In 1987 the YMCA in Portland, Oregon formed a special partnership with the YMCA of Saitama, Japan (a city just outside of Tokyo) to provide a unique opportunity for Japanese school children to experience life in the US. In conjunction with this partnership was an additional joint effort between the YMCA of Tokyo and Tokyo University to allow 2-4 college aged students to come to Oregon for volunteer work and school credit as well. The university students would arrive in Portland mid-July and remain there for about 2 months and the school children would come the first week in August staying for roughly 2-3 weeks. Originally led by my aunt, my mom graduated from volunteer to leader of the program in 1999. Portland already had a long history in terms of trade with Japan even going as far as establishing its “sister city” with Sapporo, a northern town in Japan on the island of Hokkaido. This unique International Program was designed to be a “cross-cultural celebration promoting peace, love, education, and community across border lines.”
It was too! The university students would practice and study English while also having many opportunities to teach Japanese culture, language, festivals, history, and traditions. They would be involved in art projects, volunteer efforts around the city, sightsee, shop, and a multitude of other activities. The groups of kids and teenagers, accompanied by 2 staff members from Saitama, would spend their first week in Oregon at a YMCA-sanctioned summer camp to learn archery, rock climbing, horseback riding, swimming and more. The remainder of their stay would consist of exploring Oregon during the weekdays. Evenings and weekends were reserved for time with their host families.
A host family is a person (or literally an entire family) who shares their home with someone else who might be traveling. This is popular for university students all over the world traveling abroad as a way of cultural immersion and understanding daily life in another country. Which is exactly what my family did every year since the program’s inception. Both children and leaders, all Japanese participants stayed with a host family during their time in the states. Host families whom had children (or people who just wanted to volunteer their time) were also encouraged to join the special day trips we would take the Japanese participants on around the Pacific Northwest. Who doesn’t love an excuse to get away for the day?
Everyone was invited to volunteer -even if you couldn’t be a host family- to join the celebration and education of seeing your own world through another person’s eyes while also learning more about someone else’s world too! It all culminated in a celebratory good-bye BBQ (almost always at my family’s house) with all the American families, Japanese Kids and Leaders, volunteer staff, and anyone else touched by the magic of the International Program coming together for a night of food and celebration before the kids went back to Japan. In total, the program lasted about 10 weeks each summer with some groups combined in the hundreds.
I eagerly soaked every second of this up.
The syllabic sounds and rhythmic patterns of the Japanese language have been present in my household for as long as I can remember and it always fascinated me as a child. Each student brought a small guidebook of common phrases to help them communicate in English and just as my Japanese friends would use it to practice their English pronunciation, I decided it was my duty early on to memorize every phrase in Japanese as well. I wanted to know about this world my friends came from. I wanted to know what they were saying.
The 90’s anime boom was also in full swing in the US which meant that most of the media content I consumed originated in Japan. During the height of Poke-mania, for example, I was so fascinated by the second generation of Pokemon that I had exclusive early access to years before it would officially arrive in the US. I saw Yu-Gi-Oh cards two years before the franchise would explode here as well. I already loved Power Rangers and was thrilled when I found out it originated in Japan as a show entitled Super Sentai. A performer named BoA and her music also caught my ears through the mix CD of one of my friends at one point too. Anything and everything that reminded me of my friends from Japan captured my curiosity.
One year, when I expressed interest in two foam toys that the college students were using for an event depicting one of the Japanese syllabaries, Hiragana, they struck a deal with me. I could keep the foam toys on one condition. I had to memorize the entire nearly 70 character set by the end of their event. Anxiously, I was given a “cheat sheet” to practice with and my seven year old self got to work immediately. The Japanese language was a puzzle that I was bound and determined to figure out. When they finally returned, I took their test and had officially learned how to read one of three Japanese alphabets in 45 minutes. I still have those foam toys today.
Every facet of Japan fascinated me. A country and people with thousands of years of history and tradition had much to teach me and I was ready to learn. When I wasn’t learning slang words from my peers, The leaders from Saitama would bring me children’s books in simplified Japanese to practice reading. They would drill me during our free time in the mornings to see how fast I could write Hiragana. As a gift, I was given a Yukata (a Japanese traditional clothing item typically worn in the summer) from one of the leaders who frequented my house year after year that was originally too big for my child sized body. Luckily, I eventually grew into it though. The university students would educate me on certain festivals like Tanabata (the Star Festival) and the story of two fated lovers in the Milky Way only allowed to meet on the 7th day of the 7th month. I gobbled up star-shaped candy known as Konpeito and learned how to fold an origami star from a thin strip of paper. Anything they were willing to show me, I was thirsty to absorb.
