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Trips, tripwires of expat parenthood

by Steven Shayman

Life with Corey started long before we even knew what his name was to be. On a summer day in 1999, we were shown the first confirmatory ultrasound after pregnancy was suspected — he was the size of a pea, if that. From there, we watched him progress through the months in a series of ever-more pronounced human features until the delivery-room handoff to Dad.

Unlike in America, where parents-to-be often are given only one or two ultrasound images in take-home, photographic-print form throughout the whole nine-month gestation period, in Japan the obstetricians we saw furnished us a new ultrasound image with practically every visit. We thought, “This is cool!” and took the opportunity to begin compiling what has turned into the most detailed pictorial documentation of a baby’s development this side of the Library of Congress.

Thinking I’d try to be an up-to-date spouse, I made a particular effort to educate myself on the finer points of what “we” were going through at each stage of pregnancy, accompanying my wife Gayle to prenatal hospital visits, reading the likes of “The Expectant Father,” by Armin Brott, and taking childbirth-preparation classes at the Tokyo American Club. All in all, we did feel better equipped psychologically when the time came, but of course only Gayle could feel the pain.

Still, for a foreign couple, having a baby in Japan can be a daunting experience. We were lucky to have the benevolent help of friend and neighbor Yumiko, who, along with her family down the street, helped us navigate the twists and turns of the Japanese system.

This began with learning the oft-times confusing prenatal hospital visit routine, finding a yasashii (kind and gentle) doctor whom we felt comfortable with (not as easy as it sounds) and, finally, becoming aware of and applying for the numerous prenatal, child health-care and other benefits available in Japan to taxpayers of any nationality, but with applications only in Japanese.

Gayle’s Japanese-American family tradition dictated that we agree upon an appropriate Japanese, kanji-derived middle name for the baby, which we did, but not until several days after birth, due to our indecisiveness and penchant for procrastination. So, pending hospital-bed consultations with the grandparents in Hawaii and Yumiko in Tokyo, Corey’s maternity ward wrist-band identified him as “Male Baby Shayman” until we could resolve the issue and complete the birth certificate.

The more recent routine of picking up the now-13-month-old Corey at hoikuen (Japanese public day care) is laced with potential tripwires that often throw Dad’s far-from-fluent Japanese for a loop and result in misunderstandings.

Like the time Dad was advised that he needed to “buy” a new futon for Corey to sleep on at day care, when in reality, he later found out (courtesy of Yumiko) that he simply needed to take the bedding home for laundering the next day. Or like how Dad has to leave to Nikkei-yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese-American) Mom and Yumiko the translation of commentary written by the day care providers in Corey’s renrakucho (notebook recording the daily doings at day care).

Fortunately, we can rely on Corey’s bubbly personality to mitigate the embarrassing effect of such occasional missteps. He knows nothing of the trouble we cause. He can’t wait to start playing when he’s dropped off at day care, and we miss him more than he misses us.