Friday, October 28, 2011

The one that got away (or more accurately: the one I threw away)

Tonight I was messing around on Facebook trying to curb my insomnia (BTW- this does not work), and I decided to check out some pages of past friends from Hamamatsu. For those of you who stumbled upon this blog by accident or haven't known me for very long, I was once a missionary (I know it's hard to imagine but try). I taught English classes in a church just outside of Hamamatsu for a year. It was a dream come true for me, as I grew up in Japan and had desired to return for years. Through an organization called Grace International Ministries, I was able to continue teaching and also try and save souls (something I suck at doing here in the U.S. and pretty much sucked at over there too, but that's another post).

When you live overseas for any length of time, especially on your own, culture shock eventually hits you. I went through the phases, some lasting longer than others:

-the Honeymoon Phase
(You can buy hot canned drinks in vending machines??!! AWESOME!)
-the Anger Phase
(I would give my left ovary for a bloody clothes dryer so I don't have to wear my ONE PAIR of good jeans 20 times before washing the smell of weeks-old sweat, second-hand smoke, and dirt off and then waiting 3 days for them to dry [in vain, I might add] in my 55 degree room!)
(What do you mean I will never fit in here? Just because I have blond hair, my size 8 body is considered a size "XL" in the women's department, and I sweat like a pig in this God-forsaken August humidity... ONE DAY I will become petite and Asian...
I'm sure. Won't I?
and finally...
(I honestly don't think I got this far)

Somewhere between the anger and the denial phase, most singles experience what Mariko and I lovingly called the "Going Native" phase. This is the phase where suddenly the opposite sex of the native culture looks REALLY enticing, and not just because they will help you become fluent for free (though this should not be underestimated). I can't explain why this happens. For me, it was a combination of loneliness and the long-term goal of wanting to live in Japan... well, forever. I saw myself never coming home.

There was only one problem with going native, at least for me: Japanese Christians do not date. (I KNOW, right???) I did not know this. I didn't know this because in Japan no one tells you anything outright or bluntly- they beat around the bush and expect you to figure out things for yourself (in case you were wondering, "the Anger Phase" lasted awhile). It wasn't until I had been serving at the church for about five months that I began to have an inkling of how things worked between Japanese Christians who want to date.

From the little I gathered, it worked something like this:
1) Any man (or woman) who is interested in a member of the opposite sex in the congregation goes to the Pastor of the church.
2) The pastor then asks both of them to take time and pray about moving forward. (At this point, I'm not sure if both parties met in the pastor's office together, or if they met the pastor separately. I bring this last point up because it becomes important later).
3) If both parties want to date, then they begin going out in public with a Christian chaperone.
4) They are not allowed to spend time together without a chaperone until they are at least engaged if not married.

So when I started having a crush on Tadashi, I had NO idea what I was getting into. But thankfully, no one knew I liked him except Miwa. Miwa was my Japanese liaison at the church. She was also Tadashi's good friend. These were fun conversations, by the way. I wish I had recorded them:

Me: So... do you think Tadashi likes me?

Miwa: Kamiya-kun? ("Kamiya" was his last name, and the ending "kun" is a term of affection for a close make friend; "chan" is the feminine equivalent) What do you mean 'like?'

Me: You know...

Miwa: Nooo...(you really have to listen to Japanese women talk to understand how that 'no' sounded) I don't know!

Me: [sigh] Do you think he LIKES me... like... you know...

Miwa: Like...?

Me: [in Japanese...] Miwa, I think I'm in love with this dude.
(In reality, I think I might have said something more unrefined like "Me love him like chocolate cake.")

Miwa: OH.... [LONG pause. A very, very long pause where all my hopes were dashed].

Me: So... ummm... do you think he likes me?

Miwa: He's nice to everybody.

But it was true. He WAS nice to everybody (I'm a sucker like that, always falling for nice guys for pete's sake!). He would talk to anyone and always had a kind word. But there was more to it than that. In a country where openness was verboten and being reserved was a virtue, Tadashi was, in a word, a flirt.

