BETWEEN TWO ISLANDS / Shoko Tsukamoto

The island where I stayed for half a year as an international student was often described as a paradise. That land was even narrower than the smallest prefecture in Japan, but it was full of people’s dreams. It was often chosen as a honeymoon destination. My room there had more than ten windows on the wall, and the view of the bright green leaves shining in the blinding sunlight was breathtaking. Waking up to the sound of singing birds outside, I felt like escaping from the harsh reality. Going downstairs, there was an all you can eat cafeteria which served a variety of foods that all tasted wonderful. Juicy melons and sweet pineapples were especially my favorites. The smell of plumeria welcomed me when stepping outside. It only took a ten-minute bus ride to the nearest beach where local people were lying down calmly. The heat was dry rather than humid unlike summer in Japan. When feeling down, the sound of the Ukulele I learned to play healed my heart. The glowing sunset and the splendor of a rainbow I sometimes happened to see were indescribably beautiful. Looking back at these days, I feel ashamed of myself taking the heavenly life for granted. On the other hand, I sometimes felt as if I were still in Japan when walking around downtown, encountering Japanese tourists and seeing Japanese signs here and there. I had an image of the land of summer while packing before leaving Japan, so I had to ask my mother to send me some long sleeve clothes when it started to get chilly in the morning at the end of the autumn. At that time, I got used to life in paradise and started to feel like repeating the same routine every day. Even so, one thing that remained fresh was interacting with people having different views and values from what I had nourished for 22 years in Japan.

Volunteering at a Japanese language class in the college extension was the best chance to meet new people every week. The person I remembered most was a school counsellor, Terry, who was born and grew up on the island. He was over forty, but he looked great with a tan. I was surprised to hear that he had never seen snow in his entire life. I found out later that it was not a rare case there. When we were practicing talking Japanese together, we had a task to make some sentences describing a good day and a bad day. He said it would be a good day to get up early and go to work, then relax at a beach. His bad day was a day when he gets up around noon and does nothing. I felt astonished since doing nothing was something I always wanted to do. However, after spending several months in the tropical island, where I can jump into the water whenever I wanted, I started to think it was such a waste of time to lie down on a bed all day. My bad day would be a day when I have to get up early and walk into a jam-packed train to go to college. In the island, where no train line existed, people seemed to make good use of time in a different way. The first period class started at 7 AM, and there were few people at college when it passed 3 PM. In the morning, the terraces at Starbucks were always full of customers facing their laptop with a cup of coffee. I was not a morning person, so it was the last week of the semester when I finally had a chance to join them. I made rapid progress with my study there. It felt so comfortable that I regretted I hadn’t tried that earlier.

During my stay, I made friends with a little girl who moved from Australia and started to go to elementary school there a few months ago. Her name was Meredith. She had honey-colored hair, smoky blue eyes and porcelain-white skin. I loved her playful smile and unstoppable talking. While we were chatting, she suddenly said, “You sound Japanese.” I first thought that she just pointed out my Japanese English, but I felt weird about something. One question popped out of my head. Don’t I look like I’m Japanese? I have black hair, black eyes and yellow-colored skin. Waitresses often gave me a Japanese menu without even asking at restaurants downtown. They might know the way to distinguish people who grew up there with visitors like me. The island was filled with people whose ancestors came from Japan to settle there a long time ago. Some of them looked like Japanese people but couldn’t speak Japanese at all. The local school Meredith was going to, had a lot of kids who looked Korean, Filipino or Japanese but spoke English as their first language. She was still seven, but she might already know that people’s origin cannot always be judged by how they looked.

I didn’t realize that this island had such a strong connection with the island where I grew up until I stayed there. I met a lot of people who had experiences of learning Japanese or living in Japan. My teacher George was one of them. He grew up in New York and studied Economics at college. He recalled that choice, saying that he didn’t know what he wanted to do then. After he graduated from college, he flew to Japan without any plans. He worked as an assistant English teacher in Gunma. He loved Japan, so he tried so hard to learn Japanese and fit in the Japanese society. He proudly told me about how much fulfillment he felt when he succeeded in ordering a pizza by delivery on the phone in Japanese for the first time. It was a delightful story for me, too. However, one day he realized that no matter how many years he would live in Japan, he would always remain a foreigner for Japanese people. He didn’t tell me what exactly happened, but I could assume why he felt that way. It’s hard to find a kid like Meredith on the island, which was still on its way to open the door fully towards the world. Our homogeneous society was not ready to nourish the idea of not judging a book by its cover. He said he couldn’t imagine his life of getting married to a Japanese woman and being stuck as an assistant teacher at a rural area in the closed island forever. That was the moment when he gave up integrating himself into an ungenerous society. He decided to leave for someplace where he can be himself. Now he is in a Ph.D. program to step up his career on another island, which welcomed him as a member of the society. He taught one of my classes in the department of second language studies. He often talked about his attractive Italian fiancée he met there with a full smile.

The island, where I encountered these remarkable people, was O’ahu in Hawai’i. That place attracted everybody including homeless people. They liked the warm weather and settled on a beach where they could use a shower and eat some leftovers which tourists threw away. The famous native word there, “ohana,” whose meaning is “family,” can refer to people who are connected with a strong bond, which doesn’t have to be by blood. That place was like a melting pot of different ethnic groups coming from all over the world. Native people had pride as Hawaiian, but they didn’t hesitate to welcome new blood from outside. I liked the custom of saying “have a nice day” to each other, even to strangers, when leaving an elevator in the dorm. Before the Thanksgiving holidays, an airport had a long line of people trying to come home and celebrate the day with another family waiting for them in some other places. The time I spent with my fantastic friends in the little island is what I’d like to cherish forever. It’s amusing to imagine what if they come here to visit me. I’m curious about how Terry would react to his first experience of Japan’s icy-cold winter. Meredith could be shocked to see a crowd of dark-haired people on a train. George might give a second chance to the country he left about 10 years ago. Living in a new place with cultural and racial diversity was a God-given opportunity to see myself and my home country from a higher angle. At the end of the year of 2018, I flew back home wondering what my life would have been like if I had grown up on the island, where palm trees grow straight and tall into the clear blue sky.

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