“Hmmm, I wouldn’t say she was ugly, but as for beautiful, that’s not a word for her.” Asako was quick to recover her normal breezy attitude. “As for her popular classes, I guess Japanese ladies like someone bossy. They want to be told what to do. They like to follow whoever tells them what to do.” Mitsuko was about to open her mouth to protest Asako’s unreasonable comment when Yurie broke into laughter.
“Asako-chan, you’d really better watch your mouth. None of those ladies from the baking class will ever talk to you again.”
“Well, they never talk to me anyway.”
Asako sipped a fragrant espresso, no sugar, no cream, without any expression on her face. Mitsuko couldn’t read her mind. She didn’t know if her young friend really didn’t care what others thought or was just good at pretending. She guessed that Asako’s tough expression was a protection against loneliness. Mitsuko felt like embracing Asako’s still-girlish shoulder. Only she didn’t. That was too touchy for Japanese.
Asako was going on. “Her yummy cake was her weapon. She was ver-r-r-y confident: ‘If you want to bake a yummy cake, follow me-e-e-e!’” She raised her index finger up in the air like a tour guide leading a group. “That’s what they liked, I think.” She took another sip of her strong black coffee.
“Hmmm,” Mika nodded. “Maybe I should sign up for her class. Not for the baking, since I’m hopeless in the kitchen, but for lessons on how to do that follow me-e-e! part. That would be a very useful skill to have. When does the next class start?”
“It won’t,” said Yurie, though she was hesitant to bring up the topic.
“Gone where? What do you mean?”
“Her husband’s Bangkok assignment finished. She went back to Japan.”
“Oh…” Mika made a pretend disappointed face. “I missed a chance to build my charisma, then.” She sipped her coffee with milk, no sugar. “She must have been sorry to give up her kingdom of baking classes.”
“Actually, she lingered on for a while,” said Yurie, “even after her husband’s assignment had finished. But she did not have a proper visa to stay on. I heard she didn’t have a work permit in the first place.”
An unusual silence fell over their conversation. Always at their table, funny gossip was “in,” but unpleasant gossip was “out.” No one said it aloud, but it was their rule. Mitsuko could feel that Yurie was regretting saying things she shouldn’t have and that Mika was feeling guilty for starting the conversation in the first place.
Asako broke the awkward silence, trying to lighten the atmosphere. “I’m sure she is continuing her lucrative baking business in Japan!”
Yurie gave Asako a sisterly smile. But then Mitsuko caught a second smile of doubt.
Mitsuko could see the difficulty of pursuing the same baking business in Japan. Her cake was delicious because it was in Bangkok. Very few shops served Japanese-style sweets, so the cake had rarity value. But in Japan, there were tons of sweet shops which could serve cakes as good as hers or better. She would be just one of many, nothing special. Her charisma, if she had any, worked only here in Bangkok.
Also, ordinary Japanese wives had no time to take a twelve-week baking class. Only those with plenty of time and money could have afforded the class, and they would rather just buy their cakes, Mitsuko thought. It would be very difficult to make the baking class successful, let alone lucrative. Yurie’s smile revealed what Mitsuko had just now understood: that the baking class empire was just the teacher’s short-term dream-come-true while she was here in Bangkok.
Biting into a dry cocoa-powdered cake, Mitsuko tried to remember the chubby lady’s bossiness, but at that moment, only her shining smile drifted in. Crumbles of cocoa cake tasted like sand in her mouth, and she missed Kayoko-sensei’s rich, moist dark chocolate cake. Short-lived or not, Kayoko-sensei’s dream had come true. She had made the best use of her temporary life in Bangkok.
“What are you thinking, Mitsuko-san?” Mika broke into her thoughts. “You look to be contemplating something very serious.” Mika said this with a lilt in voice, so that Mitsuko would know she was only teasing.
Mitsuko fumbled for an equally light answer. “Oh, nothing… I just miss Kayoko-sensei’s chocolate cake.”
A smile spread across Mika’s face, as if a good idea had just occurred to her. “Mitsuko-san, why don’t you take over Kayoko-sensei’s baking business? How about ‘Mitsuko’s Japanese Cooking Class?’ You are a very good cook.” Mika turned to look at the others. “Yurie can help. She is great at presenting food beautifully. And Asako-chan. Hmmm. You and I can help market the class in English.” All of a sudden, Mika was very enthusiastic about her entrepreneurial idea. “We will go for international customers, not just for Japanese…”
“Oh, that’s a great idea!” Asako chimed in before Mitsuko said anything. “Japanese food is very popular in Bangkok, but I’ve never heard of a Japanese cooking school. It might actually be possible. And it will be fun! A Bangkok Madam’s Club endeavour!” As soon as those last words left her mouth, Asako dropped her shoulders gloomily. “Oh, I wish we could. But we Mitsumaru wives are not allowed to work here.”
“But why not?” Mika’s own enthusiasm appeared quickly dampened. “I don’t think the UN has that kind of rule.”
“We are just supposed to support our husbands ‘behind the curtain.’” Asako held up the two fingers of each hand like quotation marks. “Being a good wife and wise mother should be our total focus.” In contrast to her usual bravado, Asako sounded feeble. Then she exploded. “Sometimes all these Japanese company rules make me crazy!” She shook her fists up and down like a child throwing a tantrum. Her exaggerated gesture made the rest laugh, and Asako broke into laughter despite herself.
Even as she was laughing, Mitsuko was wondering if she should try to make something more out of her expat life. Her husband’s assignment could be another two or three years. What should she do with herself during that time? She had no idea what she could do. She did not even know what she would like to do. Even if there wasn’t a company rule, Mitsuko wouldn’t dream of launching her own business. She could not imagine taking that kind of initiative in this foreign country (or even in Japan).
Supporting family was her endeavour, if she could call it as such. She didn’t think Mitsumaru had brainwashed her, but being a good wife and wise mother was important to her. She wanted to provide abundant love and care for her family as they worked and studied in this alien land. And it was not as easy as she had expected it to be.
In truth, Mitsuko often felt she couldn’t even take care of herself, let alone her family. For the last year or so, she had been struggling just to live in Bangkok – learning enough of a new language just to survive, finding her way around, running her household in this unfamiliar city, bringing up children in a foreign culture, making friends, dealing with a maid and a driver. She had more than enough to deal with just tending to the daily chores. She often felt exhausted by the end of the day.
As she looked around the table at her friends, Mitsuko realised that the Bangkok Madam’s Club was one of the few things that brought her comfort in her expat life. She could breathe freely amongst these women, not as a wife, not as a mother, but as Mitsuko herself, who still had a little girl in her heart whom she had known all her life. After being Mitsuko at the Bangkok Madam’s Club, she felt refreshed and ready to resume her role in her family.
As the lunch came to an end that day, Mitsuko silently wished that none of these three women would leave Bangkok before she did. She wanted her own little group of Bangkok Madam’s to last as long as she was in Thailand.
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