Before I resume my Campfire Tales from Japan, I would like to share with you my first attempt at creating a soumen experience at home:
Another picture of food: I must really be turning Japanese. From the left corner: grilled eggplant and pumpkin, meat croquettes, Sean’s bowl of tsuyu dipping sauce, chilled soumen, tako su (octopus and cucumber salad), sashimi, my bowl of tsuyu dipping sauce, a tuna roll, and bamboo shoots. Note: the only things I actually prepared at home were the noodles and the tako su; everything else came from the supermarket deli. Sometimes you just don’t feel like cooking.
I officially have soumen on the brain. There were leftovers last night and they will be today’s lunch. That is the proper time to eat soumen, after all.
Anyway, back to ….
Campfire Stories from Japan (Part II)
Rollin’ on the River
There was a river at our English camp, sluicing calmly through the greenery. On those scorching days, the cool, gurgling river offered a sharp contrast to the relentless sun but we were told time and again: We’ll play in the river on Day 4. Not before.
There were similar river rations back at GCC. I remember being slightly annoyed with them after watching films like The Parent Trap, where it seemed like the campers could do whatever they felt like instead of having to adhere to schedules. We were, of course, for safety’s sake, only allowed to use the river at certain times, with the whole cabin and a couple of counselors nearby. Age 11 marked the last time I’d be unconflicted about my appearance in a swimsuit; after that, we tended to use River Time to lie on the dock on our towels, posing stiffly like Teen Magazine models for photos or, in a defiant misuse of River Time’s purpose, to shave our legs at the shallow end. We rolled up our jean shorts until they could go no higher and managed to balance on the rocks, like exotic birds, wielding our razors awkwardly and beholding the finished products with pride. Nothing shouts “Coming of Age” to me like that memory of us on the river – our knobby, 13 year-old legs covered with nicks, the random smooth patch, dabs of raspberry-scented shaving cream and bug bites.
For our kids, the real draw of River Time was basically to splash the heck out of the counselors. Our head counselor had suggested we bring squirt guns to camp as a precautionary measure and my eyes had lit up – Ammunition! I’d completely misjudged how zealous the children would be, how desperately they would want to soak us. Who knows what we ever did to them, apart from teach them games and songs and make them dinner?
I discovered just how ruthless a few of my little campers could be while I, already soaked by some other little hellions, was recovering on the river bank. I saw them – three of them, a coven of silent, purposeful witches, approaching me – each clutching a giant plastic bag filled with water. My eyes wisened and I reached for my water pistol.
They approached slowly to fake me out. I often find it amusing how children tend to think that adults, despite their obviously advanced age, were born just yesterday. Oh, yeah; three little girls carrying bags of water – I suppose they’re just going to water the crops. How helpful. What a delight. I think I’m gonna move.
In the end, the girls had more stamina than I did; it’s hard to move around a lot in flip flops, in soaked shorts, on a rough, rocky terrain. Three plastic bags of water – floosh. Ah, well. Already soaked and, thanks to Hiro, sporting a hand-stung bottom to boot.
Each time they saw us with a water gun, the children begged: “Kashite! Kashite!” Ha. As if we’d lend them to you. Who do you think you’re dealing with? The Super Soaker was invented for us, not for you.
Since it was an English camp, there was occasionally some English happening from time to time. For example, vocab lessons about food, games and nature. Songs, too, were being sung in abundance. Our head counselor had suggested we teach our groups of campers a specific song that we could perform for the whole camp at the end. Immediately, my mind flashed to GCC’s Air Band – the towering pinnacle of each camp session. It was beyond exciting; each cabin would have the 2 weeks to prepare a song and lip synch it in front of the whole group. During rest period, we would frantically plan and choreograph. I remember little to no involvement from the counselors, apart from the year we wanted to perform John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane.” GCC was a Catholic summer camp; Jack and Diane referenced teenage sex and therefore, was inappropriate. The edict completely confused us – we’d thought it was just a little ditty with a nice beat – but we shrugged and chose Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance” instead. The year I was 13, our cabin performed “The Bohemian Rhapsody” – for me, a song that required no memorization – and brought down the house. Oh, for another turn on the Air Band stage! If only the whole goal of camp wasn’t to get kids to actually speak English words.
It was my first hope to teach my kids the charming camp tune “Last Night I Ate (a Bowl of Jelly)” but this proved disastrous. They just couldn’t grasp the concept of singling out someone in the group and having that person lead the next verse. I was slightly disappointed; I’d had fun memories of singing the song on bus trips from Camp to the wildlife park and thought it would be simple enough for non-English speaking kids to pick up. Alas.
In the end, inspired by a surprise recollection on the bus ride over, I taught them the old hand clapping rhyme: Miss Mary Mack.
Talk about your sleeper hits; soon, every girl and boy was desperate to learn the rhyme and the accompanying hand motions. The boys’ interest surprised me; when I was in grade school, the boys wouldn’t go near the hand clapping games with a ten foot pole. Yet, for days after I began teaching Miss Mary Mack, I had children galloping up to me with their hands outstretched, crying, “I want to do it! I want to do it!”
