A few weeks before my son started first grade, I asked my friend Nagako to help me read the list of school supplies I needed to buy.

We were going down the list -- hasami (scissors), iroenpitsu (colored pencils) -- when we got to the item that always strikes me as odd: zokin (cleaning rag). I stopped and commented on it to my friend.

Nagako looked at me blankly. "Why is that funny? What do American kids use to clean at school? A mop?"