Squeaky Shoes in Sendai, Japan

 

A few weeks ago, my toddler and I decided to take a trip into the city of Sendai. This would be special in that it was the first time we would go that far from our house without the comfort of a stroller. At almost two years old, my daughter has grown to a point where the stroller can be nice to have if she’s exhausted or a burden to keep track of while chasing her down. This day would be an experiment to see how far and how well we could do without the wheels.

On the train, she seemed more interested in staring out the window at things she can’t usually see when strapped in, stationary in the middle of the car. Because we were stroller free, this time we could take the giant, two story escalator from the platform level all the way to the main exit for the Japan Rail lines into Sendai Station. How exciting!

Julia showed no fear of the escalator and marched dutifully by my side as we made our way toward the exit. With every step, her adorable red shoes let out happy little squeaks, annoying at first but reassuring after a while. It is harder to lose her when her shoes are squeaking. Though I would never have bought the things, I usually feel the need to make use of presents, especially presents from sweet grandparents. The noise can be grating, but over the din of the other trains and passengers, it didn’t seem likely to be too disturbing to anyone in particular.

Or so I thought.

Just as we came to within ten feet of the exit, an older woman of 65 or so turned around, whip-fast on her heel, to glare at me and declare, “Urusai!”

In Japanese, the word means loud, noisy or annoying, though in a culture that prides itself on being harmonious, an action like this, to swivel and yell in another person’s face, is akin to a hard open palm slap in the west. The vast majority of the time, if someone dislikes being in my presence, they blank me, meaning they pretend that I am not even existent in the same realm of space or time. Occasionally, older men in particular will cast a grimace in my direction. These odd encounters with xenophobia in Japan have become fewer and further between since my daughter’s birth. A baby is a rare site in this country of the aged and somehow her presence and cuteness excuses my roundness and foreignness. Babies are magical, apparently even if half Caucasian.

If I had thought about it, I could have said something to this angry older woman, letting her know that people from her country bought these adorable squeaking things for their granddaughter or perhaps that I know the sound is tiresome, but it beats the heck out of listening to either a nearly two-year-old scream her head off because she would rather walk than be carried or her panicked foreign mother searching for the baby who ran too far, too fast, and in an unlikely direction. These squeaks may be loud, but compared to the alternatives, they were downright soothing.

The lesser of three evils the squeaky shoes were, but odds were against this argument going favorably. If I had worked up the best way to convey my message, she would likely have feigned ignorance and pretended not to understand me. People who feel the need to yell about a toddler’s choice in footwear hardly seem patient enough to listen to less-than-perfect Japanese.

Of course, during this shocking encounter, I hadn’t thought any of this through. Instead, I chose to respond with the warmest smile I could find. A smile that said, “Hello! No, really. To you. Today. Hello!” Not a hint of malice or condescension lay in my features as I intended the gesture only with kindness, the type a lady so unnerved probably needed on a day like that day.

I didn’t have time to judge any reaction on her part because she spun around just as fast as she had before, lurching ahead through the exit to disappear into the crowd on the other side.

Upon later recollection, I began to wonder if she got it, the great cosmic joke. Out of her frustration, I created harmony, even if only for myself and my daughter. In the land of absolute politeness, I won this round.

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