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Flying octopuses of thanks

by Amy Chavez

“Amy-san!” yells one of the neighborhood obaachan while standing in my genkan holding out a plate of warm shrimp tempura. “Thank you so much for helping my husband the other day.”

I’m perplexed. What have I done for her husband and, by the way, who is he? I have no idea what she is talking about. But I just say, “Oh, no worries, you needn’t have troubled yourself to return the favor.”

The next day another old lady comes to the door. “Amy-san, thank you so much for helping my husband the other day,” she says and hands me a bag with a live octopus in it.

This favor I do remember but I’m quite sure that helping an 80-year-old fisherman load diesel gas cans onto his boat is not an octopus-size favor. I’d simply put it in the category of small acts of kindness.

But even small acts of kindness are returned with octopuses in Japan. Now I know why people don’t open doors for each other here. If you’re not careful, you could end up in octopus debt for the rest of your life.

I have to admit that I don’t return most favors. I simply can’t keep up with all the favors that are done for me on a daily basis. Instead, a simple “Thank you” has to suffice for most of them. A thank you with an octopus on the side is asking too much of me. For now, that is.

Some day when I have more time, I hope to take part in the Japanese art of re-favoring. And when I do, I’ll do it even more efficiently — in bulk. I’ll sit down with my list, much like Santa Claus does at the end of the year, and decide who I owe favors to and I’ll hit them all at the same time. I’ll hire a helicopter and drop hundreds of live octopus onto the island all at once.

This will be, of course, when I turn into a Japanese obaachan (old lady). Just when someone thinks I have forgotten all about the nice thing they did for me 30 years ago — Wham! — they’ll be hit in the head with a flying octopus. Upon impact, the expiring octopus will grunt out, “Thanks.”

In the meantime, I’ve got some time to make up my list during middle age, which I recently crossed over into. Middle age is not determined so much by your actual age, but by your appearance. For example, one of the islanders said to me the other day, “Amy, you’ve gotten fat.”

“This is not fat,” I corrected him. “This is middle age spread. Fat is something you can reduce, your age isn’t.” Besides, there’s a reason the word spread has half of the word “bread” in it. It means your body is turning into the shape of a loaf. It must be all that yeast that is making my body “rise” in all the wrong places. Or it could be the yeast in beer. . .

But the scary thing about middle age is that from there, you only have one place to go: old age. And I fear I am already well on my way to becoming an obaachan.

The other day in the DIY store, I bought a farmer’s hat. It said right on it, “farmer’s hat.” I didn’t realize that just ¥600 could change your entire occupation. One reason I bought it is because it said “reversible” on it. So, if I decided I didn’t like farming, I could reverse the decision. It seemed like a risk-free chance to see what it’s like to be a farmer.

But so far, I’m enjoying my new profession. For one thing, it’s a lot easier than I thought it would be. No weeding, no digging, no fertilizing. This hat makes being a farmer very easy. But it also makes me look like an obaachan. Since almost all the obaachans on this island are farmers, I guess farming is something you age into. By the time I become an obaachan in 30 years, just imagine how many favors, and flying octopus, I’ll owe.

Perhaps I should become a fisherman instead. Not only would I be able to accumulate enough octopus, but I’d be the hottest obaachan around with my own fishnet stockings to wear.