Ah, but so was I. And I was also direct. And unlike Japanese women who are coy and giggle softly while shyly covering their mouths with their petite, perfect hands, I made eye contact, smiled warmly, and had no trouble being myself. His English was far better than my Japanese, and we talked at length about family, music (we both played piano and sang in the Gospel and church choirs), and how our faith changed us. I think I intrigued him. I'd like to think it was the intrigue that one has when coming face-to-face with a rare and exotic animal- like a white tiger. But for him, it was probably more like encountering a water buffalo.

That's how I felt as a gaijin or foreigner in Japan. In all honesty though, I'm not being fair. The truth is that I am pretty darn good at reading men because, let's face it, men ain't that difficult to read in any culture. He was attracted to me, and I was attracted to him. When the gospel choir had to travel to perform, he would try and be in the same caravan as me. When Japanese women sought him out, his eyes would scan the room looking for me.

But something was wrong. Every time Tadashi or I would try and find a time to talk alone, someone would come in. Once he was literally booted from a van as he was getting in behind me in order to make room for another church member. I still remember the way he waved goodbye to me and the look on his face as we drove away.

I had no idea what was going on because no one told me. When it became painfully obvious that there might, in fact, be a mutual attraction going on, Miwa finally came to me.

"Jen... Kamiya-kun... Kamiya-kun... He is... in waiting time. Prayer season..."

Honestly, I wasn't sure what she said. I had no idea what she was trying to tell me. All I knew at this point was that I just wanted to get to know the freaking guy, I wasn't trying to marry him (yet). Maybe a dinner... Hell, I'd take a coffee...

"Jen... Kamiya-kun cannot date." And then Miwa explained why.

A woman from the church, and a fellow choir member, went to the pastor and had asked permission to pray for her and Tadashi's future together. Apparently, Tadashi was supposed to pray for an entire month to seek God's will and see if this woman and him were meant to be married. Miwa told me who she was. I could tell that Miwa wasn't supposed to tell me this, but felt that given the circumstances, she had no choice. I was basically ruining this poor woman's chance at marital bliss thanks to my gaijin ignorance of how Christian dating worked.

I knew he wasn't interested in this woman, though she was a very sweet. I told Miwa this. After a moment, Miwa looked me straight in the eye and said, "Would you marry a Japanese man?"

I honestly thought the answer was 'yes.' I was sure of it. I loved Japan. I had been trying to move back since I was fourteen years old, for God's sake! I told her 'yes.'

"So... would your Japanese husband move to the U.S?"

Oh. So that was the issue. "No... I mean, I would stay here."

Miwa looked totally dubious. "Really?"

OK... so I had about 50 pictures of family and friends taped to the walls of my room. I got mail every other day from home. My parents sent me a VHS tape of the rural drive to our house and 30 minutes of a pain-staking walk-through for their entire property that would have made the most HGTV fanatic envious. I was a bit home-sick. But this guy was cute! I liked being in Japan. I could see myself staying long-term. I wasn't ready to walk down the aisle or anything, but I was ready to dispense with the BS and actually hang out with him without Big Brother looking over my shoulder.

But was I? After a trip home between Christmas and New Years, I reintegrated into American culture. I traded Udon noodles for Subway sandwiches, and it felt good to be in a place where I wasn't judged by my appearance. I could laugh out loud without anyone staring as if I had defecated on the sidewalk. I could drink a soda while walking down the street without feeling like I was committing a crime against humanity (in Japan, you drink your soda while standing at the vending machine. Uh... hello? Doesn't that defeat the purpose?). In short, I felt at home.

After my hiatus in the States, things changed. On the surface, I continued talking to Tadashi as I had before. He even gave me a ride in his car (with one of his friends there as chaperone, of course). But something inside of me had changed. I was forced to look at the big picture. I had thought I could just date the guy, get to know him, and see what would happen. But instead I had to decide whether to pursue a long-term relationship and possible marriage, all before I even knew if he had bad breath. It was too much. I was angry. I shouldn't be bound to these archaic rules of courtship.

Yet I understood them even as I despised them: when you are a 1% minority religion in a culture that shuns you, you had better make darn sure that you marry someone who shares your worldview and will not lead you astray. The rules Christian churches impose are there to protect the faith.

