The Little Prince ... From Japan
HE is no older than four, this child I am watching from behind my menu. But he has a hero's endurance. Right now he is enduring a gray flannel suit with short pants, a starched shirt, a tie. He has a hero's visage, too; under a helmet of black hair, his alert gaze inspects the dining room of the Kyoto hotel - the slender male waiters, the guests, the nosy American woman three tables away ... quickly I raise my menu to cover my eyes.Skip to next paragraph
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But I uncover them soon, to view again this youngster attended by grandmother, mother, and two sisters. The grandmother wears a traditional kimono of heavy gray silk. The mother wears a black suit of Parisian cut. The teenaged girls wear navy skirts and crisp white blouses. They ply their forks and knives with competence.
No, these are not members of the imperial family, my son says. Japanese royalty, however much it wants to democratize itself, does not, when visiting Kyoto, take its breakfast in a hotel dining room. Having thus enlightened me, my son returns his attention to his odd breakfast of fish and salad. His chopsticks execute a remarkable trill. He lifts an eyebrow at the waiter. The waiter approaches; the two young men confer about the next course in rapid Japanese.
My son is spending his junior year in Japan. His familiarity with the politics and history and cuisine of a foreign country is impressive. But his fluency in a foreign tongue is dismaying. I know that my children lead private lives, but this particular child is able to conduct even his public life in a language I can't understand. My immigrant grandmother used to wave me away when, resenting some question, I answered in fast, slangy English. I think of her now with sympathy.
My son is speaking to me. "Don't stare at that family," he gently chides.
I try not to stare. But I can't help peeking over my fan of a menu.
The little princeling and his court have ordered a Western breakfast, apparently as a didactic exercise. The pancakes are more or less familiar. The toast in the rack is cause for giggles. The cereal is sobering; this mush is not rice! Throughout the serving and the eating of the meal, the attractive little boy comments, asserts, demands, remands. He tries this, he samples that, he hesitates over something, he repudiates something else. His voice is quiet, however, and his table manners are excellent, th ough every so often he takes time out industriously to pick his nose. His fingers are then wiped clean by either the old-fashioned grandmother or the chic mother. Meanwhile the teenaged sisters talk to one another. When a pitcher of cream arrives, one of them dips her pinky into it and samples the stuff. She makes a face, sees me watching, giggles, and then composes her exquisite features.
These are not the first children I've watched. My room upstairs in this hotel faces a Roman Catholic nursery school. Every morning, leaning out my window, I attend the students' arrival. They are brought by their parents - sometimes borne by them on the back of a bicycle. Often an infant sibling comes along for the ride, strapped to the parent's chest. The little scholars dismount and run toward the courtyard of the building, but they pause to bow gravely to the robed sister standing near the entrance. S miling, she bows in return.