My daughter asked me about why I value a certain Japanese teacup so much. It’s a white, handle-less cup, with ornamental blue hiragana characters on it. The most obvious characters spell Su-Shi-So. And so, I’ve been thinking about how I came to possess it. It might be a long story, but here it is:
I lived for a year in Japan, back in 2002. It was as part of the JET Programme, which was ideal for someone like me, who needs order and structure and being told what to do. I worked as an Assistant English Teacher in two schools. One was small and near my house and a dream to work in, but I only worked there one week every month. The other was large and the main English teacher hated me, and as I don’t drive or cycle I used to walk there every morning. I eventually figured out a bus I could take home every day. Which was helpful as home was on top of a really steep hill. But, the mornings were for walking. It took nearly an hour at my gentle pace.
Because I walked the same route each day, I saw the same folks and nodded hello. They didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Japanese, but a nod and a wave are universal. One morning, I got stopped by a lady I’d often passed. ‘You come tomorrow my restaurant’. I panicked at being spoken to, and said yes and continued on my way.
And that was how I got to know Mrs. Tada. She did indeed own a restaurant, a small mom-and-pop sushi joint called Su-Shi-So. She was hostess and waitress and her husband was the sushi chef. And I ended up spending a lot of that year hanging out with her, eating free sushi.
‘Eat. Eat. So so thin. So small. Need eat more.’ And I complied and ate more. Delicious food. And wonderful chats, mostly using gestures and guesswork and dictionaries. She was one of the most warm and welcoming people I’ve ever met.
When I mentioned her to the other JETS, I got a cool reception. ‘I’ve heard of her. She’s weird. Too intense. She likes to collect pet foreigners.’
Yes, she had a photo album, with photos and letters sent to her by other foreigners over the years. The town I lived in, Miki (near enough to Kobe for folks to commute) was a small town by Japanese standards, 70,000 people and only a handful of foreigners. And she had fed and entertained many of them over the years. I could see nothing wrong with this.
She taught me how to make sushi. How to cook tempura. How to drink tea. She introduced me to her family. Her layabout son. Her pregnant daughter (who ate non-raw ‘pregnancy’sushi). The neighbourhood drunks who sat at the bar drinking sake. The busy moms who ordered take out. People the other JETS who sneered at her never got to meet.
She had a post along a wall in one corner of her seating area. She used to mark people’s heights on it. I was one of the shortest. ‘You so short.’ My sister, who came to visit, was one of the taller women. ‘You so tall.’ My husband (then boyfriend) was the tallest. ‘So so tall.’ Followed by ‘when you get married?’
Yes, she was blunt. Yes, she stated the obvious. Yes, so commented on our looks and pointed out our flaws. But I loved her for it. On my last night in Miki, she threw a party for me. I invited the other JETS. One was very upset when Ms. Tada declared ‘You very big lady.’ But it was just a statement of fact. The Australian was tall with big bones and towered over us all. I could not see why she would be upset.
I thought I got on so well with her because I was half Turkish. I saw so many similarities between Turkish and Japanese cultures. I felt right at home there.
But I now realise that I also got on well with her because I’m autistic. I like straight talk. I like being direct. I don’t mind factual comments about appearance. And I like being looked after, someone taking me under their wing, and trying to connect with me on a personal level. Without expecting anything in return. Except maybe a photo.
I regret losing contact with her. We exchanged letters once or twice before I lost her address. She would have loved to have seen my wedding photos, photos of my kids, my house. She must be pretty old by now. I wonder how many more grandkids she has. I often think of writing to her. I thought about writing ‘Mrs. Tada, Su-Shi-So, Miki-shi’ on the envelope but chickened out. Japanese addresses are notoriously hard to get right. Also, I’m terrified of contacting people out of the blue after so many years. It’s why I’ve lost touch with the many other Japanese friends I made. (I never did make friends with the other foreigners!)
And so, all I have is this mug. It was just one of the ‘ordinary’ mugs she served tea in. She gave it to me on my last day, after she’d organised someone to help me with my suitcases. I think of her whenever I use it.