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Sunday, June 17, 2001

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Ms. Popularity unleashes charm while her poodle mows the grass


"Look at it this way," one of my mother's cornier friends blabbed to her when she learned of my engagement, "You're not losing a son, you're gaining a daughter."

Big deal. My mother already had a daughter. Four of them, in fact. Yet, when it came to males, there ran but one scion from the Dillon family tree. Me. The only boy. The one who upon traipsing off to Japan was virtually ordered not to land himself a Japanese wife.

Not that my mother had anything against Japan. Or against wives.

On the contrary, she rather liked wives (being one herself) and thought it to be a fair achievement for me to get one, especially considering that my dating record was not exactly bound for Guinness. She just wanted me to snare someone a shade closer to home.

My fiancee knew this. Her very first letter as a daughter-in-law-to-be begged my mother's forgiveness for having swiped away her solitary son. Then, on our initial flight to greet my family, my new bride chewed her lips raw with worry, not yet understanding that fearing my mother is sort of like fearing Winnie the Pooh.

Even at that, their first meeting squeaked with tension. An entire trip filled with staccato conversations, silences and jittery smiles.

And now?

Now when we return, my mother barely notices I'm back. For she's too busy yakking with my wife!

And not just my mother, my sisters as well. Tom, the wayward son come home, remains distinctly wayward. I sulk off to the side like the loneliest boy at the hop, while my mother and siblings dance about my wife as if they were groupies and she a pop star.

"Oh silly, you're important, too," my wife will blush as she presses my hand. "Why, if you weren't here, who would carry my bags?"

Just how did my Japanese wife get to be so dang popular in my American home?! Doesn't she know it's MY home!?

I mean, I don't run amok with her relatives, do I? A nice bunch of people who keep their distance with pasted grins and ample trays of food. No, I merely eat everything they've got and leave it at that. I don't take over.

What's my wife's secret?

She herself offers a rather simple analysis: "Everyone is excited to see you, too . . . to a point. Then they lose interest." This point, she critiques, comes at kickoff time.

So? Am I not an American male, back in my natural habitat? When there's a sporting event on, I lie in an easy chair and watch it. Just like my father does and just like my brothers would, if I had any.

This is more than recreation; it's a duty, one I strive to be true to each time back. For . . . who knows, if nobody watched televised sports, the networks might run even more low-low-brow sitcoms. Then where would America be?

Thus, while I strive to save my home culture, my wife stays in the next room giggling with the girls. Not only that, she feeds them, too.

I come from a family where cooking is traditionally spelled: "o-r-d-e-r-o-u-t." Yet, once back, my wife will take charge of my mother's kitchen, concocting scrumptious dishes not only from the Orient but also straight from Betty Crocker -- hot food lighting a path right to her in-laws' hearts.

Then she will clean up and vacuum, further endearing herself to the home folk. Or -- even better -- she will make me do these things. Which is like presenting my family a trained poodle act.

"Look! She has him washing dishes! Wow!" My sisters clap their hands and whistle. My mother shouts, "Encore! Encore! Now have him mow the grass!"

Next, my wife will ride away with the women to the local mall, a journey that I make as well, as nothing beats shopping in America, not even football.

Yet, as I putter around shoe stores and bookshops, my wife leads intense forays into clothing salons. They emerge hours later with sated grins and almost no purchases, but with each having tried on an entire fashion line of outfits.

How can a simpleton son compete with such female sorcery?

"You can't," a sister advises. "She's too cute."

A Japanese cuteness that has proved very marketable in the parochial Midwest. For, through the years, my wife has given my family much more than just grandkids; she has brought them the world.

To a farm-town clan from which few members ever travel far, my wife on her visits has offered another culture, another viewpoint, another slice of life. A rich repast my family has not tasted anyplace else. And she has done this painlessly, roping the two lands together with the toss of a smile. Different yet familiar -- my wife has ambassadored her nation in the best way. Thanks to her, Japan has edged much closer to my American home and my family has been gently nudged into the adventure of an international marriage.

And when all is said and done, being married to Ms. Popularity is not such a bad deal. For one thing, I always get the leftovers.

That is, after I mow the grass.



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