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June 20, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Curiosity and the foreign neighbor

Next door neighbor at Futokoro-yama, circa 1978

(November 22, 1990)                                                           

There was an old woman who would repeatedly ask me how tall I was, and what did my family eat for breakfast. She was a farmer and neighbor in the mountain village where we lived for several years. These two questions seemed of particular interest to her – at least, she never tired of asking them, and I answered her each time as though it were the first time.

Apparently she could not reconcile my looks and eating habits with some other facts. These facts were that year after year she’d seen me carry my children on my back as she had her children and then grandchildren. That we planted and picked at the same time of year. That in summer we both donned our cotton kimono to dance in the Bon Festival. And that we’d sat side-by-side at the recitals at the kindergarten, and stood side by side at the funerals of neighbors.

In any case, I continued to answer her questions about my height and diet, and with the respect her age demanded. Eventually she stopped asking. I suppose she came to realize that 170 cm wasn’t all that tall, and the fact that I enjoyed miso soup more for the evening meal than for breakfast didn’t make that much difference – as far as she could see. I came to realize that it was very probable that I was tallest person she’d ever met, and that in her world, miso soup, rice and pickles was the only possible breakfast.

I realized too that the simple people I lived among were no more accustomed to seeing someone who looked like me than I was to seeing tigers roaming. I learned to announce my coming with a cough or an audible footstep when I walked on back roads and the narrow paths that cut across tea fields – it seemed unfair to appear all of a sudden in front of some old farmer tending his fields and minding his business. I seriously considered I might be the unwitting cause of a heart attack!

The first time I met the old woman I’d gone to her home to return a shovel I’d borrowed from her son the day before. Expressing my gratitude and uttering the ordinary politenesses, I left. Much later she confided that she’d seen me coming and had actually wanted to hide – simply because she didn’t know what she would, or could, say to me. After our brief and uneventful encounter she said she’d felt relieved, and thought to herself that she must be “just an ignorant old country woman.”

However, the ignorance of my old neighbor, a farmer who knew only farmers, was hardly greater than that of more educated and supposedly more sophisticated folk who would continually ask the usual questions:  “Can you sleep on futon, hold chopsticks, eat sushi, drink green tea?”

I didn’t mind the questions, really, but it was the can part hat got me, since these things simply comprise ordinary behavior in Japan. And then too, after all, there we were, living in an old farmhouse in the middle of one of Japan’s prime tea-growing regions, generally abiding by, naturally, traditions these same people had only heard about from their grandparents.

It would not have occurred to me to question if these same people could drink coffee and eat a steak with a knife and fork, or to exclaim in wonder that they sat on chairs and slept in beds – though these characteristic Western ways were not my own. I could not have remembered the last time I’d eaten a steak, I did not drink coffee, and in that old farmhouse there were neither chairs nor beds.

But how could they know? People see me and my dark skin, my husband’s distinctly non-Japanese features, our children’s curly hair – and make all the wrong assumptions.



This “old woman” was in fact a composite. The woman who often questioned me about my height and diet was Ootani-san, who lived in the house next door. Hosoda-san is the woman who tried to hide when I returned the shovel.

Now we live in a modern house, sit on chairs and sleep on beds. I will on occasion drink coffee (mostly when I’m in Italy). Steak is still not a preferred food. I generally ignore silly questions.

Although it’s more than twenty years ago, I actually remember returning the shovel to Hosoda-san. I remember I had been working in the garden, and wore shorts, a tank top, and jika-tabi (split-toe worker’s shoes). Man! Nothing could get me to dress like that and work in the garden now! I am covered from head to toe whenever I’m out, doing my best not to be bitten up my mosquitoes, or getting a nasty rash from some poisonous plant – of which there are many all over the place.

When my son Mario was still a newborn baby, I once went out with him in my arms so Mie, then about 3-years old, could play in the little playground near our house. Ootani-san saw me and remarked: “We never take babies outside when they’re this young.” Her tone was chastising. She seemed oblivious to the fact that with a toddler, and no one at home to help, I had little choice.

Ootani-san’s youngest son, Yoshibo (a nickname) truly welcomed us to the village. He liked to hang out at our house, and indeed would drop in anytime he felt like it. He was always smiling, laughing, talking – and pretending to get Billy to teach him English. He drank a lot. Mostly sake I guess. Although he had built a house, he never married. After we built our current house, he telephoned us, out of the blue. Once he came by. We learned about two years ago that he died. Suicide.

Both Ootani-san and Hosoda-san died more than a decade ago. 


© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



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