Authors: Lucinda Ruh
My Japanese skating coach's way of teaching me was foreign and uncomfortable to me after my instruction in Paris. She did teach me in English, but I was just learning the language so it was a little hard for me to always comprehend what she wanted from me. Everything was so different. In France there was communication between the coach and student, and since I was so little there would also be a lot of giggling. But here in Japan, oh, no. Such emotions were not allowed. The training was strict and overbearing and condescending. There was to be no talking, no having fun, and definitely no smiling. Those were the rules.
Skating was and still is a very expensive sport. Very famous Japanese families such as the soy sauce Kikkoman family and the Seibu train and hotel family surrounded me and they were treated with more respect than I was. Since my coach was teaching these families she was to train them with more care, and so my lessons were put to the side and my parents felt I was not taken care of properly.
After a short while I started to not enjoy her lessons, or really the lack of lessons, and my parents decided to switch me to the top coach at the rink at that time. He was the best there was in Japan. My parents were told he would never accept me as his student because I was coming to him from the lady coach who was his rival. My parents decided to try anyway, and surprisingly the coach agreed to take me on. He said I was very talented but since he was too busy at the moment to take care of such a little thing as me, I would have to prove to him that I was worthy of his instruction. I would have to come in every day and work hard on the ice on my own for six months before he would start giving me a twenty-minute lesson once a week. I was seven years old! Now, is that dedication and beautiful respect demanded from a student by the coach or is that just plain absurd?
Anyway, my parents had started to learn the three monkeys of hear no evil, speak no evil, and see no evil, and the offer was accepted. No arguments, no discussion, just accept or leave. So for six months I skated every day after school for hours on end with my mother correcting, supporting, guiding, and helping me in any way she could. It was extremely hard to watch all the other kids get lessons while I could not, but I bit my lip. I trusted my mother and all I knew was to follow her lead. We were alone in this. Skaters didn't talk to each other much and it was to be a lonely sport. But deep inside of me I knew as long as I was with my mother everything would be good. She would protect me from all danger.
Perhaps because all of us in my family were a product of many languages my mother always translated everything back to German, her first language, in order to truly understand the nuance of a word. Nonetheless there were many words my mother forbade me to use, including all the swear-words, of course. One word in particular when translated into German sounded terrible. It was the word “want.” Therefore, I was never allowed to say “I wantâ¦” Instead I had to say “I wishâ¦” It was incredibly hard, especially in school later on because if I said “I wish a cookie” my classmates would simply reply, “You can wish all day long, but you will not get any.” But I always did what my mother told me or I would feel incredibly guilty and would have to tell my mother what I did since I could not lie. So I lived in my world of wishes, never wants. I just wished everything. It translated in my mentality to be everything I would have to overcome. It did not give me strength but it gave me my own fairy tale world that I loved to live in. Even just recently as I was reacting to a situation I said with a giggle, “I wish to swear!” I was told that this was quite cute!
Here the three curses and/or blessings of see no, hear no, and speak no evil really started taking charge of my life and of how my mother started disciplining me. No matter what, I was not to stand up for myself. I was told to cover my eyes, ears, and mouth, just give one thousand percent, and to do as I was told and be quiet. We were in a foreign country and especially at the ice rink, since it was Japanese turf, it had to be done their way or we had to get out. It's only understandable that my mother followed the rules when she knew that if we did not follow the Japanese culture I would definitely not get any lessons. That fear overrode all else, overrode all humanity, and overrode all sense of self and human preservation and self-respect. It overrode my mother's own sense of self and her beliefs. It was almost like we were slaves to the Japanese culture and our teacher.
But my mother was certain we would rise above the challenge because she saw my talent on the ice. For that talent, all must be done. She gave away her self-respect and put all of her trust into the coach's methods. I was not taught to fight for my rights or beliefs. Instead I was to just show how good I was by results whether in school or on the ice. Show double, or triple the success of what others were doing. Work and produce more than anyone else, but do not talk, do not fight, do not express your opinion or emotions. Saving face was the way to go. Just do this, no matter what the sacrifice is.
I was working and working wherever I was and I was excelling at it all. I was doing things on the ice no one else was doing and I stood out not only for my blond hair but also for my swift executions of all the tricks. I was creating and inventing moves and positions never done before. I loved doing that. I was the ballerina on ice. I could do that for hours, but strict repetition, or not necessarily repeating, but doing everything the same way over and over, was not my thing. I changed everyday what and how I did things. That was my freedom. I was winning all the competitions I entered. I was an A student.
