As fate would have it, my freshman year roommate was a Japanese-Hawaiian girl from an elite private college girls prep school. Another was Japanese-Hawaiian from another private prestigious Hawaiian prep-school. I watched and learned, perhaps marveled, at how easily they could ebb and flow between multiple groups of the same economic background. Their comfort and common experiences with Jewish girls from similar private girls’ schools belied the generational challenges their parents and grandparents experienced, experiences which were on par with many of us who were from the Black and Latino public schools.
Up to that point in life, our worlds couldn’t have been more different. My high-school grad night had been to Disneyland. My Japanese-Hawaiian roommate’s graduation had been a trip to Japan to learn more about her parents’ background, a sort of field study between prep school and college. We learned from one another as we expanded our world of relationships and experiences that freshman year. I just had to go. It was the first time a verse from the Bible—”The LORD appeared to Isaac and said, ‘Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live’” (Genesis 26:2)—reaffirmed a calling. I had this verse pinned to my bulletin board. Although these words were spoken to Isaac, it was my non-Christian roommate who pointed out, “Doesn’t that say, ‘live in the land where I tell you to live’? Why won’t you, Gael-Sylvia, go to Japan, a new land, and live there?” She meant that there were bigger place to go to experience different opportunities. God encourage Isaac, and that’s what she was doing for me. Hearing her question provided the answer I needed. There was no further fear, no more conversation. I decided to go to Japan. Once again, there was only the voice of Authority to be respected because it was coming from a place of safety, faith and love. And, she had been watching and listening to me in ways I had not been aware of.
Perhaps it was my impassioned essay, naivete, or bold audacity to ask, but I was approved by the colleges—at home and in Japan—to go my sophomore year. To this day, going to Japan was the most pivotal moment of my life and its influence was beyond my wildest dreams, affecting generations to come, families that had yet to be birthed from marriages that hadn’t yet happened. I had the honor of living with the Uehatas, who were in their sixties, when they opened their home to me and five other foreign exchange students. They were a somewhat non-traditional host family, twice the age of most. They were also one of the wealthiest families in Japan, living in one of the wealthiest communities in the region, if not the country: Seijogakuen-mae on the Odakyu Line. The wealth I was exposed to cleaning homes with my grandmother and the privilege I saw at Pitzer were nothing compared to the what Uehata’s had.
There were several houses on their property. The Uehatas lived in the big house, a non-traditional palatial home. The other students and I had our daily interactions on the first floor of their house, but we never saw the second or third stories of their home. A duplex housed their middle son and his family on one floor and another foreign student on the second. Another duplex was home to their youngest son and his family who lived on one floor, and two exchange students who lived on another. And a third unit where I lived with three more foreign students—a blend of a semi-traditional Japanese-style home with tatami mats and western beds. The entire compound was hidden behind towering concrete walls in a neighborhood of low-rise bamboo fences.
They may have lived behind concrete walls, but they opened their home and lives to me and others. Not only had they invited six exchange students into their home and their lives, but they also allowed me to invite others from around the world, students at school—people I met while exploring the city—inside the walls they’d built internally and externally.
Inviting multiple strangers into their home was a foreign concept to most in Japan. It wasn’t a familiar part of their culture. And for those who were senior citizens, like the Uehatas, it was even more rare. But the Uehatas welcomed us and all the responsibilities of having college-age young adults living under your roof. I’m not sure why they decided to open their home, but I do know they were curious, as I was, and I know I intrigued them. Everything was new for me. I was new to me. And unlike my reaction to those who put me under the microscope at Pitzer, I embraced their curiosity because it came from a place of sincerity rather than analysis. Their generosity opened my eyes and heart. It amazed me that I was so far from my family, in an environment that couldn’t be more different from what I knew, and I felt so completely at home.
