Sunday, February 12, 2012

Our Siam Sojourn: part 1

As winter trudges on (and on), the memories of our family trip to Thailand late last year are slowly sinking over the horizon. It's hard for the mind to conjure up thoughts of white sand, hot days and balmy sunsets when you're sitting, sniffing, sheltering from single digit temperatures in a heated house, wearing more layers than a Sara Lee apple strudel. Luckily though, we have the photos and movies of our trip to momentarily transport us back to the island of Koh Samet, back to the beach, back to the warmth of our slice of paradise that we enjoyed for a while.

But before the beach came the journey, and traveling with tots is an undertaking and a half, as anyone who has had the experience will tell you. You're at the mercy of their little whims, whether you want to admit it or not, as it's pretty hard to convince a two or three year old of the do's and don't's of air travel. Our kids are pretty good travelers though and (mercifully) were happy enough to go with the flow for both flights, this time around.

Travelling's all about adjusting to new surroundings, new rhythms and new sensory experiences, which for toddlers I guess is more like... a new reality. The first big adjustment that our Miss had to make when we alighted in Bangkok was getting her head around the fact that these people, while of Asian denomination, didn't understand a peep of her Japanese chirping - much to her bewilderment. "Why won't she answer me?" She asked E (in Japanese) after proudly telling a flight attendant at BKK airport her age. "You have to speak English to her, darling", E replied (in English) to which the typically smiley, outgoing Thai lady added "Yes, speak English, please!". A request which Miss politely, silently refused. After the initial puzzlement, she pretty quickly cottoned on to the fact that we most definitely "weren't in Kansas anymore" and as an upshot, started to speak the most English she has ever had to speak in her short 3 1/2 years.

At home in Kyoto, her and the boy's day to day English input comes from yours truly, E, our friends and family on Skype and So travelling, even to another non-English speaking country, really opened her ears to English as a global language, and not just a language that Elmo and Dad speak. The real fillip for her English, though was the communication she shared with her Grandma and Grandpa, who were waiting for us at our hotel in Bangkok when we arrived in the wee small hours, and the holiday began.

We spent the first day at Chatuchak market, a hulk of a place; an incredible maze of stalls, shouting and selling everything you can imagine - impossible to grasp in a day. In fact, such is its magnitude, that it didn't dawn on me until about halfway through the afternoon that I had actually been there before, some years ago. After ambling through the myriad of alleys and absorbing all we could for the moment, we set up a home base in the park (via a lady who rented us a straw mat to sit on - this place had no shortage of would-be entrepreneurs).

By now, the kids seemed to have decided Bangkok was a perfectly acceptable place to run amok - and what better place to get to know the locals than on the playground! The universality of kid's playing on a jungle gym can never be underestimated.

After our overnight flight and a day spent careening through subway stations and the Godzilla of all markets, it was definitely time to find a place to sit down and reflect over a glass of cold Chang. We made our way to the tourist information centre to ask after a good Thai restaurant, which apparently wasn't the easiest question in the manual to answer for the young lady. She made a vague suggestion about a Thai restaurant around the corner and down the way, but seemed more intent on sending us to the shopping mall next to the train station, saying: "It's got a lot of foreign foods, you know... a food court!" She seemed to be implying that we were somewhat off our heads to be wanting to eat Thai food in Bangkok, especially when there was a McDonalds... right there! Well, we thanked her for her help, and her vague suggestion, and made a beeline for the Thai restaurant, which turned out to be a fantastic place with great staff and food fit for the King of Thailand himself. Aroi! (It did cross my mind to head back to the tourist info place afterwards and thank the lady for her suggestion ... but she probably wouldn't have believed me!)

With bellies full and senses over-saturated, we headed back to our hotel and the next morning, after a trip to the supermarket for some vitals for the van ride, we set off on the next leg of the trip: a 2 hour "truck race" and speed boat ride to Koh Samet - our island getaway...


As we continue with the typically cold Japanese winter months, coughs and colds are inevitably doing the rounds and our home life has become somewhat confined indoors. The space heating culture here (i.e heating the space you're in and leaving the other rooms cold enough to keep a polar bear happy) means that we basically loiter in the living room and hover around our heater as if it's going to suddenly start spouting the meaning of life at any given moment. Anticipating enlightenment aside, we pass the time as anyone would with a 2 and a 3 year old in a confined space: by tidying up after them!
Honestly, the speed at which our two rugrats can completely dismantle a room is astonishing. They are like 2 little demolition workers the way they systematically go about their business - all they need are 2 mini sledgehammers, a couple of tiny hardhats and little size 3 steel capped boots to really get the job done. But as we discovered today, there is of course a madness to their method.

We both came downstairs to find the living room completely trashed, with the laptop placed on the ground and everything else piled in the middle of the room; situation normal. E was puzzled as to why the boy (2) persisted with taking my laptop off its home on the cabinet and leaving it to sit on the floor, as there appeared to be no reason for it other than pure, unabashed anarchy - which you could probably argue is as good a reason as any. It did seem odd however, as he didn't bother with taking off the speakers or the photo frame at the other end of the cabinet, only my laptop. We then watched him clamber on top of the cabinet to occupy the space created by the evicted laptop, pause for a moment to take his mark and leap with the abandon only a 2 year old can muster onto the pile of accumulated cushions and assorted articles and bouncing off onto the tatami, mere centimetres from the coffee table. All this was soundtracked by whoops of delight from his ever encouraging sister; "Again, Again!" Unfortunately for the aspiring acrobat and his cheerleader though, there was no 'again' this time as mum and dad stepped in to spoil the party. The room was put back into some semblance of order and the afternoon continued*.

*Coverage of this Living Room Diving event was not caught on camera, but it is recorded here and can be used as early indicator should the boy become an interior designer or BASE jumper.

Monday, February 6, 2012

the changeover

Sestubun was last Friday, February the 3rd. Each year in Japan this day marks the seasonal changeover from winter to spring on the lunar calendar. It also means that people get to dress up as ogres, throw roasted soy beans at each other and eat a roll of sushi the size of a small canoe while facing in the direction deemed to be most fortuitous for the coming year (this year was North North West). Setsubun is probably my favourite Japanese festival, as much for the lunatic rituals as for the prospect of the coming spring. (Although to be fair there ain't nothing spring-like about Kyoto in early February!)

Appropriate then that I use the occasion of Setsubun to revamp the ol' weblog here and usher in a new title: confluence. Confluence (defined as "a flowing together of two or more streams, rivers, or the like") seemed fitting, as my endlessly endearing (enduring?) wife E and I are up to our necks in the flow of raising our two kids to speak two languages, identify absolutely with two cultures, hold two nationalities and be at one with both vegemite on toast and natto on rice - all under one roof! Yes, our home is indeed a confluence of cultures, languages and ideas. Of confusion, compromises, and, of course, cuisine. And as with any river, we as a family are in a constant state of change; ups and downs, floods and droughts but always with a permanence of flow that ensures we are always moving, whether we like to be or not! It's a lot of fun though, this confluence malarky, hence the decision to begin sketching some of it down here.

The changeover for this blog has been a while in coming, but I decided it was time I started chronicling some of the adventures (and misadventures) in biculturalism our household undertakes. I wanted to start jotting these down primarily for their own prosperity but also to latch onto ideas, experiences, thoughts and musings from others out there (yes, you) that will hopefully both enrich and enlighten our own bicultural, bilingual, biotic journey. The journey through the mountains, to the sea. (Bring your own tube;)