It's the 80's. A sailor from the United States is newly stationed in Japan. He shows up at a Tokyo disco with a pocket dictionary where he meets her, an aspiring artist. Greetings are exchanged in simple syllables—Tarzan and Jane style. In English, he asks, "Wanna dance?" She is a bright senior in high school. He is tall, handsome, and foreign. They hardly speak each other's language, but what they know is enough. So they dance.
Their simple syllables bud, growing into professions of love. And seven years of dating, hundreds of handwritten letters, thousands of miles, and plenty of cultural differences later, they eventually stand together in a bilingual wedding service, saying I do before a crowd of mainly Japanese.
Then she, a brave girl, leaves everything familiar to follow her man to his country. He works on planes at night. She waits up for him, making his lunch at 2 am and playing Nintendo to pass time. They are patient, they are kind.
A few years later, their first baby is born. She has her daddy's nose, mommy's dimples, a dual citizenship, and a shared Japanese-English name. The child is me, Erika. But they, my patient and kind parents, mostly call me Erichan.
People often ask where I'm from, and I say Virginia. If the answer doesn't satisfy, I get what they really mean. No, what are you? Like where are your parents from? This, inevitably, leads me to tell my parents' love story which yes, resembles the movies.
We are a multiracial family. It's my beautiful normal.
There are challenges like facing cultural misunderstandings and racist remarks (or questions like above - what are you?), but I've always been happy to be half-Japanese and half-American. I sensed distinctions between my family and others early on, and I delighted in it. I imagined I was part of a secret club where you could speak bilingually, have different names for grandparents (Ojichan & Obachan), and celebrate holidays your friends didn't know about. Oh, and go to a country that lived in the future. As a kid who loved attention, I thought it was pretty neat.
Because my dad worked for the airlines when I was young, we could visit Japan almost yearly. I'm thankful for this, as it really fostered an appreciation for a world beyond the USA and helped grow a relationship with our Japanese family members.
Some of my fondest memories took place as a kid experiencing Japan.
My mom's parents are a remarkable couple with their hearts and doors flung open to their grandchildren from across the ocean. I adore them. Ojichan would routinely drive us silly girls to the local 100 yen shop so we could pick out chopsticks, scented erasers, hard candies, and Jenglish stationery. He taught us card games and how to search for clams at the beach. He is incredibly generous, demonstrating his love through small acts of kindness. Obachan would nourish us with her home cooking and enormous hospitality. She cares deeply and serves willingly, supporting every endeavor of mine. One year, she took me to a ballet studio nearby so I could keep practicing. I've stepped into new adventures because of her.
Speaking of adventures, I attended my mom's elementary school for three summers back-to-back. I was homeschooled, so this was my only experience in a public education system. There were 40 students per class and one teacher. We walked ourselves to school in droves, but I later found out my dad followed at a distance. I thought I fit in seamlessly, but everyone reminded me I was the American and a guest of honor.
A serious issue arose as I refused to use the squat toilets. Thankfully, this was soon resolved when I was led through cobwebs to the only western toilet in the building. It had no door, so students would volunteer to stand guard and give me semi-privacy. I laugh now at my high-maintenance.
One afternoon, my 2nd grade class was taken outside to a sea of unicycles. We were given the opportunity to practice and ride everyday at recess. Unbeknownst to me, this was quite common in Japan. I loved unicycling so much I now own an ichirin-sha.
I visited shrines, gardens, festivals, and restaurants, but as a child, nothing really compared to going to Space World with my dad and sister. It was our tradition and no one else was allowed to join. We'd go when other kids were still in school and my favorite was getting to drive gigantic robot animals through the amusement park like we owned the place.
When we weren't tourists, my sister and I would get creative at Ojichan and Obachan's house. We played with dragonflies from the garden, pretended we were Japanese flight attendants, and performed dances for the family in the small tatami room. It was amazing. We discovered we could slide around the straw floors in our new toe socks while stealthily avoiding porcelain vases and shoji screen doors. (I once punched a hole straight through a screen.) And when there wasn't anything else to do, we ate azuki bean popsicles and caught up on Sazae-san, the longest-running animated TV series in the world.
Those trips were entertaining and educational. Leaving Japan was never easy. I've said it before, but this country's beauty is striking and hospitality incomparable. The Japanese are truly among the most humble, diligent, and kind people I've met. My parents worked hard to ensure their marriage—and in turn their family—would be approved of, and I'm forever grateful they did.
I cannot imagine life without my experiences and relationships in Japan.
It's a part of me.