The Woman in the Pink Hijab

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As far as I know, my seventeen-year-old daughter had never met a Muslim before. At her Special Support School for the Deaf and Blind in Western Japan, she is the Other. She uses a wheelchair, whereas everyone else can walk, and she is the only kid in a student body of forty or so with a non-Japanese parent – I’m an American; her father is Japanese. Although there is a tiny mosque nearby, and a handful of Malaysian students at the local public university where I teach, the city where we live is largely homogenous.

My daughter knew about the Islamic religion from TV, mostly, where she sees reports of bombings in cities around the world – cities that she has visited and loved, such as Paris and Boston – and Japanese reporters abducted and slaughtered in the desert by ISIS.

When I brought her to New York City during this past summer vacation, she saw lots of people of different races and colors.

“Muslim?” she finger-spelled, when she saw a woman wearing a hijab.

“Yes,” I replied. “Probably.”

My daughter looked a little worried.

“It’s okay,” I assured her. “She’s not a terrorist.”

We walked down Fifth Avenue, looking into store windows. We saw “The Lion King” on Broadway, ate cheesecake at Junior’s, and toured the Statue of Liberty. At the end of our trip, we had dinner in an Italian restaurant across from our hotel with Bill. an old friend and former expat in Japan. He and I drank wine, and caught up with news of our acquaintances. Unable to keep up with our conversation, my daughter ate her pasta, and scribbled the occasional note to Bill in Japanese.

Suddenly, a young woman draped in a pink hijab approached our table.

“Can I tell your daughter that I love her?” she asked.

“Go ahead,” I said, without too much thought. Maybe she was inspired by the sight of a cheerful girl in a wheelchair. Who knows? Who cares? I was comfortably woozy from the wine. Love is good.

“She doesn’t speak English,” said Bill, a simultaneous interpreter by trade.

“But she knows ‘I love you,’” I interjected. I had taught her to say it in English and American Sign Language. “You could write it down for her.”

The young woman pointed at her chest, made the sign of a heart with her hands, and then pointed to my daughter. Then they hugged, and she went away.

My daughter shrugged. What was that all about? She was smiling.

A little more than a week after we left New York City, a man set fire to a tourist’s hijab while she was window-shopping on Fifth Avenue. Another hate crime, the news organizations reported.

“What did you think about Muslims before that woman came to our table?” I asked my daughter later, when we were back in Japan.

“Scary,” she replied.

“And now?”

“That woman was beautiful and kind,” she signed. “I changed my mind. And I told my friends about her.”

 

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Squeaky Wheels is a Winner!

I’m so excited to report that my mother/daughter travel memoir was named Best Novel/Biography in the inaugural Half the World Global Literati Awards! (See details below!)

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Global, July 15, 2016 – Half the World Holdings, a women-focused investment platform, Friday announced Laurie Petrou as the winner of the inaugural Half the World Global Literati Award 2016. The prestigious international award recognizes unpublished work that reflects the complexity of women’s lives, and has at their heart a central female protagonist.
The winning submission, ‘Sister of Mine’, is a psychological thriller that explores themes of loyalty, betrayal and debt through the lives of two sisters bound by a knot of secrecy. Author Laurie Petrou is an associate professor of The RTA School of Media, Ryerson University, Toronto.

“The judges rewarded the taut writing of a compulsive page-turner which explores the complex relationship between two sisters with a damaging secret. Our shortlist plays with the themes of adventure and courage, dignity and struggle, with characters motivated by an overarching sense of love” explained Caroline Bowler, representative for Half the World Holdings. “We are moved to see this award embraced by all walks of life, from all over the world. This represents a very real desire to recognize women at the center of our cultural lives.”
Along with the top prize, there were also category and People’s Choice award winners, each collecting US$1,000. Suzanne Kamata, based in Japan, collected top prize in the novel category. Her teenage daughter, Lilia, was born deaf and affected by cerebral palsy but this hasn’t dinted her sense of adventure and thirst for exploration. Suzanne’s honest and raw biography ‘Squeaky Wheels’ describes a mother’s love to open up the world to her child.

