On Danger

The doors open, and we walk into the subway car. Quiet and staid in the florescent light, passengers are engrossed in their mobile phones. The screenless examine at their hands, wordlessly, careful not to catch, accidentally, a stranger’s eye. The train pulls out of the station, and we sit down. Stella looks around, catches sight of a middle-aged lady across the car, then flashes a smile and a shy wave. The lady doesn’t see at first. Stella persists. And then the lady looks up and smiles, welcoming engagement. We’re foreigners. We can break the rules. Stella hops down off the bench, ventures into the aisle, no further than the reach of my arm will allow. The lady hides behind her hands, then peaks through, BA! Stella smiles brightly. The lady offers a hand. Stella grabs it, and is lifted up onto the bench beside the stranger. She sits there a moment, and then comes back to me as we pull into the next station.


 


***


 


We hear the cacophony of children before we see them. Its 2:30. Kindergarten has let out for the day, and the park is full of little ones in white shirts and blue shorts, brightly capped heads darting around the playground. The mothers are gathered together under a tree, gossiping I think. A group of children run up, demanding candy, and they’re off again, mouths full of sweets. A young mother in heals and full make-up keeps half an eye on her baby, not quite waking yet, but crawling expertly. He scrabbles up a rope net on a play structure, unassisted. He’s not even one. A group of girls, barefoot in the cool afternoon, gather at the bottom of a slide. They bound halfway up before losing momentum and  tumbling down again. Boys stand at the top of the slide, waiting. They negotiate, shrieking a little. And then slide down. There are no collisions. No parents hover. 


 


***


 


Early morning, on the way to daycare. Uniformed children, yellow caps and blue leather backpacks walk together on the sidewalk. They are, perhaps, six years old. Then suddenly they’re racing towards the post, clambering to be the first to press the button. They wait. The light changes. They cross the street. There are no adults to usher them across.


 


***


 


I asked my pediatrician about his impressions of America. He completed a fellowship at Harvard Medical School, and spent two and a half years in Boston. He told me, “I am a pediatrician, I love babies. When I see one on the street, I smile.”  It’s true. When we walk through the curtain and into his office, his face opens, almost to the point of a silent laugh. He told me of american parents, and how they would shrink away from him, shielding their babies from the smiling gaze of a stranger. Worried. Stranger danger. “But I’m not a bad man! I’m just a pediatrician!” he told me.


 


***


Kids run free in Japan. They go to bed with tiredness, not with the clock. They play well out of hovering range. They walk to school alone. Candy is offered liberally. They ride in the car in the front seat. Sometimes even on their mother’s lap. They don’t wear helmets. There does not seem to be a low-grade paranoia humming through the air. That paranoia, absent here, governs all parental decisions back at home in North America. 


 


***


 


I feed my daughter whole grains, everything homemade, but I let her share a a piece chocolate with me. And a sip of my iced latte, if she asks nicely. I strap her helmet on, even just for a ride around the block. She rides in a car seat, facing backwards, because its safer. But I’ll leave her alone in the sandbox for a moment while I get her bucket. And I’ll happily let a stranger on the train pick her up or pinch her cheek. She loves the attention. 


 


There is much that I find frustrating about living in Japan, and much that makes my blood boil. Yet, even on doomiest of dark days I can always see that Japan is a wonderful place for little children. And parenting here has clipped my helicopter wings. If ever so slightly.