Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Why I'm Thankful for Thanksgiving

Ok so I'm sure my Thanksgiving will be filled with my mother getting drunk and setting relatives on fire, my aunt and grandfather sitting in the corner with the sushi that my aunt will invariably bring in her purse, and me trying to stay sober enough to not pass out and drunk enough to put up with the mayhem.

However at one point I'm sure everything will slow down and I'll give a little silent thanks to the crazy people with whom I share my genetic legacy, because at one time, when all my chips were down they came together and saved me.

In the Spring/Summer of 1999 I received a scholarship through the U.S. Senate called the Japan/U.S. Senate Exchange program. I was to go to Japan and study in a Japanese HS and give a couple talks to various gov't organizations in Japan as a youth representative of the United States. We had a week of etiquette training beforehand with reps from the State Department as well as the foreign exchange company that was to be our contacts.

At this point I'm 17 mind you.

My Japanese at this point was conversational at best, having grown up around my grandmother who spoke fluent japanese I learned by diffusion and could speak Jinglish really well.

I arrived in Japan and after giving a speech at the ministry of Education in Tokyo was on my way to meet my host family. I must have pissed off somebody because they put me with a host family that was 30 minutes away by bike from the nearest train station and in the middle of two mountains surrounded by rice paddies.

After introductions and the exchange of gifts.... I brought Chanel No. 5 for my host mother and grandmother and Baltimore Orioles hats for my host brother and father. They presented me with 2 yukata (summer kimono) and a set of laquered chopsticks that I was to eat with for the duration of my stay. I thought everything was going along really well until I opened the photo album I had brought of my family, My grandparents and me all in kimono at the Cherry blossom festival, Pictures of my grandmother teaching me Sa-Do the tea ceremony or Bon-Odori, traditional japanese dance.......... and then a family portrait of my immediate family. My mother, a German/American, wasn't exactly what they had had in mind when they'd signed up for the nice Japanese/American student with the Japanese last name. The only thing I can compare it to would be to say how someone who was Mulatto would have been treated in Alabama in the 1970's.

From that point on I was an embarassment to their house and their family. They would call me names on the phone to their friends thinking I wouldn't be able to understand.... I did. They would refer to me as the "stupid dog" which, in a country with no formal curse words is pretty damn bad. The only time that I had refuge was at school when my teachers would applaud how good my japanese had gotten in a short time.... yours would too btw if nothing was in english. I took classes in tea ceremony, biology (seibutsugaku), Music (Ongaku), and Judo. I also helped teach the english classes by serving as a sounding board for the HS students, I loved school. And then everything went to hell.............................

I didn't complain about what was going on to my family, or to my friends. I didn't realize that when I'd write letters to anyone that wasn't in my immediate family my host mother would throw them away on her way to the post office. The medication I had brought with me I was apparently too dumb to allocate myself so my host family would give me my medication in the morning. I didn't know about the letters and figured I was doing something wrong to make them treat me this way.

It all came to a head after I had given a talk to the Kyoto minister of foreign affairs and had stayed an extra night in the city with another J.U.S.E scholarship person. Apparently that was a no no. Upon returning my host family, 4 of them, sat across a table from me (p.s. did I mention that to make them happy I'd been wearing a kimono for the past month?) and told me what a horrible exchange student I was and how my family must be so unhappy with me and why didn't I know all the ins and outs of Japanese etiquette and what a stupid child I was and how I didn't try hard enough.... etc. etc. and so forth and so on in that fashion.

Now at this point I took advantage of a trick that my grandparents taught me a loooong time ago. When they were my age they were in internment camps in Utah and my grandfather was fighting a war for a country that didn't want him. They had to put up with much more than I did and learned how to shut down on the inside so that at the very least they'd feel numb instead of letting people get to them. So this is what I did.