Danna Petersen-Deeprose, a student at McGill University Montreal, collected the short story prize for her work ‘Looking for Lost Girl’, which describes the journey of a woman in her mid-twenties looking for the courage to start her own life. Top screenwriter Lisa Hagen has two old ladies plot their escape from a retirement home in ‘Dancing on the Elephant.’ The two friends explore the big questions in life; what is my legacy and why am I even here? Friendship was also the key theme for the People’s Choice award, decided by thousands of votes from the general public. Eventual winner was LA-based Jude Roth whose screenplay ‘Plan B’ tells of 3 women and the bonds that carry them when the chips are really down.

The Half the World Global Literati Award was set up in response to 2015 research from author Nicola Griffith, which identified that the majority of the significant literary prizes are awarded to works written from a male perspective. The award is set to return in spring 2017.

Statistics about the Half the World Global Literati Award 2016.
• 59 countries including Eritrea, Iran, Azerbaijan, Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago
• 45.5 percent submissions are novels, 36.5 percent short stories, 18 percent screenplays

• Drama the most popular genre, topping novels & screenplays and a close second for short stories. Literary Fiction was the second most popular with Romance in third. Erotica comprised of less than 5 percent of all entrants.
• Majority of the short list are female (82.5 percent) vs male (17.5 percent)

About Half the World Holdings
Half the World Holdings, which was launched by Blackrun Ventures in March 2016, is a global investment platform in companies for whom women are the end-consumer. The
Half the World platform provides the capital, advisory and international networks needed to develop and scale these ventures globally. Blackrun and Half the World Holdings partners come from the worlds of private equity, investment banking, multinational businesses and entrepreneurship, with offices in Berlin, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, Mumbai, New York, Sydney and Singapore.
For more information, please visit http://halftheworld.media.

Bigger in Russia

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“A couple of years later, I got an email from the foreign rights department of a publisher in Russia. In grammatically creative English, the sender asked me to send copies of Call Me Okaasan, a collection of essays I’d edited on mothering children across two or more cultures, and my novel, Losing Kei. The message came through my website, not through my agent or publisher, so I immediately thought it was some sort of scam. Maybe they’d ask me to front a few thousand rubles for the translation of my books. Maybe they’d just ask for my bank details or credit card number, without having any intention of translating or publishing the work whatsoever.” Read more.

We Need to Talk About Dylann

I brought up the subject of the Confederate flag with my son at dinner the other night.  I could have avoided it. We live in Japan, after all, and my son hasn’t been to the States in about four years. As a sophomore at a public high school in Japan, he is absorbed with his friends, and studies, and baseball. But I teach at a Japanese university where a lot of students have no interest in what goes on abroad. They chose to attend the local university because it’s close to home, and when I ask them what country they’d like to visit, they say, “Nowhere. Japan is best.” I want my son to be engaged in the world.

To be fair, he is more interested than most. His favorite subject is Social Studies. He reads the newspaper and watches the TV news. So he probably heard about the massacre of nine African Americans at the AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, before I brought up the issue of the flag.

I didn’t really want to bring his attention to the fact that this horrible tragedy had occurred in South Carolina, the state where his grandparents and uncle and aunt and cousins live. I didn’t mention that the killer, Dylann Roof, attended the high school down the road from my parents’ house for a time. I would rather that my son have a postive image of South Carolina, that when he thinks of his visits to the state he remembers playing in the surf at Myrtle Beach, or the carriage tour that we took on our visit to Charleston, or making a snowman with his cousins. But in two years my son will be elgible to vote in both the United States and Japan. He needs to have an awareness of current events and their significance so that he can vote for the change that he wants to see.

Thinking about the Confederate flag, and how it represents racial prejudice and hate, is a way to prepare my son to think about issues in Japan, such as the Prime Minister’s insistence on visiting the Shrine at Yasukuni in commemoration of Japanese soldiers who died in World War II. Just as many Americans, both black and white, see the Confederate flag as a symbol of the brutal enslavement of human beings, many see the Shrine at Yasukuni as a symbol of atrocities committed by Japanese troops in Asia during World War II. Just as a minority in South Carolina defend slavery and white supremacy, the current administration in Japan defends the enslavement of women — the so-called “Comfort Women” — as a business deal.  Just as taking the flag down from the pole outside the South Carolina state house would be a welcome step toward healing festering wounds, I think that the Japanese government would be wise to avoid re-opening wounds by retracting apologies and denying the past. (And by not making official visits to Yasukuni.)

