Discover more from jen dyck-sprout
Men Who Hang Out in Playgrounds
Labeling our experiences + observations from Japanese playgrounds!
“There is nothing people differ in more than in their powers of observation. Some are only half alive.” - John Burroughs
For the last decade, I’ve primarily explored new places through coffee.
I just follow the good coffee, and everything else I could hope for in a trip follows.
Well, I’ve found a new shortcut to getting a good feel for a place: playgrounds.
Spend enough time in and around playgrounds, and certain insights about a culture’s norms and values will start to emerge.
For example, in New York, before we had a baby, if I suggested to Uri that we stop at a playground to watch the kids play, he would say “absolutely not, I can’t be a random man watching kids play!”
“Oh…right….I guess that’s weird?” Once I started playing with Teo in playgrounds, I came to see that yes, it definitely 100% would be weird if a random man was there.
Childless men don’t hang out in North American playgrounds, ever. But they do in Japan!
Judging by how common it is, I would venture to say it’s not weird here. It’s just a place with a surplus of benches on which you can read a newspaper before work.
What deeper things does this reveal about Japan’s culture? Well, I’ve been here nine days, so I can only venture a few guesses: there’s a greater degree of inherent trust among all community members? With the high tax rate, there’s a greater sense of entitlement to any publicly funded resource? Men are freer to engage in traditionally “feminine” activities because their masculinity in such a patriarchal society is not up for debate?
This is what I love about culture, my first guesses about what drives visible behaviours are bound to be wrong, so I can just enjoy the peculiarities and wonder at the inexhaustible variety of life (to quote one of my lines of literature!).
Anyway! Some of my favourite things about Japanese playgrounds, in no particular order:
There are virtually no parents around. Kids are free to get themselves to and from the playgrounds starting around age 5 (my friend who just moved to Tokyo from Brooklyn, already sends her 5 and 4 year old on their own to a playground in the middle of the city!)
At 5pm, a loud speaker plays music to alert children that it’s time to go home (and most do!).
If you go early enough in the morning, you will find men sleeping on the slides. It’s not what you think though, these men are not homeless! They are well dressed men who appear to have just given up on their (likely very inebriated) way home.
They also have these centers run by the government that are well staffed and offer free childcare. Yes you heard me. FREE CHILDCARE. WHAT?! Open to anyone, including us! You can just make a reservation and leave your baby with highly qualified staff. Umm yes please:
Then there was this: At a quintessentially Japanese playground last week, I saw a giant wasp.
While I moved away from it, Uri thought to take a closer look. On doing so, he realized it was actually a hummingbird!
I had just read the above quote in How to Read Nature, that morning (!!) while commending myself for my keen observation skills.
Turns out, compared to Uri, I’m half dead.
Unsurprisingly, my feeling about this flying creature immediately went from “Get away from me!” to “Omg that’s the cutest little bird I’ve ever seen!”
Again though, Uri was not quite satisfied with these cursory observations, so he turned to the internet for more information where he discovered this was not even a bird but a moth!
My feelings about the creature shifted yet again, now to disappointment. I mean, who cares about moths right?
I think it’s hilarious that the exact same thing brought out three totally different experiences in my mind, based solely on what I thought it was. There’s gotta be some life lesson in this right?
Having a toddler often makes me think of how quick I am to label an experience as “bad.” Whether it’s a long delay at the airport or water in his eyes, I instinctively want to shield him from something that will make him uncomfortable.
And then I notice that he isn’t actually having a negative experience at all. He can wonder at a magnificent flying creature (or man passed out on the slide) without needing to label it.
I’m trying to channel some of that toddler wisdom as I find myself struggling this week.
It’s the 13-year anniversary of my mother’s death. Bad.
But my mom’s death lead me to New York. Good.
Which led me to my partner and now baby. Great!
But I have no family support. No grandma to count on for childcare or advice or some extra cash. Bad!
Then again, from a very young age, she taught me how to be self-sufficient. Good.
But now it doesn’t even occur to me to ask for help. If it does, I barely know how to. Not good.
I get trapped in this thought cycle a lot. I try to make sense of her loss by finding the silver linings. Like how I can better relate to others who have also lost a loved one or how I am under no illusion that I can put off the things I really want to do.
But there really aren’t enough silver linings in the world to make up for her thirteen years of absence.
No amount of mental gymnastics or manipulative accounting makes the grief go away.
It’s not all bad, it’s not all good. It just is.