30 Years Of Memories

Sometimes people come into your life in wonderful and unexpected ways, making an impact in ways you could never have imagined. One of those people is my Japanese dad, who passed away on Monday.

It was 30 years ago this summer that I went to Japan as an exchange student. I stayed with a family who not only made my experience there one I would never forget, but they have had influences on my life that I don’t even think they know about sometimes! They welcomed me in, saying I was now a part of the family – the parents told me I could call them mom (okasan in Japanese) and dad (otosan), along with two sisters (onesan), a cousin who I think of as a sister, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and even family friends. They accepted me as I am and made me feel comfortable in a country where I stood out in many ways.30 Years of Memories - going off to school in my new uniform!

The first day I arrived, I remember otosan saying over and over ‘enryo shinai de’, which means make yourself comfortable/ at home. As we all sat at a table having tea, he taught me how to use chopsticks (the right way!). As soon as I got the hang of it, he spilled a small bowl of peanuts on the table and had me put them all back in the bowl with the chopsticks. From that day on, I ate all my meals with chopsticks.

Meals with otosan were always interesting! He seemed to like really weird food and I would watch as he ate octopus legs, fish heads, fish eyes, intestines (motsu) and other things that I’d never dreamed of eating! Sometimes he would tell me I ate too quietly and encourage me to slurp my noodles or tea. Otosan also liked to try and trick me into eating unusual stuff. I learned early on how to say “what is that?” with him. The problem was that my vocabulary wasn’t big enough to understood his answer! When I was a teenager, many things grossed me out, so I wasn’t as adventurous with food. As I got older, otosan helped me open up to foods like sushi, sashimi, oshinko and tsukemono, but not natto! And we never did agree on eating the bones of the fish or the temperature of sake!

Many of my memories with otosan are around food and eating. I remember going to yakiniku (Korean BBQ) and the family would sit around the table. Otosan would take charge of the food as it grilled, passing the pieces that were ready to everybody and keeping the grill full. As we got full, he would really start eating and finish up what was left. Then he would order bibimbap, a spicy Korean soup. As he ate, the sweat would be dripping down his face and neck. No worries, he would have a towel around his neck and wipe away the sweat. He took charge the same way if we ate sukiyaki too.

Otosan had a big personality. When he was in a room, you knew it! He seemed to be able to talk to anyone and could get people to laugh. He would say and do goofy things to make me laugh. Sometimes to me he felt like a kid at heart. At times, he could also be a real stinker too. I would tease him that on the outside he could be like a grizzly bear, but on the inside he was a teddy bear. He was always generous with me and I knew that if I ever needed anything I could ask him. I went to Japanese high school and had a uniform (I still have it). I also still have my yukata (a summer kimono) that I wore to festivals. Because of him, I’ve been to Hiroshima twice, Kyoto twice, Mt. Fuji, Kamakura, Tokyo, Oshima and Nikko. The last time I was in Japan, otosan, okasan and I spent the day going to temples and shrines. It was my last full day with them and looking back now, I realize it was my last day with him.

I have many fond memories of otosan, but certain ones stand out in my mind:30 Years of memories - Mischievous otosan, 2014

  • When he was driving, he would listen to old Japanese songs called enka and sing along.
  • At breakfast on the mornings I would be leaving to come back to the states, he would sing an enka song about saying good-bye that always made me cry.
  • Going to pachinko with him on New Year’s Eve and winning $800!
  • Watching sumo on TV together and talking about our favorite wrestlers.
  • Waking up early in the morning and helping out with the beansprout business.
  • When I was there as a teenager, while my sister was translating once again for us, he said that one day he hoped we could talk without needing anyone to translate for us.  He doesn’t know that was the moment I decided to major in Japanese.

I have been blessed to have three dads in my life – my biological dad, my step-dad and otosan. Becoming an exchange student is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. I knew it would be a great experience, but it went way beyond that! I am so grateful for how it expanded my family. Otosan, you will always have a very special place in my heart. Thank you for everything. あ、ほうか

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