in three hours before because it was an International flight. I scheduled the hotel shuttle to pick me up at 5:00 am. I didn’t sleep well.

I am always afraid I will miss the plane.

The alarm blasted at 4:00 a.m. I got dressed and went to the lobby to wait for my ride. I packed my bag the night before. I checked the areas around the room to make sure I didn’t leave anything behind and I felt confident everything was stored in my backpack and carry on lugage. I turned in my keys and waited for the shuttle to arrive. It was a fifteen-minute ride to the airport.

Upon arriving at the airport I unzipped my backpack to retrieve my passport. It wasn’t there. I kept it in a pouch that is thief resistant. That is what the advertisement said. I went into a panic attack. I opened up my suitcase which was locked. I located the key, unlocked the suitcase, and unzipped the entire bag and set it on the floor. There were a few people who looked at me as if I were crazy. I was crazy. What would I do if I couldn’t find my passport? Would I be delayed? How would I prove I was a US citizen? I would have to stay in London until I got a new passport. Maybe they would detain me. Would they put me in jail? My eyes filled with tears.

I took out all of my clothes and laid them on the unoccupied seats. I put my hand in all of the pockets. I unzipped every pocket of the bag. Nothing. I proceeded to pack my bag again. People were staring at me. I wonder what they thought. What is this crazy lady looking for? I zipped up my bag and locked it.  What do I do now?

I dumped the contents of my backpack on the seat. I put my hand in every single pocket once again. Nothing. I couldn’t find my passport. I sat down and took and deep breath. I prayed to God and asked Sumio to tell me where it was. I reached over to my bag and gave it one last go over. I stuck my hand in the front pocket and there it was. Why was it there? I never put my passport in that pocket.

I cried. The people around me were relieved. I looked up and smiled. They smiled back. I thanked God and Sumio and went on my way clutching on to my passport never letting it out of my sight again.

The departure schedule with my flight number was not available yet. I rushed towards the gate where it might take off. A young man was sitting there with his cell phone in his hand.

I asked him “Are you catching the flight to Chicago?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know the departure gate for the flight?”

“They don’t post until thirty minutes before the departure time. It will be one of these gates.”

“Thank you.”

My stomach was growling. I hadn’t eaten anything all morning. I located a coffee shop and ordered a coffee and scone. The scone was dry and the coffee was bitter.

There was nothing more to worry about. It was now the pilot’s responsibility to get me to Chicago.

I checked my bag one more time and grabbed on to my passport. I was safe!

Writing for Bereavement

I don’t need bereavement counseling!

This is what I said to myself the day after Sumio went to heaven. It’s not that anyone suggested that I attend. I never thought about it.

I don’t want to express my feelings about the death of my husband with a group of women who have the same loss. 

I stopped going to confession in the Catholic Church when they started group confessions. Why should I sit with a group of people and confess my sins?

Confession should be private. I remember confession in my Catholic elementary school, Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH). 

Line up outside of the confessional box, keep your hands folded, and don’t talk to anyone in line. Wait for the person in front of you to exit the confessional box. Enter quietly, kneel on the kneeler, wait for the priest to open the window, and confess your sins for the week.  

My sins: I disobeyed my mother ten times, hit my brothers twenty times and lied fourteen times.

We weren’t allowed to see the priest’s face and he couldn’t see ours. It was a secret. The problem was these priests visited our house and had dinner often. They knew my voice and I knew theirs. We would receive our penances and quickly share them with the others waiting outside for their turn. We went to confession every Friday.

I don’t remember when I stopped going to confession. It was probably after I graduated from Catholic High School. I went to Mexico City for five years and no one I knew went to church. I had a German/Spanish/Mexican boyfriend whose family went to church every Sunday. He didn’t. I came back to the United States and went back to church. That is when I was informed of the changes in the confessional room. I chose not to participate. Why would I want to share my sins with others?