But so many things in Japan were encased in standards of decorum that were anathema to me. In the mainstream Japanese (not the Japanese Christian) culture, they date as we do here in America, but they live very differently. Japanese almost always travel in tour groups (At one point I tried to plan a trip to LA, and my class didn't panic over the idea of the trip, but over the details: why wouldn't I buy the tickets through a travel agency? Wouldn't it be dangerous to travel without a tour group?). They do not apply for marriage certificates, or have to keep track of these things the way Americans are supposed to do. School children wear uniforms. Families sleep together in the same room. And in small towns outside of the big cities, loud chimes ring on the hour to signal when they get up, when they eat, and when they should go home from school or work. Everything is orderly, scripted.

In Japan there is a saying: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. To the Japanese, rules are like a insulating barrier that shields them against the fearful unknown. But I realized that to me, they were a prison.

Thanks to health issues and a male friend from Virginia that I was constantly texting on my cell, I slowly turned away from Tadashi. I left Japan a year early due to those two things. The health issues got better once I came back; the relationship with the American male friend, not so much. But soon after returning to the States, I started dating another male friend that I had known for 6 years named John Loizeaux. And the rest is history.

Not a year goes by when I don't think about Tadashi and what my life could have been had I made different choices, if I had chosen to embrace a different culture instead of pulling away from it. As the only son, it was Tadashi's responsibility to take care of his family. I would have lived throughout our marriage in his family home. We would have cared for his parents in their old age. I would have been responsible for all domestic chores and for raising our children. My American ignorance at Japanese ways would have given me some leeway, but for how long? And would I have been happy? Or would I have felt trapped and longed for escape?

Knowing my personality and my need for independence (even by American standards), I think I would have been miserable. One look at my husband and children is enough to prove to me that I made the right choice.

But I always wondered what happened to Tadashi. I went back to Japan to visit Mariko in 2005, 10 months after I left my position at the church. One day I decided to visit the church. I was greeted warmly, and I loved seeing everyone again. But I wanted to see Tadashi especially, so I stayed for gospel choir practice that night. As people were filing into the cafeteria, I was talking in rapid English to the new English teacher and missionary, a woman I'll call Liz. Tadashi came over. I didn't slow down my speech. I didn't know why at the time, but now I realize that I was trying to highlight the gulf between us. When he and I finally started talking, Liz stayed around. At this point John and I had been dating for seven months. I knew he was going to propose. I knew I was going to say "yes."

I turned to Tadashi and told him, "You should get married." Just like that. Brutally honest. He laughed, though I could tell he was slightly taken aback. He wasn't interested in getting married anytime soon, he said. But he talked at length about the qualities he was looking for in a mate: "someone simple" topped the list. Once he finally moved away from the table, Liz turned to me. "Wow. He did like you, didn't he?" She said it so nonchalantly. At the time, that comment hurt more than I can even tell you, not because I regretted leaving, but because I had made a choice I couldn't undo and would never get back.

Years passed. I got married. Eric was born. Rachel was born. Miwa wrote every year or so. She never mentioned Tadashi, and I never asked.

Then last night as I was perusing Facebook, I say his name. "Tadashi Kamiya. Married to Mariko Kamiya." (No, not Mariko my friend. But the coincidence made me smile). And I felt... relief. It was as if there was finally an ending to that chapter in my life, and I had been anticipating the post-script all this time. I wondered if they wanted kids (he's 2 years older than I am, so they'd better get crackin'). I recognized this Mariko from gospel choir. I hoped she was "someone simple." Above all, I hoped they were happy. (BTW- in case you're wondering... Tadashi looks like this. The boy really needs to lock down his Facebook page).

This was a LONG post, but one I needed to write. It's still hard for me to write about my time in Japan, mostly because I feel like I failed as a missionary and as a teacher... Thanks for indulging me (Note to Eric and Rachel: you came this close to growing up with the coolest drink machines ever invented... you also would have had to conform in order to enjoy them).

John comes downstairs.

Me: Hey, I couldn't sleep and since you were asleep, I thought I would come down here...
John: I'm awake now.
Me: So, I'm waiting this blog post about a guy I could have ended up marrying in Japan, and I just realized he IS married. I've been waiting for the shoe to drop for... 7 years now.
John: Mmmm.... I'm going to watch t.v.
(And this is why my husband is so cool: utterly nonchalant about my capricious past. I've dated men who would have gone into a hour-long rampage for this kind-of stuff. Plus he's way hotter than Tadashi.) :-)

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