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Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2000

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Love's more than just the money, honey


Back in the halcyon days of my young adulthood, when I used to sigh feverishly into my fiancee's walnut eyes, you can rest assured I spied romance, hope and her contact lenses, but never -- never! -- a pair of yen stickers.

I also surmise that when she gazed into my eyes in return, instead of blinking dollar signs, she saw what most people tend to see: pure blue sky.

A euphemism for "space for rent."

Anyhow, calendars turn, years pass and reality bites. Now my wife and I understand quite well what back then we were too naive to realize: When it comes to raising a family, living costs in Japan are positively other-worldly.

Another euphemism, this one for "higher than the moon."

With housing, transportation, utilities, health care and taxes sucking up most of our tooth-and-clawed earnings, my wife and I struggle to save what little we can for minimal luxuries.

Still another euphemism. Read: "food."

In our case, we have further fettered our potential by placing our children in international school -- sort of like putting them through 12 years of Harvard, at least cost-wise.

Meanwhile, back in the States, my littlest sister, a girl I will forever connect with ribbons and bows and Barbie dolls, has decided to buy a home. A modest house with but six rooms, a family den/basement, a monster garage and a backyard wide enough for Tiger Woods to practice tee shots -- all for a price that makes her big brother twitch like a single-digit lottery loser.

Sure, the house is located in a yawny town an hour's drive from other human life. Sure, my sister reaps a nurse's income and now has better things to buy than either Barbie or Ken. Yet, I peer at her olive-colored house and see but two years of my sons' school tuition. Meanwhile, she looks my way and sees an entirely different shade of green.

Believe me, not a euphemism for money.

When young, we make our choices. When old, we pay for them.

Only, in Japan, we pay a lot more.

A movie and a meal -- a quiet date to which my wife and I treat ourselves far too seldom -- will, when adding in train fare, run us a respectable bill of around 10,000 yen. The last time we tried the same thing in the States the exchange-rate adjusted cost was 13,000 yen. The punchline is that in the States 12 of my relatives came along and we dined on T-bones instead of gratin.

A very laid-back group of relatives too, to whom I had to explain that in Japan the term "workaholic" is a euphemism for "survival-holic." As in, having to work like goobers just in order to survive.

Of course, since we both have jobs we enjoy, my wife and I would probably work anyway, even if we were carefree trillionaires. We would just work a little less -- like, say, once a decade or so.

As it is, we both rush off to some office or school nearly every day, to crawl back late at night with drooping eyes, sagging shoulders and wobbling knees, but never, it seems, bulging wallets.

"Do you ever get the feeling," I sometimes ask, "that we have spent the most productive years of our lives running on a treadmill like possessed hamsters? The difference being that hamsters get to sleep more and probably have more personal savings."

A question to which my wife "nods."

A euphemism for impersonating a very weary hamster.

The temptation, of course, is to end all this. To pull up stakes. To relocate in a land where money lasts longer than a firecracker, stretches farther than a tissue and can be banked at an interest rate high enough to see with the naked eye.

Sometimes we get dizzy dreaming about all the possessions we might afford if only we'd move away . . .

Our own land . . . a house . . . maybe with a Jacuzzi . . . or a gazebo . . . or some other Italian gizmo. And then, inside -- a fireplace . . . over which we would hang artwork by someone other than our own children. Next, a dishwasher that will not demand an allowance. Glasses that break instead of crack. Coffee cups from some other place than Mister Donuts. Wine from bottles. Cheese with holes.

The complete package, the whole nine yards, the real deal.

Euphemisms that each signify the good life . . .

Years pass, calendars turn and reality leaves a lasting impression. But if we look even half-way hard, we can find a message among the lined wrinkles and crimped resources.

The lesson being that the good life depends much more on whom we are with than what we have.

Would I be wealthier if Japan was more economical? If my dribbling income was not so manically tied to my desperate output?

Well . . . undoubtedly . . . yes.

But would I be happier?

Bindings of the heart do not depend on where a person lives. Quite the contrary, when the shared challenges are steeper, invariably so are the internal rewards. Not a deep truth perhaps, but . . . still a truth.

So I grab my wife and gaze again into those walnut eyes. "Hey!" I spout, "As long as we have each other, who needs money!"

She grabs me back and tenderly presents me with those three special little words:

"You are nuts."

In our marriage, a happy euphemism for "I love you."



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