Family Planning: the Unbrave Girl’s Guide to Traveling with Parents

February 11, 2010

My parents are two of the most capable people on the planet. My mother can milk a goat, upholster a sofa bed and make a pie crust that makes you think you’ve died and gone to pie heaven. When she was my age, she had had five kids including a set of triplets (yes, you heard me, triplets!), and she didn’t get rid of any of us. My father can fix anything with an engine, shoot a potato gun five hundred feet and kill a chicken in sixty seconds flat. Possibly the most miraculous feat of all, is that in a country where divorce is practically the norm, my parents have stayed married… oh, yeah, stayed married and didn’t get rid of any of us. (And, seriously, I’m sure they were tempted to ship me off somewhere when I turned sixteen and my favorite activity became pouting, followed by my second favorite activity: slamming my bedroom door).

Given the fact that my parents are so insanely capable, I’ve never felt any pressing urge to be all that capable myself. Sure, I can milk a goat (but, really, who can’t?!), but as far as upholstering sofa beds, making pie crusts, operating potato guns and killing chickens, I’m at a loss. When I lived in Buffalo, I’d just call my parents when there was a problem. Car broke down? Call Dad. Garden so overgrown it could start harboring escaped convicts and I’d be none the wiser? Call Mom. Of course, I haven’t always lived close to home as an adult. So, when my residence has fallen outside of their area code, I’ve just made a point of not owning a car or a garden… or really any houseplants… or anything requiring any kind of regular maintenance.

Seeing as my parents are so capable and I can’t be trusted with your average houseplant, it has been quite the role reversal to have them come visit me in Japan. My mother and sister visited me last winter, and my father was here last week. During their visits, I went from being barely in charge of my own destiny to being in charge of everything my parents ate, saw and did while they were here. During those visits, they went from being superhuman to being unable to operate chopsticks, read menus or communicate on a basic level. (Heck, I can barely do those things and I’ve been here three years but these are capable, responsible grown adults were talking about … not incapable, hapless little old me!)

There’s something completely unnerving about being responsible for your parents when for your whole life you’ve barely been responsible for yourself. There’s something more unnerving when those parents are the same kind of people who you could, say, put in a time machine, send back in time two hundred years or so, plop them on a wagon heading to the Wild West and they’d do just fine. I’m sure they’d have a log cabin built, a couple hundred acres plowed and start domesticating wild animals in the amount of time it takes me to put on my socks. But put them on an airplane heading East, send them twelve hours into tomorrow, plop them into the Osaka airport, and it was a different story.

They were no longer the capable adults they were used to being, and I was no longer the irresponsible brat I’m used to being (well, brat, maybe… but irresponsible, no). I had to show them how to use chopsticks (hint: the bottom chopstick always stays still… and when in doubt feel free to put your mouth as close to the bowl as humanly possible). I had to show them how to order food (hint: pick a menu with pictures and just point). I had to be the one communicating with the waiters, shop staff and train station attendants (hint: bow a lot and say you’re sorry… chances are you should be sorry, even if you’re not sure why).

I was also the one who had to answer their questions… lots and lots of questions. On my Mom’s first day in Japan, she wanted to know where my water came from; did it come from an underground spring or was it from a freshwater lake or river. She also wanted to know what the procedure was for licensing dogs, whether or not most people rent or buy their homes here and why trees wear grass skirts in Japan.

My Dad, on the other hand, wanted to know what rich people buy in Japan, where the owners of the inn we stayed at slept and what lies on the other side of the mountain that’s to the north of my apartment building.

While these were all valid questions, I, frankly, had absolutely no way to answer them. After all, in the past three years, my prime concern has not been related to the art of ancient Japanese horticulture or the whimsical purchases of the Japanese wealthy. Instead my prime concern has become lunch… namely, where I’m going to get this lunch, when I’m going to eat this lunch and what is going to be in this lunch. This concern is followed by my next concern: dinner. When you live in a foreign country where you can barely speak the native language, you become less concerned with the curiosities of daily life and more concerned with just surviving daily life. No, I don’t have any idea what lies on the other side of that mountain, but I do know that there’s a pretty good sushi restaurant on the other side of that street… oh, and they serve beer.