My way of dealing with the death of Sumio was to write. Eight months before he passed he kept a journal. He wrote entries about the food he ate, how he was feeling from the chemo, and expressed his love for me. He wanted me to write an answer below his entries. Lisa, our daughter sent messages by email. He would print them out, cut them up, and paste them in his journal. He did this until the day before he was gone.

I continued to write messages in his journal every day. This was my way of grieving. I did it alone and I did it my way.

My writing career, well not a career yet, started with Sumio. Now, I want to tell his story.

This is my dilemma. Writers usually start writing when they are young and it becomes their passion. I started late. Two years ago after I retired from teaching. I am trying to catch up. I don’t know how I want to write the story. I have tried memoir, but seem to suck at it. Not enough details, present or past, first person or third, and ten pages for each chapter.

Writing is creative, they say. Just write. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. Just write. I used to be a grammar teacher. Grammar is important and so is spelling. It’s the creative part that gets me stuck. How can I become more creative?

I attend one-week writing workshops and weekend conferences whenever I can. I am taking an online program in creative non-fiction and a six week, once a week, two-hour session on writing my story. 

I am hoping with this class that I can improve my creative skills. I sometimes think that writers are born with these skills. I wasn’t. I am hoping my skills are hiding somewhere and will reveal themselves soon. For now, I will just write what comes into my head and maybe someday it will all make sense.

I might not write a memoir, but I could write flash non-fiction or short stories.

My writing is my way of dealing with bereavement.

Five Years in Japan: The Arrival

The plane lands with a thud on the Tokyo tarmac, fifteen hours after take-off from Phoenix, Arizona. I look out the window of row 38 seat C, the window, and see only darkness. It is 10:00 p.m. in Japan. I am in unchartered territory, a place where I don’t know the customs, the language, or the food. I don’t know where I will live. Will it be in a condo, apartment, a new house, an old house, or with my in-laws? I left that decision up to my Japanese husband. I can only pray he didn’t choose his parents. Japanese tradition requires that the oldest son and his wife live with the parents and take care of them for the rest of their lives. I wasn’t provided this information until the day we got married. Sumio arrived in Japan one month before I did in order to find us a place to live and face the anger of his parents for marrying a gaijin (foreigner). Yes, that would be me. We got married in December in Cedar Falls, Iowa. I was a student getting my BA in ESL/Spanish. He was employed by a Japanese company in Waterloo, Iowa.

Sumio returned to Japan two weeks after the wedding and I returned home to Phoenix. He had to prepare his parents for his decision to marry an American woman. Six months before Sumio and I met, his parents had chosen a Japanese wife, omiai, for him. This was very common in the 1980’s. His father was angry because now they had to tell the girl’s family she was not needed anymore. Sumio had to financially reimburse her for any emotional damages she had endured.

My seat partner is a Japanese businessman who speaks English very well. We occupied our flying time with lessons in Japanese language and culture. He couldn’t believe that I was flying to Japan for the first time and meeting my husband at the airport. Why is an American woman moving to Japan? He never asked the question. He was polite. I thought about the answer and the answer was love and curiosity. I love the man I married, and I want to know more about his culture.

We exit the plane.  My seatmate asks, “What is your husband’s name?” I answer, “Sumio”. He removes a white piece of paper from the message board situated near the information desk. It is thumbtacked to a corkboard. This was thirty-seven years ago, before cell phones. Sumio wrote the message in Japanese. What? I can’t read Japanese. My seat partner reads the message. “I am waiting for you at the exit of immigration.” Nice. I was hoping he wouldn’t leave me at the airport. I trusted him.  We have only been married one month.

I present my passport. The customs agent looks at me quizzically. He is probably wondering why a girl like me has a Japanese last name.

He asks me, “What’s your purpose in coming to Japan?”

I answer, “I married a Japanese.”

He asks, “How long to you plan on staying?”

“I am not sure.” I answer.  He smiles and waves me through customs.

