Writer, photographer, "rapper" and general technophobe takes on the internet in what could be a very, very messy fight. But it's alright: she's harder than she looks, and she's wearing every single ring she could get her hands on.


Saturday, 23 April 2011

Little Ones

Fear is a strange thing: absolutely none of it is proportional.

I can go through any number of natural disasters, any number of miles, any amount of strange countries and languages and people, any number of muggings and threats and violence, and still nothing scares me quite as much as a little emotional rejection. There may have been a lot of earthquakes during my visit to Tokyo, but it was visiting my little students in Yokohama that set the fear of God into me. And it was with some sense of irony that I trembled at the entrance to a restaurant with cartoon pandas on the walls, knowing I`ve had my wallet taken at knife point and felt nothing. Never in the history of the world has a smiley faced potato croquette been so scary.

I didn`t expect them to remember me. A year`s a long time, even for an adult: for a three year old, it`s a third of their life. I expected tears, hostility, suspicion, shyness: I prepared myself for a lot of Why are you making me play with this strange lady, mum? and Why does she keep trying to hug me? Tell her to leave me alone or I`m going to kick her. I was ready for the most painful of all things: approaching a person you love and having it made clear that they do not feel the same way, except with the eloquence that only a four year old can have. I was ready for rejection in the most open, screaming, loud way possible. And I was frightened.

And so - because I approached the situation behaving like a small, scared child - they responded by doing likewise. When they pretended to ignore me and hid behind their mums, I barely noticed because I was so busy doing the same thing. When they scowled at me, I scowled at them back. When they refused to make eye contact, and stared at the floor, I was too busy staring at the floor to see it. When Shion`s chin started wobbling, so did mine. And when Kou tossed his head and marched off to a distant seat - punishment, for leaving him for so long - I tossed mine and did it too, except I pretended it was because I was putting my handbag in a safe place rather than that I needed to be far away and safe from his rejection.

Three or four minutes later, when the children had established that I was far more immature than they would ever be, they realised that they could never win - that three or four or five years of experience was nothing in comparison to my twenty nine - and buckled. Suddenly, they were pulling at my shorts: "Hollllllyyyyyyy. HoollllllLLLLLYYYYYYY. Loookkkk attttt mmmmmmmeeeeee." They were fighting each other to get on my lap. They were ripping up tissues to present to me, and offering glasses of water until nobody else in the water had anything to drink from. They were showing me their new chopsticks, and their new karate moves. They were asking me if I liked soccer any more now than I used to (the answer? no. And it`s still football). And, with things exactly as they used to be except one year later, I relaxed and started behaving like a small, happy child, instead of a small, defensive child: playing with my food and turning the napkin into a beard and the chopsticks into horns. And - for the record - they can practice as much as they like, but not one of them has a `funny face` yet to rival mine. I know this, because we tested it. They have a lot of work to do, but they`ve got another twenty four years at least to reach my standard of facial flexibility.

They haven`t changed at all. That`s what surprised me the most: in one year, they`ve not changed a jot. They`re a tiny bit bigger - and quite significantly bigger than when I first met them, nearly two years ago - and their hair is longer (and some of them have more teeth), but they`re essentially the same. The same movements, the same ways of making them laugh, the same things that make them cry (having a piece of your smiley pancake stolen, for instance, in Shion`s case). They eat the same: Tensho still pulls his meal apart, and Shinnosuke still works his way methodically around the plate, and Kou still attacks his from the middle, and Shion still defends hers like a small tiger. Some of them have grown up a little (more than I have): Shinnosuke is a little less cripplingly shy, Tensho no longer chews his own feet and Kou has a love for his new little sister that is protective and defensive - just as his love for me has always been - but they`re exactly the same little characters. And when I tickle-attacked them in the ball pit and they defended themselves by throwing balls (very hard: I got bruised) they did it the way they always have done: Shinnosuke, in a fit of giggles, Kou, with a little set chin and spark in his eyes (and the little damp fringe I know so well from when he was a toddler and needed a towel down the back of his t-shirt), Shion with perfect aim and Tensho, permanently hugging my legs.

I had missed them so much, and - honestly - the two hours I spent with them was two of the happiest hours I have ever spent, even if a large proportion of it was spent being ball-pumelled by fifteen toddlers (my kids totalled five: another ten decided to join in the fun of beating to death a big blonde girl). And what was amazing was the realisation - for the first time, really - that people don`t change. That the essence of each of these incredible children was the same as it was two years ago, when I had to sit one year old Tensho in my lap because he fell over when sitting on his own, and the same as it was one year ago, when I left them, and will be the same in years to come. That they`ll get bigger, of course, but Kou will probably always get pink cheeks and a sweaty fringe when he`s over-excited, and Shinnosuke will always work round his food in circles, and Shion will always growl like a fierce little cat if you try and touch her food. They`ll be the same people, but larger and more complicated versions of them. And the big things that scare them now will probably always scare them: just as they scare me, they way they always have. And they`ll love the same things they love now, just as I do too.

When I left them for the second time, I managed not to cry. I`ve promised to see them again - how, I don`t know, but I`ll do it - and the mums and dads have all emailed me since to say that they hope I come back for them. But of my entire time in Japan, my departure from my little ones this time was one of the moments that will stay with me the longest.

"Tell Holly you love her," Kou`s dad told him firmly in English as I said goodbye.
"No," Kou shouted, embarrassed and furious.
"Kou, you won`t see her for a long time again. Tell her you love her."
"No, I don`t," Kou yelled, hiding his head in his dad`s shoulder.
"It`s okay," I said, finally managing to behave like the adult I am. "Kou, it doesn`t matter. I love you."
"No," Kou grumped again, without moving his face. "No love."
And so I patted him on the back, gave the others a cuddle and walked away, fighting the bit inside me so silly and hurting.

I got twenty metres before "Hoooolllllllyyyyyyyyyyyy" started echoing around the packed shopping mall. Every shopper stopped and turned - as I did - to see five little people hurtling along the corridor towards me. "Holllllllllyyyyyyyyyy" Kou was screaming, followed by four smaller "Holllllyyyyyyy"s (Kou is the oldest).
I knelt down on the floor and watched them pushing through the crowds towards me, parents still standing where they had been left.
"Are you coming with me?" I asked them, laughing.
"Hollllllllyyyyyy I love youuuuuuuuu," Kou yelled, and then all of them hurled themselves on top of me.  And when they`d been eventually pulled off by their parents, I got barely another twenty metres before they were all screaming "Hoollllllllyyyyyyy I loooooveveee yyoooooou" and hurtling towards me again. Three or four times, until their mums held on to their little arms and told me to run in the opposite direction or they`d chase me all the way home and I`d never get away. And a hundred shoppers stood, mouths open, staring at the only foreigner in the entire shopping centre, being chased by a herd of tiny, English-screeching Japanese kindergarteners, as if it was the strangest thing they`d ever seen. Which it may well have been.

These little children will always be who they are now: in one form or another. And the knowledge that I have been a small part of that - that I have been a part, in only the tiniest way, of who they are growing into - is one of the best experiences I have ever had. And of my two years spent in Japan, being chased across a shopping mall by a group of tiny children shouting in my own language is one of the highlights.

And that fear: the fear that they would no longer love me? It never had to be there. But it`s okay that it was, because that`s who I have always been too. And it`s who I will always be.

And - as tiresome as it often is - the people who love me probably wouldn`t want me to change either.