Thoughts on the occasion of Muzuhashi Junior’s first birthday

I once read an article in which the psyche of a new-born baby was likened to that of someone who is falling in love for the first time in Paris, every single day. In other words, as a baby one has to cope with almost continual sensory and emotional overload: every experience is new, every object is mysterious and every interaction with another human being is potentially revelatory, or ecstatic, or heartbreaking. As M Jr reaches her first birthday, I often wonder what she is thinking or how she feels, and because, like most people, I can’t remember any further back in my own lifetime than when I was three or four years old, whatever I come up with can amount to little more than speculation.

The kind of people who can – or who claim that they can – remember what it was like to be a baby are often prodigies; or rather, prodigies often claim that they can remember what it was like to be a baby, and I wonder if this doesn’t have something to do with language. For while the whole ‘falling in love for the first time in Paris’ thing probably settles down a little once we learn to walk and talk – which even for ordinary folk happens when we are about a year old – we do not acquire a sophisticated enough grasp of language to describe what we are doing until a good while later: quite possibly, you could argue, at around the point we begin to retain the memories that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

If you try to describe what you are doing as you read this blog post, for example, you might say something like, ‘I am sitting at my computer, with a cup of tea on the desk and my mobile phone next to it. It’s a sunny day outside and the post has just landed on the doormat.’ Ask a four year old to describe what they are doing and you might hear something like this: ‘I’m bored. I’m playing with a cuddly toy. I’m bored again. I want to eat an ice cream. I fell over. It hurts. I’m bored again. I want to eat another ice cream,’ etc etc. Attempting to put yourself in the place of a baby, however, is a lot harder both for you and for the baby. The impressions themselves might be: ‘Bright light! Strange funny coloured object! Tastes weird! Where’s mummy? Strange funny coloured food! Yuck! Spit it out! Cry!’ and so on. The thing is, though, babies do not yet posses even such a basic vocabulary as this, so even if, for example, they know roughly what a cat is and recognise it as such when they see one, they haven’t yet learned a word to assign to it, and it is my theory that until this happens, their memory of seeing the cat, or of stroking it or hearing it purr, is perhaps less likely to attach itself to their synapses in such a way that that memory will still be there in six years’ or even six minutes’ time.

The other day at her grandparents’ house, M Jr climbed the staircase to the first floor and made her way into otoh-san’s study, where the two of us kept an eye on her as she crawled around and investigated the various objects there: a stereo, a mosquito repelling gizmo, an alarm clock, some old newspapers, an empty cassette case and so on. To you or I, an empty cassette case would be nothing more than a hunk of plastic – and an out-of-date hunk of plastic at that – but to M Jr it is a thing of wonder: it is hard, partly smooth and partly textured, half black and half transparent; it makes an impressively loud noise if you bang it against something or drop it on the floor, and if you can prise it open, it essentially becomes another object altogether with a completely different shape. Perhaps the only mundane thing about it is that it doesn’t taste of anything, although that certainly didn’t stop M Jr from coating it with drool (in the same way that dogs have a highly developed sense of smell, so a baby’s mouth is more sensitive relative to their eyes and hands, hence M Jr’s tendency to give pretty much any new object an exploratory chew, where the rest of us would instead pick it up and look at it).

As a parent, one aspires to creating a stimulating environment for one’s child, and to providing them with as many and varied experiences as possible, but it seems to me that – up to a point, at least – a baby would be sufficiently stimulated even if he or she was in a completely empty room with white walls, a white floor, a white ceiling and no furniture. Well, OK, I suppose they would at least need an old, empty cassette case to keep themselves occupied, but you get the idea. By the same token, it appears to be possible to create a child prodigy simply by bombarding them with stimuli and forcing them to work, study and practice as much as possible whatever skills you want them to be good at. A recent TV programme here in Japan followed a few such parents, one of whom has her son complete listening tests in Japanese and English simultaneously, while another plays recordings of history lectures and works of literature to her daughters at double the normal speed. Regardless of how they may be developing emotionally, these children do indeed seem to be benefitting from their parents’ zeal, and to embody the theory that so long as they are brought up in the correct environment – or rather, in a particular kind of environment – any child has the potential to excel.

I couldn’t help feeling as I watched the programme, though, that raising a prodigy requires a huge amount of effort on the part of both parent and child, and more to the point, that such effort is way beyond a lazy git like me (I’m not going to accuse her of being a lazy git in print, but Mrs M freely admitted to feeling the same way). The fact is, even bringing up a contented and comparatively problem-free daughter leaves Mrs M in particular in an almost permanent state of exhaustion. Even though I am at work for most of the day, and even though Mrs M is the one who gets out of bed in the small hours to give M Jr her bottle of milk, I too am tired most of the time. Much as I would like to play classical music to M Jr, or read to her from Wikipedia, or teach her English using flashcards, puzzles and CDs, it’s as much as I can do to look on and say, ‘Is that interesting?’ when she’s waving an old cassette case around, or ‘Do you like Michael Buble, then?’ when we’re listening to music in the car, or ‘That’s a cute doggy, isn’t it?’ when the next-door neighbour’s pet poodle walks past.