The wide glass sliding doors open into the crowd of people waiting. How am I going to find my husband? They all look like him! Black hair, 5’7” tall, and dark eyes. I will let him look for me. I stand out in this crowd. Light skin, blue eyes, and light brown hair. How could he not find me? I hear him call my name “Kyaroru, Kyaroru”. My name is Carol. Neither he nor any other Japanese can pronounce my name. He just calls me Okasan (mother), a term of endearment that most Japanese husbands use for their wives. I turn around and there he is. He did come! What a relief.

We greet each other with a very short embrace. It is taboo to hug or kiss in public. Other people watch with quizzical looks on their faces. Am I his English teacher, his American girlfriend, or a friend of the family? Not many American women marry Japanese men. Japanese women wait on their husbands and Americans don’t. American men marry Japanese women because they know they will take care of them and wait on them.

The airport smells of cigarettes. I am about to gag. It is incredibly noisy. I can’t understand a thing that is being said over the loudspeakers. The Japanese use loudspeakers to announce everything. I have a really bad headache along with a case of serious jet lag.

Sumio asks, “How much money do you have?”

I answer, “$100”. He looks at me in shock. He can’t believe I traveled across the world with such a small amount. That was a joke the whole time we were married. We have to run to catch the last train. It is 11:00 p.m. and the last train is leaving at 11:30.

I am holding on to the handle of my black suitcase and dragging it behind me and running.  I have my American passport in my left hand. My newly minted husband, Sumio, is

about twenty feet ahead of me with my second suitcase. These two suitcases contain my life possessions. I don’t know how long I will be living in Japan.

I am drained and anxious. I can’t read any of the signs or understand any of the announcements. I don’t speak Japanese. I must depend on my husband to translate. He doesn’t speak English very well. His translations are short. What am I doing here?

The train stops, we jump into the train dragging the suitcases behind us. Sumio stores the bags in the designated luggage area. There are five men in the train car. I am the only woman and the only American. Two of the men are dressed in dark blue suits with dark ties. The uniform of Japanese businesspeople. One of them has his shirt hanging out of his pants and his tie undone. He is slouched on the red plastic bench holding on to one of the poles with both hands for balance. The smell of sake fills the air. They are on their way home after a night of drinking in a bar. Three of the men are smoking. It is January 1981, smoking is allowed on public trains. Two other men dressed in black shirts with white T-shirts peeking out and black trousers are having a hushed conversation. They have the appearance of Catholic priests. They are not. They are the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Yes, they have a uniform too. My husband warns me in English not to look at them, so I don’t.

It’s 11:00 pm, and we are on a local train from the Tokyo airport to Toyohashi, Japan; Not the nice-looking Shinkansen (bullet trains) that are pictured in the tourist information, but the green and red trains that take people to and from work every day.  Most Japanese use public transportation to take them shopping, to work, and to school. It is cheaper and more

convenient. We shouldn’t be on this train. Sumio thought I was going to bring enough money for us to stay in a hotel. I only have $100. After he got over the shock of me arriving in Japan with less than what we needed, we headed to catch the last train out of the station.

The train chugs along and stops at every station along the line. I am trying not to breathe so much because the tobacco smoke is making me sick. I am also famished. I just got off a fifteen-hour flight from the US. I haven’t eaten for almost six hours. I could vomit. I won’t.

The neon lights flash as the train makes its way down the tracks. There are more neon lights in every city in Japan than there are in Las Vegas. There are signs for “café” (bars), restaurants, pachinko parlors, and love motels. I want to hold Sumio’s hand to feel some solace. That is not acceptable in Japan. I feel alone.

One man finally gets off the train on the fifth stop. He is so drunk. He shuffles to the opened door while another man helps him out. He doesn’t make it. The alarm sounds, and he gets stuck. The door opens one more time. This time he and his friend make it off the train. I hope they can find their way home. The man slouched on the seat is sleeping. I wonder if he will miss his stop.

