Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Our Japanese Friend...

     Some things are overwhelming.
     And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
     In Dec. of 1995, my mom died of cancer. She was not only my mom but also my shopping buddy, my adviser, and in many ways, my mentor.  When she transitioned to Heaven, there was a huge void in my life as well as in my heart.  Time hung heavy on my hands as I wrestled with grief.
    In March of 1996, I decided it was no good sitting around wringing my hands and so I volunteered to work with a ministry I had heard about at church: International Friendship Organization (IFO).   I wasn't sure if I could do it or not and had no idea how much it would change our lives when I filled out an application.

   At first we just opted for a friendship partner, which meant we agreed to  contact our student once a week and also to include  them in a couple of family activities twice a month.  I still remember the first time we met our Japanese partner, T.  We took her out to lunch with us on a Sunday afternoon.  Looking back, I think we were all a little nervous and when the food came, my anxiety only heightened.  We had recommended the chicken fried steak with gravy and when it arrived, I saw a momentary expression of concern flicker across her face.  She quickly recovered and was very gracious about it all  but that first initial look told me that gravy was not a big hit in Tokyo... Then when she asked for iced coffee, we were all flummoxed and the waiter never got it right. I think they finally brought her a  glass of ice and a cup of hot coffee  (At that time, iced coffee and Arkansas hadn't really shaken hands yet...)  Later, she would get her own back by introducing me to Sushi, something I had never seen before but have eaten plenty of since.
    Over the next four years, T. became a part of our family, an amazing person who fit well into every group that she was a part of.  She had been a high school teacher in a private school in her home country and was here to get her Master's degree.  She was very athletic and graceful - she taught our son to ice skate and also helped him learn to swim.
     While we were at the skating rink one day, she skated over to check on me where I was sitting. As she started back down the ramp headed towards the ice, she looked back over her shoulder and yelled  "Fire!"  I jumped and started looking around in all directions.  She yelled, "No!  Fire!!" This time I jumped up and headed to the rail where I would be closest to David so I could yell at him to get off the floor.  She hastily came back to me and said, "No! Fire!" and pointed to the fire place on the opposite side of the rink, something I hadn't noticed before.  She wasn't trying to test Oliver Wendell Holme's dictum about shouting fire falsely in a crowded skating rink.. er.. theater.. but for a minute, I was ready to book it with both feet out of that building, proving that the illustrious judge had a valid point...  We both laughed when she realized I finally understood that she was concerned about me being cold and simply wanted me to go sit next to the fireplace.