In Japan, teachers are not allowed to be “political” and there is some handwringing among educators as to how to prepare young Japanese to become part of the electorate (the current voting age is 20). Personally, I don’t think it’s the school’s responsibility to teach kids how to vote. I think the conversation can begin at home.

 

My Night as a Diva

Only in Japan, folks. (photo courtesy of www.sequinsandcherryblossom.com)Rock girl fantasies aside, I’ve always been shy. For a long time, the only thing worse than speaking in public was having to sing in public, i.e. at those end-of-the-year parties I had to attend while working at the Board of Education in a small Japanese town. I didn’t know many of the songs on the karaoke machine because they were in Japanese. There were some Beatles hits and Carpenters classics, but that’s about it.

I sometimes sing while listening to music, or when I’m by myself, doing something mindless, but I don’t regularly hang out at karaoke bars. My daughter, however, wanted to go. She enjoys trying out her rock star moves while attempting to follow the lyrics on the TV screen during music shows. To be honest, she’s not good at singing, but she has a good time.

My son likes to sing, too, and I can often hear him when he’s plugged in to his iPod, wailing away. He’s started going out to karaoke boxes with his friends. I’d heard rumors that he was pretty good, that he’d gotten nearly a perfect score on “Let it Go.”

When my husband suddenly suggested going out for karaoke last week, I thought it might be fun. The kids would enjoy it, and we’d be doing something as a family. I was pleasantly surprised that my son was willing to go with the rest of us.

We went to a karaoke club and rented a box (a room with a table, sofas, and a karaoke machine) and started picking out songs. A lot had changed since my last trip to karaoke. Instead of looking through a song book, there was now an electronic device that seemed to have every song in the world.  Also, the machine rated each performance.

My son, with his renditions of hits by Exile and One Direction, had the highest scores, and we started re-thinking his future. Maybe he had potential as a pop star. My daughter tried the theme songs to her favorite anime shows and stayed above 50 points. We realized it was a good exercise in reading and in voice control. My husband sang some Japanese songs that I didn’t know, and I tried “Rill Rill” by Sleigh Bells  “Come See About Me,” by the Supremes, for which I got one of the highest scores of the night.

Two hours and about 8,000 yen (approx. $80) later, our time was up. As we got ready to leave, I thought about how I would practice my Beyonce for the next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fred is Dead

Fred, our pet goldfish, has died.

He first came to us about three years ago. We agreed to adopt him from family friends who were moving to Australia. They’d already had him for a few (several?) years. On a recent visit back to Japan, we were proud to show them that he was still alive, still healthy. We calculated that he was about 12 years old, which I believe is quite elderly for a goldfish.

The other day I was thinking that he’d gotten too big for his aquarium and didn’t have much space to swim around. And then a couple mornings ago, I woke to find him belly-up.

My husband had been the one to feed him every morning. He was also the one who cleaned the aquarium, sometimes with the grudging help of our children. He was perhaps the saddest.

Mornings are busy around here, so I suggested  putting the dead goldfish in the refrigerator until he could be given a proper burial. When I was a kid, my parents flushed dead goldfish down the toilet. At about 6-inches, Fred was too big to make it through the pipes. Another thought, which I did not express was: “Today is garbage day.”

My husband was appalled. “That’s so rude,” he said. “Putting him with the food.” I wasn’t sure if he meant rude for us, as a human family, or rude for poor Fred.

In any case, I dropped my suggestion.

My husband sent our fourteen-year-old son into the yard with a shovel to search for a burial site. He dug a hole. Fred was interred. We all put our hands together and said a sutra, showing proper respect for the end of a life.

My husband said, “I was going to clean his aquarium yesterday, but I didn’t.” He’s not a sentimental kind of guy, but his voice was choked with regret. And grief.