Having parents visit you while living in a foreign country can be quite taxing at times. (No offense, Mom and Dad! I loved having you both here, I really did… but, you know, next time I think I’m moving to Canada or some nice English speaking country where you can just ask all your questions about real estate and potable water sources to the locals.) Even though it can be difficult, it doesn’t have to result in tears, tantrums and the slamming of doors (because, frankly, sweetheart, you’re a little too old for that slamming doors trick). Should you be facing your very own visit from the Ma and Pa soon, I’m happy to share some things I’ve learned from my time with the ‘rents. While, sure, I’m no expert, I like to pretend like I’m one, so you’re in luck!

Here goes:

The More Questions, the More Opportunities to Learn

If you’ve lived in a foreign country for a couple years, you start to think you know everything. You know how to order your lunch and your dinner even without a picture menu (although a picture menu is always nice!). You have figured out the difference between the packaging for laundry detergent and fabric softener (or at least you think you have… although your laundry has been feeling curiously soft yet not so clean lately). You know which train gets you into town, which train station exit gets you to your favorite bar and how much a taxi costs to get you back from town should you spend too much time in that favorite bar. But do you know why trees wear grass skirts or where your water comes from?! I bet you don’t (and if you do, well, aren’t you just a Little Miss Know-It-All!).

If my mom hadn’t asked me why trees in Japan wear grass skirts, I would have never found out that these skirts (or komo-maki which literally means “straw mat wrapping”) are used as a means of pest control. The komo-maki trap worms that crawl on the trees. After a productive winter of worm-catching, the mats are then removed in the spring and burned in a fire, worms and all. Fascinating, right?!

What’s also fascinating is that the Kobe city water supply comes from none other than the Nunobiki Reservoir located above Nunobiki Falls in Kobe. The Nunobiki Dam, which was used to create the reservoir, is Japan’s oldest gravitational concrete dam and a recently designated a “precious cultural property.” Fascinating, right?!

I know by now you’re pretty flabbergasted by the amount of information I have just bestowed upon you (and, no doubt, planning your next vacation to the very hot vacation spot of Nunobiki Reservoir and Dam!). Truth be told, I didn’t pick up this fascinating tidbit about Kobe’s water source until a year after my mom asked me about my water when I happened upon the reservoir while on a hike. But, had my mother never asked me about my water supply, I probably would have never bothered to read the sign that explained the reservoir (there are a lot of big words on it, after all… like “gravitational” and “earthquake resistant”… and “precious”).

If I had never read that sign, I could have never bestowed all this fascinating information upon you… and you wouldn’t be able to tell your mother where tap water in Kobe comes from when she asks you that question… and, well, that would pretty sad, now wouldn’t it?! So, remember, questions are an opportunity for you to learn (even if you learn about a year after the question was asked… don’t worry, some of us are just slow learners!).

Take the Road Well-Traveled

I know there is a temptation when your parents are visiting, to use their trip as an opportunity to go to all those places you’ve never been to before. I’m telling you now: resist the temptation! The last thing you want is to end up wandering the streets of some seething metropolis or backwoods town with Mom and Dad in tow and no idea where you’re going. (Because, remember, even though your parents may know you’ve never been to this place before, they will still ask you a million questions about this place like you’re some kind of expert or something, including, “Where are we going? Where’s the hotel? Where are those people going? What’s that over there? Is that our hotel over there? What’s over there beyond that mountain right there?”). So I’d recommend exploring the unknown on your own or maybe when a friend is visiting you. (Keep in mind, a friend will ask the exact same questions but your friend never gave birth to you or raised you for eighteen years or fixed your car until you were thirty, so you can just stomp off and abandon your friend should you get too annoyed).

