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Wednesday, April 19, 2000

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Family life full of give and take


After 20 years of wedlock, my Japanese wife and I usually see things eyeball-to-eyeball, especially when staring at each other. Yet, there is one case where we match up like sushi and whipped cream.

Nope, this conflict has nothing to do with daily life, diet, raising the kids or even hopping about in each other's underwear -- which we both agree we would never do. The difference comes not in how we have adjusted to life in her country; it's in how we look at life in mine. Specifically, how we approach our periodic visits to my American hometown.

For my wife these trips are moments of keen anxiety. The problem is not one of people, as she is fond of my family and they are equally fond of her. Instead, what gives my wife the jeebies is deciding what to buy for everybody! What gifts to bring them from the land of the rising yen!

Meanwhile, I view our trips the way sumo wrestlers view all-you-can-eat buffets. My consideration being not what to give, but what to get! And how then to carry the loot home.

For my wife, gift-giving went easier back when we were newlyweds. For in those days any present from Japan was considered rare and enchanting. My family thrilled to Japanese dolls, fans and screens, as well as all sorts of clothes and toys.

The years sped past . . . .

Now my mother has enough Japanese dolls to launch an invasion. She uses happi coats as dish cloths and lacquered chopsticks as garden stakes. Why not? She has drawers full.

Meanwhile, my younger siblings and cousins have passed their Japanese toys down to their kids. And their neighbor's kids. And their neighbor's neighbor's kids. My hometown is perhaps the only burg in America where every single resident has their own personal kendama. And most people two.

Now my wife rips her hair. "What do I buy them this time?!!"

I always offer a one word answer, the consummate souvenir: T-shirts.

True, bodies in my family tend to spread larger than Japanese fabric can stretch. T-shirts, even the widest ones, usually survive but a single wash. People wear them once and that's it. Except for my mother, who will meet us at the airport freeze-packed into some shrunken design and panting like a poodle -- for any deeper breaths will burst the material. To slip it off, she then has to coat herself with butter.

My next suggestion is Japanese foodstuff: rice crackers, plum-flavored gum, dried squid and so on. I know my family will only politely pick at these goodies before dashing off to spit them into the toilet. Leaving the rest for me. It's a no-lose situation.

But that doesn't satisfy my wife. She hunts persistently for the perfect present and, upon finding something even remotely popular, she sticks with it.

My father once mentioned a fondness for the ruddy, crescent-shaped cracker called kaki no tane. Now when we travel we carry an entire suitcase of kaki no tane. My father has eaten so many his skin has turned orange. He uses leftovers to gravel the family drive.

In most of this omiyage madness, I let my wife fret and fuss on her own. Upon arrival, I then turn my attention toward my own concern, which is buying everything I can.

My first stop is the local supermarket (heaven on earth) where I load an entire cart with American goodies so junky it is bad to even look at them, let alone put them in your body.

"You're not going to eat all that!" my wife shrieks.

"Wanna bet?" I grin. Who counts calories in heaven?

Then clothing! Shoes that fit! Suits priced less than real estate! Belts that go all the way around!

Books! CDs! Software! Videos of films that will not be released in Japan for months! All at prices I can afford.

I can afford so much, in fact, I always have to purchase an additional suitcase to lug it all back.

My wife eventually turns to shopping too, though most U.S. sizes fit her like tents on Tinker Bell. Then, as the day nears for our return, a new worry overwhelms her.

"What do I get for the people back in Japan!?"

This, too, used to be simple. We would buy chocolaty American sweets that (unless I discovered where she hid them) my wife would pass out to everybody for months and months. Now such yummies are sold in Japanese convenience stores. The novelty has vanished. My wife's search goes on. Her efforts have included:

Bric-a-brac: Cute oddities not sold on this side of the Pacific. Unfortunately, too many are stamped, "MADE IN JAPAN."

Sheets and towels: Economical and of high quality. Yet, hard to give . . . "Here's a gift from America, Mr. Tanabe! It's a sheet!"

Posters: Unfortunately, these don't pack well. And who wants Mariah Carey with a crease through her head?

Native American art: Beautiful, but did you know sand paintings can leak?

Leaving . . . what else? T-shirts!

Sure, the same shirts are sold in Japan, but there is one essential difference: The ones we buy are cheaper. And a yen saved is a yen earned, especially after a buying binge in the States. We need to save money for our next trip.



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