As everything seemed to progress on the outside everything was falling apart on the inside. I was becoming shy and embarrassed. I was becoming afraid of people, of authority, and circumstances. I was most afraid not to please my mother, to fail. I was afraid that with all she was putting into me I wasn't living up to her expectations. Conversations started to become only about skating and I do not remember talking to my mother much about anything else. My mother had all the responsibility on her shoulders since there was no other support. Therefore she became very strict with me about my skating and I was so afraid to make mistakes. I wanted so badly to make my mother proud of me.
“Sorry” is a very common word in Japan and used so frequently in their language that you find yourself and everyone around you apologizing for everything. “Sorry” became every second word I voiced and felt. I was sorry for coming into a room, sorry for disturbing anyone, sorry for my existence. Sorry for eating or breathing too loudly. Sorry for this, sorry for that. I started to feel I was a nuisance to everybody.
At school, however, I felt accepted since it was filled with foreigners, but my real life was not there. My life was on the ice and there no matter how much I tried to fit in and act like the other Japanese kids, to eat like them, and even to pick up the language and speak like them, I was thrown to the side. I would get the last lessons of the day or no lesson at all if there was no more time. I would get laughed at for what I was wearing when it was different from theirs. I was told to go home where I came from. They said I had no right as an outsider to take away time from the Japanese coach. They laughed at my long eyelashes so much that I started picking them out until I had no more left. I would never be accepted as a Japanese person but to me at that time as a little kid I didn't look at outside appearances, so I didn't understand. I just felt hurt by the situation and I couldn't speak out because I didn't know how, so I expressed it with my skating.
I was supposed to be a happy child, not sad. I was supposed to be the sunshine of my mother's life. I could not show her my weakness. All I wanted was to have friends and be one of them but that to my great disappointment would never happen. The more success I had on the ice the worse the bullying got. And so it all began. Without realizing it, my teardrops froze and my life took a dangerous turn and to become frozen over time.
A Barbie or an Alien?
hat is age? Is it identified by a number, or the amount of wisdom, or depth of understanding a person has? Is it how you look or how you act or just the number you tell people? Can't a person be older or younger than his age? Don't we grow sometimes in one dimension or in one direction and not the other? Don't we stay childish in some areas and mature in other realms, and in the end doesn't the life in your years count more than the years in your life?
I feel respecting someone else comes first and foremost after respecting yourself, but certainly has nothing to do with age. All humans should respect each other. But in Japan age is the most sacred attribute a person can attain and anyone even a day older than you is to be respected and is to be bowed to. It is not by their wisdom or by their actions that they demand respect but by their time of birth, their time of appearance on this earth, as if that gives them the right to look down upon all others after them. You are not to cross someone older than you. This is huge in their culture and therefore the suicide rate is extremely high due to the bullying inflicted by the older kids or adults on younger children who can't bear it. If an older kid than I at the rink dropped something, I would have to pick it up for them or be bullied the rest of the day. It was like treading on eggshells all the time. It was like being of service to the older kids. If an older kid was preparing for a jump but I had the right of way I would still have to get out of the way and let the other do the jump.
On top of this, teachers are incredibly respected in Japan and they are considered always right. They can do no wrong and you are never to speak to a coach unless spoken to. My coach was the top teacher at the rink, and this plus his age gave him enormous authority. We were told that it was a huge honor to be taught by him and we owed our life to him. My life and respect was all laid before my coach. When we entered the ice rink all the coaches would be lined up and we would have to go to each and every coach to say either good morning, good afternoon, or good evening according to the time of day it was. Then when the session was over we would have to go to each one again and say good-bye and thank-you. If this was not done, you were scolded and would be shunned. My coach's order was my command. Or you would be thrown out. What a disgrace and shame that would be, not only for me but also for my mother. We would not have been able to face any of them again. So the pressure of all these rules was extreme, and whatever my coach told my mother and me, it needed to be done or we were told to not dare show our faces there again.