The men are staring at me. Where is an American woman with two suitcases going with a Japanese man? Was she picked up in some bar? Are they headed to a “love motel”? Japanese men don’t marry American women. We have a reputation for being too independent. I am his English teacher, prostitute, lover, or girlfriend.

I close my eyes once in a while and awaken every time the door opens. The slouched man on the bench is gone, and so are the Yakuza. Now, it is only Sumio and I. He holds my hand, and one hour later we arrive at our destination.

The automated voice announces the arrival at our station, Toyohashi. I must have fallen asleep the last twenty minutes of the trip. The train comes to a stop. Another man had gotten on somewhere and is slouching on the bench. Is this his stop? He doesn’t move. He continues snoring.

Sumio disengages my two suitcases from the luggage rack. He takes one suitcase, and I grab the other one. I am dazed I don’t remember where I am or why I am here. I look down at my watch it says Thursday, January 7, 1981, 9:00 a.m. Why is it so dark outside? It is Thursday, January 8, 1:00 a.m. in Japan. I think I must have skipped a day of sleep somewhere.

The doors slide open. Sumio exits first, and I follow. I have no idea where I am going. It is dark inside the station and feels very ghostly because there is no one around. We follow the exit signs out of the station. A line of about six taxi cabs sits waiting for customers, most of whom are drunk Japanese businessmen on their way home. The taxi cab drivers are snoozing in their seats with their hands rested on the steering wheel.

We walk over to the parking lot. One single car is waiting with its lights on. A young man, eighteen years old gets out of the car. Sumio and I walk over to the driver. He bows to Sumio and gets a quick nod in return. He is 5’7″ tall and has a head of dark curly hair. The curls are not natural. It is the 80s, and it was the style of the times. He looks like a Japanese Brady Bunch kid.

Yasuo is the youngest of four boys. He is my brother-in-law. He bows to me and I to him. My bow does not have to be as deep as his because I am older than he, and an American woman. He puts my suitcases in the trunk of the car. Sumio sits in the passenger seat on the left. Yasuo sits in the driver’s position on the right. Japanese drive on the left-hand side of the road.

Sumio is the eldest in his family. Yasuo is the brother that Sumio needs to protect. Sumio is the respected oldest brother, oniisan. Japanese siblings do not call their older brothers or sisters by name. They use their titles; older brother, younger brother, older sister, and younger sister.

We get into the car, Sumio sits on the left side of the driver and I sit behind Sumio in the passenger seat. I observe the neon signs trying to figure out what they say. Is it a supermarket or a pachinko parlor? Is it a bar or a coffee shop? There are not many cars on the street at 1:00 a.m.

I am so tired. I can only think about falling into bed and sleeping for about two days. Twenty minutes later we arrive at our house. The house Sumio and I will live in for the next five years.

Sumio and Yasuo carry my two bags into the genkan. We remove our shoes and step up into the entryway. They drop the bags off in the bedroom which is on the way to the kitchen and small dining room. I am hoping for some quiet time with Sumio. Yasuo leads us into the kitchen. Sumio’s two brothers, father and mother are sitting on blue zabutons. It is 1:00 a.m. Why are they sitting in my living room?

The table is square and a round lacquered tray full of sushi is sitting in the middle of the table. Six pair of chopsticks are set around the table. Eight pairs of eyes are looking down at the food. They are avoiding eye contact with me. It would be rude for them to look at a stranger directly in the eyes. I look at them. I bow and whisper konbonwa (good evening), I whisper because I am afraid I might pronounce it wrong. They greet me in the same way. I sit on my zabuton with my legs under me. It is not polite to sit “Indian style” for a woman. So many things to learn. Small blue plates are placed in front of the chopsticks. Chopsticks are never placed on the side of dishes in Japan. The chopsticks sit on little chopstick holders. This is my first time to eat sushi.

Sushi does not refer to the raw fish. It refers to the vinegar rice that accompanies the sashimi (raw fish). Japanese serve sushi for special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and welcoming visitors into their home. I am the visitor.