My host mother informed me that I was being punished, and gave me a handbook that the exchange program I had gone through had supplied me with dictating what makes a good exchange student. I was to memorize this so I would know how to behave. She then said I wasn't to leave my room anymore except to use the restroom. Then she put most of the food away in a locked closet so that the only things that were left were things that I didn't know how to make for myself and couldn't very well have.

For 4 days the only thing I had to eat was two bags of peanut M&M's. The only thing I did all day was listen to a cd my friend had made me before I left and the soundtrack to Rent. To this day I can recite every single word to every single song verbatim.

On the fourth day I knew that if I didn't get out of there I was afraid of what was going to happen to me. thankfully the book that my host mother had given back to me had an emergency number in the back which I hadn't seen before. At 3 in the morning I crept out of my room and took the only phone in the house back to my bedroom. I stuffed towels under the doors and pushed the bed out so I could talk from behind it and muffle the sound as much as possible.

I called the number and a woman picked up. I proceeded to tell her what was going on and she thought that I was just homesick and making things up. She said she'd look into it tomorrow and hung up on me. Now by this time I was crying so hard I could barely see and trying to be as quiet as possible so as not to wake anyone.

I then called my grandparents, and my parents in succession, almost not being coherent as I was sobbing into the phone about how sick I felt and how scared I was. Now I had studied alone in France when I was 14 and not once had my parents or grandparents gotten any type of phone call like that so they knew something was up.

This is when my family turned into what I refer to as Turbo-Terminator family. Now my father at the time was a political appointee so he got on the phone with the state department and subsequently the American Consulate closest to where I was staying. My grandparents who have ties at the Japanese Embassy in D.C. and to the Japanese government broke out the rolodex and started calling everyone they knew. My grandfathers sister also still lives in Japan and she was woken up as well. My parents told me to wait half an hour and call back, at this point I was too afraid what was going to happen to me if my lines of communication were totally cut and didn't want to alert my host family to what was going on.

Half an hour later I called my family who had turned my parents house into HQ central as my mom's sister, my parents, my grandparents, and my crazy great aunt were all using separate lines to figure a way out of the situation. My father told me the number of the American consulate which was waiting for my telephone call and said that I didn't need to call him back as he would be getting updates from someone from the consulate.

I called the consulate and in sobbing japanese told the operator who I was. I was immediately transferred to a lady who asked me in japanese what my name was and what was going on, now for those of you that have seen the simpsons episode where bart suddendly knows how to speak french after suffering at the hands of the horrible wine makers, this is what happened to me. I was able to communicate that I hadn't eaten in 4 days, that I wasn't allowed to have control of my own medication, and that if I didn't get out of there soon I was going to run away.... that I had a platinum visa and that I thought that I could get on the train and to Kyoto and finally to the airport, that I was desperate enough to risk my host family calling the police and dragging me back to their house.

My biggest fear was that I'd try to leave, they would call the police and bring me back and it would be my word against theirs.... and who would you believe? A family that was well respected in the area or the word of a 17 year old foreigner who's family had fled the country?

The lady on the other end of the line then spoke in perfect english, obvy she was american, that hadn't occurred to me. She said my japanese was great and that I needed to calm down and listen carefully to her. I was to quietly pack all my things and wait, and that in about 6 hours a van would come to take me to my grandfathers sisters house which was quite far from where I currently was, and if there was any further problems and I could get to a phone, she gave me her personal cell number and said that if anything happened she'd alert the authorities and someone would be there immediately.

I packed my one suitcase and sat on the bed clutching it, scared shhhh$%less. My host family woke up soon after that and saw the phone missing, came storming into my bedroom and started screaming at me. I have never been calmer in my life and quietly responded to them what I had done and that I was to be leaving. They left the room and came back in about a minute, I had two bottles of Chanel no. 5 thrown at me and I watched as two Orioles hats were cut up in front of me. Then my host father came into the room with the chopsticks that I had been given and handed them to me, saying that they were too dirty for anyone in that house to ever use again.

