Favorite Study Abroad Memories – Japan (Post 1 in a series of 3)

I was recently asked for my favorite memory from my visit to Hofu, Japan, in 2006. It might sound a little silly but it is of a six-year-old girl crying.

When participating in the Monroe International Friendship Association (MIFA) program, I was able to spend 3 weeks away from Monroe, Michigan at Hofu, Japan at the age of 16. The program was structured to where high school students spent 10 days with one family and 11 days with another in the evenings and weekends. Daily activities were done as a group during the workday – such as visiting high schools, temples, meditating, Hiroshima, Akiyoshi cave, archery, kendo, judo, and so on.

In my first host family, there was a father (Tadashi), mother (Yuka), 9-year-old daughter (Mami) and six-year-old daughter (Miku). (The photo at the right includes Mami, myself, and Miku before heading to a summer festival.) I believe it was on a Thursday evening, around dinner time, that Mami was really not feeling well. Yuka and Tadashi left to go take her to the hospital, letting Mami and I know that they would be back shortly. Mami and I continued playing card games such as Memory and Go Fish for about a half hour before she threw down her cards and started crying. I was kind of taken aback – as I knew that I had not been winning more so than her.

Being the oldest of quite a large number of cousins, I was used to crying children. What I was not used to was the inability to fully communicate – as she did not know a lot of English and I did not know enough Japanese to be able to understand a wailing child. I asked her “Daijobu?” which has an equivalent of “Are you okay?” in English. She nodded her head, paused, and then shook it before continuing to cry. I looked at her, asking various words in the form of a question before I looked at her and said “okaasan?” meaning “Mother?” She nodded her head, which made me think that she was, just as almost any six-year-old, randomly missing her mom.

I remembered that there was a block near the home phone, with various numbers to contact the parents. We went to the block by the phone to call the cell phone that the parents shared – only to realize that they had left it at the house by accident, which was made evident through the cell phone ringing in the bedroom. This increased the crying, as can be expected. With neither of us knowing what hospital the parents had gone to, we were kind of at a stalemate again – at least knowing this time she just missed her mom versus not knowing if she was in pain or something a little more extreme (although to a six-year-old, missing your mother is quite extreme).

I looked at the block some more, seeing the word for grandmother on there as well as a number. I then remembered that one set of the grandparents lived a couple blocks away (with the other set living in a town a few hours away). Hoping that the number listed was the grandma that lived close, I pointed the number out to Miku. She nodded her head, dialed the number, breathed a few deep sighs (and a few last tears) before she started talking quickly to the person on the other end of the line. She hung up the phone, looking more collected and calm, and told me a slew of words with the only things I understood being “grandma” and “here.”

Within a few minutes of this phone call to the grandmother, the parents had returned with Mami, who still was not feeling her best but was a little better. Miku ran to the door and hugged the mom’s legs and was talking very quickly to her in Japanese. I waited within eyesight and then told Yuka what had happened – saying that perhaps the grandmother might be making the short trek to the house. Just as I finished talking, the grandma arrived. After seeing that the parents had returned, she talked with Miku a little bit and then left to go back home, as all was as it should have been on a normal Thursday evening (minus the girl who was still not feeling all too entirely well).

This incident did scare me at first. I thought myself capable of handling a situation where a young child missed her parents – but did not fully comprehend the full implications that foreign languages include. However, this scenario made me realize that children, no matter where they are in the world or what backgrounds they have, are all the same – they are children.

Now, as it has been almost 6 years since my visit, Mami is 15 and has visited New Mexico. Miku is now reaching her early teenager years. I hope that one year they will be selected to participate in the sister city exchange program and be able to stay with my parents. To me though, Mami and Miku will always be the young children who I played card games with, visited their schools, taught them how to wear a bun and make Koolaid, and the children who taught me that kids will just be kids – no matter where you are in the world.