Most Japanese buy prepared sushi in the supermarket or a local convenience store. If Japanese eat sushi outside of their home they frequent a “sushiya” in their neighborhood. The sushi sitting on the table in the kitchen was made by my mother-in-law. Today was a special occasion. Her eldest son brought home an American wife. Was she celebrating?

 

Five Years in Japan: The Cooking Lesson

One hour after reciting our marriage vows my Japanese husband whispers in my ear, “Please, no more meatloaf, or mashed potatoes with gravy.”  Oh no! Now, what do I cook?

We first started dating six months ago, he took me to restaurants seven days in a row. I thought this must be getting expensive, so I decided to make dinner for him in his apartment. The easiest dish I could think of was meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and gravy.  He said, “This is really good,” and I felt proud of myself. Now, he knows I can cook. Apparently, I was wrong.

We meet in the student dining room at the University of Northern Iowa in 1980. I am a student trying to complete my double major as an undergraduate in Spanish and English as a Second Language. He has a female friend who lives in the same dormitory as I do.

It is a Sunday afternoon, and the kitchen area is open for students to cook. Every Sunday my dormmates and I make dinner for each other. Today it is our Japanese dormmate’s turn to cook. I spot Sumio standing in the corner of the kitchen grilling yakiniku, flipping pieces of shrimp, small slices of beef, pork, and chicken, and frying potatoes, carrots, and onions on an electric skillet. He reminds me of the chefs at the local Benihana restaurant.

He is the only male in the room. He doesn’t join the twelve women from ten different countries who are talking boisterously and commenting on how good the food tastes. The Japanese woman in our group who doesn’t know how to cook invited him to join us.  I ask him to eat with us, his handsome face turns dark red. He is easily embarrassed. He sits down, and we begin to talk. His native language is Japanese, and his English skills are minimal. He has only been in the US for one year and doesn’t have much contact outside of his office where everyone speaks Japanese.  I want to get to know more about him and his country. I am culturally intrigued and curious. We date for six months, he proposes, we get married and move to Japan.

One a month after our wedding, I arrive in Japan.  It’s Sunday morning, Sumio has the day off. I wake up in the morning to the smell of fish, which makes my nose realize I am not in the USA. Sumio is preparing grilled fish, miso shiru (a fermented bean soup), steamed rice and salad. This is not what I expected. I am trying to get a whiff of coffee, bacon, eggs, or cinnamon rolls. No such luck. I am now subjected to eating dinner for breakfast. This is something I will find difficult to get used to. Where are my Cheerios?

Sumio gives me my first cooking lessons. He is an excellent cook. That is why I married him. He tosses ingredients, soy sauce, ginger, sugar, mirin (rice wine) into a frying pan without measuring anything. I stand close by with my American plastic measuring spoons, thrusting them under the ingredient he’s adding.  “Wait a minute. How much does it take?” I ask. He answers, “This much.” He demonstrates by putting a gap between his thumb and index finger. I sigh and smile. I have to get this right.

The weekend is over, and Sumio returns to work and leaves me on my own. My mission for today is to prepare my first Japanese meal alone.  I have six hours to come up with an idea for dinner.  I sit in our small living room and flip the pages of my new five hundred fourteen-page cookbook, Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art.  The cookbook is a wedding gift from an excellent friend who wished me luck as she gave me a wink. Pictures of seaweed, wakame, bonito, tofu, harusame, shirataki, udon, somen, dance on the pages before my eyes. A mass of unfamiliar ingredients saturates the page. There are pictures of yellowtail, sea bass, red tilefish, unagi (eel), cuttlefish, squid, chikuwa, and crab stare at me. My only experience with fish is fish sticks and trout. Will I ever learn to prepare these kinds of fish?  Japanese squash, ginger root, renkon (lotus root), matsutake mushrooms, shiitake, bamboo shoots, daikon, gobo (burdock), and wasabi. The only vegetables in my past were frozen green beans, corn, and carrots. I am in panic mode. This isn’t fair. One of the reasons I married my husband was because of his cooking skills. I realize now some of the differences in cultural values between the USA and Japan. Japanese culture dictates that men work long hours, Sumio isn’t going to be doing much cooking. That is my responsibility.