Then..... the phone rang. It wasn't the state department, it wasn't the japanese government, it wasn't my parents. It was my 85 year old grandmother who, at her tallest stood about 5'. Always with a hairdo that looked like black cotton candy and a smile which I'm glad to say I inherited. I have never heard her raise her voice or speak in a harsh manner. After asking to speak to me and making sure I was all taken care of, she asked to speak to my host mother. Not ten minutes had gone by before my host mother was crying. The women in my family have a knack for making people cry over the phone and I still don't know what my grandmother said to make my host mother cry but there she was, a 5' tall force of malevolence whose baby had been messed with, making a woman cry thousands of miles away. I'm pretty sure my grandmother at one point threatened the life of my host family and probably made vague references to the yakuza, which were still not 100% sure about......

The van showed up soon after that and under the watchful eye of the nice woman who I talked to on the phone at the consulate and a member of the U.S. army, I put my bag in the trunk and left for my Grandfathers sisters house. I stayed there for a week before boarding a plane back to the States.... and when I got off the plane at National I was greeted by my entire family, all of whom were crying, partly because I was finally home and safe, and partly because I had lost 30 pounds and had dark circles under my eyes. So basically I was 6'3" and 100 pounds, for a while after that I had to go to the hospital regularly because my blood pressure was higher laying down than standing up which is V. V. bad.

I plan on going back to Japan someday, I'm the only person in my family that's ever been and my grandfather has actually never met his sister in person, she was given to a family friend who was barren when she was born and doesn't remember ever living in the U.S. But now I have pictures and letters of all my relatives in Japan.... not to mention the fact that her husband owns a shopping mall :).

......So..... When I'm sitting around the table on Thursday stuffing my face with turkey, and stuffing and sushi and Agedashi and Pie, I will look out the window with my glass of probably Vodka tonic and give a silent thanks.... To my grandfather who stood steadfast, to my crazy aunt who screamed at Japanese officials from Tokyo to Kyoto and back, to my parents who yelled at every diplomat from the U.S. to Japan, especially to my mom who offered to fly to Japan so I could have help making the trip home..... and here's to the little japanese woman who stood at 5' on a good day and when someone messed with her favorite little boy, released a fury the likes of which may never be seen again. My family may be crazy, and they may be weird, but I wouldn't trade them for anything in the world.

Have a happy thanksgiving everyone!!!!!!!


Kathryn Is So Over said...

That story is AWESOME! Your family really kicks ass together. You should be thankful. :)

Rhinestone Cowgirl said...

WOW. That is an incredible story, Dale. Happy Thanksgiving!

Dudley said...

Guuuuuuuuuuuurl! I got all choked up reading that!!! Go ahead wit yo crazy badass family!!

JP said...

This is the best thing I've read from you yet! It's a wonderful story and you're so very fortunate to have it. Happy Thanksgiving.

Berry-licious said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Berry-licious said...

Fantabulous story!! Your stronger for having lived through it all. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your crazy, wonderful family :)

aklsdjhfa said...

I think Dudley would back me up when I tell you that you should include some photos of your trip in this posting. In particular, the picture with you and the three fans would be muy appropriate!

For everyone else, don't f*ck with Dale!

Dale said...

Thanks guys!!! sometimes crap sucks but it made me one tough bitch!

Chip: That three fan picture makes me so super asian it's CUHRAAAZY.... if anybody has a scanner I'll put it up

Dudley said...

I agree with Chip, I think a little pictorial represenation of parts of the story would be HIGHLY appropriate!

Emily Flowerz said...

Amazing story. Glad you got out of there OK!

VP of Dior said...

wow, great story.

Polt said...

Loved the story, dale. That's what family is all about!

And yeah, I think you need to put the photo up as well!

The Boy said...

Oh my god! You're so like Sally Field in Not without my Daughter!

Oh, that girl. said...

Great story. It could easily be a book!

Washington Cube said...

Excellent writing. And this is why I love America. All across the country today people are eating turkey, stuffing, sushi, lasagna, enchiladas, hummus...