Her plan was to return from Japan as a new version of herself, as a qualified member of her USC sorority house, as the upscale Japanese-girl version who would score a rich doctor one day. She was outright militant about it, unapologetic, daring anyone to question the validity of her choices. And no one did, at least not to her face. Eventually, she married the doctor. They were miserable. Life behind the walls of her home off the wealthy Rodeo Drive didn’t work out any different from how it had at the Uehatas. She wasn’t a Japanese-Japanese girl. She was an Asian/Black/Latina in a Japanese American girl body, wearing clothing purchased on Rodeo Drive, attempting to cover up the scars from the rough streets of South Central Los Angeles. Needless to say, she and the Uehatas parted ways. I assume it was because her smoking, drinking, and cussing weren’t how Japanese girls were supposed to act. They had so many high hopes for her as a Japanese (American) girl. They expected that she would teach me and the Korean girl how to not be so . . . well, us. That didn’t work out.
Then there was exchange student who from Australia who wore a winter coat made from real kangaroo hide, hair intact. She was loud and rude, and made no secret of her distaste for Japanese food, which taught me to always be appreciative of other’s hospitality. However much attention she drew with her Aussie accent and kangaroo coat, she received less attention at the train station than I did in my coat of faux snakeskin. “Sugoi-ne,” (which can mean amazing, terrible, or bizarre, sometimes all three at once), they’d say as they stared in disbelief, pointed, and backed out of the way. “Sugoi-ne.” I don’t know if the snakeskin had some symbolism or it was the sight of a Black girl wearing that odd coat. Whatever reason they jumped back and parted, giving us a wide birth as we carried our books and burdens home at the end of each school day, made it easy for us to find a seat on the crowded train.
That roommate didn’t last long either. She felt uncomfortable being different and frequently asked, “How many more days until I can go back home?” They finally responded, “Ashita. Tomorrow!” As we waved goodbye to her taxi, Kyung and I mimicked the Uehata’s deep bowing, hands resting crossed on our thighs, looking toward the ground. Once the gate to the concrete wall was closed and secured, we saw the Uehata’s conservative version of Snoopy’s happy dance. Everyone burst out laughing with relief. Laughter entered the home that day.
It was, however, the post-graduate student, the Quaker girl, Susan, from Lincoln, Pennsylvania, and I who ending up staying the full year with the Uehatas. Susan was living in Japan because of a very special history and tradition with the Emperor. We became sisters, and she’s been a part of my life ever since. Her open heart and Pennsylvania Dutch accent intrigued me as much as her fluency and knowledge in all things from Negro history to Black history and how she could share it in Japanese. She knew the hearts of our stories because both her parents and grandparents lived it. Descendants of the Quakers who made the Underground Railroad a reality, she’d embarked on a lifelong journey to inform, engage, and educate others about true civil rights.
The three of us—the Quaker, the Korean, the me—would sit for hours practicing our Japanese writing, speaking, and other studies at the apron hem of our surrogate mother, Mrs. Uehata. Our desire to soak up as much as possible from the inter-generational household that the Uehatas family shared with all of us penetrated the walls that had been built long ago. We experienced a real Japanese family and all that we had in common, even if the lengths of our driveways were different lengths, we spoke different languages, and the income and educational levels were at extreme ends of the spectrum.
And that’s why Japan. I learned that we can feel at home anywhere as long as we feel at home in our own skin. And we can take that skin any place in the world and find opportunities to grow, and to create joy, even in those joyless moments. Japan opened my eyes and heart and brought me home to myself. I was able to return to Claremont and look at the people there with love.
I encourage you to look at who lives inside your walls and what makes you feel comfortable and at home. Do the same by taking a peek over that wall and see who and what you could be open to exploring if you just show up as you and know that a better you can come forth if you are open, gracious, and comfortable in your own skin. My hope and prayer for you is that wherever you are right now, your presence is a joyful source of laughter, and invitation to new friendships.