I honestly do not know much about my Japanese coach. I could not figure him out and the longer I was there the less he showed me of himself. He was a coach who taught me. He was not there to be understood by me. He was not there for me to become friends with. He was to remain an enigma and in that way we could respect him. My coach did not speak to me much. He would teach me with few words, few actions, and with a stern face glowing with an expression that I was to fear him. This way it was thought the best would come from his students. The idea was to break them down so that they produce. But whatever happened to building them back up? The building back up part came with getting another lesson the next day that showed you were worthy and good enough to have his time for one more lesson. That was success enough. If you won a medal no words of praise were uttered. The medal was to signify good work but it represented that more work was needed. Plus, it was to be believed in my home as well that we should never be too happy; otherwise bad things would happen to us. Was it just plain fear? Fear always takes away love and where there is no love there is no joy and no true success.
Coaches would lash out at their other skaters with physical and mental abuse but since I was a foreigner they were too afraid to hit me. I was never touched, but my coach did scream at me and showed his anger at me in different ways, such as not giving me lessons for days on end and not speaking or looking at me. Coaches would punish their students by making them walk around the circumference of the ice rink barefoot for the remainder of the session. This could be for an hour or more. They would hit them until they bled. They would scream and parents would just watch. Parents would continue the abuse off the ice hitting their kids with the skate guards, bare hands, or whatever else they had.
There was one boy from another coach who was hit so much he couldn't walk straight anymore and was trembling nonstop. There was a little cafe by the rink and they would pull him in there and beat him like crazy. The memory of his screams and cries still make me sick to my stomach to this day. They made the music louder to drown the noise. Coaches wouldn't hit the older students as much as the younger ones. But it started with skaters who were around nine years old. Why would they lash out? Well, it could be because the skater fell, made a mistake, or the coach just thought they weren't trying hard enough.
As years progressed my skating training became extreme. But at that time everyone was doing what I did so it didn't seem like a big deal. Being in Japan, an island far away with no contact with other skating worlds or methods, my mother without questioning followed the other mothers and the protocol presented. In the beginning we lived quite close to the ice rink but we moved into a home even closer to the rink so that it would be easier for my sister and me to train. How ironic, that a few months after we had moved, the rink closed and we then had to skate at an ice rink even further away, going all the way to Shin-Yokohama, which was quite far away from Tokyo.
This was to later recur and recur: Whenever we disrupted the family for some drastic change just for the sake of skating, the actual object we were trying to get closer to would just get further away from us. It's as if you always only lose what you cling to. It was so true, but we were too close to the problem to see what was happening. We were too close to see and there was no one else we could turn to for help. All we could do was blame ourselves about doing something wrong and yet keep on trying and trying to do everything possible.
Every day from the age of about nine I woke up around 4:45 a.m., my mother around 3:30 a.m. Everything was on a tight schedule and I had to hurry all day long with no time to stop or think. Time was of the essence. My mother and I were out the door by 5:00 a.m. I would have to run for about ten minutes as my mother drove behind me. Then I would jump into the car and eat my breakfast my mother made me on route to the ice rink. My mother cooked amazingly well and I never ate fast food. My mother made sure I always had the best quality homemade food. Breakfasts were always my favorite meal. She would prepare a whole basket full of food like I was going on a picnic. It was a heavy basket! I had salad, soup, fruit, bread with honey,and always a little protein, eggs or meat. Lunches at school were so delicious that all my friends were jealous. My mother made every meal a celebration, colorful and scrumptious. I loved to eat it all and I ate so much! The smells and the presentation were so thoughtful and wonderful.
As we neared the ice rink she would drop me off ten minutes away from the rink so I could run the rest of the way and warm up. I was on the ice by 6:00 a.m. and skated until about 7:10 a.m. I would always have to end the practice on a good note with a perfect jump, but time was crucial. I would run off the ice and would hop back in the car with my skates on since there was no time to put them off at the rink. The route to school that was about one hour away, took always much longer during the morning and afternoon rush hour. In the car I would change into my school clothes and finish my homework. School was from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. I was late a lot of the times but the school knew the reason and although upset, couldn't do much about it since I was an A student.
Sometimes my mother forgot socks or shoes and I would end up putting on hers and walking into school with high heels that were way too big for me, that I wore until my mother could go home to get my shoes and bring them to me! After school my mother picked me up and brought me back to the ice rink. In the car I would recount every little detail to my mother of the day at school and all the tests I did and got back and all my grades. I would then have a snack and have a nap since I would be exhausted. I then skated again from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. Then I'd have an hour break to eat dinner and do homework and off-ice training and skate again for another hour before leaving the rink to return home.
