When people discover that my wife is married to a British man, they often express an envy drawn from admiration. This, I suspect, is largely tatemae, and it almost certainly is if I am actually present and they are able to see me. A few of them mention the fact that western men do much more around the house than Japanese men and that my wife is very lucky to have married such a kind man. Except she isn’t and she didn’t. She married me.
Now, it’s not that I’m lazy. Rather, I’m ineffectual, a tad forgetful and lacking in the perception required to realize that things need doing. Were I to still be living alone, the calendars in my house would be showing October of 2007 or so and I would have adjusted my toilet-going schedule to fit in with daylight hours due to a constant inability to remember that light bulbs need to be periodically replaced. Torn pages from books would serve as cringeworthy reminders that toilet paper is also on the never-remember-to-buy list. In short, I need to be told what to do. Oh sure, I might volunteer to make the odd meal now and again, but even then my poor wife is not just agreeing to sit back and relax while her husband conjures up dinner. No, she is also agreeing to forfeit a pleasurable dining experience. ‘These mashed potatoes are very sweet,’ she will say in a delicate manner. ‘Did you use the salt next to the stove, or the stuff in the cupboard – you know, the sugar?’
I was reminded this week that I am no better at gardening or manual tasks. We have a pleasant mikan tree in the yard. The fruit recently became ripe and ready to be plucked. ‘I’ll do it tomorrow!’ I promised last Saturday. Four days later I remembered and went to harvest our bounty. I twisted off the ones from the lower branches, and jumped up a few times to grasp those higher up. There were still some far out of reach, so I ignored them until I could discover whether or not we owned any step-ladders.
In the morning, I was surprised to look out of the window and see my father-in-law’s car. I came downstairs but my wife was making coffee and her father nowhere to be seen. ‘Where’s your dad?’ I asked.
‘In the garden,’ my wife said, handing me a cup.
I looked out and saw my father-in-law standing perilously on a small stool, stretching into the top of the mikan tree with a pair of long-handled shears.
‘What’s he doing that for?’ I asked.
My wife said she had ‘happened to mention’ that I hadn’t been able to reach all the mikan and, ‘anyway,’ she said, ‘he wants to help. It gives him something to do.’
‘But he must think I’m a lazy idiot,’ I said. My wife reassured me he didn’t and told me not to worry. ‘He’s happy,’ she said. ‘So just drink your coffee.’
I popped my head out of the screen doors and greeted her father. He returned the greeting with a big smile, as did my mother-in-law who I now noticed was busily weeding the rest of the garden. It was sunny, so I took my coffee outside and tried to enjoy it at our garden table. But it’s hard not to feel guilty when you are sitting there bathing in the sunshine, reading the paper and watching as a man in his seventies looks as if he might tumble from his wobbly perch and spear his wife with sharp cutting implements. He paused for a moment and wiped his sweating brow on his sleeve. He looked over and caught my eye. I raised my mug in cheerful manner and offered a rather pathetic, ‘Ganbatte!’
With gardening duties considered beyond me, I had hoped I might somehow redeem myself in the manly department yesterday when we needed a spot of plumbing. I’d just finished teaching and discovered my wife with her head buried deep inside the cupboard under the sink.
‘There’s water,’ she said. ‘But I can’t see a leak.’
I told her I’d have a look at it. She was right, the bottom of the cupboard was soaking.
‘Turn the tap on?’ I hoped I sounded confident, but the ‘Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em’ theme tune was now sounding in my head. The water began to flow down the drain and into the pipes, but nothing was dripping into the cupboard.
‘It’s all right now,’ I said.
‘You haven’t done anything,’ said my wife.
‘I know,’ I said, ‘but there’s no leak anymore.’
My wife was sceptical that pipes could self-repair. ‘I’ll call Mr Sano,’ she said.
Mr Sano is a neighbour who owns a plumbing business. He’s a few years older than me and a lot more masculine. He has calloused hands and a smoker’s laugh. He talks all growly. I didn’t want him to think of me as a hopeless, soft baffoon who can’t even fix a simple leaking pipe. I tried to discourage my wife by telling her that Mr Sano dealt with proper plumbing jobs, jobs that required digging up the ground. He wasn’t the sort of plumber who did simple household tasks.
‘But he’ll know what to do,’ my wife said. ’We can’t just leave it and you …’
The doorbell prevented her from finishing her sentence. It was the man from next door, a pleasant elderly chap, popping round to give us some homegrown vegetables. My wife asked him if Mr Sano dealt with regular household plumbing. The man from next door said that he himself would take a look at the problem. Within less than two minutes he was showing us from where the water was leaking.
‘But it wasn’t leaking from there a minute ago!’ I said to my wife, when she looked over at me with raised eyebrows. The man from next door said we could probably just get a new piece of piping from the homestore. ‘Right, right, of course,’ I said. ‘I’ll pop down tomorrow and pick one up.’
I saw our kind neighbour out and went back to the kitchen. ‘Shouldn’t be too hard to fix,’ I said in my best workman’s voice. But my wife was already dialing Mr Sano’s number.
Sometimes, I feel guilty at how little I help out at home. I could try to claim that by doing nothing around the house I am just trying to go native. But that would be a lie. I’m just not very good at things. I once even managed to hang up my shirt in a manner that apparently suggested I was dead or something. And anyway, as I have discovered yet again this week, there are plenty of Japanese husbands who can do things around the house.
Well, I’ll need to stop typing now. The wife wants to vacuum under my feet.