In July of 1999, I had three child-free hours five days a week. Annie, my daughter, was three years old and attending playgroup and my son aged five had just started school. Both children were very happy with their schools, chattering endlessly when returning home about new friends, nature tables paintings and other activities. For me, the three childless hours when Annie was at playgroup were re-energising and provided me with the opportunity to take a course in Youth work. Well, that was in England in a small town situated between Birmingham and Stratford upon Avon called Redditch.
When my husband sprung on me the opportunity to move to Japan, I hesitated. My concern was the children and how their lives would be effected by the move. However, he'd done his homework on our destination - Tsukuba. He'd got information on an international school for my son and an English speaking playgroup which met one morning a week at YMCA for Annie. With the knowledge that schools were in place, I decided to take the risk and go - well I could always go back home if I didn't like it!
After two days of jetlag in Tokyo, we moved into Tsukuba Dai Ichi Hotel and within that time arranged for Liam to start at Tsukuba International School. From day one he loved it and so did his parents. However finding something for Annie seemed more difficult. During the first few days in Dai Ichi Hotel, we attended the first day of the English speaking playgroup - it folded on the same day. However, I was recommended to check out a popular private kindergarten. Popular was an understatement. On the sign up day the parents and grandparents were going to queue through the night for a place. Mad was my first reaction so I didn't bother. This was a big mistake! A new friend I'd met at my son's school suggested trying the Japanese playgroup at YMCA. She told me they had reserved places for foreigners. I contacted them, but was told they were full until April 2000, which was too long to wait or so I thought at the time.
From then on my journey through Tsukuba's pre-school provision for an English speaking child was both disappointing and frustrating. My daughter was just too young for the local public kindergartens. The private provision did not meet our needs for a diverse number of reasons. They were too far away and on one visit a cockroach ran across my foot as I took Annie to the toilet - a hygiene issue. Some places provided no play and others were just stuck in one room for a day with no outside space.
As time went on, Annie became more and more difficult, or so it seemed. She wanted to go to school like her brother and she had just got used to her independence as I had. We began losing our enthusiasm for any more trips to the library on bikes. All the parks had been explored thoroughly and although we had by now joined a Mummy's club, I was still searching for my precious three hours of freedom. Then I decided to check out the Public Day Care system. I'd heard that they were local authority regulated and standards were high. Apparently there were some English speaking kids in the local system, so a chance Annie wouldn't feel too isolated, and I was desperate for some time away from Annie.
So, I turned to the Day Care system and after two trips to the City office, I knew the requirements. A trip to a local employer secured me a job. After two trips to the Tokyo Immigration office, I got the permit to engage in activity other than that permitted by the status of Residence previously granted. Two more trips to the City office to provide information on my husbands earnings, got me registered for three Day Care Centres local to Kasuga.
Just before Christmas, I was offered a Day Care place in Yatabe. Too far from my employer, too far to co-ordinate with my son's school times and too far as a round trip. April's not that far off, said my husband. I screamed!
Well it's now May 2000 and I've been in Tsukuba for nine months and Annie is in the Japanese Playgroup at YMCA. She started in April 2000, eight months after our arrival in Tsukuba. She loves it and seems to be settling in well. I have two hours of freedom three days a week and I'm a new woman. So, why am I writing this? Yes, the 5000 yen is attractive. Yes, I'm indulging in egocentric therapy as I write but there's also another reason. My first eight months in Tsukuba would have been so much easier if something had been available for Annie. Here's the ideal: an international playgroup in which children can start whatever time of the year they arrive in Tsukuba. This playgroup would provide ten hours or so a week of quality care and play for international pre-school kids at a price that could be afforded in a location central to Tsukuba. The playgroup would have workers who were sensitive to both parents and children who are often exhausted by the huge cultural and geographical transition they are going through. Tentatively, I would suggest the playgroup be in English, thus also meeting the needs of some of the bi-lingual children who are already resident here. Some Japanese language would be an offer to start the process of integration. This would also alleviate some of the distress caused by being thrown in at the deep end. If you are reading this and have some opinions regarding my suggestion then please inform the Alien Times.
PS. I wrote this during my two hour break from children - bliss!
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