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Navigating Valentine’s Day in Japan

One of the tricky things about living overseas is that even after one has been in the country a decent amount of time, there are still areas in which one feels completely clueless. 
Take Valentine’s Day. I know the Japanese have heard of Valentine’s Day. Before coming here I was told by multiple sources that Japanese women give men (coworkers, friends, etc.) gifts on Valentine’s Day and that men return the favor on March 14th, known here as White Day. The tricky thing is, I have not found that to be my experience. SOME of the ex-pats who work in other schools observed this. But it isn’t true in every school. I received some chocolate last White Day, but it was from an American coworker. And on neither Valentine’s Day I have spent in Japan have I seen any of the other female teachers in my junior high give gifts to anyone else. In fact, as far as I can tell, my workplace doesn’t observe it at all. 
But I wanted to observe it. The question was how. Giving gifts to my male coworkers was out. They are all married. I haven’t figured out if the Japanese consider this to be a holiday for lovers, but I wasn’t going to touch the implication of an affair with a ten foot pole. Giving Valentines to my junior high students was out too. The Japanese are all about being fair with their gifts, so unless I gave a valentine to EVERY student I really shouldn’t give them to ANY student. And that opened up a whole host of complications. I didn’t have 100 valentines. I only had 30. Even if I wanted to make up the difference, I can’t give 30 store bought valentines and 70 hand made ones. I would have had to hand cut out 100 hearts. This might have been possible if I hadn’t waited until the night before.
Eventually what I settled on was giving some valentines to the preschoolers who ride my bus. 12 children get on before I get off. That was a manageable number. So I dug out the Hello Kitty Valentines I bought on sale two years ago and schlepped over here, carefully wrote names on the front in Japanese script, inserted a little sticker in the crease inside, and sealed them shut with heart stickers. 
The next morning I waited for each student to climb on the bus, then handed him or her a valentine. The students admired it, but just sat gazing at the heart on the front. I wondered if they knew to open it up. Explaining didn’t work as I don’t know that kind of Japanese, and they don’t know that kind of English. I tried pantomiming with a spare valentine. Still nothing. But kids are kids, and eventually a four  year old girl named Mami bent the paper and saw that there was another picture inside, then asked the Japanese teacher to break the seal for her. That yielded more admiration: of stickers, of Hello Kitty, of the whole thing. What surprised me the most is how these cards captured their attention. A full thirty minutes elapses between the time that the first child gets on the bus and I get off the bus. Yet these preschoolers sat gazing at their valentines the whole time, only breaking when each subsequent child got on the bus to eagerly see if he or she would get a valentine too and to participate in the joy with them. Mami in particular was smiling and smiling and smiling. Usually Mami exudes the quiet brooding of an old soul, or of a youngster awakened from her nap and wondering what kind of fool this energetic person in front of her is. But this day she beamed winningly. 
For that alone, for that smile alone, it was worth all of the calculations and second guessing, all of the doubts and processing I did to try and figure out how to celebrate this day in a way that would make someone feel part of the love I have for them without being creepy or overbearing or suggestive, etc. 
The reality is, two years in a culture isn’t enough to master it. A lifetime isn’t enough to understand every nuance of a culture. A lot of times I have to decide which risks to take, and it can be scary because I don’t know what the implications of each decision are. But having such rewards as I have received gives me the confidence to keep taking risks. Like entering a pool from a high dive, it is a matter of carefully observing the area, then taking a deep breath and jumping.

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