“Anpanman!  Anpanman!” We’re in the toy store. My daughter, who clearly wants an “anpanman” is pulling at my hand and rushing towards a row of brightly colored plastic…things.  The trouble is, I’m only vaguely aware of Anpanman in general and not at all with this specific instance of him.

Everything I know about Anpanman: He’s a superhero. His head is a sweet roll stuffed with red bean paste. Japanese children love him. My half-Japanese child loves him.

Where did he come from? Why is he so popular? And, most importantly, how the hell did my kid find out about him? We don’t have any Anpanman toys or puzzles or games. We don’t watch him on TV. So…?

 

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The answer, of course, is pre-school. My daughter attends a pre-school play group three or four days a week. Just as in play groups everywhere, the children sing songs, play games, tumble around on miniaturized, plasticized gym equipment, and generally get tired out enough to give their parents some beloved nap time. They also learn about odd little characters with whom their parents lack any familiarity, apparently.

There are two factors at play here: One, I’m an older parent. I was almost 40 when my daughter was born. Two, I live in Japan, where I lack all the standard childhood referents.

When my daughter is with me, we do things in English. We watch Elmo (after my time, but I get it), Bert and Ernie (they’re animated now?), and we read lots and lots of books (Dr. Seuss seems pretty timeless, thankfully).

The trouble is, my daughter does not spend her time with only me. There’s her mom, of course, and her grandparents. And her teachers. And her classmates. And the really kind old neighbor lady who persists in giving her snacks and sweets.

All these people, as loving and kind as they are, are not from where I’m from. When my daughter looks at me, she sees the odd man out. I find myself playing catch-up, not only to my own culture (seriously, who are all these new characters on “Sesame Street”?), but also to one I only half-comprehend as an outsider.

To be very clear, this is not a language issue. This is a cultural issue. There are dozens and dozens of toys in the toy aisle at the supermarket that occupy a cherished, nostalgic, warm-fuzzy spot in the hearts of Japanese people that I have very little contact with. Until now, I’ve had minimal interest in these things beyond the basic “Oh, that’s nice.”

I mean, imagine your Japanese friend sitting in on a conversation between you and your besties about “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters”? Language is not the issue. Trust me. No, these things are easy to blow past as an adult. After all, if you and your friend are talking about “Scooby-Doo” and someone can’t participate fully, the polite thing is to move on to something else.

Then again, how often do you and your friends sit around talking about 50-year-old cartoons when there are world events, mortgages, spouses, and football to talk about?

Culture is a fluid thing at the best of times. On the one hand, it is ephemeral – a trending fad one moment and completely passe the next. But it’s also very sticky. Elements and pieces of the greater pop cultures in which we’re all raised stay with us far beyond their ostensible shelf life. We remember songs, cartoons, games, and weird little pieces of plastic shaped like our favorite characters.

Seriously, have you seen Anpanman?

This is, in the grand scheme of things, the least of my problems. I have a job, a mortgage, etc. etc. etc. But this is what I worry about. I am afraid that my child, my only child, will grow up alien to me, fluent in a culture that I can only participate in at the surface levels.

I’m afraid that she will prefer this other thing to me and my culture. I am afraid that she will prefer these strange creations to the strange creations of PBS and Children’s Television Workshop, that she will prefer this life – this culture in which she is being raised – to me.

It seems somehow inevitable. After all, this is her home. This is where she will go to school, make friends, grow up, discover who she is, and where she will, eventually, build her own life. And yet, I am desperately hoping that she will find some comfort, maybe even some joy, in being different – that being of both here and elsewhere will cause her to expand her interests and her sense of self to something dramatic and beautiful.

But, in the meantime, she really wants that Anpanman puzzle.

So, what to do about it?  Obviously, the first step is to get up to speed on all things Anpanman. Thank you, Wikipedia and mobile data connections.

The second step is to relax. I knew going into this whole fatherhood thing that there would be an incredible number of things I’d be ignorant about. I knew there would be things I could not help her with, things related to being Japanese that I will never quite get, despite speaking the language. And, I know that cartoon characters are, honestly, the least of my worries. Culture is important, but there is far more for us to bond over than TV and brightly colored bits of plastic.

She is going to be who she is going to be, and forcing her to choose between this culture and that culture, between my interests and her own, is a certain path to failure.

So, I shove my worries back into the deep, dark recesses of my soul and buy the damn puzzle. Then I put my newly acquired knowledge to work so that I can do the puzzle with my kid. I help her put the pieces together, saying the names as we do so.

“This is Shokupanman. This is Baikinman. This is…we’ll have to ask Mommy who this is.”