This isn’t to say that I find child rearing boring. On the contrary, this last year has been wonderful, and inspiring, and moving, and has more than lived up to my expectations of what it would be like to become a father. It is an endless joy to at least try and see the world through M Jr’s eyes, to watch her acquire new skills and express new emotions: she can now, for example, crawl, stand up, hold her own baby bottle, drink through a straw, pick up food and put it in her mouth, smile, laugh, cry, play jokes, do impersonations, wave bye-bye, shake her head, bow (she is half-Japanese, after all), open doors, press the buttons on a remote control and point it at the television, recognise herself in a mirror, recognise herself in photographs, rub her eyes when she’s tired, point, clap her hands (something that happened so spontaneously I can only assume it is a natural human instinct, not something that is taught or copied), dance, climb stairs, climb onto tables, climb out of chairs, blow raspberries, undo zips, undo velcro and turn the pages of book.

Indeed, and while M Jr has yet to utter any words that might be recognisable as such, she seems to have inherited the Muzuhashi family’s love of them (as well as her dad being a blogger who once earned his living writing lame gags for low-budget TV shows, her paternal grandmother was a librarian and her paternal grandfather an antiquarian bookseller), and when Mrs M took her to an event at the local library, one of the volunteers reading books to the children noticed that M Jr was more absorbed in what was going on than anyone else, and advised us to nurture this interest. Thanks to friend of ours whose kids have grown out of them, we have inherited a library of English language children’s books, and while M Jr is often more interested in chewing the pages or attempting to rip them out altogether, she does seem to enjoy following a story, and to be interested in books on a purely aesthetic level.

While we have yet to sit M Jr at a piano and make her read the sheet music to Beethoven’s fifth symphony, she also seems to be musically inclined, and will wiggle her hips to anything even remotely rhythmic or tuneful, inlcuding the warning bell at a level crossing and the jingle our washing machine plays when it reaches the end of its cycle. She turns all kinds of objects into wind instruments, including, so far, the plastic case for a thermometer, a tug boat bath toy she received as a Christmas present, an empty cardboard box and the plastic lid to her baby bottle: the sound she produces often resembles the voice of Darth Vader more than it does music, but she seems to enjoy the reverberative acoustics.

If anything sets M Jr apart from other babies, though, it is her sleeping habits. LIke most parents we were careful to have her sleep on her back when she was born, but it wasn’t long before she had learned to roll over from back to front and front to back again. Not only that, but she soon developed a fondness for moving about in her sleep, to the extent that every night, Mrs M now covers the entire bedroom floor with mattresses and duvets, and when I go to bed an hour or so later, or when one of us wakes up in the night, or when we get up the next morning, M Jr can be literally anywhere in the room: snuggling up against her mum, lying at my feet, leaning against the wall or halfway into a cupboard, and rather than lying on her back facing the ceiling, she is just as likely to be lying on her front with her backside in the air, on her side with her legs stretched out as if she has dreamt of being in a running race, or crammed into a corner of the room in a confusion of bed sheets and cuddly toys (speaking of which, she has already found her Linus-like security blanket, namely a fluffy toy bunny with a Union Jack bow around its neck – okah-san has already bought a second, identical bunny just in case we lose the first one).

Of course, as well as behaving differently from other babies, M Jr also looks different. Not massively different, mind you, but while most new borns resemble bug-eyed, hairy-eared little aliens regardless of their background, the older they get the more genetics come into play, and in M Jr’s case this manifests itself most obviously in a) her head and b) her hair. A typical Japanese head is flatter at the both the front and the back, where Westerners have longer noses and rounder skulls. A typical Asian baby, meanwhile, has a full head of jet-black hair, while a Western one’s is thin and wispy. Then again, most of the strangers who come up and coo over M Jr – and there are a lot, believe me – know that she’s mixed race simply by looking at her mum and dad.

Among a total of around 1500 students at the five different junior high schools where I currently teach, probably five – and certainly no more than ten – are foreign or mixed-race, a situation that was mirrored in the small country town where I was brought up. Until I went to university as a twenty-three year old, my experience of meeting people from different racial backgrounds was limited to the waiting staff at the local Indian restaurant. In the same way, when I walk down the street where I now live, I stick out like an alfalfa sandwich in an Angus Steak House, and when I walk M Jr down the street in her pram or in her Ergo Baby sling, so does she – the only difference being that people are much less likely to smile at me and tell me that I’m cute.

It will be interesting to see how M Jr copes with her celebrity status as she grows up, but for the moment we are thoroughly enjoying parenthood, and looking forward to being bombarded with requests for presents when she learns to talk and turns two this time next year.

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