Japan is always turning the tables on me. It makes me look at the familiar from a different angle. This includes my parents.
Let me set this proverbial table. My parents are the most ambitious, capable, “can do” people I have ever known. My dad came to Idaho, by himself from Nebraska in his early twenties. After paying tuition and rent he had $10 dollars in his pocket his first day. My mom was the “second mother” in her large family. I grew up watching these two people wrestle the weather, land and animals to create a life for us on our family farm. They did it generously, gratefully and faith-full-ly. They selflessly nurtured and encouraged my own intelligence and independence. Which is how they could put their sixteen-year-old daughter on an airplane headed to Japan in 1982.
“Are those your parents?” the young woman next to me asks with a big smile. “Yep” is all I can say. My dad has just stopped by my seat to reassure me that he and mom “are feeling great!” I look back at them. They give me a little wave grinning from ear to ear. “They are adorable!” she says. We are about half way across the Pacific Ocean headed home to Hiroshima. Their excitement is palatable. They ARE adorable.
And they stayed adorable. The entire three weeks they stayed with us in Hiroshima.
My parents insist on sleeping in the guest room on the futon. “Its great! Just like campin Ang” my dad reassures me, pulling up his covers. He is still grinning after twenty-four hours of travel. There is no floor space to walk around the bed. They have to crawl out the end. I try not to fuss about it. I leave the light on in the bathroom for when they get up in the night. Before I go to sleep, I check on them on last time, still smiling, snug as bugs in a rug. Adorable.
Luckily, the Hiroshima Women’s club provides our first adventure. We gather at the Hiroshima train station for a guided tour of the shrines and temples on the way to the Peace Pagoda. The minute we approach the meeting spot we are surrounded with well-wishers. I smile. My parents now experience the enthusiasm and energy of the Japanese people. They are the people of the hour. I notice they are talking slow. I remember them being coached by my son Will. As we make our way up the hill, my parents comment on all the stairs. “I know you said it, but I just didn’t imagine it would be like this.” My mom says. I smile knowingly. How many times have I thought that?
By the time we get to the Peace Pagoda, my parents have made life long friends. In Japanese fashion we take many photos. I quietly tell my parents this is their way. We then head down to a lunch place. I scan the group, keeping eye on where my parents are. I can hear their voices asking and answering questions. They are so curious. Gently, who they are, shifts in my mind. They are adorable and curious.
“What’s holding up the show?” Dad asks innocently. The ladies are removing their shoes. This tells me we are going to have an authentic Japanese eating experience. It appears to be a converted home. Tomoko informs us again that the proprietor grows and servers her own chickens. I have learned not to deal with anything but the immediate need. So we get everyone seated. We sit on tatami, but are supplied legless chairs so we have a back to lean on. It is much more comfortable. The Women’s club sits together in one room. They have pushed tables together so that about twelve of us are sitting together, a nice mixture of Japanese and not. Tomoko comes over to speak to me directly. “This place’s specialty is tori sashimi ( chicken, raw), but if anyone (she is looking at my parents) needs it grilled, she is happy to do it.” To my surprise and amusement our whole table raises their hand!
Mom is busy talking to the lady next to her. Mom is glowing, like some barrier has been removed. She is attentively listening. I am so proud. There is no hint of discomfort, just genuine friendship. Our server brings us our first course. My dad grabs my shoulder, “I trust you Ang, I am going to try everything.” Mom already has her phone out taking a picture of the plate. In Japanese fashion it is a work of art as well food. “Will you order me a beer?” How fun is this?! I am partying with my parents. As we leave the owner gives my parents a present that she made. Welcome to Japan, mom and dad.
And that is how the three weeks went. Friendship, food and gifts. We have a blast. Japan strips them of their parental shield and gives it to me. I am the one doing the planning, organizing, arranging.
“What are we doing today, Ang?” dad asks eyes sparkling. He has the paper and is getting settled next to the window. Letting out a sigh I know he is content. I give them options. Mom is concocting her breakfast of champions-our homemade granola, Japanese yogurt, and berries. After much trial and error she has settled on a small white bowl for her feast. It will be the same for the rest of their trip. Dad will eat frosted flakes out of a rice bowl while mom and I get ready for the day. We drink a fresh pot of coffee in the process.
To get anywhere we walk to public transportation. Like me, it gives them a chance to look around, absorb their new surroundings. I am struck by how similar their reactions are like mine. Mom is busy taking photos of plants or looking at Japanese children. She is drawn to them like bees to a flower. Most of the time that flower is strapped to a Japanese mom. My mom is uninhibited with her admiration of these women. She eagerly makes eye contact and smiles and simply says “what a beautiful baby you have”. Her sincerity is rewarded with a smile and before I know it we are in conversation. It happens over and over. My dad and I joke that at dinner that night the young mother tells her husband that she interacted with this very friendly American woman.
My dad really wants to see the port so we head down there one morning. It is calm and quiet. No one is around. We walk the entire length. My dad has a million questions that I cannot answer. Then we notice a ferry is coming in. We scurry back to the port. My dad watches the ferry. I watch him. You can see the wheels turning in his head. We watch the cars unload. A workman approaches Dad. Before long, I am taking their picture. Dad is surprised how differently Japan does things compared to back home. We walk down the bay. We get to see people fishing off the edge. On our walk back home we notice a woman driving a huge truck. She gives us a big wave as she turns into traffic. This tickles them. It is impressive how she moves her huge vehicle through traffic.
Early in their visit we went to the Shukkein-samurai garden. They saw turtles more than once. I told them that the Japanese believe that turtles bring good luck, and you know, that is what we experienced. Many times just when we needed it, a tram would show up. Or someone would invite us over and it would be the perfect timing. One time we were trying to figure out what to eat and we crossed paths with my friend Agnes who showed us her favorite ramen place. My parents are devout Catholics, but now believe in the sign of the turtle.
Looking back, I am so thankful for this experience. My parents coming to Japan provided me a rare opportunity: to reciprocate the care they have given me, in the best possible circumstances. Many children repay their debt to their parents. Unfortunately a lot of the time it is at the end of life of the parent. I will be forever grateful that I was able to be my parent’s caretaker and they had fun being taken care of.