On the car ride home my mother told me how my practices went and then usually I did more homework before I was again dropped off ten minutes away from home so I could run the rest of the way. We would get home around 10:00 p.m. and be in bed by around 11:00. The day was run on our adrenaline and it was exciting as we went from one thing to another nonstop. Sometimes when time permitted, or on the weekends when I was done with my homework, I had time to enjoy the car rides. I would stare out the window and just drift off into another world. I loved doing that and I would do it often. I made up tons of stories in my head. My mother would ask me what I thought about as I daydreamed, and I never could give a straight answer. my thoughts were stories that I made up, happening so fast, one after another, alive and descriptive. I saw them clearly in my head like visions. I would see another person in the car next to us and a whole book of his life came into my head. I had a huge imagination. Agatha Christie books were my favorite at this time and the way the minds of the characters worked fascinated me. I devoured their personalities and ways of thinking. Their intelligence was clearly arousing to me.
Being on the ice was exciting. I learned new things every day and there was a competition at the rink about who did what better. All eyes were on everyone. It was challenging and taught me discipline and dedication. I would fall hundreds of times a day and when finally I could succeed at something for the first time there was a celebration. But this had to be quickly forgotten since much more was to be learned and achieved. I miss that time even today. Sometimes we would take some other skaters back with us and drop them off at their home after the evening practice. My mother was the only mother to do that in our thirteen years there. Most skaters after their skating practice would go to a night school called juku, until the wee hours of the morning. So I had it easy, my mother would say.
Saturdays I would train all morning on the ice from about 6:00 a.m. to noon. Then I'd do off-ice training for a couple of hours and ballet class for another two hours before collapsing into bed in the evening. My parents bought me a video player and in the car once I finished my homework I watched other skaters' performances diligently to learn and visualize myself doing it like them. Every minute counted and was not to be wasted and every minute was a chance to learn something new. I was on the road and path of privileged education and knowledge.
Sunday mornings I had dance class for a couple of hours and then my favorite part, a wonderful lunch with my parents. I would be spoiled with a slice of pizza, and believe it or not that was the highlight of the day. The wonderful experience of biting into the juicy flavors of pizza was a paradise that would be lost all too soon as I became older and there was no time for such luxuries of taste, nor would it be allowed in my strict diet thereafter.
Filling the rest of the day was homework, studying, and tutors, one coming after the other in history, English, and then math and the sciences. I loved math and it was one of the subjects I could totally indulge myself in and my teacher was awesome. He was like an uncle to me and he took great care of me emotionally and mathematically. He would teach me for almost eight hours straight and it would go by like a minute. Solving problems was my Sunday desert. He was a mathematical genius and had a genuine heart of gold. Even though he has now passed on to a better realm he often visits me in my dreams and I hear his voice often calling me “good job, kid.”
Off-ice training included a range of exercises such as running, lifting weights, plyometrics, and trampoline training as well as other specific exercises our skating coach gave us to do. Swimming exercises were a big part of my off-ice training that my mother invented for me. During the summers we were members of an exclusive swim club and in between my morning and afternoon practices I trained in the pool. Lengths were to be done under the water to improve my stamina and laps were to be done consecutively for around forty-five minutes. It was an Olympic-size pool and I had to swim one full length all under water. It took a while for me to able to do it, but either from the pressure of the water or from my mother watching intently above, it was more about how it MUST be done sooner rather than later, and when accomplished it had to be repeated several times. The feeling of suffocation from being under water with no air to breathe in was a feeling I would have to control throughout my skating career. My mother and I had our training routine down pat and nothing could be left out or we would feel I was lazy. We were a great team.
The off-ice coaches were part of the team too. They came to the ice rink and all the skaters would train together. We had a route where we ran about forty-five minutes. All the other skaters would cheat by taking a short cut but I just never could bring myself to do that with them. I would go off on my own and do the whole route as told every single time. But every time I came to the finish line I was still in first place because I would make sure that I ran twice as fast to catch up with them. But not once was I given a pat on the shoulder or told I did well. It would disappoint me so much. I could never figure out what I had done wrong or not good enough to be unable to please my coaches. I always felt so bad that no matter how much I did, it never seemed good enough.
Not once in my whole skating life did I cheat or not do what my coaches or my mother said. I usually did more than was asked of me, and I think this hurt me more than I could have imagined. I thought I was doing well, yet it led me to be injured, and later destroyed me for the sport. But what did I know? Everyone was always pushing me to do even more so I just gave everything I had. I was becoming mentally and physically so tired.