11 Attempting to Realize my Potential “And ain’t I a woman?” -Sojourner Truth

11

Another thing you are probably wondering is how an accidental housewife like me (who was scrimping for trips to France when she wasn’t busy repairing the ceiling or cutting hair) wound up in Japan at the time of the 3-11 earthquake. Well…

When I turned 34 years old, imaginary alarm bells went off in my head. Actually it felt more like sirens blaring in my head. Really loud. At that time, my younger son was only two and far from typical school age for an American (in the French system he would start school at three years old), but I knew that it was the last year I was eligible for the wonderful and prestigious research grant that I’d planned to apply for to do my PhD research in Japan.

You see, there aren’t many grants for social science research and they tend to be very competitive. I had taken a class on proposal writing in graduate school expressly for the purpose of preparing myself for the cut-throat competition. But, I had always set my sights on one particular grant offered by the Japanese government which would, at least, narrow my competition to the group of young scholars interested in Japan. The keyword there, unfortunately, is “young”: I knew the cut-off age was 35 years old.

If I was going to do it, I had to do it NOW.

Never mind that I was the primary caretaker for two small children. Never mind that my husband had a demanding job and was still working to earn job security (a.k.a. tenure). Never mind that we couldn’t afford it. Never mind that I speak Japanese rather like an adolescent boy at a rural fisherman’s school (one of the places where I taught English for two years when I lived in Japan years ago). And, never mind that I wasn’t even currently in a PhD program. MINOR DETAILS. What was important was that this was the last year I was eligible to apply for my dream grant.

I explained to my husband, in what I wish had been a calm and rational manner, that I’d been living his dream for long enough and it was time for me to stop living vicariously and start really living my own life.

He was wonderful. Well, not at first. At first he told me it was impossible (bearing in mind all the things to which I’d said “never mind” above). In the end, I convinced him to postpone the conversation about whether or not we could go to Japan until we saw if I could even get selected for the grant…

I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but something tells me that the shear improbability of me getting the grant, given its competitive nature, made it possible for him to gallantly encourage me… so that, as I told him, “At least I won’t spend the rest of my life wondering if I could have gotten it.”

The drive of a person who has one shot to realize a dream should not be underestimated.

At that point, I may have been a hollow, burnt-out shell of a woman who only owned one pair of pants and hadn’t had a hair cut in half a decade but I dug deep down inside myself and found some last reserves of energy that were set on fire by my new mission. My passion and desire made even the most drudgerous tasks of the application process seem like minor hurdles. I had only the prize in sight.

The problem was that the application provided only one spot where a candidate could outshine the others (and it wasn’t the X-rays showing that I was tuberculosis –free). There was a simple sentence inviting me to attach my research proposal. There were no guidelines, no prompts, no list of contents to include and, most importantly, no page limit.

I spent a month working every spare moment on it: carefully writing, editing and rewriting, describing my research topic, my hypothesis, why it was not only plausible but also important and innovative. I made itemized lists of the materials I’d need –complete with costs and a budget. I summarized the work of all the other scholars that I’d read on the topic (which was a lot). I carefully elaborated the method I would use in my research and included a timeline. When I was done, I whittled it down to only the bare minimum most strictly essential information… which was thick enough to use for a doorstop in a light breeze.

Then I waited for the impossible to happen.

And it did.

The interview at the Japanese consulate was daunting. My husband and I invested in a suit jacket with a cute pencil skirt and an asymmetrical wrap-around blouse so that I was smartly dressed. I somehow managed to wrestle my ridiculously long hair into a French-twist, a feat which (for me) was even more impressive than re-plastering my own ceilings.

When it came time for the interview, I sat in the waiting room with half a dozen men, all with fresh haircuts and sharp suits, and fretted because I was the only woman… and that might not be a good thing.

The interview room contained a long table lined with five interviewers on one side and a single seat for me on the other side. Questions included things like “Do you think your gender will affect your ability to collect data in a male-dominated field like architecture?”

My heart sank lower and lower as the interview wound down. And, just when I was prepared to leave crest fallen…

The serious-faced committee confided to me frankly (in a way that was clearly not meant to go to my head) that I had sent in the best and most thorough proposal they’d received in years.

Sure, once in Japan we were surviving on eggs and rice in a two bedroom apartment the size of the living room in my little Texas bungalow… but it was one of the best years of my life. And, all my experience as a housewife with plastering and DIY home-repair paid off when I had opportunities to work with traditional artisans and craftsmen! Those years as an accidental housewife had not been wasted, as I had once thought. I traded a tin roof for thatched ones! And, who cares if the Japanese parking attendants working at the foot of our apartment building (who were so friendly with my househusband and his two tiny responsibilities) looked down their noses at me with the air of pious church ladies and wouldn’t give me the time of day, undoubtedly viewing me as–that woman who left her poor husband to care for the house and children. (Obviously I cared a little bit.) But, I didn’t let it spoil the fact that I was in heaven.

So when the earthquake and terrifying nuclear incident put an abrupt end to it all, I was really lost with no direction to follow but I knew, sure as hell, that I was going to find a direction.  Return of “The Unstoppable (if Accidental) Over-Educated, Under-Qualified Housewife”!

 

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