A fresh breeze of friendship graced my summer in Japan
As I wipe the kitchen counter, the sound reaches my ears through an open window. Wind chimes tinkle softly on the light summer breeze. I pause midswipe, and let my body relax into the smile that wells up from my soul whenever I am reminded of that summer.
Our spring move was dictated by the corporate needs of my husband's employer. I expected our new home in Tokyo to be vastly different from Chicago, and eagerly anticipated the adventures to come.
My husband immediately plunged into the Japanese salaryman's life of 14-hour workdays. And I had my first lessons in just how different life would be with no knowledge of the local language or customs, to say nothing of the produce.
Going to the market became the highlight of my day. Every morning I'd strap my 9-month-old in her stroller, firmly grasp my 2-year-old son's hand, and set off to walk the five blocks for groceries. I played my own guessing game as we passed each stall. How would one use that long brownish root? Does this package contain bleach or laundry detergent? Can that melon really cost the equivalent of 40 US dollars?
Still, with no one but babies to talk with, I found my loneliness growing. The daily drizzle and heat and humidity left me feeling I was living in a terrarium. We celebrated the sun's return in mid-July along with my daughter's first birthday.
It was on our way home from playing at the local tot-lot when I first met Mari. She and her daughter, both dressed in exquisite summer kimonos, were walking toward us and we happened to turn into the same street at the same time. Our eyes met and I spoke, more as an involuntary exclamation than as a conversational opening. "Oh, you're both so beautiful!"
Mari stopped, smiled, and replied, "Why, thank you!" I don't know which surprised me more, the smile or the fluent English. From weeks of observing others in the markets and on my walks, I knew that a greeting smile wasn't a Japanese custom. It had been equally as long since I last heard English during the day.
"My name is Mari," she said. "I've seen you around the neighborhood and have been hoping for the opportunity to meet you. My daughter, Misuzu, and I are on our way home from a ceremony at the temple near her school. I have two other daughters about the same age as your children."
"Where did you learn to speak English?" I almost groaned aloud when I realized what I had said. Instead of introducing myself and taking advantage of a genuine offer of friendship, I had started interrogating the woman! Trying to cover my blunder, I apologized. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mari. I'm Robbie and these are my children, Kenny and Miki."
Mari bowed ever so slightly. "Would you like to come to my home tomorrow? Perhaps our children could play together."
"That would be great!"
So Mari and I began to meet regularly. While our children played, we talked and compared notes about our cultures and laughed. A friendship was forged.
One late August afternoon, I complained about the oppressive heat. She was silent a moment, then said, "Let me tell you why we hang wind chimes outside our homes in the summer.
"Japanese winters can be very cold, but it is always possible to build a fire for warmth. But staying cool during our summers is far more difficult. Wind chimes help. When you hear the gentle sound of the bell, try to feel the very wind that is causing it to stir. Feel the wind cooling you. And in that moment, forget the heat and remember the beauty of a summer day."
Nineteen years later, back in a suburban American kitchen, I remember the beauty of Mari's generosity and my first Tokyo summer.