Up until the moment their parents picked them up from the train station, chubby little hands were thrust out to me, even between bus seats. What amazes me is that these kids so readily picked up on singing the rhyme. They refuse to learn the lyrics to any song I teach them in school but Miss Mary Mack? Piece of cake. Must be all the fresh country air.
And finally, on the last night of camp: the Campfire. There would, regrettably, be no S’mores because graham crackers are extremely expensive in Japan, but there would be a great, big, roaring fire and some campfire tales for the whole crowd.
Campfire tales, too, are a little different in Japan; or at least at our camp. Our head counselor at GCC used to love to leap in front of the crackling fire and, after settling every one down, bellow: “So there I was … in the middle of the Australian Outback.”
“Boo!” the campers would hiss. “Boo, Pat. Boo!”
“Don’t you want to hear about how I wrestled an alligator?” Pat would demand.
“No!” We would shout. “Boo!”
It became something of an inside joke. Sometimes Pat changed the preamble of his story. So there he was … in a swamp. So there he was … in the middle of the forest. The only thing that never changed was that he never got to tell the rest of his story. We didn’t want to hear about ol’ Pat in the Australian Outback – we knew he’d never been! We wanted ghost stories. And we got them; shivering, shuddering ghost stories that forced us to huddle silently close to our friends in delicious fear until the final moment: “You’ve got it!” We’d shriek and scatter and then it would be bath time. The walk back to the cabins must have been only 10 or 15 minutes long but spiked on terror and trudging through the dark, moonlit woods, aided only by some flickering flashlights, it was excruciating.
Our campers got a slightly more positive and uplifting experience: hand clapping games and stories about monsters living in this very campground! The monsters, he promised, would be making a special visit very soon. I could only partially understand, but to me, it all seemed like harmless fun until I noticed little Natsuko shivering beside me.
“I don’t want the monsters to come,” she said, hiding her face behind my back. “Scary!”
My heart broke. Natsuko had easily become my favorite camper, with her tiny, Mogwai face and relentless cheer.
“It isn’t scary,” I whispered to her. “Just watch!”
She shivered and remained hidden.
“The monsters are coming!” shouted the camp leader. “They are coming now!”
The other campers shuffled restlessly.
“They’re coming!” he shrieked. “They’re coming … they’ve already come! I – Kazu! I am a monster!”
“Mouuuu ….*” groaned the campers.
Silently, little Natsuko came out of her hiding space.
Chi Chi o Misette!
This last tale is told by special request for my dear friend, Margot, who I’ve known since I was 6 years old and who was my GCC companion each year. With Margot, I explored the mysteries of life and, later, the mysteries of becoming a woman. It must have been she who suggested shaving in the river. It was she who was always next to me in line for the mess hall. It was she who made better lanyards than I did. And it was she who was there the first time anyone ever referred to my bosoms as “chi chis.”
How sad it is that I must say “the first time” – in Japan, “chi chi” also happens to be the word for “breasts” and, if you’ve read this blog with any regularity, you know that I have my bosom assaulted regularly by my students. This summer camp was no exception – Hiro managed to get in a few squeezes in addition to his rain of spanks, kancho and punches. A few other little girls got me, too. For once, though, the word “chi chi” was not uttered. It would have been too strange, really, to hear that word in connection to my chest in that sweaty green camp setting once again, 16 years after the fact.
In 1992, I was 12 and, really, “chi chi”s were just not to be found.
We were trudging to the showers after one of the campfires. Pat had told us a story about a dead woman who had coins put over her eyes and whose ghost was trying to find the wretch who had stolen them. The trees shivered in the breeze and the flashlights threw ghostly shadows in every direction.
And then, out of nowhere:
“Let me see your chi chis.”
It was some little punk from one of the boys’ cabins, trying his best to sound manly and threatening. Lame, to be sure, but even lamer? He was talking to me.
Me. Me, of all people, the only person in my class who was still light as a feather, flat as a board.
If I responded, “No!” I would have to admit that I thought I even had chi chis, thus, opening myself up for taunting. If I responded, “Okay,” I would be a slut and, then, a tease when I refused. Clearly, given my circumstances, there was only one suitable response.
“Are you blind?” I asked. Yes, even at age 12 I was spazarific.
How things change. When a child feels me up nowadays, I understand it is because my chi chis are beyond compare. Every Japanese child says so. If I could go back in time I would grasp that runty, insecure, flat-chested little 12 year old camper I was by the shoulders. I would give her a deep, comforting hug
Cheer up, little sister! I would say. Don’t worry. Trust me. I’m you, after all – just a lot older and with absolutely magnificent chi chis. Take a look. That’s right. Some day, all of this will be yours. You will be gorgeous. You will be irresistible. Even better? You – yes, you! – will be routinely molested by Japanese children almost every day.
Don’t give up, flat-chested little sister. Wonderful times are ahead!
Campfire Tales Out.