The concept of Origami, in particular and transforming a square piece of paper into a fire breathing dragon, samurai hat, or majestic crane was mind-blowing to my 4 year old brain. I was taught by one of the male university students in 1996 the importance of precision and taking one’s time while folding because slight errors could affect the remainder of the final product. If something became too complicated though, it was better to turn the paper into something else because crumpling it up and throwing it away was wasteful. I learned from him that even if things don’t turn out the way you expect, it doesn’t mean the end result can’t be just as beautiful.
Learning history was just as important as the artistic aspects as well. The adults who watched me grow up year after year taught me that in order to properly appreciate something, you need to know where it comes from. For example, understanding why “Kawaii Culture” is the way it is as we know it today was because with thousands of years of history comes colonization, conflicts and war. You cannot take the aspects you like of something and ignore the rest of the picture. As I got older, our conversations deepened and discussing economic problems each of our respective countries faced while also celebrating the positive things that existed became commonplace. I was completely immersed in my own unique experience and my friends became my family. We didn’t speak the same language but you would be amazed at how much can be communicated without words. A program designed to bring about peace, harmony, and education ended up bringing about family, love, and acceptance within me.
This was a word that felt strange to me. It implies inclusion, a concept that was more foreign to me than any country was. Outside of the International Program and my schoolwork, I certainly wasn’t included in most things. The American friends that I did have were all athletic and I certainly didn’t have much interest in sports. My brother was a pre-olympic gymnast which intrigued me only because he could flip around like my Power Rangers.
Still, it wasn’t enough to make me want to pursue the activity. My parents were busy with their jobs and my half siblings lived in another city an hour away. That usually left me alone with my thoughts, my schoolwork, and my toys. Loneliness is a bitter friend; a blanket that can keep you comforted in the dark but doesn’t keep you warm like you hope it will.
There was also one major problem with the International Program. It primarily consisted of Japanese people coming to Oregon, but not the other way around. I lived in the US and plane tickets were very expensive. 9/11 eventually happened and fear of planes was at an all-time high. Airport Security was being revolutionized and that meant I was forced to stay right where I was.
As an obviously white kid, trying to explain a Japanese Program that was so special to me to my American friends always kept me on the outside. It made me weird. To them, I had all these mysterious “friends” far away across the Pacific Ocean that none of them ever saw. Sometimes I’d slip up and refer to some of my Japanese friends as my “family” which made things even worse. I’m not Japanese and would never try to claim to be, but a child only has so many words to communicate with. If I spoke, my words would get twisted and I’d be the odd man out again. The program would on occasion, continue beyond the six weeks and we’d have guests in the winter or spring! Each time they’d come, I’d feel that same foreign concept of acceptance and it felt strange.
I would also be right there volunteering with my mom organizing information packets, creating picture collages, giving speeches about the program as well. That strange feeling the program gave me left me craving any moment I could remotely be involved with it. I’d write letters all year long to my friends and decorate my room with gifts and stickers that reminded me of them across the sea. I was fully immersed in another culture that wasn’t mine and as I grew, I felt more and more alienated in what was supposed to be my own.
This was a strange phenomenon that would take me many years to understand. The artistic dance of jumping between two worlds but not belonging to either would go on to be the centerpiece at my life’s dining room table. However, the information on this phenomenon would elude me until I became an adult. Instead, I could just feel these confusing emotions surging through my hand like a lightning bolt waiting to strike but all that comes is static electricity and anticipation in the air. Anger, sadness, love, happiness, depression, loneliness, and more leaking out of my heart with no one to hear them or help me understand what they meant. Somedays, I’d hide away in my room with my music turned up so loud that the walls would shake because I needed to feel the 4 on the floor beat hit my chest. I had all these feelings and couldn’t process them. I wanted some kind of lateral compassion and when I couldn’t get it from my friends, the next easiest place to find it was through other people’s music.
That was until one day in 7th grade when I thought I’d try writing a song of my own.
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