All this happened, more or less...

My name is G and these are the true stories of my adventures.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Home for the Holidays


I spent only one Christmas in Japan. While my family was trimming trees, wrapping gifts, and diving into a double batch of my aunt's famous bourbon balls, I got up as I did every other Sunday morning and caught my subway train at the normal time. In general, the Japanese ignore Christmas, but my gaijin friends and I had taken a few measures to make sure the time-honored Western holiday didn't pass entirely without notice: we had organized a little gift exchange among the teachers in our office; we had begged and bribed the Japanese staff to arrange the day's schedule so that we all could eat lunch together; and Dom had made a dinner reservation for a large group of us at a pub in Kyoto.

I met up with Dom on the subway and we made our ritual morning stop in Starbucks. The Bux in Yamashina is right next to the train station -- the commuting caffeine addict's dream -- and we call it "The Bux" as if it were an old drinking buddy of ours, which it sort of is. Somewhere between the half'n'half and the platform, I got a call from my mother. Because of the time difference, it was still Christmas Eve at home, and I wasn't surprised to have her call me from the treeside with a little holiday cheer.

She wasn't calling with holiday cheer.

She was calling to tell me my grandfather had just passed away that afternoon.


I knew before I went to Japan that my grandfather was dying. I had spent most of the previous summer driving him back and forth for dialysis three times a week and buying him Frosties and ginger ale, since he couldn't keep anything else down. By the time I had my bags packed, he was bed-ridden, and when I saw him for the last time in mid-September, he was so thin that only his ribcage and his feet made any noticeable lift in the bedsheet. He told me to be careful and have fun and send him pictures of Japanese cars.


Working on Christmas Day is depressing enough, but it's unbearable to work on Christmas Day on the opposite side of the world from where your family is coping with the loss of its patriarch. Particularly when you don't have any bourbon balls to help ease the pain. I told Dom what had happened while we waited for our train, then I locked it in a small back closet of my brain to be dealt with at a more convenient time.

When we arrived at the office, we skimmed the daily schedule. Much to my dismay, the staff girls had shifted my lunch hour back one time slot to accommodate a student. This meant that the lunch we'd planned -- with pizza and our gift exchange and the very naughty bottle of wine tucked in my purse -- wasn't going to happen. All the guys still had their break together, but I was scheduled to eat alone on Christmas Day.

I was already resigned to this being the worst Christmas ever, so I sighed and started heading upstairs. Dom, on the other hand, had this interchange with Mariko, the Japanese staff girl who happened unluckily to be nearby:

"Why did the schedule change? Last night, we all had the same lunch."

"O, sorry, Dom-san. The student wanted lesson."

"Well, call the student back. We're having lunch together."

"Eh? No, I can't, Dom-san."

"Mariko, it's Christmas!"

At this point in the conversation, between his bright orange hair and his face flushed in frustration, Dom was starting to look like a human fireball. I don't know if it was nervousness or panic, but Mariko made the terrible mistake of giggling. Then she shrugged at Dom and said, "Christmas... it's not so important to Japanese."

O no, no, no. Foolish girl. You don't giggle at a man who is spending his second Christmas away from his mother and who has put all his excess energy into salvaging some little bit of holiday cheer for this motley crew of gaijin who are the closest thing to a family that any of us have.

"Christmas... it's not so important to Japanese," she said, and she shook her head at him.

Dom drew himself to his full height. By Western standards, he's not a tall man, but he positively towered over that little Japanese woman. I thought he was going to shout at her, but when his answer came out, it was a low growl, dark, and full of danger: "Well... we're not fucking Japanese."

I knew Dom had that stereotypical ginger-headed temper, that he'd been known to say and do things hastily, but I was floored. I knew that he didn't hate Japanese people. In fact, I knew he liked this particular staff girl quite a bit. But she had crossed a line. He slammed the door and remained in stony silence as we rode the elevator up to the fifth floor. A few minutes later, another staff girl came up with a new copy of the schedule.


We had our lunch together that day, and we had our wine and pizza. I gave Dom a scarf and Tasi gave me a plush Tasmanian tiger. And that night we met up with about twenty friends for mashed potatoes and corned beef at the pub. Even Erica, who would normally not be caught dead in public with us, came out for dinner. It certainly wasn't a perfect Christmas, but in spite of the rough start, the long work day, and all the students who stared blankly at us every time we wished them a Merry Christmas, that dinner stands out as one of the warmest evenings I spent in Japan. We were all wretchedly homesick and much more subdued than usual (apart from a brief incident involving a popper and an unfortunately placed votive), but we took comfort in the discovery that sometimes your family is who you're born to and sometimes your family is whoever happens to be close by when you need someone to care about you. It wasn't perfect, but it was enough.

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