It’s best when your parents are in town to chose locations you’re already familiar with; that way you can be a more effective tour guide. So when your Mom asks you, “What’s that over there?” and points at some random building, you might actually know the answer (or at least be able to lie more effectively… not that I’ve ever lied to my parents… ever). Plus, you don’t have to worry about the possibility of getting lost… well, at least not that lost.

Sure, this may not sound like fun to you to visit some place you’ve already been a million times, but remember this trip is not your trip it’s their trip. I’m sure your parents went on a number of trips while you were growing up that they did not particularly want to go on, but they did it because of you. I know for a fact that my parents could not have possibly wanted to go to Cedar Point (the “Roller Coaster Capital of the World”!) every single summer for ten summers in a row, but they did… and they did it because of me… and my brothers… and my sisters… and, well, I’m pretty sure my Dad wanted to go, too…

Going to a familiar place doesn’t mean that you can’t check out something new while your parents are in town. Just try to find some new places in a familiar city. I’ve been living within twenty minutes of Osaka for the past three years, so I was surprised to discover that the city is full of all kinds of museums. Who knew?! Here, all this time I thought Osaka just had restaurants and bars, as that’s all I seem to see while I’m there. But my father and I spent a lovely afternoon at the Osaka History Museum, where I actually learned lots of fascinating things about Osaka and its history. (I would tell you some of these fascinating things if we hadn’t made a point of hitting the bar later that day where I promptly forgot all these fascinating things… sorry!).

The More the Merrier

It can be a lot of pressure to be in complete and total charge of your parents. It can also be a lot of pressure to answer all their questions. That’s why I suggest inviting friends along to join you on some of your day trips or outings. It’s best if these friends know a bit more about the local language or culture than you do (in my case this was not such a problem… as I’m pretty sure I could have recruited a three-year-old who would have been better versed at the local language). At least invite some friends who are better at lying than you are (again, not that I ever lie to my parents… ever), so when your mom asks about that building over there your friend can just lie to her (and they won’t feel so bad about lying… after all she’s your mother not theirs!).

While my Mom was in town, I invited my friends Don and Todd to join us for a number of outings. Both of them had lived in Japan for a considerable amount of time, so they were able to answer a lot of my mom’s questions (or at least do a good job of pretending to). My mom became so enamored of them that by the end of her week here she was singing karaoke duets with them — this coming from a woman who upon arriving in Japan vowed that she would never, ever sing karaoke. (Mom, I know you’re reading this and I know you’ll deny it, but I have the video footage to prove it, so there.) So, my mother was able to make new friends, my friends were able to use their expertise to answer her questions and I was able to get some really valuable blackmail video footage out of the deal… In the end, everyone wins!

Stop and Smell the Roses… or Plum Blossoms… or Whatever Happens to be Blooming

While you may be tempted to pack in as many sights and activities as possible while Mom and Pops are on tour, remember to schedule in some down time. Besides, chances are, you’ve seen enough temples and shrines during their little trip to bore the boots off of a Buddhist monk. Use the last day or two of their trip to take it easy. Sleep in late. Linger over breakfast. Wander around the neighborhood. Visit the local park. (I don’t necessarily recommend climbing up the mountain at your local park like I did with my Dad on his last day… but, hey, he’s the one who wanted to know what was on the other side!) Spend a few hours in the 100 yen shop picking up souvenirs. (You scoff, but my tour of the local 100 yen shops was probably my Mom’s favorite part of her entire trip… that and singing karaoke with my friends). Heck, watch a little TV. (At least while my Dad was here someone got some use out of all those millions of sports channels that seem to come with my basic cable package. Meanwhile, I’m painfully behind on my episodes of Ghost Whisperer but I’ll forgive my dad for hogging the TV… after all, he did fix my car until I was thirty).

Sure, your Mom and Dad probably didn’t come visit you to shop at 100 yen shops and watch cable TV. But they did come to visit you and not necessarily the millions of temples and shrines you could jam on to your itinerary. So, take it easy, have some more breakfast, watch a little TV… after all, you and your parents will need your energy for that late-night karaoke session. (Oh, by the way, make sure to bring your video camera… you’ll thank me later!).

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