I’m flying across the Pacific to Japan. It’s not a popular destination for my California friends, but it’s a homecoming for me.
I moved there with husband and preschool daughters, age two and four, in 1993. I came to Japan with two semester’s worth of Japanese—enough to ask where the station was, but little able to comprehend rapid-fire answers greater than two-words. In the years before we departed Japan, my language abilities had grown so that I could easily converse with a doctor, teacher or neighbor about common matters. We didn’t move back to the U.S. till my littler ones had grown into grade schoolers, ages six and eight.
At the beginning of our six-year stint, Japanese mothers would attentively listen to Sheri, seated in her stroller, speaking with her two-year-old high-pitched voice and, as typical way of that age, unclear articulation. She enjoyed the strangers’ warm, encouraging smiles and nods—except when she told them of what was to her a personal disaster. Then their smiles—due to their incomprehension—brought on her wails.
At the end of our six years there, when Sheri spoke, both native Japanese or English speakers understood. Her Japanese was acquired naturally while a teacher talked to her as she drew pictures or Japanese adults read her a picture book or children played tag or other games with her. This Japanese immersion experience came through both friendships and organized activities: first a playgroup, then a preschool-kindergarten for ages three through five, and, lastly, first grade at a typical Japanese elementary school. There the repetitive writing of detailed characters, attended to daily for the sake of memorization, did not daunt her.
In her first years back in California, Sheri longed for her black-haired friends of Kobe with an intensity unmatched. Not even the long-awaited dog we adopted consoled her. She’d had a handful of American friends in Japan, but they were not the ones she pined for. New friends in California could not substitute. I looked in once when, sitting on her bed, Sheri opened her photo album of life in Japan, eager for the blond-haired third grader sitting near her to view her treasured experience. Sheri’s new friend looked away, feeling no need to feign interest, and picked up a stuffed animal to examine. Japan was a world far away across the ocean and Sheri could not entice her there.
Sheri made pilgrimages back to Japan for four years. The first summer our whole family boarded the plane, then came a summer trip with only her sister for a stay with Japanese friends, speaking only their language throughout, as they splashed in a patio, inflatable pool or at an amazing water-play park and did other active play. Then those same two young Japanese sisters visited us. The photos that we keep show them having climbed high in our Ponderosa pine—something not done in Japan. When I see the tree still standing in front of our Redwood City home, I sometimes think of them.
Sheri awaits me now in the Kansai airport. Having arrived five days ahead of me, she’s been re-experiencing Kobe with my friend Azusa Matsuoka and her daughter Yukino. When Sheri started her pre-school in Kobe, Azusa reached out and supported us in many and various ways, including translating school notices and taking Sheri out for an outing when she was bored stiff with the rest of us, her flu-stricken family. The cheerful, immense help Azusa gave in various ways forged a friendship for all of us in Sheri’s yochien days.
For Sheri, it’s been a dozen years at least since she visited Japan. This return to her Asian roots is part of an artistic and personal search to understand her identity through visiting the places that formed her. Since living in or visiting Japan, she’s passed through many changes and stages—the tween years, adolescence, college, and the angst of being just-graduated or boyfriend-gone. I wonder whether Sheri will connect again deeply to Yukino and others. Since she hasn’t navigated a friendship in Japanese for a dozen years, will much communication be possible? Many questions. Answers await.