Listening

Niigata | Summer, 2002 | 20 years old

Only twice did I encounter the underlying resentment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Please understand, in Nigatta I was welcomed into a home sheltered in a traditional neighborhood where community is paramount and tradition is woven into the ordinary. Westerners hardly ever, if ever, came this way, so naturally my arrival was a spectacle. An American was coming into their home to watch and witness their ordinary lives. I hoped they didn’t think I would judge their ways, comparing and contrasting our differences and judging them simple. And to top it off, I was a foreigner with whom they could hardly communicate to explain themselves, even though I was their daughter’s friend from college.

But my friend’s family kindly welcomed me into their home. My thank you: showing a childlike enthusiasm to learn and try anything Japanese. Dispelling their anxiety and breaking down a cultural barrier was a true privilege, proving that not all people limit themselves to that with which they are familiar. My friend’s mother, whom like an aunt to me I later called Obasan, fretted over my stay wondering what to cook for an American. To her surprise, I relished each colorful and carefully prepared exotic dish, tasting and enjoying the indigenous home cooked dinner.

My first morning, I went outside to take in the dusty street and green rice fields that colored the horizon. In this seemingly quiet corner of the world, an elderly woman hunched over her walking cane strolled by, muttering “Ah, Americajin, Americajin.” Distrust still lingered in her eyes. I wanted to say, Yes, I am an American. One who flew over 14 hours to immerse myself in your beautiful culture that I respect and admire. But I had not the words.

Any leisure time the family and I had was spent in the family room since it was the only room with an AC to provide relief from the sweltering summer heat. This family time was wonderful. With no one addicted to a particular program, no one argued over which channel to watch. Jokes passed from one to the next and my friend provided the translations.

Lying on the tatami mats, I looked over my workbook and notes, practicing phrases and calligraphy. Obasan and the others happily assisted by conversing within the topic so I might try my sentences and learn to understand theirs.

One night, though I am unsure how it began, my friend’s father asked my opinion of World War II. I do not remember my answer, but before my trip to Japan, I had not yet heard how many Japanese believe the decision to bomb was racist. I never learned that view from a textbook.

When her father began telling me his opinion, I looked to my friend to translate, but she only rolled her eyes and turned away. He continued speaking with me, gesturing his hands and looking directly at me so as to engage my attention, even though he must have known I could not understand. But I also felt he only wanted to share his thoughts and feelings, and so I honored him as I could. I listened.

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