    Being an athlete and diminutive in size, she had a waist about as big around as my wrist and yet she once ate 17 slices of pizza at CiCi's restaurant (we all counted)  and her friends assured me that was normal for her!  I think if they gave out awards for high metabolism, she would have won.  Everything she did, even eating pizza, became an event loaded with laughter.
    Even buying a car brought its hilarious moments!  When she decided to get a used car, she asked us to help her.  The first thing she wanted us to do was to call about an ad she had seen in the paper; she was afraid her English wouldn't be good enough to be understood over the phone.  So I called for her and the dialogue went something like this:
     "Hello, I'm calling about the car you advertised in the paper..."
     "Yesss... Is good buy. You like..."
     I sort of did a double-take, shook the receiver once or twice and said, "Would it be possible for us to come see the car?"
     "Hokay!  No-ah probleem!  You know where UAyeLuhArrrr is?"
     At this point, I put my  hand over the receiver and hissed, "T.!  He is an international who goes to UALR! Just like you!" She started laughing and saying, "Oh!  So sorry!! I did not know!"
     I got his address and we drove to the apartment where he was living.  He showed us the car, was very nice about everything and when T. asked him if she could keep it over night so that Phil could look it over, he said that was fine.
      I drove her back to the home where she was staying and Phil drove the other car to our house where he proceeded to go over it with a fine tooth comb.  Phil is a stickler when it comes to cars and so he came up with a whole list of problems, most of which were very minor.  He actually didn't think it was that bad a buy considering what the guy was asking.  We took the car to T. the next morning, along with the list, and asked her what she wanted to do. She looked at the list and then, without a word to us, she called the guy and said in a sweet but firm voice, "Hallo.  This is T. Your car is a no good!!!!  I don't want.  I will return it! !!"
     Phil and I were just cringing and afterwards Phil said, "Well, I wouldn't say it is that bad a car, T."
     She smiled prettily, pointed to the list, and said, "But.. is true!"
    The guy didn't mind.. .but as I've indicated, T. was beautiful with a personality (normally!) to match.
     Sometime later, she picked out another car.  At this time, she had a Chinese boyfriend who worked in a restaurant part time while going through school.  T. Wanted us to take this car to the restaurant so her boyfriend could test drive it. So we went over there and the young man came out, very nice but literally covered in flour, jumped behind the wheel and did all kinds of  super fast crazy eights on the parking lot while we watched in horror.  After a few minutes, he stopped the car, got out, bowed to us and said,"This car is  good."   And then went back to work, leaving flour on the steering wheel and the car seat.  Phil agreed with his assessment and that's how T. got her first car...
    The most interesting thing to me about all this was that she had a boyfriend. I had never heard her mention him and told her she could invite him to dinner at our house. She did and I fixed what I considered to be a romantic meal complete with  flowers and candles and our best (and only) china.  They dressed up for the occasion and we had a very enjoyable  visit. He was as delightful a guest as she was.
    About this time, a group of new Japanese students arrived for the fall semester and one day I ended up taking about 7 of the girls, including T., to eat pizza.  While there, I mentioned her boyfriend and immediately, everyone (except T.) looked puzzled.  One girl said very plainly, "T. does not have boyfriend."
    I said, "Yes, I think she does."
    At this point, I saw T. raise her eyebrows and shake her head ever so slightly.  I knew, somehow, that I had done something wrong but I had no idea what.
   Another Japanese girl spoke up and said, "No, she has no boyfriend.  You made a mistake, I think."
   I said, "Well, it's true that I don't always understand her English and sometimes I do misunderstand things."
   While I'm talking, I'm thinking, "But it would be awfully hard to make a mistake about this since I've seen the guy twice and he's eaten at my house once..."
   Later, when T. and I were alone, I asked her what that was all about.  She explained that since WWII, there had been problems between the Japanese and the Chinese and that the other girls would look down on her for dating a Chinese man.    She told me that she didn't like discrimination and simply dated this man because he was smart, had a good heart, was hard working, and they enjoyed each other's company.  She also told me not to worry about what I had said, that if the other girls found out she was dating a Chinese, it would be okay. They might not have much to do with her after that but it wouldn't be that big a deal.
    That was over 15 years ago and so a lot has probably changed since then.
    I have often wondered what happened to her after she returned to Japan.  Before she left we talked about marriages and weddings and superstitions. She told me that she had taught at a private girl's school that had originally been founded by a missionary. The missionary had lived and died an "old maid" and was buried in one corner of the school grounds with a nice memorial stone beside it. The grave site had been fenced in and planted with flowers so it was a charming place but all the girls avoided walking past it because they believed that if they walked past her grave, they would also be doomed to a single life.
   T.  and her boyfriend broke up before it was time for them to return to their respective countries and she told me that even though she was 26 years-old, when she returned home her parents would almost certainly arrange  a marriage for her.
    She really didn't want this but was philosophical about it, feeling that she could "live with it," preferring an arranged marriage to no marriage at all.
    She liked the way Phil and I related to each other.  So before she left, realizing she was the same size I had been when I married and knowing that  I would never, ever be that size again(!), I gave her my wedding dress, which was very simple in design.  She would never have hinted for the dress but I knew she liked it and it was her style. And I thought maybe it would encourage her at some point in her own marital journey.
    After she left, we corresponded for a while but then lost touch.
    I have always hoped her parents chose well for her because she truly deserved the best.
    And I also hope that someday we will reconnect.
    With God all things are possible.


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