I have my pencil, pad of paper, a cup of tea, and my cookbook on the “kotatsu” table nearby. The table is low to the ground, and I have to sit on the tatami mat and cross my legs. It is a position that is uncomfortable for a tall American woman of Irish/German descent.

I need help. I tire of staring at my Japanese cookbook. I feel overwhelmed with all of these exotic ingredients.  I take my pencil and pad of paper, put them in my purse and walk to my Japanese mother-in-law’s house, which is five blocks away. I use the time to practice the greeting, ojama shimasu. I must say this greeting when I visit anyone’s home.

I slide open the entrance door. “Ojama shimasu,” I announce my arrival, take off my shoes and put them in the getabako (shoe cupboard) located at the genkan. My mother in law presents me with a pair of red slippers. She sets them on the floor and indicates that I must put them on. I put on the slippers and follow her through the house shuffling my feet along the slippery wood floor into the kitchen. She is about 5ft 2 inches tall and weighs around 125lbs. She has short black curly hair and a friendly smile just like Sumio.  She is wearing a full-length white apron over her clothing.

His mother has offered to help me learn some cooking skills. She waves me into her kitchen, which is small, about one-third of the kitchen space in the USA. All of her cooking supplies are neatly arranged in cupboards and on shelves. It is an honor to be invited into her kitchen. Her kitchen is sacred, and no uninvited person is allowed to enter. Cooking is her job. Yes, I mean job.  Many Japanese marriages are arranged. The parents pick the spouses of their sons and daughters. They get married and form a mini-corporation. The wife is in charge of taking care of the family, educating the children, and cooking. The husband goes to work and hands all of his money to his wife. She then gives him an allowance.

It is 5:00 p.m., and she is preparing for dinner. We don’t speak to each other. She doesn’t speak English, and my Japanese skills are minimal. She touches my arm and points to what she is cooking. She is teaching me how to cook. That is the reason I am allowed in her kitchen. Guests do not enter the kitchens of their hostesses. It is a workspace and is usually a little messy because of so much preparation of food. My mother-in-law hopes that someday I will be able to prepare a meal for her oldest son.  She doesn’t want her son to starve. She hands me a cutting board and a very sharp knife. She places a cube of tofu on the cutting board. My first reaction is to give the knife back to her. I resist this temptation and begin to slice the tofu as carefully as possible. She closely observes me and smiles. I have never held a knife this sharp, and I am afraid I might cut off my finger. What is she thinking? I hope she approves of my cutting skills. I’m sure she never expected to be teaching her son’s American wife how to cook.

Sumio learned to cook when he was seven years old. Times were tough in 1962. Many people in Japan didn’t have money to feed themselves. Both his mother and father worked full time to make ends meet, and he was left to take care of his brothers. He would go out and find whatever he could. Sometimes he would steal food from the neighbors to create something to eat.

After two days of cooking lessons from my mother-in-law, I feel ready. I walk into a supermarket in Toyohashi, Japan alone for the first time with my list of unfamiliar ingredients. A woman stands at the front door. As soon as the door opens, she greets me, “irashai masse,” welcome. She is a greeter wearing a blue uniform with the name of the store, Ito Yokado, stitched in white on the left corner and white gloves on her hands. I have no idea where to begin. The store has four floors. The supermarket is on the first floor, clothing on the second, children’s clothing on the third, and furniture on the fourth. In some of the bigger stores the “already prepared “food is in the basement. This was my favorite place to visit. There were always free samples. I later learned that if I couldn’t cook it, I could buy it already cooked. I pick up a blue basket and proceed to walk up and down the aisles. I am the only “gaijin”( Foreign person) in the store. As I walk through the store, I observe that most of the women are wearing aprons. I am confused. Do Japanese households employ maids?