Not unlike my travels to Switzerland and Claremont, it didn’t take long for me to realize that my upbringing was different from that of other girls—the girls from Pitzer, my fellow exchange students, the girls raised in Japan. Growing up in an environment where others made assumptions about who I was, I was raised to understand that wherever I was, it was absolutely okay to be me, even if people found me difficult to understand. My Japanese host father said, again and again, “Gael-san, don’t talk to strangers. Japanese girls don’t talk to strangers. Japanese girls don’t meet people on the train and invite them home for dinner. You must be properly introduced.”
One Mrs. Uehata, would be smiling with approval while Kyung, the Korean-American roommate practiced Chopin on the grand piano and the next, smile wiped from her face, she’d leave the room mumbling under her breath, house slippers echoing as she dragged herself through the concert-size rooms, weary from repeating to me, “Japanese girls don’t do this, Gael-san. Japanese girls don’t do that.” All I had done was smile and talk to strangers, inviting them home for dinner, conversation, and out dancing with me and others. I’m friendly like that. It’s not a bad thing. I believe that every encounter is a once-in-a-lifetime encounter. Think of how many first-and-only-time events, people, and opportunities occur in the day-to-day. That said, at first this attitude and my friendliness constantly got me in trouble with the Uehatas.
One day, I caught everyone by surprise, including myself, when I heard myself say in the same manner a soft-spoken introverted Black Christian girl would say, which to their ears probably sounded just like a soft-spoken Japanese girl being cautiously polite: “But I’m not Japanese.” That was it. That was the turning point for a new North in my life, no matter where I lived or with whom. I could be with them, the Uehatas and others, but not of them, and still all could be well with my life, and with my soul. It was a turning point for them, as well. They embraced my odd behavior and welcomed everyone with open arms. When it came time for me to return to the USA, they threw a Sayonara party, filling their home with people, music, and food from around the world. They even gave me a hug instead of the formal Japanese bow. They couldn’t help but show their smiles.
Within those walls I was reminded, once again, that it’s both okay to just be myself and to embrace the beauty of my own diverse experiences. Everything was new for me. I was new to me, and I was curious. I hadn’t come to Japan to become Japanese. I’d come to learn more about the world and life beyond my own walls.
I loved interacting with the mix of people who lived behind those concrete walls–the exchange students the Uehatas took in. Some left. New ones came. We slept there, had friends over, studied, and lived semi-independently. Through that year, our group dwindled. Two of my housemates left early on because they wanted a “real traditional” Japanese family experience. I stayed because I was having a real inter-cultural, inter-socio-economic, and inter-generational Japanese experience. I got along well with the younger Uehatas. The middle son, his wife, and two young children liked having me recreate American traditions for them to experience, such as a Fourth of July picnic-style barbeque complete with three-legged races, or in October, bobbing for apples and baking apple pie. Another of my housemates had been college roommates with one of Princess Grace Kelly’s daughters. We couldn’t have been more different, yet we also connected. In one of the classes we shared, it was me she referenced when a bewildered Japanese professor yelled at her in Japanese in front of the entire class: “I just don’t understand you!” With rich-girl Korean calm, she said, “Ask Gael-san. She does.” Lord, help me!
Then there was the non-traditional thirty-something exchange student, Basha, from [TK] who rocked her fierce Jewish afro with attitude and was equally fluent in the Japanese language as she was in its feminist and LGBT subculture, daring anyone in any language to question her non-Japanese feminists’ views. She left. She wanted to experience “the real Japan” and abruptly moved out to reside in the Japanese LGBT subculture.
Another exchange student, a Japanese American girl, had roots fused and deeply watered by the disparities of South-Central Los Angeles’s Black/Latino/Asian community. Since she’d entered the University of Southern California, she’d been trying to climb to the other side of the wall. She wanted out of the ghetto, to completely disassociate herself with all things hood, except for the music, the bodaciousness, and the attitude. She brought all three with her to Japan, along with her drive to swap out the old her from the poorer side of the tracks where Rodeo Drive was pronounced Row-dee-o Drive for the new her on the side where it was pronounced Ro-day-o…