I used to play volleyball with a big group of women. About half these women were Japanese Nationals, living in the Los Angeles area while they or their husbands were working for Toyota, Honda, or other Japanese corporations.
These Japanese women never played volleyball professionally. Many hadn’t played since their school days. And yet they were amazing. They could run down and set a ball like pros. They never gave up on a play, wearing down and demoralizing the strongest, biggest, hardest hitting white women (like me).
The only way to beat their defense was to use my superior height and wingspan to block their hits straight down. Even then, they learned to cover their hitter and slide a pancake hand under the ball just before it hit the floor.
We had amazing rallies that would go a minute or more. Those games were so much fun. Even when they lost, our Japanese players would bow and congratulate the winner of the point.
They didn’t hi-five as much as the American or Asian-American players, they didn’t celebrate as much as our Scandinavian players, and they certainly didn’t hug and cheer as much as our Latina players.
In fact, these Japanese women were even less touchy feely than me, and I’m your basic “I will awkwardly return this hug you are insisting on if I must but then I’m retreating across the room ASAP” White Anglo Saxon Protestant.
But on the day my pregnant belly became unmistakable, the Japanese players mobbed me.
“Autumn! You are pregnant?!”
“Girl or boy?”
“You need to stop putting up the net!”
“I cannot believe you are still hitting!”
“Do you have a name?”
These formerly restrained women could not get enough of my bump. They patted, admired, and hugged. It was such a shift from their usual reserve, I was unprepared to fend them off.
“Uh, er, um, due in a couple months,” I told them, fighting the urge to slap away their hands. “My doctor says I can still play. The ladder is fine. And we’re naming him Dalton, it’s a boy.”
“A boy!” shrieked Ako. She pressed her belly against mine. “For luck! I want a boy, too.”
“Wha—” I tried to back up.
Miyuki pressed her belly against mine from the other side. “Yes! I want a baby, too.”
Next thing I knew, there were four Japanese stomachs pressing against Baby D, as if the transitive property applied to uteruses as well as math.
I wanted to run. But a) that would be rude, and b) these lithe Japanese women would catch my big pregnant self easily.
Besides, clearly some of my Japanese volleyball comrades were not only struggling with fertility issues, they didn’t have many places where they could talk about their struggles. I hadn’t even known any of them wanted to be pregnant. It hardly seemed fair that I, who had been so very ambivalent about children, got pregnant easily while they, who wanted babies so badly, did not.
If there was a superstition anywhere that could make these women feel better for a few minutes or give them hope, I’d be a real asshole not to go along with it.
So while my reserved WASP soul cringed internally at every touch, I smiled, thanked them, and wished them all luck getting pregnant.
From that day forward, after they greeted my bump with their bellies, we talked about more than volleyball. I recounted various pregnancy horrors, like puking, anemia, and my maddening father-in-law. They shared their feelings of failure and the familial pressures that seemed to make it more difficult to conceive. Those discussions evolved into conversations about cultural differences. I gained a lot more insight into everything from Japanese family life to their viewpoints on having a standing army.
I never did find out what the origins of the pregnant belly rubbing superstition were, however.
And of course I don’t believe in superstitions in any culture.
But you know what?
Miyuki had a healthy baby girl seven months after Baby D was born.