Home Alone

Travel Stories: While his wife taught at the local middle school, Aaron Paulson worked at home. To his Japanese neighbors, that made him one of the girls.

04.18.02 | 1:40 AM ET

Photo by Aaron Paulson

I opened the outhouse door and nearly collided with a police officer. He was waiting patiently in the entrance to our little rural cabin and seemed as surprised to find me—a bearded, long-haired foreigner with earrings at home on a workday—as I was to find a middle-aged Japanese man in a polyester uniform and holstered pistol outside my toilet.

The officer thrust his notebook toward my stomach. I was on the inner step that led into the living quarters, which diminished his authority and helped me recover from my shock. He pointed to a form filled with unfamiliar kanji characters.

Zenzen wakarimasen,” I said, speaking slowly and clearly. “I don’t understand this at all.”

I had been in Nayoro, a town of 28,000 in rural Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, for six months. Vacuum cleaner salesmen, yogurt drink vendors and born-again Christians had all routinely startled me in the unlocked genkan, the part of the Japanese house that traditionally serves as a threshold between the outer world and the private inner one. It’s fair game to anyone. But this was the first time I’d been met by a police officer. It was the first time official, bureaucratic Japan had penetrated what was, to me, an inner sanctum.

“Your name,” the officer said, speaking as slowly and clearly as I did. “Your occupation.”

That summer my then wife—I’ll call her Alice—and I had landed in Nayoro because she was recruited to be an assistant English teacher at the local middle schools. A place of interminable winters, massive brown bears in spring and autumn, and active volcanoes year-round, Nayoro is about as far from Kyoto’s vermilion temples and the postmodern apocalypse of Tokyo as you can get and still be in Japan. Alice’s mission was to help “internationalize” the students in the area, Japan’s last frontier. I was a struggling writer working at home, and I tried to explain that to the officer waiting politely but sternly in my genkan. My explanation meant nothing to him. Even in Hokkaido, a place, like all frontiers, for misfits and urban refugees, struggling writers have no special status. I showed him my thumb-printed alien registration card. The officer, satisfied, entered my name in the official list of neighborhood residents, and bowed out the door.

My paperwork had identified me as a “dependent.” But the Japanese have another word for one who stays at home during the day. The two kanji characters in the ideogram for kannae translate literally into “house inside,” which, in a country still sharply divided by gender roles, has become slang for “my wife.” In the education-entertainment-diplomacy complex that is teaching English in Japan, Alice was the star and I had a walk-on part as a kannae. Not a supporting role: that was hers, too. After all, she brought home the tofu.

At the Board of Education office and around the green tea dispenser in the teachers’ office, Alice explained to her Japanese teaching partners and co-workers that I worked at home, that we’d converted the tatami-floored spare room into an office. They nodded politely and invited me to eat poisonous blowfish with them on New Year’s. Office ladies served me small ceramic cups of hot green tea whenever I visited the mostly male Board of Education. At office parties Alice’s supervisor complimented me on my use of chopsticks and my ability to eat sushi. No one, however, asked how my work was going, or invited me to sing karaoke or play golf on the weekends. After all, none of the other office workers had their spouses at these functions. Their social obligations toward me discharged, I could be left to entertain myself, along with the other homemakers.

Their polite disinterest rattled my confidence. I started leaving e-mail from editors on my desktop, hoping a curious glance from visitors would prove I did more than wring out wet underwear during the day. I also continued to write. Alice and I celebrated each published story with a vegetarian feast: a lentil loaf, a bottle of wine and a tofu chocolate cake for dessert. But we couldn’t tell her colleagues that another story or essay was online or in print, or that my first novel was under consideration at a publisher. That would be boasting. In a country where modesty and group harmony are prized more than individual achievement, a country where school-aged children who talk funny or are just too tall occasionally commit suicide as a result of bullying, it can be dangerous to be the nail that sticks out.

From my anonymous perch in front of the computer, I watched Alice’s fame grow. Her name followed us through the neighborhood. Students called out to her as we walked to the video store or as we played on the massive wooden jungle gym in the local park. But when I wandered alone outside the confines of our little ghetto of teacher houses, things were not the same. Waves of gaijin da!—“look, a foreigner!”—rolled through the sea of students playing outside the nearby elementary school. Though Alice visited their classes and told them my name, taught them about our life in Canada and Korea and Japan, they still watched me expectantly, as if I were one of the professional gaijin who have made a slapstick career on Japanese TV. Why else would I be out and about in the middle of the day, dressed in jeans and fleece instead of a salaryman’s blue suit or the uniform tracksuit of male teachers in northern Hokkaido? Once, at the department store food court, copper-haired girls from the local high school smoking forbidden cigarettes pulled out cell phones to call their friends at sighting me.

The adults didn’t react much better. Retirees pretended not to stare as I passed, or they took a sudden interest in their dog’s bowel movements if I made eye contact. My presence shattered the wa of our quiet neighborhood. Drivers of micro-vans loaded with daikon radishes swerved into the opposite lane when I rode my three-speed mama chari down the street. It was like they thought I was one of the brown bears that lumber down from the hills each spring to unleash havoc on freshly planted fields and orderly rice paddies.

But in the mornings, when I hauled trash to the curbside crow-proof nets or shoveled fresh powder snow into banks that reached to the eaves, I was transformed. My role became immediately recognizable and clearly defined. I was a homemaker. In pidgin Japlish I gossiped with the other homemakers about the weather and issues of mutual concern: recycling days, snowplow schedules, the crows that hung out, gang-like, on the overhead power lines. In the winter, our teachers’ ghetto became a winter wonderland. Preschoolers went sledding off roofs and into freshly plowed drives. And I was their affable snowman, lifting them to the rooftops.

In time, I had become another part of domestic life in the Hokkaido countryside. My labor earned me the respect, however fleeting, of the other homemakers. Half a world away from disapproving friends and family, safe in the anonymity of an adopted hometown where no one even knew my name, I could relax. I could be just one of the girls.

Aaron Paulson's stories have appeared in Salon, Tokyo Journal, Kyoto Journal, Asahi Evening News, and Travelmag.com.

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