How it came to be
While ruffling through scholarship applications my senior year of high school, I came across a different kind of scholarship: an all-expenses-paid trip to Japan. I don’t remember the details of the organization, but they basically wanted to spread the love of Japanese culture. All I had to do to win the trip was to write the best essay.
I should’ve been a shoe-in. My essay explained that my mother was from Japan, and how I had never fully understood her. If I won the trip, I would use it to visit the places where she spent her childhood, that molded and shaped who she is today – a person so deep and artistic that I could never fathom how to fully connect with her.
But in the end, I didn’t win the scholarship. The boy who won had been our neighbor when we were kids. He used to come over and dress up in my mom’s kimonos with us. WE gave HIM his love for Japan, and he stole my chance from me. Talk about irony. The premise of his essay was “anime is cool, and I want to go to an anime convention in Tokyo.” To this day I question the intelligence of the essay grader.
I was bummed about not winning, and by that time I had become pretty vested in the idea of spending the summer in Japan. So my mom and her sisters, being the angels they are, pitched in to pay my plane ticket. I had my chance after all!
This was the age before digital cameras and cell phones. I mean they existed, but no middle-class parent would’ve entrusted their 18-year-old to carry around something that expensive. So most of my photos were taken with disposable cameras I picked up at Long’s Drug.
In Nagoya, my aunt Cynthia had just adopted a 6-year-old Japanese girl, Maiko. This was my first time meeting this cousin of mine, who at the time didn’t speak English. I had taken some Japanese classes as a kid, had practiced a little with our Japanese exchange student, and knew certain words and phrases from listening to my mom and her friends. I knew my katakana and hiragana. But I was not at all prepared for what lay ahead.
The people in the airport railed off shikansen-speed questions at me in Japanese, to which I could only stare in return. None of the words seemed familiar. I couldn’t rely on the signs, because they were in kanji… and anyway, I hadn’t thought to learn words like “terminal” and “concourse”. When my older cousin Sarah finally found me, she thanked the employees in Japanese and then asked me why I hadn’t understood them.
“Well, I practiced my Japanese but they were just speaking so fast,” I responded.
“They were speaking English!” she said.
Lesson #1. The Japanese always tried to speak English upon seeing I was white. However, their accents were so thick, and sentence structure so bad, that there was no way I could understand it. I learned the easiest way around this was to speak Japanese as much as possible, to force them to respond in Japanese.
My first two weeks in Nagoya, my job was to babysit Maiko. My aunt (her mother) taught English at Chukyo University, and Maiko’s school let out 2 weeks earlier than the university. Since Maiko didn’t speak English, the first couple days were basically spent watching Sailor Moon, swinging on the playground, and making up choreographed dances.
Then we became more comfortable around each other and got braver. We ventured onto buses and into other neighborhoods. Feeling pretty confident, we told Sarah we would meet her at the World’s Fair. My aunt told us we just had to take the bus to the train station, and get off the train at Minari Station. We got onto the train and I pointed to the map on the wall, where the station names were all written in kanji.
“Which one is Minari?” I asked Maiko.
“I don’t know,” she answered. She couldn’t read kanji either.
My aunt later explained that kanji is so complicated that in order to read the newspaper you basically need a PhD.
At the World’s Fair I looked out upon a sea of black hair.
“I thought there would be more foreigners here,” I told Sarah.
“These are all foreigners,” she replied. “Those are Koreans, those are Chinese, those people over there are probably from Taiwan.”
One day my aunt asked if I’d like to come to her classroom and speak to the students in Advanced English. Maiko and I trailed along to Chukyo University, were suddenly I was surrounded by people my own age. The topic of conversation for the day was ghosts. I was fascinated to find out that every single student in the class believed in ghosts. We talked about Casper, ghosts of our ancestors, and ghosts in horror movies. It was a blast.
Next up: Tokyo ->