I can’t read any of the items. A square of tofu looks like a square of vanilla ice cream. I feel tense. Everything is measured in grams. How many grams equals a ¼ lb.? My recipe calls for ½ lb. of ground beef.  The recipe is for eight people, and we are only two. There will be enough food for four days.

Two hours and two grocery bags later I finally check out and walk home.

I read the recipe and begin dicing vegetables, frying fish, shredding cabbage, adding sauce. Did I add enough ingredients to the sauce? I can’t give it the taste test because I am operating in the unchartered territory. How is it supposed to taste? I make a clear soup, slice the tofu, and make a small salad with cucumbers and tomatoes. Did I add enough soup stock? It tastes a little salty. The soup simmers on the small gas stove.

It is 9:00 and the food is ready.  I lay it out on the table. The main dish is in the middle, the soup, salad, tofu, vegetables, and rice are placed around the main dish. Chopsticks are placed in front of the main dish. I feel a sense of accomplishment. I wait patiently for my husband to walk in the door. He arrives at 10:00. I greet him at the door. I take his jacket and hang it on the hook in the genkan. He removes his shoes, steps up to the floor, puts on his slippers, and walks down the short hallway to the kitchen. He washes his hands, sits down at the table, and waits for me to serve him. I put the plates one by one on the table. I place the chopsticks in front of the main dish in a horizontal position. I set the other dishes on the table around his place setting. I do the same for me. There is something green, something yellow, fish,  salad, and rice. I arrange it just like the photo in the cookbook. I am feeling pleased with myself. I am also feeling very anxious. What if he doesn’t like my cooking?

He picks up his chopsticks and gently picks up the food and puts in his mouth. I haven’t touched anything. I wait for his reaction. “What’s this?” he asks very carefully. I tell him it’s fried mackerel. He has a strange look on his face. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t want me to feel bad. He says, “It tastes good.”  I know the taste is not what he expected. I cry. He reaches over and hugs me.

“It’s OK.” He says. Is it really OK?

This cookbook is not going to help me at all. Japanese don’t eat the food that is pictured here. It is for Americans who want to impress their guest by serving Japanese food. I want to make everyday food that my husband will like. Sumio tells me about a cooking show. I begin watching Kyo no Ryori every day.  The chef provides step by step directions on how to prepare food. I sit down with my pen and paper ready. I write down the ingredients. The chef on the show picks up each ingredient and shows it to the audience. That is the only way I know what the item is. I listen to the pronunciation of the ingredient and carefully translate it phonetically. The word “shoyu” becomes “show you.” I had to take notes fast, and the instructions are in Japanese.

After a few weeks, my cooking skills improve.  My husband is happy. He buys me a subscription to Kyo no Ryori magazine.  I begin to study the kanji characters for each ingredient very carefully. I make friends with some of the Japanese women in my neighborhood. We get together and share recipes. They teach me their tricks. There are no more surprises for dinner

My second challenge was making lunch which involves more time and creativity. I usually end up arranging the leftovers from the night before in cute little containers. I don’t know how to carve little hearts or flowers into thin slices of radishes. I am not sure if he ever shows his lunch to anyone. He probably eats in a corner secretly hiding the lunch his American wife makes. I can imagine him showing his lunch to his coworkers. I am sure they have a good laugh. I married a good-natured man. The lunches of his co-workers were made with great care by their wives who took cooking classes before they got married. There are so many cooking schools in Japan.  Cooking is a serious matter. It is the key to a lasting marriage.

I learn that Japanese cooking requires at least three of these ingredients in every recipe: soyu, mirin, tsu, and salt. I can only thank my husband for giving me the opportunity to learn about his culture by learning to cook.

I finally learned how to cook. My husband didn’t leave me, and my mother-in-law grew to like me.