Saturday, February 12, 2005

Playing a losing game


Kumamoto Castle, from my hotel room (C) Lrong Lim

Just returned from a trip to Kumamoto, a city in the southern island of Kyushu.

I was there to attend a seminar on 'The Internationalization of Japanese Universities and the Future of Foreign Student Education'.

As is previous occasions, I came away with the feeling of how lost the Japanese people are with regards to their role as a host nation to the over 100 thousand foreign students in Japan.

I should be writing a paper on this stuff, soon.

I also took the opportunity to visit the family who hosted me 18 years ago when I first came to Japan as a foreign student.

I was studying the Japanese language at Hiroshima University when I saw an offer for a home stay at Saga prefecture (which is next to Kumamoto prefecture).

There was a question that asked why I wanted to home stay there.

I had been in Japan for only two months; I had no clue why.

I asked my Japanese language teacher.

She said, rather casually, 'well, how about saying you want to eat Kyushu ramen (noodles)?'

So I wrote.

And it turned out that my host family was a Kyushu ramen seller.

I had noodles and noodles for most of my lunch there.

Fast-forward eighteen years.

As I walked to the train exit, Mr. Yoshinori Natsuaki and Mrs. Yoko Natsuaki were standing there, gently waving at me.

(Their rare surname literally means, 'summer-autumn'.)

I could not help grinning from ear to ear.

What a pleasure to see these folks again, I smiled to myself.

Although Mr. Natsuaki is over seventy years of age, he still looks strong.

There was much to catch up in not so much time.

We instantly zoomed to their house.

Their house still stood as it had, only this time, more family members populate it.

The eldest daughter, Naoko, is a nurse at the university hospital. She is married with one kid and lives nearby.

The second daughter, Miho, is married to a Frenchman and now lives and works in France. They have two daughters.

The first son, Takenori, is now running the ramen shop, appropriately called 'Take-chan'.

He was sent by his dad to train under a top Kyushu ramen master at nearby Kurumei city.

The 'soul' of Kyushu ramen is the broth, which is made from boiling pork bones until they disintegrated into a thick whitish soup.

I don't mind the broth, but I have some problems with that top layer of greasy lard.

The second son, Yoshikazu, who was a little boy then, helps out in the shop.

Both the sons are married, both their wives help out in the shop, and both have two kids each.

I relished the ramen after an eighteen-year absence, carefully spooning away that top layer of grease.

Prior to leaving home, I had asked my missus to buy me two large packets of sweets to bring to the Natsuakis as goodwill gifts.

I bought an extra packet of local sugar-cane delicacies for safety.

This is the anti-thesis to what we had been practicing so far.

We do not fancy receiving such 'gifts' and we do not fancy giving them either.

But many a time, we end up losing the game.

The Japanese (like Malaysians, perhaps?) are fond of exchanging gifts.

It has become a bit like, mandatory. Obligatory.

To us, it is more like, extra baggage.

Many a time, we end up bringing the gifts home after almost always failing to reject them.

Sometimes we return the favor.

Sometimes, we don't.

But this time, I could not bring my self to visit the Natsuakis empty handed.

So there I was, lugging the three huge packets of goodies like someone on the move.

When it was time to leave, Mrs. Natsuaki handed me a heavy packet of stuff.

And another one that she said is good pottery.

I tried to refuse the pottery, fully realizing that it was futile.

Back home in Takamatsu, we almost immediately engaged each other in a verbal 'duel'.

To give or not to give... to receive or not to receive... that is the question...

There is just no way this battle can be won.

I suppose we should try to enjoy it from now on.

In the process, we can burden ourselves with more luggages, fatten ourselves with unwanted sugar and calories, and cram our tiny house with artifacts not quite our interests...