Once a month I willingly put my heart through the meat grinder. That is what happens when you live in a foreign country. You get yourself into situations you wouldn’t knowingly choose.
It was in December of 2014. The HIWC was going to bring some Christmas cheer to small children. I got all dressed up in my red sweater and fancy fun bracelet. I don’t remember how I got there. But I do remember standing in the parking lot realizing something was terribly wrong. The usually impeccably dressed Japanese were dressed as if to do fall gardening. Very casual. And the building didn’t look like a hospital. It looked more like a school.
As we are lead through a maze of buildings the lady next to me clears up my confusion. We are at an orphanage. Sweet, chirpy voices feel the air. Through a locked gate we enter a small playground. Wide-eyed stares welcome us. Not only from the children but the workers. At the time I remember it feeling so stark. So cold. So harsh. The lump in my throat is so big it holds back tears as well as speech.
The Japanese HIWC members get busy. One lady starts handing out bubbles. Japanese bubbles work totally different than in the US. Here bubbles are stored in a small neon pink tube like container. The neon green blowing apparatus is like a tiny horn. Another lady begins blowing up balloons with a small pump. Chaos immediately breaks out. Like fish at a feeding pond, the biggest of the children surround them, arms outstretch, pleading. There is not enough for everyone. To my surprise there is no crying; but there is pushing and grabbing. As a mother and a teacher I am not surprised. The workers hang back. They don’t interact with the children or us. They mingle around.
I am so overwhelmed by it all that I just stand there. I notice one Japanese member has found the Kleenexes and has started wiping noses. They all have runny noses. Following her cue, I fill my pockets with tissues and head across the yard. I know how to wipe runny noses. In fact I long to do it. Due to the level of humidity, chapped skin is a common malady in the winter months. The children stare at me, but they allow me to clean their faces. The mother bear inside me has broken free. Softly I say the only Japanese I can muster, “ohiyo gozaimasu, hajimemashite” “ good morning, nice to meet you”. When I come to a bench I sit down. As a kindergarten teacher I am very comfortable in furniture too small. To my surprise a one year old boy comes over and lays his head on my leg. I rub his back, he moves around so he is between my legs. Gently I lift him up and put him on my lap. And we sit.
And that was my first experience at the Shudoin, which means children’s home. It is an orphanage. Tucked up into the hills of Hiroshima city, ironically under a big safety net of a golf driving range. I am shaky on the details but basically this is where children from ages 0-18 are brought when their parents no longer can or want to take care of them. For example, if a parent has been struck with a serious illness, and there is no extended family to help, they can drop their children off here until they get better. It is also a place to leave your child when you can’t manage anymore. Due to language and culture that is about all I know.
At first I was horrified and heart broken. Inside my brain, the teacher and mother parts of my self noisily condemning and fussing about. I am highly empathetic. I avoid reading or watching anything cruel. So that part of my self was also murmuring. Blinding me. As I calm down, my vision clears. Each time I come back I see more.
The yard that the children play in is on the edge of a hill. They can look straight down about fifty feet or out across the entire city. Weather moving in, birds flying, the city below is the backdrop to their playground. It provides a bird’s eye view of the world.
The yard itself is simple. There are five trees. One is a huge evergreen, a couple are their beloved Japanese cherry and an acorn. There is a little grass growing around the trees but the majority is the light brown granular dirt of Japan. Worn sand toys, water bottles and metal bento boxes litter the ground. So when we bring balloons and bubbles it is a BIG DEAL! But you know what else is a big deal? The nuts and leaves that are dropped, the roly poly bugs, and the sticks and stones they find. The teachers help them make little receptacles by cutting off the top of cartons, stringing ribbon for handles. With great pride and joy the brave ones will show me the dirt or bug or leaf in their holder. Rarely do we exchange words. They are unnecessary.
As an American, I forget how different I look to the Japanese. Adults are polite. They look without looking. An eighteen month old is different. Contently this babe sitting on my lap will turn and begin surveying my face. I watch big, dark, shiny eyes inspect features unfamiliar. I have learned that my nose is tall. (Once my parents and I were stopped by a very elderly woman who commented on our tall noses and big ears.) My round eyes are green with a fleck of orange. My skin is peach and splotchy. My hair is brown and wavy. Unabashedly, the eyes look and look. I also dress differently. When Japanese women are outside they cover themselves up entirely-long sleeves, up to the chin jackets, hats, and sometimes even masks. I wear none of this. So they rub my arms, fingering the imperfections like studying a map. Occasionally looking up, checking my face for disapproval. In time, I put their cold feet in my hands, counting their toes in Japanese, slapping them together like I did my own babes. I massage these chubby, sun tanned appendages while cooing in their ear. They put their hand on my hand giggling at the difference. Big, little, old, young, pink, brown, clean, dirty, the contrast obvious and funny.
We are there for their playtime before lunch. So slowly, an hour after we arrive, the teachers start taking the children back into the building. They are smart and start with youngest, the easiest. There is a big, metal, dishpan at the door. The feet and hands are washed and then the babe is handed to someone inside. Initially no one notices. But as the group inside grows, so does the howls. Some toddlers are easily distracted, but others are not. They can still see us outside. So some stand at the sliding glass doors looking out. Hands and noses pressed to the glass, tears streaming, voices howling. One time, a little boy escaped and came running back out. I held my breath waiting for him to be spanked. To my relief, the teacher just kept talking to him quietly while she rewashed his feet.
The older children are more difficult. They are called by name. Some come obediently others run. All are handled with care and understanding. As their group diminishes and ours stays the same, the ratio becomes better and better for the children left. But this also exacerbates the departure. Many times we have had to peel children off of us. The meat grinder.
Wiping away tears, breathing deeply, we quietly walk back to our cars. On the way we stop by a washing station. In Japanese fashion, we hold the hose for each other, as we rinse off the evidence of the day. It is not by accident that this is done in a prayer like motion. God bless these little people and those who care for them. See you next month.